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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (auribus cerae)

'Ear, 'Ear – wot's all this then?

For most of this month, the first thing I've done every morning after leaping out of bed, bright eyed and bushy tailed, is to shove a lump of blu-tack in my left ear.

It all started on 1st April when the universe decided to play an April Fool joke on me. I awoke that morning with a very painful and swollen left ear. It felt like all the tubes were blocked solid and I couldn't hear anything through it. Feeling more than a little lop-sided, I staggered through my day with no noticeable improvement except that now I had a perfect excuse for ignoring Robin's requests to wait on her hand and foot. Clearly I needed to see a doctor – so once the long and painful weekend was over and the doctor was back at work, I made an appointment...

"What seems to be the problem?" asked the doctor.

"Pardon?" I said. I turned my right ear towards the doctor and he tried again. This time I heard him and I was able to respond.

"I see," he murmured. He fitted a probe on to a slim device that was equipped with a miniaturised searchlight which he used out of office hours to search the skies for alien spacecraft. Everyone has to have a hobby.

The doctor stuck the probe deep into my left ear. This hurt a lot because the channels in my ear were swollen almost shut and there really wasn't enough room to insert the probe. Nevertheless he persisted, ignoring my screams of agony. "Hmmm," he said at last. "Yes – that's pretty solidly bunged up and it's probably a bit infected to boot. I suspect that you could make a complete set of alter candles out of all the wax you've got in there and you'd still have enough left over to put a decent shine on your car. You need to go and see Frith."

"FRITH?" I asked. "Is that an acronym for Full Recovery In The Hearing?"

"Frith," he confirmed. "She's a nurse who specialises in Ear, Nose and Throat problems. What she doesn't know about ENT is not worth knowing. She'll get all that wax out before you even realise there's anything going on." He wrote a phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to me. "That's her number. Ring her up and make an appointment. Meanwhile, I'll give you some ear drops." He prepared a prescription. "By the way, do you use those little ear plug things for listening to music?" he asked.

"Indeed I do," I said. "I usually have them plugged in when I take the dog for a walk. You can listen to a lot of good sounds on a five kilometre amble. But it's been a bit tricky for the last few days because I've only been able to hear the noise that comes in through my right ear. That's a situation that is more than a little lacking in equilibrium. I've tripped and fallen over several times because I found myself leaning too far in the opposite direction in a vain attempt to adjust the sound balance. Even the dog gives me funny looks when he catches me doing it. I think I embarrass him."

"OK," said the doctor. "Each to his own." Clearly he didn't approve of people who wired themselves for sound. "I suggest you get some isopropyl alcohol and sterilize your ear buds every day just before you start wearing them. If you don't do that you might find that you are constantly re-infecting your ear channels. And you really don't want to do that."

"Righto," I agreed.

"You also need to keep that ear dry. Don't let any water get in at all. That's very important."

"How do I stop water getting into my ear?" I asked. "When I take a shower, I get water in all my bits and pieces. It's automatic."

"Blu-tack is good," said the doctor vaguely as I left his office.

Ready Player One is a novel that has attracted a lot of critical notice, much of it favourable. However I must confess that I was very disappointed with it – I felt the book had a lot of promise which it didn't live up to. The story is set in two very different worlds. There is the world of real life where the protagonist Wade Watts lives in extreme poverty, and there is the virtual reality world of OASIS where Wade lives as a character called Parzival. The real world has run out of fossil fuels and a combination of climate change and pollution has wrecked both the economy and the environment. Wade lives in the stacks, a poverty stricken slum built of old caravans piled one on top of the other. Reality is not a good place to be and, not unnaturally, Wade spends most of his time inside OASIS. It's probably just escapism, but who can blame him for that? He has a lot to want to escape from. However Wade has another motive over and above simply needing to get away from the misery of his daily existence. OASIS was created by a super-rich entrepreneur called James Halliday. After Halliday dies, it is revealed that he has hidden an Easter egg inside the game. The first person to find it will inherit his entire fortune. Wade is an Egg Hunter (gunter, in the jargon) and obviously he is eventually going to succeed in his self-imposed quest...

