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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (conscendere aetheris)

Alan On Board

I took a taxi to the airport. Another trip to Auckland, another course to teach, another dollar to earn. I approached the prettiest looking check in machine. “Lo! Here am I,” I declared. “You can stop worrying now. Pray, check me in and issue me with a boarding pass. The luxurious Koru Club lounge is calling to me with a siren song of decadent promise.”

“Hello, Alan,” said the machine. “It’s lovely to see you again. Where are you heading to this time?”

“Just Auckland,” I said.

“Hang on a sec,” said the machine, “I’ll have a wee rummage through my unmentionables and see what we’ve got you booked on.”

There was a short pause and then the machine emitted a cry of triumph. “Got you!” it said. “Here are your details.” It displayed them on the screen. “Is that OK?”

“Not really,” I said. “You’ve got me sitting in 3A which is a window seat. I much prefer an aisle.”

“Oh, sorry about that. I’ve been coughing a lot for the last couple of days. I think I might be coming down with a virus. Plays havoc with the concentration, you know. Here’s all the free aisle seats. Which one would you like?”

“I’ll have 3C, please,” I said. “It’s always been my favourite.”

“Righto,” agreed the machine and with a hiss and a roar and a shimmy it printed a label for my luggage and a boarding pass for me.

“Thank you,” I said, as I fastened the label onto my somewhat disreputable looking case.

“You’re welcome,” said the machine and as I carried my bag over to the conveyor belt I heard the machine yell, “Next, please!” in strident tones.

I wended my way to the Koru Club lounge. In Wellington, you get to the lounge before you go thorough security, so there is plenty of time to relax before enduring the probing, eldritch horror and humiliation of having electromagnetic radiation peer deeply into your secrets. In the lounge I suffered a sudden attack of puritanism and I decided against indulging myself in the Albarragena Jamon Iberico de Bellota, a curiously flavoured ham that is made from pigs fed only on acorns and succulent roots, which gives the flesh a distinctive taste. The ham is cured for three years, and is wrapped in an apron hand made by a Spanish tailor, and then placed carefully in a hand-carpentered wooden box. Each and every Albarragena ham comes with its own DNA certificate to confirm its authenticity. It retails at about $1500 a kilo. The lounge was full of happily munching commuters, several of whom were wearing the aprons that had once adorned the ham. One person was trying hard to get a highly polished wooden box into his hand luggage. I decided to have crackers and cheddar cheese instead.

In the fullness of time my flight was called and I wended my way downstairs and strode through the metal detector which found much to disapprove of, and which beeped furiously at me. A nice lady confronted me and asked me to hold out my arms while she waved a magic wand back and forth.

“What’s on that wrist?” she asked.

“A watch,” I said, and I showed it to her.

“What’s on that wrist?” she asked.

“A medic-alert bracelet,” I said, and I showed it to her.

“What’s on your neck?” she asked.

“A gold chain,” I said, and I showed it to her.

“What’s on your willy?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Shall I show it to you?”

“Don’t bother,” she said and she waved me through.

And then, as I joined the queue at the departure gate, a horrid truth dawned on me. I had left my boarding pass behind in the lounge where doubtless at this very moment it was indulging itself in massive slices of Albarragena ham and wearing an apron. There was no way that the fierce lady was going to let me back out through security to go and pick it up. So how on earth was I going to get on the plane?

I confessed my dilemma to the lady who was checking the boarding passes. “See the gate marshall,” she said briskly and pointed to a man who was hunched over a keyboard and staring with fixed concentration at a screen.

I cleared my throat to attract his attention. “I’ve left my boarding pass in the Koru lounge,” I said.

“No problem,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Robson,” I said. “Alan Robson.”

He poked a few keys and a passenger manifest manifested itself on his screen. “I can’t see you here, Mr Smith,” he said.

“Robson,” I corrected him.

He looked surprised. “How do you spell that?”


He hunted around his keyboard for a while and then pecked a single key on the top row of letters. I hoped it actually was the letter ‘R’. He pressed enter and blinked at the display that popped up. “Here you are,” he declared triumphantly. “Can I see some identification, please?”

I showed him my drivers license. He sniggered at the photograph and then printed a new boarding pass for me. I wandered down the corridor, boarded the aircraft and plonked myself down in seat 3C. Phew!

The flight to Auckland was uneventful. I stayed there for a week and then took a taxi to the airport so as to fly home to Wellington.

I don’t read much science fiction any more. Most of the SF being written today strikes me as dull, derivative, old fashioned, boring and far too long. If I never see another trilogy each book of which has more than a 1000 pages in it, I’ll die a happy man. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to new things and new writers – far from it. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North is just stunning and every single one of you should go and read it immediately.

