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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Nosopoeticissimus)

Alan and the Exploding Woman

The lady in the back row of my class appeared to be suffering from just about every terminal disease going (at least, all the noisy ones). She coughed, sneezed, wheezed and occasionally raced out of the room (presumably to vomit). I wasn’t at all surprised that NASA had lost contact with the Mars lander earlier that same day. This woman could infect across interplanetary distances. My chances of surviving the week unscathed appeared slim.

She wore a very short dress, exposing enormously muscular legs that terminated in the general area of the feet with a gigantic pair of shit-kicking boots of the type much favoured by skinheads about to embark on serious aggro. The floor vibrated as she thundered out of the room, the overall effect being not unlike that of an earthquake. I nervously checked out convenient door frames to stand in.

Teaching this class had an interesting effect on my lecturing rhythms for I found I had to time my sentences so that they fitted nicely between the coughs and sneezes. Generally I managed to squeeze in about four words between paroxysms and I began to develop a distinctly minimalist style of speech. The essentially random nature of her periodic explosions also required much repetition from me as my last sentence vanished beneath waves of white noise. At some point in her life it would appear that she’d had 500 watt amplifiers surgically embedded in her throat. Students three classrooms away complained.

During the course of each day she sucked slyly on a bottle of violently pink medicine (could it be, perchance, the infamous Lily the Pink’s patent remedy?). In addition she kept popping the occasional pill. Her eyes became progressively more glazed and sometimes they crossed. A violent cough followed by a discreet spit generally straightened them out again, but the effect was only temporary.

She was, of course, the only student to have any difficulty with the lab exercises. She was constantly calling me across to ask for help and I would patiently squat beside her thinking germicidal thoughts as I debugged her latest listing. Perhaps the bugs were falling straight out of her nose into her programs (if they were, perhaps they wouldn’t infect me on the way).

At the end of every day, when the students had all gone home, I would pick up the saturated, snotty, phlegm-infested tissues that she positioned very carefully in neat piles on top of her computer, and throw them into the bin.

Amazingly, I have as yet developed no evil symptoms of my own. But there is still time…

Rim is the first of a loose trilogy (the others are called Mir and Chi) which are perhaps best described as New Age cyberpunk, a term I think I’ve just invented. All the cliched ingredients are here – Japanese technology, world-girdling computer networks, deadheads running riot through the net etc. However throughout it all, Besher exhibits a startlingly profound ignorance about what science and technology are and how they really work, and a disturbing acceptance of superstition as reality. Without exception, the scientists and technologists of his world talk as if the tenets of Eastern religion and philosophy are revealed scientific truth (and currently accepted revealed scientific truth is completely ignored). For example, when Frank Gobi’s son is found in a coma, the doctor who examines him proclaims:

        "…neurologically speaking, your boy is in a state of heightened consciousness
        normally associated with profound zazen meditation and yogic states."

He goes on to explain that even if the boy regained consciousness and proved able to relate to the ordinary forms of reality, they would find themselves in the presence of a fully enlightened being.

I found the whole world view espoused by the novel to be so at odds with my world view that I simply couldn’t stomach it. I found it intellectually shallow (and, perhaps worse, intellectually insulting). Your mileage may vary.

The new Paul Johnston novel, like its predecessors, was filed on the shelves of the crime section in the bookshops. But despite that, it is still simon-pure science fiction. It is set in 21st century Edinburgh, one of the many city states that the British Isles have fragmented into. Global warming has turned the summer season into a nightmare of heat. Water is rationed (everything is rationed). One of the most attractive prizes on offer in the city lottery is shower. When a lottery winner goes missing, Investigator Quentin Dalrymple is called in. A body is found face down in the river Leith. It soon becomes apparent that the man died from acute nicotine poisoning, and the nicotine is found in a bottle of whisky in the man’s flat. The temperature and the body count continue to rise and it becomes clear that there is a conspiracy abroad to destabilise the city.

The ending is a genuine surprise. As a mystery-cum-detective novel, this one is one of the best. But what raises it head and shoulders above the other books on the crime shelves is the beautifully realised setting. The seedy politics and social reality of Edinburgh in the grip of the Big Heat in the year 2025 are brought brilliantly to life. You can feel yourself sweating as you read, and the urge to suck on a bottle of water is almost overwhelming.

