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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (Dominus muscae)

Hippo Birdy Two Ewe

No matter how hard I try, I've been completely unable to shake the habit of birthdays and, rather to my regret, I had another one of them not that very long ago. It seems that once the habit takes hold, the addiction is quite impossible to overcome.

This birthday was somewhat ameliorated by spending it with a friend who, by a strange coincidence, was also having a birthday. We were each born, seven years apart, on the same day of the same month, though on opposite sides of the world. Actually, time zones being what they are, I suspect I was a day short of celebrating my birthday when he arrived squalling into the world. But what's an inconvenient time zone between friends? Both the calendar and our birth certificates insist that we share a birthday, and since that is good enough for government bureaucracies, it is good enough for us as well.

This year our mutual birthday fell on a convenient Saturday. So people came from all over the country (well, Wellington, actually) to camp out in my house and have a party. I am being quite literal here. We had two people sleeping in the spare bedroom and two people and a dog sleeping in a tent on the front lawn. Originally the tent was to have been pitched on the back lawn. But that is Jake the Dog's territory and tents are his favourite food. Consequently it seemed wisest to remove temptation from him. Rosie, the dog who came with the tent, is a wonderful guard dog who would never dream of eating a tent herself – she finds them far too chewy. She was actually quite keen to protect it from harm and from Jake, whichever seemed more timely and appropriate. But since it would take at least ten Rosies to make one Jake sized dog, discretion seemed to be by far the wiser course. Rosie wasn't convinced of this (she has no idea that Jake is a big dog and that she is a small dog – dogs are notoriously poor at spatial relationships), but she went along with it for the sake of peace and quiet.

An unexpected extra guest who turned up at the very last minute was Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. There was nowhere for him to sleep of course, but that didn't matter because he'd never actually managed to work out how to do sleeping. He considered it to be a great waste of time. "Think of all the books you could be reading instead," he said. Most days I agreed with him.

Beelzebub gave me an enthusiastic greeting. "Happy Birthday," he roared "I'm glad I'm not having one. They really aren't very good for you, you know! I gave them up centuries ago." He gave me a hug. Then he gave me my present – 28 of his finest flies which at once moved into the kitchen and made themselves at home. When they had properly settled down, they buzzed out the rhythm of the traditional birthday song for me:

Why was he born so beautiful?
Why was he born at all?
He's no bloody use to anyone,
He's no bloody good at all...

Beelzebub had rehearsed them well. They hit every note right in the middle. I was very impressed.

Rosie attempted to sneak up on the flies and catch them in  mid-air and Jake tried to round them up and corral them in a corner. Neither had any great success in their endeavours and both soon gave up in disgust and sulked.

Discount Armageddon is the first book in the InCryptid series by Seanan McGuire. Cryptids (I'm not quite sure just how the In-  prefix applies) are cryptozoological beings – ghoulies, ghoosties, long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night – which live amongst us largely unnoticed by humankind. There is an organisation known as the Covenant of St. George which is dedicated to destroying the cryptids wherever they may be found, and there is the Price family who long ago left the Covenant so as to dedicate themselves to protecting those cryptids who are not able to look after themselves.  Verity Price finds herself torn between two identities – on the one hand she is firmly in favour of pursuing the family objectives. On the other hand, she really, really loves dancing and takes part in national competitions. She argues that the muscle control involved in dancing is the next best thing to formal martial arts training. But even to her ears that sometimes sounds like casuistry...

Verity learns that a man from the Covenant is in town. He's already killed several non-sentient cryptids and Verity can't find it in herself to condemn him for that. Chances are she might have ended up killing them herself if she'd come across them in a dark alleyway. But she can't go along with his stated goal of hunting down other cryptids that she feels an obligation to protect. Despite taking him as a lover and despite each of them saving the other's life when they are attacked by mutant lizards in the sewers, they come to a temporary parting of the ways. But not before Verity learns that he believes there is a dragon asleep beneath Manhattan and somebody is scheming to wake it up...

The novel is a fairly typical urban fantasy enlivened by some real wit, clever character development, inventive situations and a page-turning plot. It's complete fluff from beginning to end, of course; as shallow as a puddle. But there's nothing wrong with that. And since there are now quite a lot of books in the series and they continue to sell very well indeed, it would seem that Seanan McGuire is mining a mother-lode. Certainly I enjoyed the book hugely, but I must confess that I'm rather  more fond of the writings of McGuire's alter-ego Mira Grant. Grant's Newsflesh novels don't have the humour of the InCryptid books but they are clever political satires and they have a depth to them that simply doesn't exist in the InCryptid books.

