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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (nova latrina)

The Birthday Present

One Sunday evening, round about 11.00pm, after a particularly strenuous and difficult flush, the toilet decided that enough was enough and so it gave up the ghost and sulked. At first it was hard to tell that anything out of the ordinary had happened. The cistern made the usual swishing and refilling noises. But Robin felt that they were going on for far too long, and they were showing no signs at all of stopping. She listened suspiciously for a while. Then she noticed that water was puddling on the floor around her feet. That’s unusual, she thought.

Jake the Dog came wandering in. "The floor’s wet," he pointed out in case Robin hadn’t noticed.

"I know," said Robin. "It’s all leaked out of the toilet."

"Really?" said Jake in an excited tone of voice. "What a red letter day this has turned out to be!" He slurped all the water up, leaving the floor as dry as a bone. "Yum," he said, licking his lips. "Tasty! Did someone say something about a dry bone?"

"Dry as a bone is just a saying," Robin warned him. "Don’t take it literally and don’t try to eat the floor. We like it the way it is." Jake’s tail drooped in disappointment. "Spoilsport," he said, but he did as he was told.

Robin took the top off the cistern and peered inside. A thin layer of scummy water swirled around the bottom of it. A pipe was gushing madly, trying its very best to fill the cistern up. Sullen bubbles floated out of the pipe and as fast as the water flowed in to the cistern, it flowed out again through the bubbling hole and dripped on to the floor. Robin turned off the water supply to the toilet. The noise and the flow of water stopped. She came and told me what had happened.

"Fortunately we live in a house with two toilets," I said as I headed determinedly for the other one.

"I wouldn’t if I were you," advised Robin. "I think that one’s buggered as well."

"What’s wrong with it?" I asked.

"It appears to have broken away from whatever was fastening it to the floor," she said. "It wobbles rather alarmingly."

"At least it still flushes," I said. "If we’re careful, we should be able to use it safely until the plumber arrives."

"That’s a relief," said Robin.

"No, that’s not a relief," I said, as I unzipped and took careful aim, "this is a relief."

She threw a toilet brush at me.

* * * *

I’ve never read anything by Juliet E. McKenna. As far as I can tell, she’s a writer of traditional fantasies, a genre that does not appeal to me. But The Green Man’s Heir has attracted a lot of critical attention and praise, so I thought I’d give it a go. Rather to my surprise, I quite enjoyed it, though I do think that it has some structural problems.

Daniel Mackmain is the son of a dryad and a human. He lives in both worlds and he can see things that are invisible to ordinary mortals. The story begins with a murder mystery – two human girls have been savagely killed in a Derbyshire forest. A dryad who lives in the forest is understandably upset by this and she persuades Dan to look into it. There are strong hints that creatures from faerie are somehow involved in the killings, which gives Dan a bit of a problem. How is he ever going to explain that to the police?

The story threads are tied together with many references to characters and creatures from traditional British folk tales and yet the story remains firmly part of present day England. At one and the same time, it’s both a contemporary murder mystery and a fairy tale. It’s very cleverly and skilfully written. Juliet McKenna juggles all the balls that she’s thrown up into the air with enormous skill and never once lets any of them fall. I was held enthralled.

However the murder mystery is solved about three quarters through the book and then the story takes off in a whole new direction with a whole new set of characters. It almost feels as if the novel is actually made up of two completely separate stories with Daniel Mackmain being really the only thing that they have in common. I think the structural integrity of the novel would have been better served by drawing it to a close once the murder mystery had been cleared up. Unfortunately that would have made the novel far too short by today’s bloated standards. I think that’s a pity.

Generally speaking, I avoid Peter Hamilton’s books. They are far too large and unwieldy for my taste. You simply can’t hold a Peter Hamilton novel in one hand and read it while you chew on the sandwich you’ve got in your other hand. It’s not physically possible. Pandora’s Star is a massive 1,144 pages, for heaven’s sake, and it’s only the first volume of a series. Goodness me!