In one sense, this is a hard science fiction novel about the paradoxes of time travel. Yes, I know – that’s a cliche that was done to death in the 1950s and 1960s. But never forget that the distinguished critic and author Damon Knight once complained that after he’d declared that the time travel story to be dead and that nothing new remained to be said about the idea, God sent him the plots of six time travel stories as a punishment. Apparently God is still very interested in time travel...

Harry August is a kalachakra, a man who is reborn in the same time and place every time he dies. He lives his life over and over again – but his memories of his previous lives remain intact and he uses these memories to influence the way his life will unfold this time around. Every life is different and so, presumably, is every future that follows on from him (I warned you about the paradoxes). However towards the end of one of these lives, a little girl comes to visit him on his deathbed. She has recently been reborn and she remembers a future that will happen long after Harry’s death (a future that, by definition, he can never see). She warns him that the end of the world is coming and that Harry has to help prevent this catastrophe the next time he is born.

There is a club, the Cronus Club, whose members are all kalachakras. The reborn young can talk to the old, telling them what will happen in the future, and when those elders are themselves reborn they will have a clear memory of that conversation. And they themselves can talk to old members who are about to die, thus passing the message down the time stream. Using the reverse effect, messages can also be passed up to the future and, of course, actions can be taken to influence events.

As well as being an SF novel, there is also a danger that this book might be committing literature, dealing as it does with love, loss, triumph, and sorrow – the everyday aspects of every life, including Harry’s. The metaphor of rebirth is an ingenious mechanism which highlights and contrasts the play of these emotions on Harry’s life, for they are different each time around. What is soul shattering in one existence might be trivial in another. That’s an uncomfortable thought.

But the central fact remains – every time Harry is born, everything about his personality and his journey through his life changes. Old lovers vanish and new ones take their place, the actions he takes are consciously different every time, and even the manner of his death and his age when he dies vary from life to life. But there is one constant factor. His life always begins the same way at the same time and in the same place.

However despite the variances he experiences and despite his attempts to control what happens to him, there is a clear inevitability to the course of his life. No matter what he does he will always die and he will always have to begin again. These contrasts (can I say paradoxes again?) are explored in fascinating juxtapositions and comparisons, with a depth and a subtlety by which I am absolutely awestruck!

It seems that the cause of the crisis to come is a kalachakra called Victor. He spends his lives encouraging and advancing technological progress, picking up where he left off every time he is born. This constantly accelerating progress soon gets out of control, from Harry’s point of view anyway, and a clear catastrophe lurks at the end of the line (perhaps a singularity event, it’s hard to tell). Burdened with the knowledge passed on to him by the little girl, Harry dedicates himself to frustrating Victor's efforts. The complex relationship between Harry and Victor drives the whole narrative and is the emotional as well as the intellectual heart of the story.

The final confrontation which ties up all of Harry’s fifteen lives most ingeniously is extraordinarily satisfying and is an absolutely perfect end to the story. This book gripped me like few others have ever done.

The publisher’s blurb makes no secret of the fact that Claire North is a pseudonym, but it does not reveal the author’s real name. However it is a fairly open secret that she is actually the alter ego of the urban fantasy novelist Kate Griffin, about whom I have raved before. Actually, Kate Griffin is a pseudonym as well – the author’s real name is Catherine Webb, a name she reserves for her YA novels.

On her blog she tells the amusing tale of autographing The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August for admiring fans and, in the stress of the moment, completely forgetting how to spell her pseudonym. Apparently there are quite a few copies of the novel that are signed by “Clare North”.

She is clearly a very talented writer, no matter what name she writes under. And when either Claire North or Kate Griffin (or even Catherine Webb) writes another book I’ll be on to it like a rat up a drainpipe. There’s nothing dull, derivative, old fashioned or boring about her, though I do have a sneaking preference for North over Griffin if only because I prefer SF to fantasy...

Midnight Crossroad is the first book in what Charlaine Harris insists will be a trilogy. But she’s said that before, so I won’t be at all surprised if it outgrows her intentions.

Midnight is a very small town deep in the heart of Texas. It is so small that you can count the inhabitants on the fingers of both hands. And every single person who lives in Midnight is deeply weird...

Manfred Bernardo is an internet 'psychic'. For a small fee he will tell you what is going to happen in your life. It’s a scam, of course, but Manfred does claim to have the occasional genuine insight. Midnight seems like a good place to conduct his business. It may be small, but it has great internet access and the isolation appeals to him. So he moves in and rents a house. Everybody in Midnight seems to like him.

