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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (deus ex machina)

Alan and Robin Meet the Ghost in the Machine

“What shall we do to celebrate your birthday?” asked Robin.

“Let's go out for dinner,” I suggested.

And so that's exactly what we did. We booked a table at our favourite restaurant and we invited several close friends to help us celebrate.

When the great day arrived, Robin and I got dressed in our very best clothes, none of which had any significant pockets because they were our very best clothes. People put things in pockets and the pockets bulge. That destroys the sleek and sexy outline that a body dressed in its very best clothes presents to the world. And therefore, because I was lacking in significant pockets, I loaded my man bag up with tissues, my mobile phone, my wallet and my keys. Then we threw the cats out of the lounge, closed all the doors, turned the burglar alarm on and got ready to leave the house. Robin, who was driving, held her keys in her hand as we left the house. She opened the garage door, turned off the burglar alarm and pressed the magic gadget on her key ring to unlock the car. We got in and made ourselves comfortable. I opened the garage door with the garage door opener gadget, and Robin drove the car out of the garage and into the street.

We drove down the street, chatting of this and that. Robin signalled a left turn.

“Did you know that in English a double negative actually means a positive rather than a negative?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Robin. “When Mick Jagger sang that he couldn't get no satisfaction, grammatically speaking he was boasting about the number of his conquests even though idiomatically he was complaining about how he hardly ever managed to get his end away.”

“That's right,” I agreed. “Apparently it's quite a common construction in a lot of languages. But the interesting thing, according to this article I read, is that the reverse isn't true. There are no languages, absolutely none at all, where a double positive actually means a negative. Isn't that fascinating?”

“Yeah, right,” said Robin.

No sooner had the words left her mouth than the locks on all the doors slammed shut and the hazard lights started to flash. The God of Travel, it seemed, did not approve of linguistic discussions.

“Expletive deleted,” said Robin and she pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. She turned the engine off, but the hazard lights continued to flash and the doors remained locked. Robin played with the lock and unlock buttons on her magic gadget and eventually normality returned.

“That was a bit worrying,” she said. “I hate problems with a car's electronics. They are always so hard to track down and repair. I hope this isn't serious – I'd hate to get stranded in the middle of nowhere on the way to the restaurant. We might actually starve to death!”

“Fingers crossed that it doesn't happen again,” I said. “Perhaps it's just a one off.”

Robin started the car and, signalling right, pulled out into the stream of traffic. Soon we were cruising happily at exactly the speed limit. Angry drivers roared past us, furious that we were travelling so slowly.

“How many Freudian psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” I asked Robin, hoping to distract her with humour.

“I don't know,” said Robin, playing the game. “How many Freudian psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Two,” I explained. “One to change the bulb and one to hold the penis... I mean the stepladder.”

Robin laughed, and the door locks slammed shut and the hazard lights started to flash again. Obviously the God of Travel didn't like willy jokes either. There was a large and empty car park just to our left. “Pull in there,” I suggested.

I find it very hard to categorise James Oswald's novels about Detective Inspector Tony McLean. On the one hand they are gritty, gruesome (and often very funny), Scottish police procedurals along the lines of those written by Ian Rankin and Stuart MacBride. On the other hand, they are supernatural thrillers, full of demons and other malign spirits. On the gripping hand, they definitely belong to that most important category known as Books That Alan Stayed Up Way Past His Bedtime To Read Because He Couldn't Bear To Go To Sleep Before He Found Out How The Story Ended. But after that it gets fuzzy.

Inspector McLean, around whom the supernatural events circulate, is very pragmatic and down to earth. He has no patience with mysticism and mumbo jumbo. He has no patience with his incompetent boss either, and much entertaining comedy arises from the conflict of this situation.

McLean is haunted by his memories of the Christmas Killer – a serial killer who he arrested many years before the events of these novels. He finds it inconceivable that the Christmas Killer was anything but a psychopath. It's quite ridiculous to believe that the killer was influenced by a book that stole his soul, leaving him open to possession by a demon. It's even more stupid to think that the souls of the killer's victims are also trapped inside the book. One of the women the killer slaughtered was McLean's fiancée. Surely McLean is hallucinating when he hears her voice...

Or perhaps not. The supernatural elements are written subtly enough that you can choose to treat them as real or imaginary, whichever you prefer. McLean has one viewpoint. Other characters have different opinions. Who am I to climb down off Oswald's very skilfully built fence?

Natural Causes opens with the discovery of the disembowelled body of one of Edinburgh's movers and shakers. He's the first victim of what turns out to be an ongoing series of murders. All the dead men are well respected pillars of the community. With all this going on, few people can get very excited about the discovery of what is obviously the very old mummified body of a crucified girl. She was found in a sealed room in a house that is being demolished to make way for a block of flats. Evidence suggests that she has been sealed in the room for at least sixty years. It seems clear that she was the sacrificial victim of some sort of magical ritual. There are traces of a pentacle and, at its cardinal points, there are alcoves containing sections of her organs together with scraps of parchment and mementos left by the killers – a cuff link, a ring.

