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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (covid ex corvidae)

Covid-19 Vaccinations – Anti-Virus Software for the Body

"Ready to go for your covid jab?" asked Robin.

"Indeed I am," I said.

Robin drove me to the vaccination station, just in case I had an adverse reaction to the injection. We didn’t think that was likely – when Robin had her jab all she got was a slightly sore arm and a bit of a spacey feeling for a couple of days. But you never know how these things will turn out and so we decided to err on the side of caution.

They’ve been doing covid jabs for quite some time now and the system is well rehearsed, very streamlined and very efficient. As soon as we walked through the door the receptionist asked, "First jab or second one?"

"First," I said.

"Fill in this form," he said, handing me one. "And read this leaflet," he handed me one of those as well.

"Do you want me to do both of those things simultaneously?" I asked, anxious not to break the system.

"Yes," he said, and grinned.

The form was very simple. It just wanted my name, address and phone number. I filled it in and checked what I’d written with my right eye while, at the same time, I read the leaflet with my left eye. The leaflet explained why the vaccination was necessary in English, Maori, several Pasifika languages, Cantonese and Sign. It contained no new information in any of its languages.

"Take your form over to the desk," said the receptionist, pointing to the desk in case I’d never seen one before, "and give it to one of the people there. They’ll check you into the database and assign you a queue number. When your number is called, go into the main hall for your injection."

I thanked him and took my form over to the desk. One of the people there took it from me and tapped away on a keyboard for a minute or so."Thank you," he said. "Your queue number is 180." He scribbled the number in the top left hand corner of my form and handed it back to me. "Take a seat over there," he gestured at several rows of chairs where a small crowd of people were waiting patiently. "When your number is called, go into the main hall over there."

"Thank you," I said and I went at sat by Robin who had already gone over to the chairs and claimed a couple of them.

As I sat down, the lady standing by the entrance to the main hall called out, "159!" in a voice that completely filled the waiting room. She was clearly ideally suited to her job. A man, presumably the person whose number was 159, stood up and walked over to the number caller who looked at his form and then let him through into the hall.

"What’s your number?" asked Robin.

"180," I said, showing her my form. Since we were only up to 159, there would clearly be a reasonable wait before my number would be called.

Robin frowned as she examined my form. "Are you sure it’s 180?" she asked. "It looks more like 186 to me."

I looked at the form. She was right. The zero at the end of my number curled round and twisted in on itself leaving a tail at the top which made it look very much like a six. Or possibly it was meant to be a mutated omega-variant covid virus with only one super-sharp and super-deadly spike. I took the form back to the person who had issued the number to me. "Is that 180," I asked, "or is it 186?"

He checked the form against the information on his screen. "Definitely 180," he said. "Sorry about that. I’m not very good with zeros. They’re far too circular for comfort. I’m always frightened that they will roll away and fall off the edge of the paper." He scribbled over the imitation 6 until it more closely resembled a zero. "There you are," he said and I went back to my seat.

* * * *

Fast Track is the latest Dan "Spider" Shepherd thriller by Stephen Leather. After binge reading several of these last month I was really looking forward to reading this new one and while I was not disappointed with it, I was left feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

The story opens with the authorities stopping a terrorist attack in its tracks. They’ve been monitoring the attackers for a while and they move in at the crucial moment and manage to arrest or kill the terrorists before any damage is done. They are breaking out the champagne to start congratulating each other on a job well done when it all goes horribly wrong. Some bombs that they didn’t know about explode and lots of people are killed. A second bomb attack on an MI5 safe house kills several high ranking members of the secret service.

The rest of the novel follows Dan Shepherd all across the world as he tracks down the planners responsible for these outrages and takes, shall we say, the appropriate action against them…

In many ways it’s an exemplary thriller. The details of the chase are fascinating, the action scenes are action-packed and the tension never lets up. As always, the protagonists on all sides of the story express a wide variety of political and social views to justify their actions – Stephen Leather’s novels are never black and white, that’s part of their attraction. All in all, the plot is topical and intelligent. If this had been my first Spider Shepherd story I’d have been more than happy with it. But it isn’t my first, it’s my eighteenth and I couldn’t help thinking that something was missing.