Of course in these days of ebooks and audiobooks the physical size of the printed book becomes much less important. The device it displays on can easily be held in one hand. So I made myself a sandwich and plunged in to the ebook of Pandora’s Star, determined to get all the way to the end. Well, I made it, but it was a struggle, and I promise you that I have absolutely no intention of reading the sequel(s)…

At first glance the story sounds very promising, not to say thrilling. Just the kind of thing to appeal to a dyed-in-the-wool SF fan. About three centuries from now the Commonwealth is a sphere of influence some four hundred light years across. Wormholes connect the planets that make up the commonwealth and people travel between the planets by train – a delightful conceit.

A Commonwealth astronomer has been examining two stars a thousand or so light years away, well outside the boundary of the Commonwealth. He notices the two stars suddenly disappear. They don’t go nova, they don’t fade away, they just vanish. Someone or something has blocked the stars off, probably by constructing a force field around them. But who would do such a thing and why would they do it? And, of course, the biggest question of all, how did they do it? How do you turn off a star?

The Commonwealth wormholes don’t reach out that far yet, and so a starship is constructed to take a team to investigate what the Commonwealth perceives as being a very real threat.

It’s a good story with great potential. But…

The reason the book is so long is because it’s crammed full of side stories involving characters who will eventually be involved in some way with the voyage out to the vanishing stars. Some of them will be in the crew. Some of them will help with the building of the starship. And some of them are actively opposed to the voyage for one reason or another and so they will do their very best to sabotage it. These side stories go on and on and on and on and... They are full of very boring people who are doing very boring things for very boring reasons. Even when the starship does eventually make a rather boring trip to the vanishing stars, what the crew find there is itself unutterably boring.

Pandora’s Star could have been a great story. The seeds are certainly there. However, as it stands, it is just a very, very, very boring story that goes on for far too long.

In my last column I reviewed A Ripple In Time by Victor Zugg. It was a reasonably OK novel which I quite enjoyed. The story is complete in itself and it has a satisfying ending. The last thing it really needs is a sequel. The Planters is the sequel that it really doesn’t need.

By the end of the first book we know, in broad outline at least, what happens to Steven Mason and Karen, twenty-first century people who have been trapped in 1720 in Charles Town, a colony in Carolina. We know that they settled down there and made a life for themselves in that time and place. Evidence of this exists in the historical record. We don’t know many details, but we don’t need to know the details. Once the problems defined in the first novel have have been overcome we can assume that everything else is pretty much routine because we know that it all works out.

The Planters tries to put a bit of flesh on the bare bones of the historical record. It tells a tale of piracy and treachery and treasure. But the story never really takes off because the "spoilers" at the end of the first book guarantee that this one will have a happy ending. So there isn’t really very much tension here. We know that Steven Mason is going to solve the problems that are presented to him. Everything else is just detail.

It’s also not really an SF story either – it’s a story about 1720 and it is set in 1720. The movers and shakers of the piece are all firmly part of the eighteenth century. Although a little bit of lip service is paid to the fact that Steven Mason comes from three centuries in the future, the story really doesn’t depend on that. It could be (and generally is) told as a perfectly ordinary historical novel.

* * * *

Bright and early on Monday morning I rang the plumber and explained the situation. "Hmmm," said the plumber, thoughtfully. "Sounds like you need a plumber."

"That’s a good idea," I said. "Do you think that you could arrange such a thing?"

"Well," he said, "I can definitely promise to have someone there at 8.00am on Friday."

"But that’s five days away," I pointed out.

"I might be able to get someone there before then," he said. "It depends how well the jobs we’ve currently got scheduled go. I can absolutely guarantee Friday, but it might be sooner. With luck..."

"OK," I said and I settled down to wait with anticipation and crossed legs.

"You can borrow my lawn, if you like," said Jake, the ever generous Dog. "There’s a really good bit just over there in front of the fence where the neighbours have the best possible view. Let me show you how it works." He demonstrated copiously.

"No thank you," I said. "The ground is too squishy."

By Wednesday, Robin and I were both well practised at using the wobbly toilet. Fortunately neither of us are prone to sea sickness, so it wasn’t too unpleasant an experience. That morning Robin woke me with a kiss. "Happy birthday," she said, for it was indeed my birthday. I was a whole decade older than I had been the day before and everything around me had changed dramatically overnight. The country was clearly going down hill fast. It was full of rude, humourless and ignorant young whipper-snappers who lacked all respect for custom and tradition. One and all, they listened to terrible music performed by screeching people who were too stupid to remember their own surnames. I hoped that all their toilets would break. That would teach them a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget!

