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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (maximus minimus)

Take My Advice – I’m Not Using It At The Moment.

I first read Jack Vance’s Cadwal trilogy when the books were originally published, some time in the 1970s. Consequently the simple mechanics of the publishing process meant that there was a gap of about eighteen months or so between  my reading of each volume. As a result of this I approached the later books with only the vaguest memory of the previous volume remaining in my head. Therefore I always had the feeling that I might be missing some subtlety or nuance. Since Jack Vance novels consist mostly of subtlety and nuance, this was a very real worry. So, in order to alleviate my concern, I decided to read them again for the second time this month, with for once, no gaps between each volume…

The first thing to note is that while the books are generally referred to (and marketed) as a trilogy, they really just tell one long story. The second and third volumes take up exactly where the previous volume left off and it would make no sense at all to try reading them as standalone works.

The overall plot is not very complex and neither is it very interesting (Vance was not good at plotting). The planet Cadwal is under the control of a Conservancy which is charged with protecting the planet’s life and resources. Very few people live there and immigration is strongly discouraged. But the Conservancy is facing a crisis – the political opposition wants to open Cadwal up to immigration and exploitation and is actively subverting the status quo. The Conservancy, largely moribund and conservative (with quite a small ‘c’) in its views, is finding it increasingly difficult to justify the legitimacy of its position. Furthermore, the original founding document of the Conservancy has been lost and so it can be argued that the Conservancy no longer has the legal or moral right to continue implementing its policies. It becomes necessary to search for and (hopefully) find the founding document...

But you don’t read Vance for the sake of the plot. You read Vance for his descriptions of odd political organisations, bizarre social structures, and eccentric characters who discuss what is going on in an excessively polite and sometimes baroquely convoluted vocabulary that is often surprisingly witty. The Cadwal trilogy has all of these things and more. Vance seems to have swallowed a British Pill before he sat down to write the books. The dialogue is often very Wodehousian and all social occasions are lubricated with the drinking of many, many cups of tea. In the evening the men often retire to pubs where they drink beer – though one character blots his copybook a little when, in a celebratory mood, he eschews beer and orders a jug of Blue Ruin, a decision he later comes to regret.

In other words, the trilogy is vintage Vance and it exemplifies everything that he does so well. I remembered the books as being brilliantly written and highly enjoyable so I approached my re-read with some trepidation. Would my forty year old memory of the books play me false? In the event, it did not. I thoroughly enjoyed the books all over again, and it was nice to finally appreciate the story as a single narrative spread across three books in a row rather than in the fragmentary way that I first experienced it. I recommend this trilogy very highly.

One of the great themes of science fiction is the "after the apocalypse" novel that details the downfall of civilization after some crisis or other has destroyed most of the population. I’m sure we could all rattle off a dozen or more titles of books that use this theme without thinking too hard about it and I’m equally sure that many of the books on our lists would generally be regarded as classics. I’ve just read two new books that use this theme (well actually one book and (sigh) yet another trilogy) and I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.

I’d probably never have stumbled across the first of these books if it hadn’t been recommended to me by a friend whose tastes overlaps with mine to a considerable extent. I have no idea how she found it, but I’m very glad that she did. Last One At The Party is Bethany Clift’s first novel. On the strength of it, I predict great things for her future writing career. It held me thoroughly absorbed. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and I was extremely annoyed when it finished. I wanted more and I wanted it now!

The book tells the story of the next pandemic, the one after covid-19. This pandemic will take place in November 2023, so get yourself ready, we don’t have much time left… This time the virus is known as 6DM which stands for Six Days Maximum – six days is the longest that anyone infected with the virus will live. The virus is one hundred percent lethal. If you catch it, you die, no exceptions.

For some reason, the first person narrator of the story (we never learn her name) is immune to the virus. All alone, she learns to survive in a city full of rotting corpses and predatory rats. She has nobody to talk to except her dog, a golden retriever who she rescued from starvation. She calls the dog Lucky…

It’s very hard to write a novel that has only one character in it. Where’s the dialogue? Where’s the interaction and emotion? How do you avoid going round and round in introspective spirals? The author cleverly avoids these traps by making some of the novel retrospective in that it tells of her life before the pandemic struck. And of course she can always talk to Lucky about her current situation, though unfortunately the dog doesn’t really talk back…

The novel’s structure works incredibly well. The narrator is extremely easy to identify with. She’s utterly clueless about how to survive alone in the world. In other words she’s just like you and me. How do you forage for food in in an empty world? How do you learn how to grow sustainable crops to keep yourself alive? How do you keep body and soul together as the unmaintained infrastructure gradually collapses around you? Her immediate reaction to the realisation that she is the only one left alive is very, very human – she breaks into a swanky hotel and gets incredibly drunk on expensive champagne. Who wouldn’t?

