Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (non scientia figmentum)

Notta Lotta SF (Justa Little Bit)

Like many people, I only knew True Grit as a movie. John Wayne played a starring role in the 1969 film and he won an Oscar for his performance. I was aware of the film, but I never saw it and I certainly had no idea that it was based on a novel that had been published only the year before. In 2010 the film was made again, this time by the Coen brothers. That made me sit up and take notice. The star of the movie was Jeff Bridges, an actor I knew little or nothing about. However the reputation of the Coens was such that I made certain to see the film and I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought a DVD copy of it so that I could watch it again whenever I wanted to. The film was grim, and dark and very, very funny. However I still wasn’t aware that the story had started life as a novel, though I’m sure there must have been something about the book buried in the small print as the credits rolled…

I only learned about the novel when I came across an audiobook of it. The audiobook was read by Donna Tartt, an esteemed novelist in her own right. The blurb claimed that the novel True Grit by Charles Portis was her very favourite novel so she’d jumped at the chance to present the audiobook to the world. And I have to say that she read it brilliantly. The characters came alive as she read and to my delight I found that the novel was even grimmer and darker than the movie had been. It was also much, much funnier.

The story is narrated by Mattie Ross who, nearing the end of her life, looks back to the year 1878 when she was fourteen years old. Her father had been killed by a drifter named Tom Chaney and Mattie wants to bring Chaney to justice. She hires Rooster Cogburn, a drunken US Marshal. The party is joined by a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) who wants to apprehend Chaney for reasons of his own.

The plot is fairly ordinary. What makes this book so spectacularly good is Mattie’s tone of voice as she narrates her story and the often semi-surrealistic incidents that pepper their chasing of Tom Chaney. Mattie has a deadpan delivery and she fails to see any humour in her situation. To her it is all deadly serious, which only adds to the humour of course. The story is very violent – both Cogburn and LaBoeuf are quick to use their weapons. That’s how they’ve managed to survive for so long when other, less violent men, have died (often at the hands of Cogburn and LaBoeuf). Nevertheless Mattie finds a nobility in the two men that transcends more pedestrian concerns. Donna Tartt was right to praise the book so highly. I can easily understand why she loves it so much.

I first came across the name of "Mad" Mike Hoare in the 1960s when he made headline news all over the world for the extraordinary brutality of the mercenary troops that he led into combat in the Belgian Congo (as it was called back then). Even in a profession noted for its violence, Hoare stood out as an ultra-violent and extremely unforgiving man. He kept popping up now and then over the years in this and that trouble spot. The newspapers seemed to love him. His name in the headlines guaranteed extra sales. Lots of thud and blunder.

In 1978 Hoare was approached by the government in exile of the Seychelles. They wanted him to lead a counter coup. They wanted him to overthrow the Marxist regime that had overthrown them! Hoare’s book The Seychelles Affair is the story of how he organised and paid for the counter coup, how it all turned to cottage cheese and how he ended up spending several years in some notoriously brutal South African prisons as a result.

It’s a surprisingly thoughtful and well written book. Hoare is not at all the violent thug that the newspapers painted him as. He does display a rather irrational hatred of Marxism – his reasons for disapproving of it are somewhat badly thought out and he seems incapable of distinguishing between actual Marxists and cynical power-hungry people who call themselves Marxists because they know it will get them money and troops. But that blind spot aside, he really does think very deeply about  what he is doing and he always has good, pragmatic reasons for the actions he takes. As I read the book, I found myself coming, rather grudgingly, to admire him.

If you ever want to organise a coup, you really should read The Seychelles Affair. It’s the ultimate textbook on how to do it. It tells you how to finance the coup, how to recruit the people you will need, how to arm them, and how to get them to where they need to be – no stone is left unturned, no i remains undotted and no t remains uncrossed. The whole thing is quite fascinating.

