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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (cucurbitus maximus)


When in Wellington, I stay in an hotel with a lift that has direct access to the street. In order to protect the guests from nightly assaults by maniacal hordes of ravaging Wellingtonians, the lift has a security mechanism. A small keypad somewhat akin to that found on ATMs, and serving much the same purpose sits just above the panel of floor access buttons. In order to reach the residential floors the potential liftee is obliged to enter a four digit secret code number into the keypad. Should this be done correctly, a cheerful chirrup announces that the required floor may be selected within ten seconds. Failure to choose a floor within that time necessitates starting the whole procedure again. Should the secret number be keyed incorrectly, a sullen silence results and the floor access buttons remain stubbornly inactive.

All this is explained carefully and patiently by the check-in staff to each new guest, and then the guest is handed a card with the code number printed on it.

The guest strides confidently towards the lift, card clutched in hand. However confidence erodes the closer they get to the lift and once they are actually inside it, mild panic often ensues. Many times I have stood in silent amusement at the back of the lift and watched people struggle with the arcane and mystical mechanisms required to induce it to ascend.

I have seen people simply walk in and ignore the keypad completely. They just hit their floor number and wait with gradually increasing puzzlement as absolutely nothing happens.

I have seen people punch their code number into the floor selection buttons and their floor number into the keypad. Again the lift remains immobile.

I have seen people so overcome with delight at their skill in entering the secret number into the keypad that they completely forget to select a floor number. Sudden realisation usually dawns as no lift movement is detected, but by then it is too late and the secret number must be entered again.

I have seen people who cannot find the necessary numbers on the keypad. These people are typists of the "hunt and peck" variety and despite the fact that the keypad has its digits arranged in numeric order their finger still hovers uncertainly and stabs semi-randomly. The lift haughtily rejects their pathetic efforts.

At least sixty percent of my ascents and descents find me giving impromptu tutorials in lift manipulation.

The hotel is always full of intense business people with cellphones that ring loudly during breakfast. Wheeler dealers deal and wheel between the cornflakes and the toast. These are the important people, the movers and shakers, an inspiration to us all. Fortunately the breakfast room is on a floor that does not require a secret keypad number to reach; they can always manage to get there so as to impress each other in the morning. If the breakfast floor was a guarded floor, not only would these pillars of industry starve to death, but the wheels of industry would probably cease to turn.

But I don’t care. I’ve got a squashy.

The latest instalment of my Elizabeth Petersathon was The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits. The plot exhibits her usual ingenuity. Carole Farley receives a an anonymous letter containing a newspaper clipping which shows a photograph of her long lost father in Mexico City. He had left the family home under somewhat of a cloud when she was just a small child and something of the light went out of her life when he left. Naturally she goes to Mexico City to pursue the mystery and naturally it was all a set up and she becomes a pawn in a dangerous criminal game. To say much more would be to spoil it, but suffice it to say that the mystery of her disappearing father is solved and Carole’s life is put back on the tracks. But it isn’t quite the happy ending that those conclusions imply.

The book is, among other things, about the drug trade and the obscene profits to be made in it. I think the use of drugs in society is something that Elizabeth Peters feels quite strongly about for at times her usual lightness of touch and humour desert her and the book comes dangerously close to turning into a rather preachy tract. To this degree it is spoiled (she could have made her points without lecturing, as she has done so skilfully in other books). Definitely a minor work.

I have admired Leslie Thomas’s books about Dangerous Davies (the detective with a dog called Kitty) for many years. Their outrageous humour and ingenious whodunnit plots are a joy to read. In Dangerous Davies and the Lonely Heart, we find him investigating a series of murders of women who have answered lonely hearts adverts. The dark and lonely side of life is a constant theme of these novels and if that was all there was to them they would be depressing reading indeed. But always the laughter shines through. Davies eats in "The Welsh Curry House". It used to be just called "The Curry House", but then this Indian from Cardiff took it over. Big run on the vindaloo tonight, boyo.

I have never heard of Peter Watson and the only reason that I bought Capo was that the blurb described it as a novel about the rise of the Mafia in America and the quote from Publishers Weekly on the cover said "…Gives Puzo a run for his money". Who could resist?