Of course, the cases are connected. How could they not be?

Originally, Natural Causes was self-published on Smashwords and Amazon Kindle. It sold extremely well – it was downloaded more than 100,000 times and it received rave reviews. It wasn't long before a commercial publisher got wind of what they hoped might well prove to be the next big thing. One thing led to another and now the novel, and its sequels, are published by Penguin. Because of contractual requirements, the original Smashwords and Kindle editions are no longer available. Pity...

The Book Of Souls starts with a funeral. Donald Anderson, the Christmas Killer himself, has died in prison. McLean watches his burial, hoping perhaps for some sort of closure. The killer is dead, but it seems that his methods have not died with him. New victims appear. Is it a copycat killer or was the wrong man blamed for the earlier murders?

Meanwhile decommissioned factories that have been earmarked for demolition so that upmarket developments can be built are burning down. All the factories have been stripped of combustible materials and everyone is at a loss as to the cause of the fires. There is no trace of arson and it seems unlikely that the developer is destroying them to claim on the insurance – business is booming and the developer is filthy rich and getting richer. Witnesses give strange accounts, and one drunken old man claims that the buildings are committing suicide. Obvious nonsense, of course.

As more victims of the new incarnation of the Christmas Killer turn up, the pressure is on McLean from all angles. An old monk comes to him with a fantastic story about the Book of Souls that Anderson stole from a monastery library. It is an ancient evil which can consume anyone who reads it. McLean doesn't believe the story and finds no trace of the book when he digs through the evidence trail that Anderson left behind. Nevertheless, when he eventually confronts the killer in a derelict, burning factory, an old book does have a part to play in the final events...

Again, the things that might be supernatural are so cleverly integrated into the story that the whole thing can be read as a straightforward police-procedural. Or not, as you wish.

The Hangman's Song concerns a series of suspiciously similar suicides. A young man is found hanging -- on the face of it, a simple, routine suicide. Nevertheless, McLean is puzzled by the curious suicide note the man has written on his computer. A second hanging and another strange note start to suggest a pattern. Then a third suicide convinces McLean that these are actually murders, though the method remains obscure.

Meanwhile, as a result of his transfer to the Vice department, McLean is also busy investigating the brutalities of prostitution and human trafficking.

Some loose ends from the previous novel are tied up in this one and while there is no real supernatural involvement in the cases that McLean investigates this time, the ramifications of his previous cases keep the plot moving along nicely.

It is very important to read these novels in their published order. The later ones assume knowledge of the earlier ones and contain many spoilers. You will regret it if you read them out of order. And you will regret it even more if you don't read them at all!

Recently I've been reading (and in some cases re-reading) some Robert Charles Wilson novels. He's been writing first class SF novels for decades, but few people seem to have heard of him, which I think is a shame. Every so often, his books get nominated for prestigious awards, but they seldom win probably, I suspect, because he remains relatively unknown. It doesn't help that he ploughs his own lonely literary furrows, paying little attention to trends and fashions (though recently he committed a trilogy and he did manage to win a Hugo award for the first volume, Spin).

His books are thoughtful, and lyrical. There is no doubt that they are science fiction in the sense that they pay lip service to all the standard tropes. The stories are always full of aliens and strange technology, and time and space travel. But the writing itself is something else again. It's profound and complex, and it is always clear that Wilson is using the SF trappings as tools to dramatise his ideas rather than considering them to be important in and of themselves. His books emphasise character rather than spectacle, and this gives them a dimension that is sometimes sadly lacking in much contemporary SF.

Gypsies tells the tale of three siblings, Karen, Laura and Tim. They can turn corners that other people cannot see and when they turn those corners they find hidden worlds, some quite similar to ours, some of them very different. Karen has rejected the gift and refuses to acknowledge it. She tries desperately to live what she thinks of as a normal life. She hasn't spoken to her sister Laura for many years after an argument about what their talent means. And neither of them have seen Tim since they were teenagers. Long ago he turned a corner of his own and vanished from their lives. But now Karen's son Michael has proved to have inherited his mother's talent and no matter how much Karen tries to deny it, the evidence is incontrovertible. And now, Karen has to take some kind of action, for Michael has been approached by the Grey Man; a frightening figure from Karen's past. Someone, it seems, is tracking them down. Someone wants to claim them and use their talents.

The story itself quickly transcends its somewhat commonplace plot. Though it holds the interest with an exciting and dramatic tale, it is also a meditation on family love and the ties that bind. It is a thesis on creativity and political ruthlessness and ultimately on the nature of the human condition. But don't let that put you off – what it mainly is, is a spellbinding story that held me enthralled for page after page.

