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

My father's birthday was 13th November. If he'd lived to see this year, he would have been celebrating his 96th orbit around the sun at about the same time that this article was published. He didn't manage to live that long – indeed, I've celebrated more birthdays than he ever managed to achieve. But I never had a birthday as memorable as my father's twenty-first. That one was special, for a whole host of reasons that I hope I never have to experience.

My father's name was William. This is his story...


William's twenty-first birthday was a day much like any other. He came down to breakfast and his mother gave him a mug of tea and a bowl of porridge. "Happy birthday," she said, and pecked him on the cheek. "I wanted to bake you a cake, but I couldn't get the ingredients on the ration."

"That's OK mum," said William.

"We've got sausages for tea," said his mother. "That'll be a nice treat for your birthday, won't it?"

"Yes, mum," said William. The meat ration had been reduced the previous week, so he was gloomily sure that the sausages would be mostly breadcrumbs and gristle. "Put the wireless on, mum," he said. "It's almost time for the news."

The wireless was housed in a beautifully polished walnut cabinet. William's father had bought it in 1937 after a good day at the dog track and it was his mother's pride and joy. She turned it on. The faint smell of burning filled the room as the valves warmed up and incinerated the dust that had settled on them overnight.

"Here is the news," said the silky voiced announcer, "and this is Alvar Liddell reading it. The evacuation of our troops from the beaches of Dunkirk continues to run smoothly..."

William sipped his tea and listened to the news all the way to the end. Then he put his empty mug down on the table and said, "I'm off to work now mum. See you tonight."

"Bye love," said his mother.

William caught the tram at the bottom of the street. It rattled its way through the city and dropped him off almost at the factory gate of the Butler Machine Tool Company Ltd. Butlers made hydraulic presses that were much in demand by the munitions factories where they were used to manufacture the brass casings for artillery shells. A new batch of machines was coming up for despatch and William's job for the next few days was to prepare the speed and feed tables that the machine operators would require so as to be able to use the machines most effectively.

William walked up to the drawing office. Herbert Jenkins was already there, puffing on his pipe and emitting clouds of foul smelling smoke. "Eh up, lad," he said as William walked in.

"Morning," said William. He pinned a blueprint to his working table and picked up his slide rule to begin the tedious calculations that underpinned the speed and feed tables. Faintly, in the distance, he could hear the cheerful, rhythmic music of Worker's Playtime echoing from the tannoys on the factory floor. He wondered why they didn't have speakers or a wireless in the drawing office. A nice tune would help the workers here just as much as it helped the workers in the factory.

"You reckon they'll be coming tonight?" asked Herbert.

"I'm sure of it," said William. "The weather forecast is for clear skies and there's a full moon tonight. They call that a bomber's moon. The city will be well lit up by it, despite the blackout. They'll be here tonight in force, I'll guarantee it."

Herbert nodded agreement.

I've been reading a trilogy of novels by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor (surely this last name must be a pseudonym? No parent would be cruel enough to christen their child Ryk E. Spoor, would they?). The novels are known as the Boundary Trilogy and, in order, they are Boundary, Threshold and Portal.

The story has an intriguing premise which kept me reading even through the boring bits (and believe me, there were a lot of boring bits!). A palaeontologist discovers the fossilised remains of what seems to be an extraterrestrial creature. A few years later, the discovery is confirmed when the remains of an alien outpost are discovered on Phobos, and then on Mars itself. The (fairly predictable) story concerns itself with the exploration of the alien presence in the solar system – in other words, it's a good old fashioned, straight down the middle of the road sense of wonder science fiction adventure.

The good bits really are good, so good that I was reluctant to stop reading even when the action bogged itself down with yet another infodump, a boring administrative meeting, or a tediously pointless action sequence. Or...

The characterisation leaves a lot to be desired and the romances between the lead characters are trite and vaguely icky. All the characters, men and women, are leaders in their fields who can all solve six impossible problems before breakfast (and then spend the rest of the chapter and most of the next one explaining their thinking). The men are all handsome and the women are all beautiful and without exception they all have the personality of a pet rock. The dialogue tries hard to be witty in a vaguely sub-Heinleinian manner, but it fails miserably at the task.

And yet the basic idea is so powerful that I found myself ignoring the trilogy's many, many faults just for the sake of exploring it to the end – and it's a pretty good ending as well!

What this trilogy really needs is a viciously skilful editor who can trim it down to a single novel by cutting out all the padding and all the repetition. Then that one remaining novel needs to have some real people put into it to replace all the talking heads. The juvenile dialogue needs re-writing into something a bit less embarrassing. What's left after all that might well be a pretty damn good novel. But as it currently stands, it's a pretty damn poor excuse for a trilogy.

Crosstalk is Connie Willis' latest novel. Briddey is some kind of executive at a company that is desperate to come up with a gadget that will challenge Apple's iphone and make them all rich. She is in love with Trent and she is considering having an operation (known as an EDD – unless I blinked and missed it, we never find out what those letters stand for) which will give give them both a limited telepathic connection so that they will be able to really feel each other's love.

