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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (vitreus speculorum)

Pick a Peck of Pakowhai

Most lunchtimes Jake the Dog and I drive to Pakowhai Park so that Jake can run around off the lead, sniff at things and try to herd the other dogs. None of them pay him any attention, which he finds incredibly frustrating, but nevertheless he continues to try very hard because that’s his super power and he simply can’t help himself.

For the last year or so, busy men in high visibility jackets have been digging up large sections of the road around Pakowhai Park. The traffic system is being completely re-organised – three new roundabouts and a whole new road will completely alter the approach to the park when they are finally finished. But while the construction is going on, navigating the roads in order to get to the park is a frustratingly slow, complex and occasionally dangerous process. Potholes appear and disappear without warning. Yesterday’s two way stretch is today’s single lane and traffic builds up waiting impatiently for a man carrying a STOP sign to turn it to GO so that they have permission to proceed. There is much shaking of fists and the occasional hoot. Loose stones and gravel are everywhere and vast clouds of dirt and dust envelope every vehicle. Commercial car washers are doing a roaring trade.

One day, as Jake and I were making our way to the park, something went CRACK! very loudly.

"What was that?" asked Jake, startled.

"A flying stone has hit the windscreen," I said. "If you look carefully you can see the chip in the glass."

"That will have to be fixed," said Jake. "Chipped windscreens are not safe."

"I’ll arrange to have it done as soon as possible," I said. "Meanwhile, let’s go for a run in the park."

"What a good idea!" said Jake, and so that’s what we did.

When we got back to the car after our run, we found that the chip in the windscreen had turned into a large crack that travelled about four inches down the windscreen. "Oh dear," said Jake, "that looks ominous. I wonder how they’ll manage to fix it."

"I’m not sure they’ll be able to," I replied. "But it’s definitely a job for the experts, and quite an urgent one as well."

Jake got in the car and put his seat belt on. I did the same and we drove carefully home. I was a little dubious about driving with a cracked windscreen. Was it going to shatter without warning, showering me with glass crystals? I parked my car in the garage and rang a windscreen specialist for advice.

"Who are you insured with?" asked the nice windscreen specialist. I told her and she checked up on the details of my policy. "Oh look," she said, "you’ve got a glass clause in your policy and there’s no excess on the coverage. So whatever we have to do to your windscreen won’t cost you anything. The insurance company will pay for it all. Isn’t that lucky?"

"Yes it is," I said, starting to feel a bit better about the whole thing.

"Now," she said, "describe the crack for me. How big is it?"

"It’s about four inches long," I said, "running vertically up and down the windscreen from the original spot where the stone chipped it."

"Something that size definitely means you’ll need a whole new windscreen," she said. "Is the crack obstructing your view of the road?"

"No," I said. "It’s just behind the mirror so I really don’t see very much of it unless I squint."

"Perfect," she enthused. "That means you are quite safe to drive the car. We only get worried when the crack is across your field of view. It tends to be rather distracting and that makes driving more than a little bit dangerous."

"But isn’t it still dangerous to drive with a big crack like that, even if it is out of my field of view?" I asked. "What happens if it gets worse and the windscreen shatters?"

"Run your fingernail across the crack," she said, "and see if you can feel it."

I did what she said and I couldn’t feel anything at all. I could feel the original chip where the stone had hit the windscreen but the glass around the crack itself was perfectly smooth both inside and outside the car. If I hadn’t been able to see the crack, I’d have sworn that there was nothing there at all. I reported these finding to the windscreen specialist.

"That’s good," she said. "It means the outer layers of the windscreen are intact and only the inner layer is actually broken. So you’ll be quite safe to drive with it until we can get the windscreen replaced. The outer layers will protect you, though you may find that the crack gets larger as time passes. Once the integrity of the inner layer is breached it will start to lose tensile strength as the crack puts pressure on it and so the crack will gradually expand."

"OK," I said. "That makes sense. So when can I come and get my new windscreen?"

