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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (circuitus ruptio)

May the Circuit be Unbroken


Half the electronic gadgets in the house suddenly stopped working. What a catastrophe! We didn't even have an internet connection any more so I couldn't ask google what it all meant. I sat there feeling helpless until Robin, who is much wiser in the ways of the world than I am, said, "I think the circuit breaker has tripped again."

"Why does it keep doing that?" I asked, somewhat puzzled. "It seems to happen at least once a month. Sometimes more."

"Maybe we are overloading the circuit," she suggested.

"I doubt it," I said. "We don't really have very much of anything plugged into it."

"Why don't you wander round the house and make a note of all the things that are no longer working," she said. "Then we'll know exactly what we've got on the circuit."

"To hear is to obey," I said. I picked up a notebook and set off on an expedition. Every time I found something that no longer had any annoying status indication lights on it I wrote the item down. Once I'd identified everything that was plugged in to the circuit, I presented the list to Robin:

A fridge
Another fridge
Stereo amplifier and tuner
Two DVD players
Freeview box
Four laptop computers
Desktop computer
Combination file and print server
Laser printer
Combination scanner and printer
Another file server
Sundry networking gizmos
UFB broadband connection
A modem called Fritz
Two telephones
Tumble drier
Electric heater
Vacuum cleaner
Electric toothbrush
Bessemer converter
Aluminium smelter
Thermal depolymerization tank
Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation plant
Robot partridge in an electronic pear tree

"See," I said. "There's hardly anything of any significance at all on the circuit. It can't possibly be overloaded."

"The problem has to be the toothbrush," said Robin. "Everything else on the list seems perfectly fine. Go and turn it off and then reset the circuit breaker."

I turned the toothbrush off and unplugged it so as to make assurance doubly sure. I went to the main fusebox, opened it up and stared at the circuit breakers. Sure enough, one of them was firmly switched to the off position. I toggled it back on, but as soon as I let go of the switch it immediately flipped itself back off again. The circuit breaker itself was quite hot, and there was a distinct smell of burning permeating the fusebox. I reported what I'd found to Robin.

"Wait a few minutes for the circuit breaker to cool down," advised Robin, "and then try again."

"Righto," I said. "It's pretty cold outside so it shouldn't take long for the heat to dissipate."

After a few minutes, I successfully managed to toggle the circuit breaker back on and everything hummed into life again for a minute or so. Then the smell of burning got stronger and...


...the circuit breaker broke the circuit once more.

"Let's switch things off one by one until it stops doing that," suggested Robin.

I experimented with off switches until eventually, and rather grudgingly, the circuit allowed our fridges to keep the beer cool, it let us watch television via the Freeview box and it kept our internet connection alive. But that was as far as it was prepared to go – if we added anything more to the circuit...


...everything plunged into darkness again.

"That will never do," said Robin. "How are we ever going to manage without our Bessemer converter?"

"Not to mention the thermal depolymerization tank," I said gloomily. "That's vital."

"Thermal depolymerization tank," mused Robin. "Remind me again why we need it so badly."

"I told you not to mention the thermal depolymerization tank," I said.

"Sorry," said Robin. "I forgot. I wonder if perhaps an electrician could help get the thing I'm not allowed to mention working again?"

"Probably," I said. "But today is Sunday. Nobody is going to come and look at it today. Or if they do, it will certainly cost us several vitally important body parts to which we are both firmly attached."

"Send an email anyway," said Robin. "They will read it first thing tomorrow morning. Maybe that way we'll be the first in the queue."

I picked up my (battery powered) android tablet, connected it to the wifi, and sent off an email. We settled down to watch television. A few minutes later, rather to my surprise, my tablet made the plaintive meeping noise that signals the arrival of an email. I opened it up and had a look.

"That doesn't sound good," said the email. "I'd suggest you have it checked out by an electrician."

"That seems like a good idea," I replied. "I hadn't thought of doing that. Can you arrange it for me?"

"Yes," was the almost immediate reply. "I'll send someone round between 8.00 and 8.30 tomorrow morning."

The Grief Hole is the latest novel from award winning Australian writer Kaaron Warren, and it is truly magnificent – her best work yet.

