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wot I red on my holidays by alan robson (latrinum erubesceremus)

Flushing Alan

I came back to my hotel suffering from severe hydraulic overpressure caused by the drinking of lashings and lashings of ginger beer (the Famous Five and I had been having a party). I took the lift up to my room and then had a very satisfying wee wee. Once I was finished, I pressed the button to flush the toilet. To my consternation, absolutely nothing happened – there was no comforting sound of rushing water to be heard. I pressed the button again and exactly the same thing didn't happen. Oh dear...

I closed the toilet lid and rang reception.

"Reception – how can I help you?"

"My toilet doesn't flush any more," I said.

"Oh no!" said reception. "That's not good. I'll send someone up."

About 10 minutes later there was a knock on my door. I opened it and standing there was a svelte and handsome young man dressed in the standard hotel uniform. Behind him was a young woman, also dressed to the nines in a beautifully ironed skirt and top. Neither looked at all like a plumber, but I let them into the room anyway.

"I gather your toilet doesn't flush," said the svelte young man.

"That's right," I said.

The young woman said nothing at all. Her presence remained unexplained. Perhaps she was a chaperone, there to guard the honour of the svelte young man in case I should be overcome with carnal lust at the sight of his sveltness.

We all went into the bathroom and the svelte young man pressed the flush button on the toilet. Nothing happened.

"Your toilet doesn't flush," he said.

"How clever of you to notice," I said. "It took me ages to figure that out."

The svelte young man didn't react, but the chaperone turned pink and started to vibrate. I winked at her, and a distinct giggle escaped before she gained control of herself again.

The svelte young man removed the top of the cistern and played with the ballcock. Flushing noises happened and he smiled in triumph. The cistern refilled and he smiled even more triumphantly. He put the top back on the cistern and pressed the flushing button with an exultant flourish.

Nothing happened.

The svelte young man stopped smiling and took the top off the cistern again. A previously unnoticed piece of plastic was dangling forlornly from the flushing mechanism. It gave every indication of having once been connected to something important, but now the connection was irretrievably broken, no matter how hard the svelte young man tried to reattach it. It was quite clear to all of us that I would have to do a lot of manual ballcock manipulation to satisfy my bodily needs.

We all contemplated that thought in silence for a moment. Hmmm...

The Doctor And The Rough Rider is the third in Mike Resnick's ongoing series about a weird wild west. The Indian tribes have allied to cast a magic spell that prevents the white men from travelling west and the white expansion has ground to a halt on the banks of the Mississippi. In the town of Tombstone, Thomas Edison and Ned Buntline have established a scientific outpost where they are researching ways to defeat the Indian magic. Although they have failed at this task, they've produced a lot of useful inventions along the way. Tombstone is illuminated with electric light at night and the Bunt Line's horseless carriages travel the streets.

In this novel, the Indian alliance is breaking up. Geronimo, their most powerful magician, wants to negotiate a truce with Theodore Roosevelt. He recruits the consumptive Doc Holliday to help with this. But the tribes see Geronimo as a traitor and they have created a huge monster of a medicine man named War Bonnet to hunt down and kill Roosevelt. War Bonnet has recruited the master shootist John Wesley Hardin to help him in his task. And so the stage is set –Roosevelt and Geronimo must fight against the seemingly invincible War Bonnet while Doc Holliday goes up against the man credited with more kills than any other gunfighter in history.

By turns hilarious and dramatic, this curious cross between steampunk, magic and the old wild west never fails to entertain. I loved it!

With The Aylesford Skull, James Blaylock gives us yet another adventure in the life of Langdon St. Ives, the charismatic nineteenth century inventor and explorer. It is the summer of 1883 and Langdon St. Ives is relaxing at home in Aylesford with his family. However the infamous hunchback Dr. Ignacio Narbondo is engaged in an evil plot and once again, their lives will soon intersect.

Narbondo's men board a steam launch above Egypt Bay. The crew are murdered and pitched overboard and the cargo is hijacked. In Aylesford itself, Narbondo opens a grave and removes the skull of his long dead brother. Then he kidnaps Langdon St. Ives' four-year-old son Eddie. Langdon, his factotum Hasbro, his friend Tubby and the mysterious Mother Laswell are all soon in hot pursuit...

