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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Exungulatissimus)

Memories of Melbourne

Melbourne. Sunshine dropping sheets of molten gold over the city. Humidity so high that you can swim to work in your own sweat. The headache-thumping whine of a million angry mosquitoes as the cars race around the track in Albert Park. This is Melbourne during Grand Prix week. They send me there every year; it’s horrible.

I stamped my foot like a petulant child. "Don’t wanna go! Not gunnoo!"

They bribed me with Luxury. "The usual hotel is booked out and so at the end of the week we have booked you into a hotel in Brighton. It’s right by the sea in one of Melbourne’s most luxurious and exclusive suburbs. You’ll love it!"


Daniel Easterman's new novel Incarnation starts as a supernatural thriller, segues into a spy story crossed with a murder mystery and then settles down into massive conspiracies, ultra-violence, and archaeology. It really does have something for everyone and it held me enthralled until the last couple of chapters when Easterman began to milk the melodrama for all it was worth (and a bit more besides) and then it all turned into cottage cheese. The book starts in India, ends in Scotland and calls in on China along the way, so perhaps it is a travelogue as well. I don't recall any kitchen sinks playing major roles, but everything else was there. The best description I can come up with is that it is a rollicking good read, and I strongly recommend it.

I've never heard of Kage Baker, but the blurb descriptions of her (to date) three novels were so intriguing that I simply couldn't resist. In the 24th century an organisation calling itself Dr Zeus perfects both time travel and immortality. Both however have great drawbacks. Time travel is allowed only into the past (though you can return to your own time). Travel into the future simply doesn't work. Also history cannot be changed, the paradoxes are insurmountable. Immortality treatments can only be applied to a small number of children who fall within a narrow range of physical characteristics. The treatment involves turning the child into a cyborg.

Dr Zeus comes up with a cunning plan to exploit these weaknesses and to turn a profit from them. Recorded history cannot be changed, but things can slip through the cracks. Suppose scrolls were rescued from the Library at Alexandria before it was burned? History records that the books were destroyed, but if some could be smuggled out and secreted in a cave they could be "discovered" by future archaeologists. Treasures galore, both physical and intellectual can be rescued this way. And so, throughout historical and pre-historical time, children are rescued from danger by agents of Dr Zeus, they are given an education and the immortality treatment and sent to rescue important artefacts and to perform historical and sociological surveys as they live through the years leading up to the 24th century.

In the first novel, Mendoza is rescued from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition. She is trained as a botanist and her first mission is to Elizabethan England where, in a private garden, rare, almost extinct plant species are being cultivated as a hobby by Sir Walter Iden. Mendoza is required to preserve cuttings from these plants to save them from extinction. During her mission she falls in love with Nicholas Harpole, a religious revolutionary (and a mortal, of course). These are dangerous times for religious radicals and Nicholas is burned at the stake.

The second novel is told from the perspective of the man who originally recruited Mendoza. It is 1699 and white men are spreading throughout the New World. Mendoza and colleagues are required to investigate and preserve knowledge from an Indian tribe who will soon be wiped out. Mendoza meets some of the operatives of Dr Zeus from the 24th century, and is less than impressed by them. It becomes obvious that the company's motives are far less altruistic than they seemed at first.

The third novel is set in California in 1862. It is more light-hearted in tone than the others, though there are grim undertones. The company is involved in a curiously Machiavellian plot involving British influences on the course of the civil war.

The premise behind the novels is quite fascinating but the strength of the novels arises from their brilliant sense of place and time. Elizabethan England, primitive (though very sophisticated!) tribes, civil war America, all these are brought superbly to life (you can almost smell the people and places, they seem so real). The viewpoint characters are well portrayed and the glimpses into their memories of their immortal lives adds an extra historical dimension. The gradual realisation that Dr Zeus may not be what it seems adds a pleasing touch of menace. I look forward keenly to more tales of the Company.

We all filed on to the aeroplane and took our seats. The driver put the gear stick into neutral and vroom vroomed the engines for a while. Then there was a hydraulic whine as the flaps rose, closely followed by a horrible graunching as the driver jiggled them about a bit. Soon there was an announcement:

"As you can probably tell from the noise, we are having some trouble with the flaps. I’ve called the engineers out to have a look. I don’t think it will take very long. Just a few minutes."

A yellow mechanism drove out and sat under the wing for a while. Then it went away again. I saw no evidence of engineers; obviously they were invisible. We all waited patiently while they hit things with invisible hammers and tightened screws with invisible screwdrivers. Eventually the onboard voiceover said: "Well the engineers are happy now, and if they are happy, so am I."