Theresa is a social worker who sees ghosts – when a person is about to die, Theresa sees that person surrounded by the ghosts of those who have died under similar circumstances. Because she is a social worker, Theresa constantly finds herself dealing with people who are surrounded by ghosts and, being a compassionate person, she sometimes tries to intervene on behalf of those people. Not all her interventions are successful. In an attempt to recover from a particularly harrowing intervention, Theresa spends some time with her uncle Scott where she is soon drawn into the most difficult and dangerous intervention that she has ever attempted...

Charismatic popular singer Sol Evictus has a dark side. He collects images of death and he sends Theresa's cousin Amber into a house known as the Grief Hole to record the faces of the people who commit suicide there. But Amber herself dies in the Grief Hole. Clearly something needs to be done about Sol Evictus...

There are many grief holes in the world, some of them are physical and some of them are metaphysical. We all have those dark places deep inside ourselves where we go to hide and huddle when the world gets too overwhelming to bear. The physical grief hole of the novel is instantly recognisable as a projection of those bleak places. Certain minds and certain moods find that attraction hard to resist. It so temptingly mimics the familiar darkness that we carry within us, always encouraging us to go deeper and deeper.

It's hard to say that I enjoyed the book. The story is so bleak and dark that "enjoy" is probably completely the wrong word. Nevertheless I found that I did enjoy it, even though I could only read a few pages a day. I kept having to put the book down and do something else because the emotions were just too overwhelming. Only when the ghosts that surrounded me had gone away could I pick the book up again and carry on reading. But strangely, picking it up again was never a hardship and I always looked forward to finding out what happened next.

Amusingly, despite the bleakness and the overwhelming horror, every so often a little joke surfaces in the text... Theresa is in a shop that sells costumes and fancy dress. She tells the proprietor about her Aunt Prudence, who is also known as the Balloon Woman because she always has balloons to sell to children. The proprietor is puzzled.

"The Balloon Woman? What is that? I have men balloons. I have one woman. Marilyn Monroe. You want to buy that? I have Margaret Thatcher too but she has a hole."

I must confess, the image that painted in my head made me smile and provided a welcome relief from the darkness.

The Grief Hole is full of weirdly eccentric but nevertheless beautifully drawn characters. Aunt Prudence, the Balloon Woman, is actually my favourite even though she has only a minor role to play in the events of the novel. All the people in the book feel so real which is, of course, why I found the book to be such an emotional roller coaster ride. This truly is a clever, subtle and utterly magnificent novel.

Deon Meyer is a South African novelist best known for writing police procedurals. As far as I know, Fever is his only venture into science fiction, but goodness me, he is leading from strength. It's an "after the apocalypse" novel set, not surprisingly, in South Africa. To an extent, I suppose, we've seen it all before – a rapidly spreading fever kills off most of the world's population and the few survivors eventually coalesce into social (and eventually political) groups, banding together for mutual protection from the outlaw bikie gangs. So far so commonplace. But Deon Meyer has taken this routine material and woven a magnificently page-turning story from it. Partly, of course, the exotic (to me) setting of South Africa would account for that. But mainly I think the spell that the book casts is due to the fact that it is so easy to identify with the characters who are living the story. I found myself caring very much about their eventual fate.

The ending, with a so-called (and not completely unexpected) twist in the tale, is rather weak and unconvincing. But I'm willing to forgive that for the sake of the spell binding story.

Tomorrow's Kin by Nancy Kress is the first volume of a trilogy expanded from her Nebula and Locus Award winning novella Yesterday's Kin.

The story begins as an alien "first contact" story, though it very quickly turns into much more than that. The aliens have landed an Embassy ship in the harbour of New York. However once contact has been made, the aliens turn out to be not so very alien at all. They are human beings descended from a group that was kidnapped from Earth 140,000 years ago by real aliens and left to their own devices on a colony planet. We never learn the motives that lie behind the original abduction – presumably that point will be addressed in the later books of the trilogy.

The people in the embassy ship have developed a star drive – their knowledge of physics is much greater than ours. However our knowledge of the biological sciences is far in advance of theirs.

The visitors reveal that Earth is only ten months away from a crisis. The planet is about to pass through a cloud of spores which will be inimical, if not fatal to life on the planet. Having passed on the warning, the visitors return to their home world leaving behind as much information as they can about the working of the star drive. And the countdown to the arrival of the spores begins...

