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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (nullus narratus)

This Is Not A Story

"Why haven't you got a story in this month's column?" asked Jake the Dog. He looks forward to my monthly articles and the stories are his favourite bits, though he finds the reviews useful as well. He claims that he uses the reviews as a guide to tell him which books he can pull off the shelves and munch on with impunity. He never chews the books that I praise.

He gets to see my articles before anyone else does. I always take careful note of his cogent criticisms and adjust the articles appropriately before I send them out. He is, if you like, my target audience. If he's happy, I know that everybody else will be happy as well.

"Well," I said, "neither you nor I have done very much of anything this month, so I didn't really have anything to write about."

"That's not quite true," said Jake. "I got a trip to the vet who gave me some nasty tasting medicine. Surely that's worth a mention?"

"Do you really want me to tell the world that you had to go to the vet because you got a rash on your willy?" I asked.

"Why not?" said Jake. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. It was only an allergic reaction to pollen. It serves me right for lying down on the grass to chew those yummy bones that you keep giving me. Actually, in some ways I miss it now that it is cured. The dogs at the park claimed that it gave me an interesting, mysterious and somewhat sexy aroma. There was an awful lot of good sniffing going on before it finally got fixed."

"So that's why our daily walks were taking longer than usual," I said thoughtfully.

"The ball dogs didn't notice anything different though," said Jake. "But what else would you expect from a ball dog?"

"Ball dog?" I queried.

"Yes," said Jake. "Those complete and utter obsessives who only want to chase tennis balls. They are so totally single-minded about it that they never notice anything else that's going around them. They have no social skills whatsoever. Couldn't sniff a bottom if their lives depended on it. Their whole world is just balls!"

"Yes, they do seem somewhat narrow in their interests," I said. "I've tried giving them treats and I've tried scratching their ears, but I never get anywhere. If it's not round and bouncy they just don't want to know."

"Us dogs have a special word for them," said Jake.

"Really?" I said. "What is it?"

"We call them geeks," said Jake. "Or nerds."

In The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, Joan Schweighardt tells the story of Sigurth and Guthrun (here rendered as Sigurd and Gudrun – syllables that trip much more easily off the tongue). The legends that lie behind this novel are told in the Poetic Edda. This is very powerful material – Wagner and Tolkien and a host of lesser lights have sought their inspiration here, and the general outline of the story is fairly common coin. It is truly one of the great tales, a love story and a perilous adventure. Joan Schweighardt has chosen well and she is in good company.

She sets her story on the borderline between mythology and history, that area where the one turns  into the other. Reality and fantasy blur their distinctions here, and consequently it is a fruitful source of drama. Furthermore, the writer has an excellent sense of time and place. Her characters are well drawn and the history feels properly lived in. Far too many so-called historical novels are filled with characters who are really just thinly disguised modern-day people in fancy dress. Joan Schweighardt never makes this mistake. All her characters are people of their time with their own view of the world, a view that at times, quite rightly, contradicts our own sensibilities. They are perfectly willing to accept that magic and myth are a reality, and this casual acceptance of gods, dragons and immortal dwarfs in the life of the world makes the tale that is being told come very vividly to life.

The story opens with Gudrun approaching Attila's camp. Clearly she is on a mission, though we do not know what it is. As yet we know nothing about her. She has a War Sword, a gift for Attila and her motives may not be entirely honourable...

This is, if you like, the main line of the story. The background to this thread is filled in with a series of flashbacks which tell the story of Gudrun and her love for Sigurd. Even the flashbacks have flashbacks as Gudrun herself learns of Sigurd's history. This structure makes a very complex narrative which I must confess I found extremely confusing. It was quite difficult to hold the story threads in my head as the recursive narratives spread out and then gathered themselves back together again. It doesn't help that many important and dramatic incidents are told as a précis in reported speech and passive voice, rather like a Greek Chorus telling us what had happened off stage when we weren't looking. This lends a distancing effect which obscures, rather than clarifies. Dare I say that I found these sections dull?