It seems to be a universal rule that no Air New Zealand plane will ever take off on time (I have flown a lot with Air New Zealand and never once has the plane met its announced schedule), but this one was now more than an hour late, and that’s excessive even for them. We rumbled down the runway and lumbered into the air.

Soon it was time for the in-flight service. As usual, I had managed to sit in the seat that was served last. Not only that, I was mortified to find that the trolley in the opposite aisle was racing up and down like greased lightening whereas the one in my aisle appeared to be propelled by arthritic snails. Geological aeons came and went before finally a packet of cassava chips (guaranteed cholesterol free) and a can of beer were casually slapped down in front of me.

To pass the time, I continued a research project that I began several years ago into the causes of turbulence. So far the statistical evidence suggests that it has two major causes. The serving of food and drink is one cause. The other is going to the toilet. There is something distressingly disconcerting about feeling the whole aeroplane shudder immediately after indulging yourself in a fart.

We began our descent into Melbourne airport and I was quite upset to hear the flaps make the same unhealthy graunching noises that they had made when they were tested on the ground at Auckland. I began to wonder just what the invisible engineers in the yellow mechanism had done to them. Had the repair worked? We landed without incident, but I’d love to know how narrow the escape really was…

As we taxied towards the gate the voiceover said: "Please remain in your seats when we reach the gate. The quarantine inspectors need to come aboard."

Funny, I thought. Are they going to spray us? It has been a long time since I’ve seen the quarantine people walk up and down the aisles spraying insecticide on the passengers in case any of the people in the seats are fruit flies in disguise. I thought they did it automatically through the air conditioning nowadays. Oh well. Maybe the spraying device was connected to the flaps and was consequently out of order. We came slowly to a full stop at the gate.

"Remember," said the voice, "please remain seated for the quarantine inspectors."

The seat belt sign went off with a musical ping. Immediately a businessman two seats in front of me got up to remove his laptop computer from the overhead locker. An aeroplane full of eyes glared at him. "Sit down!" He sat down.

We waited.

The doors opened and two large policemen and a policewoman strode fiercely to the back of the plane, every eye upon them. I could see them remonstrating with someone. Then they disappeared, presumably through the rear door. Finally we were allowed to disembark. The policemen were now standing in the gate and I overheard one of them saying to his mate, "I told him to stop being a silly bugger and not to do it again."

As I walked away from the gate, I glanced through a window. There were yellow mechanisms beneath the wings of the plane. The invisible engineers were out in force again…

The new collaborative novel by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter explores the implications of a device that can see through time. No physical travel is possible, but earlier times can be viewed. This is a theme that is rarely seen in SF. Perhaps the definitive treatment was a story by Bob Shaw called The Light of Other Days and Clarke and Baxter have acknowledged this by giving their novel the same title and dedicating the book to Bob Shaw.

The novel, unfortunately, is very disappointing. There is far too much tell and not enough show. Long arid lectures and descriptions of historical and pre-historical scenes are interspersed with pseudo-scientific technobabble which attempts to give verisimilitude to the overall concept, but which just succeeds in falling flat on its face. There's scarcely any room left for the story, and what little story they tell is rather dull. If you are an insomniac, read this book. You will be instantly cured.

Mick Farren seems to have become rather prolific of late. Darklost is a vampire novel, a direct sequel to his earlier The Time of Feasting. The vampire family presided over by Victor Renquist has left New York and taken up residence in Los Angeles. They suffered a lot of casualties in the fight that forced them to leave New York and Renquist is finding it hard to come to terms with his responsibilities as leader of the clan. They need new members to build up their numbers again, but Renquist is reluctant to take action.

When they lived in New York, Renquist's vampire lover Cynara had started to turn a human. But Cynara died, the vampires fled the city and the half-turned human (the darklost of the title) is suffering. She follows the vampire colony in a desperate hope that the process can be completed. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, one of the vampires has met the actor Brandon Wales (a thinly disguised and beautifully satirical portrait of Marlon Brando; Farren has a lot of vicious things to say about Hollywood gliterati). Wales too is to become nosferatu.

But before this can come about, a darker evil must be surmounted. The vampires face a deadly peril. An occult group is attempting to summon the great Chthulhu, and the ramifications of that are too awful to contemplate.

I'm biased, of course. I love Mick Farren's books. But this one really is one of his best. The atmosphere is black and the supernatural elements are scary. The blood is a highly satisfactory shade of red (and there is a lot of it) and the satire is razor sharp.

