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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (biggus elibrum MMMMMMMMDLXIII)

Alan Mixes Water And Electricity And Survives

For quite a long time my washing machine has been making extremely strange noises. At various important points in its cycle, it sounds just like Satan sucking up the last dregs of his lava milk shake through a very narrow straw. Slurrrrp!! Slurrrrp!! Slurrrrp!!

On a particular washing day not too long ago, I dumped the dirty clothes into the machine and pressed the necessary buttons to set it going. It chirped cheerfully, and began to suck water through its pipes. I retired to the lounge and left it to itself. Every so often I heard it slurrrrrp as a new point in its cycle was reached. All was as it should be.

After a couple of hours or so it gradually occurred to me that I’d heard no noises from the laundry for quite a while. Normally when the washing machine completes its duties it sings a happy song to let me me know it’s finished. This time there had been no song, only a depressing silence and a complete absence of slurrrrrping. I went to investigate.

I examined the washing machine closely. No lights were flashing and no noises were being made. I pushed its power button, but absolutely nothing happened. The lights stayed stubbornly off. It seemed that the dreadful horror of the Robson underpants had finally proved to be too much for the poor thing. I opened the lid and stared at the wet, soapy clothes. The wet soapy clothes stared back at me.


“Uh?” Robin was still in bed and three quarters asleep. Communication is not her strong point in that state.

“The washing machine’s dead. Shall we go shopping for a new one?”


“I don’t really know what to do with the wet, soapy clothes. Have you any suggestions?”

Robin made a visible effort to think. Even fast asleep, her brain still works. It just finds problems connecting itself to her mouth. Furrows etched themselves into her forehead as she struggled to put herself in gear. “Rinse them in the sink that the washing machine empties itself into,” she suggested.

“But the sink’s absolutely filthy,” I said.

“Perhaps you could clean it first?”

I couldn’t fault the logic. Armed with cloths and cleaners and feeling very depressed, I went back into the laundry. I pressed the power button on the washing machine just in case the repair fairies had visited while I was away talking to Robin, but nothing happened. Maybe the power socket has blown a fuse, I thought desperately. Let’s plug it in somewhere else and see if that makes a difference. I reached out for the plug.


The plug was barely making contact with the socket at all. Somehow it had been pulled almost all the way out. Possibly the recent earthquakes combined with the worst storm in half a century had made the house vibrate so much that the plug had been shaken out of its socket. Or maybe the cats had decided to play a practical joke on me. I’d been wondering why Harpo was sniggering so much...

I pushed the plug all the way in again, made sure that it was firmly seated, and then pressed the power button on the washing machine. Red and green lights flashed merrily as electricity flowed through its circuits again. Hey presto! I’d fixed it.



“The washing machine isn’t broken. We don’t have to go shopping for a new one.”

“What happened?”

I explained about the power plug.

“Didn’t you check that first?” she asked.

“Well I looked at it.”

“Didn’t you push it, just to make sure that your eyes weren’t deceiving you?”


“How many times have I heard you tell people to push the cables firmly when their computer dies?”

“This is a washing machine,” I said sullenly. “That technique only works with computers.”

Robin was unconvinced. “Are you sure about that?” she asked. “I thought it was of quite general applicability.”

“I’m quite sure,” I said and I raced back to the laundry so that she wouldn’t see me blushing with the shame of it all. I set the washing machine to do a final rinse and spin. Slurrrrp!! Slurrrrp!! Slurrrrp!!

By now Robin, annoyed at all the interruptions, had staggered out of bed. “Coffee!” she moaned as the sunshine seared her eyeballs.

“Good idea,” I replied. “I’ll make a pot, shall I?”

“Don’t forget to push the coffee filter machine’s power plug firmly into place,” said Robin. I could tell that today was going to be a long day, full of power cable mockery. But perhaps I deserved it.