A Bridge Of Years tells the story of Tom Winter. He leaves a broken marriage and a broken life and buys a house in the rural Pacific Northwest of America. The house he buys has been empty for more than ten years. Its last owner vanished without a trace. Despite having been deserted for a decade or more, the house is pristine and Tom considers it to be a bargain. But once he moves in, he starts to realise that something very odd is going on – on more than one occasion he goes to bed leaving the kitchen full of dirty dishes. When he gets up in the morning, they are washed and dried and put away...

Eventually, his investigation of this and other strange phenomena leads him to a concealed tunnel in the basement, a tunnel which terminates in New York in the year 1962.

As always with Wilson, he uses the time travel trope for far more than a casual surface exploration of anomalies and paradoxes. He is much more concerned with the effect of time travel on the travellers themselves. How does the experience sit with them? How hard is it to spend the rest of your life in an era other than that where you were born? What on earth could motivate someone to leave everything that is familiar behind?

And then there is the added complication of Billy Gallagher, a soldier from the future who has fled to the past to avoid his own conscription. He is willing to kill to keep other time travellers at bay. And there may be other things journeying up and down that mysterious tunnel that even Billy Gallagher might have second thoughts about tackling. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio...

The whole thing adds up to a much more complex story than you might expect and it is a very satisfying read indeed.

A Hidden Place was Wilson's first novel. It is set in the depths of the Depression. After his mother dies, Travis Fisher goes to live with his Aunt Liza and her husband Creath in the Midwest town of Haute Montagne. Jobs are almost impossible to find, and Travis is lucky that Creath gets him employment at the ice plant.

A strange and beautiful boarder called Anna lives in the attic, and Travis is greatly attracted to her even though, night after night, he hears Creath going up the stairs to her bed. Anna says she's going to be changing soon, and she needs Travis's help, though she doesn't explain this gnomic utterance.

Anna, of course, is not human. Like Travis, she is trapped by circumstances. And like Travis, she will not be able to return home until she is complete.

Neither Anna nor Travis can fit in to the closed society of Haute Montagne. They are loners alienated from the rest of society, and I choose that word carefully. Anna is literally an alien, a genuine outsider. And so is Travis, but in the much more metaphorical sense that he simply doesn't see eye to eye with the prevailing ideas that surround him in Haute Montagne. Opposing them both are the stereotypical small town bigots, vigilantes, and fundamentalists. But Wilson doesn't fall into the easy trap of painting this conflict in black and white. The inhabitants of Haute Montagne, crass though they may appear on the surface, have their own depths, their own subtleties and their own convincing reasons for believing in what they say and do. And that makes A Hidden Place a very disturbing book to read.

Allen Steele's new novel is called V-S Day. It's an alternate history novel set mainly between the years 1941 to 1943. It imagines that the space race took place during WWII rather than a couple of decades later, and that it was impelled by the German experiments with rocketry under the guidance of Werner Von Braun. Von Braun has developed a manned orbital space station that could be used to attack the USA. In an effort to counter this, Robert Goddard, the American rocket pioneer, has developed a spacecraft that can intercept and destroy it. In many respects, the book tells a fascinating tale, particularly for long time space-travel nuts like me, and to that extent I lapped it up. It does have its uncomfortable moments though – there is far too much really squirmingly embarrassing American gung-ho patriotism and bravado. If Steele could have persuaded himself to turn the volume down a bit this would have been a much better book.

There have been far too many books about the code-breaking organisation at Bletchley Park. Ever since the secret leaked out in the 1970s, it seems that scarcely a week goes by without yet another book trying to find something new to say about the Nazi Enigma cipher, and the crucial role that the code-breakers played in the defeat of the German war machine. Eisenhower claimed that they shortened the war by two years, and who is say that he was wrong?

However, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay does indeed find something fresh to say about this tired old subject. Rather than concentrating on the technical aspects of code-breaking, or devoting time to the very clever people who devised the code-breaking schemes, this book puts a human face to the project by telling the story of the thousands of ordinary men and women who worked tirelessly through the tedious routines day after day after day...

He interviewed many of the survivors from that time – the cooks and the clerks and the messengers; the people who kept the whole place ticking over. Perhaps the most remarkable thing I learned from the book was that, bound by the Official Secrets Act, many of them had never discussed their war-time roles before. They did not tell their parents, their wives, their husbands or their children about what they did during the war. Indeed, many of their relatives went to their graves still believing that these people had somehow shirked their patriotic duties. It's a quite fascinating book and the only one I've read that puts a human face on to the well known story of the code-breakers.

Once we'd safely stopped, I took my keys out of my bag and we both manipulated our gadgets until the doors unlocked and the hazard lights stopped flashing. We got out and walked round the car, peering suspiciously here and there. Neither of us could see anything obviously wrong, though neither of us had any idea what we were looking for. But there were no dangling wires and no obviously missing bits.

