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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (lavatio patina)

Washing Up Blues

"E30" said the dishwasher smugly. "Beep" it added, in case I hadn’t noticed what was going on.

"What does E30 mean?" I asked.

"It’s a flood warning," said the dishwasher.

"What should I do about it?" I asked.

"Turn me off and wait for a few seconds then turn me back on," said the dishwasher. "If I still say E30, turn me off again, disconnect the power, turn the water off and call a service agent."

I did as I was told. "E30," said the dishwasher again. "Beep, beep." And then it leaked copiously all over the kitchen floor.

I splashed across the kitchen, turned the dishwasher off and disconnected the power. I couldn’t do anything about turning the water off. The valve seemed to need a special tool which I didn’t have. I certainly couldn’t turn it by hand. I concentrated on mopping up the water that was covering the floor. Eventually the floor seemed reasonably dry, so I left the dishwasher to fend for itself.

All this happened late on a Friday evening. Clearly I would not be able to call anyone about it until the weekend was over, not without paying exorbitant call out fees anyway. Annoyed, I resigned myself to suffering through the terrible first world problem of having to do the dishes by hand for several days. I resolved to cook small frugal meals that used the minimum number of pots, pans,  plates and utensils. I have a friend who cannot make himself a cup of tea without dirtying every dish in the house. I decided that he would be persona non grata until the dishwasher was fixed.

* * * *

Middlegame is Seanan McGuire’s most ambitious book to date. It’s long, complex and convoluted. It needs careful reading – you have to pay very close attention indeed to what’s going on and who is doing what to whom (and why – though this last is not always clear, at least to begin with). But if you give the story the attention it deserves, it will repay you dividends. With interest!

Roger is a wordsmith, he has the gift of language. Dodger (his twin sister, though neither of them know that at the start) is a mathematician, she has the gift of numbers. They were separated when they were very, very young and they live with two different adopted families on opposite sides of the country. Nevertheless they are aware of each other. They can talk to each other through the magic of "quantum entanglement", and each can see the world through the others eyes. Roger is colour blind, but he learns about colours from seeing Dodger’s world. Dodger has no depth perception, but she learns about it when she looks through Roger’s eyes.

Both Roger and Dodger are the product of an alchemical experiment that has been set up by James Reed and his assistant Leigh Barrow. Roger and Dodger were not born naturally, they were made in an alchemical laboratory, as were Reed and Barrow themselves, though the alchemist who made them is long dead when this story begins. James Reed killed her. It was his rite of passage. She may be dead now, but her influence lives on. Both Reed and Barrow are still exploring and implementing her ideas.

Roger and Dodger have been constructed to be two halves of the embodiment of something referred to as The Doctrine of Ethos. Quite what this means remains rather vague – in true alchemical fashion, Seanan McGuire only describes it in metaphorical terms. But Reed and Barrow hope to use the twins to open up the Improbable Road so as to gain access to the Impossible City. Again, the exact meaning of these terms is never properly defined, but that doesn’t matter; it is quite clear that if the experiment succeeds, Reed and Barrow will have access to powers beyond their wildest dreams. Though given their propensity to quarrel with each other, they may not both live to enjoy those powers…

The novel begins at the end. It opens with a scene from Book Seven which takes place thirty seconds before the end of the world. Both Roger and Dodger have been travelling the Improbable Road, but now both are wounded, and there is so much blood… The story returns to this moment (or several like it) again and again throughout the six books that make up the body of the novel, and every time the story comes back to it you have more information and you are therefore more able to understand just what is going on and why it is happening. When the story finally reaches Book Seven chronologically you are well prepared for the denouement. Nevertheless I guarantee that it will still take you by surprise because, given the convoluted nature of the plot, chronological order may not be the most logical order in which to appreciate what is happening. And it isn’t even clear exactly what "chronological" means in the context of the plot.

