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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (soccum mihi)

Alan Upgrades His Unmentionables

Once every thirteen years I buy new underpants whether I need them or not. And every quarter century I buy new socks. It’s a timetable that I stick to quite religiously because I strongly suspect that the universe will come to an end if I don’t. After all, my gradually shattering underwear is living proof that I am single-handedly making a massive contribution to the increasing entropy of the universe. This makes me feel warm inside. The universe needs me...

Most mornings the cats watch me get dressed and sometimes they are moved to make comments. I was pulling on a particularly raggedy pair of pants one day when Bess said, “You appear to be wearing a hole with an elastic waistband. And the elastic has perished. Why would you want to do that?”

“There’s not much I can do about it,” I said. “I won’t be able to buy new underpants for at least another three years. So meanwhile, I’ve just got to put up with the general disintegration. However I must admit that the erotic holes in these particular pants are leaving less and less to the imagination.”

“I don’t think you need to do anything,” said Harpo. “Those underpants make it so much easier for me to bite you on the bum. Let me show you.” He bit me on the bum.

“Ow!” I said. Drastic action appeared to be called for and so I ignored my schedule and headed straight for the underpants shop where I bought a packet of six.

When I got my new underpants home, I unpacked them and attempted to put a pair on. To my horror I discovered that the operating system had been significantly upgraded since I last bought any underwear and the new user interface was completely non-intuitive. Since the documentation was conspicuous by its absence – there was no operating system manual included with the garments – I simply couldn’t think what do do with them.

Earlier releases of the operating system had the label on the outside front of the mechanism. Orientation was simple – just point the label at the wall, step into the underpants, pull them up and Robert’s your avuncular relative! But when I tried that with the newly purchased pants I experienced a sickening trans-dimensional hyperspatial shift and it quickly became clear both to me and to my audience that I was now wearing my underpants back to front.

“Oops!” I said.

“What’s wrong?” asked Robin.

I explained the counter intuitive nature of the user interface and the serious lack of documentation.

“Hmm,” said Robin. “Perhaps they’ve shifted the paradigm and adopted the female use-case.”

“I’ve always hated paradigm shifts,” I said. “Somebody once shifted a paradigm into the doorway at the office. I tripped over it and bruised my deliverables when I arrived at work. Tell me, how does the female schema leverage the strategic synergy of the dressing experience?”

“Ladies underwear always has the outside label on the side rather than on the front,” Robin explained. “It reconceptualizes a holistic but, nevertheless granular, adaption of transformational theme areas that enhances the performance based mechanistics without having any adverse effect on the integrity of the model-based client-focused core competencies.”

“Really? I didn’t know any of that. I seldom wear ladies underpants. They don’t have enough willy room.”

“The lack of bandwidth in the organ space is indeed a disempowering metric of deleterious cross-functional performance related matrices,” agreed Robin.

“I wonder which side the label is supposed to be on?”

“Dexter focused informational embroidery is seldom implemented as an infrastructural mechanism,” Robin explained. “I suspect that sinisterial methodologies are most likely to succeed as an enterprise-wide strategic implementation of service schemas.”

I followed her advice to the letter. Lo and behold! I was successfully wearing underpants again. And the moral is: always minimise your therbligs.

The Quarry is Iain Banks’ last novel. He completed the manuscript just before he was diagnosed with cancer and the novel appeared in the shops a couple of days after he died. Ironically, among other things, it’s about a man who is dying of cancer.

The book has a very simple structure. A group of people who had been friends at university come together for a long weekend in the house that they all once shared. These days the house is the family home of one of the group, Guy, who lives there with his son Kit. Guy is dying of cancer and he has asked the group to come together one last time while he is still alive. One reason that they agree to meet is because some of them want to track down a videotape that they made together when they were students. If the contents of the tape ever become public knowledge it could ruin their successful careers. Guy claims to have lost the tape or recorded over it, but the group are unconvinced...