“You drive around the car park,” said Robin, “and I'll watch and we'll see if we can make it happen again.”

To hear is to obey. I drove around the car park for a while but absolutely nothing out of the normal happened. “Try going a bit faster,” suggested Robin, “and slam on the brakes – see if that jogs anything loose.”

I drove faster. I braked hard. Nothing happened. I put my keys back in my bag and settled down in the passenger seat. Robin started the car and pulled out into the traffic again. Third time lucky.

“Have you heard about Bobby Fischer?” I asked Robin.

“You mean the man who was the eleventh world chess champion?” asked Robin.

“Yes, that's him,” I said. “He was really dedicated to chess. There seemed to be very little room in his world for anything except the game. Anyway, one day he was being interviewed by a reporter who was intrigued by Fischer's monomaniacal obsession. The reporter asked him if he'd rather play chess or have sex.”

“That's quite a question,” observed Robin. “How did Fischer answer it?”

“He thought carefully for a while and then he said, 'It depends on the position...'”

“Why is that car flashing its lights at us?” asked Robin.

“I don't know,” I said. And even as the words left my lips another car travelling in the opposite direction to us, flashed its lights. So did the next car. And the next...

“I'm not speeding,” said Robin, “and I've got my lights on. What else can it possibly be?”

“Perhaps there's something showing on the front of our car,” I suggested. “It might be something connected with the problems we were having earlier? Maybe we're about to lock the doors and flash the hazard light again. Perhaps the God of Travel doesn't like chess jokes either?”

“Should I pull over so we can check the car again?” asked Robin.

I was about to say yes, when we turned a corner and all was revealed. The police had set up a check point and they were breath testing all the drivers. Witch hat traffic cones constrained the traffic to one lane and a long queue of policeman made vague gestures at us.

“What are they wanting me to do?” asked Robin, confused. “Should I stop? Should I slow down and drive to the front of the line?”

“I don't know,” I said, equally confused by the long line of wobbly policemen.

Robin slowed down and the policemen speeded up, arms waving in a semaphore of incomprehensible instructions. Eventually we reached the very last policeman. He was standing stock still in the middle of the road holding up his right hand. “I think I'll stop here,” said Robin. “I don't want to run him over.”

She opened her window and the policeman came over to us. “Good evening, madam,” he said.

“Hello,” said Robin. “I wondered why all the cars were flashing their lights at me. Now I know.”

“Quite,” said the policeman dryly. He presented a small black box. “Please count down from ten into this device.”

“Ten,” said Robin. “Nine. Eight...”

When she reached zero I half expected the policeman to zoom up into the sky on jets of fire. But instead, he simply frowned at his device for a while, then he turned it round so that Robin could see the screen. “NO ALCOHOL” it said.

“Thank you madam,” said the policeman. “Have a good evening.” He waved us on and turned his attention to the car behind us.

“Well, that was fun,” said Robin as we drove away.

“I'm surprised he made you count,” I said. “Every time I've been stopped at these checkpoints I've had to say my name and address.”

“Perhaps it's a test of brainpower as well as a test of sobriety,” suggested Robin. “I was half tempted to count inside out for him. I'm sure that would have impressed the socks off him!”

“What's counting inside out?” I asked. “I've never heard of that.”

“Really?” said Robin, surprised. And then she counted to ten inside out. “Five, six, four, seven, three, eight, two, nine, one, ten.”

“Wow!” I said. “That's impressive.”

“I can count inside out to twenty as well,” said Robin smugly. “Would you like to hear me?”

“No,” said. “We've arrived at the restaurant.”

“Pity,” said Robin as she parked the car. “It's really difficult to count inside out when the numbers get large.”

“I imagine it is,” I said. “What's the largest number you've ever done?”

“I think I managed fifty once. But I had to concentrate really hard.”

She turned the car off and took the keys out of the ignition. I leaned forward and picked up my bag from the floor. The locks slammed shut and the hazard lights started to flash. We stared at each other in wild surmise.

“You've got your keys in your bag, haven't you?” Robin asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“And your key ring has the car locking gadget on it, doesn't it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Something in your bag is pressing against the gadget, and that's what caused all our problems as we drove here,” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

We got the car settled down and then we went into the restaurant.

“After all I've been through tonight,” said Robin, “I think I deserve extra chocolate for dessert.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Happy birthday,” said Robin.

James Oswald Natural Causes Penguin
James Oswald The Book of Souls Penguin
James Oswald The Hangman's Song Penguin
Robert Charles Wilson Gypsies Bantam
Robert Charles Wilson A Bridge of Years Bantam
Robert Charles Wilson A Hidden Place Bantam
Allen Steele V-S Day Ace
Sinclair McKay The Secret Life of Bletchley Park Aurum Press Ltd
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