But no matter which direction you approach Seanan McGuire's writing from, you can always be sure of reading a well crafted novel. I have nothing but praise for her.

One of  Stephen Baxter's literary heroes is H. G. Wells and since Wells is also one of my heroes, I've always had a soft spot for the many Wellsian touches that appear now and then in Baxter's novels. More explicitly, in 1995 he wrote a brilliant sequel to Wells' The Time Machine and now, in 2017, he has written The Massacre of Mankind, an even more brilliant sequel to Wells' The War of the Worlds. Fourteen years after the defeat of the Martians, they are back to try again. They've learned their lesson well and no deus ex machina is going to bring them down this time! They are certain that the tripods and the heat rays are going to triumph.

The science of the early twentieth century is very different from the science of the early twenty-first century. Some of the accepted truths of the time sound quite quaint to modern ears. Baxter has a lot of fun sticking rigorously to that early viewpoint in his explanations of what is going in the novel. He never sounds condescending and you simply can't see the tongue in his cheek. It's quite a tour de force.

From the point of view of a reader whose history does not include a Martian attack (i.e. me), the events of the novel take place in an alternative twentieth century. Even though the original Martian invasion was defeated, it has still had a profound effect on the political scene, and the world of this novel, while it does contain recognisable elements from our own history, has progressed in ways that never came to pass in our own non-Martian world. Science nerds and history nerds will all have an absolute ball unravelling the tangled skeins of Baxter's world view!

This is Baxter's best solo novel in years.

Talking of Martians, Carrie Vaughn has just published a new YA novel called Martians Abroad. Polly Newton, who lives in the Martian colony with her brother, wants to be a starship pilot. Her mother is the director of the colony and is therefore very influential. But she uses her influence to further her own ends rather than to look out for the interests of her children. She sends Polly and her brother to a prestigious academy on Earth, the last place Polly wants to visit. Her dreams of piloting a starship have to be put on hold and, understandably, Polly is more than a little resentful.

She finds it hard to fit into the life of the academy – things constantly go wrong, accidents happen and Polly and her classmates are put in constant peril. Surely no school could really be this dangerous? But Polly perseveres, and of course there are wheels within wheels; things are going on of which Polly is quite unaware until close to the end of the book.

In terms of style and of plot resolution, there are many close resonances between this novel and Robert Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars. Polly is a heroine cast in the Podkayne mould. Her brother is less of a psychopath than Podkayne's brother was, but he is equally as clever, if not more so. In some ways you could say that Carrie Vaughn's novel is what Heinlein's novel should have been but never was. I enjoyed it a lot and so will you.

On the evening of our birthday we all celebrated with a specially prepared meal. The humans among us ate it in a restaurant. Those who were less than human, and those who were suprahuman, stayed at home to indulge themselves. Jake settled himself down on the back lawn with a bone and Rosie went out to the tent without a bone. But she wasn't too unhappy about that. Her mum and dad had promised her that they'd come back from the restaurant with a doggie bag that Jake wouldn't be allowed to touch. So she knew that she wasn't going to miss out. The flies buzzed disconsolately for a while after we drove off into the night before gorging themselves on the feast that we'd left lurking deep within the bowels of the waste disposal unit. Beelzebub watched them benignly. What good little boys they were... Then he settled down to devour his favourite William Golding novel for the umpteenth time.

At the restaurant we all ate and drank inordinately because that is what you do when someone has a birthday. When we were done, the other birthday boy and I staggered out to the car, carrying an enormous box between us. In it was a huge chocolate cake decorated with our names and happy birthday wishes. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, but not, unfortunately, to flies. "Down, boys!" ordered Beelzebub, when we got the cake home, but his orders had no effect. "Sorry about that," he apologised. "I painted the ears on each individual fly this morning before we left home, so that they'd all look properly dressed for the party. But the ears don't actually function..."

We shared the cake around, and the flies all agreed that it was the best cake they'd ever eaten. Since they were less than a day old, I suspected it was the only cake they'd ever eaten, but out of politeness, I refrained from comment.

The next day, Rosie and all 28 of the flies discovered Jake's bone on the back lawn. None of them could resist investigating it more closely. Jake, of course, took exception to this and, in no uncertain terms, he  told each and every one of them to leave it alone. "See these fangs?" he said, lifting his lips sideways so that the sunlight glistened on his pointy bits. "They work really, really well."

