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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (canis parva farciminis)

Let’s All Be Frank About This

Jake the Dog and I were driving home from an errand. Just as we turned into the street where we live, Jake noticed a small dachshund puppy sitting forlornly on the kerb watching the world go by. "That little dog looks as if he’s wondering whether the cars would make good playmates," observed Jake. I agreed with him. Clearly something needed to be done before the puppy got squashed. So as soon as we got home, I walked back to where we had seen him.

When I arrived, he was still sitting there looking at the world. He stood up as I approached him and his tail started to wag in welcome. "Hello," he said. He was small and thin, very long and brown. He had enormous floppy ears and an infectious grin. His legs were so short and tiny that his tummy was barely an inch off the ground.

"Hello," I replied. "Are you lost?"

"I don’t think so," said the puppy. "I live over there." He indicated the house just behind us. "I got out," he said proudly. "Aren’t I clever?"

I picked him up and rubbed his ears. He wriggled with delight and licked my face. "Yes," I said, "you’re very clever. But I think it’s time you went home."

I carried him up to the front door. I rang the bell and knocked loudly but I got no answer. "There’s nobody home except me," explained the puppy. "I got lonely. I wanted someone to play with. That’s why I got out."

"Well," I said, "I think you’d better come home with me until your mum and dad get back."

"That sounds like a good idea," said the puppy. And so that’s what we did.

I took the puppy into the lounge and put him down on the floor. Jake the Dog sniffed him benignly and wagged his tail in welcome. Robin took one look at the puppy and melted into a smiling puddle of goo, completely overcome by the puppy’s cuteness. Gilbert the Cat looked horrified. "What’s that?" he demanded. "Take it away immediately!" He fluffed himself out to twice his normal size, arched his back, hissed and spat.

"A new game!" said the puppy, delighted. He bounced over to Gilbert and licked him on the nose. Affronted, Gilbert stalked out of the lounge, went into the bedroom and hid on the top shelf of the wardrobe. "I’m never coming out again," he declared. "Except maybe at dinner time. If you ask nicely."

* * * *

I first discovered the Saint stories by Leslie Charteris in the early 1960s when I was in my teens. I devoured them all avidly and I turned into a life-long fan. Audible have now acquired the rights to (almost) all of the stories, and I’ve recently been enjoying listening to some of Simon Templar’s very familiar adventures all over again. For some odd legal reason Audible have not been able to obtain the rights to Charteris’ 1928 novel Meet the Tiger which is usually regarded as being the very first Saint book but I’m not sure that it really matters. Meet the Tiger is not a very good story and furthermore a persuasive argument can be made that it isn’t really a Saint story either. Certainly characters called Patricia Holm and Simon Templar appear in it but they don’t really feel like the people of the same names who appear in the other Saint stories. The coincidence of names is probably just that – a coincidence.

I must confess that though I greatly enjoyed the Saint stories when I first encountered them in my teens, these days I find that I have a certain moral ambivalence about them, particularly about the very early ones. Maybe, with the passage of years, I have developed rather more empathy with the characters and the situations that they find themselves than once I had. Nowadays it seems to me that the Simon Templar of the first few books is a thoroughly unlikeable psychopath who appoints himself judge, jury and executioner. His poisonous character hides itself behind some very flippant and witty dialogue which is probably designed to disguise the reality of his cruel nature. To a certain extent it succeeds in that aim. But the Saint’s actions speak much more loudly than his words and sometimes I find the things that he does to be more than a little squirmy...

In one particularly gruesome scene, the Saint threatens to cut off the eyelids of one of the bad guys unless the man gives him the information that he needs. Much is made of the agony that the man will experience as he goes through the rest of his life without any eyelids to protect his vision. The slow descent into painful blindness is lovingly described. The man has no doubt that Templar will carry out his threat (and neither does the reader) and the man confesses everything. Wouldn’t you?