The main line of the story follows Roger and Dodger through the (mostly normal) trials and tribulations of their childhood and adolescence and into their maturity. There is much to enjoy, appreciate and recognise here and we learn a lot about what makes the twins tick. They really come alive in these chapters which makes what we know is going to happen to them all the more poignant – there is so much blood...

Despite their quantum entanglement, there are long gaps where the twins have no contact with each other at all and so, of course, they live their lives separately. They do eventually meet each other physically, though only very briefly, in their early teens and again, for much longer this time, when they are students at the same university. We see them grow up, both together, and apart and alone. We see them come to appreciate their heritage as they begin to learn more about their roles in the power game that is being played out around them.

This is a very grim and very dark novel that deals with many unpleasant truths about the world. Nevertheless it is full of humour as well as tragedy – let’s face it, these are two sides of the exactly the same coin. There are very good reasons why the theatre is symbolised by a Janus-mask of comedy and tragedy. All the best dramas contain elements of both. I’ve heard Seanan McGuire talk (and sing!) about some very serious subjects indeed, but she always does it with humour and insight. And that technique is what makes this book so great.

Make no mistake about it, Middlegame is quite a confusing book – you will spend much of it wondering just what is going on. But have faith, (almost) everything will be explained. You will (mostly) understand it when you get to the end. And you will fall just a little bit in love with both Roger and Dodger in the process. This truly is a most marvellous novel.

Charles Platt published a magazine called The Patchin Review intermittently from 1981 to 1985. By the time I found out about it, it had long since ceased publication and finding copies of it for sale was almost impossible. I only ever managed to track down and read one issue. But now I don’t have to worry about finding mouldering copies in second hand bookshops any more. The Complete Patchin Review has been compiled by David Langford and it can be freely downloaded from the TAFF (Trans Atlantic Fan Fund) web site: https://taff.org.uk/ebooks.php There are quite a lot of other fannish goodies available there as well. I urge you to explore.

The Patchin Review had a reputation as a bit of a scandal-mongering, gossipy and generally rather mischievous publication. For example, long before the Sad Puppies were even a gleam in their parents’ eyes, Platt espoused their cause and set out to undermine the annual Hugo awards. He wrote a semi-serious, tongue in cheek editorial urging everyone to take out a Worldcon supporting membership and then to nominate (and vote for) L. Ron Hubbard’s appallingly bad novel Battlefield Earth for the award for best novel. Fortunately nobody took him at his word.

There was a serious intention behind The Patchin Review. Platt wanted to address what he saw as the ascendancy of commercialism over literary values in the contemporary publishing scene. He, and several of his contributors, argued that this trend would cheapen and devalue science fiction and fantasy; and who is to say that he was wrong? The magazine published a lot of serious literary thinking based around that idea. The magazine also included many very clever one or two sentence reviews of contemporary novels – reviews which are still well worth reading. It’s amazing how pithy and insightful those tiny reviews were.

But Platt being Platt, he also printed a lot of joky gossip and advice columns as by "Gabby Snitch" and "Cousin Clara". Contributions to these pseudonymous columns came from several people as well as from Platt himself, and they were used to publish gossip, innuendo, so-called whistle blowing and plain, straightforward insults. Several articles and letters that were published non-pseudonymously continued that trend, and it wasn’t long before the magazine got quite a reputation for scuttlebutt.

Reading it today, I find it hard to get worked up about forgotten scandals involving people who are now mostly dead. There’s still a certain frisson to be gained from seeing Harlan Ellison being extraordinarily rude about John Shirley, but by and large time has left The Patchin Review behind. Those of us who were there in the 1980s will probably enjoy the nostalgia of it, but I suspect that The Complete Patchin Review will leave most people cold.

