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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (scriptum mensorum)

Books of the Month

I’ve not been very enamoured of Stephen King’s last few books. However his new novel, The Institute is a definite return to form. I devoured it in a couple of days and I loved every word of it. The plot is very simple – for the last seventy years or so a shadowy government agency has been kidnapping children who have latent telepathic or telekinetic abilities. The children are brought to the eponymous institute where their skills are harnessed to (euphemistically) "take care" of people who threaten the political stability of the world. In a sense, the story is a political allegory mixed with a touch of wish-fulfilment  – I’m sure that King desperately wishes that there really was an institute to take care of the Donald Trumps of this world. Despite this, he’s honest enough to admit that the price is probably not worth paying – the attrition rate among the children is very high and the institute is in constant need of new talent.

But that doesn’t matter – after all, there are a lot of children in the world. This cynical attitude pervades every aspect of life in the institute and the custodial staff pay little or no attention to the needs and the feelings of the children who are nominally in their care. Life for the inmates is nasty, brutal and short, and nobody seems to lose very much sleep over that fact.

One of the current inmates of the institute is twelve years old. His name is Luke Ellis and as well as having telekinetic abilities, he’s also a child prodigy, a genius and, it turns out, he is rather too much for the institute to cope with. For the first time in seventy years, cracks start to show in the administrative structure of the institute, and Luke isn’t slow to take advantage of them...

King has always been brilliant at showing us his terrifying world through the eyes of children. Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, It, the list goes on and on. Now we can add another book to that list. The Institute is his best novel in years.

I remember reading John Varley’s novel Red Thunder back in 2003 when it was first published. I also remember not liking it very much. But I’ve just re-read it and this time round I liked it a lot more. The book is the same book that it was sixteen years ago so obviously it must be me who has changed in the interim. I wonder what happened?

Red Thunder is a YA novel cast very much in the mould of Heinlein’s so-called juvenile novels. As the story opens, Chinese astronauts are on their way to make the first human landing on Mars. An American spaceship is also en route to Mars but the implacable laws of celestial mechanics decree that the American ship will arrive after the Chinese have landed.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, a group of teenagers in Florida make the acquaintance of Travis Broussard, an ex-NASA astronaut whose autistic cousin Jubal has invented a miraculous device called a squeezer (because it taps into energy from another dimension and squeezes whatever is conveniently around and about into silvery, indestructible bubbles that look like Christmas tree ornaments). With a bit of fiddling, the squeezer can be used to power a spaceship that can accelerate constantly – a huge advantage over more traditional spacecraft that have to drift slowly on low energy orbits. A squeezer powered spaceship could travel to Mars in days as opposed to the months that it will take the Chinese and American astronauts to get there.

So that’s exactly what happens. The teenagers build a spaceship and Travis Broussard pilots it to Mars, getting there just a day before the Chinese arrive, thus ensuring that Americans are the first to set foot on the red planet, just as God intended. Rah! Rah! Rah!

Clearly the novel is, to a large extent, a re-write and an expansion of Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo and even in 2003 I thought it was a much better book than Heinlein’s was (Rocketship Galileo is the first and the least of Heinlein’s juveniles).

I suspect that back in 2003 I probably found the novel to be a bit too childish. Perhaps I’ve become more tolerant because, while I still recognise the silliness of the premise, it bothers me a lot less now, This time round, I thoroughly enjoyed the Heinleinesque banter and I immersed myself in the detail of the designing and building of the spaceship and the thrill of the actual journey.

There were still some things that irritated me – Travis won’t take the teenagers to Mars without their parents’ permission which strikes me as a rather silly and old-fashioned attitude. However, to be fair, at least one of the parents recognises that if he refuses to give permission his son will go anyway and will lose all respect for his father. Nevertheless, the teenagers are, in my opinion, far too respectful of their parents’ wishes and give way to them far too much. Though to be fair once again, Kelly Strickland spends the entire book in open rebellion against her micro-managing and over-controlling father.

There is some rather naive red-baiting scattered here and there in the story which upsets my left wing political feelings. The emphasis on religion comes across as rather squirmy to my atheistical soul and there is far too much gung-ho patriotism for my tastes. I’m not making anti-American statements here; I’m just making anti-Anyone statements. I firmly believe that any deeply religious person or any patriot from any country whatsoever is a dangerous idiot. Patriotism and religion are both far too old fashioned a philosophy for the twenty-first century. It’s way past time for us to give them up. And again, to be fair once more, much the same points as these are made in the novel’s epilogue!

There’s still a lot about this novel that I don’t like. But perhaps I’m picking nits because there remains so much to like about this book that the positive aspects far outweighs the negative. It’s a fast paced, rollicking tale and I can’t help thinking that Heinlein himself would have loved it. So sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a lot of fun.

In Stolen Away, Max Allan Collins has his private detective Nathan Heller take part in the infamous investigation into the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. All of Collins’ Nathan Heller novels concern themselves with historically significant people and events which makes the novels an interesting mix of both fact and fiction. Often it is hard to tell which is which! And that’s part of the fascination, of course.

Before I read the book I knew almost nothing about the Lindbergh kidnapping. I gather that it occupies quite a significant place in American cultural/social history but I am not American and the story simply hadn’t come to my attention. I was appalled, as I read the novel, to find how ineptly the investigation of the kidnapping was handled and it seemed clear that the man who was eventually convicted and executed for the crime could not possibly have been involved in it at all! Surely, I thought, the novel must be playing fast and loose with the facts. Obviously Max Allan Collins was exaggerating almost everything!