Neither the real nor the virtual world is portrayed in enough detail to grab hold of the reader's attention. Obvious contradictions such as the contrast between the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor in the real world are never resolved and the virtual world is largely a derivative and unimaginative amalgamation of far too many tedious computer games.

The novel is full of geeky name droppings which I found very irritating (yes, I did understand a large percentage of the references, no, I didn't find them either helpful or interesting in context). It's a shallow book with an artificial story that pads out its pages with interminable descriptions of the action of role playing games. Dull, dull, dull. Did I remember to say dull?

Mur Lafferty's new novel Six Wakes is an ingenious combination of both a science fiction novel and a traditional locked room detective story. I'm overcome with admiration at the clever way they have both been intermingled.

The starship Dormire is crewed by clones. In this society, cloning has effectively given immortality to everyone. When you die you are replaced by a clone who has your memories right up to the moment of your death loaded into it. This gives your never ending life a certain pleasing continuity...

Maria Arena's clone wakes up in the starship and immediately she realises that something is wrong. She has no memory of the death of her previous body which means that her memory is clearly not up to date. The clones of the other crew members are also resurrected in the same state as Maria. It soon becomes obvious that none of them have any memory of anything that has happened since they first boarded the ship twenty five years before. Furthermore, the crew members they have woken up to replace have all been murdered (or are seriously injured and unconscious). Clearly the murderer must be one of the earlier clones (after all, there isn't anyone else on the starship) but none of them have any idea who it is, or why the murders have been committed because none of them have the necessary memories...

The whodunnit puzzle is gradually pieced together and the writer doesn't cheat – she properly obeys the traditional conventions of the locked room genre. Along with the ongoing investigation of the murders, there are interspersed flashback chapters which fill in the backgrounds of the characters, their society and how it was that they came to be chosen to crew the starship in the first place; and these add up to a very well imagined science fictional scenario.

Six Wakes is an extremely clever novel which always plays fair with the reader. It's an excellent example of both the genres that it incorporates. I'm sure you'll all enjoy this ingenious, thoughtful and occasionally gruesome story.

I went to the stationery shop to stock up on blu-tack and then I went to the chemist to get my ear drops. The chemist stuck various explanatory labels on the ear drop box and pointed one of them out to me, just to make sure that I was well aware of the extreme danger I was letting myself in for. CAUTION: the label said in large, and not particularly friendly letters. DROPS MAY STAIN HAIR, CLOTHING, BED-LINEN AND OTHER ITEMS. I wondered if dogs and maybe wives could be considered to fall into the category of OTHER ITEMS. It might be an interesting experiment to see just exactly which ITEMS I could force a colour change on with this wondrous staining chemical I'd been given. Cats? The screens of mobile phones? The pages of favourite books? Knives and forks? Food? Would my green salad turn red? And did I have to do the proverbial laying on of ears, or would I actually develop a super power that would allow me to emit irresistible colour changing rays directly from my eardrums? Perhaps my ears themselves might change colour as soon as I dribbled the stuff into them? Blue, I mused to myself. I've always fancied blue ears. The next few days promised to be interesting ones, full of new experiences.

I went home and dripped three magical drops into my left ear, just as I'd been instructed to do. Spears of icy fire jangled down the blocked up channels and for just a moment I could hear again on that side, albeit faintly. Then the channels all closed up again and the sounds disappeared. But now I had an indication of what was to come, a promise that all was not irretrievably lost, and I was hopeful of making a full recovery.

The next morning I felt much less bunged up. But then I filled my ear with blu-tack before clambering onto the shower and everything on my left hand side closed right down again. It was very eerie. My right ear could hear the water crashing down around me but my left ear couldn't hear a thing and I was constantly being taken by surprise as the water hit the left side of my body. But at least the mechanisms hidden in my ear stayed dry, which was the whole point of the exercise, of course.