* * * *

The next morning, the kitchen floor was covered in water again. I started to mop it up and Jake the Dog came to help me by lapping up as much of it as he could. "Yum, yum," he said. Between us, we got the floor relatively dry again. I pulled the dishwasher out from its cubbyhole, disposed of the four dead cockroaches and six cat toys that I found lurking in the recesses, and then I slid a towel under the leaking dishwasher. By the evening, it was soaking wet, so I changed it for another. The next morning I had to repeat the operation. The day after that was Monday and everyone was back at work. This was fortunate, because I was starting to run out of towels. I rang the store from which I’d bought the dishwasher about eighteen months before and explained the situation. "We’ll get a technician out as soon as we can," the store spokesman promised me.

Later that day I received a text message telling me that a technician would be arriving some time between eight and ten the following morning. Rather to my surprise, he arrived exactly on time. Jake and I watched with interest as he dismantled the dishwasher and peered inside. "Good grief," he said, sounding very surprised. "How many hoses does a dishwasher need?" He counted them. "Seven hoses," he said. "I’ve never seen a  dishwasher with seven hoses before. I wonder what they all do? Come to think of it, I wonder what they connect to."

He poked around for a while. "Aha!" he announced in triumphant tones. "Here’s your problem." One of the seven hoses had a very clean looking cut all the way through it. It looked for all the world as if the hose had been cut by a knife, though I couldn’t even begin to imagine how that could be possible. I had definitely washed a lot of sharp knives in the dishwasher but none of them had been anywhere near any of the hoses.  Perhaps a sword wielding cockroach on a quest had survived whatever peril it was that had killed its four brethren and had managed to crawl inside the dishwasher where it had accidentally slashed the hose during a fight. Perhaps I had too active an imagination.

A steady dribble of water leaked out of the cut.

"Can you fix it?" I asked the repair man. He shook his head.

"Can you replace it?" I asked. He shook his head again.

"It’s not a standard hose," he said. "It’s a proprietary size and length and it’s specific to this machine. I’ll have to order a replacement."

"How long will that take?" I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Depends if they’ve got one in the country," he said. "If they have to order it from overseas it could take months." Then he brightened. "But it’s quite a new dishwasher," he said, "so the chances are good that they’ll have one in stock. If they do, it will only take about ten days." He took a lot of photographs of the inside of the dishwasher. "I’ll set the wheels in motion," he said. He reassembled the dishwasher and started to pack his tools away.

"Can you turn the water off?" I asked. "So that the dishwasher stops flooding my kitchen."

"Sure," he agreed. He reached behind the dishwasher with a magic wand and made mystical gestures. "There you are," he said. "That should keep things dry until we get the rest of it sorted out."

* * * *

Marko Kloos writes military science fiction. His novel Lines of Departure was nominated for a Hugo award in 2015. The nomination was part of the slate of nominations promoted by the Sad Puppies in their attempt to (in their eyes) "rescue" the Hugo awards from the arty-farty literati and Social Justice Warriors who, they claimed, had devalued the award. When Kloos learned that his novel was part of the Sad Puppies slate, he immediately withdrew it from consideration. Over the years that has proved to be a very wise thing to do – Kloos is not tarnished by an association with the Puppies, and his reputation has grown and flourished as a result.

Terms of Enlistment is the first volume in a series (the Hugo nominee Lines of Departure is the second volume). To be honest, I found it to be somewhat of a rubber stamp. Andrew Grayson enlists, goes through a boot camp that is run by sadistic sergeants and eventually fights lots of battles against aliens on lots of different worlds. In other words, it’s the mixture as usual with nothing to distinguish it from a million others written in the same vein. The writing is smooth, never less than competent and the characters are well drawn and convincing. But it sticks so closely to the conventions of the genre that I simply couldn’t get myself involved in the story.

I’m not sure who Jackson Ford might be (internet rumour hints that he is a pseudonym) but whoever he is, his novel The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind has started his career with a bang. I should note, in passing, that in America the title of the book is  The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind because collectively American society is unbelievably prudish about so-called dirty words… I find this very strange, because individual Americans of my acquaintance are not like that at all. Oh well.