* * * *

Robert Barnard is a writer with whom I am not familiar, though it seems he has been quite prolific. It’s a little odd that I’ve never stumbled across him before, but so it goes... The blurb on Out of the Blackout seemed quite fascinating so, having been hooked, I had to read the book. I was not disappointed.

In the 1940s, during the blitz, London was being bombed almost every night. Many London children were evacuated to the countryside so as to keep them safe. Five year old Simon Thorn arrives in a Gloucestershire village on an evacuation train. He has no identification with him and his name is not on any of the evacuation lists.  Nevertheless, he is taken in by a kindly couple (somebody has to look after him) who raise him as their son. Nobody comes to claim Simon after the war ends and Simon himself remembers little or nothing about his early life. He lives on happily with his foster parents. The years pass.

One day, in the 1960s, he visits London on business. A street looks vaguely familiar… That plants the seed, and for the first time he starts to wonder about himself and his background. Who is he? Why was he on the evacuation train? Who were his birth family and what has happened to them? He starts to try and search out his origins and quickly comes into contact with some rather unsavoury people. He also learns a lot about the social and political attitudes of wartime Britain – not everybody was opposed to Hitler’s policies. Fascism had its supporters. And as he delves deeper into the mystery of how and why he was abandoned the politics of the time (with resonances that carry forward long after the war was over) become more and more important.

This is a clever and subtle and very thoughtful novel which, despite its historical setting, still has a lot to say about the attitudes that sometimes prevail even today. And it’s a definite page turner! The story evokes some powerful emotions. You absolutely have to find out what it all means.

Jeff Lindsay is the author of a series of novels about Dexter, a likeable serial killer. A successful TV series was (very loosely) based on those books. But now Jeff Lindsay has left Dexter behind. Just Watch Me is the first book in a new series about Riley Wolfe, con man and thief extraordinaire.

Wolfe chooses his heists on the basis of how difficult they will be. The more impossible a job seems to be, the more likely it is that Riley Wolfe will take it on. In this opening novel of the series he determines to go after the centrepiece diamond from the Iranian Crown Jewels which are on exhibition in New York. The security surrounding the display is unprecedented – state of the art (and more!) electronic security backed up by armed guards with very itchy trigger fingers. Nobody is going to steal this diamond.

But Riley Wolfe has a plan…

There are two aspects to the way this story is told. On the one hand we have the joy and delight of watching Riley’s extraordinarily complex plan unfold. On the other hand we have Frank Delgado, an FBI agent who is working behind the scenes attempting to ferret out the background story on Riley Wolfe. Who is he? Where did he come from? What motivates him? Delgado is sure that if he can get a handle on Wolfe’s background he will learn something that will enable him to get close to Riley Wolfe and, hopefully, arrest the miscreant. But Wolfe seems to have anticipated this. He has taken great care to wipe out his back story. Records have gone missing, names have been changed… Nevertheless, hints remain and Delgado does learn enough to be there at the end when Riley Wolfe’s plans come to fruition. And that’s when the final magnificent twist in the tail manifests itself. Trust me, it will leave you gasping.

This is a clever novel on every level. Jeff Lindsay shows us Riley Wolfe at the height of his powers. But super-villains are made, not born and Frank Delgado’s questions are important ones. Without a convincing backstory the melodrama would utterly fail to convince. As it stands, however, ridiculous the story might be, it brilliantly invokes the willing suspension of disbelief that is necessary to enjoy it. I loved every silly page of it and I am eagerly looking forward to reading much more about Riley Wolfe.

Dear Fatty is Dawn French’s autobiography. She has chosen a rather unusual structure with which to tell her story. The book consists of a series of letters concerning important parts of her life, addressed to the people (both alive and dead) who were involved in them. The eponymous Fatty is her long time comedic colleague Jennifer Saunders…

In some ways this is a rather saccharine book. Dawn praises and loves everybody. She never has a bad word to say about anybody in her life except for one thoroughly poisonous grandmother. And even there she is sparing with her criticism.