But of course the other side of the coin is that as the pandemic took hold, she had to watch her husband die, and when she returns to her childhood home she finds the rotting corpses of her parents there to greet her. How do you cope with all that? She manages because she has a deliciously dark sense of humour and a very inventive way of just muddling through.

The novel is horrifying and funny and full of powerful visual images. It is nightmarish, eerie and macabre. The narrator turns out to be much more resourceful than she thinks she could ever be. Not only does she have to learn how to cope with breakdowns in the infrastructure, she also has to learn how to cope with breakdowns in her own mental health as well (the analogy that links both these things together is not over emphasised, thank goodness, but it is definitely there). However because she is brave, and because she is clever, she manages to develop stratagems that let her come to grips with both these problems. And the ending, when we get there, is just magnificently conceived. It is both highly appropriate and quite unexpected. I was very impressed.

This book is one of the great ones.

The after the apocalypse trilogy that I read is by John Birmingham. Collectively, it is called The End of Days – I’ve listed the individual titles that make up the trilogy in the bibliography at the end of this essay. It’s a perfectly competent (though rather run of the mill) set of novels and I enjoyed reading them, predictable though they were. But there’s nothing special about them to make them stand out from all the rest apart from the very strange fact that they do not appear to be available for you to read in book form. Yes, that’s right – as far as I can tell, they have only been published as audiobooks. There is no mention of any of the titles in the places where I normally buy my ebooks and print books. They aren’t listed for sale and there don’t appear to be any plans to make them available in the near future since they aren’t mentioned on any forthcoming book lists that I can find. It seems that the only way to absorb these stories is to listen to them. I wonder if this represents the start of a new publishing phenomenon?

The basic premise of the novels is that a combination of climate change and pollution is starting to have an effect on the world’s food supply. China in particular is staring starvation in the face. It needs new sources of food and it needs them urgently. The powers that be decide to go out into the world and simply take what they need. Partly they do this using conventional weapons and conventional ways of waging war, but their main attack is directed through the internet and aims to cripple the world’s infrastructures by destroying the servers that keep things ticking over. In America at least, the claim is that no place is more than a week away from starvation. If regular food deliveries are not made it won’t be long before food riots descend into an anarchy from which only the strong and heavily armed will emerge victorious. China’s first cyber attack targets the food distribution network. The second attack targets the financial networks – brokers and banks collapse. Within a few days, America no longer has any food, or any money or any effective government. Millions of people have died and the country is at the mercy of armed militias and motorcycle gangs.

The very predictable story that derives from this premise follows the fortunes of several small groups of people trying to survive in the chaos. We’ve all read this story a million times before, there’s nothing new here. Stories like this, because they are so predictable, simply cannot work if the reader can’t easily identify with the people who are living in the pages. And this is the trilogy’s saving grace. John Birmingham is very good at giving us people we can care for. He creates living, breathing characters all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses and all of whom are very believable individuals. I found myself more than willing to overlook the stock-cupboard aspects of the story for the sake of the people I’d quickly come to identify with. I really, really wanted them all to survive. Unfortunately, not all of them did, and that made me sad. VERY SMALL SPOILER ALERT: The dog doesn’t die. That pleased me!

Despite what I’ve said, the trilogy does have its highlights. For example, the first book was written before the covid-19 pandemic hit the world and Birmingham’s description of what the desperate, starving rioters get up to is very familiar to those of us who lived through lockdown and rationing. Birmingham was absolutely spot on with his descriptions of panic buying and desperate attempts to stockpile toilet paper. In retrospect, it’s all rather eerily prescient...

These aren’t bad books. But they aren’t all that wonderful either. They are just perfectly competent middle-of-the-road near-future SF thrillers and if that sounds like I’m praising them with faint damns, well so be it.

One way to invent a new stew is to mix up a few random ingredients that don’t really seem to belong in combination with each other, but you’ve got them all hanging around in your pantry demanding to be used so what the hell?  Stir them together, simmer for a while and season to taste. Sometimes the result is very yummy. Sometimes it isn’t. You’ve just got to take pot luck (pun intended). The same technique can be used to create fiction and it’s exactly what Eric Flint has done in Time Spike.