However if you persevere, and concentrate hard during the boring bits, the main line (when the narrative finally straightens itself out) is a truly gripping story.

Joan Schweighardt has chosen to avoid the usual spelling of well known names. Mostly her naming conventions, while idiosyncratic, are well chosen. "Valkyria" is particularly inspired, a beautifully euphonious set of syllables. Other choices, however, are less than perfect. The god Loki is here called Loke, which I kept wanting to pronounce as "Loak". Every time I saw Loke in the text, the spell was broken and I was dragged out of the story. I found this so annoying that eventually I fired up my ebook editing software and did a global search and replace just so that I could continue reading without pain.

Nevertheless, I'm very pleased to have read The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. Despite its rather odd structure, it has much to recommend it.

Curiosities is a collection of short stories by Jane Lindskold. They cover the whole of her career, but were mostly first published in anthologies that never made it on to my bookshelves so the stories were all new to me. As an added bonus, the stories all have afterwords talking about how the stories came to be written. I love afterwords...

My favourite story in the collection is Good Boy because I'm a sucker for dog stories and this one has a particularly clever gimmick and a very realistic dog. I'm also very fond of Jeff's Best Joke which is an archaeological story starring Jane's husband Jim (who actually is an archaeologist) and his colleague Jeff. Practical jokes have no real place on an archaeological dig, but sometimes they can relieve the tension of what can often be very hard work indeed. And sometimes they can be used to demonstrate a deep truth about the way things work. The story was originally written for a time travel anthology. I'm reasonably certain that the twist in the tale is fictional...

That, I think, is the secret of the success of this collection. The stories are clever with a sometimes quirky juxtaposition of elements that you'd swear didn't belong together. But Jane Lindskold can see that really they do, and the result is always an interesting, intriguing story.

The Shepherd's Crown is the forty-first and very last Discworld novel. In it, Pterry brings Tiffany Aching's story arc to a grand and very satisfying conclusion. I can't say much about the details of the plot because to do so would reveal a massive spoiler from early in the book, but suffice it to say that this is the best Discworld novel in years and I absolutely loved it. By the way – I strongly suggest that you don't read any other reviews until you have actually read the book itself. A lot of the available reviews give away the spoiler, and I think that's a shame...

It is revealed in an afterword that Pterry was generally reluctant to relinquish his books to the publisher. After the story was complete, he preferred to sit on the manuscript and tinker with it, adding bits of business here and there. Sometimes I think he took this too far – the last few Discworld novels felt over-written; far too full of irrelevancies and tedious dialogue that added nothing to the flow of the story, and which sometimes slowed the pace of it down to snail-like crawl (Raising Steam was at least a hundred pages too long...).

But Pterry never got the opportunity to tinker with The Shepherd's Crown because shortly after the story was completed, he succumbed to "the embuggerance" (Alzheimer's), and died in March 2015. So his last novel is presented to us as (essentially) a first draft and that, I think, is the strength of it. The prose is clean and tight and sharp. There is none of the rambling dullness that marred so many of the later books. Reading it was a sheer, unalloyed pleasure.

Matthew Hughes has made an enviable reputation for himself by writing a very Jack Vancean series of novels. His books derive stylistically from Vance's uniquely idiosyncratic voice, but Hughes is a much better plotter than Vance ever was and the combination of those two things makes his novels an absolute joy to read. Hughes has also written some novels "on commission" as it were, and these are published under the rather transparent pseudonym of Hugh Matthews. The latest Hugh Matthews novel is Song of the Serpent and it is set in the Pathfinder universe – Pathfinder is some sort of fantasy role-playing game. I'm not a gamer, so I can't provide any more detail than that. Because the novel is set in someone else's universe, the writer is naturally very constrained as to what he can and can't write about, but that does not necessarily mean that the novel is any weaker because of it. Certainly Song of the Serpent is a little gem. Hughes himself describes it as his "Cugel" novel and I think that's a perfect way of looking at it.

