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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (rota flavens)

More Rubbish

Our weekly rubbish collection alternates between glass recycling and paper, plastic and tin can recycling. Once every other week we put our glass into a derisorily small turquoise crate, and the following week we put our paper, our plastic and our cans into a massively large wheelie bin with a yellow lid. The wheelie bin with a yellow lid has enough room in it for the recycling of appropriate rubbish from at least a dozen households like mine. I'm not sure how the council came up with the relative sizes of their containers, but if they based it on any significant statistical studies, it seems plain that I must be an outlier who consumes far too many things that come in glass bottles and not nearly enough things that come wrapped in plastic or cardboard. Perhaps I should drink more Coca Cola (yuck!) and less beer, but I'm not sure I could afford the dental treatment.

In NOS4R2, Joe Hill's new novel, Charlie Manx rides the roads in a vintage 1938 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. The car has the vanity plate NOS4A2 (nosferatu) and Charlie Manx is indeed a vampire. He steals the souls of children and transports them along hidden roads to Christmasland, a place where it is Christmas every day and where Charlie assures them they will be happy all the time.

Victoria McQueen is a child who can find lost things. If she pedals really, really fast on her Raleigh bicycle she is transported to a hidden bridge and when she crosses the bridge she finds the lost things on the other side.

But one day she finds something that isn't lost; she finds Charlie Manx. Somehow she manages to escape from his clutches and Manx is arrested and sent to prison. The years pass and Charlie Manx dies in custody. His body is autopsied and the parts scattered.

But that isn't the end of Charlie Manx. Oh no – there are children who need to be taken to Christmasland and there is one child in particular that Charlie Manx has his eyes on, Victoria's son Wayne.

And Victoria now has to find the most important lost thing that she's ever gone looking for.

This book is a rip-roaring page turner, quite impossible to put down. It's grim and scary and utterly involving. You just have to know what happens next, and next and next...

The tension never lets up and the story gallops along. The book is a 700 page door stopper, but nevertheless it feels much shorter. The time just flew past as I read it and I confess I was a little disappointed when it finally finished. I was having so much fun reading the story that I wanted it to carry on longer – and I almost never say that about 700 page door stopper novels!

It's an open secret that Joe Hill is Stephen King's son so it's probably not a surprise that the book has a very Stephen King feel to it in terms of plot and development. And there are scattered references to Stephen King novels throughout the text, for those who have eyes to see them, as Joe pays homage to his dad. (Amusingly, there's also a passing reference to a Stephen King novel that isn't due out until later this year!). Nevertheless, this is Joe Hill's book, not Stephen King's and Hill is definitely demonstrating his maturity as a writer. This is the book that will make his reputation and propel him into the front rank of horror writers. Watch out Stephen King – your throne is about to topple.

For all the bibliophiles out there, you might be interested to learn that the UK edition is called NOS4R2, but the American edition is called NOS4A2. I have no explanation for this anomaly...

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan is being marketed as a comedy and that's a pity because a comedy is the very last thing that it is. The initial premise sounds as though it has comedic possibilities – a virus is released from a secret Government research centre. The virus initially infects cows, turning them into ravenous zombie killers ("Never Mind The Cud – They Want Blood!" insists the cover blurb). It isn't long before the virus spreads to other animals and the situation quickly deteriorates. The streets are littered with the bodies of those who were unable to reach safety in time. Most of the population is housed in huge refugee camps under the control of the army. Ominously, the camps are surrounded by soldiers – and every second sentry is facing towards the camp. It seems clear that not only are the army attempting to keep the animals out, they are also keeping the people in. Anyone trying to leave the camps will be shot.

This novel is not a comedy – it is a very grim, dark and ultimately tragic "after the catastrophe" story. It's actually one of the best of its genre that I've read in a long time – no cosy catastrophes here. Society collapses and anarchy rules. Pay no attention to the blurb and don't go looking for laughs because you won't find any. Also don't go falling in love with any of the characters – most of them die very horrible deaths.