Briddey is utterly dysfunctional, dumb as a bucket of dirt and extremely annoying. She is not at all the kind of person you want to have as the viewpoint character in such a very, very long novel. She dashes around frenetically trying to hold her life together and failing miserably because she has the attention span of a gnat and is unable to finish any task before getting distracted into another. She doesn't listen to what people tell her (and nobody listens to her, presumably because she's so stupid). The whole theme of the novel is about communication, which is ironic considering that Briddey is, without a shadow of a doubt, the world's very worst communicator.

I've long admired Connie Willis' short stories but, with a couple of honourable exceptions, I've generally hated her novels and I think I've finally worked out just why that is. Her novels tend to be based around a short story with (literally) hundreds of pages of padding shoved into it. And most of the padding consists of people running around like blue-arsed flies paying no attention whatsoever to what is going on all around them. I'll swear that you could read the first page, every hundredth page and the last page of Crosstalk without missing very much at all, and you'd probably enjoy the nice, tight little story that resulted from that exercise.

Crosstalk exemplifies everything that Connie Willis does badly and demonstrates none of the things that she does well. It's probably the worst thing she's ever written. Don't waste your money.

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones is an utter delight from start to finish. It's the first book in an ongoing series about Charley Davidson who is a grim reaper – a person(?) through whom the souls of the recently departed can be channelled into the afterlife. She's also a private investigator, (which helps to keep the wolf from the door), and her ability to talk to dead people stands her in very good stead when she's helping the police to investigate a murder. The murderee (so to speak) is often very chatty, and Charley is always happy to relay what the dear departed have to say about the circumstances of their death to the investigating officers.

Charley's life is complicated by the presence of an entity who has been with her from the very moment that she was born – unlike most of us, she remembers that moment well... The entity may or may not be benign. He does seem to have her best interests at heart, but nevertheless he's very scary. She's also been having a lot of erotic dreams lately, and she is starting to suspect that all these things might be connected.

In summary, this all sounds like a million other urban fantasy romance novels. But what makes it stand out from the competition is Charley's unique voice. She has a delightfully cynical view of the world and a very funny way of expressing it. I also loved the cleverly surreal things that many of the dead people get up to. Time simply flew by as I chuckled my way through this book. I loved it to bits, and so will you.

Can & Can'tankerous is a new collection of short stories from Harlan Ellison. They aren't all completely new. A couple of the stories date from the 1950s, but Ellison has revisited them and re-written them with the benefit of a lot of pretty good second thoughts.

As has been his habit for many years, he has fleshed out the stories with forewords and (sometimes) afterwords that put them into perspective as both pieces of fiction and as insights into his life and times. But by far the most interesting bits of this extra material are the brief italicized segments that describe the stroke he suffered in 2014... He seems to have made a good recovery, but it was clearly a watershed moment for him.

Can & Can'tankerous is a new collection of short stories from Harlan Ellison. Nothing more needs to be said. Go and buy it immediately.

Swords Against the Shadowlands is a novel by Robin Wayne Bailey which is set in the world of Fritz Leiber's Newhon. The book presents us with a new adventure involving Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The wizard Sheelba of the Eyeless Face forces the two of them to return to the city of Lankhmar, a city they had sworn never to revisit after they fled from it following the deaths of their lovers. A plague has fallen on Lankhmar and they are the only chance for Lanhkmar's survival...

I confess I was dubious. I am always highly suspicious of stories set in some other writer's universe and Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories are so well known and so well written that this book sounded almost like sacrilege. However, reluctantly, I must admit that Robin Wayne Bailey has done a pretty reasonable job with Leiber's ideas. Perhaps his story takes itself a little more seriously than the originals did – Leiber's tales always had an underlying humour that seems absent from Bailey's story. But nevertheless it was lovely to meet two of my favourite characters again and to go adventuring with them once more. The book was nowhere near as dire as it could have been and if that sounds as though I'm praising it with faint damns, well so be it.

The mystery writer Ed James made his reputation with a series of police procedurals involving Detective Constable Scott Cullen. However The Hope That Kills is the first book in a brand new series about one Detective Inspector Simon Fenchurch.

Fenchurch is in many ways a broken man. Ten years before the start of this novel, his daughter Chloe vanished. She was eight years old when she was (presumably) abducted. His life fell apart. He is now divorced and is still fairly obsessional about digging into the details of what is now regarded by everyone as a completely cold case. He keeps reading and re-reading the investigation file, but there are no new insights to be had.

The body of a young girl has been found in East London. Always at the start of these kind of investigations, Fenchurch is convinced that he is being called to examine a body that will turn out to be his daughter's. But it never is...

Oddly the girl cannot be identified at all. Nobody seems to know who she is and there are no reported missing girls. It isn't long before a second body turns up and she too is mysteriously unknown to anybody at all. What seemed at first to be a simple murder investigation quickly begins to turn into a satisfyingly complex story of sex, corruption, drugs, and human trafficking.

Fenchurch is an oddly endearing character. I warmed to him as the book progressed and by the end I was definitely turning into a fan. The series has a lot of promise.