Cugel the Clever was one of Jack Vance's more memorable characters. He was a completely amoral rogue and trickster who got himself into and (sometimes) out of a lot of scrapes. The Cugel character in Hugh Matthews' novel is called Krunzle the Quick.  He attempts to rob someone whose property is guarded by a magician. He is caught in the act and, as a punishment, he is sent on a quest. He is constrained to follow the dictates of the quest by a semi-sentient bronze snake which the magician fastens around his neck. If he departs from the assignment, it chokes him until he resumes his task.

This opening scenario is pretty much identical to that which opens the first Vance novel about Cugel (Eyes of the Overworld) in which Cugel, failing to steal riches from Iouconnu the Laughing Magician, is sent on a quest and is kept on the straight and narrow by a multi-tentacled creature of barbs and hooks called Firx who is attached to his liver.

In both stories, the quest turns out to be much more complex that the protagonist initially thinks it to be, and it isn't very long before both heroes find themselves mired in difficulty.

Song of the Serpent is a wonderful Cugel-like novel. I enjoyed it hugely, and so will you.  

There was a time when the literary science fiction world was mostly made up of short stories. Novels were few and far between (and they were usually very slim – these days we'd probably call them novellas). Many of the popular writers of the day were very prolific at the shorter lengths. Their stories were published in the pulp magazines and then sometimes, if the writers were very lucky, the stories would later appear in an anthology or three. But with the modern fashion for longer and longer novels, anthologies and collections have fallen out of favour. Also there are fewer and fewer outlets for short stories these days. The older writers have fallen silent or died (not necessarily always the same thing!). Their works are long out of print and have become pretty much unobtainable. Even the names of these older authors are starting to be forgotten...

Wildside Press to the rescue! Wildside are doing a magnificent job in bringing these out of print stories from the early to mid-twentieth century back into print. I strongly urge you to browse through their catalogue and spend lots of money. I've spent far too much money with them and I will certainly be spending an awful lot more. Wildside have the rights to the back lists of so many writers who I remember fondly, but whose works I have not been able to read for years and years because they were languishing in obscurity. Rereading them now, I've been amazed at how well the stories still stand up today. Wildside are bringing a lot of absolute gems back into print for the first time in decades, and the field is all the richer for it.

I've recently bought a couple of things by Theodore R. Cogswell (1918 – 1987) from them. Who, you may ask, was Theodore R. Cogswell? His first published work was The Spectre General, a short novel in which a long forgotten maintenance division of the Galactic Protectorate reinvigorates a decadent space navy. Stylistically it reminded me very much of Keith Laumer's lighter works. It's a lot of fun, full of wry observations and a perfectly delicious wit.

Wildside have also published a collection of Cogswell's stories (The First Theodore R. Cogswell Megapack) with the promise of more to come. Sadly this collection does not contain what is perhaps his most famous story, The Wall Around The World (there was a time when pretty much every SF anthology contained this story), but that omission just whets my appetite for more Cogswell megapacks of course.

One reason why so many of these older stories are still worth reading today is that often they are about a lot more than just their surface trappings. The foreground details are sometimes very dated – the science is dubious at best (often it was dubious even back then) and sometimes the characterisation leaves a lot to be desired. But that's not the point. Some things never change, and human nature is just as blindly prejudiced today as ever it was. The organisation of human societies is still inefficient, crass and contradictory. So, of course, it is still well worth poking a scornful and satirical finger at these kinds of things. Cogswell really was very good at doing that.

I Am Crying All Inside And Other Stories is the first of a series of (at least) fourteen books that will collect together all the short fiction of Clifford D. Simak. The series is edited by David W. Wixon, a name with which I am not familiar. However it seems clear that he has a close association with Simak's family. He provides an introduction which briefly summarizes Simak's life and he prefaces each story with a little note about its history quoting, where appropriate, from Simak's private journals.

Wisely, perhaps, the editor has chosen not to publish Simak's stories in chronological order – I suspect that Simak's early work will not have stood the test of time very well. Also, some of the stories are likely to be of only marginal interest to SF fans. Before he made a successful career as an SF writer, Simak was just a general pulp fictioneer writing for the market. He wrote westerns, he wrote detective stories, he wrote whatever the market demanded of him. You could make a living doing that back then...