In a later episode, the Saint hijacks a motor boat in order to reach the ship in which the bad guys are plotting their dastardly schemes. He knows that he will not be able to reach the ship unobserved and so he attaches ropes to the tiller and lies down on the deck out of sight. He steers the boat by pulling on the ropes. In order to distract attention from himself, he lashes one of the bad guys to the tiller as well, making it appear that it is actually that man who is doing the steering. Naturally the guards on the ship start shooting at the motor boat when it comes into range. The unfortunate man who is tied to the tiller dies in this fusillade of fire. The Saint’s distraction has worked perfectly. The Saint has no regrets about this and his conscience is not at all troubled by the man’s death. Not only is the dead man one of the bad guys, he is also Italian (a "wop" in the language of the book). Both these things clearly make him sub-human and his death is therefore of no importance whatsoever.

And finally, Simon comes to the conclusion that one of the major bad guys is clinically insane and therefore he too has to die. In Simon’s opinion, the man is not fit to live. And so he is taken away and killed in cold blood. Just like that…

Simon Templar is definitely not a nice person at all.

Fortunately the character of the Saint changes considerably as the series progresses. The Simon Templar of the later stories (particularly the stories written after WWII) is much more human and much less of a sociopath. He actually becomes quite likeable. The dialogue in these later stories is much wittier and the characters, both good and bad, are more well rounded. This change in the Saint’s character coincides roughly with the stories moving away from melodrama, turning down the volume a bit and seguing into drama.

The overly melodramatic early stories, written in the late 1920s and early 1930s, have plots that concern themselves with the fate of nations. They deal with the elaborate plans devised by mysterious arms manufacturers who are seeking to increase their already considerable fortunes by fomenting world wide wars. This was a very popular conspiracy theory in the first few decades of the twentieth century – the early Bulldog Drummond stories by "Sapper" use exactly the same trope. Of course the Saint, being far more ruthless than his enemies, always wins the day and manages to maintain the status quo. It is taken as read that the status quo represents the best of all possible worlds. Goodness me, what an assumption to make...

By the time we reach the 1940s, the arms dealers have been replaced by evil Nazis hell bent on world domination. These stories are slightly more believable than the paranoid conspiracy theory novels (though not by much…), probably because there really were (and really are) such things as Nazis and in the 1940s the fate of nations really was decided by the success or failure of the Nazis’ plans. Such people obviously provide a ready made excuse for the Saint to continue on on his merry psychopathic way...

However there is a definite change of mood in the post-war stories. They start to deal with much smaller ideas and much smaller crimes. Indeed sometimes the crimes are so small that they barely exist at all and the stories become far more character driven than they are plot driven. These are the most mature of the Saint stories and, without exception, they are truly glorious tales.

The change in the Saint’s character also roughly coincides with the dissolution of his gang. When we first meet Simon Templar he is only one of several Saints, though he is their leader and they look to him for inspiration. They are all as ruthless as he is. Hints are dropped that they are survivors of the trench warfare of WWI (again, there are parallels here with the Bulldog Drummond stories) and they are anxious to prevent such horrors from ever appearing in the world again. These are laudable aims, but does the end really justify the means?

By the middle years of the 1930s the Saint’s gang members have put adventuring away and have mostly settled down to a life of normal, suburban married domesticity. They largely vanish from the canon (though there are very brief mentions of Roger Conway in some stories). The one exception to this is Norman Kent who is killed in action at the climax of one of the Saint’s very first adventures – this is not a spoiler. Norman’s fate is no secret, though to tell you the manner of it would be a spoiler of massive proportions. The only one of the gang who continues to have a large part to play in the later stories is Patricia Holm, Simon’s on-again off-again girl friend, though eventually she too vanishes into obscurity without explanation. Her last appearance was in Saint Errant in 1948.

