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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (canis currens)

Four Dog Tails

The First Tail

When a very large dog has spent a lot of time emptying himself on to your lawn, you will find large areas of bare brown, dead grass, each with a carefully centred (scented – I love homonyms) turd perched on it. Over time, these deposits dry out into interesting multi-faceted and craggy shapes, which display a huge variety of colours, textures and perfumes. It is very important to remove every single one of them before you mow the lawn. Experience tells me that mowing over a hidden poo can have extremely alarming side-effects, particularly if you happen to be breathing through your mouth at the time.

"Jake," I spluttered, spitting copiously into the mower's grass-catcher. "Why didn't you tell me you'd done one there?"

Jake looked bewildered and his ears drooped sadly at my obvious displeasure. "I did tell you," he said. "I sent you a peemail all about it!"

"Sorry," I said, "but I'm not really equipped to read those."

"Why not?" asked Jake. "All of my peemails are readily available as a streaming service, and you know all about how streaming services work."

"Oh," I said. "You mean like Netflix for dogs?"

"Yes," said Jake. "Except it's for news rather than for movies. Dogs aren't big on movies. They aren't nearly smelly enough. Well, except for the Star Wars prequels of course..."

"I think I see," I mused, struck by the elegant simplicity of the concept. "What software would you recommend I use for reading your peemails?"

"I rather like a program called Yuri," said Jake. "Version N8 is the best one."

"What operating system does it run on?"

"It was originally developed on Yellow Dog Linux*," explained Jake. "But it was quickly ported to Puppy Linux*. So by now I expect you'll find it in the suppositories for all the major distributions."

"OK," I said, intrigued. "I'll try installing it and we'll see what happens..."


* – Both Yellow Dog and Puppy are perfectly genuine Linux distributions. Go and google the phrases if you don't believe me.
Honestly, I never make anything up and neither do I exaggerate...


Recently I went to see a movie called The Revenant. I wanted to see it because I've always found the story that it tells quite fascinating. The movie is based on the true story of a trapper called Hugh Glass in early nineteenth century America. Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions. But he didn't die – his wounds slowly healed and he crawled back through the wilderness to take his revenge on the men who deserted him. It's a powerful story which was first filmed in 1971 as The Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris.

In 1994, Roger Zelazny collaborated with Gerald Hausman on the novel Wilderness which merges the story of Hugh Glass with that of another larger than life character called John Colter who was captured by Indians but who managed to make a rather incredible and dramatic escape from them...

Before going to see The Revenant, I re-read Wilderness, so as to put myself in the right frame of mind, and I was impressed all over again by Hugh Glass's story. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie (though I think that perhaps the Richard Harris movie was better). As is my habit, I stayed to read the credits at the end and rather to my surprise, I found that the movie claimed to be based on a novel, also called The Revenant, by one Michael Punke. I'd never heard of that novel or the author before and I was intrigued. The novel dates from 2002, but it has now been republished to take advantage of the publicity generated by the movie. So I bought it and read it and it held me enthralled. If you like these kinds of stories, you'll love the book. I think it's even better than the Zelazny/Hausman collaboration and I never thought I'd ever be able to say that.

I found it amusing to compare the novel with the movie. Naturally large chunks of the novel never appeared in the movie – that always happens with movies based on books and it didn't worry me very much. But I was a little annoyed to find that the movie makers had added a whole sub-plot of completely unnecessary Hollywood soap-opera cliché that doesn't appear in the book at all. Perhaps if they'd omitted all the nonsense and artificial drama concerning the kidnapped Indian girl (daughter of a chief, of course) who Glass eventually rescues in a desperate act of stupid chivalry, they could have included a bit more of the very real drama from the book. I think it would have made the film stronger.

The film is OK as far as it goes. It has been nominated for several awards and, who knows, maybe it will win them. But the novel by Michael Punke is superb.