"We don’t have a free appointment slot for another two weeks," she said. She named a date and time. "How does that suit you?"

"Righto," I said, "put me down for that. Why is there such a long waiting list?"

"Because we are getting about 300 broken windscreens a week," she explained. "There’s a lot of road works going on around Pakowhai Park and our work load has more than doubled since they started."

"Tell me about it," I said. "That’s where mine got damaged."

"I’m not surprised," she said. "See you in a fortnight."

Over the next few days the crack gradually increased in size, just as the lady had said it  might. But it didn’t continue to grow vertically. Clearly it was bored with that direction, so it turned through ninety degrees and began to wander horizontally. From where I sat in the driver’s seat it looked like a very large upper case ‘L’. Perhaps if I waited long enough, other letters might appear. Maybe an alien entity from between dimensions was painstakingly writing a message to me on my windscreen. ‘L’ – what could it mean? I discussed the riddle with Jake.

"Perhaps it’s going to be an advert urging you to watch re-runs of I Love Lucy?" suggested Jake.

"Maybe it will be an advert for Liquorice allsorts," I said. "I hate Liquorice allsorts."

"Whatever it is, it’s bound to be an advert," said Jake. "Adverts are everywhere these days. They are almost impossible to avoid. When you get the new windscreen installed, make sure that it’s got an ad-blocker fitted as standard. We don’t want this to happen again." It was sound advice and I determined to take it.

* * * *

Elevation is a novella by Stephen King. The story’s protagonist is losing more and more weight, even though his body isn't getting any smaller. Furthermore, anything he touches also becomes weightless. What will happen to him when his weight reaches zero?

The plot may remind you of Thinner, a novel that Stephen King published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. I doubt if that is a coincidence. However Thinner is a much better story – at least there’s a reason why its protagonist is losing weight, albeit a rather silly one (a gypsy curse). The protagonist of Elevation just keeps getting lighter and lighter for no very good reason at all. It’s just an authorial given.

The story is thinly fleshed out with stereotypical characters and by the time I reached the all too predictable end of it I really didn’t care at all about any of the so-called people involved. This is just Stephen King going through the motions and writing by numbers. I’ve read it for you and therefore you don’t need to bother with it. Trust me, you really don’t.

Justin and Sydnee McElroy produce a weekly podcast about the history of modern medicine. The Sawbones Book is an audiobook collection of these podcasts. The material itself is fascinating, often extremely gross and occasionally amusing – are you feeling detached from the world? Then why not drill a hole in your head to enhance your brain function and achieve a permanent high? If it gives you a headache, perhaps you might consider curing the throbbing pain by applying a boiled weasel to your forehead.

Unfortunately Justin and Sydnee are appallingly bad at presenting their material. They swallow syllables, speak in a monotone and indulge themselves in pathetic, childish jokes at utterly inappropriate moments. The whole production is so amateurish and so painful to listen to that eventually I simply had to give up on it. I cannot understand why the podcast itself is so popular, but apparently it is. I can only assume that most people are much more tolerant of totally talentless speakers than I am.

Richard A. Lupoff has been a full time science fiction writer since 1970, but nevertheless his name seldom comes up in conversation. His books are hard to find and are mostly out of print. Many of them had such tiny original print runs that they vanished from the world almost before they appeared in it! Fortunately Gollancz’s Gateway imprint has now made many of them available again as ebooks and, as usual, I’ve spent far too much money buying (or in some cases re-buying) far too many of them…

In the 1960s, Lupoff was an editor for Canaveral Books where he republished a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels in handsome, hardback editions. The research he put in to publishing what he considered to be definitive texts was put to good use in his own book Edgar Rice Burroughs – Master of Adventure, which is a literary biography of Burroughs.  The book is a sprightly and thoughtful analysis of Burroughs’ life and works. Lupoff freely admits to the many flaws that exist in Burroughs’ writing, but he finds many virtues there as well. The  book is essential reading for Burroughs fans. It is far more interesting and insightful than the "official" Burroughs biography (Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Man Who Invented Tarzan by Irwin Porges, published in 1975 by Brigham Young University Press) which is full of dull minutiae and very short on analysis.

