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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (canis cibum)

Food, Drink and Toys

Jake the Dog has been living with us for a couple of months now and we are slowly getting used to each other. I have discovered what things he most enjoys eating, and he has discovered what things I least enjoy having him eat. Strangely, these two lists are almost identical to each other.

In the house, Jake likes to eat cellphone chargers, torches, cookery books and rugs. In the garden, he likes to eat solar powered lamps, wheelbarrows, plant pots, buckets, hosepipes and Robin's favourite bamboo plant. He also seems to get quite a kick out of turning on the outside taps and watching gallon upon gallon of water flow into the foundations of the house. Thankfully our water usage is not on a meter...

When we go for our morning and evening walks, Jake enjoys eating crab apples that have fallen from the trees and lemons from a lemon tree that has had the temerity to grow out through the fence that surrounds its garden. Our walk takes us along a route that children use when they are going to and from school and we often find treasures that the children have emptied out from their lunchboxes in disgust. One memorable day we found that the lunch packed with loving care for one particular child clearly did not meet with that child's approval at all. The entire contents of the lunchbox had been emptied out on to the ground, so that day Jake got to eat an apple, a ham sandwich and a slice of cake. Best walk ever!

Jake's favourite drink is water. He drinks cloudy water from the birdbath in the garden and he drinks copiously from both our toilets. In a vain attempt to discourage this habit, I have experimented with not flushing, but that just appears to make the water even tastier. In fact, Jake drinks water from absolutely everywhere except from his water bowl. That's what the cats drink out of.

On our lunchtime walks we go to a park where Jake can run free from the lead. There's a lovely river that meanders and trickles through the park. It passes through a lot of farming country before it reaches the park and the water is often cloudy with accumulated nasties. Jake loves the water in the river and always drinks lots from it. I enjoy watching the water level in the river drop dramatically when he fills his belly from it. One day we spotted a dead sheep floating in mid-stream. Jake drank twice as much water as usual that day. It seemed to have added body...

On Monday evenings we go to Dog Disobedience lessons. These are held at a local riding school and the dogs are taught their lessons in a large enclosure that has a floor covered in wood chips which the horses have spent all day peeing and pooing on. Jake finds Disobedience lessons very boring, mainly because he already knows everything there is to know about disobedience. So, in order to relieve the boredom, he spends most of his time at the class eating the floor.

Sometimes, particularly at mealtimes, I feed him dog food. He clearly disapproves of this and he will only eat it under supervision. As long as I am watching him closely, he will condescend to nibble at the stuff in his bowl. But if my attention wanders, so does Jake, and he trots off to snack on a sofa or dine on a duvet.

Cryptic is a collection of Jack McDevitt's short stories. I tend to think of McDevitt as being more of a novelist than a short story writer, but in fact he has written a lot of short stories and this collection is a substantial one. Some of the stories in it did later grow up to become novels – when this happens, the original short story often tends to be subsumed by the novel and it will sometimes slide into obscurity. By and large, I regret this – the discipline imposed by the shorter lengths can often add a dimension that the longer works lack, and it can be useful to compare the two.

When you read these stories as a whole, rather than piecemeal over the years, it becomes clear that McDevitt shares with Arthur C. Clarke an almost mystical appreciation of the awe and wonder of the universe. Even in the slightest pieces (and some of them are very slight) there is always the feeling that lying just out of sight behind the words is something numinous, something wonderful. At times the feeling is elegiac. To me, this is the true purpose of science fiction, this is the whole of the law. I recommend this collection unreservedly.

I had high hopes for Josh Vogt's novel Enter the Janitor. I'd read an interview with Vogt conducted by Darusha Wehm, and I'd also seen Vogt promoting his novel on the Big Idea section of John Scalzi's website. Both articles made the novel sound entertaining and there is something undeniably attractive about the idea of janitors being the only people who stand between us and the nasty things that crawl up from the underworld through the sewer pipes.

Unfortunately, although the idea is wonderful, the execution of it leaves a lot to be desired. The story opens with a tedious and seemingly never-ending fight between a janitor and a nasty – page after page after page of mind-numbingly dull martial art minutiae enlivened by an occasional joke. But for me there weren't enough jokes and there was far too much action. I simply couldn't make myself care enough to continue with it.