The story is narrated by Kit who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and therefore the events of the novel are coloured by his rather odd, almost sociopathic, view of the world. One of the group, who Kit regards as a kind of honorary auntie, has been working hard to make his odd world view conform more closely to everybody else’s reality, with some degree of success. Nevertheless our perception of what is going on is always filtered through Kit’s odd perspectives and that adds a fascinating extra dimension to the story.

There isn’t much of a plot, and the bulk of the novel simply consists of the protagonists discussing this and that. Some of the discussions are profound and some are shallow, some are germane to the story and its little mysteries and some are not. It reminded me very much of a typical Aldous Huxley novel. Huxley is out of fashion these days, but in his prime he wrote a lot of novels about effete intellectuals gathered together, often in country houses, and chatting about stuff and nonsense (Crome Yellow and Antic Hay are good examples of the genre). And so here in The Quarry we have, for example, speculations about Marxism as a paradigm of miraculist thinking (yes, it will work beautifully as long as we all believe in it) contrasted with reminiscences of university pranks, speculations about what’s for tea and who has been sleeping with whom, all infused with Banks’ delightful and thoughtful wit. The book is funny and sad at one and the same time and I enjoyed it immensely.

In one sense, Eric Brown’s Starship Summer has a similar structure to The Quarry in that the bulk of it consists of people talking about things. In another sense, it’s a very traditional science fiction story whose plot could have come straight from the golden age of SF.

David Conway, fleeing the death of his daughter and his subsequent estrangement from his wife, leaves Earth and comes to Chalcedony, a backwater planet whose only claim to fame is its golden column. The column is obviously an alien artifact, but nobody knows its purpose or who constructed it.

Conway settles in the town of Magenta Bay. He buys an old starship from one Hawksworth (known as Hawk to his friends), whose scrap yard is full of old, disused and wrecked ships. Conway refurbishes the interior of the ship and uses it as his home, but the presence of what can only be described as an alien ghost starts a string of events that lead eventually to the usual revelation that will, of course, change everything for humanity.

The thing that separates this story from the typical golden age treatment of the same ideas is that the author is much more interested in the people who act out the story than he is in the details of the alien technology that lie behind it. The book is quite short – only about 120 pages. These days we’d call it a novella, though back in the golden age it would probably have been considered to be a full length novel. It is really quite amazing how much depth Eric Brown manages to cram into such a short space. Brown is able to bring each character properly to life. Conway is the main point of view character, of course, and it is through his interactions with everyone else that we discover more about their background, and also about the planet of Chalcedony itself.

The focus of the story is much more character based than it is technology based, but nevertheless the story stands or falls on the basis of how successfully the underlying technology is envisaged. I think it’s a little tour de force. The ending will take nobody by surprise, but that isn’t really the point – the point is how well the whole thing stands on its own terms. Truly, it’s a little gem of a story.

The Holy Thief is a murder mystery by William Ryan, a writer who is new to me. On the basis of The Holy Thief I strongly suspect that I will soon be coming more familiar with him...

The story is set in 1936, in Stalinist Russia. The hero is Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev who is a policeman in the Moscow Militia. He is a veteran of the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed it. There was a time when the revolution gave promise of a glorious future. But now, in 1936, that future is looking more than a little tarnished. Life is hard, and it is about to become harder. Stalin is paranoid and he sees conspiracies everywhere. People are being purged, vanishing into the work camps in the arctic. Informers are everywhere, indulging themselves in petty revenge. You can’t even tell a joke without risking your freedom. Korolev is not blind to the hardships of everyday life in post-revolutionary Russia but nevertheless he retains some of the ideals of his youth. There is still promise in the future, but first there are some necessary adjustments to be made.

A young woman in tortured to death, and her body is left spreadeagled on the altar of a church. Korolev is put in charge of the case. He soon learns that the woman was an American and it becomes clear that there are political ramifications to the case. The NKVD (later to become the KGB) take an interest. Initially Korolev thinks they are simply taking care of the political aspects but soon he starts to suspect that someone high in the ranks of the NKVD is actually responsible for the crime. These are dangerous waters to steer a course through...

