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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (calor aestiva)


The only thing wrong with sitting out on the deck in the Hawke's Bay sunshine is sitting out on the deck in the Hawke's Bay sunshine.

Robin came out on to the deck where she found me glumly contemplating a small, viscous, silvery puddle. "If you're peeing stuff of that colour and consistency, you need to see a doctor," she said.

"I was sitting here with a can of beer," I said. "I opened the can and all the beer evaporated before I could drink it." I gestured at the puddle. "Then the can melted."

"Wow!" said Robin. "I thought it felt a bit hot. That's an impressively powerful ray of sunshine."

"Well at least I know now why we've got brick cladding on the house rather than the more normal wood cladding that you see elsewhere in the country," I said. "If we had wood, all the nails would dribble down it leaving ugly, silvery snail trails. And then the cladding would fall off."

"That would make the house rather draughty," Robin said thoughtfully. "Good job we've got brick."

"Meanwhile, what do we do about this deck furnace that we seem to have at the back of the house?" I asked. "Either we find some way to make it more habitable or else we start to hire ourselves out as aluminium smelters."

"Shade cloth," said Robin firmly. "That'll do it."

"Shade cloth?" I asked, puzzled.

"Shade cloth."

"What's shade cloth?"

"It's a rather coarse-weaved fabric that provides shade without trapping the heat," said Robin. "It's generally quite ultra-violet resistant as well, so it lasts a long time in direct sunlight without noticeably degrading. It's wonderful stuff. I fitted miles of it to my house in Australia."

"Our deck is open on all sides and at the top as well," I pointed out. "Do we need to cover it all over?"

"No," said Robin. "Let's start by just putting shade cloth over the top. That will probably do it."

I stared up at the top of the deck. "That means that one or both of us will have to climb up on a ladder so that we can fix the cloth firmly to the beams."

"Yes," said Robin.

"We both suffer from vertigo when we stand on deep pile carpets," I pointed out. "How are we going to cope with being up at the top of a ladder?"

"Easy," declared Robin. "We keep our eyes closed and look at everything with our fingertips."

"Sounds like a plan," I said. "Let's go and buy some shade cloth."

And so we did.

The man in the shade cloth shop was very helpful. "What colour would you like?" he asked.

"I've heard that black is an invisible colour," said Robin. "It blends into the background and nobody ever really notices it."

"That's sort of true," said the man. "Black really does camouflage itself wonderfully well at night, so if you want to shade yourself from moon rays when you sip cocktails on the deck of an evening, black would be a very good colour to have. But I'm guessing that you're rather more interested in shielding yourselves from the sun during the day. Am I right?"

"Mostly right," I said. "I've found that, generally speaking, the sun is much hotter and brighter than the moon, by and large. Have you ever noticed that phenomenon?"

"A lot of people pointed it out to  me," said the man, "so I assume it must be true. Therefore I always recommend this attractive wheat coloured shade cloth."

We examined the recommended shade cloth carefully and it passed the Robin test with flying colours. "That looks really good," she said. "It will be easy to trim to size and I'm sure I'll be able to sew a seam in it to stop it fraying at the edges. We'll take a mile and a quarter, please."

The man measured the shade cloth twice and cut it once. We stuffed it in the car and drove home via a hardware shop where we bought some nails, some curious aluminium spikes and some laths of wood, all of which, we were assured, were vital for the fitting of shade cloth. When we got home I went hunting for the step ladder in the detritus that fills up the garage. Eventually I found the ladder whimpering softly underneath several extremely heavy boxes. I liberated it and carried it out to the deck where I found Robin swathed in shade cloth.

"I've cut it to size," she announced proudly.

Between us we somehow personhandled it up to the top of the deck where I anchored it in place with the laths and banged in a lot of nails to hold them in place. This shade cloth was never going to move again! Then I folded the ends down over the beams at each end of the deck and hammered the aluminium spikes through the cloth into the wood. One problem remained.

"There's a length of cloth over here that I can't anchor down," I said to Robin. "There simply isn't enough room to swing a hammer and I'm a bit worried that the wind might get in there, lift it up and possibly tear it."

"Hmmm," said Robin thoughtfully. "That is a problem."

At that very moment our next door neighbour popped his head up over the fence. "What you need," he said, "is a staple gun."

"Good idea," I said. "But I haven't got a staple gun."

"Today's your lucky day," said my neighbour. "I have a staple gun. Would you like to borrow it?"

"Yes please," I said.

"Here you are," he said, handing it over the fence. "Keep it as long as you like. If I ever need it back I'll ask for it."

"Thanks," I said and I stapled down the final edge of cloth.

"Nice shade cloth," said my neighbour.