Feeling the need for proper comedy, I went and re-read Robert Rankin's bizarre and almost indescribable novel Armageddon: The Musical which has just been re-issued as an ebook by the author after many years of being out of print and unobtainable. The plot (such as it is; plots have never mattered very much to Rankin) begins with the premise that life on Earth is really just a soap opera being broadcast for the edification of an alien species that tunes in every day to see just what will happen next. Obviously the producers need to keep ramping up the spectacle so as not to lose the audience. What could be better than Armageddon? You can't get more spectacular than the end of the world. Unfortunately the aftermath is more than a little thin on both cast and story. What can be done to save the day? Enter Barry, the Brussels Sprout who can travel through time...

Joe Lansdale's new novel Paradise Sky is a western. It is the biography of one Deadeye (or sometimes Deadwood) Dick, the most accurate shooter in the West. This being a Lansdale novel, the story pulls no punches. It is violent, scatological and, in places, very sick. Needless to say, I loved it. But be warned, you will need a strong stomach to read it all the way through to the end. Nevertheless, if you stick with it, it will repay dividends. This is undoubtedly one of the great books.

Kerry Wilkinson is an example of something we are starting to see more and more often in this age of self-publishing. His novels were originally self-published, but they were so successful that he was approached by a commercial publisher waving contracts and money, and these days the series is published by Pan Books.

This kind of thing is one of the arguments used by proponents of the self-publishing model and clearly it is one possible route to commercial success. But nothing is guaranteed. What tends to remain unstated is that it requires a huge amount of work to make your own books stand out from the crowd and even that is no guarantee of acceptance by a commercial publisher. It still remains a matter of luck – you have to be in the right place at the right time. Commercial success as a self-publisher is the equivalent of being selected from the slushpile and promoted by a traditional publisher. And given the sheer volume of both self-published works and the size of slushpiles, the odds of success are probably exactly the same in both cases.

Kerry Wilkinson writes police procedurals about the cases investigated by one Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniel. Reviewers constantly compare Wilkinson's books to those of Ian Rankin, which is high praise indeed. Certainly he has Rankin's well developed sense of place. The books are set in Manchester, and the city truly comes alive on the page. And like Rankin's Rebus, Jessica Daniel has her dark places. I think the comparison is well deserved. Kerry Wilkinson has shot to the top of my "buy on sight" reading list.

Robert Littell is a master of the spy novel. Like Len Deighton and John le Carre, he works in that grey area where the tropes of the spy genre overlap into timeless literature for the ages. His latest novel, Young Philby is, as the title strongly implies, a thinly fictionalised biography of Kim Philby's early years when he was first recruited by the KGB.

By now, the so-called Cambridge Spies are part of the folklore, and the names and deeds of Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and the somewhat more nebulous "fifth man" are well known to everyone who has any interest at all in the history of the twentieth century. Even today, the echoes of what they did live on, and we are still living in the shadow of their impact on the political world. Initially, I was surprised to see Littell take this story as his theme because I could not imagine that there could possibly be anything new to say on the subject. I should have known better – Littell makes some intriguing suggestions about what Philby's motives might have been and he (almost) makes a convincing case that things may not always have been quite what they seemed to be. This is an utterly fascinating novel.

Littell is an American writer, though he has lived in Europe for many years. He is very familiar with European (and particularly British) patterns of speech. His novel has been published by an American publisher and therefore the British mannerisms that I'm absolutely certain Littell would have had in his manuscript have all been translated into American, which makes the novel read somewhat oddly to a British audience. No Englishman of Philby's generation would ever refer to a person's "ass" and neither would they have used that grammatical abomination "gotten". The first time I came across a reference to the homosexual Guy Burgess as an "ass-bandit" I was dumped straight out of the book, back into the real world. I simply couldn't accept that phrasing. Fortunately my copy of the book is an ebook, so I immediately went through the whole thing very carefully changing every "ass" to "arse" and every "gotten" to "got". Then I carried on reading, secure in the knowledge that now the characters were all talking properly!

Interestingly, I'd have accepted the Americanisms if the novel had been set in modern times. American idioms are insidious and these days they are starting to supplant the traditional British phrases. But in the early years of the twentieth century, when the events of this novel take place, that process of assimilation had not yet happened. "Ass" and "gotten" would have been anathema to men of Philby's class and the words would never have passed their lips.

Isn't it wonderful that the marvels of modern technology allow me to indulge my language fetishes like this?

It is a hundred years since the first world war was fought and a plethora of books are being published (or republished) to acknowledge the centenary. One of these newly republished books is Covenant With Death by John Harris. It was first published in 1961 and has largely been out of print ever since, which I think is a pity for, in my opinion, it is one of the definitive novels of the war, well up there with more famous works like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front. I am not alone in this opinion – Louis de Bernieres makes the same comment in his introduction to the new edition.