By the end of the week the mighty power of the colour-changing drops had given me back a small amount of hearing in my left ear. Stereo sound returned to me in all its duophonic glory, though the balance was still too far over to the right on the inside of my skull. Disappointingly no super powers had manifested themselves during the week and no matter how hard I tried, I had been totally unable to change the colour of anything at all. I felt more than a little disappointed by the extreme colour resistance of all the things I was surrounded by. But at least the pain and the swelling in my ear had gone away and the only time my tubes felt blocked up was when I inserted my daily blu-tack. All that remained now was to see the magnificent Frith for the final stage of my progression back to being able fully to make use of my left ear (did you notice the non-split infinitive I used there? Clever, eh?).

I've been binge reading the books of a novelist who is new to me. Jane Casey writes fairly traditional police procedural novels. They are extremely grim and gritty and I enjoyed them a lot, but reading them all in one go highlighted something about a lot of modern crime fiction that really I've only vaguely noticed before. A huge number of these novels concern themselves with ingenious serial killers who baffle the police and who sometimes use very unusual murder methods which quickly become identified as their trademark. There's nothing wrong with that in terms of telling a story of course, and many of the stories are very entertaining and absorbing. But they do require the reader to be more than willing to suspend their disbelief in order to accept the storyline because clearly the plots bear almost no relationship at all to real life. In the real world, serial killers such as these are very, very rare, though I would be the first to admit that they are not completely unheard of because I actually have some personal experience of the reality of such terrible people. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers, haunted my childhood, and Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was a grim background figure in my adult life. Sutcliffe left the corpse of one of his victims on my school playing fields. And in a rather unsettling twist, when Sutcliffe was finally arrested it turned out that that he had been a little too close to me for comfort – my father knew him casually and had once helped him unload his delivery van...

But such monstrous murderers are the exception, rather than the rule. Let's face it, by far the majority of actual murders are simple, sordid and squalid affairs, which are often the result of a domestic dispute. It's generally quite obvious who the killer is. Consequently most real murders have no material that a mystery novelist can use in a story because there is no actual mystery about them at all. I have an acquaintance who is serving a life sentence for just such a domestic killing. He was arrested within moments of the body being discovered, and there is absolutely nothing about the revolting circumstances of his crime that's worth writing about.

Such thoughts make me feel that there is perhaps quite a close relationship between some of the more outrageous police procedurals and the science fiction novels that I grew up reading. Both genres require the reader to exhibit the same kind of willing suspension of disbelief, because both genres have the same lack of attachment to reality (whatever that might be). Maybe that similarity is why I continue to read widely in both of them...

There are always exceptions of course. Clearly both crime fiction and science fiction can and do deal with things that correspond a little more closely to the real life I read about in my newspapers. But the existence of "reality-based" genre fiction does not invalidate any of the more extreme stories that continue to flourish happily alongside it.

Jane Casey's novels are all of the "ingenious serial killer" variety and make no mistake about it, they are superb examples of the genre, unreal fantasies though they may be. I found the books to be great fun, though the mystery that puzzles the police was seldom very mysterious to me as a reader. In every case I worked out who the killer must be long before the police themselves figured it out! But that didn't matter – I continued to be eager to find out just what motivated the killer, and I greatly enjoyed the wry observations about the ongoing relationship between the two major protagonists as they squirm and squabble their way to solving the crime. Their relationship grows and changes throughout the series (it's the basis of a long story arc spreading across all the novels). Kerrigan, the first person narrator, is a very stubborn and often very stupid detective constable and Inspector Derwent, her immediate superior, is as nasty and as insensitive as they come. Except that as we get to know them both better, such two dimensional judgements come back to bite us. The truth, as always, is a much more subtle thing. This is handled very cleverly and elegantly.

Perhaps I made a mistake by reading seven novels one after the other (binge reading is seldom a good idea). But in my defence, the stories just grabbed hold of me and simply wouldn't let me go. I really, really wanted to find out just how Kerrigan was going to mess up her private life next...

And as an added bonus, Jane Casey is one of the few writers I've come across who actually understands what computers can and can't do. She is well aware of how they work and what their limitations are. And she gets the jargon right. That's a very refreshing change indeed.