There’s only one story here, the one I’ve just outlined, and perversely that’s what’s wrong with the book. Earlier novels in the series generally had several plot threads taking place simultaneously. Sometimes the threads were connected, sometimes they weren’t and usually at least one of the threads involved Spider and his family coming to grips with simple domestic problems. Not all the plot threads resolved themselves at the same time and so often the novels had a series of climaxes spread throughout the story. All of this added a pleasing complexity and sense of realism to the novels (we’ve all got lots of things going on our lives). But in Fast Track there is only one plot thread. Only one thing is going on. The story feels flat because of that and for once Spider felt like more of a cipher and less of a person than he has done in previous novels.

I enjoyed the book. I’m pleased to have read it. But I think it’s one of the weaker novels in the series.

Ever since Laura Lippman finished writing her stories about Baltimore private detective Tess Monaghan, she has been concentrating on stand alone novels. This can only be a good thing. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the Tess Monaghan stories a lot. Nevertheless there is something very refreshing about picking up a novel and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing in it depends upon stories that have gone before and nothing in any future stories will depend on this one. It really is a breath of fresh air!

Life Sentences concerns one Cassandra Fellows who is a successful writer of autobiographical memoires. She has had two best sellers – one about her childhood growing up in Baltimore and one about her love life as an adult. Buoyed by these successes, she has turned her hand to writing fiction and is now on a book tour to promote her new novel. Unfortunately, the novel is not selling well. It seems that it will be a commercial and critical failure. Cassandra finds this depressing and she is starting to wonder what she can do about it. One night, alone in her hotel room and cursed with insomnia, Cassandra hears a news report about a missing boy in Louisiana. The news report draws parallels between this current case and something that happened in Baltimore many years before which involved an old school friend of Cassandra’s called Calliope Jenkins…

Calliope’s first child had been taken away from her by the authorities because of Calliope’s neglect and her second child disappeared under mysterious circumstances. It seemed clear to everyone that Calliope had killed her second child, but there was no concrete evidence that she had. She never confessed to any crime and she never said anything about where the child might have gone. Calliope’s stubborn silence made it difficult to bring any charges against her. Nevertheless she was held in jail for seven years before finally being released back into the community. In all that time she never said a single word to anybody about her child’s disappearance.

Cassandra and Calliope grew up together and they had once been quite close. Cassandra decides that her next project will be an investigation of Calliope’s life, together with a broader investigation into what has happened to their whole school social group now that they have grown up and grown apart. Along the way, perhaps she will even be able to find out just what happened to Calliope’s child.

The central mystery of Calliope’s missing child is, of course, very important to the plot of Life Sentences, but it isn't the most vital part of the novel. The story is much more concerned with examining the impact that a criminal act can have on the various lives that it touches. All of the players in the drama are facing their own life sentences as a consequence of the decisions they have made about their lives as they filter Calliope’s history through their own preconceptions and prejudices.  Cassandra herself is not immune to this effect, and that clearly biases her reporting. The novel makes it very clear just how subjective events and memories can be. We do eventually learn the whole of Calliope’s story (Lippman always plays fair with her readers), but by the time that the central mystery is clarified we have had many of our own assumptions about the rights and wrongs of it questioned very deeply.

I suspect that Life Sentences will not have a broad appeal. It isn’t quite crime fiction and it it isn’t quite literary fiction either. It falls uncomfortably between two stools and although it tries very hard, it fails to get a firm footing on either of them. Personally I loved it, but perhaps that says more about me than it does about the novel.