Naked Once More by Elizabeth Peters had such an intriguing title (and such an intriguing premise) that I just had to read it. Seven years prior to the opening of the book, a novel called "Naked in the Ice" by Kathleen Darcy shot to the top of the best seller lists. Then, at the height of her popularity, Kathleen died. Now her heirs want someone to write a sequel and Jacqueline Kirby is their writer of choice…

Jacqueline is an ex-librarian, much given to cynical pronouncements about the world of publishing in particular and writing in general. She is best of enemies with several other writers who are also competing for the honour of penning the sequel. And as she digs through Kathleen’s personal papers (and as her own life gradually starts to dovetail with the events of Kathleen’s final years) she begins to wonder if she will survive to complete the book.

The novel is a wonderful whodunnit (mingled in with a whydunnit and a howdunnit as well). The whole is satisfyingly complex, with a traditional yet completely satisfying dénouement. Oh yes – it’s also screamingly funny and delightfully bitchy about books, about writers and about publishers. What more could any self-respecting biblioholic want?

In the 1970s, the pseudonymous writer known only as Trevanian made quite a name for himself/herself with a series of contemporary thrillers ("The Eiger Sanction" etc). Now after a decade and a half of silence, he/she has returned with, of all things, a western novel. And a very good one it is too.

The town of Twenty Mile is dying. It depends for its existence on a silver mine in the mountains. Every so often, the miners come to town on the irregular train that carries the silver ore away for processing. They come to drink and party with the whores before returning to the mine. When the mine is finally exhausted, the town will lose its only reason for existing and the dozen or so permanent inhabitants will have to move on.

To Twenty Mile comes a young, eager-to-please stranger carrying a huge home made shotgun. He settles well into the town, managing to scrape a living from odd jobs here and there. But then a psychotic escapee from the State Prison arrives, and the killing and the horror begin…

The tension never lets up. It is real fingernail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension as the grim story unfolds (though it is not without a leavening of humour, which somehow makes it even more tense). This is a beautifully constructed novel. Who IS Trevanian? And why doesn’t he/she write more books like this one?

Christopher Priest’s new work, The Dream Archipelago, is a fix up novel comprising a series of stories written over more than twenty years. Priest has revised them for this edition and provided linking material. This is their first publication in book form. The archipelago of the title is a neutral zone in a world at war. The many islands, languishing in tropical seas are a constant lure to the armies of both sides in the conflict. In the (often very enigmatic) stories, Priest examines the nature of war, the mindset that can justify war and the pitiless nature of the conflict. Unfortunately he does this by dancing around his subject, always hinting, sketching in lines, but never painting the solid details. The final result feels languid, distant, almost uncaring. We see only edges, never surfaces. There’s a hole in the middle where the ideas fall in and vanish. This may well be intentional, but I didn’t like it.

With Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls, Robert Rankin demonstrates not only his genius with titles, but also his ingenuity with plotlines, bad jokes and the amazing number of things you can do with a penis. (Would you believe penistry? Somewhat akin to palmistry, but using a much more interesting organ).

Pooley and Omally, stalwarts of Brentford, wish to manage a rock band called Ghandi’s Hairdryer. Meanwhile, a rock fan from the future has been travelling through time adjusting history (John Lennon survived the attempt on his life and instead the Queen was assassinated at the Beatles reunion gig in the 1980s, as a result of which Richard Branson’s face now appears on the coins of the realm).

The plotlines (such as they are) intertwine and finally come together in an absolutely magnificent pun at the end of the penultimate chapter (read it and vomit). The book is a work of genius. Twisted genius admittedly, but genius nonetheless.

Clifford Stoll first made a name for himself with The Cuckoos Egg, in which he discussed his experiences chasing down a wily hacker who had broken into a computer system that Stoll administered. High Tech Heretic is a collection of essays that argue passionately that the current trend for seeing all problems as solvable by implementing computer networks is a dangerous trend. He is particularly vehement on the increasing use of computers in schools, to the detriment, he believes, of educational values. I find it difficult to argue with him (indeed I strongly agree with much that he says). To that extent, I suppose he is preaching to the converted. I am pre-disposed to go along with his ideas. But putting my biases to one side for a moment, I still think that he argues his case cogently. As he did in an earlier book Silicon Snake Oil, which argued a similar case, he exposes his ideas lucidly and calmly, marshalling the evidence for his views very cleverly. This book should be required reading for technophiles in general and educationalists in particular. It might help to moderate some of their more dangerous enthusiasms.