Charteris continued to write about Simon Templar until 1963. Then things changed again. Charteris went into retirement and he had little or nothing to do with the writing of the many stories that were published after that year. Consequently the purists (of which I am one) insist that the post-Charteris stories are not legitimately part of the canon. The last proper Saint novel is considered to be The Saint in the Sun.

Confusingly, the post-Charteris books continued to have the name of Leslie Charteris prominently displayed on the cover as the putative author,  but by this time he had completely turned into a franchise and at best Charteris exercised only a very mild editorial control over the stories. The first of the franchised Saint novels was Vendetta for the Saint (1964) which was written by the SF writer Harry Harrison. Charteris himself died in 1993, but nevertheless the books continued to appear. The very last Saint novel (to date) was Capture the Saint by Leslie Charteris (Burl Barer) which was published in 1997. I think I am right in saying that this is the only Saint novel which actually admits on the cover that it wasn’t written by Charteris himself.

Watch (Listen) for the sign of the Saint. He will be back…

I find it rather hard to read books written by David Sedaris. There’s something about his prose style that tends to make my mind wander. My attention drifts away and suddenly I’m lost. But I absolutely love to listen to David Sedaris reading his books out loud to me. There’s something about his voice that captures my imagination and suddenly his jokes work properly, the stories he tells are compelling and I find myself spellbound. It’s a perfect demonstration of the difference between prose that is meant to be read to oneself and prose that is meant to be read out loud. Trust me, there really is a big structural difference between those two things. I know, because I’ve written both kinds myself!

And the fact that David Sedaris is an utterly brilliant reader/performer is just icing on the cake.

Theft by Finding consists of extracts from the diaries that Sedaris has been keeping all his life long. The book covers the years 1997 through to 2002. Presumably a later volume will bring us up to the current year…

In his introduction, Sedaris muses about what it really means to keep a diary. In his imagination, claims Sedaris, the ideal diarist will rail against political and social injustice. Unfortunately in reality the entries will usually quickly descend into the mundane and the diarist will find himself "questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford". Of course there is no reason why the mundane can’t also be political and almost by definition it is always illustrative of social situations. So perhaps a diarist’s cake can be both had and eaten.

The only really overtly political entry in the diary describes the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Appalled, Sedaris watched the events on television in his Paris apartment. Following the attack, Americans living in Paris were advised to keep a low profile and not to speak English on the street.

Apart from that one incident and its aftermath, the diary simply records unusual or surprising things that Sedaris sees, or overhears as he goes about his day. He also records anecdotes that other people have told him. The diary is chatty and full of seemingly unimportant minutiae but nevertheless it seems to me that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts for there is no doubt that Sedaris approaches the ideal of a diarist again and again and again. After all, if it was good enough for Samuel Pepys...

In 1977, David Sedaris was twenty one years old. We follow him through his diary as he hitchhikes around America. He smokes pot and he takes acid and, in order to earn enough money to pay for his mildly expensive habits, he takes menial jobs picking and packing fruit and washing dishes. Eventually he settles down and he moves in to a run-down apartment. He is quite proud of his ingenuity when he realises that his ironing board can do double duty as a dining table. Personally I’d prefer things to be the other way round. I’d much rather have my dining table do double duty as an ironing board because I eat a lot of dinners and I almost never iron anything at all. Priorities matter, don’t you know?

Sedaris builds sculptures. Rather to his surprise, he even manages to sell some of them. He takes a lot of crystal meth. Sometimes his world is foggy. In the introduction, Sedaris tells us that the drugs he was taking at this time inspired him to write reams of diary entries:  "solid walls of words, and every last one of them complete bullshit…". The diary entries of this time that he presents to us in Theft by Finding are simple summaries "...the gist is all you need...". Despite this, his witty and sometimes quite cynical observations continue to stand out. He tells us about women being beaten by their boyfriends and of black Americans being racially abused. (Does nothing ever change?) Almost despite himself he ends up writing a very effective sociopolitical polemic, especially when he finds himself on the receiving end of other people’s bigotry. He is repeatedly called a "faggot" and on one occasion someone actually spits in his face.