I've never seen a book so badly marketed before. If only they'd described it as it really is, it would probably have picked up award after award. It is a truly brilliant contribution to the literature of societal collapse. But because of the crazy marketing strategy it will never be read by its proper audience. It will be read by people looking for light relief after a hard day at the office, and they will be sorely disappointed. I expect the book to sink without trace, and that's a pity. It deserves better.

Nightshade is Stephen Leather's fourth novel about supernatural sleuth Jack Nightingale. I must confess I was quite surprised to see it. Jack Nightingale's story was wrapped up quite nicely in the first three books and I didn't think there was anywhere else to go with it. To an extent I was right – the first three books tell a continuous, connected story and they need to be read in order. However Nightshade is a stand alone novel which doesn't really have much to do with what went on before.

A farmer walks into a local school carrying a shotgun. He kills several children and then turns the gun on himself. It's a harrowing but nevertheless a straightforward case. However it seems that there is clear evidence of occult practices going on at the man's farm. Jack Nightingale is an expert in this kind of thing and is soon closely involved.

Running in parallel with this investigation is a story about a child who has been abducted by paedophiles. She dies – but this is a novel of the occult, and she is miraculously resuscitated. However she is not the person that once she was and people close to her start to die hideous deaths. Again, Jack Nightingale gets involved.

Eventually the two plot threads come together in a quite unexpected way. And Nightingale has to force himself to do something quite unthinkable.

Stephen Leather has a reputation for writing stories that make you stay up late because you just have to find out what happens. This book is no exception.

The last time we had a wheelie bin with a yellow lid week, I was away from home on business. I spoke to Robin on the phone.

"I've lost the wheelie bin with the yellow lid," she said.

I was astonished. "How can you lose a wheelie bin with a yellow lid?" I asked. "Have you checked underneath the glass recycling bin?"

"The glass recycling bin is much smaller than the wheelie bin with the yellow lid," Robin pointed out. "The wheelie bin with the yellow lid can't possibly be underneath it."

"It would fit underneath the glass recycling bin if it shrank in the rain," I pointed out. "I read in the paper that there had been lots of rain in Wellington."

"I don't think it was the rain that caused the loss of the wheelie bin," said Robin thoughtfully. "Surely the yellow lid would have protected it from the rain? It's far more likely to have been the wind that blew the wheelie bin away."

"Wind?" I asked. "In Wellington? How unusual."

"I know," said Robin. "But the wind was gusting up to 180 kph last night and this morning there was no wheelie bin. No yellow lid either."

"I'm surprised," I said. "Yellow lids are just as well known for their wind resistance as they are for their waterproofing properties. The weather must have been truly astonishingly bad if the wheelie bin with the yellow lid failed to survive it."

"It was," said Robin. "There were reports in the paper of low flying clouds which knocked over power poles and garages. Then, when darkness fell, I noticed that the Moon is now noticeably further away from the Earth than once upon a time it was. We really did have enormously strong winds last night."

"Perhaps you could walk down the road to see if the wheelie bin with the yellow lid has been blown into someone's garden?" I suggested.

"I took a brief investigative walk," said Robin, "though I find the concept of down the road somewhat hard to come to grips with. All the roads in our suburb go upwards, as well you know. There isn't any down anywhere at all that I can find. Sometimes I think that we have far too much geography for our own good."

"That does present some practical difficulties," I admitted. "In most suburbs people take a walk to get fit. In our suburb people get fit so as to be able to take a walk. Did your investigations prove fruitful?"

"All I saw were wheelie bins with red lids," said Robin. "And they are collected by a private contractor who has nothing at all to do with the council collections. Wheelie bins with yellow lids were quite noticeably absent everywhere I looked."