Lupoff’s book has had several revisions over the years, the Gateway ebook is a republication of the third edition, if you care about such minutiae.

Before 12.01 and After is a collection of Lupoff’s short stories. The story 12.01 appears in the middle of the book so there are stories that appear before it and stories that appear after it, hence the title. Rather clever, I thought.

12.01 itself is one of Lupoff’s most famous stories (if such an obscure writer can be said to have a famous story). In it the protagonist is forced to live and re-live the hour between 12 noon and 1.00pm. He has complete freedom of choice during that hour – he doesn’t keep playing out the same events over and over – but no matter what he does he can’t escape from the hour. Nobody else seems to know what’s going on. He is the only person he can find who remembers that he has experienced the hour many times before. The ending of the story is suitably horrifying and I was very impressed with it.

The stories in the colletions are all very strong ones though sometimes they are a little idiosyncratic. In addition to the more straightforward stories, the collection also includes several pastiches – there’s one of the oddest Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve ever read and a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Chronic Argonauts, the original story that Wells later revised and published to universal acclaim as The Time Machine.

It’s an excellent collection of stories, and I enjoyed it.

One of the highlights of Harlan Ellison’s 1972 anthology Again Dangerous Visions was a Richard Lupoff story which had the unlikely title of With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama. (There was a fashion at the time for stories with long, ungainly titles. I kept hoping to find a story whose title was longer than the story itself, but I never did). Lupoff later expanded the story into a novel with the much more conventional title Space War Blues. The novel was published by Dell in 1978. Lupoff claims, with some pride, that one of Dell’s editors described it as "...unutterable bilge...". It went out of print almost immediately, never to be seen again until the Gateway ebook rescued it from oblivion.

One of the reasons for its poor reception was that Lupoff adopted a very odd writing style for his story. The text played havoc with the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation in an effort to represent the future dialect of the southern American states (rednecks in sp-a-a-a-ce). The style is a sort of phonetic spelling, taken to extremes, and I must admit that it is often very hard to read. Normally I dislike this kind of thing because I read words as complete units rather than sounding them out, and so phonetically mis-spelled words tend to puzzle me. But somehow Lupoff managed to invest his odd style with an almost Joycean wit and I found that it was well worth the (sometimes quite considerable) effort to plough through it. The book will not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed it.

Delphi Classics are a publishing company who have dedicated themselves to seeking out and republishing the complete works of many classic writers – works which, generally speaking, are out of copyright. The books are published as beautifully edited and produced DRM-free ebooks (some classic writers were so prolific that I don’t think it would be physically possible to publish their complete works in a single volume dead-tree format – thank goodness for electrons). I’ve bought several of the Delphi Classic books, but by far and away my favourite is The Complete Works of Lord Dunsany. My major reason for liking it so much is that at long last I get to read Jorkens Remembers Africa, the second of the six collections of Jorkens stories. It’s the most difficult to find of the Jorkens books (copies sell for several hundred dollars on the rare occasions that they turn up in the marketplace). Over the years I’ve managed to find and buy all the other Jorkens books at reasonable prices (except for the posthumous Last Book of Jorkens), but I’ve never even seen a copy of Jorkens Remembers Africa before.

The stories narrated by the eponymous John Joseph Jorkens to the members of his club are the direct inspiration for Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp’s Tales of Gavagan’s Bar, Larry Niven’s Draco’s Tavern tales, Spider Robinson’s stories about Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon

and, of course, Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent Tales From the White Hart. Without Lord Dunsany and Jorkens himself, none of them would ever have happened and the world would be a much poorer place.

There is no doubt that some of the Jorkens stories are showing their age – time and events have overtaken them. But nevertheless I continue to enjoy them and I am very pleased indeed to have them all as ebooks, thanks to the good people at Delphi Classics.