Mike Hoare spent the whole of his life fighting in this, that or the other undeclared and generally very dirty war. But he himself died peacefully in his bed, surrounded by his family, on 2nd February 2020. He was 100 years old. That in itself speaks volumes about his skill as a mercenary soldier.

David Gerrold’s new novel Hella is set on the eponymous colony world. It’s a rather fearsome place. Everything on the planet is oversized. The trees tower more than a mile into the sky, the dinosaur herds are made up of beasts that dwarf anything that has ever been found in Earth’s fossil record. Even the weather is extreme – it is so fierce that, the colonists have to migrate twice a year so as to escape the blistering heat of summer and the atmosphere-freezing cold of winter.  It’s not an easy place to live in and it’s not an easy place to love. But the colonists do their best and they are well settled in.

Then a ship arrives from Earth bringing more colonists. A conflict soon develops between the new colonists and and the old guard. The stage is set for the bulk of the story.

While Gerrold definitely has a lot of fun with the flora and fauna of Hella, that’s not really what this novel is about. What it’s really about is a set of political and ideological conflicts whose ultimate aim is to define the best way to run a closed society. The colonists may be living on Hella, but nevertheless they remain largely isolated from it – they live their lives in habitats designed to keep the inside in and the outside out. It’s the only way to stay safe. But there are arguments about how best to do it and of course there are people working within the system who view the system more as a mechanism for self-aggrandisement rather than as a way of ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number. Perhaps something needs to be done...

The story is narrated by Kyle, a young man who sits somewhere on the autism spectrum. Kyle is very literal. He always assumes that words mean only what their dictionary definitions tell him that they mean. By his own admission, he cannot understand nuance, and he’s not very good at humour either. This means that he constantly has to have things explained to him. This is a clever mechanism for the author to impart information to the reader. But there’s a lot more to Kyle than simply acting as an information conduit between the author and the reader. His character is delicately and sympathetically handled. Gerrold does an absolutely superb job of taking us inside Kyle’s head and letting us see the world from his unique perspective. Kyle’s voice and his sometimes idiosyncratic way of interpreting the world are the very best things about the story.

Gerrold has modelled many of his his books upon the more didactic novels of his literary hero Robert Heinlein. Hella is one of these books, and as a consequence it is full of lectures, discussions about how the political structures of the colony work and how the personalities of those in charge affect the way things are organised and implemented. Eventually, and not very surprisingly, the discussion morphs into the mechanics of how to launch a rebellion against the status quo. There are distinct echoes of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in the structure of this story. There are also a lot of playful references to other David Gerrold books – several times he talks about characters from the series of YA novels collectively referred to as The Dingiliad and a major character in the book is a computer called Harlie…

Given the Heinlein-like structure that Gerrold is following here, you might expect that the novel would be rather dull. Certainly it is very slow moving. But it never really becomes boring. Like Heinlein before him, Gerrold is a master at making interminable lectures entertaining even when they clash with your own opinions and suddenly become infuriating. Nevertheless there is no doubt that they do have the effect of bulking out what is probably really only a novelette and turning it into something that is perhaps rather too long and too static for comfort.

The science fiction novelist Bob Shaw won only one Hugo award and it was for his fan writing rather than for his fiction. He published a regular column in a fanzine called Hyphen (cognoscenti often referred to the zine simply as "-"). The column was called The Glass Bushel on the grounds that because a bushel made of glass is transparent, it is obviously the very best kind of bushel to hide your light behind. The logic that underlies this statement is quite typical of Bob’s delicious sense of humour and it goes a long way towards explaining his well-deserved Hugo award.

The Full Glass Bushel is a collection of all of Bob’s Glass Bushel columns and is published as a companion piece to his Serious Scientific Talks. This last collects together the talks that Bob gave regularly at British SF conventions in the 1970s and 1980s. Both collections are unfailingly hilarious though there is no doubt that many of the Glass Bushel pieces also have their serious side.

