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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (librum inspiciorum)

A Boomerang Is A Frisbee For A Person Who Has No Friends

One day it dawned on me that I’d been seeing Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing appearing on the top of various best seller lists for at least a year and possibly longer. Clearly this was a big hint from thje gods of literature that I needed to read it if only to find out why it had remained so perennially popular. So that’s exactly what I did. I must say that I was very impressed with it. The novel is a magnificent page turner that kept me enthralled from beginning to end despite the fact that the central conceit is a huge implausibility. Normally that would be a stumbling block, but the story telling was so extraordinarily good that I found myself more than willing to overlook the fact that the plot made no sense whatsoever.

Kya Clark lives deep in a marsh on the coast of North Carolina. When she was a very young girl, her mother walked out of Kya’s life, fleeing from an abusive relationship with her husband. Not long after that, Kya’s brothers and sisters also left home, running away from their increasingly brutal father. Then Kya’s father went out into the marsh one day and simply never returned leaving Kya alone to fend for herself.

Over the years, Kya develops a very close relationship with the natural world that she grows up in. She studies it intensely and she becomes a world class expert on the flora and fauna of the marshlands despite the fact that her only formal education was a single day spent at the village school – the other children laughed at her because she failed to spell the word "dog", so she left and never went back.

She publishes research papers in prestigious learned journals. She writes popular books about the marshlands. Her reputation is assured, though to the people who live in Berkeley Cove she remains simply a mad, reclusive marsh girl. All this self-improvement, of course, makes up the huge implausibility that I mentioned at the start. I very much doubt that this kind of thing could ever happen in real life (TM). Nevertheless Delia Owens’ extraordinarily clever and absorbing writing made me accept it without question. That’s what the willing suspension of disbelief is all about. A lot of SF writers could learn valuable lessons from a close study of Delia Owens’ technique.

The central mystery of the story concerns the fate of one Chase Andrews, the local football hero, who has been found dead in the swamp. Suspicion immediately falls on Kya. She has a cast-iron alibi, but nevertheless she is arrested and charged with his murder. What happens next would be far too much of a spoiler for me to describe in any detail, but I will say that the tension never lets up and the ending is very satisfying indeed. All the loose ends are cleverly tied up and I finished the book smiling and nodding happily to myself as the last little piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell neatly into place.

The novel is a stunningly immersive piece of writing that fully deserves its place on the best seller lists. Long may it stay there.

Sarah Lariviere’s novel Time Travel for Love and Profit has been marketed as a YA book, probably because the protagonist and narrator is a young teenage girl. I think that’s a little bit of  mistake. The book probably contains a tad too many discussions of some fairly abstruse philosophical speculations for the typical YA audience and the YA label itself might put off the people who would more fully appreciate the sometimes very subtle points that the book has to make. As a result the novel falls uneasily between two stools and I think that’s a pity because I absolutely loved it and I feel that it should be very widely read by as many people as possible.

Fourteen-year-old Nephele Weather has a terrible first year at school. She falls out with her best friend which is an utterly awful situation to be in when you are fourteen. So, because she is a genius who has a vast understanding of physics and mathematics, Nephele goes home and invents a time machine so that she can go back and repeat her first year at school. Surely she will be able to fix the mistakes she made and hopefully she can make the falling out never have happened. Unfortunately things don’t quite go according to plan. Nephele remains fourteen years old and repeats her first year at school. But all her original classmates are now a year older than she is and they have moved on to their second year. Not only that, they have all completely forgotten who Nephele is! Oh, no!

Nephele revises her time machine and tries again. She is now repeating her first year for the third time and everybody from her first first year (so to speak) has moved on to their third year and again, nobody has any memory of Nephele at all. Lather, rinse and repeat again and again and again. And then, when she is repeating her first year at school for the tenth time, something very significant happens…

Nephele tells her own story in a sardonic and often very witty tone of voice. Even when she spirals down through layers of metaphysics and mythology (she is of Greek descent and mythology is intimately part of her view of the world) she maintains a strong hold on the reality of her situation. I liked her a lot and I was very pleased at the way she finally argued herself out of her problems and into a solution.

The Burning Girls by C. J. Tudor tells the rather eerie and occasionally quite gruesome story of the Reverend Jack (short for Jacqueline) Brooks and her daughter Flo in the village of Chapel Croft.