Directive 51 by John Barnes is a rather bleak “after the catastrophe” novel. The particular catastrophe he has in mind involves an informal group of eco-terrorists who mostly look back to the golden ages long past, before technology ruined everything for everybody. They long to return to those times. To that end, they initiate a day of action known as Daybreak. On Daybreak, they release a swarm of nanobots, microscopic robots that attack and destroy electronic equipment. Carried along in the wind, these robots destroy cars, computers, iphones, cameras – pretty much every device on which modern living depends. The daybreakers also release a bioweapon that destroys plastics, reducing them to smelly mush. There isn’t much left of the industrial world after this two pronged attack.

And as if that wasn’t enough to contend with, Barnes also reveals that a Muslim terrorist group has secretly infiltrated the daybreakers. Hippy-dippy dreamers and Muslim terrorists – Barnes seems to be deliberately pushing all the right-wing “hate” buttons he can find...

Naturally, society begins breaking down. Multiple people appear, each claiming to be the rightful President of the United States. I think the title, Directive 51, is a direct reference to the rules that govern Presidential succession. Presumably it is designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but obviously it doesn’t work very well in the context of this novel.

Anyway, civil war breaks out in America, and massive nuclear bombs lay waste to major cities all over the world. Uncounted billions of people die. But never mind, the structure of the U.S. Government and the wisdom of the Constitution will surely triumph over the godless reprobates who have brought the world to its knees. Flourish of trumpets. Ta daa!!

There might be a good novel hiding in here. Unfortunately it is completely overwhelmed by strident preaching, massive infodumps and naive politics. The characters are all ciphers, merely mouthpieces for Barnes’ callous gameplaying. Not one of them ever sounds real or seems to experience real emotion.

John Barnes has written a lot of excellent novels but in this one he seems to have forgotten every writing lesson he ever learned. It reads like the first draft of a tract.

The recent death of Frederik Pohl sent me scurrying to my Pohl shelves in search of things to re-read. Oh my goodness, where to start? The shelves were stuffed full of brilliant books. I don’t think the man ever wrote anything that wasn’t worth a re-read or three. Eventually I decided on Black Star Rising, on the grounds that I hadn’t read it for at least a decade.

The novel is set in the near future. America and Russia have fought themselves to a standstill and China and India have moved into the vacuum left behind. Castor works in the paddy fields on a collective farm in Alabama. As he paddles through the rice paddies he puts his foot on a dismembered human head...

As part of the subsequent investigation, Castor has to travel to the city to deliver his testimony. He has a torrid affair with the Han-descended Police Inspector who is in charge of the investigation and meets Manyface, a professor whose skull is full of transplanted brain stems, making him (or rather his various personalities) expert in many diverse fields of knowledge. Manyface is investigating a mysterious object that is approaching the Earth from outside the solar system. It proves to be an alien spaceship. The aliens, who have learned all about Earth culture from radio and TV broadcasts, demand to speak to the President of the USA. There is, of course, no such office and no such person. But the aliens refuse to accept this inconvenient detail and they destroy a small Pacific island to show that they mean business. Obviously a President has to be found quickly. Castor isn’t doing anything at the moment...

This is vintage Pohl, full of wry and pointed observations about our cultural assumptions and their inherent contradictions. Pohl is funny, satirical, witty and wise. Kingsley Amis said of Frederik Pohl: "[he is] the most consistently able writer science fiction, in its modern form, has yet produced."

I cannot argue with that statement.

John Scalzi is a well known name in SF circles. He has written several Hugo winning novels and he indulges himself daily by writing opinionated essays on a blog called Whatever which has recently hit 30 million views. A few years ago, Scalzi published a collection of articles from his blog. He called it Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded and it won a Hugo award. Now he has published another collection. This one is called The Mallet Of Loving Correction and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he wins another Hugo for it.