Like all the best thrillers, the story starts with the end of the universe and then builds up to a climax. Here’s the first paragraph:

On second thoughts, throwing myself out the window of a skyscraper may not have been the best idea. Not because I’m going to die or anything. I’ve totally got that under control. It wasn’t smart because I had to bring Annie Cruz with me. And Annie, it turns out, is a screamer. Her fists hammer on my back, her voice piecing my eardrums, even over the rushing air.

The narrator saves herself, and her inadvertent companion, with her psycho-kinetic ability, of course, though not exactly in the way you might expect. That’s the first of many surprises that this book has in store for you.

Teagan Frost, the narrator, works for a secret government agency. Her ability to move shit with her mind gives her and her team a certain edge in their battles against the bad guys. But none of them are invincible and sometimes things go wrong. What better way to get yourself out of trouble when the wheels fall off than by leaping off the top of a skyscraper? Unfortunately not everyone agrees with Teagan’s point of view and once her team regroup, arguments and recriminations start to fly backwards and forwards.

To begin with we are not quite sure how Teagan acquired her psycho-kinetic abilities. It is clear right from the start that she is the result of some kind of genetic manipulation and it isn’t long before we learn that her parents were the people doing the manipulating, but the details are vague. Also, we are not at all sure how she ended up working for the secret agency. But every so often the action pauses for a moment, and when it does we start to learn a lot more about what went on in her childhood and just how she got from there to here.

After Teagan’s dramatic escape, the team feel shaken, but safe. However it soon becomes clear that they are not safe at all. Everything turns to custard and soon they are all on the run, though it isn’t quite clear just who it is they are running from! What’s more, they are starting to suspect that another person with psycho-kinetic abilities is intent upon throwing a spanner into the works. Peril piles upon peril like Pelion piled upon Ossa and they scarcely wriggle out from one crisis before another one appears. It’s a fast moving, and rather breathless, novel!

There is no great literary depth to this story. It’s all surface. But the writing is clever enough and the pacing is fast enough that none of that really matters. I read it in a sitting and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Sorry – I should have said that I enjoyed the h*ll out of it.

Joe Country is the sixth novel in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series and it follows on directly from the events described in London Rules, the fifth book. If you haven’t read London Rules, don’t bother with this one. You won’t understand a word of it.

The slow horses are people who are the failures of the intelligence world. They are operatives who have messed up their careers, sometimes in quite spectacular ways. As a result of this they have been exiled from the mainstream and have been given make work jobs in the creaking ruin of Slough House under the supervision of the cynical, foul-mouthed (and just generally foul) Jackson Lamb, who is himself a person who is quite beyond the pale in the eyes of the intelligence mandarins. (In London Rules we found out about the terrible sin he committed that caused him to end up in Slough House).

The slow horses have been given their name as a kind of pun that derives from the assonance between the phrases Slough House / Slow Horse. In the UK, of course, Slough is the name of a town with a certain reputation. John Betjeman defined it perfectly in his eponymous poem:

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

So the slow horses (and Slough House itself) are very appropriately named! This little literary joke is quite typical of Herron’s style. His humour, which is sometimes very dark indeed, is one of the many reasons why I generally like his books a lot. Another major attraction of the novels is the complex, and often deeply cynical plots that weave themselves into and around the political in-fighting that takes place in and between the upper echelons of government and the intelligence services.  Many of the minor characters in the novels are easily identifiable as real people though they are either given false names, or not named at all, presumably to protect Herron from libel suits. In this novel, the unnamed though screamingly obvious Boris Johnson can be seen waving wildly in the background.

However, despite all this good stuff, I must confess that I was very disappointed with Joe Country. Herron’s humour is still there, but much as he tries to disguise the story with deception, misdirection, red herrings and hand waving, there is scarcely enough plot in this instalment to shake a stick at. It’s really a very straightforward short story padded out with interminable "chase" scenes and slow, cynical character studies designed to bring the flimsy structure up to novel length. I devoured the first five slow horse novels in absolutely huge, excited gulps and I love them to bits. But I found Joe Country to be a bit of a struggle to get through.