We spent the first summer in our new house sitting on the deck beneath our new shade cloth. Beer no longer evaporated before it could be drunk and although the cans and bottles got a little squishy, they no longer melted. Harpo the Cat, who spent most of his days up on the roof of the house hunting the birds who made their nests in the gutter, discovered that the shade cloth made a comfortable bed. He was often to be found there curled up and sleeping the early morning and the twilight away. I kept expecting the cloth to tear and deposit a very sharp, pointed and angry cat onto the top of my head. But the cloth proved to be remarkably resilient, and just stretched a bit into a cat-shaped depression which quickly filled up with the fur that Harpo spent the summer copiously shedding.

I remember Philip Norman from the 1960s as a journalist of merit who had a special interest in the burgeoning rock music scene of the day. He always seemed to be welcomed into the inner sanctum, and he published many articles about (and interviews with) the stars of the day in both the posh Sunday papers and the much less posh music press. Who could be better qualified to write the biographies of the people he lived through those days with? In the 1990s he published a biography of the Rolling Stones (called, imaginatively, The Stones) and in 2012 he published a biography of Mick Jagger called (again, with great imagination), Mick Jagger.

Obviously the overlap between these two books is enormous and reading them back to back was probably not the best idea I have ever had. Nevertheless I came out of them knowing a lot more about the Stones in general and Mick Jagger in particular than I had known when I started reading the books.

I've always found Jagger to be something of an enigma. His thuggish public persona and his working class accent were always unconvincing. I found it entertaining that, when he forgot himself (which he often did), the accent slipped, and became pure BBC received pronunciation. Sometimes you could etch glass with it. Norman's books make it plain that this Jagger is much closer to the real man than his publicity material would have you believe. He's a very private man – he likes to hide himself behind a wall and he always deflects questions about himself by claiming that he can't remember what he said, what he did and who he did it with (or to whom he did it). He was once commissioned to write an autobiography and after months of struggle he and his ghost writer produced a very slim tome which the publisher declared to be unutterably boring. The project was cancelled and Jagger had to return the advance he had been paid.

But Philip Norman was there on the inside, back in the beginning when it was all happening. That gives him certain privileges and he takes advantage of them. But even he can't make Jagger truly interesting. There's a very good reason why Jagger's autobiography was dismissed as boring. He truly is a very dull man, utterly obsessed with the seducing of beautiful women and the making of lots of money. He is also passionately devoted to cricket, possibly the world's most boring game.

He has multiple children from many different relationships and, to his credit, he has always loved and supported his children. Norman makes it clear that all the half-siblings regard themselves as proper brothers and sisters and all of them adore Jagger. Clearly there is a lot of warmth and humanity hiding somewhere behind the priapic, cold-hearted businessman. But that still doesn't make him interesting.

All of the Stones entered the music business with a passionate fondness for playing the blues but, in Jagger's case at least, that initial musical idealism quickly vanished and he began to care far more about putting on a good show and getting rich from it than he did about the purity of the music. Brian Jones was an early casualty of this change of attitude. Brian continued to care deeply about the music and he hated to see Jagger wrest control of the band from him and take it in directions of which he did not approve. Of course it didn't help that towards the end Brian Jones himself had turned into an alcoholic, drug-addled, paranoid freak who was so far out of it that he was barely able to play two consecutive notes any more. If he hadn't drowned in his swimming pool, he'd probably still have died very young from a combination of chronic alcohol-induced liver failure and multiple drug overdoses.

Apart from Brian Jones, none of the Stones were heavily into drink or drugs at the time (though Keith Richard(s) more than made up for it later). The notorious drug bust at Redlands was very much a put up job, a sting orchestrated by the tabloid press. When all the furore died down, Jagger gave a press conference where he was interviewed by the pundits of the establishment about the degeneracy of modern youth in general and the Rolling Stones in particular. He gave as good as he got – Jagger had studied at the London School of Economics, one of Britain's most prestigious universities. He was no intellectual slouch, and he knew very well how to make cogent arguments. He ran rings around his interlocutors. That was the first time I saw him break through the facade of his publicity material. It wouldn't be the last...

The Rolling Stones have never been my favourite band. I will freely admit that they put on wonderful shows – I have several DVDs of various performances they have given over the years, and one and all, they make for great viewing. But, apart from the very early records when Brian Jones was still firing on all cylinders, I have always found their music to be shallow, crude and na´ve. And having read Philip Norman's books, I now have a much clearer understanding of exactly why I feel that way about them.

Word Puppets is a collection of short stories by Mary Robinette Kowal. I first came across her name when John Scalzi made references to her on his blog. They seemed to be very good friends and she had several cutting and highly amusing things to say to and about Scalzi himself. She sounds interesting, I thought to myself and when I stumbled across Word Puppets I decided I'd take the opportunity to see if she really is as interesting as she sounded on Scalzi's blog. Not to keep you in suspense, yes she is.