Scalzi has firm opinions and he isn’t afraid to state them and to do his best to justify them. He never arrives at his conclusions out of nowhere and his arguments are both logical and convincing. I confess that sometimes I find his political opinions hard to come to grips with, but that’s because I don’t really know the policies or personalities of the American politicians that he discusses in the same way that he does. I tend to skip these essays, but from what I can gather, I do suspect that our political opinions are very similar. But other more general essays about love and life and dogs and cats, about how not to be creepy and what to expect from writers are always informative, interesting and often very funny. I urge you to seek this book out. It’s well worth reading.

Phil Rickman has, apparently, started to write a series of novels about Dr Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist and astrologer. The only one I’ve read is the second in the series The Heresy of Dr Dee. It reads very well as a standalone novel.

Dr Dee has been consulted by Queen Elizabeth. He has been asked to name a propitious date for her wedding to Robert Dudley. The death of Dudley’s wife Amy under mysterious circumstances has left him free to wed, and the court is all aflutter with scandal and accusations of murder.

In order to satisfy the commission, Dee needs to obtain a special scrying stone – a crystal that, properly used, can see the future. Currently it belongs to the abbot of one of the monasteries that was dissolved by Henry VIII. The abbot has no love for the Tudor family and the price he asks is beyond all reason. Dee and Dudley embark on a scheme to acquire the scrying stone by dubious means...

Rickman’s novel exudes verisimilitude and the intrigues of Elizabeth’s court are brought brilliantly to life. If the other books in the series are half as good as this one, Rickman has a classic on his hands.

Suspect is the first novel by Australian writer Michael Robotham and it’s a cracking good page-turner of a yarn! The tension never lets up.

It’s a first person narrative told by Joe O'Loughlin, a London psychologist with a somewhat jaundiced, very cynical and often dryly funny view of the world. Then his life starts to fall apart. He is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and his efforts to keep this secret from his wife causes her to believe that he is having an affair. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he soon becomes the main suspect in the murder of a pretty young nurse who used to be one of his patients and who (an added bonus this) once accused him of sexual harassment. Though, to be fair, she soon withdrew the charge. But mud sticks...

You probably think you’ve read this a million times before in some incarnation or other. But I promise you, you haven’t. The plot is so complex that the word byzantine barely even begins to hint at its depths. And it’s not just plotting by numbers either – the whole thing hinges quite dramatically on the mental state and, by implication, the motivations, of a lot of complex and extremely well realised people. Often it’s hard to work out just who is doing what to whom, and why. The reasons are layered like matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. Everyone lies even when they think they are telling the truth.

Robotham’s characterisations are just brilliant. Everybody is a living, breathing individual.

This is a very cleverly constructed story that kept me guessing right to the very end. And even when I reached the end, I wasn’t completely sure that I understood everything. I had a nagging feeling that I really ought to read it again immediately so as to properly dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Mark my words, Michael Robotham is a rising star. He will go far.

Frederick Forsyth’s literary reputation is based on a handful of thriller novels he wrote in the 1970s. They were all characterised by an extraordinary attention to detail. He described all of the planning and preparation that went into the act of assassinating a president or the invasion of a foreign country. The devil is in the details and Forsyth was a devilish writer. Those magnificent early novels were followed by a series of increasingly dire potboilers that seemed to have been written for the money and which were all easily forgettable. But now, with The Kill List, he has returned to the formula that brought him his original fame.

A Muslim extremist known as the Preacher is spreading the message of violent jihad on YouTube videos. Strangely, his messages of hate are all in English rather than Arabic and they are aimed at Muslims living (and often born in) English speaking countries. His acolytes have started to go on suicide missions to kill public officials in both the U.S. and the U.K. Obviously he has to be stopped, and this job is given to “Kit” Carson, an ex-Marine who is now part of a super-secret agency known as TOSA (Technical Operations Support Activity). His nickname is The Tracker because that’s what he does best.

The rest of the plot is obvious. The Tracker tracks The Preacher down and The Preacher is killed. But that’s not the point at all – everybody knows how the story will go, almost from the first page. The point that matters is that Forsyth himself is interested in process, he is interested in how things work, he is the master of the nine tenths of the iceberg that lie underneath the surface of his story. We don’t actually care about what the ending is, what we care about is how we got there. The destination doesn’t matter; the journey is the important thing.