At that point, the story stops being an alien encounter story and becomes an after the apocalypse story, except that the apocalypse turns out to be much less of a crisis than the visitors thought it would be, though it is by no means harmless and it does have some rather worrying consequences (remember, the visitors aren't very knowledgeable about the biological sciences). So now the story stops being an after the apocalypse story and switches direction once again. Now, finally, we get to understand what this novel is really all about.

People aren't rational. They often make decisions for all the wrong reasons. We like to pretend that we examine the facts and come to conclusions based on those facts. But all too often we are side tracked by our biases, whether they be conscious or unconscious ones. The emotional appeal of ideas that pander to what we think we already know is very easy to understand. Conversely we are much more likely to reject ideas that contradict what we think we know. And what we think we know is conditional upon the belief systems that we were raised with (and that itself may be rather more of a chicken and egg question than you might perhaps think it is at first glance).

What this all means in practical terms is that many people will simply refuse to believe what is right in front of their eyes – even today in the real world (TM) a significant number of people are completely unable to accept Darwin's theory of evolution in spite of the overwhelming evidence in its favour. Some people like to pretend that global warming cannot possibly be happening despite the incontrovertible evidence that it is. In every case the opponents of these issues go looking for alternative explanations that fit more neatly within the ideas that they already accept as the truth. And so we get creationism, and conspiracy theories and the like.

Tomorrow's Kin is a subtle and very clever examination of this kind of thinking. The novel is full of incontrovertible facts that many people simply refuse to accept. The aliens are actually human – no, that can't be right; they came from the stars so they must be aliens. The visitors warned us about the deadly spore cloud and our astronomers have confirmed that it exists – no, somehow the aliens manufactured the spore cloud and now they are using it to wipe us out for mysterious reasons of their own. The visitors provided us with the physics that allow us to build a star drive – clearly that's a trojan horse and we build those starships at our peril.

Nancy Kress has embarked on an utterly fascinating journey that sets out to explore the way that we think and the consequences of the biases that drive us. This first volume of the trilogy is very clever and very subtle and more than a little bit scary because of the way that it seeks to explain and understand the illogicality that we see happening all around us every single day here in the real world (TM, again). I am greatly looking forward to the future volumes.

These days Christopher Fowler is best known as the author of a series of rather strange police procedural novels starring a pair of very peculiar detectives called Bryant and May (fourteen novels so far). But thirty years ago he was writing what, for want of a better word, I can only call horror stories though that is an inadequate label for the weirdly twisted novels that he came up with back then. He was also a very prolific writer of short stories and he published several collections round about the same time that Clive Barker was publishing the stories that made up his Books of Blood. Barker's stories brought him international acclaim and he went on to bigger and better things. Fowler's stories vanished without trace, which is a pity because in my opinion he was a much better short story writer than Clive Barker ever was. Oh well, so it goes...

Paper Boy and Film Freak are two volumes of autobiography by Christopher Fowler and I read them with utter fascination, and not a few belly laughs. Fowler and I are almost of an age and our childhood comprised the rather grim and grey decade that was the 1950s (though we didn't recognise the drabness then; to us it was just normal. Only the wisdom of hindsight has shown us the time as it really was). We grew up at opposite ends of the country, Fowler in London and me in the West Riding of Yorkshire, so we were separated by a cultural and even a linguistic divide that was sometimes quite hard to bridge in those days, given the almost tribal level of hatred that divided Briton from Briton in that far off time before the levelling effect of television started to smooth out the bumps. Nevertheless there was much about Fowler's childhood as he describes it in Paper Boy that I recognised. We share a lot of memories.

Film Freak took me into slightly more unfamiliar territory. Like most people of our generation Fowler grew up obsessed with the world of film (specifically, in his case, the world of British film, such as it was). But unlike many of us he carried his obsession forward into a career, firstly as a script writer and then as a film distributor. Despite the fact that the British film industry was pretty much dead when Fowler began attempting to make his living from it (it just hadn't laid itself down yet) he somehow managed to keep his financial head (just) above water. He mingled with the glamorous and the famous, and he rubbed shoulders with the movers and shakers. As a result of all this he picked up a lot of really juicy gossip, much of which he shares with us in this book. I don't know about you, but I really enjoy a good bit of gossip.

Both these books also throw some light upon his career as a novelist and I found those reminiscences quite fascinating. I really love reading the memoirs of writers when they muse about the vagaries and inspirations of their writing life and Christopher Fowler's thoughts on the subject are particularly insightful. I enjoyed these two books a lot.