Five hundred years ago, eight protestant martyrs were executed in the village and their deaths have haunted the place ever since. Two of the martyrs were young girls who were burned at the stake. The villagers commemorate this event by constructing dolls made out of twigs which they burn in memory of the dead girls. Even now, all these hundreds of years later, the martyrs still have a huge influence on the daily life of the village.

Jack herself used to be a vicar in Nottingham but because of a scandal (whose details we don’t learn about until quite late in the book) she has been sent to Chapel Croft in an attempt to get her out of the way until the controversy dies down. Jack has done her homework, and she knows all about the history of the burning girls. However after she arrives, she learns that another more recent scandal has also left its scars on the village. Thirty years ago two young girls, who were very close friends, disappeared without a trace. They have never been found…

Jack’s ‘welcome to the village’ gift from an anonymous admirer is an exorcism kit consisting of a huge old bible and a knife covered in what appear to be blood stains. She suspects that the kit might have belonged to her predecessor, a man who committed suicide in the chapel. She has no idea why the exorcism kit might have been passed on to her, but the implications of such a gift set the tone for much of what comes next.

Flo soon encounters the village bullies and has some rather disastrous run-ins with them. Perhaps the burning girls who manifested themselves to her in the churchyard have been trying to tell her something. She finds an unlikely protector in the form of another village cast out, a boy whose whole body twists and twitches uncontrollably as random neurones spark in his brain. Clearly such a freak has to be ostracised. And so, just like Flo, though for different reasons, he too has no friends.

The novel has a rather unconventional narrative structure. Some chapters are told from Jack’s point of view, some from Flo’s point of view, some from the point of view of the missing girls and some from that of a man who has just been released from prison and who is desperately looking for Jack and Flo, though we aren’t too certain why he needs to seek them out. Surely he must be up to no good?

Part of the cleverness of this novel is that nothing, absolutely nothing at all, is what it seems to be. I’ve told you the complete, absolute and honest truth about everything that happens, but nevertheless everything I have said is incorrect. There are wheels within wheels here and sorting out the truth from the lies is a source of never ending fascination. This is a dark, ugly and terrifying book shot through with great humour and insight. It held me spellbound.

Tribune of Rome is the first of eight novels by Robert Fabbri which fictionalise the life and times of Vespasian, a simple country lad who grew up to become a famous general and eventually the Emperor of Rome itself. This particular novel starts with Vespasian’s birth and takes us through his childhood and his early years in the army. It’s a thrilling tale full of thud and blunder and Vespasian has plenty of opportunities to shine. Clearly this is a man destined for great things.

Perhaps I’m being overly sarcastic. It’s not really that bad a book, but I found it irritating because of the author’s nasty habit of doing far too much foreshadowing for my taste. For example, the young Vespasian has a conversation with his tutor in which the tutor explains how an overly ambitious general has just tried to blackmail Rome into doing his bidding by withholding the grain shipments from Egypt. Both Vespasian and his tutor agree that this was a very silly tactic to adopt. You can see the author’s tongue sticking so firmly into the his cheek here that it pokes all the way through and starts waving around in the open air on the other side because this tactic, of course, is exactly the one that Vespasian will use in a later volume (and the one he actually used in real life, of course) to blackmail himself successfully onto the throne. Humph!

In a later conversation with a grizzled old army veteran, Vespasian asks where Britain is. The veteran gives Vespasian a potted history of Rome’s failed attempt to invade Britain during the reign of Julius Caesar. "Someday," remarks the veteran, "we’ll have to go back there with a competent general who will be able to mount a successful invasion and bring the islands under Rome’s control." Would any of you care to guess who that competent general might turn out to be?

Maybe I’m being too picky or maybe I just know far too much Roman history for my own good. Your mille passus may vary.

The Scorpion’s Tale by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child is the second novel they have written about the adventures of archaeologist Norah Kelly and FBI agent Corrie Swanson. I was really looking forward to reading this because I greatly enjoyed Old Bones the first volume in the series. Unfortunately I found this one rather disappointing. I suspect the reason is because this time the authors dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s to such an extent that they leave themselves absolutely no wiggle room at all for the slightly supernatural occurrences that were one of the major strengths of the first novel. Consequently this one seems very prosaic in comparison.

A fifty-year-old, mummified corpse has been discovered in a cellar at High Lonesome, a long-abandoned ghost town in the desert of New Mexico where, a century ago, Geronimo and his Apache warriors fought and died. Yes, that last observation is relevant to the eventual unravelling of the plot...

The corpse is strangely distorted and what remains of its skin is peeling off in sheets. The questions that need solving are who was this man and how did he die? And why is he carrying a gold cross encrusted with jewels?