The Kill List is a magnificent example of everything that Frederick Forsyth does best.

Sue Grafton has reached the letter “W” in her alphabet thriller series. W is for Wasted is the title of the latest adventure of Kinsey Millhone and it’s a humdinger!

It is 1988 and Kinsey is thirty-eight years old. (One of the reasons I’ve always been able to identify so closely with this series is that Kinsey is the same age that I am).

Kinsey is looking into two unexplained deaths. One is the murder of a former associate, Pete Wolinsky, a shady private detective of whom Kinsey thoroughly disapproves. The other is more puzzling – a homeless derelict has died, seemingly of natural causes. However in his pocket is a piece of paper with Kinsey's name and telephone number written on it. Kinsey is asked to identify the body but she isn’t any help. She’s never seen the man before.

Being naturally nosey, she starts to investigate, and it isn’t long before she finds out that she is actually related to the dead wino. And what’s more, she’s named as his sole heir in his will.

Goodness me!

The strongest and most interesting books of this series have always been the ones where we learn more about Kinsey’s background. She herself knows almost nothing about her family (her parents died when she was very young and she was raised by an Aunt who was estranged from the rest of the family). And so for Kinsey, these investigations are rather like a normal case but with the added dimension of a personal interest.

The plot of W is for Wasted is thick and gooey. The two deaths are indeed related to each other. There’s a nasty game afoot, and Kinsey learns a lot about where she herself came from...

Lindsey Davis has written twenty novels about Falco, an informer (private detective) in Vespasian’s Rome. Now she seems to have abandoned him, and The Ides Of April is the first novel in a new series about Flavia, Falco’s daughter, who is following in her father’s footsteps even to the extent of living in Falco’s old apartment in Fountain Court and using Falco’s old office as her own.

When a client of Flavia's dies suddenly, she is quite upset. Now she won’t get paid. However her client’s stepson is suspicious and does not believe that the death was a natural one. He asks Flavia to investigate. Flavia agrees (now she might get paid in full). She discovers that her client’s death is not a one off. Many other previously healthy and active people, have died suddenly and unaccountably. Perhaps there is a serial killer stalking the streets of Rome.

It’s actually a rather disappointing novel. Davis’ characteristic cynical humour is completely absent and there is absolutely no sense of place or time. We are told the story takes place in Domitian’s Rome, but quite honestly it could just as easily have been happening in Margaret Thatcher’s London; there are no real cultural anchors. The story plods along, weaving its tangled tale in rather unexciting prose. Even the denouement is dull – I guessed who the murderer was about half way through the book and after that it was all quite anti-climactic. Davis has done much better than this. If the storyline and tone of future episodes doesn’t improve, I may have to abandon her.

Peter Robinson has written so many novels about Detective Chief Inspector Banks that, to an extent, they are starting to seem a little formulaic. There will be a dead body and the investigation into the murder will have resonances with Banks’ past. There will be lots of references to the music, politics and culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this is over the heads of the young policemen and policewomen that Banks supervises, and they find him puzzling. Privately they consider him to be an old has been, a throwback, living too much in the past. Surprisingly, Banks would probably agree with them, if he knew what they were thinking. But Banks is not really trapped in the past at all – he has wider interests and eclectic musical tastes verging at times on the avant garde. In every sense of the word, he is a renaissance man with fingers in a lot of cultural pies and he certainly isn’t blind to the ramifications of modern criminality. This makes him a very good policeman.

Children Of The Revolution is the twenty first DCI Banks novel and it pushes all of these buttons. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed it. Partly, I suppose, it’s because I share DCI Banks’ background and interests and therefore I find him very easy to identify with. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Despite their surface trappings, the novels do have an intellectual depth that I find appealing. Nothing is ever straightforward. The plots and the characters have a pleasing subtlety and depth. I liked this one a lot.