In his mid-20s Sedaris moved to Chicago to go to art college. When he finished his studies, he got a job as a lecturer and in 1990 he moved to New York, where again he made a living by taking odd jobs in removals, painting and decorating. Once he even got a job as a Christmas elf in Macy’s department store! While living in New York he met his boyfriend and eventual lifetime partner, the painter Hugh Hamrick.

By the last few years of his diary Sedaris himself has become world famous among the small group of people who have actually heard of him – which is to say, those people who have seen or heard him perform or who have read his books. So now we find him having dinner with other famous people such as Mavis Gallant, Susan Sontag, and Merchant ! Ivory. This isn’t just simple, and possibly obnoxious, name-dropping. Rather it is Sedaris continuing to maintain a kind of bemused surprise about his own and other people’s success. Ultimately he sees no difference between what he and they once were and who they are now. However he does feel a little guilty about his own wealth and multiple properties ("I’ve fallen deeper into the luxury pit").

David Sedaris has spent a lot of time living outside of America which has clearly given him an opportunity to compare and contrast a lot of different sociopolitical environments. If there is a conclusion that can be drawn from his diaries, it is that these experiences have left him with a healthy measure of doubt and scepticism about the insularity of the American lifestyle. It may be a cliché to say that travel broadens the mind, but David Sedaris is living proof of the fact that it does.

* * * *

"Can you look after the puppy for a few minutes?" I asked Robin. "I want to go and stick a note on his front door so that his mum and dad will know where he is when they get home."

"Of course," said Robin. She got down on her hands and knees and made cootchy-cootchy-coo noises. The puppy came to investigate and Robin offered him a piece of string. The puppy was ecstatic. Best game ever! I left them to it.

When I got back, the puppy was festooned with streamers. Robin was lying on her back on the floor with a silly grin spread all over her face. The puppy was jumping up and down on her tummy. "Again!" he shouted. "Again!"

"Why don’t you take him to the vet?" suggested Robin. "See if he’s microchipped so that we can report his details to the relevant authorities. Also see if you can get something for him to eat. I don’t think we should give him any of Jake’s grown up food. That might be a bit too rich for his delicate little tummy." She tickled the delicate little tummy in question. "Ooooohhh!" said the puppy. "Again! Again!"

That sounded like a good idea. I packed the puppy into an old carrying case that we used to use for the cats and took him out to the car. As I drove away, the puppy began to shriek. "FLEE! FIRE! FOES! FLOOD! FLEAS!" he yelled at the top of his voice. "SOMEBODY HELP ME! RAPE! MURDER! ARSON! KIDNAPPING! HELP! HELP! SOS!"

I drove to the vet with all the windows in the car tightly shut in case some misguided member of the public took the puppy at his word and tried to rescue him. Once we reached the vet and the car stopped moving, the puppy quietened down and looked around with interest. I carried him inside. "Hello," said the nurse on duty. "How can I help?"

"Can you speak up a bit?" I asked. "I seem to have gone suddenly deaf." I explained why I was there and the nurse made a huge fuss of the puppy. He wagged his whole body, rather than just his tail and he looked as if he was about to levitate with pleasure. The nurse got out a grey gadget and waved it over him, listening for a beep. It remained depressingly silent. "He’s not microchipped," she said. "But I’ll make a note of what you told me about him in case anyone reports him missing."

"Have you got some suitable food for him?" I asked. She vanished into the back and returned a few moments later with a bag of biscuits. "Thanks," I said. "How much do I owe you for it?"

She looked around to make sure we were alone. "Nothing," she said. "Just take it and don’t tell anybody where you got it from. He’s far too cute to spend money on!" She rubbed his ears and popped him back into the carrying case. I took him back to the car and drove home. "RAPE! MURDER! ARSON! KIDNAPPING!"