My boarding pass said that I was allowed to enter Australia through the express lane for priority processing. I have never seen any evidence whatsoever of an express lane on any of my visits to Australia and this trip was no exception. All the passengers were filtered through the same check in desks irrespective of what it said on their boarding cards. The queue snaked on forever. Eventually I reached an immigration official. He was labelled "Frank Kilroy". He glared at me with eyes made malignant by a long, hot, tiring day and a million recalcitrant passengers.


I handed it over silently. I just KNEW that if I made any smart-arse remarks about Frank Kilroy being here, proctologically inclined gentlemen with an infinite supply of rubber gloves would be summoned to converse with me. I restrained myself, but I think I ruptured something in the effort.

He waved me through, looking mildly disgruntled. Welcome to Melbourne.

The first three days were spent at the usual company hotel, and very pleasant it was too. On the second day it grew a cute little red racing car in the foyer and petrolheads could be heard murmuring "Vroom, vroom", softly as they passed. Impatiently I drank beer in the bar and ate meals in the restaurant. Soon it would be Thursday and the barely hinted-at sybaritic luxuries of the hotel in Brighton would be mine to indulge in. The days crawled past.

Thursday dawned hot and humid (of course). A taxi was summoned. Brighton beckoned…

Harry Pearson was recommended to me with the words "He is funnier than Bill Bryson". Who could resist such a thing? I'm not sure I'd go quite that far (I think Bryson has the edge in terms of observation and apt words) but I'll agree that there isn't much in it.

A Tall Man in a Low Land lets us in to the secret of Belgium. I've been there several times myself and I readily recognised some of the places and people. The Belgians are probably the Europeans whose national character comes closest to the eccentricities and general downright weirdness of the British themselves. (Though recently I heard tell of a Frenchman who is organising a campaign to put Aquitaine back under British rule so that they can have a decent cricket team - perhaps there is hope for the French after all). Pearson certainly exposes all of these foibles in a vastly entertaining manner and I enjoyed the book enormously. I was even half-tempted to go back to Belgium for a visit. But then I remembered that I can get Stella Artois beer in New Zealand now, so I don't need to.

A Harry Pearson book that I do not posses concerns itself with soccer, a game in which I have no interest, and hence a book I have no desire to read. However soccer is played in the winter, and it seems that after the experience of doing all the research for that book, Pearson vowed to himself that his next book would not necessitate hanging around out of doors on days so cold that itinerant dogs had to be detached from lampposts by firemen. And so he wrote Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows a book which allowed him to spend the summer travelling around the agricultural shows and fairs of Northern England. If you like jokes about goats and Tupperware, you'll love this one.

Just when it seemed that there were no more secrets left about World War II, Leo Marks published Between Silk and Cyanide. Marks is the son of the proprietor of the second hand bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road, which was made famous by the Helen Hanff book. But during the second world war, Marks worked as a cryptographer with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the cloak and dagger people who were closely involved with the resistance movements in occupied Europe. His brilliant, though quirky, cryptographic talents caused the codebreakers at Bletchley to claim that he was the one who got away (and they tried to poach him at intervals). Marks was closely involved behind the scenes with many of the resistance agents who later became almost household words as their stories became known after the war. Yeo-Thomas (the "White Rabbit"), Violette Szabo, Noor Inyat Khan and many others perhaps less famous but nonetheless important. This book tells their stories from a unique perspective - the office politics, the incompetence (and competence) of the bureaucracy of the secret civil service; all these are documented here with high wit and withering condemnation. Praise is given where it is due but no punches are pulled. Leo Marks was there, and now he has told us all about it.

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker tries to explain what language is, how it works and what it may be about people that caused them to develop such an odd thing as that fluid communication mechanism known as language. Like most modern linguistic scholars, he seems to be a disciple of Noam Chomsky and as a result is apt to make gnomic utterances that might have sounded good coming from the oracle at Delphi, but which generally fail to clarify whatever point it is he is trying to make. As with every linguistic tome I've leafed through, this one is littered with tree diagrams. I will never understand why linguists feel such an overwhelming urge to impose hierarchies on things that (to me) seem profoundly linear. Discussions of these diagrams quickly fall into obscurity (or triviality - sometimes it is hard to tell the difference). On at least one occasion Pinker makes the assertion that it is not possible for anyone to speak ungrammatically - a patent absurdity. Within the narrow channel of discourse that he adopts for his thesis, he is actually quite right to make that statement, but once you move away from theoretical structures and treat language as a communication tool (rather than as a continuum of linguistic relationships) then it becomes ridiculous. There are actually many nice insights and interesting discussions in the book, but it is overlaid with so much high flown tosh that they are hard to find. A chapter called "The Language Mavens" in which Pinker takes to task several commentators with whom he disagrees, is merely sad (there's nobody quite so bitchy as an academic scorned). Pinker has a high reputation as a communicator and essayist in that borderline area between the hard and soft sciences, but you wouldn't know it from reading this book.