One of the most charismatic British rock'n'rollers of the post punk era was Ian Dury. His clever (and often very dirty) lyrics and his amazingly catchy tunes (almost every single one is a massive ear worm) endeared him to everybody, and by the time of his death in March 2000 he had become a national icon, loved by one and all.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll is the title of one of Dury's songs and it is also the title of a biography of Dury written by one Richard Balls who has somehow managed to pull off the incredible feat of writing the most boring rock biography it's ever been my displeasure to read. Go and read the Wikipedia page about Ian Dury instead. You'll learn far more about him there than you ever will from reading this ponderous and tedious book.

The next day, as promised, an electrician called Ben turned up at precisely 8.15am. I explained the situation to him.

"Well," he said, "let's start by taking a look at the main fuse box."

He opened it up and I showed him the circuit breaker that was causing all the problems. He poked it with a curious finger. "That's odd," he mused. "We've just had the coldest night of the year and yet this circuit breaker is still quite warm."

I felt it myself. "It was much hotter than that yesterday," I said. "It has cooled down a little bit."

"But nowhere near enough," said Ben. "All the other circuits are quite cold in comparison. There's definitely something rather odd about this one. Let's take a closer look at what's going on." He unplugged the circuit breaker. "Goodness me," he said in surprise. "I've never had that happen to me before!"

As he pulled the circuit breaker out, both it and the socket it was plugged into disintegrated into small chunks of plastic all of which were smeared with the black, sooty streaks of left behind smoke particles. "I'm surprised that circuit was standing up to any power load at all," said Ben. "The whole thing is clearly on its very last legs. The socket and the circuit breaker are both going to have to be replaced. Let's go behind the scenes and see what's causing the damage." He turned off all the power coming into the house then he unscrewed the fuse box and swung it forward so that he could get at the inner workings. He poked around for a while then he whistled softly. "Look at this!" he said. He pulled out a cable and showed it to me. The tip of the wire which had been connected to the plug that the circuit breaker was protecting was covered in small silver droplets of melted metal where it had tried very hard to weld itself to the contact in the plug. Behind that about an inch and a half of the plastic insulation round the cable was charred and black and crumbling. "That would explain the smell of burning," said Ben thoughtfully.

"Yes," I said. "It would rather. What caused it to happen in the first place?"

"Probably one time when the circuit was overloaded there was some arcing around the contacts in the plug before the circuit breaker finally tripped," said Ben. "Maybe the connection was a little bit loose. After that, things just got worse every time the circuit broke."

Ben cut off the burned section of the cable and then he cut off an inch more for luck. He trimmed back the insulation and twisted the exposed wire to form a nice solid contact point which he screwed into a brand new plug. He reassembled all the other bits and pieces and closed the fusebox up again. Then he plugged in a brand new circuit breaker and turned the power back on.

"There you are," he said proudly. "It's as good as new. That should stand up to pretty much anything you plug into it."

"What would have happened if we'd left things alone and just kept resetting the circuit breaker every time it tripped?" I asked.

"One of two things," said Ben. "Either the circuit breaker would have eventually refused ever to flip back to the on position and you'd have had no choice but to call an electrician to come round and fix it..." His voice died away into a contemplative silence.

"Or?" I prompted.

"Or," he continued, "the wiring in the house would have protected the circuit breaker from damage by bursting into flame before the circuit breaker had a chance to trip. And then the house would have burned to the ground. Everything you own would have been destroyed and you, your wife, your cats and your dog would probably all have died a rather painful death."

"That doesn't sound like any fun at all," I said thoughtfully.

"It does have its drawbacks," said Ben, handing me an Electrical Safety Certificate which guaranteed the workmanship on his repair. "But look on the bright side. At least the circuit breaker would have been fine."

"That is a great consolation," I said.

"Don't forget to switch your toothbrush on," said Ben as he drove off to his next job.

Kaaron Warren The Grief Hole IFWG Publishing
Deon Meyer Fever Hodder and Stoughton
Nancy Kress Tomorrow's Kin Tor
Christopher Fowler Paper Boy Doubleday
Christopher Fowler Film Freak Doubleday
Richard Balls Sex and Drugs And Rock and Roll

-The Life of Ian Dury

Omnibus Press

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