* * * *

Nothing except a lot of manual washing up happened for several days. Then the phone rang. "You have two choices," said a voice. "We can give you a whole new dishwasher, but you will have to agree to forfeit the rest of your warranty. Or we can repair the dishwasher and your warranty stays active until August 2021."

Since I wasn’t aware that I had a warranty, this offer took me a little by surprise. Maybe I should have read the small print a little more carefully. Either way, the choice was a no brainer. "I’ll take the repair and keep my warranty," I said. "How long will it be before you can come and do it?"

"We’ll be in touch," said the voice, and the line went dead as the voice terminated the call.

A lot more manual washing up happened and then, a week later, the phone rang again. "Will you be available tomorrow between eight and ten in the morning for someone to come and repair your dishwasher?"

"Yes indeed," I agreed enthusiastically. Manual dish washing had completely lost what little charm it had once had. I was eager for a fix. So to speak.

The next day a man arrived with a new hose and a bag full of elaborate tools. He stripped the dishwasher down, detached the old hose and threw it away. Then he attached the top of the new hose to a mysterious valve at the top of the dishwasher. He led the hose down deep into the bowels of the machine and scrabbled round inside it trying to attach the bottom of the hose to an equally mysterious valve at the bottom of the dishwasher.

"Ouch!" he said suddenly. He winced a bit and withdrew his arm. He examined the blood that welled copiously from a large gash on his forearm. "I hate it when that happens," he said.

"How did it happen?" I asked.

"The edges of the frame are incredibly sharp," he explained. "Because they are all internal and not normally exposed to the outside world, nothing is done to smooth the edges off when they come out of the press that manufacturers them. So it’s as if all the internal workings of the dishwasher have been built inside a cage made out of razor blades. You have to be really careful when you scrabble around inside it to fix things. I generally end up making a blood sacrifice to the Gods of the Soapsuds before they’ll let me complete my repairs." He took a sticking plaster out of his toolbox and used it to bind his wound. Clearly he’d been expecting this event and had come well prepared. He reached back inside the machine to try attaching the bottom of the hose again. "That’s almost certainly how your original hose got cut open," he said chattily. "The dishwasher was probably assembled a little clumsily, late on a Friday afternoon when the workers got careless because they were looking forward to the weekend. I imagine the hose would have been a bit too close to one of the sharp edges. As the pump forced water through it, the hose would have vibrated back and forth against the edge. Eventually the edge would have cut all the way through it, just like it cut my arm." He began to put the dishwasher back together again. He turned the water back on and connected the dishwasher to the power. "There you are," he said. "It’s as good as new." He took his leave and Jake barked a fond farewell. He likes people who come to the house with bags of tools.

* * * *

The Whole Art of Detection by Lyndsay Faye is a collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Normally I quickly get bored with these kinds of things, but this collection held my interest all the way through. Faye has completely captured Arthur Conan Doyle’s style and his characterisations of Holmes and Watson; so much so that if you filed off the serial numbers and put the book in a plain brown wrapper everyone would swear that these really were stories found in the bottom drawer of a dusty filing cabinet in Conan Doyle’s basement…

The stories range across the whole of Holmes’ career. Some actually take place before Holmes and Watson met each other – Watson records these as casual reminiscences by Holmes himself. Some stories take place during the years when Holmes and Watson were at their peak, and some take place after Holmes’ "death". (There’s a very fitting scene where Inspector Lestrade takes Holmes to task over the heartache he caused by staging his death at the Reichenbach Falls).

