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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (nullus fabulator)

Ancient of Days

It is time to face the truth. I am definitely over the hill. Two novels by Reginald Hill are sitting on my to-be-read shelf and I feel no urge at all to pick them up. Perhaps even the most pernicious of obsessions can be overcome by over-indulgence. Perhaps I should try that cure on my other, less savoury addictions? But I fear that it may not work; I read nineteen books this month and all I want is more!!

All the critics are raving about Revelation Space by Alistair Reynolds. They say that the book represents a return to the golden age of space opera, the grand SF adventure as popularised by E. E. Smith and his cohorts. But this time without the bad writing and lack of characterisation that marred the earlier efforts. Well I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. There was an innocence about those early tales of science fictional derring do, a wide-eyed sense of wonder at the sense of wonder they evoked. Too much sophistication kills that particular magic spell, and Revelation Space positively reeks of sophistication and decadence.

Archaeological investigations have shown that nine hundred thousand years ago something wiped out the Amarantin just as they were on the verge of developing a highly technological society. The human colonists on the Amarantin homeworld are not much interested – political rivalries are about to come to a head and Dan Sylveste, archaeologist and politician soon falls victim to the revolutionary fervour (and his dead father is none too pleased about it). Meanwhile, many years before all this, the Triumvir Illia Volyova kills her gunnery officer and now the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity needs another crewperson.

The action alternates confusingly between the two scenarios – sometimes swapping backwards and forwards within half a page! The connection between the two is not apparent for a long time and always it is obvious that every single character is operating with information that is denied to the reader. This is more than a little frustrating.

It is a long drawn out tale, elliptical, pretentious, slow moving and ultimately dull. I felt it to be an object lesson in how not to write a space opera. That puts me in a minority of one – but I couldn’t get excited about it.

However I got very excited by Pat Murphy’s There and Back Again which really is a space opera, and a damn good one too, thus proving that the genre isn’t dead at all. The title is a deliberate reference to Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the book is simply a re-telling of that tale as science fiction rather than as fantasy. Bailey is a norbit who lives quietly in the asteroid belt. Norbits as a group don’t care much for interstellar travel, and few norbits ever ventured away from the comfort of the solar system. But Bailey finds an abandoned message pod and when he informs the true owners his adventures really begin. Soon the legendary adventurer Gitana turns up at the norbit’s home together with a crew of Farrs, members of the oldest and richest clone family in the galaxy. And now Bailey is involved (whether he likes it or not) in a journey to the centre of the galaxy in search of an alien artefact that might prove to be a map of the galactic wormholes.

Every major incident and character from The Hobbit has its counterpart in There and Back Again. The game of spot the reference makes the whole thing enormous fun, but there is also the undeniable fact that in both its incarnations, the story is wonderfully exciting and wonderfully satisfying. I enjoyed it hugely and I recommend it highly. There are no pretensions here and this is space opera at its very best.

Candle by John Barnes is also a grand adventure. After the war of the memes, one meme has gained complete control of a shattered Earth. A meme (strictly defined) is just a powerful idea which swiftly gains common acceptance as people come across it. Over the years a lot of writers have played with the philosophical notion that human beings are simply the reproductive mechanisms of memes, in much the same way that a hen is simply an egg’s mechanism for reproducing other eggs. Barnes takes this idea to both its logical and illogical extremes in this fascinating novel.

Currie Curran is a veteran of the wars, and now they are over He, along with everybody else, has a copy of Resuna in his head. Resuna is part computer program, part engineering implant, a biotechnological implementation of the winning meme. In his early years, Currie had fought in the wars and later had helped to hunt down and eliminate the cowboys, those rebels who wouldn’t take Resuna. Now it seems that one last cowboy has survived and Currie is asked to hunt him down.

However disaster strikes. Currie is captured by the cowboy and Resuna is disabled. Free from the implant for the first time, Currie starts to see things in a new light.

The story ranges back and forth through time as the cowboy and Currie exchange reminiscences about their own parts in the war, and as they make plans for their future without Resuna. But Resuna still has some resources in reserve…

The novel is about individualism versus the state, about man versus machine. It treads some deep waters but it does it so lightly and so skilfully that you never notice. It doesn’t preach and it never presents simple-minded black and white trivialities. Instead it dramatises and demonstrates its theses, tells an exciting tale, and scores a lot of debating points along the way. It is everything a novel really should be; text, sub-text and deeds of derring do. What more could anyone possibly want?