I was wrong. After I finished reading this fictional account of the kidnapping I researched the actuality of it. Collins invented almost nothing in his story –  if anything, the novel understates the utter incompetence of the investigation and the stupidity, cynicism, venality, and egotistical posturings of the principle players both professional (the police) and amateur (miscellaneous spiritualists, con-men, fortune hunters and let’s not forget Charles A. Lindbergh himself). It’s a brilliant book about a sickening crime. Read it and weep, and pray that the modern American police force is less corrupt and less stupidly inept than it was in 1932.

One aspect of American history that I have come across before and which has always fascinated me is the story of the Donner party. I suspect I like it because of its gruesome nature. The Donner party were a group of people who migrated to California from the Midwest in 1846. They got snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains and were trapped there for the winter. Some of the migrants resorted to cannibalism (and probably murder) to survive. They certainly ate the bodies of those who had succumbed to starvation and sickness and there are persistent rumours that more than one person was "helped" to die so as to provide food for the rest. Almost half of the group died before they were finally rescued, and those who did survive were psychologically scarred. The novel Old Bones by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child brings a new light to bear on the story of the Donner party.

There are two parallel threads running through this novel. In one thread, the archaeologist Nora Kelly is persuaded to explore the site in the Sierra Nevada mountains where the Donner party made camp during that terrible winter. In the other thread, newly graduated FBI Agent Corrie Swanson is investigating a very curious case. All over the world, someone has been digging up the graves of people who have the surname Parkin. The corpses of these Parkins have been desecrated. The upper halves of their bodies (or, in some cases, just the skull) have been taken away for who knows what nefarious purpose.

Obviously the two seemingly unconnected plot threads must be connected or they wouldn’t be in the same book! The connection, when we finally learn what it is, is ingenious and along the way we are treated to a lot of gruesome archaeological excitement and a ghost story. And even the ghost story turns out to have a close connection to the main story arc – Preston and Child certainly don’t believe in wasting material!

This is one of those novels that grabs hold of you and simply won’t let you go. I kept turning the pages (well, actually I kept taking the dog for longer and more frequent walks because I was listening to the audio book) because I simply had to know what happened next!

The novel is billed as the first of a series that will star Nora Kelly (possibly in collaboration with Corrie Swanson – this last point is not clear). Interestingly, both Kelly and Swanson have appeared as bit players in other novels by Lincoln and Child; the so-called Pendergast novels. Despite all these connections running through goodness knows how many books, each of them can easily be read as a stand alone story. Preston and Child are really quite clever at giving their novels proper beginnings, middles and endings. As it happens, I have actually read some of the Pendergast books, but I read them over rather a long span of years and in a fairly random order. It was ages and ages before I even realised that they actually were a series. That’s how perfectly "stand alone" they are. So full marks to Preston and Child for this. I hope the Nora Kelly series will live up to the same high standard!

The Great Darkness is a historical mystery novel by Jim Kelly. The story is set in Cambridge in 1939 in the opening days of the second world war. The eponymous great darkness is the blackout that envelops the city as a defence against Nazi bombers. Also, high in the sky above the city, sway clusters of barrage balloons, again a defence against the bombers.

Detective Inspector Eden Brooke is a decorated veteran of the first world war. He has no illusions about what is likely to happen in the coming days. He’s seen it all before. He still suffers the consequences of wounds he received fighting in the last war. He’s an eccentric man and one of his delights is to take a nocturnal swim in the river that winds so picturesquely through the city. On one of his swims he comes across a platoon of soldiers digging holes on the riverbank. This excites his curiosity, but his initial investigations are rebuffed by the military authorities.

On the first night of the great darkness three barrage balloons slip their moorings and when the next day dawns, the dreadfully mutilated body of an American scientist called Ernst Lux is discovered lying in the street. Initially it is assumed that he was caught in the dragging cable of one of the drifting balloons. Brooke is not convinced, but there doesn’t seem to be any other explanation.

Later that same day, three parked lorries are discovered. The drivers run away when the police demand to know what they are doing. Further investigation reveals that the lorries are full of freshly butchered carcasses – clearly the police have stumbled on a sophisticated black market operation.

Brooke has his work cut out for him as he starts looking in to all these seemingly disparate events, and his life becomes even more complicated when the murdered body of a local communist and conscientious objector to the war is discovered. The other members of his communist cell cannot be found and Brooke starts to suspect the worst. Then he stumbles across a clue that will eventually give him the leverage he needs to unravel this set of mysteries – both Lutz and the murdered communist had seen a film that was shown at a top secret meeting held in one of the Cambridge colleges.

This is an odd (and oddly compelling) novel. The plot is complex and though the unravelling of it follows the usual in and outs of a fairly traditional police procedural story, there is much more to the story than just a simple whodunnit. What gives the novel its strength is its wonderful evocation of the early days of the "phoney war" in England, a time and a place that is largely ignored by historical novelists. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that the slow unravelling of the plot racks up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. The novel succeeds on every level.

Stephen King The Institute Hodder & Stoughton
John Varley Red Thunder Ace
Max Allan Collins Stolen Away Bantam
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child Old Bones Hachette
Jim Kelly The Great Darkness Allison & Busby
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