Although it's classed as a steampunk novel I think it relies rather too much on elements of the supernatural for its effect. But perhaps that's a trend in steampunk? Resnick's The Doctor And The Rough Rider is also nominally a steampunk book but is similarly full of magic and mayhem.

But whatever it might be classified as, there is no doubt that The Aylesford Skull is a rollicking good yarn.

Neil Gaiman has written a short novel called Odd And The Frost Giants. He wrote the book as a contribution to World Book Day – an annual event in the UK whose aim is to inspire children to read. So of course it is pitched at quite young children. But Gaiman is far too good a writer to fall into the trap of limiting his audience and there is much here for more mature readers to enjoy.

The story uses many elements from Norse mythology to tell the tale of twelve year old Odd who lives in a village in old Norway. He's had a rather terrible couple of years: his father died rescuing a pony that fell overboard during a Viking raid, his leg was shattered when he chopped down a tree and it fell on him, and, perhaps worst of all, his mother has re-married herself to a man he dislikes.

Winter has come to the village and although by now it should be spring, the cold weather shows no signs of going away. Odd runs away from home and is befriended by a fox, a bear, and an eagle. It soon turns out that they are the Norse gods Loki, Thor, and Odin. A crafty and vengeful Frost Giant has transformed them into animals and exiled them from Asgard. Naturally Odd offers to help them, and he travels with the gods from Midgard to their homeland of Asgard, where he bargains with the Frost Giant to save the day.

The story is full of humour and subtle invention. Neil Gaiman is a wonderful writer and he was a close friend of the late Diana Wynne Jones. He has written the foreword to Reflections On The Magic Of Writing, a collection of autobiographical essays in which Diana Wynne Jones muses on the twin businesses of writing and the living of a writer's life.

She had a strange upbringing. Her father was a schoolteacher who certainly realised that children should have books to read, but he was also an extraordinarily mean skinflint of a man who begrudged spending money on anything at all. Early in Diana's life he bought a second hand set of Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons books. He locked them in a wardrobe and once a year, at Christmas, he would give his daughter the next book in the series to read. Diana records that she was well into her undergraduate years at university before she finally received Great Northern, the last book in the series.

As you might expect from Diana Wynne Jones the essays are often laugh out loud funny while at the same time saying some rather profound things about the art and the craft of writing, particularly writing for children. She notes that adults often complain to her that the plots of her stories are far too complicated, that she should simplify them and explain things more. Strangely, no child has ever said that to her – they seem to have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding her stories. She has written books for adults, but she hates the dull necessity of having to over-explain and talk down to her audience. Children, she firmly believes, are far more sophisticated and far more aware of the values and rules of storytelling than adults give them credit for. And somehow, as the children grow into adults, they seem to lose that insight.

Perhaps I'm still a child at heart, but I love her stories and these essays are a valuable insight into how she approached the construction and the writing of all those magnificent novels. And along the way, she gives us a wonderfully funny (and circular) definition of the genres we all spend so much of our lives reading:

The Science Fiction Genre was fantasy where you travelled on a spaceship; Fantasy was SF where you travelled on a flying carpet;
and Horror was both of those in the claws of a demon.

I'm sorry that there will be no more Diana Wynne Jones novels – but what a rich legacy she left for us.

While we're on the subject of essays, Laurie R. King has just published a book of scholarly essays on Sherlock Holmes. It's called Sherlock Holmes. King is most famous for a series of novels about one Mary Russell who, in 1915, met and eventually married Sherlock Holmes. They have lots of adventures together, and if you haven't read any of the novels, you really do owe it to yourself to seek them out. They are very, very good indeed.

Anyway – Sherlock Holmes aficionados like to play the literary game of assuming that the stories were actually written by Dr. Watson (Conan Doyle was merely Watson's literary agent) and that they tell the unvarnished truth about the life of Sherlock Holmes. Over the last hundred years or so, many erudite papers have been written, full of wildly imaginative Sherlockian scholarship that attempts to explain the apparent flaws and omissions in the canonical tales.

Well now Laurie R. King has decided that she can play the game with the best of them and these delightfully scholarly (and very tongue in cheek) essays are the result. She ranges far and wide through the canon and along the way comes to some beautifully clever conclusions. For example, she provides the most convincing explanation I have ever seen for the puzzle of Watson's Wandering War Wound – depending on which story you read, Watson was wounded in either the shoulder or the leg when serving with the British army in Afghanistan. Generations of scholars have worried at this seeming contradiction, but no really satisfactory solution has ever been proposed. However Ms. King demonstrates, quite conclusively, that Watson was wounded in both the shoulder and the leg even though only one shot was fired at him. As far as I am concerned, the subject has now been laid to rest. She has spoken the last word on it.