Almost everything you need to know in order to understand what’s going on is lurking there in the two summary paragraphs that you’ve just read. Unfortunately the book itself takes its own sweet time to draw the obvious conclusions from the evidence. I had it all figured out at least two hundred pages before the book told me about it. All I had to do was ask myself what had happened in the New Mexico desert in the mid 1940s in and around Los Alamos. And the answer, of course, was the Manhattan Project. Once I’d posed that question to myself, and answered it, everything fell into place. Clearly the man who died in High Lonesome was the very first casualty of the atomic age. Of course, that doesn’t explain where the gold cross came from…

Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man is the seventh volume in Edward Wilson’s so called Catesby series of mid-twentieth century secret service novels. I say so called because William Catesby himself only appears in six of the seven books, and the books themselves are only very loosely linked. Each can easily be read as a stand alone story.

This particular novel is best thought of as a prequel to the series as a whole, in that it tells the story of Catesby’s initial recruitment into the world of the secret security services when he joins the Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the start of the second world war. The story talks in great detail about his training in clandestine warfare and then goes on tell the tale of his subsequent adventures in occupied France as he fights alongside the French maquis (the resistance).

One thing that distinguished the French resistance from similar guerilla fighters in other occupied countries was that the various groups of French resistance fighters hated each other almost as much as they hated the Germans occupiers of their country. The French have always taken their political differences very seriously indeed, and internecine squabbles between the various resistance groups were almost as dangerous to the movement as a whole as was the ongoing campaign against the Germans themselves. Indeed, it was not unheard of for one resistance group to betray another to the Germans simply so that the hated Gaullists could get their own back on the filthy Communists who themselves would have no compunction whatsoever about betraying the scheming Jews who would show no hesitation in double-crossing the diabolical Vichy Nationalists… Life as a French resistance fighter was fraught with peril from all sides.

Wilson’s novel does much to clarify these murky waters as well as telling an exciting story in its own right. Wilson prides himself on his historical accuracy and therefore it is not surprising that a lot of "real life" (TM) people turn up in the story. Very early on in his training, Catesby is introduced to Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. Even Hardy Amies, of all people, turns up as an SOE trainer and operative. That one took me completely by surprise. Before I read this book, I’d had absolutely no idea that the dapper fashion guru had ever been associated with something as grimy as the clandestine battles in France. Other real life individuals are not named explicitly, their identities are only hinted at (Wilson loves to play guessing games with his readers). I’m fairly sure I spotted Gavin Maxwell and I think I noticed Malcolm Muggeridge mincing in the background.

The literary pun in the novel’s title sets a trend for the rest of the book and I had great fun playing spot the reference with the body of the novel. Truly this is a (sometimes quite playful) book that has something for everyone hidden deep within its pages.

The Voice From the Edge is a series of five audiobooks in which Harlan Ellison reads (perhaps "performs" would be a better word) some of his most famous stories. Like him or loathe him – and for the record, I like him a lot both as a person and as a writer – there is no doubt at all that the man was a magnificent reader and presenter. Even his most weirdly surreal stories take on a whole new life and a whole new level of meaning as he invests every oddball scene and sentence with new significance and drama (Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans anybody?). If you like Harlan Ellison’s stories – his fiction rather than the boastful factual essays that he wrote far too many of – this is by far and away the very best way to enjoy them.

I greatly enjoyed the Netflix series Orange is the New Black which tells the supposedly true story of a woman called Piper (what sort of name is that?) who was found guilty of laundering drug money and sentenced to fifteen months in prison. The series was warm, wise, witty and very funny. It had lots of pithy, quotable lines in it, some of them memorably rude! At the same time it also had a very serious sub-text about the inhumane treatment (or, more accurately, mis-treatment) of prison inmates. It clearly demonstrates the futility of a justice system that concerns itself far more with retribution that it does with rehabilitation. Despair lies not very far under the surface of the jokes. All in all, the series had something for everyone, with level after level of meaning layered within itself. It was thoughtful, pointed and sometimes poignant. I watched it avidly. Eventually I realised that the series was based on the autobiography of one Piper Kerman, the person to whom all these things happened in real life. So naturally I had to read the book…

I really wish I hadn’t bothered. It says much for the genius of the Netflix production team that they managed to turn such unpromising source material, into such a superb visual experience. Unlike the Piper of the Netflix series, the Piper of the book turned out to be completely empty-headed. She was shallow, naive and unbelievably entitled in her view of the world. She seemed to learn nothing whatsoever from her prison experience – again, quite unlike the Piper of the Netflix series.