* * * *

The title of Robert Harris’ new novel tells you everything you need to know about its subject matter. The title is V2. What more needs to be said?

As WWII was coming to its end, the Germans began to bombard London with rockets which they launched from the Dutch coast – the only part of occupied Europe that was close enough to Britain for the rockets to be able to reach their target. It was a last ditch attempt to turn the tide of the war. It didn’t succeed, but the rockets did cause a lot of damage and they killed a lot of people.

There are two strands to the story that Robert Harris tells here. One strand follows a team that prepares and launches the rockets and the other strand tells the story of the British efforts to combat this new terror weapon. There is also a brief epilogue that takes place after the war when Wernher Von Braun, the man who designed and developed the V2, pays a brief visit to London where he sees at first hand the damage that his rockets caused.

Some of the German sections of the novel contain flashbacks in which we learn a lot about the history of the V2 and about Wernher Von Braun himself. The novel makes it very clear that Von Braun saw his rocket not as a weapon of war (though that was its temporary fate), but more as a stepping stone on the way to his ultimate goal of developing a vehicle that could travel in space and perhaps even carry a man to the moon. On several occasions in the book (and also reportedly in real life as well) Von Braun is recorded as saying that the first person who will walk on the moon had already been born. Given that Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, it is quite clear (in hindsight) that Von Braun was completely correct in what he said. Full marks for accurate prophecy!

The V2 rockets were not guided or controlled from the ground as they flew. They were launched into a simple ballistic trajectory and then left to their own devices. The British came up with an ingenious mechanism for calculating the trajectory of any given rocket and they were quickly able to trace the ballistic curve backwards from the rocket’s point of impact to its launch pad. Once they had perfected the technique, the RAF was able to identify and bomb the launch sites. Well, that was the theory at least. In practice, although the British did manage to pin point the areas that the rockets were launched from, it did them very little good. The launch pads were highly mobile and by the time the bombers had "destroyed" the launch site, the site and its crews had long since moved elsewhere. After the war, the British were chagrined to discover that they had completely failed to destroy even a single launcher.

Von Braun himself was a very high ranking Nazi and an officer in the SS. That is why he was able to make such effective use of the Nazi war machine to further his own obsessive interest in rocketry. But because he was working within the system, the question has to be asked – did he know about (and did he condone) the atrocities that the Nazi committed? There is no way he could not have known – the proving grounds and the factories that manufactured and tested the rockets were all built using slave labour and goodness only knows how many people must have died in the building of them. But whether or not Von Braun condoned what was going on, or took an active part in it, remains very much an open question. Certainly there was little or nothing that he could have done to prevent the atrocities taking place (he may have been powerful and influential but he wasn’t that powerful and influential) and of course it was in his own pragmatic interests to turn a blind eye, so that he could continue to pursue his own private goals which he regarded as being of paramount importance. All his life long, everything else took second place to his ambition. So again we have to ask: did the end justify the means?

The novel itself spends very little time examining this interesting and important question. We never learn what Von Braun really thought about what was going on all around him. The novel concentrates far more on the technicalities of the development and use of the rocket than it does on the morality of what lay behind it. Although we learn about Von Braun’s real ambitions very early on in the book we never properly come to understand the nature of the man himself. I think that’s a shame. The novel would have been a lot stronger if it had been able to give us such an insight.