Joseph Hansen (1923–2004) wrote twelve mystery novels about Dave Brandstetter, an insurance investigator. Fadeout is the first of these. Brandstetter, like Hansen himself, is unashamedly gay. Considering that the novel was first published in 1969, writing it must have taken a lot of courage. At the time, the book was regarded as pornographic because, of course, homosexuality, no matter how tastefully described, was seen as being pornographic by definition. It simply wasn't spoken about in polite society. Today, of course, the subject raises no eyebrows at all, and the novel itself can quite happily come out of its plain brown wrapper and make its way in the world on its own merits as a clever mystery novel – the sexual encounters in the book are not in the least bit explicit by modern standards and, more importantly, neither are they gratuitous. They are just part of the daily life of Dave Brandstetter who is a very moral man, in many ways a very ordinary man, who really doesn't believe in casual relationships.

In the book's introduction, Hansen says that he felt he had serious things to say about what it meant to be homosexual in our world and time. He was quite willing to have his novels published as dirty books if that was the only way he had of getting them into print. And what Hansen was really demonstrating in his stories was that homosexuals were pretty much like everyone else in the world, just living as best they could, with their share of joy and sorrow, success and failure, love and loss. It's really not a startling message, though the fact that Hansen felt that it needed to be said at all is perhaps a startling idea, at least in this day and age.

So how does Fadeout stack up as a mystery novel? Quite well, actually. A car driven by radio star Fox Olson has plunged off a bridge in a storm. Although Olsen's body has not been found, there is strong evidence that he must have died in the crash and a claim is made on his life insurance. The insurance company sends Dave Brandstetter to investigate the circumstances. As Brandstetter questions Olsen's family, his friends, his fans, and his detractors, he becomes more and more certain that Olson is still alive. To say much more would be a spoiler – there's a lovely twist in the tale(!) that makes you want to go back and re-read the book from the beginning again in the light of the knowledge that you now have. And when you do, you will realise just how skilfully Hansen has planted his red herrings. This is a clever book, sometimes it's a dark book (because human nature is often dark) and it's an insightful book. I strongly suspect it might be an important book as well...

The day passed slowly. William always found the repetitive calculations involved in generating tables to be very tedious. But he stuck to it, and eventually the day was over and it was time to catch the tram back home. True to her word, his mother had sausages for his tea and they were just as nasty as he had feared they would be. But he chewed his way through them without a word of complaint. "Great sausages, mum," he told her, and she smiled.

After he finished eating he said, "It's getting dark mum. I've got to go and get changed and go on duty." His mother nodded and busied herself with the washing up. "Now think on," said William. "If the sirens go tonight, you make sure to get yourself into the Anderson shelter. I don't want you staying by yourself in the house like you did last time. It's not safe."

"I hate those Anderson shelters," she said. "They're cold and dark and muddy. I bet they've got rats living in them."

"Wrap up warm in that thick wool dressing gown that Aunty Doris got you as a wedding present," said William. "And take a torch with you. Mrs Nugent from next door will probably be there. She always has a thermos of tea and some arrowroot biscuits. You'll be fine."

"Alright," she said reluctantly. "I will."

"Good for you, mum," said William and he went upstairs to change into his Air Raid Warden's uniform. Then, with his tin helmet on his head and the straps of the cardboard box that held his gas mask slung over his shoulder, he went out on patrol. "See you later mum," he called.

"Mind you don't get hit by a bomb," his mother said.

"Don't worry, mum," said William. "I've got my tin helmet to protect me from bombs dropping on my head. But if I notice one about to hit me I'll move to one side, just to make sure."

As usual, Mr Trotter at number 37 had been careless with his blackout curtains and light was shining out of his kitchen window. William banged hard on the door. "Put your light out," he yelled. Mr Trotter hurriedly adjusted his curtains and the light disappeared again.

William knew these streets intimately. He'd been born here, and he'd played in them all his life. On the darkest of nights he could find his way around just by the feel of the cobblestones through the soles of his shoes. But tonight the full moon gave enough light for him to see his way clearly. He wanted to yell at the man in the moon to put his light out, but he knew it wouldn't do any good.

He heard the sirens start to howl and, looking up, he could see the crucifix shapes of aeroplanes scudding across the sky, silhouetted blackly by the silver light of the moon. There seemed to be no end to them. He wondered how much the pilots could see of the city. Probably quite a lot. He could hear explosions now as the bombs landed, and there was a red glow on the horizon where the fires were burning. The bombers were concentrating their efforts on the factories, and not for the first time, William found himself wondering if Butlers would still be there in the morning and if he would still have a job.

What a way to spend my twenty-first birthday, he thought to himself. Watching Nazi bombers doing their best to turn the city I've lived in all my life into a pile of rubble. "Happy birthday, William," he said to himself.

Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor Boundary Baen
Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor Threshold Baen
Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor Portal Baen
Connie Willis Crosstalk Del Rey
Darynda Jones First Grave on the Right St. Martins Press
Harlan Ellison Can & Can'tankerous Subterranean
Robin Wayne Bailey Swords Against the Shadowlands White Wolf
Ed James The Hope That Kills Thomas & Mercer
Joseph Hansen Fadeout University of Wisconsin

In Memoriam: Ian Priestnall 1947-2016

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