Anyway, the stories in this book (and probably in the ones still to come) have no particular unifying theme or order. They come from the beginning, middle and end of Simak's career. The editor has even included one of Simak's tales of the wild west so as to add some salt to the stew!

Some of the stories have been much anthologised and consequently they were very familiar to me. Others seem never to have been reprinted at all after their initial magazine appearance, so of course I'd never seen them before. And one of the stories is seeing the light of day for the very first time.

I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air was originally submitted for inclusion in Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions. Since that anthology was never published, nobody except Harlan has ever read it until now. Somehow the editor of this collection has managed to persuade Harlan to allow him to publish the story, so here it is in all it's glory. It's a rather interesting tale – the viewpoint character is a cynical, venal prospector who has stumbled on a planet that is ripe for exploitation. He plans to use the indigenous race (who look vaguely like lobsters and who seem quite primitive and technologically unsophisticated) as his unpaid workforce. But the lobsters have other plans. They are nowhere near as naïve as he thinks them to be. They feel that he is "badly made" and so they transform him into a centipede-like creature with lots of legs and no arms. His eyes are up on stalks (which explains the rather curious title) and he has lots of new senses that he never had as a human. Has his humanity been extinguished? Clearly that was the lobsters' plan. But deep within himself he finds something that they couldn't transform, something that defines his humanity and that will allow him, in the fullness of time, to come to terms with the lobsters. What is this seed of destruction? Well, you'll have to read the story to find that out. Suffice it to say that the conclusion presents a rather bleak view of what makes someone human, and to that extent it is both a very untypical Simak story and also a very dangerous vision, well suited to Harlan's anthology.

I will definitely be looking out for the future volumes in this series.

The pseudonymous Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) has just published his third novel about the private detective Cormoran Strike. It is called Career of Evil. I've read all of Galbraith's novels as they have appeared and I've enjoyed every one of them. The series just gets stronger and stronger as it goes along and Career of Evil is the best one yet. It grabbed hold of me and refused to let me go. I stayed up reading it until nearly 2.00am. I simply couldn't put it down and go to bed; I had to find out who did it, why they did it (and, to a certain extent, exactly what it was that they had done).

Strike himself is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. While he was on active service, his vehicle was blown up, and he lost his right leg below the knee. Now, back in civvy street, he struggles to make a living as a private detective. The novel begins with the delivery of a package to Strike's office. It contains the severed right leg of a woman, together with a note which is an extract from the lyrics of a song by the surrealistic rock group Blue Oyster Cult (or, more properly, Blue Öyster Cult – but I'm not going to bother with the umlaut because it's far too pretentious and far too much trouble to type. So there!)

Strangely, the leg in the parcel has been amputated at exactly the same place as Strike's own leg. Furthermore, Blue Oyster Cult was his late mother's favourite group, and she'd had the lyrics that are included in the parcel tattooed on her body. Is somebody trying to tell Strike something?

Strike and his assistant Robin work closely with the police to try and identify the young woman whose leg was in the package. Where is the rest of her? Have there been any other victims and will there be any more in the future? It soon becomes clear that a serial killer with a grudge has Strike in his sights and, initially at least, intends to cause Strike the maximum possible anguish by targeting Robin first...

Along its way to the denouement, the novel goes to some very dark places indeed. We learn a lot about the life of Strike's mother as a groupie in the 1970s, and about the unsuccessful musicians that she took to her bed, all of whom took advantage of her and all of whom became temporary stepfathers to Strike himself. The last and most vicious of these was Jeff Whittaker. Strike has always felt that Whittaker was directly responsible for his mother's death. He was tried for her murder and acquitted, a verdict with which Strike strongly disagreed. For obvious reasons, Strike considers Whittaker to be a prime suspect in the case, though several other people are also in the frame – there's a gangster called Malley who once cut off an enemy’s penis, and there's a couple of psychopaths called Donald Laing and Noel Brockbank, both of whom crossed Strike's path in the army and who both have good cause to hate him.