"I'm surprised there were any wheelie bins with red lids left out," I said. "Red lids are notorious for their failure to protect the bins they are attached to from the forces of nature. I read about it in Physics and Biology For the Utterly Brain Dead. The authors posited a clear connection between wheelie bins with red lids and the socks that fail to emerge from the washing machine every week. It seems likely that socks are the larval form of wheelie bins with red lids and that wheelie bins with red lids mature into multi-dimensional, gossamer winged creatures that fly away into the interstices of Hilbert Space when the wind blows from the North. Or when it blows from the South. Yellow lids suffer none of these disadvantages and are therefore much more suitable for wheelie bins."

"That's common knowledge," said Robin. "But nevertheless, there were the wheelie bins with red lids all along the street, just waiting to be emptied."

"Extraordinary," I mused. "I wonder where the wheelie bins with yellow lids went to? Perhaps the strange weather took advantage of a bug in the yellow lid operating system of which we were previously unaware?"

"That must be the case," said Robin. "I'll keep you posted."

We hung up our phones and I spent the remainder of the day and much of the next quite bewildered about the mysteriously disappearing wheelie bin with the yellow lid.

Craig Johnson is an American author who has written a series of novels about Walt Longmire, a Sheriff in rural Wyoming. The books have a distinctive humour running through them – Walt himself has an amusing view of the world that many people who come into contact with him find puzzling. For example, in one novel he comes across a bar out in the wop-wops. There's a neon sign outside which proclaims BAR to the world. However the B is broken and at night all that can be seen are the letters A and R. Throughout the rest of the novel, Walt refers to it as the AR, much to the confusion of everyone else:

"I'll meet you at the AR."


Walt's closest friend is Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne Indian (no – he isn't a Native American, he's an Indian – both Walt and Henry have a lot of fun extracting the Michael from political correctness). Walt often refers to Henry as The Cheyenne Nation. Walt's daughter Cady is studying law and Walt tends to refer to her as The Greatest Legal Mind Of Our Time.

However the laid back humour is only on the surface. Walt has a spiritual nature and there are big hints in many of the novels that he is being protected by the spirits of Cheyenne warriors. Henry Standing Bear is non-committal, but he too has his spiritual side and both of them are willing to admit that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their philosophy. Though of course they are too hard headed to discuss these things explicitly.

The plots of the novels are just about what you'd expect from detective thrillers set in rural Wyoming. However the characters leap to life from the pages and I found myself so closely involved in their lives that I just kept reading novel after novel. I wanted to know what happened to them. These are absorbing novels which I recommend very highly.

Tom Neale was born in New Zealand. He was a bushcraft and survival enthusiast who spent much of his life in the Cook Islands. For several years in the 1950s and 1960s he lived alone on Anchorage, a small island in the Suwarrow atoll. An Island to Oneself (which was first published in 1966) is his account of those solitary years. It's a robinsonade in the truest sense – there is little drama or adventure here, just the day to day details of living life alone on a desert island. Tom Neale really did live the dream that I dreamed in my youth when I fell in love with the exotic south seas after reading The Coral Island and Swiss Family Robinson. In real life I was surrounded by the cold, grim industrial north of England. The contrast between the two could not have been more extreme.

Tom's greatest hardships were his longings for luxury items like cigarettes and meat (his tobacco ran out quite early in his life on the island and a diet of fish and fruit soon began to pall). Nevertheless, Tom showed great ingenuity as he created a comfortable little setup for himself on the island. The book is full of practical advice about surviving in such harsh circumstances – the islands are fertile, but they don't give up their fruits easily. The story also gives quite a detailed insight into the psychology of someone who quite deliberately isolates himself from society (the ultimate in reclusive living). Its underlying theme is that humans really are social beings and that we do need to be around others even though we may have hermit like tendencies on occasion. Tom tries to deny this throughout much of the book, but nevertheless some of the most revealing episodes concern his interactions with his cats, his chickens and a wild duck that he tames. Everybody needs someone to talk to, even if those people are not always human.

The book has become something of a classic in the literature of the South Seas. Tom Neale himself died in 1977 and is buried in the cemetery opposite the airport in Rarotonga. Many Rarotongans have mixed memories of him. One person remarked that Tom was so cantankerous that an uninhabited desert island was probably the very best place for him!