H. G. Parry is a New Zealand author. She lives in Wellington and she teaches English, Film, and Media Studies at Victoria University. The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep is her first novel, and I absolutely loved it, though I must admit that the story is more than a little bit odd. It is set in Wellington and it tells of two brothers, Robert and Charles Sutherland. Charles is so much in love with reading and so wrapped up in what he reads that he has developed the uncanny ability to bring characters from his favourite books alive into the world. He has been doing it all his life long and his family very quickly got used to having Sherlock Holmes pop round for afternoon tea when his case load wasn’t too heavy. But the family all agree that they need to keep Charles’ ability a secret – the rest of the world can’t know about what he does. That’s where Robert comes in. He has spent a lifetime looking after Charles and clearing up the messes that Charles’ absent minded acts of literary creation have caused. But when Uriah Heep (one of the most unpleasant villains in the whole of literature) comes to life it starts to look as if even Robert won’t be able to help this time, particularly when he finds out that there are other fictional characters roaming around Wellington, characters that Charles has not created. There must be someone else in the city who has the same abilities that Charles has, and it soon becomes clear that they are using their powers for nefarious purposes...

The book is wise and witty and very funny. Obvious comparisons can be drawn with Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, but in my opinion Parry succeeds in all the areas where Fforde’s stories failed. Fforde was always too self-conscious for my taste – I felt that I could see him lurking just behind his sentences, pulling faces to attract my attention and saying Look how clever I am, making all these brilliant literary reference. I never got that impression from Parry’s novel. Yes, she is just as clever and yes, she makes just as many literary references and jokes but she doesn’t demand that I admire her while she is doing it. She gets out of the way and simply tells her story, and that makes a big difference to the willing suspension of disbelief that I could never quite bring myself to manage when reading Fforde’s books.

It probably helps that I have read most of the literary works that Parry references and I’ve always had a genuine soft spot for Uriah Heep. His well disguised and very ‘umble villainy was an absolute delight that made Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield bearable when I was forced to read it at school – David Copperfield actually has a lot of memorable and delightful characters in it. Unfortunately David himself is not one of them which makes most of the Dickens’ novel more than a little tedious. Uriah was largely responsible for me continuing to read the damn thing. He broke me through the boredom barrier.

I’m not sure whether or not The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep will work if you aren’t familiar with the books that it references. But the novel is so clever and so well written that I suggest that you give it a go anyway. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Markus Zusak’s I Am The Messenger is another rather odd book. Ed Kennedy is 19 years old. He drives a taxi for a living even though he is not old enough to be allowed to do that job. He is just drifting through life. He has no plans, and he has no ambitions. He enjoys playing cards though he’s pathetic at it. He’s hopelessly in love with Audrey, who is his best friend. He lives with a very old and very smelly dog called the Doorman who is addicted to drinking coffee. It is safe to say that Ed’s life is one of peaceful routine and complete incompetence.

And then one day he gets caught up in a bank robbery and, through a weird and hilarious combination of circumstances he ends up stopping the robbery in its tracks. He becomes the hero of the hour. Life couldn’t be better.

Then the first ace arrives in the mail. It’s a playing card with a set of addresses written on it. Ed visits the addresses and deduces that he is being asked to help the people who live there. They all need something from him, something that will solve their problems. Sometimes what he has to do is easy, sometimes it is hard, sometimes it is even extremely violent. But Ed has messages to deliver, messages that will ameliorate some desperate situations. Nothing is going to stop him delivering them. But hovering over this are two big questions that really need answering. Who is sending Ed the cards? And why are they doing it?

The novel is often laugh out loud funny and that is its saving grace. There’s a delightful twist at the end and that too is an attraction. But I simply couldn’t understand why Ed felt motivated to carry out the tasks that the cards required of him. Why didn’t he just tear them up, throw them away and carry on drifting through life and through the stink of the Doorman? That would be much more in character. Ed’s actions as the messenger are really quite out of character and so they puzzled me. The contradiction was extremely irritating. I was also very confused as to how Ed managed to work out what actions he was supposed to take. The cards contain no explicit instructions. Everything is implied. But Ed doesn’t do subtlety so how does he manage to bring it all together? And why does he even bother?

It’s a curates egg of a book. Parts of it are very funny, parts of it are brilliant and parts of it are both very funny and brilliant, but overall it doesn’t make any sense at all.