I was expecting the stories to be funny, but while the humour is definitely there, bubbling away just beneath the surface, the stories were much more serious than I was expecting them to be. That's no bad thing – it gives her stories a depth that might otherwise have been lacking. She's a difficult writer to characterise – at one and the same time she can be poignant, and tragic, coldly intellectual and passionately observant. But whichever way you approach her, it's clear that she's a major talent. This is a brilliant collection of stories and now I feel motivated to search out her novels. I think that feeling speaks volumes about her writing skills.

Thunderbird is Jack McDevitt's sequel to Ancient Shores. You don't have to have read the first book to appreciate the second (he explains the back story well), but undeniably it helps if you start with some idea of how the scenario originally developed...

There's a star gate on Indian-controlled land in North Dakota. Amazingly the technology still works even though it has been buried for thousands of years. There aren't many places that can be reached through the gate, but people are now starting to explore those few places.

Good old-fashioned science fiction, I can hear you say (and perhaps some of you have a sneer in your voice because, after all, old-fashioned is so... out of fashion). Well you'd be wrong. Yes there are traditional elements of the sense of wonder exploration of the unknown that characterised the best science fiction from the golden age. But McDevitt is far too canny a writer to leave it at just that. The times have moved on. A very important element of the novel is the effect that the discovery of the star gate and the results of the exploration of the world it reveals has on contemporary society back on Earth. Taken together these two narrative strands give the book a richness and a depth that is all too rarely seen even in the best SF.

As always, McDevitt has produced a page turner of a novel that is both thoughtful and exciting. He really is an astonishingly good writer.

How could I fail to enjoy The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman? I couldn't fail, of course. It pushes all my buttons at once. Irene is a librarian who travels to parallel worlds to retrieve rare manuscripts and variant texts for the Library (capital L). What's the book about? It's about bibliomania writ large, it's about exciting adventures and the power of Language (note the capital L again...). How could I possibly fail to enjoy it? I absolutely loved it, and you will too.

When the second summer rolled around, and our house was no longer quite as new as it had been, Robin expressed some dissatisfaction.

"When the sun starts to sink towards the horizon in the mid-afternoon it shines directly on to the deck. It bypasses the shade cloth on the roof, pumping light and heat underneath it, right through the west-facing front area of the deck. We need more shade cloth to hang down vertically over that part, but it has to be adjustable so that we can roll it up and down early in the morning and last thing at night. So therefore it can't be a permanent structure like the shade cloth on the roof is."

"OK," I said.

"We need lengths of dowel to wrap the cloth around and we need hooks to attach it at the top and bottom. In the winter, when we don't need it, we can unhook it and store it in the garage."

"Yes we can," I said, "if we can find room for it in the garage."

"There's heaps of room," said Robin. "I might empty a small box..."

We bought dowel and we bought shiny brass hooks and we bought string that was the same colour as the shade cloth. We planned  to use the string to tie the cloth when it was all rolled up. We bought cleats to wrap the string around. Robin cut a vast length of shade cloth off the roll and sewed pockets top and bottom for the dowels. I drilled holes in the deck supports and screwed in hooks and cleats. We threaded the dowels into the pockets and I stapled them to the cloth.

"Do you think we should return the stapler to the man next door?" asked Robin. "We've had it for a whole year now."

"He knows where it is," I said. "I'm sure he'll ask for it if he ever gets an overwhelming urge to staple something again."

We hung one of the dowels on the hooks at the top of the deck and rolled the shade cloth down. We secured the dowel at the bottom with more hooks. We sat in chairs and admired the hanging shade cloth. It proved to be pleasantly translucent and we could still dimly see the garden through it.

"That shade cloth is hanging rather low down," said Jake the Dog. "It's blocking my way out into the garden. What am I going to do when I need to chew on a bone or chase a cat?"

"Don't worry Jake," I said. "I've booked you in for limbo dancing lessons. Once you're certified, you'll be able to get under there easily."

"Oh, limbo dancing! Dogs like limbo dancing." He did a happy-dance in joyful anticipation and then he went and chewed on one of the off cuts from the dowel rods.

Now that we have shade cloth on both the top and the front of the deck, we've started sitting out there again to enjoy the summer days. The shade cloth is remarkably efficient – even on the hottest and sunniest days the deck stays beautifully cool. Icicles hang from the beams and beer freezes solid in the can. Shade cloth really is wonderful stuff.

Philip Norman Mick Jagger Ecco
Philip Norman The Stones Penguin
Mary Robinette Kowal Word Puppets Prime Books
Jack McDevitt Thunderbird Ace
Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library Tor (UK)

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