Jack McDevitt’s new novel Slow Lightening was published in America as Infinity Beach. It examines one of science fiction’s great themes. Are we alone in the universe?

Earth has had faster than light travel for centuries. But no matter where we look, no matter how closely, no trace of alien life has ever been found and the consensus is that it probably never will. Support for exploration is declining. But maybe, just maybe…

Twenty seven years before, one exploration mission was aborted shortly into its flight and it returned home. Kim Brandywine’s sister Emily was one of the crew. After they landed, she got in a taxi and was never seen again. Kim has always been haunted by the disappearance of her elder sister and the more she investigates it the more mysteries she finds. Records appear to have been tampered with, people have an odd reluctance to talk to her about that time.

The book starts as a simple detective novel (albeit set in the far future) and a very gripping and enthralling detective novel it is too. But as the clues are gathered and the wider picture emerges so the canvas broadens and the questions enlarge. The final answers are a little bit of a letdown. McDevitt’s imagination balks at the hugeness of the problem he has set himself and there is more than a little sense of familiarity to those of us who overdosed on the golden age SF in our teens. But that is not to detract from McDevitt’s achievement in this stunningly good book. I think that almost by definition, when you tackle the really large themes you are doomed to fail. But even the failures can be illuminating.

Over the years I have grown increasingly disenchanted with the ever weaker so-called "humorous" fantasy novels written by Tom Holt. I have always felt that they pale into total insignificance in comparison to his historical novels. And now that he has written Olympiad I think that conclusion is proved for this is a most magnificent historical novel which also happens to be very funny indeed.

History tells us that in 776BC a group of men ran between two piles of stone and the Olympic Games were invented. Much of Western chronology is based on these historic games, but all we know about them is that the winner of the race was called Coroebus. This is his story (as imagined by Tom Holt).

As always with his historical novels, the book displays a frightening erudition, but it wears its learning lightly. The characters speak colloquial twentieth century English (which makes the novel very approachable to the modern reader) but their ideas and attitudes are very much at odds with ours and belong quite strictly to their own time.

"If a dream told you to do something," Palmedes said, carefully ignoring the Phoenician’s interruption, "in clear, easy-to-understand terms, presumably you would do it, wouldn’t you?"

"I doubt it," the Phoenician said. "That is, if my poor dead grandmother came and stood over me in my sleep and told me to shave off the left side of my beard and hop around the town square on one foot singing a drinking song, no, I don’t suppose I would."

Palmedes looked at him for a while, then shrugged. "You’re weird," he said.

The new Falco novel by Lindsey Davis also wears its erudition lightly. In this, the twelfth in the series, Falco the informer (read private eye) in Vespasian’s Rome becomes involved with a banker who has a sideline as a publisher. Falco has written some verses which he would like to have published, but is quite shocked at the suggestion that he might want to pay the publication costs himself. When the banker/publisher later turns up murdered in a most horrible fashion, Falco is not displeased. He is asked to investigate the murder and, reluctantly, he agrees.

As always ancient Rome is brought vividly to life. It’s sights, sounds and smells and the minutiae of everyday living are magnificently evoked. But Davis has done all this eleven times before, and without a strong story to tell, the erudition palls. And it has to be said that this story is not at all strong. It is dragged out interminably and the bulk of the novel consists simply of bits of business which add little or nothing to the tale.

Davis has enormous fun lampooning the profession of publisher and editor and mocks the clichés of the crime novel unmercifully (the culminating scene where all the suspects are gathered together in the library and the murderer is unmasked is a huge delight) but on balance the thinness of the plot means that ultimately the book fails to enthral.

If you want a good crime novel (sort of) then the new Janet Evanovich is for you. In Hot Six we continue the life story of Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter. All the familiar characters are here together with several new ones. There is Bob the golden retriever who has a lot of bad hair days caused by his habit of sticking his head as far out of the car window as possible. He has an enormous appetite and powerful bowels. You will never believe the damage a golden retriever can do after he has eaten two boxes of prunes (cardboard included).

We are also introduced to Mitchell and Habib, two threatening thugs who somehow fail to threaten. Who can be afraid of a man who has to borrow his wife’s car to tail his victim and has to call off the chase in order to go and pick the kids up from school?

If you haven’t read the five earlier novels about Stephanie Plum, go and read them this instant. Then read Hot Six. Trust me – you won’t be disappointed.