The Diviners is a YA urban fantasy set in America in 1920s at the height of prohibition. It's a rather long book (my electronic version is well over 800 tightly packed, prose-filled screens – I have no idea what that translates to in printed paper terms, but it's definitely substantial). Because of this, the pace of the story is somewhat leisurely, but that's no bad thing. It allows the reader to wallow in the beautifully evoked story line. This is a gorgeous, sumptuous book with strongly drawn characters and a very real sense of place and time. History come alive, if you like. I loved it.

Evangeline O'Neill (known as Evie to her friends) has a secret ability – given an object, she can "divine" information about it and its owner. Sometimes this can prove more than a little embarrassing. She really blots her copybook when she gets her hands on Harold Brodie's class ring at a rather drunken party and divines some quite sordid details about his love life which she blurts out to all the assembled party goers. As a result of this scandal, she becomes persona non grata to her family, and her father packs her off to New York to live with her uncle, who runs a museum that specializes in the occult.

Evie isn't the only person in the city with unusual abilities and powers.

Memphis Campbell is a black numbers runner in Harlem. Once he was a healer who could cure anything by the laying on of hands. But his power deserted him when he tried, and failed, to save his mother. Nowadays he dedicates himself to looking after his brother Isaiah who seems to have some rudimentary telepathic abilities. Memphis is also an accomplished poet.

Henry is a homosexual piano player with dreams of being a jazz composer. He meets people in his dreams. He is the room mate of Theta, a Ziegfeld girl with a past. They pose as brother and sister, though most people assume (incorrectly) that they are lovers.

Because of his interest in the occult, Evie's uncle becomes involved in the investigation of a series of gruesome murders which, it soon becomes clear, have been perpetrated by Naughty John who appears to be some sort of spiritual reincarnation of evil.

There's a skipping song about him:

Naughty John, Naughty John,
Does his work with his apron on.
Cuts your throat and takes your bones,
Sells 'em off for a coupla stones."

To be honest, there isn't much of a plot – an evil spirit commits semi-biblically inspired murders which are really sacrifices that will ultimately make him all powerful. A group of psychically gifted people thwart him at great peril to themselves and their loved ones. We've seen it all before. But that's not the point. The point is that this hoary old tale comes singingly to life because of the way that it is told. The reader really feels for the characters – trust me, you will cry at their tragedies and cheer at their triumphs. The story will suck you in and it won't spit you out until it is over, leaving you wanting more. That's a sign of brilliant writing.

The diviners themselves are really a psychic sub-culture within society at large. Their talents cut them off from the mainstream and they become very dependant on each other for support. Society frowns on who they are and what they can do. But, of course, disapproval can be set to one side in the court of public opinion when danger threatens. Sometimes morality is pragmatically fickle and the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend. Well, we all know where that leads, don't we?

One way to bring an era alive is to have the characters speak as the people in those times would have spoken. The 1920s had some of the most annoying slang ever invented and Libba Bray captures it perfectly. Given the name of my dog, I found it enormously entertaining to have the characters constantly tell each other that the situation is "jake" (meaning everything is fine). Evie herself has committed neology long before the story begins, and she constantly describes things using the remarkably irritating adverb "pos-i-tute-ly" (clearly a portmanteau of "positively" and "absolutely". Damn you, Humpty Dumpty! You have a lot to answer for.) But even that just adds to the verisimilitude.

This is a complex, deep and utterly brilliant book. There is a sequel which is now high on my to-be-read list...

The Second Tail

When Jake and I go for a walk, Jake keeps a careful eye and nose on his surroundings.  He spends ages sniffing at clumps of grass that, to the naked eye, are indistinguishable from all the other clumps of grass but which are clearly emitting fascinating pheromones that the other clumps simply cannot compete with.

"What's so special about that one?" I asked him.

"I don't know," he said. "It just is."

Unlike a lot of other dogs, Jake seems to be quite highly motivated by sight as well as by smell. No matter how fascinating the grass he is currently inhaling, he will always leave it if he spots something moving. Butterflies, helicopters, jet planes, cars, scooters, bicycles, people, cats and other dogs always attract his attention and he flops down on his tummy and stares fixedly at them until they have gone past. Then, reluctantly, he will get up and continue walking with me.

If any people pass us closely by, his tail begins to wag faster and faster and his ears go back. He grins attractively and sometimes he drools. This always acts like a people magnet.