Once the washing machine had completed its cycle and sung its happy song, I went into the laundry to get the newly cleaned clothes. I balanced the basket on the dirty sink and began to transfer the clothes from the washing machine to the basket, a job I had done a thousand time before. But it seemed that my stupidity with the plug had honed my senses, for this time I noticed something I’d never noticed before. The pipe that connected the hot tap to the washing machine had come adrift. The pipe was just lying on the floor and the fitting that attached it to the tap was broken. Fortunately the tap was turned off so there was no water spraying all over the laundry.


She came into the laundry. “Now what?”

I pointed at the dangling pipe.

“So,” said Robin, “all the time we thought we were doing a warm wash we were actually doing a cold wash because there was no hot water going into the machine?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I wonder how long it’s been doing that?”

“Goodness knows,” I said. “I’ve not noticed the broken hose fitting before, but that doesn’t mean anything. My powers of observation, as we have proved today beyond a shadow of doubt, are not the best in the world.”

“Well,” said Robin, “it should be easy enough to fix. Let’s go to a hardware store and get a new hose fitting.”

To think is to do (doobey, doobey doo). It was the work of but a moment to purchase a new hose fitting. The hardware store had lots of them. Perhaps broken washing machine hoses are a common problem.

The new hose fitting screwed on to the tap with no trouble whatsoever. A grooved prong stuck out from it, throbbing with eagerness to insert itself deeply into the moistly waiting hose. However the prong was too well endowed, and entry into the narrow orifice that the hose presented proved to be impossible to achieve. Taking my sharpest knife firmly in hand, I shaved off some the more protuberant bits. The unkindest cut of all!

Eventually I managed to get the prong about half way into the hose at which point it refused to go either forwards or backwards. It was solidly stuck, which I assumed to be a good thing. I tightened the clip that held it in place and the job was done. I turned on the hot tap. Nothing leaked. Everything seemed to be working as designed.

“Now,” I declared, “I’ll do the first load of warm washing in goodness knows how long.”

“Good idea,” said Robin.

I put unsavoury garments into the washing machine, added detergent and switched everything on. I watched anxiously as the machine filled with water, but nothing leaked from the hot tap. The join seemed to be well watertight. Soon I was soothed by gentle chug, chug noises as the the machine soaked foulness from the clothes into the warm and steaming water. Somewhat to my surprise it progressed through its whole cycle making only the same gentle noises I remembered it making when it was new. The terrible satanic lava-shake slurrrrrping noises were now completely absent.



“It’s done the whole wash without making any of those horrible noises.”

“Hmmm,” said Robin thoughtfully. “So that probably means that the slurrrrrping noises were actually caused by it trying to suck water through the hot pipe and failing miserably. Probably the noises were just the sound of air being sucked into the pipe and then bubbling loudly all through the washing machine’s internal mechanisms.”

“Yes, that’s almost certainly the reason,” I agreed.

“How long has it been making those slurrrrrping noises?” asked Robin.

“About two years,” I said.

“So for two years we’ve been sucking air instead of water through the hot pipe?”


“The hose fitting has been broken for two years and we never noticed it until now?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, we definitely get zero marks on our final exam for our observation certification,” said Robin. “However there’s one thing that’s still puzzling me.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Who turned off the hot tap when the hose fitting broke two years ago?”

I stared blankly at her. I had no answer to that question.

John Barnes Directive 51 Ace
Frederik Pohl Black Star Rising Gollancz
John Scalzi The Mallet Of Loving Correction Subterranean Press
Phil Rickman The Heresy of Dr Dee Corvus
Michael Robotham Suspect Doubleday
Frederick Forsyth The Kill List Putnam
Sue Grafton W is for Wasted Macmillan
Lindsey Davis The Ides of April Hodder & Stoughton
Peter Robinson Children Of The Revolution Hodder & Stoughton
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