I have, quite literally, seen people so weak with laughter at the end of one of Bob’s talks that they were utterly unable to get out of their seat to leave the lecture theatre when the talk was over. His fanzine columns are equally as funny, if not more so and I strongly urge you not to read The Full Glass Bushel on a bus. Not only will people stare at you as you convulse in your seat, but you will also find that you have become far too weak to get off the bus when it reaches your stop. Indeed, there is a very real danger that you will fail to recognise your stop when it turns up because the tears of laughter streaming down your face will have rendered the world far too blurred for you to recognise anything let alone something as mundane as a bus stop. You have been warned.

You owe it to yourself to read The Full Glass Bushel. Don’t delay. Get yourself a copy. It’s free. You’ll find it at:

Anything You Can Imagine is a book about the making of the movies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Along the way it also talks a lot about Peter Jackson’s early life, his hobbies and interests, and it also touches on some of the other films that he has made. I must confess that the book gets a bit tedious when it delves into the minutiae of the financing of the Tolkien movies but nevertheless there is sufficient insider gossip presented in its pages that it never gets truly boring. Despite the fact that I’ve pored obsessively through the documentary material included with the DVD releases of the movies and despite the fact that I’ve read goodness knows how many articles about the movies, I still learned lots that was new to me. If you are at all interested in the movies you will absolutely love this book, I guarantee it.

Again, I "read" this as an audiobook. The narrator is somebody called Tristram Wymark. I know nothing about him, but I’m absolutely certain that he’s never been to New Zealand and he’s never spoken to a New Zealander in the whole of his life. I found it exquisitely painful listening to him mangle New Zealand place names. I was irresistibly reminded of a regular sketch that McPhail and Gadsby used to have in their satirical comedy shows on New Zealand television in the 1980s. The sketch was called The Deliberate Mispronunciation of Maori and it was a hilarious delight. Unfortunately  Tristram Wymark’s mispronunciations are merely ugly and sad. I think the difference is that McPhail and Gadsby did it with a full understanding of what it was that they were trying to achieve. They did it out of love, if you like, and the results were unfailingly funny.  Tristram Wymark is doing it out of total ignorance and the results are just rather sad and more than a little embarrassing.

You might assume that a novel called The Confessions of Al Capone would be a thinly fictionalised biography of the notorious gangster. Loren Estleman’s novel is certainly that, but there is an awful lot more to it than just a dramatisation of Capone’s life and times. It is a social and cultural history of American society in the early decades of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of one of America’s less than law-abiding citizens!

The bulk of the novel takes place in 1944. Al Capone has been released from Alcatraz on medical grounds – he is suffering from tertiary syphilis and, in the opinion of the authorities, he doesn’t have very long to live. He has retired to his palatial retreat in Florida to await the inevitable end.

J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, is eager to gather as much information as he can from Capone. He is convinced that Capone still holds a lot of secrets in his head, secrets that would give Hoover sufficient leverage to break the iron grip that organised crime has on American society. Peter Vasco is an FBI agent who, in the opinion of J. Edgar Hoover, is uniquely equipped to infiltrate what is left of Capone’s organisation because his father (Paul Vasco) had worked for Capone in his heyday, driving beer trucks to keep Capone’s speakeasies well supplied with booze. Also, to an extent, Capone has always felt that he owed a debt of gratitude to Paul Vasco because when they were both young men Paul had been instrumental in giving Capone an alibi for a gangland killing. Capone never forgot that, and he always felt indebted. So Hoover grooms and trains Peter Vasco and then sends him out into Capone’s viciously nasty world where, by using his father’s influence to get close to Capone, he will hopefully be able to persuade the man to unburden himself.

Vasco soon becomes Capone’s confessor (in a manner of speaking) and Capone does indeed talk a lot about his early life and how he became the person that he is. Nevertheless, the novel is much more Peter Vasco’s story than it is Al Capone’s – though it does turn out that the lives of both men are really quite intimately tangled together in ways that neither of them could have anticipated.