An Island to Oneself is completely absorbing. Its reputation as a classic is well deserved.

Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University. She's made a popular name for herself by presenting several television programmes about life in the classical world. Her book Confronting the Classics is a series of essays (many originally published as book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement) in which she defines the place of classical studies in current intellectual life.

With enormous wit and gusto, she explores our classical heritage, pointing out the many areas where our knowledge of the times is less than complete. There is much confusion caused by the contradictions in the few written records that still remain to us. She is not afraid to take many highly respected commentators to task for introducing sheer guesswork into their scholarship, and she sneers scornfully at them when their conclusions are demonstrably not born out by their sources. She herself is brim full of erudition but she illustrates her points with such delightful humour that her insights slip down easily. These essays are a joy and a delight to read.

She takes us through classical drama (and discusses just what made the ancient world laugh) and she talks about famous figures from classical history, such as Alexander the Great, Nero and Boudicca (and there's a lovely philological digression about exactly how to spell Boudicca). She explores the life styles of the rich and famous and reveals much about the every day lives of the slaves and the common people. She discusses the difficulties of interpreting the greatest writers of antiquity such as Thucydides, Cicero and Tacitus. I was astonished to discover that nobody really understands Thucydides – he wrote in such a convoluted and lumpy style that even his contemporaries often complained that they didn't have a clue what he was banging on about. Many of his pithier remarks owe much more to the concerns and idiosyncrasies of his translators that they do to Thucydides himself!

Confronting the Classics is a joy and a delight. Despite its high intellectual content and its often deep erudition, it is never a struggle to read. I wish I'd had a book like this when I was studying some of these things at school!

Later that evening, Robin rang me again.

"The wheelie bin with the yellow lid is back," she said.

"Oh, thank goodness," I said. "Tell me what happened."

"A man from up the road returned it. He'd found it in his garden."

"Did he wheel it up to us?" I asked.

"No," said Robin. "He put it in the back of his four wheel drive along with a dozen or so others that he'd collected. He was driving around delivering them to their proper houses."

"Wheelie bins with yellow lids are well known for their gregarious nature," I said, "unlike the more stand-offish wheelie bins with red lids. But having a dozen or more of them gathered together in one person's garden seems a little over the top."

"It was all the fault of the man's children," explained Robin. "They'd baited the garden with a succulent selection of squashed cans, empty shampoo bottles and flattened cardboard boxes. The wheelie bins with yellow lids were quite unable to resist the temptation of a really good free feed, and so they gathered together in his garden for a raucous party."

"Ah, that would explain it," I said. "I hope he imposes a cruel and unusual punishment on his children."

"He caught the wheelie bins dancing widdershins around an empty cardboard box that used to have a cat in it," said Robin. "They were clashing their yellow lids in a punk rock rhythm."

"Sounds like quite a party," I said. "But at least it's back home where it belongs now."

"Indeed," said Robin. "And I think it's quite hung over after its celebrations. It looks quite sorry for itself. Thank goodness we don't have to use it for another couple of weeks. It really does need time to recover from its excesses."

"Self inflicted wound," I said. "I have no sympathy."

"Maybe it's learned its lesson," said Robin. "Perhaps it will be better behaved from now on."

"Let's hope so," I said and I hung up the phone.

Joe Hill NOS4R2 Gollancz
Michael Logan Apocalypse Cow Doubleday
Stephen Leather Nightshade Hodder & Stoughton
Craig Johnson The Cold Dish Penguin
Craig Johnson Death Without Company Penguin
Craig Johnson Kindness Goes Unpunished Penguin
Craig Johnson Another Man's Moccasins Penguin
Craig Johnson The Dark Horse Penguin
Craig Johnson Junkyard Dogs Penguin
Craig Johnson Hell is Empty Penguin
Tom Neale An Island to Oneself Collins
Mary Beard Confronting the Classics Profile
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