Forge of the Elders by L. Neil Smith has a promising premise but fails to deliver the goods. The communist revolution has succeeded and except for small isolated pockets of resistance, the Earth is a world-wide communist state. An expedition is sent to explore a mineral-rich asteroid. However when the crew arrive they discover that the asteroid is already being mined by several species of alien beings who all turn out to be from parallel earths. And one and all they are capitalists!

After that we have far too many communist/capitalist arguments interspersed with Smith’s own lectures about Libertarianism and a promising story simply bogs down in dialectic.

The new Poul Anderson novel Genesis is also very dull for similar reasons. Astronaut Christian Bannock has his personality uploaded into a computer, thus achieving a sort of hybrid immortality. Over more than a billion years he explores the stars and sees humanity develop and change. The novel (such as it is) consists mainly of small set pieces designed to lecture. It is impossible to feel involved and impossible to enjoy. It is, quite simply, boring.

I bought Dark Detectives because I wanted to read the Kim Newman novel Seven Stars which is the centrepiece of the book. I paid a lot of money for it since it is a first edition and it was published by an obscure small press in America. This turned out to be an enormous mistake since shortly after I obtained the book I found that the Newman novel was due to be published next month in a standard British paperback edition at a very reasonable price.

Fortunately the Newman novel was excellent, though I can’t say the same of the superannuated stories that surrounded it in the collection. Trivial tales, some of them from the turn of the century, some of them from contemporary writers, and all ephemeral. I never did like Carnacki the ghost finder and he has not improved with time. Even his modern day compatriots are lacklustre.

But Seven Stars is a glorious romp, a delightful piece of hackwork that glories in its tackiness. It takes several of its plot devices from The Jewel of Seven Stars, a very obscure novel by Bram Stoker. The story opens with a prologue set in ancient Egypt during the plagues. A large ruby with seven glowing sparks within it is a powerful occult device that seems to be connected to the ravages of the plagues. Pai-net’em takes the jewel of the seven stars to his grave with him. Perhaps it will spare Egypt from more harm.

The story proper begins in the year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Mycroft Holmes, brother of the more famous Sherlock and scion of the Diogenes Club, that mysterious and shadowy extra-legal authority which seems to have more than a passing influence on British governmental policy, is worried. He sends Charles Beauregard to the British Museum. There has been a murder there and something very odd has been found in the mummy of an Egyptian priest called Pai-net’em.

The book follows the ravages of the stone through the crisis-ridden decades of the twentieth century. Operatives of the Diogenes club keep coming across the stone (and its allies) and the twists and turns of occult fate have far reaching and dramatic ramifications for history as we know it. John Barrymore and Errol Flynn (to name but two) come under its malign influence and the Diogenes Club is hard pressed to win the day.

It’s all utter tosh. I loved it.

Bill Bryson has been Down Under, and in this eponymous book, he gives us his impressions of Australia. My first response was to say "Gosh, so it really is just like the Lost Continent described by Terry Pratchett!"

Bryson originally thought that Australia would be very similar to California but with a British bent. Sun, sea and sand. Baywatch with cricket. But it turned out to be quite different.

He expresses awe and amazement that a country in which the life forms have almost no natural predators should nevertheless have produced far too many of the most poisonous (and vicious) creatures on the face of the earth. What could have caused them to evolve such lethality? Even a walk on the beach is fraught with peril, he assures us. There are shell fish that will go for you.

Bryson is also amused by the fact that Australia managed to lose a Prime Minister (Harold Holt went out swimming one day and never came back). And he is impressed that the current incumbent of the office (John Howard) is a man who is utterly lacking in personality or charisma. He claims, with some justification, that you cannot get more colourless than John Howard.

Despite all this Bryson loves Australia and all things Australian. He admires their colourful and often witty language (Pauline Hansen, the overly charismatic and completely dotty leader of the radical One Nation party was apparently born in Oxley, and Bryson was quite taken with the fact that a political commentator had christened her the Oxley Moron) and he loves the raw, stark beauty of their country. He never loses an opportunity to bask in its grandeur.

He also loves their cold beer, which doesn’t half taste good at the end of a boiling hot day spent walking so far that your feet explode.

This book is less laugh-out-loud hilarious than many of his others, but it is also deeper and more satisfying. Bryson has fallen in love with Australia and like all new lovers is reluctant to criticise. He is deeply interested in the personality and background of his new love and the book is crammed with odd historical incidents and informative facts. The wit and the humour are never absent and the jokes come thick and fast, but they are affectionate jokes and they are pertinent jokes, they illuminate rather than sneer, explain rather than detract. I learned a lot about Australia and Australians, I enjoyed learning it. I want to go back there and learn some more. Surely if a book makes you feel like that then it must be a successful book. This one is Bill Bryson’s best and it deserves a permanent place on your shelves.