The disparate ingredients of this novel stew comprise a maximum security prison from the modern day, a group of Cherokees walking the Trail of Tears in the mid-nineteenth century, an army of Spanish conquistadores from the sixteenth century and several tribes of Mound Builder Indians from who knows when. Season with a dollop of dinosaur when you drop all these ingredients into the pot of the late Cretaceous. Yum, yum! Nothing can possibly go wrong as long as you don’t let it boil over...

I must confess the stew ended up being a little bland for my taste. The threat posed by the conquistadores never really amounted to very much and mostly the dinosaurs just hung around looking decorative, using the walls of the prison as a scratching post, which I think is really rather cute.

Nevertheless there was enough going on as the stew thickened that I kept dipping my spoon into it, if only because I wanted to find out how the good guys (the prison guards) would manage to keep the bad guys (the prisoners) in check. The guards were armed of course, but even with that advantage there’s only so much you can do when the bad guys outnumber you several thousand to one. You need to apply a lot of what Pterry Pratchett called "headology" if you want to survive against odds like that.

So I kept chewing away because, despite everything, I wanted to see what happened when I got to the bottom of the bowl.

Stephen King’s new novel is called Later. It’s rather lightweight but it’s also great fun and that’s always a trump card. James Conklin is not an ordinary child. He has a special power. He can see the spirits (for want of a better word)  of the recently dead and he can talk to them. Furthermore, these spirits always tell him the truth. Something about their condition makes it impossible for them to lie. His mother, a literary agent, quickly learns about his super power and urges him to keep it secret. She knows that, like a canary in a flock of sparrows, he will be pecked to death if he ever reveals what he can do.

But every talent has its uses, and it isn’t long before James’ mother needs his help. Her literary agency is in danger of bankruptcy because her only client, a best selling author, has died with his last novel incomplete. He left no notes about how he intended to finish the book. In desperation, Jamie’s mother gets him to speak to the dead author and once she finds out from him how the novel was meant to go, she locks herself away with a typewriter and finishes it herself. Then she arranges for it to be published. It shoots to the top of the bes seller lists and she makes a fortune, The day is saved! Hurrah!

But there is a fly in the ointment. Jamie’s mother’s girl friend is a detective and once she finds out what Jamie can do she realises that she can use Jamie to solve murders by getting him to ask the murderees who killed them. What a great way to get kudos (and promotion). What could possibly go wrong?

As it happens, lots and lots and lots. And lots.

King has a great deal of fun with this story. It’s full of jokes about publishing and publishers (all rather squirmy because they sound as though they might well be true and who would know that better than Stephen King?). It’s also full of jokes about murderers and ghosts as well. The book is quite short by Stephen King’s usual standards, barely 250 pages. Probably he knocked it out in a couple of evenings. But the joins don’t show and the story rolls along, stuffed full of funny bits, gruesome bits, scary bits and very satisfying bits. What’s not to like?

The very talented Darynda Jones is back with what I hope is the start of a new series. Normally I wouldn’t say that (I don’t like series) but this first volume, Betwixt, ends with such a cliff hanger that if she doesn’t produce a sequel soon I may very well burst. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Defiance Dayne, rapidly approaching her mid-forties, feels like a bit of a failure. She’s newly divorced and through some rather dubious legal trickery her ex-husband has walked away with everything she has ever owned. And then, out of the blue, Defiance learns that she has been bequeathed a house by a complete stranger. The house is in Salem, Massachusetts. Perhaps witchcraft is involved in the bequest? Unbeknown to Defiance (for the moment at least), she never thought a truer thought.

Having nothing better to do, Defiance sets off for Salem where she is introduced to her new house. It (or, more accurately, he) is called Percival and apparently he is rather persnickety.

To say much more would involve far too many spoilers so I’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the book a lot. It was very funny, it’s got a cat who is a bit of a jerk and it has a handyman with far too many tattoos who turns up to make repairs at very odd hours. Also it might have a ghost who talks to Defiance via a youtube video link…

If the idea of a rather short-tempered house called Percival tickles your fancy in the same way that it tickled mine, you definitely need to read this book. You’ll love it, you really will.

Just when you thought you’d read every possible novel about the Bletchley code breakers during the second world war, somebody comes along and writes another one and it turns out to be so utterly brilliant that the hundreds of other novels with the same theme just sink into oblivion. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn is the definitive new Bletchley novel and I absolutely adored it. It knocks all the others into a cocked hat.