Nevertheless, within its limitations, V2 does succeed brilliantly in its depiction of how life was lived in wartime Britain and Germany. Harris has done a magnificent job of defining the mood of the times and the technicalities of the terror weapon that was responsible for that mood. There is no doubt that the book is a page-turner.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a superb novel by V. E. ("Victoria") Schwab. The titular Addie LaRue was born in France towards the end of the seventeenth century. She was always a headstrong girl, intent upon going her own way and seeking to rebel against the convention that would, unless she did something about it, see her swiftly married once she reached a suitable age. To this end, she strikes a bargain with a god of darkness. She wants to free herself forever from belonging to anyone. The god grants her immortality and the independence that she craves in return for her soul. But every contract has its small print and it quickly becomes clear that Addie’s freedom is not without its consequences. She will live forever (or until she tires of her existence and voluntarily surrenders her soul) but the price she must pay for her independence is that she will never be able to make her mark upon the world. When she attempts to write things down, her words vanish from the page. If she draws or paints, the pictures are erased. And, worst of all, nobody ever remembers who she is. As far as Addie is concerned, out of sight is, quite literally, out of mind. When people lose sight of her they immediately forget about her. She is condemned to wander, penniless and desolate, through the world. She cannot rent a room or hold down a job. She cannot depend upon the kindness of strangers. She is truly her own person. Isn’t that what she asked for?

She soon learns to operate within these restrictions – there are always tricks that can be used to give her some temporary warmth, shelter and food. She even finds loopholes that let her put herself into the historical record, albeit in a somewhat ambiguous and indirect way. But nevertheless she lives a very lonely existence and only her fierce pride enables her to keep going.

And then one day, after three hundred years of being forgotten by everyone she meets, she falls into conversation with a young man called Henry in a second hand bookshop in New York. And when she returns to the bookshop the next day, Henry remembers who she is…

Why is Henry so different from everybody else she has ever known? What is the secret that allows him to remember her? The answers to these questions both surprise and shock her.

To begin with, Addie is delighted by her new relationship. However she is quite horrified when she discovers that it is not going to last. Henry will be taken away from her and it seems that there is nothing she can do to prevent that from happening. In desperation she returns to the god of darkness in search of a solution. She herself has been trapped in her own lonely existence by the small print consequences of the promises and commitments that she and the god both made to each other. But sometimes the subordinate clauses in a contract are themselves qualified by conditions written in even smaller print. Addie finds a glimmer of hope…

The book is both a fascinating historical novel and a truly beautiful love story. If you don’t have a lump in your throat by the time you reach the end of it you aren’t human. The three centuries of Addie’s life are only lightly sketched in, but nevertheless there is a definite sense of the passing of time and a very real sense of just how it might feel to live through and adapt to times of rapid change. This is a very clever and ultimately very moving story and I absolutely loved it.

* * * *

"Hello," said Jake when the puppy and I returned. "Back already?" He sniffed the puppy’s bottom to make sure that it was the same puppy I’d left with. The puppy tried to return the compliment but Jake is a very tall dog and his bottom is very high up. The puppy tried valiantly, but no matter how high he jumped he couldn’t reach his intended target. So Jake’s bottom remained unsniffed. Frustrated, the puppy peed on the carpet in front of the television set. Jake sniffed the puddle of pee as the carpet absorbed it then he sucked briefly on the damp patch, rolling the result round and round in his mouth like a connoisseur judging a sip of fine vintage wine. He thought for a moment and then he delivered his verdict. "You’ve been eating far too much asparagus," he said firmly. "You’ve got to stop. It’s sending out all the wrong messages."

"Sorry," said the puppy, looking crestfallen. "But it’s just too yummy to resist."

Jake shook his head in despair. What was the younger generation coming to? The future looked bleak. "The country’s going to the humans," he muttered to himself. "Why don’t you go outside and explore the garden? It might keep you out of mischief."

"OK" agreed the puppy. "Where’s the garden?"

"Walk this way," said Jake, going out of the back door.

"I can’t walk that way," protested the puppy. "My legs are too short." Nevertheless he tried valiantly, his legs blurring beneath him as he struggled to keep up with Jake’s enormous strides. He almost tumbled head over heels down the steps in his haste but he managed to recover himself in time with only a minimal loss of dignity. "Oh look," he exclaimed in delight. "Grass." He headed  out bravely onto the lawn. He was so low slung that the grass tickled his tummy as he walked, and that made him giggle. Then he spotted something that completely took his mind off the tickling. There, in the middle of the lawn, shining whitely in the sunshine, was a gloriously gleaming bone. The puppy jumped on it and killed it with a single snap of his jaws then he dragged it back to the deck and settled down to give it a good chewing.