Tom Holt is best known for his light, humorous fantasies. But long before they became popular, he was a historical novelist of note. The Walled Orchard was a magnificent evocation of the life and times of Athenian Greece. Now, in Alexander at the World’s End, he has returned to the historical novel and I really wish he’d never left it, for it knocks all those silly fantasies into a cocked hat.

The narrator of the story is the grandson of the narrator of The Walled Orchard and to that extent I suppose, the novel can be regarded as a sequel to the earlier work. But the connection is extremely tenuous, and best forgotten. Euxenus is an Athenian philosopher. (Some might more fairly call him a confidence trickster since he makes his living from oracular pronouncements that he claims are delivered to him by a snake in a wine cask). He is appointed to the court of Philip of Macedon as tutor to his son Alexander. Through the somewhat cynical eyes of Euxenus, we observe the future conqueror of the world as he grows through his teenage years (and a humourless, literal-minded child he is too). However the lessons that Euxenus teaches him sink in, sometimes with dire effect as Alexander applies them with whole-hearted rigour as he begins his conquests. If Euxenus had a conscience (which he doesn’t) it would be a guilty one.

The tone is cynical, shot through with dark and bitter humour and dark and bitter insights. It brings the classical world alive as no other writer has ever managed to do before. It is a work of monumental scholarship, but it wears its scholarship lightly as it tells its compelling story. I wish Tom Holt would write more of these.

I live in Maioro street. M – A – I – O – R – O

Six letters and two of them are the same! How hard can it be? Well, very actually.

On several occasions I have had cause to ring a certain taxi company. The conversation generally goes something like this:

Nice Lady: Pick up address please?

Me: Maioro Street.

Nice Lady: Spell that, please.

Me: M – A – I <long pause> O – R – O

Nice Lady: M – A – R – I – R – A

Me: No, no. M – A – I <even longer pause> O – R – O

Nice Lady: M – A – O

Me (interrupting): M – A – I

Nice Lady: M – A – I

Me: O – R – O

Nice Lady: R – O – R

Me: O – R – O

Nice Lady: M – A – R – O – R – I

Me: Never mind. I’ll ring another taxi company.

It would appear that the letters MAIORO are singularly difficult for the average earhole, eyeball and tongue to come to grips with. This was proven beyond reasonable doubt when I went to vote the other week.

"Name please?" asked the returning officer.

I told him and he looked me up in his book. There I was, properly printed and (wonder of wonders) both my name and my address were properly spelt.

"Ah," said the returning officer, pointing his pen at my address. "Midori Street?"

The Long Firm is Jake Arnott’s first novel. On the basis of this work, I would guess that he has a stunning career in front of him. Harry Starks is a Soho gangster in the 1960s. This was one of Soho’s more violent and disreputable eras. The Kray twins were flexing their muscles as they moved out of the East End they’d been terrorising for so long and Peter Rachman was making a fortune out of miserable tenement accommodation, employing strong-arm tactics against his rent defaulters. All of these people are incidental characters in this superb novel.

The book consists of five stand alone novelettes, each told in the first person by a different narrator. Each sees a different side of Harry Starks. Terry the rent boy screws him (in every sense of the word) and pays for it. Lord Thursby helps legitimise his rackets, in return for money and sex with young boys. But Starks himself is ripped off by his commercial African connections. He gets his revenge.

Jack the Hat (a small time Soho creep, somewhat sensitive about his bald spot) moves in with Harry for a rip-off at Heathrow airport. Eventually it blows up on them, but the short term profits are good. Ruby Ryder is a down at heel ex-prostitute turned actress who aids Harry in his dealings with the "dirty squad" as he starts to turn a profit from pornography.

And then there is Lenny, the sociology lecturer who sees a thesis in Harry Starks, and whose involvement becomes far deeper, darker and more dangerous than he ever thought it would be. (The 1960s were the golden age of university Sociology departments and right idiots they made of themselves too, in retrospect. The satire in this section of the book is utterly delicious. Even Malcolm Bradbury in his heyday wasn’t quite this viciously cynical about the sociologists).