The book tells the story of a "pals battalion" that was recruited in 1914, trained together for two years and then fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 where it was wiped out. Pals battalions were a curious phenomenon of the war – they were made up of men who had enlisted together in local recruiting drives, with the promise that they would be able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues ("pals"), rather than being arbitrarily allocated to battalions elsewhere in the army. Because all the men knew each other, they tended to form much closer bonds with each other than were formed in more conventional battalions that were made up of comparative strangers. But because they all came from the same area, if they suffered a high casualty rate, the grief and devastation in the local community was all but unbearable.

The Battle of the Somme was the largest bloodbath in the history of the British army. The novel's last chapter describes the slaughter that took place when the men went over the top and because we've spent the bulk of the book living with these men as they trained for combat, we are literally watching our friends die in front of us. It is emotionally wrenching. The last three sentences in the novel read:

Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.

I cannot read those words without choking up, and I cannot say them out loud for when I do I start to cry. No I am not exaggerating. Covenant With Death grabs hold of your emotions and will not let go. This is a wonderful, marvellous novel and it is a crime that it has been so unobtainable for so long. Buy this new edition and keep it safe – you will not regret it.

Like all dogs, Jake loves his toys. Because his major joy in life is putting things in his mouth and biting down hard on them, toys that can be chewed are always high on his favourites list. And since, as far as Jake is concerned, absolutely anything can be chewed, then clearly anything and everything can be a toy. The logic cannot be faulted. In a vain attempt to keep our furniture safe, we've tried several official dog toys on him, but most of them are made of plastic and so they do not survive his fearsome jaws of death for very long. By now I think all his internal organs must have a plastic lining.

Being good citizens, we always make sure to pick up and properly dispose of anything that Jake poos out. His excretions are always exciting to examine – they are a positive treasure trove of novelty. We have found lumps of pink plastic and blue plastic, miscellaneous electronic components such as transistors and capacitors, and several lengths of yellow string. Worryingly, we have never found any trace whatsoever of the purple plastic ball that he feasted on for several days.

The most long lasting toys are those made of rope. Not only can he use them to play tug'o'war with us, their flexibility seems to protect them from the constant gnawing and they quickly rebound and stay roughly in shape. Some robust fabrics share the same desirable property as long as the seams are securely stitched and the stuffing is substantial. Knowing this, we bought him an elephant made out of corduroy. It had all the desirable properties, and, as an added bonus, it was very lifelike with a pink tummy and a multi-coloured fringe made of twisted cotton. Jake absolutely loved it. He threw it around the room, indulged himself in an orgy of self-flagellation with it, jumped on it from a great height, chewed on it and generally beat seven kinds of brick dust out of it.

Then, quite unexpectedly, it squeaked!

Jake jumped back in shock. Oh my goodness – the elephant squeaked! Jake slowly backed away from it, never taking his eyes off it in case it squeaked again. When he was at a safe distance from the elephant, he examined it carefully. After a few minutes of silence, he walked all the way round the room, sticking close to the walls for the sake of safety, and then he examined the elephant from the other side. Luckily it just lay there and didn't squeak.

We left the elephant on the carpet where Jake had dropped it, but for the next few days he refused to go anywhere near that part of the room, so we picked the elephant up and put it away in a cupboard. Two weeks later we took it out again and presented it to Jake as if it was a brand new toy. But he wasn't fooled for a moment. The trauma had clearly scarred him for life and now, deep in the throes of PTSD, he wasn't having a bar of this utterly scary elephant. His ears drooped, his tail went between his legs and he backed away from the terrible toy in total terror.

We have accepted the fait accompli and now the elephant sits on a chair in our second lounge, lord of all it surveys. Every so often, as he passes through the room on his way to the toilet for a drink, Jake notices it and he sneaks past on tiptoe. Fortunately it has not yet squeaked again.

But one day it might...

Jack McDevitt Cryptic Subterranean Press
Josh Vogt Enter the Janitor Wordfire Press
Robert Rankin Armageddon: The Musical Far Fetched Books
Joe R. Lansdale Paradise Sky Little, Brown
Kerry Wilkinson Locked In Kerry Wilkinson
Kerry Wilkinson Vigilante Kerry Wilkinson
Kerry Wilkinson The Woman in Black Kerry Wilkinson
Robert Littell Young Philby St. Martins Press
John Harris Covenant With Death Sphere
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