But Rosie stood her ground and so did the flies. Clearly this bone was the archetypal bone of contention. We all took photographs.

How Precious Was That While is the somewhat pretentious title of the second volume of the autobiography of Piers Anthony. Like the first (Bio of an Ogre) it reveals Anthony to be a whiny, entitled, narcissistic man with a persecution complex. He claims that his books stopped appearing on the best seller lists because publishers are incompetent and they never managed to print enough copies. Editors, he claims, often went out of their way to undermine him (Lester del Rey is named and shamed). He continually expresses surprise at how so many people with whom he works (writers, editors and fans) can be so incompetent and so wrong, so often about so many things. He himself is never wrong, of course.

Speaking of autobiographies, HarperCollins' Friday Project imprint has recently reissued Brian W. Aldiss' literary autobiography Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith's as an ebook. The book was originally published in 1990 by Avernus in a limited edition of 250 copies (mine is number 23). It did later appear in a mass market edition. However the original Avernus edition has six extra chapters which do not appear in any of the later editions. Annoyingly, the ebook seems to have been constructed from the text of a later edition. So if any of you want to read the six additional chapters, you'll just have to come and visit me...

The book examines the ups and downs of a writer's life. It talks about the composition of many of Aldiss' books – the high points and the low points of seeing them through to publication. And along the way it tells a beautifully gossipy tale about literary life (particularly science fictional literary life) in mid-twentieth century England. It's a cheerful book, "...jolly, and juicy with anecdotes and personalities", full of insights and self-deprecatory humour. Aldiss tells of meeting a very attractive lady at a cocktail party. They got along famously and when she asked him what he did, he confessed that he made his living by writing novels. "Do you write under your own name?" she asked.

In later years Aldiss would write a more conventional autobiography (The Twinkling of an Eye (1998)), but it's stodgy in comparison.

Last year I reviewed the eleventh Hap and Leonard novel by Joe R. Lansdale and I said that there were hints in it that it might be the last in the series, something I felt greatly to be desired because it seemed to me that the quality had fallen off a lot. Well, the twelfth novel has just been published (Rusty Puppy) thus making a liar of me.

It's better (just) than last year's Honky Tonk Samurai, but that isn't saying very much. Leonard's psychopathic nature is a little more restrained, thank goodness, but that aside it's the mixture as before, and I couldn't help feeling that Lansdale was writing by numbers, just to get the thing out of the way.

Louise Elton is convinced that the police have beaten her son to death. Clearly she can't go to the police with her story, so she goes to Hap and Leonard and asks them to investigate. What follows is a twisted story of racial prejudice and police corruption. As usual...

Perhaps I'm being too hard on it, but it seems to me that the Hap and Leonard stories have lost all their freshness. Where once the dialogue was genuinely witty, now it just seems tired and old. And the same old tropes appear again and again. Lansdale has rung all the changes. It really is time to let the bells fall silent.

"You know," mused Beelzebub, "you really are very lucky living here with all this glorious sunshine turning your lawn brown, and drying up all of your reservoirs day after day after day. I'm quite jealous.  There hasn't been any sunshine to speak of at all in Wellington this summer."

"That's because the sun has been so busy doing such a great job of shining in my sky," I said. "It simply hasn't had time to make the long trip down south to Wellington. There's been far too much going on here. It's fully occupied for twenty four hours a day. Why, it even made sure to give us a bush fire last week – now there's attention to detail above and beyond the call of duty. And we've got some absolutely marvellous water restrictions in place as well. I think we've had the best summer ever!"

One of our guests is a sun worshipper and she stood on the back lawn, arms akimbo, soaking up the rays. You could see her opening up, blossoming and blooming in the warmth.

"Many people claim that in their last incarnation they were Cleopatra or Elizabeth the First," she said. "But not me. I know exactly what I was in my last incarnation. I was a daisy, and I still have all the characteristics of a daisy. See me flourish in the sunshine."

She spread her petals and Jake licked the toes of her roots, which made her giggle.

Seanan McGuire InCryptid 01 – Discount Armageddon DAW
Stephen Baxter The Massacre of Mankind Gollancz
Carrie Vaughn Martians Abroad Tor
Piers Anthony How Precious Was That While Tor
Brian W. Aldiss Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith's Friday Project
Joe R. Lansdale Rusty Puppy Mulholland
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