The story is told as two interlinking narratives. The first is set in 1947, just a few days before the wedding of the century when Prince Philip of Greece will marry Princess Elizabeth, the lady who will one day be Queen. The other story is set during the years of the second world war when three women, Osla, Mab and Beth are recruited to work as codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

Osla is a débutante who once had an affair with Prince Philip (something the gossip columnists make much of in the days leading up to the Royal wedding). She is determined to prove that she is not the flighty, empty-headed socialite that everyone thinks she is. Mab is a working class girl from the East End of London, who is grimly ploughing her way through all the classic novels in an attempt to better herself, and Beth is a spinster from Bletchley village who is completely dominated by her deeply religious and fiercely opinionated mother. In normal times these three women would never have even met each other, let alone become fast friends, because they belong to different social classes none of which overlap with each other. But wartime is not a normal time and the friendship that is forged between the three women transcends all class barriers and boundaries and is very, very strong. But as the war draws to its end, a personal tragedy breaks the bonds of their friendship. Beth is confined in an asylum. Osla and Mab go their separate ways. They are no longer on speaking terms with each other. However, some years later, as the Royal Wedding gets closer and closer, it becomes clear to all three women that they need to come back together and put their differences behind them in order to solve a mystery that at one time threatened to destroy the work they did at Bletchley Park and which now threatens the security of the post-war government…

I’d never heard of Kate Quinn so I went looking on the internet for more information about her. To my great surprise, I discovered that she was an American writer who has published several well received historical novels. I found this quite astonishing because The Rose Code is so quintessentially English that I would have sworn on a stack of dictionaries and Debretts that the author herself was English through and through. Clearly Kate Quinn has done a lot of in-depth research. And furthermore she has clearly demonstrated that she thoroughly understands what she has learned from it.

The events of the novel depend very much on the mysterious workings of the British class system for their effect, and Kate Quinn never puts a foot wrong here. She gets everything about the time and the place and the people exactly right, all the way from general political and social prejudices down to the small, but vital, differences in the vocabulary that each woman uses when she talks to the others. The class system is strongly defined by variations in speech patterns – as soon as someone opens their mouth you can generally tell from their word choices exactly where they fit in the class spectrum. And the dialogue that Kate Quinn gives each of her characters is absolutely word perfect. In this regard

Kate Quinn’s extraordinary understanding of her material makes this book is an amazing tour-de-force. Colour me very impressed!

The storyline corresponds roughly to what actually went on in real life at Bletchley Park and so it is no surprise that several historical figures (over and above Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth of course) have their parts to play in it. Famous cryptographers such as Alan Turing have minor roles in the story but the character of Dilly Knox takes centre stage. His presence, both during his life and after his death, is absolutely vital to the working out of the plot. He was a fascinating, though little known, person and again it is perfectly clear from the way the story is structured that Kate Quinn has been very, very thorough in her research.

Dilly Knox was a cryptographer in both world wars. He had been an integral part of Room 40 in the first war and he occupied a place of honour at Bletchley Park in the second. And yet his background was very odd in comparison with his peers. In real life he was a Professor of Greek history and literature and he worked on the problem of decrypting the German ciphers with the warm soul of a poet rather than with the coldly analytical soul of a mathematician such as Alan Turing. He was surprisingly successful with this rather eccentric approach and he came up with several ingenious methods for breaking the ciphers. The most successful of these was something he called "rodding" which allowed his staff to quickly test various possible cipher keys until (hopefully) one of them matched and the cipher was broken. The electro-mechanical bombes that Turing developed later in the war were largely an implementation and expansion of Dilly’s rodding technique. Their major advantage being that they could test and discard potential keys much more rapidly than any human being could.

Dilly was also an accomplished poet and during his time at Bletchley Park he wrote quite a lot of poems about the people he worked with and the things that he had seen and done. There were no real secrets given away in his poems but nevertheless, because they had been written when everything Dilly did was covered by the Official Secrets Act, his poems remained classified Top Secret until 1978, some 35 years after Dilly died. One of his poems, Epitaph on Matapan to Mussolini, is quoted in the novel and it also has a very important decryption role to play. I like to think that Kate Quinn did that deliberately so as to pay homage to the spirit of a truly inspirational person.

In case you haven’t worked it out yet, let me say quite explicitly that this novel was the highlight of my reading month. It absolutely blew me away. It has a very, very clever plot and it presents a perfect picture of an extremely important historical era.

Jeff Gardiner’s book The Law of Chaos is subtitled The Multiverse of Michael Moorcock and it is a brave attempt to classify, codify and analyse nearly sixty years worth of Moorcockiana.