Virtue Signalling and Other Heresies is the fifth collection of articles that were originally published on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever. The book has been published as a limited edition hardback by Subterranean Press (my copy is number 189 from a print run of 1000). By the time this review is published, the limited edition will certainly have sold out. However Subterranean Press have also published the book as a DRM-free ebook which you can buy direct from Subterranean Press themselves at a very reasonable price. So you have no excuse for not buying it.

Many of the essays collected in this book are heavily concerned with an analysis (and condemnation) of the Donald Trump débâcle. Some of these essays assume a knowledge of obscure American politicians whose positions and influences are not well known outside of America. I agree completely with Scalzi’s opinions about Trump but I must admit that sometimes I failed to understand the points that Scalzi was making because he referred to people and events that I was not familiar with.

Scalzi first came to the notice of the world on the day that he sellotaped a slice of bacon to his cat, took a photograph of the baconised cat and then posted the picture on his blog. He reasoned that everyone on the internet likes cats and almost everyone on the internet likes bacon, so combining the two was bound to be popular. He was, reportedly, astonished by the huge reception given to the photograph  – the picture propelled him to instant internet fame and he’s never looked back.

Perhaps the most moving essay in Virtue Signalling and Other Heresies is Scalzi’s obituary for Ghlaghghee, the cat to whom he originally taped the bacon. As you read the story of Ghlaghghee’s life you will learn, if you can manage to see Scalzi’s words through your tears, just why the cat was called Ghlaghghee and, even better, you will learn how to pronounce Ghlaghghee as well!

I enjoy Scalzi’s essays. He’s a thoughtful writer with an easy flowing style whose surface simplicity conceals a subtle and insightful mind. Virtue Signalling and Other Heresies is an excellent book.

* * * *

Eventually the great day dawned and I took the car to have its new windscreen fitted. It was an early morning appointment, the first of the day. I left the car with the fitters and wandered off to have breakfast and coffee at a convenient café. Then I went window shopping for an hour or so. Finally it was time and so I went back to the fitters and picked up my car. It was wearing its brand new windscreen very proudly. I drove home and took Jake for a run at Pakowhai Park.

"That windscreen is very clean," said Jake. "I’ve never seen visibility like it."

"Yes," I agreed. "It’s almost like there isn’t a windscreen there at all." As I spoke, a fly crashed into the windscreen and spread its multi-coloured insides all over the glass. "Oh, look!" I said to Jake, "there really is a windscreen there after all."

"It looks much more normal now," agreed Jake.

About a week after the new windscreen had been fitted, Jake and I drove to Pakowhai Park as usual.


For what it’s worth, this is essentially a true story. Smith & Smith really have been completely overwhelmed with windscreen repairs caused by the roadworks at Pakowhai. They did a magnificent job fitting my new windscreen. They sorted out all the insurance details for me and their efficiency, courtesy and helpfulness were just superb. If ever you need your windscreen repaired, make sure you go to Smith & Smith. I promise that you won’t be disappointed. And yes, about a week after I got my new windscreen the Pakowhai roadworks struck again and my new windscreen got a chip in it so the whole rigmarole had to be gone through again. Fortunately this time the chip did not turn into a crack so the windscreen just needed a repair rather than a replacement. This too, according to Smith ! Smith, is not unusual. They have had quite a lot of repeat business from those damn road works. I think everyone will be very happy when they are finally finished and the men in high visibility jackets have gone back to wherever it was they came from…

Stephen King Elevation Scribner
Justin and Sydnee McElroy The Sawbones Book Audible
Richard A. Lupoff Edgar Rice Burroughs – Master of Adventure Gateway
Richard A. Lupoff Before 12.01 and After Gateway
Richard A. Lupoff Space War Blues Gateway
Lord Dunsany Jorkens Remembers Africa Delphi Classics
John Scalzi Virtue Signalling and Other Heresies Subterranean Press
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