In case you haven't guessed, I thoroughly enjoyed the essays. However if you want to read them, you will have to buy yourself an ebook reader. They are not available in printed form.

"I'm very sorry about this, sir," said the svelte young man. "We really should move you to another room, but unfortunately we are fully booked at the moment."

"Oh, that's a shame," I said. "But never mind, I can always pee in the wash basin." Out of the corner of my eye I could see the chaperone starting to vibrate again. I decided to see how far I could take this. Would I be able to make her lose complete control? "However by tomorrow morning," I continued, "I will be full to the brim with unsavoury substances, and I am going to require something which has a much larger aperture than the wash bowl to take care of the problem. In order to prevent that catastrophic occurrence from taking place, I think it will be necessary for you to supply me with a cork."

By now the chaperone was making ominous rumblings, but the svelte young man remained stony faced.

"Perhaps you could get me a free bottle of fine wine," I mused. "I could use the cork from that." But then I was struck by a sudden thought. "Oh no, that won't do – wine bottles come with screw tops these days. And they are most unsuitable for the purpose I have in mind. You will have supply me with champagne instead. Champagne bottles have lovely corks. And the corks come with a nice lip on the top so that they don't go in too far. Ordinary wine bottle corks are smooth all the way up and tend to disappear, never to be seen again. Yes, champagne will do nicely, thank you very much. How about you send a bottle of Moet & Chandon up to my room, compliments of the hotel of course."

The chaperone couldn't stand it any more. She rushed out of the room with her hand over her mouth. Hysterical shrieks could be heard from outside, together with the distinctive sound of heels drumming on the floor. Eventually she regained control and came back to us, looking slightly dishevelled.

"I'll see what I can do," said the svelte young man, completely stony faced. I admired his self-control. Obviously he had recently attended a Hotel Management Training Course. Those courses must be worth their weight in gold. He turned away and picked up the phone. He had a quiet conversation with reception. Then he hung up the phone, turned back to me and said, "We'll move you to another room sir."

"I thought you were fully booked," I said, somewhat surprised. The chaperone nodded in puzzled agreement.

"The Queen has a tummy bug," explained the svelte young man, "and she had to cancel her booking. So now we have a room."

The chaperone began to turn pink again. I awarded the svelte young man ten points out of ten – a perfect score. "Thank you," I said. "I'll just need a few minutes to pack my things."

"I'll send someone up in about quarter of an hour sir," he said, then he and the vibrating chaperone left me to my own devices.

The Riptide Ultra-Glide is Tim Dorsey's sixteenth novel about loveable serial killer and Florida fanatic Serge Storms, and his ever high sidekick Coleman. If you've read the other fifteen books in the series you'll know just what to expect here. If you haven't read the other fifteen books in the series, this is not a good place to start.

In the last few novels I felt that Dorsey's inventiveness flagged a bit. But with The Riptide Ultra-Glide he's back on his best form. Serge has lots of fun with ingenious killing mechanisms and Coleman discovers that he's a cult hero-figure to the surfing underground. Coleman gets to sign lots of autographs and gives his fans increasingly bizarre recipes for getting (and staying) high. And Serge is filming a reality show. However Serge has odd ideas about reality...

For the last couple of decades, Sue Grafton has been writing a series of novels about Kinsey Millhone, a private detective. The series is known generically as The Alphabet Novels because of the titles: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar etc. Currently she's up to V is for Vengeance.

Kinsey and Me collects some short stories about Kinsey Millhone together with some early, non-Kinsey stories to bulk the book out a bit. I enjoyed the Kinsey stories – she's an attractive, fully realised character and I'm always pleased to learn more about her life. But I can't say I thought much of the non-Kinsey material. It consists of some autobiographical essays and stories in which Sue Grafton talks about her relationship with her alcoholic parents. These are very personal pieces and also very dark. The contrast with the lighter, more humorous, material about Kinsey Millhone is quite marked and the juxtaposition is uncomfortable. Perhaps this should have been two separate books even though there isn't really enough material to justify a split like that.