The hotel in Brighton turned out to be a combination motel and conference centre. As I walked down the corridor towards my room it was pleasantly cool, the distant hum of air conditioning units a soothing presence. I unlocked the door of my room and entered it. I became aware that behind the scenes all might not be well…

The room was humid and stuffy. I broke into a sweat as soon as I got in. The air conditioning unit on the wall had been gimmicked and the dial wouldn't turn itself below 25 degrees, but that didn't matter because it didn't appear to be working anyway. Not a trickle of air came out of the vents.

The bathroom contained three small and threadbare bath towels. There were no hand towels or face cloths. Two minuscule cakes of soap were provided, but there was no shampoo, no shower gel, no sewing kit. The shower had two temperatures - hot and off. I explained this to the lady at the reception desk. Her eyes widened with pretended concern,

"Would you like me to tell Bill the engineer?"

"Yes please."

Bill proved to be just as invisible as the Air New Zealand engineers, but much less efficient. He failed to make any useful repairs to the room. I returned to the reception desk.

"Do you have a street map, please?"

"Where do you want to go?"

"Well, I don't really know until I see a street map. I'm not even very sure where I am at the moment."

The eyes widened again and the voice dripped condescending honey sweetness as she said slowly and distinctly, "You're in Brighton, dear. Brighton is in Melbourne."

For many years I've heard tell of the Hokas, small teddy-bear like aliens who adopt human culture with overwhelming enthusiasm. The stories involving the hokas were written by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson and most commentators seem to regard them as classics of their kind. It is claimed that they are hilariously funny stories. However they have always been hard to find - the stories have seldom if ever been reprinted and anyone who wanted to read them had to seek out the original magazine publications or ancient small-print-run paperbacks. Consequently they have always passed me by, and I never read them until recently when Baen books published the entire set of hoka stories in two handsome volumes.

I must confess, I didn't like them at all. The humour is too broad and unsubtle (verging on slapstick, which I hate). The plots are silly (even sillier than the initial premise, if that's possible) and I didn't smile once, but I did wince with embarrassment several times. These are definitely books to avoid.

Harry Turtledove's World War series told the tale of an alien invasion fleet that arrived on Earth just as the second world war was getting going. The Earthly combatants forgot their differences and joined in an uneasy alliance to fight the alien invasion. The series ended in the mid 1940s with a truce being signed. Now, with the Colonization series he takes up the tale again. It is twenty years later, and the invasion fleet has been followed by a colonization fleet. Conflict is about to erupt again.

Stylistically and thematically it is the mixture as before. If you enjoyed the World War series you will love this one as well (if you haven't read the World War series, then I suggest you read it first, otherwise you won't really have the background knowledge to properly appreciate Colonization). I finished the book panting with eagerness for more. I think that speaks for itself…

After a sweaty nights sleep, it was time to make my way back to the office. The instructions in my hotel booklet told me to dial 800 to order a taxi. I dialled and nothing happened. I dialled again with the same result. I went down to reception. This time a man was on the desk. I explained my problem with the phone.

He sniffed. "Oh yes," he said. "That's right. Everybody's got mobile phones these days so we don't bother turning on the room phones unless people specifically request it."

"It doesn't say anything about that in the book in the room."

He looked down his angular nose. "All our regular clients know about it."

"Can you call me a taxi please?"

"Well just this once, but that's not my job you know."

I began to wonder if everyone in the hotel had been to sarcasm and rudeness school. I went into breakfast while I waited for my taxi. As I entered the restaurant, a group of gossiping waiters turned their backs on me in order to continue their conversation.

The fruit was tinned, the coffee was lukewarm and so was the milk I poured on my cereal. I went out to my taxi…

A friend whose taste I trust advised me to read the Dalziel and Pascoe novels of Reginald Hill. So I read one and was immediately addicted, which is a shame (and likely to prove an expensive one) for Reginald Hill has written about 40 novels in the last thirty years or so and is showing no signs of slowing down (even as I write these words a new hardback has appeared in England, and doubtless there will be two or three more published in the few hours before this essay is finished). Not all the novels are about the detective team of Dalziel and Pascoe - only about 20 of them are; but that's enough to be going on with.