A few years ago I read The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce and was enormously impressed. I hunted in vain for any other books by him. But now he has a new novel out (Dark Sister) and two of his earlier books have been republished simultaneously with it. One of them (Dreamside) was his first novel and has been out of print for many years. The other (Requiem) was published to rave reviews in 1995, but I missed it and it vanished from the shelves before I discovered that Joyce even existed. Now I have obtained all three and so I indulged myself in a Joycean Odyssey.

Dreamside is the weakest. It concerns a group of people who indulged in experiments with lucid dreaming as students. Lucid dreaming means that the dreamer can recognise that they are dreaming and can even consciously modify the course of the dream. Indeed sometimes, before going to bed, a deliberate decision will be taken as to which dream will be the subject of tonight’s sleep. The four lucid dreamers of the story learn to control the course of their dreams so successfully that they can all dream of the same time and place. They meet up in their dreams and hold conversations and exchange information – information which carries over into their waking lives! Scared by the intensity of this, they give up and go their separate ways.

Many years later, the dreaming starts again. And this time the dream landscape is cold and desolate, their involvement with each other is more frightening. Lives are being ruined in both the dream and the real world. Who is responsible?

Requiem is a far stronger book. After his wife dies in an accident, Tom Webster travels to Jerusalem in search of an old friend who can perhaps help him to come to terms with his grief. But Jerusalem is a haunted city, divided by religion and race, by war and politics. Tom comes across some fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls which appear to describe the rather cynical machinations behind the scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus. He sees visions; an old woman who could be Mary Magdalene writes in letters of fire in the walls of the city. As Tom’s mind unravels, the connections between his wife’s death, his own internal guilt and the very roots of Christian society all become intertwined. The book examines the real meaning of mythology and its relationship to the societal cliques that grew from it. There is a powerful, almost painful message here. The layering of meaning and relationship and myth is a breath of fresh air after the almost arbitrary sequences of cheap sensation and second-hand horrors that comprise much modern fantasy. In other words, as well as telling an exciting and interesting story, it is actually about something important. That’s rare in genre fiction, and should be treasured.

Oh – and did I mention that it is beautifully written?

The new novel Dark Sister is similarly revealing. Maggie and Alex live in an old draughty house and an old draughty marriage that is coming apart at the seams. One day, refurbishing the old fireplace, they discover a dead blackbird and a diary full of herbal lore and arcane references to magical practices.

Maggie takes an interest in the diary and together with a herbalist friend and a mysterious old woman called Liz who gradually reveals an extensive knowledge of these ancient mysteries, Maggie tries to find her way through the realms of witchcraft. To an extent she succeeds, but she awakens her dark sister, a malevolent force which threatens both her, her family and her friends.

In other hands this would have quickly turned into a predictable New Age/Wiccan tract, full of tosh and tribulation, signifying nothing (if I may paraphrase the Bard). But Joyce never loses control for a minute. Just as with Requiem, he is interested in roots, in reasons, in meanings. There is history here and a strong sense of the place of these mysteries in the world (indeed the links that are revealed towards the end of the book are peculiarly satisfying). And therein lies the strength of these later novels. They fit into reality and yet are apart from it. They are prescriptive as well as descriptive. Dreamside was none of these things, and that is why it seems so weak in comparison.

But all of them are towering literary feats when compared to Douglas Clegg’s You Come When I Call You which is just a normal horror/fantasy novel with no redeeming features save that it is so soporific that any insomniacs in need of a good night’s sleep should buy it immediately. The rest of you needn’t bother. The characters never leap off the page, the situations fail to horrify. The book just goes through the standard stereotypical motions.

A treat of a completely different order is The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk. By the end of the first few chapters you will be sure that you know what this book is about. But you don’t. Later on, you will again have this feeling of certainty that all the plot twists are now explained. But they aren’t. Just before the end of the book, all appears to have been revealed. But it hasn’t. The last page makes everything clear. Maybe!

Such clever plotting would alone make the book worthwhile. So what a treat it is to find that that the story is exciting, the characters are interesting, and the situations are fraught with peril, humour and thrills.

I can’t tell you too much about it, for that would spoil the fun. You’d start to see through the wool that is constantly pulled over your eyes, and that would never do.