A new John Harvey novel is always a treat. Good Bait tells two intertwined stories. In one, DCI Karen Shields investigates the murder of a 17 year old Moldavian refugee. In the other, DI Trevor Cordon looks into the disappearance of an old acquaintance. The chapters jump backwards and forwards between the two narrative strands and eventually they come together, though in quite a surprising and complex manner.

Harvey's strength lies in his ability to write characters who spring to life from the page. These are people that you care about, people whose problems seem so very real while you are reading the book. Even his spear carriers are fully drawn and well realised. There's nothing very original about the plot or its concerns – racial prejudice, organised crime – we've read it all before. But in Harvey's hands it becomes something very special. He's one of the very few writers of police procedurals who can elevate a clichéd genre fiction into art.

Barry Eisler is a new writer to me. Rain Fall is the first of a series of novels about a professional mercenary assassin called John Rain. His speciality is making the deaths of his victims look natural. Once, in pursuit of a victim, he is quite nonplussed when the man commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. Naturally the people who hired Rain for the job are very pleased with the result and also very puzzled. How on earth did Rain manage to make the death look so much like suicide? Rain doesn't explain, he simply collects his fee. It all adds to the mystique of his reputation.

In some ways the book is really a terrible cliché – Rain is the master of every martial art you can think of and then some. He has access to all kinds of super technology. It's all a completely unbelievable fairy tale. And yet...

Rain is half American and half Japanese and he isn't at home in either world. He fought in Vietnam and bears the psychological scars. There's a little more depth to him than is usual in such a rubber-stamp book, so much so that I kept reading to the end. The plot is appropriately convoluted and, against all expectations, Rain does not triumph in the end. He has enemies who remain undefeated. He has friends and he loses some of them. I suspect I might well read more of Eisler's novels about John Rain.

Of course, if you want to read stories about a master assassin you really need to look no further than Lawrence Block's novels about the cold blooded killer called Keller. Hit Me is the fifth in the ongoing series and by now Keller's major motivation for continuing with his killings is so that he can earn enough money to buy all the stamps that he craves for his collection. The stories are full of arcane stamp-collecting lore and despite the very anorak nature of the hobby, somehow Block manages to make even these potentially boring lectures zing and fizz. I was almost inspired to take up the hobby myself!

Keller's occupation may be morally dubious, but the humour sparkles and, to be fair, Keller is always honest and ethical in his business dealings, whether that business be the killing of clients or the purchasing of stamps. Somehow Block makes each as important as the other. This is the art and craft of writing at its finest.

About fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the door. Another svelte young man stood there. "I come to take you to room," he said with a strong Slavic accent. "Where is bags?"

I gestured at my suitcase and he extended the handle and trundled it down the corridor. I followed. "Where are you from?" I asked him.

"From Ukraine," he told me.

"Have you been here long?" I asked.

"Since three years I have lived here," he said.

"Do you like New Zealand?"

"Yes. Is lovely country. Very quiet, very peaceful. Nobody shooting at me every day."

I didn't really know how to reply to that, so I said nothing. We trundled down the corridor to the lift and travelled up for several floors. Then we trundled along another corridor which was absolutely identical to the first one. Eventually we stopped outside a door which was indistinguishable from all the others except for the number on it.

"Here is new room," said my escort.

He gave me the key and my suitcase. I opened the door and went in. I was not completely astonished to find that the new room looked exactly like the old room. I went into the bathroom and pressed the flushing button on the toilet. I heard the very satisfying sound of running water. I flushed it once more for luck and then I went to bed.

In the morning I did everything I needed to do. The toilet did everything it needed to do. What a perfect start to the day. I hopped in the shower and turned on the tap.

Nothing happened.

Mike Resnick The Doctor And The Rough Rider Pyr
James P. Blaylock The Aylesford Skull Titan
Neil Gaiman Odd And The Frost Giants Harper Collins
Diana Wynne Jones Reflections On The Magic Of Writing Random House
Laurie R. King Sherlock Holmes Ebook
Tim Dorsey The Riptide Ultra-Glide William Morrow
Sue Grafton Kinsey And Me Putnam
John Harvey Good Bait Pegasus Crime
Barry Eisler Rain Fall Signet
Lawrence Block Hit Me Mulholland
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