Moorcock has been amazingly prolific and he has an incredible number of publications to his name. They run the gamut from utterly crap extruded fantasy product to deeply thoughtful mainstream analyses of the human condition. He’s written comedies and tragedies, farces and frolics, science fiction, fantasy, detective novels, spy stories, westerns, and romances. He’s a surrealist and a hyper-realist, a poet and a proselytiser.  He’s even written a Doctor Who novel! There seems to be nothing he can’t turn his hand to if he is of a mind to attempt it.

It’s all very bewildering, and in an introduction to the book Moorcock himself admits as much, confessing that he has absolutely no idea how anyone could hope to bring order out such chaos. He freely admits that it is a task beyond his own capabilities mainly because he claims to have forgotten almost everything he’s ever written and he’s hopeless at organising or understanding his own bibliography.

Nevertheless, Jeff Gardiner has attempted this impossible task and in my opinion he’s done a very good job of it. If I have a criticism (and of course I do), I’d say that he fails to differentiate between the various categories of Moorcock’s fiction. He gives equal weight to everything, both the trivial and the profound – and that means he spends just as much time poking around inside the terrible fantasy novels that Moorcock used to knock out over the course of a single benzedrine fuelled weekend as he does analysing the more thoughtful, more subtle and multi-layered novels that, in some cases, took Moorcock more than a decade to complete. The two are decidedly not equivalent and Gardiner doesn’t seem to realise that it isn’t a level playing field.

Between the Stops is Sandi Toksvig’s autobiography. It’s rather an eccentric book in that she relates the story of her life by telling stories about the people and places she sees while she travels to and from work on the upper deck of the number 12 bus. Often these stories have a surprising resonance with things she herself has experienced and so she segues neatly into autobiography. It turns out to be a surprisingly effective narrative technique and, of course, it gives you several books for the price of one. There’s the straightforward biographical material combined with many completely fascinating anecdotes and asides about the history and architecture and personalities of London. My frugal Yorkshireman’s soul was quite unable to resist a bargain like that and I absolutely loved reading it.

I first came across Sandi Toksvig when she turned up as a panellist on the BBC radio programme I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue. I’d never heard of her, though it was obvious from the context that she was well known to the panellists and to the audience. A few minutes in to the programme one of the panellists made a remark that was so incredibly witty and also so incredibly filthy that Sandi completely lost control and corpsed herself, treating the audience to several minutes of uncontrollable guffaws. Every time she calmed down, it tickled her all over again and back came the laughter. The BBC, bless them, didn’t cut the recording of the programme at all and so Sandi’s never ending peals of laughter are forever immortalised in several minutes of classic radio. I think I fell a little bit in love with her on the day that I heard her laugh so long and so loud…

She started out as a stand up comedian but these days she seems to be rather more well known as the presenter of shows such as The Great British Bake Off. And when Stephen Fry stepped down as the presenter of QI, she took over that job as well. I’ve never seen her in any of these roles, but I gather that they have made her world famous in England.

She has never made any secret of the fact that she is a lesbian. She also has several children, something which is not at all uncommon these days though it was very uncommon indeed thirty years ago, when Sandi did it. Perhaps predictably, the British scandal sheets gave her a very hard time about it. And that negative publicity was the direct cause of what she describes in this book as the most frightening time of her life – she received a lot of death threats and she admits that there were times when she was scared to go outside the house. But she found something to laugh at even in those dire circumstances. The death threats, she claims, were all written in green ink and they were full of spelling mistakes…

Once Sandi found herself presenting the awards at some TV ceremony or other. Because she is quite short, she had been given a box to stand on so that she didn’t disappear behind the extremely tall lectern that dominated the stage. One of the (male) prizewinners came up to collect his award and, being a bundle of nerves, he tripped over the box and broke it. He tried to make amends by putting it back together again, but he just made matters worse. Eventually he slunk off the stage, quite dejected and defeated. Sandi came out from behind her lectern. "And that, ladies and gentlemen," she ad libbed to the audience, "is why I never let boys anywhere near my box!"


Jack Vance Araminta Station Spatterlight
Jack Vance Ecce and Old Earth Spatterlight
Jack Vance Throy Spatterlight
Bethany Clift Last One At The Party Hodder and Stoughton
John Birmingham Zero Day Code Audible
John Birmingham Fail State Audible
John Birmingham American Kill Switch Audible
Eric Flint Time Spike Baen
Stephen King Later Hard Case Crime
Darynda Jones Betwixt Feather and Leaf
Kate Quinn The Rose Code HarperCollins
Jeff Gardiner The Law of Chaos Headpress
Sandi Toksvig Between the Stops Virago
     
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