Weaving in and out through the plot are some very dark thoughts about apotemnophilia ("stump play") – sexual arousal based on images of yourself or your partner as an amputee. Closely associated with this (and a major motivation behind some of the events of the book) is the rather odd phenomenon of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) in which otherwise sane and rational individuals have a specific desire to have their own perfectly healthy limbs amputated.

But despite the fact that the book deals with such strangely dark ideas, it is surprisingly witty. Perhaps the subject lends itself to gallows humour. This is an odd, often disgusting and completely fascinating novel. It's not for the squeamish. It's utterly brilliant.

Hands up all those who have heard of Edward Bunker. No? Well, hands up all those who have seen Edward Bunker. Yes you have, though you may not know it. He played Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino's movie Reservoir Dogs and he's had bit parts in many, many other movies. I sometimes wonder how he managed to find time to fit all that in, given that he spent at least half his life in jail. From an early age he was what you might call a career criminal and it was only after he started to make a legitimate living from his novels, short stories ans screenplays that he began to go straight. Not surprisingly, he took the admonition to "write what you know" to heart and his stories are all about the making (and sometimes the breaking) of those who choose to live outside the law.

Little Boy Blue is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young boy called Alex Hammond. He is intelligent and independent, but he is given to sudden fits of violent rage when he feels slighted or (in modern parlance) disrespected. His parents have long separated and Alex has been sent to a series of foster homes and institutions from which he constantly absconds. He still loves his father and tries hard to stay with him, but his father has neither the means nor the skills to give Alex the home that he needs. When Alex is just a teenager, his father dies and Alex goes completely to pieces. Nobody can control him any more –  authority figures (who are often vicious and gratuitously cruel) destroy his last vestiges of social conformity. The only support he gets comes from his peers, the thugs and criminals that surround him in reformatories and jails.

Not only is this a brilliant and gripping novel, it is also a sociological thesis defining just how we sow the seeds of our own destruction. In the nature versus nurture debate, Bunker comes down firmly on the side of nurture. Alex is turned into a monster by the treatment that society and its institutions mete out to him. Invariably institutional staff are presented as thugs and sociopaths. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but the stories we read in our newspapers every day suggest that it is not much of one. To that extent, Little Boy Blue is an uncomfortable book to read. Could Alex have turned out differently? If only...

Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson published Notes from a Small Island, an hilarious travelogue in which he examined, and attempted to define, the British way of life as seen by an American outsider. He made many witty and pithy points about the way the British viewed the world. Now, in  The Road to Little Dribbling, he returns to that theme, travelling around Britain again to see just what, if anything, has changed...

Bryson is twenty years older than he once was and he has grown somewhat curmudgeonly as a result (haven't we all?). Travelling around Britain today, he finds much to disapprove of. The book is full of magnificently hilarious diatribes against bad manners, inefficiencies, mediocrities, rip-offs and talentless celebrities elevated to positions of influence for no very good reason. Despite all this, he has never fallen completely out of love with Britain and the British. His wife is English (they have been happily married for forty years), he has taken out British citizenship, and he has made the place his permanent home. You have to admire his commitment.

Bryson is a former President of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. He loves it with a passion that all his cynical, snide and world-weary criticisms cannot disguise.

"There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain," he says. That has never changed and hopefully it never will. Truly you have to love it to be able to laugh at it properly. That's the real sentiment that drives the themes of this superficially critical book. It isn't his funniest book, but it is certainly one of his wisest.

Joan Schweighardt The Last Wife of Attila the Hun Booktrope
Jane Lindskold Curiosities Obsidian Tiger
Terry Pratchett The Shepherd's Crown Doubleday
Hugh Matthews Song of the Serpent Tor
Clifford D. Simak I Am Crying All Inside And Other Stories Open Road
Theodore R. Cogswell The Spectre General Wildside Press
Theodore R. Cogswell The First Theodore Cogswell Megapack Wildside Press
Robert Galbraith Career of Evil Sphere
Edward Bunker Little Boy Blue No Exit Press
Bill Bryson The Road to Little Dribbling Doubleday
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