The strength of the novel comes from its sense of history, its sense of place and time. William Ryan gives his story and his characters that veneer of verisimilitude that makes the willing suspension of disbelief so easy. My only real exposure to that time and place has come from my reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, and it seems to me that Ryan sticks very closely to the atmosphere that Solzhenitsyn records in his seminal work. As a whodunit, the story is rather simple-minded, but as an atmospheric novel it’s both subtle and engrossing. I know nothing about William Ryan’s background, but there’s no question but that he is a very skilful writer. I look forward to reading many more stories about Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev.

The Last Word is Lisa Lutz’s sixth and last novel about the Spellmans, an extremely dysfunctional family of private detectives. It is most definitely not a stand alone novel and you really should read the first five books before embarking on this one. As with the other novels, this one is told by Isabel (Izzy) Spellman, the eldest daughter.

As the novel opens, she is starting to regret the hostile takeover of the family business that she initiated at the end of the last book. She's the boss but that doesn't mean that she’s in charge. In fact, both members of the parental unit are doing everything they can to undermine her authority. She was quite dictatorial when she first took over, and now she is starting to regret it. The family firm is in crisis. The filing is not being done and the financial records are a mess. But there does seem to be a lot of money suddenly available. Never one to look a gift dollar in the mouth, Izzy starts spending it. However it starts to become clear that the extra cash has been embezzled from her colleague Edward’s business and now the FBI are sniffing around. Oops!

As always, the plot is not really the point. It’s the bits of business that make the book so funny. And make no mistake about it, even though the story ends semi-tragically, there’s an awful lot of comedy along the way.

In an appendix, Lisa Lutz makes it clear that there will be no more Spellman novels from Izzy. However she does leave the way open for more novels narrated by some of the other Spellmans. So perhaps we haven’t quite finished with the family yet.

Colin Cotterill is writing a new series of novels about Jimm Juree, a journalist in Thailand. Jimm specialises in crime reporting and she is that close to becoming the chief crime reporter on a very prestigious newspaper in Chang Mai when her family moves to a small fishing village on the Gulf of Siam. It’s small and parochial and rather ugly. Nothing ever happens there. Jimm is sure that her career in journalism is over and she goes into a bit of depression. But then, in Killed at the Whim of a Hat a farmer who is digging a well comes across a buried Volkswagen Combi van. There are two skeletons sitting in the front seats. One of them is wearing a hat.

And if that isn’t enough, a monk is murdered at a Buddhist monastery just up the road from the village. The monk is wearing a hat, something that Buddhist monks are forbidden from doing. Curiouser and curiouser. Jimm suspects that her career might be about to take off again.

The novel is extremely quirky and a lot of fun. Jimm’s family is extraordinarily eccentric and, as with Lisa Lutz’s Spellman novels, it’s the bits of business that make the book as good as it is. And Cotterill’s wry wit makes the prose an unutterable pleasure in and of itself... "Shot four times in the face over a period of twenty minutes? Don't rule out suicide."...

I enjoyed the book a lot and on the strength of it I immediately bought and read the second volume about Jimm Juree, Grandad, there’s a Head on the Beach. However I was very disappointed with it. The humour is nowhere near as clever as it was in the first novel, and the book quickly turns into a polemic about the plight of Burmese political refugees in Thailand. It seems clear that the Burmese are regarded very much second class citizens by the Thais and there is undoubtedly a lot of prejudice against them, but the message quickly drowned out the story and the book could never really make its mind up as to whether it was a political pamphlet or a novel. In the end it was unsuccessful at both tasks. The book was neither fish nor fowl and in all honesty I can’t recommend it.

The Texas Twist is John Vorhaus’ third novel about the conman Radar Hoverlander and his accomplices Allie and Mirplo.