As it turned out, Publisher’s Weekly was right. This is without doubt the best Mafia novel I have ever read. It puts The Godfather firmly in second place, and I never thought I’d say that, for The Godfather was itself a tour de force.

The action takes place in both Sicily and New Orleans. Silvio Randazzo commits a murder in pursuit of a family vendetta. Forced to flee Sicily, he is smuggled into America by the Family. In New Orleans, he helps one of the newly established Mafia families to take control of the waterfront. From there they soon expand into other areas, gambling, prostitution alcohol and drugs. Silvio returns to Sicily in pursuit of the girl he had to leave behind, but old enmities have followed him across the seas and rude shocks awake him.

By turn machiavellian in its plotting and thrilling in its action, this is a deep, thoughtful novel that held me entranced. Peter Watson proves yet again (as so many other great writers have proved before him) that there is no theme so hackneyed, no situation so cliched that new life cannot be breathed into it to make a great novel. And make no mistake, this novel is constructed from trash and stock, but nevertheless it glows.

I bought Dreaming Down-Under on the strength of Harlan Ellison’s introduction in which he compared this anthology to his own famous Dangerous Visions collections. His thesis is that Australian writers are the cutting edge of modern SF, that so much exciting and interesting work is coming out of Australia and it deserves a wider audience. This anthology is the coming of age of Australian SF.

So I bought it. Wouldn’t you?

The stories are dull, uninspiring, tedious and above all ordinary. There are no dangerous visions here, no cutting edges and no real interest at all. Don’t waste your money.

The other day I stared into the mirror and realised that I looked as if I had come off second best in a quarrel with a Van Der Graaf generator. My hair was having a bad hair day. It was time to have it seen to.

A nice lady showed me to the torture chair and cocooned me with towels and sheets.

"What can I do for you today?"

I explained that I would like the Einsteinian fright-wig on my bonce brought back into some semblance of control. She poked it dubiously.

"Would you like your beard trimmed as well?"

"No thank you," I said. "No offence, but people without beards shouldn’t trim beards."

She nodded understandingly and took me over to the basins for a shampoo. There is nothing quite so sensuously pleasurable as having shampoo massaged into your scalp by someone who knows just how to do it. Strong yet gentle fingers, warm water to rinse the suds away, a final scalp massage and then quickly back to the trimming chair before you fall asleep beneath the ministrations. I love it!

She snipped and snipped, manoeuvring my head backwards and forwards, chatting freely the while. She told me her life story and I told her mine. Slowly the exuberant mass of curls came back under control. My head was smooth and sleek.

But now my beard, which previously had seemed somewhat thin and anaemic in comparison with my hirsute scalp had begun to look particularly shaggy.

"Are you sure I can’t trim your beard?" There was a wistful note in her voice. She was obviously very eager to continue. By now we were fast friends, having shared so many intimacies.

"OK," I said. "But please don’t turn it into designer stubble. I don’t like that."

"I promise," she said, clicking her scissors in anticipation.

She did a marvellous job, shaping the beard precisely, and skilfully removing the slightly lop-sided appearance that my own more amateur trimming efforts had caused it to assume. I was very pleased.

And then she made me an offer no person has ever made me before. It fair took my breath away, so it did.

"Would you like me to trim your eyebrows?"

"No thanks," I said. "I’ve got a squashy."

I’ve decided that Ben Bova is the Harold Robbins (or the Jeffrey Archer) of SF. His novels concern ruthless captains of industry with beautiful mistresses against whom battle honest, moral people crusading for the good of all. Space Opera characters in a Soap Opera plot with Soap Opera dialogue. These are the beautiful people who live and love and sometimes die. Neighbours with spaceships, Days Of Our Lives with rockets. Venus is trash, through and through.

Alex Humphries, son of the ruthless space tycoon Martin Humphries, has crashed and presumably died while attempting to land on and explore Venus. Martin Humphries offers a ten billion dollar prize to anyone who can return his son’s body to him.

Two ships are soon on their way. One is designed by Van Humphries the weak and despised younger son of Martin. The other is captained by Lars Fuchs, Martin Humpries’ deadly enemy, the man whom Humphries crushed into bankruptcy and whose wife he stole.

You can write the rest of it yourself. It will save you having to buy the book.