The portrait of Harry Starks that is built up from the different facets seen by the five viewpoint characters is a contradictory one. On the one hand he is a dangerous and vicious psychopath (the book has more than its fair share of grue and gore). But on the other he exhibits a high degree of compassion and puts himself in danger to help those he regards as his friends. Despite his way of life, his amorality, his violence and his selfishness, by the end of the book I had a grudging respect and regard for him. No mean feat, that.

I grew up in the England depicted in this book, and for me one of the delights was to recognise the contemporary concerns and the minor characters from ‘real life’ who flit through its pages. Many, now safely dead, are pilloried unmercifully. I particularly enjoyed the grotesque descriptions of Tom Driberg MP going down on his latest rent boy. The Krays are there, of course, but what can you say about them? They were larger than life and quite unbelievable anyway. Barbara Windsor has a cameo appearance, so does Kenneth Williams (though for no reason that I can see, he is not called by his real name). Johnny Ray and Judy Garland try to sing.

As a portrait of an era, it seems accurate enough. As a thrilling story of crime and criminals, it works beautifully. As a commentary on the society that lets these things happen, it cannot be faulted. As a character study it is superb. On every level, this is a wonderful book.

I have never liked Alan Duff’s fiction. I have always found it pretentious; the writer in the foreground proclaiming "look at me – I’m saying all these wise and wonderful things", instead of staying safely in the background and letting his characters speak for him. No – I’ve never liked his fiction.

But his non-fiction; now that’s a different story altogether. His essay collection Maori the Crisis and the Challenge was superb. Thoughtful, insightful and provocative, everything that an essay collection should be. His journalism is much the same, though the constraints of the medium don’t really allow him full rein. And of course his tireless championing of the Books in Homes scheme is wholly admirable.

That was the basis on which I approached Out of the Mist and Steam, his autobiography. There is no doubt that he had a hard life (his mother was a particularly nasty piece of work, violent, drunk and abusive) and his father was very weak, dominated by his wife. Duff himself entered the same downward spiral, a cycle of violence, of crime, of borstal and eventually prison. That he pulled himself out of that by is own efforts is again wholly admirable, and I have nothing but praise for him. (Though I think he blames his background too much. He himself is not without fault. It is far too easy to say "I’m a violent criminal because my parents abused me", and use it as a crutch. Better to look to yourself first, for it is never that simple. I had an abusive childhood, but I didn’t take that path. There are always other factors involved).

It is hard to say that I enjoyed this book, for voyeurism is seldom enjoyable per se. There’s always a certain embarrassment when a soul is bared. As an insight into who Alan Duff is (and why Alan Duff is Alan Duff) it was valuable. It is also beautifully written. Like him or loath him, it cannot be denied that Alan Duff is an important and influential New Zealander (and I suspect his best is yet to come). And therefore this is an important book, though an uncomfortable one.

Double Contact is the Sector General novel that James White completed shortly before his recent death. In a sense it is a formulaic book, for it is a Sector General novel and the formula is forty years old and quite rigid (but just as successful as ever it was). The novel is told from the viewpoint of one of White’s most popular characters from the series, Dr. Prilicla, the Cinrusskin empath. He is in charge of the hospital ship Rhabwar which is sent to answer a distress beacon. The seemingly routine mission becomes quite fraught as the implications of what they find start to sink in. Several new species of intelligent life are discovered, and in some cases, the first contact has been badly botched. Prilicla has an enormous task on his "hands".

James White was a well respected writer and a well respected man. He suffered from diabetes for many years, and in his later years he was nearly blind. But he never lost his gentle, humorous personality and he never lost his writing skills. Double Contact is as good as anything he ever wrote. His last novel, and a superb one. I like to think that he would have been happy with that knowledge.

In 1957, Russia launched sputnik and America went into shock. It seemed inconceivable that the evil empire could have beaten the land of the free into space. Night after night on American television, viewers watched the rockets of Project Vanguard explode on the launch pad. It seemed the national humiliation was complete. Well we all know how the story ended, but in 1957 that ending was far from obvious. Homer Hickam was a schoolboy in 1957 and October Sky is his story of how he felt and what he did in that most momentous year.