The attraction lies not in the plots (though they are of a pleasing complexity) but much more in the relationship between Dalziel and Pascoe themselves. Also the keen observation of the lives and times of Yorkshire places and people, all told with a delicious wit and subtle humour. The novels remind me very much of Patrick O'Brian's novels of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin (despite the fact that the characters are separated by nearly two hundred years) . There is the same close relationship between the protagonists, the same social and political insights, the same ability to laugh. But Aubrey and Maturin sprang full blown from O'Brian's pen, the same is not true of Dalziel and Pascoe.

In a sense I was lucky. The first novel I read was from quite late in the series and I was overwhelmed by the depth of characterisation, the brilliant pacing, the warmth of the interactions, the complexity of the plotting. But then I went and read some of the earlier novels and had I not already read the superb later ones, I might not have been so enthusiastic. There is no doubt that the characters change and grow as Hill himself becomes more comfortable with them and with his art. That is not to say that the earlier books are bad - far from it. But they are perhaps more ordinary whodunnits than the later books. They are far more situation driven instead of being character driven and Dalziel in particular is not so well drawn.

But now I'm definitely hooked. At the moment I think my favourite is On Beulah Height - a book which comes dangerously close to being literature (what a sin) as well as being a first class detective novel. But I've got at least 15 more Dalziel and Pascoe novels to read yet, and I haven't even started the Joe Sixsmith novels or the novels that aren't (yet) part of a series. (But I have read the stand-alone novel Guardians of the Prince which I thoroughly enjoyed, though I felt the characterisation veered a little too close to caricature for comfort).

Later that evening, after a racing car noisy day at the office, I returned to my private sauna bedroom. I decided to go for an explore (anything rather than lie and sweat into the sheets which seemed to be my only other alternative). Brighton really is a luxury suburb. Expensive houses jostle cheek by jowl and nestle snugly in immaculately manicured gardens with stately palm trees to give them shade. Languid ladies relax on the beach which stretches in smooth yellow swathes as far as the eye can see. And at irregular intervals the Brighton Boxes stand and stare.

The Boxes are simply that - small single-roomed wooden sheds, many quite ramshackle for they seem to date from the early years of the twentieth century. They are simply changing rooms as used by stately Edwardian ladies to don stately Edwardian bathing costumes.

Possession of a Brighton Box is the ultimate status symbol in this supremely status conscious suburb. On the rare occasions when they appear on the market they change hands for fantastic sums. One recently sold for $120,000. Can you imagine paying that sort of money for a one-roomed shed with no electricity, no running water, no facilities of any kind?

Box proud owners try to decorate them as best they can. I saw one painted as a Union Jack and another had a most lifelike drawing of a seagull perching upon it. However I'm not sure it compensated for the cost.

I returned to my room and dressed in my scruffiest clothes then I went and sat in a prominent place in the cool corridor and read my book. Passing staff glared because I was making the corridor untidy, but I just smiled sweetly back at them. Soon it would be Saturday and time to go home.

The plane back to Auckland was barely ten minutes late taking off. It must have had a downhill wind because it made up the lost time (and more beside) and we landed about twenty minutes early. My boarding pass was marked "Express Lane In", and unlike Australia, New Zealand always seems to have one working. The formalities were over in less than ten seconds. A taxi was waiting and we drove off into the night.

It was good to be home.

Daniel Easterman Incarnation Harper Collins
Kage Baker In the Garden of Iden Harcourt Brace
Kage Baker Sky Coyote Harcourt Brace
Kage Baker Mendoza in Hollywood Harcourt
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter Light of Other Days Tor
Mick Farren Darklost Tor
Harry Pearson A Tall Man in a Low Land Abacus
Harry Pearson Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows Abacus
Leo Marks Between Silk and Cyanide Harper Collins
Stephen Pinker The Language Instinct Penguin
Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson Hokas Pokas Baen
Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! Baen
Harry Turtledove Colonization: Second Contact Del Rey
Reginald Hill The Wood Beyond Harper Collins
Reginald Hill On Beulah Height Harper Collins
Reginald Hill An Advancement of Learning Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Ruling Passion Harper Collins
Reginald Hill An April Shroud Harper Collins
Reginald Hill A Pinch of Snuff Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Guardians of the Prince Harper Collins

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