Laura Lippman is perhaps best known for a series of novels about a Baltimore private eye called Tess Monaghan. These are truly excellent books but perhaps she has come to find the formula too limiting because for the last few years she has been writing some truly superb stand alone novels. The Innocents is one of these (though Tess Monaghan does have a bit part in it).

In the 1970s, five children become friends. Their friendship is deep and strong and seems to be eternal. But something rather horrible happens towards the end of the decade and slowly the bonds of friendship dissolve. Thirty years later one of them crashes his car and dies. His death briefly reunites what remains of the old gang. The Innocents is the story of those early years and of what happened to each of them after the friendship ended. It's a story of lost innocence (hence the title) and of growing up, and of unpalatable truths. It's moving and gripping, sad and sometimes bitter. Lippman says it is the most autobiographical of her novels. I'd really love to know which bits of the story are made up and which of them are not.

Alan Judd's novel Deep Blue is a spy novel, the latest in an ongoing series about the career of Charles Thoroughgood in the British intelligence services. All the novels in the series can be read in any order, quite independently of one another – there is no over-riding story arc. The novels are very reminiscent of the early John le Carré. Judd is, I think, the first writer I've come across who can truly be compared with le Carré and who does not suffer in any way from the comparison.

At the opening of Deep Blue, we find Charles Thoroughgood in charge of MI6. The service is in disgrace (when is it not?) and it has been relegated to a set of dingy offices in Croyden. There seems to be little hope of moving back to London, though Charles is trying hard to set certain bureaucratic wheels in motion in order to bring that end about...

By eavesdropping on some casual internet chatter, his counterpart in MI5 has picked up hints of an operation code named "Deep Blue". It doesn't seem to correlate with anything else on record, but nevertheless the hints about what it might consist of are worrying enough for him to discuss it with Charles. The phrase rings a bell with Charles – thirty years before he had been part of an inconclusive MI6 operation involving a Russian mole who used the phrase to refer to rumours of subversion within UK government and intelligence circles. Nothing ever came of it and the protagonists in that old operation are now mostly long since dead. All that remains is an old file gathering dust in Charles' personal records. It's a paper file – it was deemed too obscure and irrelevant to be put through the digitizing process that most of the intelligence service records have undergone, which of course is why MI5 could find no record of the phrase when they went searching for it. Even computers have their limitations.

Here the narrative splits into two strands. One strand takes place in the past, and it concentrates on the details of the unsatisfactory operation that involved the original Deep Blue and Charles' relationship with the Russian mole and defector. The other strand concerns itself with the present and an unhealthy alliance that has developed between the Home Secretary and his political advisor who seems to have some kind of agenda of her own involving the intelligence services.

One of the great strengths of the novel is the realistic way it depicts the political in-fighting involved in all governmental processes. The intelligence services are just as much in thrall to the bureaucrats as any other governmental organisation and it is always necessary to jump through the appropriate hoops at the appropriate time. The winners are the ones who know how to manipulate the system for their own ends. Being in charge of MI6 does not exempt you from playing the game of office politics and Charles Thoroughgood is a past master of that game as well as of the game of espionage. It he gets everything right, perhaps he'll be able to move his department out of Croyden.

This is a clever, subtle and wholly absorbing novel. Read it immediately, you won't regret it.

Frith called me in to her surgery and sat me down on a chair. "Now," she said briskly, "what can I do for you."

I explained the problem and she nodded wisely. "Have you had any trouble with your ears before?" she asked.

"No," I said. "I had a build of wax about 20 years ago and I had to have my ears washed out to get rid of it. But that's all."

"Ah," she said. "Well, we don't do that any more. The warm water that we used to flush the wax out had a nasty habit of flowing too freely from the ears and far too many people left the surgery with wet T-shirts. The ladies objected. We've got a much better system now. I have a microscope which goes down into your ear so I can see exactly what's going on in there while I use a little suction pump to pull the wax out. With the microscope I can be sure to chase it all down through every nook and cranny. You'll get a constant buzzing in your ears as I suck all the wax up, but that's all."