The book has been criticised for being too sweet. Apparently that makes it unbelievable to some people. But I’m not sure that I agree with them. Assuming that she is being honest in what she says, I think we simply have to accept that she is just a very nice person. And if she really is that nice then I can’t help but admire her for it. A lot!

Her life has not been without its sorrows. Her father comitted suicide when she was nineteen. Her love for her father shines out of every page and the letters addressed to him (particularly the ones that tell him about things that happened after he died) are extremely poignant.

But she’s had her triumphs as well as her tragedies. She was one of the movers and shakers of the British comedy revival of the last part of the twentieth century, the so-called alternative comedy. That’s a description she doesn’t understand. As far as she is concerned something is either funny or it isn’t. How can you categorise it beyond that? I have to say that I agree with her.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dear Fatty, and I’m sure that you will too.

* * * *

At precisely 8.00am on my birthday morning the plumber arrived, eager to start plumbing. I showed him the flushless toilet and the wobbly toilet and he frowned. "Well, I can easily replace the broken pipe that is preventing the cistern from filling up," he said. "But I can pretty much promise you that I’ll be back again in three months or so to replace whatever it is that breaks next. The toilet is about a quarter of a century old and it’s on its last legs. Repairing it is just throwing good money after bad. I recommend that you get a whole new cistern rather than trying to repair the old one piecemeal. It will be a lot cheaper in the long run."

Because I was myself extraordinarily old, I felt that I fully understood what he was telling me. The parallels between me and the ancient toilet were all too obvious. Bits of both of us kept breaking down, and sometimes they fell off. I could easily appreciate how the toilet must be feeling at the moment. It must be very frustrating to be completely unable to flush. I hate it when that happens to me. Perhaps I should have a new cistern fitted as well… "Good idea," I said to the plumber. "Let’s do it. What about the wobbly one?"

"Back in the day," said the plumber informatively, "they used brass screws to attach the toilet to the floor. After twenty five years of soaking in unnameable fluids the screws start to dissolve and disintegrate. I doubt there’s anything except the head of the screw left down there. These days we use stainless steel screws. They last for ever."

I contemplated the positive benefits of a stainless steel screw. Perhaps that was just what I needed to make me feel young again...

"I’ll go and get a replacement cistern for the dead one," said the plumber and off he went. A few minutes later the phone rang. I answered it. "Good news!" said the plumber. "They’ve got a sale on. For only an extra $13 you can get a whole new toilet bowl as well as a new cistern! It’s a bargain."

I discussed it with Robin. "The toilet bowl is rather chipped and grubby," she said thoughtfully. "And that makes it a bit hard to clean. Scrubbing really doesn’t seem to have very much effect at all, and the toilet duck just quacks in frustration every time I put him in there because, no matter how hard he tries, he never manages to peck much of the grime away."

"I think whoever lived here before us used to clean the toilet with wire wool and and an industrial sand blaster," I said. "I’ve noticed that the porcelain is covered in fine cracks. They are a perfect place for bacteria to hide in and breed. Eldriitch horrors lurk unseen down there. Sometimes I hear eerie music in the night when their mad, passionate parties get out of control. And in the morning the toilet is often green and sprouting wavy tendrils of bacterial fur."

"I don’t like the fur," said Robin thoughtfully. "It tickles."

"New toilet bowl?" I asked.

"New toilet bowl," she agreed.

"New toilet bowl," I said to the plumber.

"What about the wobbly one?" he asked. "I’ll have to take the toilet off the floor anyway so that I can drill holes for the new stainless steel screws. Why not put a new one there as well instead of replacing the original? It’s just as old as the first one and in just as poor a condition."

Robin and I repeated our previous conversation word for word. We agreed that the plumber made a very persuasive case. "Two new toilets," I confirmed.

So that was my birthday present to myself. Two new toilets delivered and installed. Best birthday present ever.

Juliet E. McKenna The Green Man’s Heir Wizard’s Tower
Peter F. Hamilton Pandora’s Star Pan Macmillan
Victor Zugg The Planters Independent Publication
Robert Barnard Out of the Blackout Corgi
Jeff Lindsay Just Watch Me Dutton
Dawn French Dear Fatty Random House
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