Max Allan Collins has been writing hard-boiled crime fiction seemingly forever, but I’ve only just recently discovered him. I have a lot of catching up to do; he’s been amazingly prolific – a partial bibliography in Wikipedia lists 166 books…

The book that turned me on to his writing is called True Detective. It’s the first of his novels about a private investigator called Nathan Heller. In an introduction to the book Collins confesses that he’s long wanted to write about the kind of characters epitomised by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op. But they were products of their time and they belonged to their own eras and he couldn’t see any way of doing it convincingly. But then he started to write a historical novel set in Chicago in the early 1930s involving a private detective called Nathan Heller, and he realised that this was a perfect way to write in that tradition because, of course, it’s where and when the tradition first developed. OK – Philip Marlowe was based in Los Angeles and the Continental Op worked out of San Francisco. But let’s not quibble about petty details. America in the early decades of the twentieth century is the natural time and the natural place to write that sort of story about that sort of person. And so that’s what Collins wrote. He was very pleased with the final result, so much so that he returned to it again and again and there are now at least twenty books in the Nathan Heller series…

The gimmick that makes these novels so clever is that Heller is always involved, to a greater or lesser extent, with real people from the era in which the novel is set, and therefore the reader is given a storyteller’s insight into the actual events of the time. For example, in True Detective, one plot thread puts Heller on the scene when Giuseppe Zangara shoots at President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Zangara fails to hit Roosevelt, but mortally wounds Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago.  The newspapers of the time reported that, before he died, Cermek spoke to Roosevelt. He was reported as being pleased and proud to have prevented Roosevelt’s assassination by taking the bullet himself, and he said, "I'm glad it was me, not you." – words that were eventually engraved on his headstone. However in the context of the novel Cermek never says those words (though the newspapers still report that he does) and it turns out that Zangara was actually attempting to kill Cermek rather than Roosevelt, because Cermak, who was a demonstrably corrupt Mayor, had upset some powerful and influential people and they wanted him out of the way. Perhaps such cynical corruption is not unusual for Mayors of Chicago. A junior official in Cermak’s administration, mentioned in passing in the novel, was one Richard J. Daley who later became a notoriously corrupt Chicago Mayor himself!

Because True Detective is set in the early 1930s in Chicago, Heller’s story revolves around Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Elliot Ness and similar famous  names of the time. Other names that will become famous in later years also appear. A sports reporter called Ronald Reagan has a brief role to play… The air of cynical verisimilitude engendered by Heller’s interactions with these people is really what makes the novel stand out from others of its ilk. It’s a clever literary trick, and I gather that as the series progresses and Heller grows with the century, he will become involved with many more famous people and events. For example, I understand that in later novels he will be dealing with the Lindbergh kidnapping, the death of Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy assassination. And I’ll bet that Collins will have much to say about the behind the scenes machinations that led up to these events! Perhaps the more rabid conspiracy theorists will find much supporting material for their mad ideas in Collins’ novels, though on second thoughts I rather doubt that the complexity and cynicism of Collins’ backstories will appeal to their much more simple-minded view of the world.

True Detective is at one and the same time a superbly researched historical novel and a perfect example of the hard-boiled private eye story. Collins never puts a foot wrong, and you simply can’t see the joins where history ends and storytelling begins. Quite the reverse, in fact. I got curious about the era and I did some reading around the subject and I was very surprised to discover that some of the things I was absolutely certain had been invented so as to move the plot along were, in fact, not invented at all!

Clearly I am going to have to read many more of Max Allan Collins’ books, and I suggest that you do too.

* * * *

I turned the dishwasher on. "E42," it said smugly and beeped seductively. It sounded happy.

"What does E42 mean?" I asked.

"It means thank you for fixing me," said the dishwasher. "Now how about you fill me up with dirty dishes. I’m eager to get back to work."

"OK," I said. "I’ll invite my friend round to make a cup of tea. That should give you lots to do."

"Sounds good," said the dishwasher. "Beep, beep."


Seanan McGuire Middlegame Tor
Charles Platt The Complete Patchin Review Taff
Marko Kloos Terms of Enlistment 47North
Jackson Ford The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind Orbit
Mick Herron Joe Country John Murray
Lyndsay Faye The Whole Art of Detection Mysterious Press
Max Allan Collins True Detective St.Martins Press
     
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