Richard Matheson’s Hell House is a classic of the horror genre and what a joy it is to welcome it back into print. Belasco House has the reputation of being the most haunted house in America. For twenty years it has stood alone and empty. Two previous expeditions to seek out its mysteries met with disaster. The participants were destroyed by madness, murder and suicide. Now a new investigation has been mounted. Dr Barrett and his wife believe that there are no such things as ghosts; only psychic forces (natural rather than supernatural) which are subject to natural laws and which can be investigated and probed by scientific methodologies. Florence Tanner is a spiritualist who completely opposes the Barretts’ ideas. Benjamin Fischer is the sole survivor of the 1940 expedition to the house. He was found alone, naked and catatonic on the front porch of the house. The house has its own agenda.

The novel has dated somewhat and its conclusions are nowhere near as dramatic today as once they might have been (this territory has been covered all too often by all too many people). But still it retains its power. The tension never lets up and the conclusion is nail biting.

Hal Hellman spent nearly 20 years collecting the material for Great Feuds in Science. He visited the workplaces of the scientists involved, read their diaries and papers and delved into contemporary accounts. Thus armed with plentiful background material he indulges in everyone’s favourite hobby and gives us the gossip, digs up the dirt. Most students of science will be aware of the general background of the book. Galileo’s troubles with the church, Newton’s feud with Leibnitz, the ongoing quarrels about evolution. But Hellman’s determination to trace these stories back to their roots throws up some surprises. The debunking of Margaret Meade’s sociological studies on the sexual practices of Samoan adolescents is nowhere near as clear cut as I had thought it to be. Hellman’s prose style is somewhat dry and dusty, but the stories he tells are so interesting that they transcend the rather workaday words that he wraps around them. This is not an easy book to read, but it is an interesting one.

Robert Bloch will be forever known as the author of Psycho, but he was much more than that as the stories collected in Appreciations of the Master prove. The famous stories are here, the Hugo winning That Hell-Bound Train, the frightening Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, the hilarious The Pied Piper Fights the Gestapo. There are also many less famous works which prove just how well rounded Bloch was as a writer. In addition the stories are introduced by thirty of his friends and contemporaries and the light these introductions shine on the life and times of this most gentle and humorous man is fascinating. The collection is part anthology, part biography, and part hagiography, and for once that excess seems to be fully justified. According to his friends Robert Bloch was great and good, funny and talented. This book is the ultimate act of friendship and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I have never heard of Barbara Vine. I bought The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy simply because of its fascinating premise. The writer Gerald Candless dies. His daughter sets out to write his biography and discovers that he was not all he appeared to be. It would seem that in 1951, when he was about 25 years old, he changed his name and walked away from his life and his family. Who was he before he was Gerald Candless, what was he hiding from, why was he running away? The mystery is ingeniously constructed and its unravelling is fascinating. Barbara Vine never puts a foot wrong and the characters and the situation grab hold of you and won’t let go.

The book’s introduction told me that Barbara Vine is also Ruth Rendell. I’ve never been all that fond of Ruth Rendell’s detective novels. I felt they were merely a continuation of a great British tradition, worthy perhaps, but essentially unremarkable. I now suspect that she divides her books, like Graham Greene before her, into novels and entertainments. Ruth Rendell writes the entertainments, Barbara Vine writes the novels. The depth and intensity of The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy are just breathtaking. I will have to seek out more novels by her. Stay tuned for progress reports.

A squashy is a New Zealand bush hat designed to survive hard usage. It can be squashed up into a small, tight bundle, squeezed into a bag, carried from one end of the country to the other and when removed from the bag will resume its proper shape with no wrinkle or distortion. It is the ultimate fashion accessory and no Robson can afford to be without one. The label in my squashy proclaims:




Kiwi Classic Hats





There is a picture of a kiwi, a koru and a flax plant. And the words:

Made in Australia


Elizabeth Peters The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits Tor
Leslie Thomas Dangerous Davies and the Lonely Heart Arrow
Peter Watson Capo Ivy Books
Jack Dann And Janine Webb (Editors) Dreaming Down-Under Book One Voyager
Ben Bova Venus Hodder and Stoughton
Richard Matheson Hell House Tor
Hal Hellman Great Feuds in Science Wiley
Richard Matheson and Ricia Mainhardt Robert Bloch: Appreciations of the Master Tor
Barbara Vine The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy Penguin

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