On obvious effect of the Russian triumph was that almost overnight the curriculum in American schools become much tougher. Science and maths was pushed like never before. Homer had no control over this – he just had to put up with it. But one thing he did have control over was his own life outside school. He and his friends decided to build rockets. This book is the story of their (surprisingly successful) efforts.

In a sense it is a trivial tale. Slowly, by trial and error they repeated and rediscovered things which had been known for a generation or more. By 1957, the engineering secrets of rocketry were not really rocket science (to use a current phrase). But the boys had no access to that material, and you have to admire their persistence, their inventiveness and their success. Over the course of several years they went from ignoramus to expert, eventually winning a science fair project for their work on rocketry. There is no doubt that they were doing real science and real engineering.

By itself, this story would be of no particular interest. What makes it worthwhile is that it is so much more than just a portrait of boys building rockets. It is a portrait of an era. Hickam paints a picture of the America of that vanished time and tells us how the people thought and how they lived. He also tells us about his own life, his parents, his mother who supported his rocket building efforts, his doomed father (a miner who eventually died agonisingly of emphysema as so many miners did, and still do) who was publicly against the rockets but who helped behind the scenes. It is a warm, rich, humorous book full of anecdote, incident and insight.

In later years Homer Hickam satisfied a lifetime ambition. He worked for NASA as a rocket engineer on the space shuttle; and on one of the shuttle missions part of one of his childhood rockets eventually made it into space, carried on his behalf by one of the mission astronauts.

White Mars is Brian Aldiss’ utopian novel. The collapse of the Earth economy leaves several thousand colonists stranded on Mars. Forced to be self-sufficient and self-governing, they embark on a utopian experiment. Just what is the ideal form of government? A constitution is agreed (not without argument) and the experiment begins.

Utopian novels generally involve too many talking heads as individual philosophies are expounded. This book is no exception to the rule. It has to be admitted that much of interest is discussed – the book is full of scientific, philosophical and sociological ideas to be explored. Unfortunately they are largely explored by lecture and exposition and while the ideas are exciting, the novel is dull as ditchwater.

Quite Ugly One Morning is Christopher Brookmyre’s first novel. He has written several others since, and they are sitting, eagerly anticipated, on my to-be-read shelf. He is a very funny and a revoltingly gross writer.

The novel opens with a corpse; throat cut, fingers chewed off, lying on a door ripped off its hinges, pools of blood and vomit everywhere. And what’s that terrible smell? Up there on the mantelpiece. Oh no! It can’t be! But it is…

The corpse was called Ponsonby, he was a doctor. Just why he was murdered slowly becomes clear (though there is a lot more gore to wade through before it is all finally wrapped up). The motive isn’t pretty, and along the way a lot of nasty things are said about the cynical structure of post-Thatcherite Britain. However despite the serious underpinnings, this is mainly one hell of a funny book, though you will need a very strong stomach to cope with it. If you enjoy cynical wisecracks and severed body parts then this is the book for you.

Not only are people unable to write down the name of the street where I live when I spell it to them, they are also incapable of taking credit card numbers as well. Recently I received an insurance bill. As is my habit I rang the insurance company and asked them to charge it to my credit card.

"Certainly sir. Can I have your credit card number please?"

I slowly dictated my number, pausing in all the requisite places and pronouncing all the numbers clearly and carefully, and the lady read it back to me.

"No, no," I said and dictated it again, even more slowly. She read it back to me again.

"No," I hinted. "That’s not quite right," and I dictated it one more time. By now I had it almost memorised. She read it back to me yet again, and it still wasn’t right.

"I’m writing it down correctly," she insisted. "I’m just not reading it back correctly."


Alexander Besher Rim Orbit
Paul Johnston Water of Death NEL
Elizabeth Peters Naked Once More Warner
Trevanian Incident at Twenty Mile St. Martins
Christopher Priest The Dream Archipelago Earthlight
Robert Rankin Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls Doubleday
Clifford Stoll High Tech Heretic Doubleday
Tom Holt Alexander at the World’s End Little, Brown
Jake Arnott The Long Firm Sceptre
Alan Duff Out of the Mist and Steam Tandem Press
James White Double Contact Tor
Homer H. Hickam October Sky Fourth Estate
Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose White Mars Little, Brown
Christopher Brookmyre Quite Ugly One Morning Abacus

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