* * * *

"161!" called the numbers lady. "162 and 163!"

"That’s strange," I said to Robin, "I don’t recall hearing her call out 160. Did you hear it?"

"I wasn’t listening," said Robin. "I was reading my book."

"Perhaps she called it while I was re-checking my own number," I said. "That would explain why I missed it."

For the next few minutes she called out numbers at random intervals and people scuttled past her into the main hall, looking anxious. I listened closely, and finally she called out, "171!". My suspicions were confirmed. She definitely hadn’t called for 170. I began to worry that I might not get jabbed at all if she continued the trend and missed out 180. Perhaps I’d have to sit there for ever, endlessly waiting for my number to be called until I slowly disintegrated into dust and got vacuumed up and thrown away by the cleaners. I listened nervously for a few minutes as the numbers slowly mounted up and then I heard, "181!".

I took my form over to the number caller. "I’m number 180," I said, showing her my form. "You just called 181 but you didn’t call for 180. What should I do?"

She looked at me, bewildered.  Clearly multiples of ten were not part of her numerical vocabulary. "I don’t know," she said. She shrugged helplessly. "You’d better just go in," she said. "Jennifer will look after you."

I went in to the main hall and a nurse with a name tag that had Jennifer printed on it collected me. "Just come with me," she said. She took me into a small booth and sat me down on a chair. "Now I just have to ask you a few questions to confirm that it’s OK to go ahead," she said. "First of all, are you willing to have the covid-19 vaccination?"

"Yes, of course I am," I said, slightly puzzled. "That’s why I’ve come here after all. Are you seriously telling me that people actually show up, then have second thoughts, and refuse the jab?"

"It happens," she said. "Not very often, but it does happen. So that’s why we have to check." She made a note. "Now," she asked, "do you have any allergies?"

"I’m allergic to nuts," I said, "and I’m quite intolerant to eggs."

She made another note. "That’s fine," she said. "Neither of those will have any effect on this injection. Are you taking any blood-thinner drugs?"

"No," I said. I looked around the little cubicle. There was a large sheet of paper pinned to the wall and the questions she was asking me were all listed on it. Presumably it was there to act as an aide mémoire. She went through the questions on the list one by one and when I had answered them to her satisfaction she asked me to roll up my sleeve. "You missed one of the questions out," I said, pointing to the list. "You didn’t ask me if I was pregnant."

She smiled. "No," she said. "In my experience, men are seldom, if ever, pregnant"

"How do you know I’m a man?" I asked

"I can tell by the size of your enormous..." she paused for a heartbeat, "Adam’s Apple." We both had a little chuckle. "Learning about the differences between men and women is one of the very first things we study at nursing school," she said. "I’ve had lots of practice at it over the years, and I’ve really got quite good at identifying men. I hardly ever get it wrong. Also your beard is a dead give away."

"That’s amazing," I said. "I had no idea such skills existed. You learn something new every day."

"Yes, you do," she said. "Then you die and forget everything you’ve learned. Bit of a bummer really, eh?"

I nodded agreement and rolled up my sleeve for her. "There," she said. "All done."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "I didn’t feel a thing."

"Quite sure," she said. She filled in the vaccination details on a little card and gave it to me. "Hand this in to the lady at the desk," she said, "and then go and sit in the waiting area for twenty minutes or so just to make sure that you don’t have an allergic reaction to the injection. The lady will come and collect you when your time is up and then you can go home."

* * * *

Anybody who has any interest in writing science fiction stories and anybody who would like to read thirteen of the best science fiction stories ever written really needs to get hold of a copy of Science Fiction 101, an anthology edited by Robert Silverberg. The premise of the anthology is very simple. Silverberg has collected thirteen classic science fiction stories and to each of them he has appended an extensive essay that analyses just why the stories work as well as they do. He takes each story apart and looks inside it to see exactly what makes it tick. As a bonus, the essays often include some biographical (and autobiographical) snippets. Many of the authors of these stories were personal friends of Silverberg's, and that close friendship has given him a unique insight into how the stories were put together in the first place.