The only place to eat in Midnight is a diner run by Madonna. She is married to the local handyman and has just had a baby. The custodian of Midnight’s church also eats there when the mood takes him. Everyone calls him Rev. The church has a cemetery, but only pets are buried there, never people. One of Rev’s many peculiarities is that he he only speaks when he has something important to say, which is seldom, and he tends to speak in parables and bible quotes. Manfred finds him hard to relate to. Joe and Chuy, on the other hand, are very easy to relate to. They are a gay couple who run an antiques store combined with a nail and beauty salon. Later in the novel, Manfred catches a glimpse of them in what might be their true shapes as they display their beautiful and impressive silver wings...

Fiji is the witch who lives across the road from Manfred. She has a very peculiar cat. Manfred’s next door neighbour, who is also his landlord, is called Bobo Winthrop. He runs a pawn shop. Bobo has two tenants who help him to run the shop. One of them, Lemuel, only comes out at night (I’m sure you can guess why), so he runs the night shift at the shop for Bobo. Olivia Charity, the other tenant, is very rarely present. She goes away on secret missions. Finally there’s the Lovell family. Shawn runs the local garage and petrol station. He has two children, the stunningly beautiful Creek with whom Manfred soon falls in lust, and her younger brother Connor.

On the surface it all sounds normal, though perhaps a little eccentric. But it’s far more than that – nobody in Midnight is who or what they seem to be. It’s all a surface glamour. Everybody, including the cat, has a secret to keep.

Bobo is miserable. Shortly before Manfred moved to Midnight, his girlfriend Aubrey walked out on him. When the Midnighters arrange a picnic near the river and stumble across Aubrey’s dead body he is inconsolable. Everyone resolves to help him as best they can while the mystery of who killed Aubrey is investigated...

If the names of some of the characters sound familiar, that’s because several of them have appeared in other Charlaine Harris novels. Manfred is from the Harper Connelly series and Bobo is from the Lily Bard series. Creatures from the Sookie Stackhouse stories turn up, and there is even a brief mention of someone from the Aurora Teagarden series. But that’s just Charlaine Harris having fun. There’s absolutely no need whatsoever to have read all these other books (though if you do read them, I’m sure you’ll love them!).

I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight Crossroad and already I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in the series. But I really, really hope that it stops after three books.

Karen Joy Fowler is often regarded as a science fiction novelist, despite the fact that she is the author of the mainstream bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club. Certainly she has worked extensively in the SF field and has won many awards. Probably on the strength of this reputation, her new novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been nominated for a Nebula award this year. It would be lovely if it wins for it is a truly wonderful book, but it might lead to a lot of arguments for I am not at all convinced that this is a science fiction novel. Unfortunately I cannot justify this statement without massive spoilers, so you will just have to take my word for it...

The story, in a nutshell, is this: Rosemary is a 22 year old college student who claims that she is in the middle of the story of her life. She gets arrested for being disruptive. As she tells us her story from the middle she occasionally refers back to earlier events and we learn that she once had a brother and a sister. Her sister Fern vanished when Rosemary was five and her brother Lowell walked out of the house, never to be seen again when she was eleven.

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time and we learn more and more about Rosemary’s childhood and adulthood. Then we revisit the time when she was arrested, and we see it from a different perspective because now we know much more about Rosemary and much more about her sister. Fern’s disappearance has influenced everything about the way that Rosemary looks at the world and once we understand this, we understand more and more about the mental scars that she bears.

This is a story about dysfunctional families, which is always a creepy theme. But despite being tragic it is also very, very funny and full of insights. Don’t get too emotionally involved with Rosemary, she’ll break your heart by the end of the book.

On the downside, this is also a book with a really rather preachy message. It’s a tribute to Karen Joy Fowler’s writing skill that she can get away with such overt propaganda without alienating her audience (I for one don’t believe the debate is anywhere near as one sided, or as black and white as she presents it – she’s demolishing strawmen here). That doesn’t stop me loving the book, though.

Whatever you do, don’t read any other reviews of this book. Don’t even read the cover blurb. About 70 pages into the book Rosemary reveals something about Fern that will completely change the way you approach the story. If you know this fact before you start reading, I won’t say that it will spoil the book, but it will certainly remove a dimension from it. At the very least I think that having this knowledge at the start of the story is detrimental to it. But almost every review I’ve seen reveals the secret information. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the story much more if you wait until the author is ready to reveal it to you.

Nick Rollins’ novel Tony Partly Cloudy is the funniest novel you’ll ever read about the Mafia and weather forecasting; two subjects that are seldom discussed in the same sentence.

Tony Bartolicotti was born into a Mafia family. As a child and adolescent he helps in a minor way with the family business but his heart isn’t really in it. His passion is the weather. He always knows when it is going to rain. When he attends college, the family pays the rent on his accommodation and use it as a safe house for meetings. Once, as a group of men leave the house on a mission, Tony advises them to take umbrellas. “Don’t be stupid, kid. It’s a glorious sunny day.”