Suffice it to say only that Charlie Monk has no fear as he ventures on ever more terrifying missions at the behest of the mysterious man known only as Control and his shadowy organisation (shades of Mission Impossible here). Then there is Dr Susan Flemyng who has found a way to give memories back to brain-damaged amnesiac patients. What happens when their paths cross? Read the book and find out. You’ll love it.

Despite the fact that Allen Steele has absolutely no idea how to spell Alan, I still like his books. Oceanspace is a near contemporary thriller set on and in the ocean depths. The book is dedicated to Sir Arthur C. Clarke and anyone who has read The Deep Range will understand why, for Steele develops and explores many of the themes in that novel (and also leaves unsolved and enigmatic some of the unsolved and enigmatic hints from that earlier book).

Tethys is a self-sufficient undersea research station. The surface structures supply the undersea habitats, and research continues apace (along with the mining of the manganese nodules that help to finance the research). On a routine diving mission to collect the latest batch of nodules, Joe’s diving bell is attacked by what appears to be a sea serpent. The investigation of that attack, coupled with industrial espionage, journalism (both ethical and unethical) and the stresses and strains that all of these bring to a marriage are the major themes explored in this quite riveting thriller. It makes no claim to be anything but pure entertainment. That is all it is and nothing more. And on its own terms it succeeds brilliantly. I was entertained, thrilled, enthralled and thoroughly involved in the story. It is pure story, and a magnificent example of the type. What more needs to be said?

Diana Wynne Jones is currently suffering under the reputation of J. K Rowling whose "Harry Potter" books have raced to the top of the best seller lists. Many critics have complained that Diana Wynne Jones has been writing superior children’s fantasy for years and it seems unfair that Rowling should gain all the kudos and all the money. I suspect though that the reason for Diana Wynne Jones relative obscurity is that her books (while superb, one and all) are simply too difficult for the children at whom they are aimed. Her plots are too subtle, her characters too deep, her motivations too obscure. Don’t get me wrong – I love her stuff. But…

Deep Secret is not untypical. Rupert Venables, the junior Magid of Earth, has a problem. The senior has died and Rupert (together with the senior’s ghost) must hunt for a new junior while simultaneously preventing civilisation in this and many other worlds from collapsing into chaos. The major candidates prove singularly elusive (perhaps through enemy action, perhaps through their own inaction). Eventually all are persuaded to meet together at a fantasy convention in England. This has the advantage that unusual events can easily be explained (a wounded centaur is assumed to be taking part in the masquerade; and the costume is just wonderful!). But it does give a small advantage to some of his enemies. Why do you have to go through five right angle turns to reach the hotel bedroom?

The action is fast and furious. Enemies are unmasked and so are friends. Politics, magic and love co-conspire to make Rupert’s life fraught with interest. It is a spell-binding book and I thoroughly enjoyed every magical word of it. But…

Ex Libris is subtitled Confessions of a Common Reader. It is a slim book containing eighteen small essays on the joys of bibliophilia. Those bibliomaniacs among us will rejoice in it for it is wise, witty, and absolutely precise in its definitions of the peculiar insanity that afflicts biblioholics like us. Read it and laugh. Read it and weep. Read it to understand what makes me tick and what makes Anne Fadiman tick.

The carpet in my lounge is cream coloured. It turn out that this is the ideal shade to best display the coloured remains of the cats’ vomit. For many years they have thrown up copiously all over it. Ginger is particularly fond of regurgitating mice and cicadas to great artistic effect and fragrance. However birds seldom reappear, I don’t know why. As a result of all this gastro-intestinal activity, the carpet is now covered with a myriad small multicoloured patches. It now remains only for me to join the dots and see if they make a picture.

Alistair Reynolds Revelation Space Gollancz
Pat Murphy There and Back Again Tor
John Barnes Candle Tor
Jack McDevitt Slow Lightening Voyager
Tom Holt Olympiad Little, Brown
Lindsey Davis Ode to a Banker Century
Janet Evanovich Hot Six St. Martin’s Press
L. Neil Smith Forge of the Elders Baen
Poul Anderson Genesis Tor
Stephen Jones (Editor) Dark Detectives F & B Mystery
Bill Bryson Down Under Doubleday
Graham Joyce Dreamside Tor
Graham Joyce Requiem Tor
Graham Joyce Dark Sister Tor
Douglas Clegg You Come When I Call You Leisure
David Ambrose The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk Macmillan
Allen Steele Oceanspace Ace
Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret Tor
Anne Fadiman Ex Libris Penguin

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