Jake was affronted. "Hey," he yelled, "that’s my bone. I haven’t finished with it yet!"

"Of course you have," I told him. "There isn’t a scrap of meat left on it and you sucked the marrow out of it months ago. There’s nothing left except calcium phosphate and collagen."

"Maybe so," said Jake. "But I do enjoy the smell of calcium phosphate in the morning." The puppy paid no attention to us. He was too busy gnawing. His teeth made grinding noises as he worked away on the bone. "Can’t you distract him or something," pleaded Jake desperately, "so that I can go and bury it somewhere safe while he’s not looking?"

I brought the puppy inside and gave him some of the food I’d got from the vet. He gobbled it up with every indication of delight. Then the palindromic God of Dog reached out a spectral hand and flipped his switch. He collapsed on to the floor, closed his eyes and began to snore gently. "Puppies have two speeds," observed Robin. "On and off." She went into the garage and returned with a little fluffy cat bed that we’d used years ago when we’d had kittens. She lifted the puppy up and put him carefully in the bed. He half woke up, briefly examined his new bed and then he snuggled deep down into it. He was asleep again in an instant. Clearly the bed met with his approval.

* * * *

The pseudonymous T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) has published a new novel called The Hollow Places. Kara, newly divorced, is living with her mother and it is driving her mad. Her mother is a world class chatterbox and she never stops talking. So when Kara’s Uncle Earl offers her a job she jumps at the chance and moves to the small town of Hog Chapel, North Carolina where her uncle owns and runs the Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy. Earl is getting a little overwhelmed by the museum. The exhibits need cataloguing and he scarcely know where to begin. This is just the kind of job that Kara loves and soon she is knee deep in curiosities and stuffed animals which she has to guard from Beau the museum cat who keeps trying to eat all the exhibits that are made out fish leather...

A few months in to her new job, Earl reveals that he is going into hospital for knee replacement surgery. While he is away, Kara comes across a hole in the museum wall. Initially she thinks nothing of it. She just assumes that one of the museum’s customers must have stumbled against the wall and broken it. She asks her friend Simon for help to patch it up but when they examine the hole more closely they realize that it opens into a tunnel. At one end of the tunnel they find a room containing an old bed and an ancient corpse. The body is so desiccated that it is clear that it has been lying there undisturbed for many, many years. At the other end of the tunnel they find a locked door. Once they manage to force it open they discover that they are on an island in a huge river. The river is filled with other identical looking islands each of which contains a bunker similar to their own. Presumably the islands give other worlds access to this never ending river.

Simon and Kara explore as best they can. They find evidence that other explorers have been there before them and they discover a lot of Lovecraftian horrors, nightmares lurking in a Stephen King landscape. Eventually, more by good luck than good judgement, they manage to get back to the familiar world of Hog Chapel, North Carolina but the nightmare isn’t over. The horrors have followed them home…

It’s a rather predictable story in many ways but nevertheless I found it quite engrossing. The strength of the novel lies far more in the narrative voice of Kara herself than it does in the rather obvious details of the plot. Kara is very witty, she’s a good observer and she thinks carefully about the things that she sees. Personally, I felt that some of the chase sequences went on for far too long and on occasion I found myself skipping pages as I went looking for the start of the next crisis because I was getting rather bored with this one. Despite that, I was definitely captured by the story.  The atmospheric details of this river between the worlds were very cleverly thought out and satisfyingly horrifying – I was particularly delighted by the wreck of the school bus and what Simon and Kara found inside it! If you like unadulterated horror leavened with more than a pinch of humour then this is definitely the book for you.