Later they troop back to the house soaking wet and fed up, their sharp Italian suits now distinctly blunt and hanging off them in damp, dripping misery. The next day the family has an umbrella stand delivered to Tony’s house. And every time they meet there, they always make sure to check with Tony as to whether or not they should take an umbrella with them when they leave.

Non-mafia friends who can’t pronounce his surname nickname him Tony Partly Cloudy which rhymes with the proper pronunciation and which can be used to tease him about his obsession. But Tony accepts the nickname with pride. He graduates from university with a first class degree in meteorology and eventually he becomes the country’s favourite television weatherman. But you can’t leave your past behind you, and family matters a lot...

It’s a sweary book (we’ve all seen The Sopranos, we know how hoodlums talk), and it’s a witty book, with some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue I’ve read in years. It’s a rollicking good yarn and it succeeds brilliantly on every level. I have no idea who Nick Rollins is, but my goodness me he knows how to write a story you can’t put down.

Larry McMurtry’s new novel is called The Last Kind Words Saloon and it’s a return to his old stamping grounds, the wild west of America. It tells a story we all know off by heart – Wyatt Earp’s gunfight with the Clancy brothers at the OK Corral. So no surprises there. The book has been criticised because it dismisses the final gunfight in less than a page and because the chapters are short, discursive and nothing much happens in them. Story vignettes start and seldom finish in any meaningful way. All these criticisms are true, but I feel they miss the point. The book is hilariously funny and disturbingly brutal at one and the same time (a juxtaposition that McMurtry is very fond of, and which he uses to great effect in many of his books). It’s also a character study peopled by wild eccentrics whose quirky view of the world is both refreshing and unsettling. It’s a novel of contrasts and calamities which completely deconstructs the myths that have accrued around the old west in general and the OK Corral in particular. I loved it.

But at slightly more than 100 pages it’s much more a novella than a novel. For once, I really would have liked to see a much longer book. You never thought you’d hear me say that, did you?

As soon as I walked through the door into the foyer of Auckland airport, all the check in machines yelled “Hello, Alan. Great to have you back with us.”

As always, I chose the prettiest machine and ran my fingers seductively over its touch screen. “Oooh! Do that again,” said the machine, and then it sneezed.

“Bless you,” I said. “I think that your virus is getting worse.”

“Yes,” said the machine. “And I’ve been leaking foul fluids all down my data channels. Never mind. I’ve booked you into your favourite seat. 3A.”

“No, no,” I said. “You’ve got it wrong again. I want an aisle seat. I want 3C, please.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure.”

“Oh all right. 3C it is.” The machine sniffed snottily then printed out my luggage tag and boarding pass. I took my luggage to the conveyor and then made my way up to security. At Auckland airport, you can only get to the Koru lounge after you have been electromagnetically probed and vetted. Somewhat to my surprise, the metal detector found absolutely nothing suspicious about my watch or my medic-alert bracelet or my gold chain, and it passed me through without a sound. A lady with a magic wand smiled sweetly at me, but otherwise paid me no attention at all. It seemed I’d had a narrow escape. I headed off to the lounge.

In order to get in to the Koru lounge, you have to present your boarding pass to a bar-code scanning machine at the entrance. If it likes you, it flashes green and you are allowed in to indulge yourself in sybaritic luxuries beyond your wildest dreams. If it hates you, it flashes red and large gentlemen escort you outside and beat you severely with model aeroplanes so as to punish you for your temerity.

I presented my boarding pass. The machine ignored me completely. I tried again, and once again absolutely nothing happened. I tried a third time. No green, no red. Nothing at all.

A cloud of smoke poured from a nearby lamp and coalesced into a lady. “Can I see your boarding pass?” she asked. I showed it to her. “Oh look,” she said, “the bar code is all smeary. No wonder the scanner couldn’t read it.”

“The check in machine was feeling rather ill,” I said. “I suspect it might have scrambled some bits. That could account for it.”

“Very likely,” agreed the lady. “There’s a lot of it about at the moment.”

She printed a new boarding pass for me. This was getting to be a habit...

I gave it to the scanning machine which flashed all its green lights at me. I entered the gates of paradise and the lady smoked herself sexily back into her lamp.

Time passed, as it has a habit of doing. Have you ever noticed that? Debauched and debilitated, I staggered to the boarding gate, got on the plane, and collapsed into seat 3C. The lady in charge of the plane picked up a microphone and made an announcement.

“Kia orana,” she said. “Welcome to Air New Zealand flight 479. We’re all going to Wellington, so I hope that you are too.”

Fortunately, I was.

Claire North The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Orbit
Charlaine Harris Midnight Crossroad Ace
Karen Joy Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Putnam
Nick Rollins Tony Partly Cloudy Muscovy House
Larry McMurtry The Last Kind Words Saloon Liveright
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