"Righto," I said. "Let's do it."

I find it very hard to categorise Nell Stevens' book Bleaker House. Is it a novel? Well, yes it is. Is it an autobiographical memoir? Yes it is. Could it, perhaps, be a travel book? Yes, it's that as well. Do all the elements fit together and make it work? Amazingly, yes they do, and I have absolutely no idea how she has managed to pull it off so successfully.

Nell Stevens was determined to write a novel but somehow she never could find the time. Life kept getting in the way; there were too many distractions. Then she applied for and obtained a fellowship grant that would allow her to spend three months, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world to research and write a novel. What could possibly go wrong?

Knowing herself very well, Nell chose to ignore the fleshpots. Instead, she opted to spend her time in probably the loneliest, most isolated place in the world with absolutely no outside distractions at all to entice her away from the task of writing her novel. She arranged to stay in a guest house on Bleaker Island, a windswept pile of rock just off one of the Falkland Islands. For most of her time on the rock Nell would be the only person there. She would have to bring all her food with her when she arrived – there was no possibility at all of resupply. Once she was settled in, she was there alone for the duration. Just her, a few sheep and a colony of penguins.

Easy, she thought. She worked out her daily calorie requirements down to (literally) the last raisin, and she packed her suitcase full of carefully calculated supplies. She settled in to her isolation, unpacked her laptop and sat down to write 2,500 words a day of a novel she called, with a nice sense of irony, Bleaker House.

Well, it didn't quite work out. What a surprise! After three months she didn't have a novel, but she did have a description of her daily life on Bleaker Island interspersed with blocks of fiction and a whole lot of introspection. It all adds up to quite the oddest piece of prose I've read in a long while, but somehow the whole preposterous mish-mash is very much greater than the sum of its parts and it all hangs together beautifully well. It just goes to show that three months of isolation can sometimes make a work of art out of desperate prose.

Frith made me lie down on a bed and turn my head to one side. She inserted the tube of the microscope into my ear and peered down it. "Goodness me!" she said, impressed. "It looks like an elephant has been relieving itself of its anxiety inside there."

"Ah yes," I said, feeling mildly embarrassed. "Do you remember how Auckland Zoo misplaced one of its elephants a little while back?"

"Vaguely," said Frith vaguely.

"Well actually that was me," I confessed. "Last time I visited the zoo I put an elephant in my ear and took it home with me for the dog to play with. It was a perfect fit. Nobody noticed a thing as I walked out through the turnstile. And the dog loved his new elephant! He had a lot of fun chasing it round the garden. Eventually he inhumed it under the bay tree. He still digs it up every so often when he has a task for a tusk."

"That would explain a lot," said Frith and she turned the suction pump on. A series of squelchy, squeaky noises ran up and down my tubes and deep within my ear I felt an intense itch as if a large insect, possibly a cockroach, was twisting round and round in frantic circles...

"Oooh look! There goes a weta," cried Frith, delighted.

Slurp, slurp, slurp.

Eventually it was over and Frith removed her gadgets. "There we are," she said with deep satisfaction, "not a trace of wax left. Let's do the other ear now."

The whole disgusting ritual played itself out again on the other side of my head.

"That's it," said Frith at last. "You are now completely wax free. I suppose I'll see you again in twenty years time."

"It's a date," I said.

I went home, marvelling at the intense clarity of the everyday sounds that surrounded me.

Earnest Cline Ready Player One Random House
Mur Lafferty Six Wakes Orbit
Jane Casey The Burning Minotaur
Jane Casey The Reckoning Minotaur
Jane Casey The Last Girl Minotaur
Jane Casey The Stranger You Know Minotaur
Jane Casey The Kill Minotaur
Jane Casey After The Fire Minotaur
Jane Casey Let The Dead Speak Minotaur
Laura Lippman The Innocents William Morrow
Alan Judd Deep Blue Simon and Schuster
Nell Stevens Bleaker House Knopf
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