Harry Turtledove’s new novel Salamis is the fifth book in his Hellenic Traders series. It is a straightforward historical novel, quite different in tone and mood from his usual SF oriented alternative history stories. Probably that’s why the first four novels in the series were published under the rather transparent pseudonym of H. N. Turteltaub. However this fifth novel has been published under his own name. Of such minutiae are bibliographical nightmares made!

All the novels are completely stand alone, thank goodness. They take place shortly after the death of Alexander the Great. His surviving generals are squabbling amongst themselves as they divide up the world. Menedemos and Sostratos are cousins from the Greek island of Rhodes, an independent state. They are merchants and traders, sailing the seas in their galley the Aphrodite, stopping here and there to trade goods and information and to take in the local sights and sounds.

In this novel, Sostratos manages to satisfy a long held ambition when he finally gets to see the pyramids of Egypt. Unfortunately that means that he and his cousin also have to deal with Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), the Alexandrian general who currently rules that ancient country. Ptolemaios is concerned that another of Alexander’s generals, Demetrios, has invaded Cyprus (which is also part of Ptolemaios’ domain) and is now advancing on the city of Salamis where Ptolemaios’ brother Menelaos has concentrated his forces. Ptolemaios maintains a fragile supply line to Menelaos and he manages to persuade Menedemos and Sostratos to use the Aphrodite as part of this effort. And so, rather against their will, the cousins find themselves involved in the largest and fiercest naval battle that ever took place in the ancient world – the Battle of Salamis!

The attraction of the Hellenic Traders books comes from the skilful manner in which Harry Turtledove really manages to get inside the minds of people who lived some three thousand years ago. The society of ancient Greece is as strange and foreign to us as our society would be to them. Nevertheless, Turtledove brings it magnificently alive in all its complex (and sometimes rather smelly) glory. Before I read these novels I knew little or nothing about the historical reality of ancient Greece. I’d read The Odyssey and The Illiad of course, and I was reasonably familiar with the mythical gods and heroes, but those stories didn’t really help with the details of every day life that Harry Turtledove describes so vividly… I strongly suspect that these novels are the very best books that Harry Turtledove has ever written. I am absolutely certain that they will be remembered long after his more routine SF novels have been forgotten.

* * * *

My phone rang. "Hello, I’m Jenny," said Jenny. "Thank you so much for looking after my puppy. Can I come round and pick him up?"

"Of course," I said. And so she did.

"Here you are," I said, showing her the puppy fast asleep in his basket. She gave a little shriek of delight which woke the puppy up. As soon as he saw her he jumped up and ran to her. He was so excited to see her that he peed on the carpet again. "That’s the second time he’s done that," I said.

Jenny was embarrassed. "Oh, I’m so sorry," she said.

"Don’t worry about it," I reassured her. "That’s what puppies do. What’s his name?"

"He’s called Frank," she said. "Some people think it’s a silly name, but I like it."

"Given that I live with a dog called Jake and a cat called Gilbert, it seems like a perfectly sensible name to me," I said.

Jenny gathered Frank up in her arms and they went off home together. And that, I thought to myself, is that.

But I was wrong. A couple of hours later, Frank returned, bringing his mum and dad with him. With a little bit of nudging from them, Frank muttered an apology for all the trouble he’d put me to. "So sorry about the carpet," he said. "I’ve brought you a thank you present to make up for it." He handed over a large bag.

Inside the bag was a thank you card signed by Frank himself. The bag also contained a six-pack of beer, a bottle of wine, and a box of chocolates. And a can of carpet cleaner.

I think I’m going to take up puppy rescuing professionally. I rather like the wages…

Leslie Charteris The Saint Audible
David Sedaris Theft by Finding – Diaries 1977-2002 Little, Brown
Robert Harris V2 Hutchinson
V. E. Schwab The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue Tor
T. Kingfisher The Hollow Places Saga Press
Harry Turtledove Salamis CAEZIK SF
Frank More Frank

In Memoriam

Nicola Mary Green

1944 - 2020

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