Silverberg’s essays are not always adulatory – while he admires every one of the stories he has collected and while he is more than willing to admit that they represent some of the best SF ever written, he is not afraid to point out areas where they might have been improved. He happily draws our attention to structural flaws and time-binding attitudes, to inconsistencies and clunky word choices.

Silverberg was one of the most prolific and successful writers of his generation in both the commercial and the literary sense. He really does know whereof he speaks. Anyone who has ambitions to be a writer will learn a lot from this book. As for the rest of us, let’s just bask in the stories and read the essays so that we can fully understand what it is we just read.

I came across Clifford Simak’s novel All Flesh Is Grass in 1965 when it was first published and I haven’t read it since then. 1965, of course, is a long time in the past. It’s a place and a time where they did things differently. I retain no memory of the book whatsoever, but when I recently learned that it had been nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966, I thought I’d try re-reading it. After all, it’s a Clifford Simak novel. What better reason could there possibly be for picking it up again?

The story starts with the protagonist crashing his car into an invisible dome that has mysteriously surrounded his village, somewhere in small town America. The village is cut off, nobody can get out and nobody from the outside can get in. However the boundary of the dome is only impermeable to life – electronic signals and things that are not alive can still get through so people are still able to communicate with the outside world. Not that it does them much good, in the short term at least. (As an aside, I strongly suspect that Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome was greatly influenced by Simak’s novel – both books have exactly the same feel to them).

Once the basic situation has been established, the story turns into something both sad and beautiful. The elegiac melancholy of Simak’s prose has never been stronger than it is here. He writes about a small town full of small lives both of which become smaller and sadder as the situation deteriorates and the people learn that that their village is perhaps too small for the outside world to even care about at all. At one point the military commander seriously consider that he might have to destroy the village in order to save it, to quote (almost) one of the more infamous military maxims that would later come out of the Vietnam war – nice bit of prescient anticipation from Mr Simak there.

Simak keeps turning up the volume. The story broadens out and becomes more than a little bizarre. The dome, of course, is a manifestation of an alien incursion (but I’m sure you’ve already guessed that, so mentioning it isn’t a spoiler). The aliens appear to be hive-minded purple flowers who (which?) might actually be altruistic, if they can be said to have a motive at all (or at least one that we can understand). They take the protagonist to other places and other times, and they show him a lot of might have beens and maybes. He watches singing humanoids celebrate the death of a world and then he returns and tries to apply the lessons he has learned from his travels to the problems faced by his village.

Simak’s novels were always weird, but this one is weirder than most. Many of the little bits of business that keep you turning the pages are extremely odd, though always completely logical within the structure of the story. For example, at one point the aliens promise the protagonist a monetary reward for helping them, but they don’t really understand the concept of money and they are genuinely puzzled when they learn that he can’t accept the bushes they have planted in his back yard, bushes whose leaves are growing into $50 bills… Does money grow on trees? Of course not. But in a Simak novel it can easily grow on bushes

This is a very short novel (almost all novels in 1965 were very short, scarcely more than novellas by today’s bloated standards) but the prose is incredibly dense and packed with ideas many of which are incredibly profound. At the very least this novel will make you think and at the very most it will make you laugh and squint sideways at the world. That’s a lot to cram into such a short space but Simak manages it brilliantly. He never puts a foot wrong and there isn’t a word out of place. I was impressed all over again by the genius that was Clifford Simak when he was firing on all cylinders.

Stephen King will always be thought of as a writer of horror stories despite the fact that they form only a very small part of his immense output. He has written in just about every genre you can put a name to (and probably some that you can’t). His new novel Billy Summers is a straightforward thriller and, as you might expect, King does it brilliantly.

The eponymous Billy Summers is an ex-army sniper turned hitman for hire. He justifies his dubious profession to himself by claiming that he only kills bad men, which may or may not be true, We first meet Billy as he is settling into life in a small provincial American town. Billy has been hired to kill a crook who is currently incarcerated in prison and guarded round the clock. Billy can’t get to him there. However there will be one clear opportunity for Billy to kill the men – he will eventually be extradited back to his home town, the town where Billy is currently waiting for him. And when he makes his appearance in court, Billy will strike.