It starts quite simply. Allie has made friends with her next door neighbour Sarah. Sarah's son is dying from a rare disease and she is despondent. But then Sarah meets someone who offers her the hope of a cure. Naturally she falls for this hook, line and sinker, but Radar is convinced that she is the victim of a con trick. He sets out to try and prove it to her but, rather to his surprise, the situation turns out to be much more complicated than he originally thought...

There are wheels within wheels and loyalties change with bewildering speed. As is inevitably the case with novels like these, very little is what it seems to be, and cross and double-cross and maybe even treble cross are the order of the day. You really need to keep your wits about you to see this caper through to the end. I had enormous fun with it, and so will you. You don’t have to have read the previous novels to enjoy this one which I think is another big plus in its favour.

Once I was dressed, I began to consider the problem of packing a suitcase for the weekend. Robin and I were planning on attending a science fiction convention and it was necessary to decide what to take with us. I threw things into a suitcase and so did Robin. We set off and checked ourselves into the convention hotel. Arriving safely in our room, we began to unpack again and that was when I made a terrible discovery.


“What’s wrong?” asked Robin.

“I think I must have been traumatised by my underwear experience,” I said. “I completely forgot to pack any underpants. And what’s more, I didn’t pack any socks either.”

“Well the shops are still open,” said Robin. “Why not go out and buy some more underwear and socks?”

“But I’ll be thirteen years too early,” I pointed out. “And I’m not due for new socks for at least another two decades.”

“I think the universe will forgive you,” said Robin soothingly. “Just this once. After all, your only other alternative is to spend the entire weekend wearing the same underpants and socks that are currently adorning your nether regions.”

“Actually, that’s not a bad idea,” I said. “I can enter the masquerade as a mobile aromatherapy machine. Come one, come all; fix anything that ails you with the healing power of AlanSmell(TM).”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea at all,” said Robin gently. “Not everybody has as poor a sense of smell as we do. The aromatherapy you will be offering could easily be construed as a less than delightful experience.”

“Good point.”

Robin and I discovered many years ago that neither of us has much of a sense of smell. This, we are firmly convinced, is the secret of a happy marriage. We are seriously considering setting ourselves up as marriage guidance counsellors. We could make a fortune out of nasalectomies.

Meanwhile, underpants and socks were calling to me from the shops in the central city. I went exploring and it wasn’t long before I found a packet of pants and a clump of socks. I paid $46 to a bored cashier by simply waving my credit card in front of the machine – it’s called payWave. Note the trendy capitalisation – what could possibly go wrong? PINs are not required with payWave and neither are signatures. All you do is pass close to the machine and money is automatically debited from your account. Several people walked past me while I paid, and presumably they too were charged the cost of my underpants and socks as the cards in their wallets came within the sphere of influence of the active payWave machine. I began to contemplate the advantages of building a Faraday Cage around my hip pocket. Or perhaps a tinfoil condom would be more effective...

I returned to the hotel and examined my purchases. The underpants proved to be old stock which still had the original Mark I operating system, the one with the forward facing label on the front. I was much relieved. The socks, however, were something else again. They appeared to have been born with a genetic defect in that their lower leg area was completely absent. Each sock was simply an ankle attached to a foot. I put them on gloomily – it appeared that I was doomed to suffer a weekend of nether area chills as the draughty weather took advantage of my lack of limb protection.

“They look just like the things that my dad puts over the business end of his golf clubs,” said Robin. “They keep the clubs safe and warm and protect them from scratches and predatory insects.”

“Perhaps I could pretend I’ve got a club foot?”

Robin regarded the short ankle socks thoughfully. A slow smile spread itself all over her face. “I think we are seeing another paradigm shift,” she said with a mischevious grin. “Socks are the new willy warmers.”

Iain Banks The Quarry Little, Brown
Eric Brown Starship Summer PS Publishing
William Ryan The Holy Thief Pan
Lisa Lutz The Last Word Simon & Schuster
Colin Cotterill Killed at the Whim of a Hat Quercus
Colin Cotterill Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach Quercus
John Vorhaus The Texas Twist Prospect Park
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