A novel such as this depends for its effect on the author’s ability to bring the life and times of its characters alive to the reader. Here Estleman succeeds brilliantly. He has obviously done an immense amount of historical research and this huge and sprawling novel is full of absolutely fascinating information about depression-era organized crime, and the culture that defined the era and gave birth to the gangsters. A lot of famous names (and quite a few not so famous names) live and love and laugh and die in the pages of this utterly fascinating book. Estleman has written more than seventy novels but there is little doubt that his one is his masterpiece. It is truly absorbing, truly involving and quite impossible to put down.

In Flying Blind, Max Allan Collins involves his private detective Nathan Heller in the life and times of Amelia Earhart, the famous American pilot who vanished from history in 1937 as she attempted to circumnavigate the globe. Over the years there have been many theories about what might have happened to Amelia Earhart. Max Allan Collins, being a novelist, has chosen to embrace one of the least likely (though by far the most dramatic) of these theories. And being the clever novelist that he is, he makes this unlikely story thoroughly believable.

The more I read of Max Allan Collins’ Nathan Heller novels, the more impressed I am with his painstaking historical research and his ability to bring his characters to life. It is interesting to compare the Heller novels to Estleman’s The Confessions of Al Capone because the first three Heller novels deal with the same historical era as Estleman’s book and they involve a lot of the same characters. In many ways they complement each other and it is noteworthy that, where the historical record is thin, both Collins and Estleman come to almost exactly the same conclusions about what might have happened and why it might have happened. Kudos to both of them!

M. W. Craven, whoever he might be, has (so far) written three extremely fascinating novels about a British detective who has the unlikely name of Washington Poe. I’m not being snide with that remark. The name really is remarkably unlikely and there is a very good reason why this person has been saddled with such a ridiculous name. But if you want to know what the reason is, you will have to read the books. Telling you in a review would be a massive spoiler.

In the novels Poe finds himself investigating a series of extremely bizarre, increasingly complex, extraordinarily ingenious and completely unbelievable crimes. That’s a crime fiction tradition, of course. The Machiavellian twists and turns of the plot of (say) an Agatha Christie novel are generally quite outrageous and seldom have any connection whatsoever to real life events. But that doesn’t stop us from enjoying her stories. Craven’s novels are simply the modern day equivalent of traditional crime fiction with added sex and violence. They are enormously addictive, very cleverly plotted and great fun.

One of the best things about the books is Poe’s relationship with a civilian analyst called Tilly Bradshaw. Tilly has Asperger Syndrome. But she also has two PhDs from Oxford University, and she demonstrates remarkable abilities with statistics, data correlation, and pattern recognition. She is a genius with computers. Amazingly, almost everything the novels say about computers is pretty close to accurate! This is very refreshing. I really am quite fed up with novels that present computers as magic boxes that can do ten impossible things before breakfast. It’s nice to find a book that recognises their limitations and deals with them realistically.

Tilly is naive and innocent. She takes everything that is said to her literally – like Kyle in David Gerrold’s Hella she does not understand nuance. She has problems adapting to social situations and is often targeted by bullies. Tilly is obsessive, she is a gaming aficionado, and because she has almost no social skills she tends to blurt out whatever words pop into her head however inappropriate they may be. But Poe recognises her abilities and he soon comes to realise just how valuable her skills are to the cases they are investigating. Watching her developing relationship with Poe is a true joy, both poignant and comic.

I assume that more novels starring Washington Poe are in the pipeline. I’m already looking forward to reading them!

Charles Portis True Grit Simon and Schuster / Audible
Mike Hoare The Seychelles Affair Paladin Press
David Gerrold Hella DAW
Bob Shaw The Full Glass Bushel Ansible Editions
Ian Nathan Anything You Can Imagine HarperCollins / Audible
Loren D. Estleman The Confessions of Al Capone Forge
Max Allan Collins Flying Blind Dutton
M. W. Craven The Puppet Show Constable
M. W. Craven Black Summer Constable
M. W. Craven The Curator Constable
Previous Contents Next