"Can I pat him?" the passing people will invariably ask.

"Yes," I say to them. "He is very friendly."

"Does he bite?"

"No, but he licks a lot."


Nevertheless, they reach out to pat him. Jake always assumes that such gestures are an invitation to slobber all over their hands, and he turns his salivary pumps to full power.

"Ahhh... Aren't you gorgeous?" they say as they surreptitiously dry their soggy doggy hands on Jake's fur coat.

"Yes," says Jake. "That's me. Gorgeous is my middle name. Gosh you've got a lovely face!"

Then he will launch himself in a huge bound up to the person's face so he can slobber all over that as well. This always takes the victim by surprise. When thirty-four kilograms of enthusiastic dog jumps at you, you know you've been jumped at. More than once the surprised jumpee has been knocked flat on their back, thus bringing them right down to Jake the Jumper's level. This makes for easier slobbering and Jake always takes full advantage of it.

In the last month, Jake has claimed four old ladies and six children. Most of them burst into tears from the shock. But the children all laughed and giggled.

It's the ghosts that worry me the most. Every so often Jake will stop and stare fixedly at nothing whatsoever. His head moves, following the track of the nothing as it sidles along. Eventually it slips invisibly out of sight and Jake heaves a deep sigh, shakes his head in a disappointed manner, and we walk slowly onwards.

"What were you just looking at, Jake?"

"That's my imaginary friend," said Jake. "His name is Chocky*. Didn't you have an imaginary friend when you were my age?"

"No," I said.

"What a deprived childhood you must have had," said Jake sympathetically, and he gave me a consoling lick.


* – Spot the reference. No, I don't mean a dog called Spot. He went out, damned Shakespearian animal that he is. I mean
this tail has just turned into a science fiction adventure, courtesy of a John Wyndham novel. Do you see what I did there?


In the Cold, Dark Ground is Stuart MacBride's tenth novel about the exploits of Scottish detective Logan McRae. It's not a good place to start the series. Certainly the story is complete in itself in the sense that the immediate plot has a self-contained beginning, a middle and an end. But several larger story arcs that have been building over the last few novels are brought to a conclusion, and then way is left open for a whole new series of complications and in the novels that are yet to be written. If you haven't read the earlier books in the series, you may find some of the story arcs puzzling and you will certainly miss their full emotional impact.

Having said that, I think the book is perhaps the best one so far. Logan's pangs of conscience are well dramatised, Superintendent Roberta Steel's eccentricities are toned down a little bit, and the humour is as dark and as bleak as ever it was.

Joe R. Lansdale has written a series of popular novels about Hap Collins, a white, working class labourer and his close friend, Leonard Pine, a black, gay Vietnam veteran. The books are very violent, but also very funny – the banter between the two characters is always witty even when the mood of the books turns very dark. The series has been made into a TV show which is due to be broadcast some time in 2016. To mark the début of the series, Tachyon Publications have released Hap and Leonard, a collection of short stories, novellas and a recipe for chilli. Almost everything in the book (except the chilli recipe) has previously been published elsewhere, so caveat emptor. You may well have the stories in your collection already. But if you are new to the world of Hap and Leonard, this collection is probably a good place to start. If you like what you see here, I suggest that you rush out and buy the novels. They really are very good indeed.

John D. MacDonald was a very popular (and enormously prolific) thriller writer in the mid-decades of the twentieth century. His Travis McGee novels are much admired. Robert Heinlein praised them and Spider Robinson makes references to them in some of his Callahan stories. MacDonald even branched out of his comfort zone and wrote a couple of quite well regarded SF novels as well. Clearly he was a man of many talents.

The House Guests is a bit of a departure even for him. It is a non-fiction book in which he simply describes his life with his cats Roger and Geoffrey. I've lived with cats for more than thirty years, and again and again I found myself nodding along with MacDonald's observations of the things his cats got up to. Obviously the incidents are different, but the behavioural traits that his cats exhibit in response to the things that happen around them were very familiar to me indeed. This is a warm, funny and wholly delightful book which really ought to be read by everybody who has ever been owned by a cat. The very last sentence in the book reads:

The debt to the cats is herewith partially discharged with this, my fiftieth published book.