The narrative rambles in a very unstructured way as Piper complains bitterly about the terrible deprivations she suffered as she grew up leading a life of privileged luxury. I’m sure that everyone would agree with her that living is so extremely difficult when you have everything you need just handed to you on a plate. She tells us again and again just how blonde she is and how pretty she is, how blue her eyes are and how much everybody likes her including all those bullying, butch dykes in prison who all take her under their collective wing and protect her and look after her because after all she’s just so very, very nice and so very, very blonde and her eyes are so blue and she’s so pretty and absolutely everybody likes her…

And then tonstant weader fwowed up. God bless you, Dorothy Parker for giving me the perfect description of the effect this book has on the reader, even though you died many years before the book was written.

Adam Kay qualified as a doctor and worked for a time in a UK National Health Service (NHS) hospital. These days he makes a very nice living as a stand-up comedian telling jokes that involve gruesome medical misadventures. He has written many of his hospital anecdotes down in a book called This is Going to Hurt, a book I highly recommend that you read. Trust me, if you read it, you won’t know whether to laugh or throw up. Adam Kay is also the editor of Dear NHS in which a number of UK celebrities share their own experiences of the British National Health Service.

The inspiration for the book came from the Covid-19 pandemic which has obviously put an enormous strain on the health service. Kay and his contributors simply wanted to express their thanks for the amazing job that the health service has done (and continues to do) in the face of overwhelming pressure.

Contributors to the book include Stephen Fry, Dawn French, Mary Beard, Bill Bryson, Lee Child, Mark Haddon, Joanna Lumley, Jo Brand, Alexander McCall Smith, Trevor McDonald, Michael Palin, and many, many more, some of whom, I must confess, are people I have never heard of. Presumably they are world famous in the UK, but slightly less so elsewhere...

Some of the stories the contributors tell are hilariously funny, others are extremely sad and many of them are very moving, but the things that all the stories have in common are the huge sense of pride that the contributors have in the National Health Service itself and their unstinting praise for the skill, compassion and kindness of the medical staff who treated them all in the same non-judgemental way, no matter how stupid or how embarrassing the injury or disease they were suffering from turned out to be.

The NHS is probably the UK’s single greatest achievement as a country. No matter who you are, no matter what your health needs may be, the NHS is there for you. its services are provided to everybody, free of charge at the point of contact. I am fortunate enough to live in a country whose health service is modelled very closely on the UK system and the older I get and the more frequently I need the care and attention of that health service, the more grateful I am for the fact that medical care is always there when I need it.

Inevitably many of the stories in the book compare the NHS to the American health system. Again and again and again the contributors make the point that the idea of having to pay for medical care is simply barbaric. Every contributor to the book makes it perfectly clear that they believe very strongly that health care treatment is self-evidently a basic human right which should be provided to everyone, no matter who they are, based solely on the requirements of their medical needs rather than on the size of their wallets. Stephen Fry is particularly outspoken on this point. In his essay he tells us that once, while travelling in America, he found himself watching an edition of Rush Limbaugh’s talk show in which Limbaugh was rabbiting on about the evils of what he called "socialised medicine". Fry, feeling angry, rang the show and rather to his surprise, was put straight through to Limbaugh himself. Fry pointed out to him that America seems to be perfectly happy with the idea of a socialised military. The government meets all the costs of the army of soldiers that protects the American people from the country’s very real enemies. So why can’t the government also meet all the costs of another army, an army of health care workers to protect the American people from their equally real and dangerous enemies of disease and injury? Limbaugh called him "deluded" and hung up on him.

Profits from the sale of this book will be donated to NHS Charities and the Lullaby Trust – I’m not sure exactly what  these are, but I am absolutely certain that they are very worthy causes.  And this is a very worthy book. God bless socialised medicine. Like many of the contributors to this book, I would not be alive today without it.

Delia Owens Where the Crawdads Sing Putnam
Sarah Lariviere Time Travel for Love and Profit Penguin Random House
C. J. Tudor The Burning Girls Michael Joseph
Robert Fabbri Tribune of Rome Atlantic Books
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child The Scorpion’s Tale Grand Central Publishing
Edward Wilson Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man Arcadia Books
Harlan Ellison The Voice From the Edge Audible
Piper Kerman Orange is the New Black Spiegel and Grau
Adam Kay Dear NHS Orion
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