So as not to attract unwanted attention to himself while he waits for the man to appear, Billy needs to have a reason for living in the town. As far as everybody knows, he is a writer who has come to town and hired office space so as to be able to work undisturbed on his new book. Every day Billy goes to the office and sits in front of his computer where, for want of anything better to do, he writes his life story. Extracts from Billy’s manuscript are scattered throughout the book and from them we learn a lot about the formative experiences of Billy’s life. Unsurprisingly, his life is a story of violence and tragedy and it’s easy to see how Billy got from there to here. Every so often Billy pauses from his work and looks out of his office window. He has a perfect view of the courthouse steps. That’s not a coincidence...

The first half of the novel is mainly concerned with scene setting. Billy attends barbecues with his neighbours and plays monopoly with their children. King paints a sun drenched picture of happy life in small town America that is oddly reminiscent of similar settings in Clifford Simak’s novels. I am firmly convinced that Simak has had a huge influence on Stephen King’s style and structure. There are far too many parallels across far too many novels for it all to be coincidence.

And then, about half way through the book, Billy kills his man and the mood changes abruptly. Billy meets someone who will alter the course of his life. The focus of the story narrows and the morality of Billy’s actions become murkier. The languid pace of the first half has gone away. Billy and his new companion are are on the run and there are things he has to do to keep them both safe. He still has more bad men to kill.

The plot is corny but the writing is sublime. King has a genius for getting under the skin of his characters and bringing them alive. Billy is a hateful and horrible man but nevertheless we can’t help sympathising with him and perhaps even admiring him in many ways. That dichotomy lies at the heart of this novel and the skilful way that Stephen King approaches it makes Billy Summers his best novel in years.

* * * *

I did as I was told and went to sit with Robin who had already gone to the waiting area. "How was it?" she asked me.

"Excellent," I said. "The 5G reception is just brilliant. I’ve already had a welcome text from Bill Gates himself. Actually, I’ve had 83 welcome texts from Bill Gates. I think the chip they injected into me might have a bug in it."

"No it hasn’t," said Robin. "It’s just a typical Microsoft product. They never quite perform exactly to the specification."

After about twenty minutes I heard my name being called. "That’s me," I said.

The lady I’d given my card to handed it back to me. "Are you feeling OK?" she asked.

"Never better," I reassured her.

"That’s good," she said. "We’ll see you back here in a few weeks for your second jab. Don’t forget to bring this vaccination card with you."

I put the card away in my wallet. Robin and I walked out to the car and she drove me home. By the time we arrived, the body magnetism was starting to kick in and I noticed that the kitchen knives were quivering in the knife block when I walked past them. "I hope the magnetism doesn’t get any stronger," I said. "Those knives are sharp! If they fly out of the block under the influence of my amplified magnetic personality I could get seriously injured."

"Don’t worry," said Robin. "It doesn’t get strong enough to do that. The worst you’ll have to put up with is paper clips. You simply can’t get rid of them. They fly in from absolutely everywhere and you wouldn’t believe the orifices they work their way into. I’ve never itched so much in my life."

"I’ll look forward to that," I said. "Perhaps I can pretend that I’m wearing chain mail."

Over the next few days I developed a slightly sore arm. And as Robin had predicted, I soon managed to build up an enormous paper clip collection, which was very satisfying. As an added bonus, I also developed an uncanny ability to use my body magnetism to distort the pictures on television screens and computer monitors. My dog and cat both became autistic, of course, but that was only to be expected. On balance, I’m very satisfied with how everything has turned out.

Stephen Leather Fast Track Hodder
Laura Lippman Life Sentences William Morrow
H. G. Parry The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep Orbit
Markus Zusak I Am The Messenger Borzoi Books
Robert Silverberg Science Fiction 101 Ace
Clifford Simak All Flesh Is Grass Open Road
Stephen King Billy Summers Scribner
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