I love that "partially". John D. MacDonald understood his cats very well indeed.

The Third Tail

Jake, being a dog of impeccable taste, is a big fan of Spike Milligan (tell me, who isn't a big fan of Spike Milligan?). He (Jake, not Spike) follows me around the house, supervising me to make sure that whatever I'm doing, I'm doing it properly. Spike can't do that any more. He's dead. The inscription on his gravestone reads "I told you I was ill!"*

Jake's supervising duties involve a lot of standing in corridors peering at me through the door into the room where I'm doing stuff. When I leave the room, he walks backwards down the corridor staring worshipfully at me with his brimming brown eyes as he backs away.

Under his breath I can hear him humming "I'm walking backwards for Christmas..."


* – I told you, I never make anything up and neither do I exaggerate... In poll conducted in 2012, the UK voted this as the nation's
most popular epitaph by a massive margin. About 70% of the votes were  in favour of it. Second (10%) was Oscar Wilde
with "Either those curtains go, or I do".

Well done, Spike!


Grace Slick was a singer with the rock group Jefferson Airplane (later Jefferson Starship). Perhaps her most famous song is White Rabbit, a track which was used to great effect in Hunter Thompson's anarchic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas...

Somebody to Love is Grace Slick's autobiography. A lot of the surviving rockers from that era seem to have committed biography recently. Perhaps there is something in the water. If there is, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that Grace put it there. Once she hatched a scheme to dose Richard Nixon with LSD. Sadly, the plot failed. Nevertheless, the thought of Nixon lurching around the White House watching the walls melt and talking to the pictures remains a very attractive one. Mind you, as Grace says, he probably used to talk to the pictures anyway. So perhaps it wouldn't have made a lot of difference to the way of the world if the scheme had succeeded.

Before I read the book I knew very little about Grace Slick, other than that I loved her music and that she had once led a notoriously decadent life. But I knew no details. Now that I've read the book, I still love her music and I know a lot more about the decadence. She doesn't pull any punches at all. Are you interested in how well the Lizard King Jim Morrison (singer with The Doors) performed in bed? Grace will tell you, and she will provide you with more graphic, intimate details about the act than you could ever possibly want to know. You'll never look at a strawberry the same way again.

If you feel like scrubbing the images from your mind after you've read about all this, perhaps you should indulge yourself with some mind-altering substances. Grace will tell you exactly how to do that too...

The book is page-turningly fascinating. It's raunchy, often screamingly funny, searingly honest and full to the brim of gossip and scandal. What more could anyone possibly want?

In her more introspective moments, Grace reveals some interesting insights. She makes the point that all the original members of Jefferson Airplane are still alive, which is more than many other bands of the era can claim. Perhaps they were doing something right after all.

These days Grace, who was born in 1939, has the cuddly, loveable look of everybody's favourite granny. It makes you wonder just what your granny got up to in her youth, doesn't it?

The Fourth Tail

"Let's go dogging*!" said Jake, enthusiastically.

"I beg your pardon!"

"Sorry," said Jake, looking embarrassed. "That came out wrong. I meant let's go logging"

"Have you become a  lumberjack to fill up your spare time? Are you OK?"

"Jogging!" said Jake. "Jogging! I meant to say jogging!"

"Of course you did..."

"Let's just stick with 'Walkies!' in future," said Jake decisively. "It's easier to say and doesn't lead to misunderstandings."


* – Mind you, it could be fun. Not that I have any personal experience of it, you understand...

What about you?


As this article went to press, we were saddened to learn of the deaths of Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson, founding members of Jefferson Airplane.

Roger Zelazny and Gerald Hausman Wilderness Forge
Michael Punke The Revenant Picador
Libba Bray The Diviners Little, Brown
Stuart MacBride In the Cold, Dark Ground HarperCollins
Joe R. Lansdale Hap and Leonard Tachyon Publications
John D. MacDonald The House Guests Random House
Grace Slick Somebody to Love Warner Books

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