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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (epidipnis sinpidipe)

A Stressed Dessert is a Palindromic Cimordnilap

Recently I stumbled across a BBC dramatisation of some novels by Daniel Defoe. It appears to be part of a series – google informs me that the beeb has produced dramatisations of quite a lot of classic novels. Most of the titles and authors I identified as being part of the project did not really appeal to me, but I felt that the Defoe collection was rather intriguing. Partly this was because I have very fond memories of reading Robinson Crusoe when I was a child (though I suspect my copy was severely abridged), partly it was because the dramatisation included the sequel to Robinson Crusoe which I had never read, and partly it was because the dramatisation also included A Journal of the Plague Year which seemed an appropriate thing to listen to in these plague-ridden covid times…

I was greatly impressed. The Crusoe stories open with Crusoe and a motley band of associates lost and isolated somewhere in the middle of Siberia. Nothing odd about that – it happens to all of us sooner or later. To pass the time, Crusoe regales his companions with tales of the adventures he experienced in his early life. This proves to be a very clever dramatic device because whenever the narrative starts to get dull (such as when Crusoe gets sidetracked into the religious and philosophical musings that are such a tedious part of the original novel), his companions can interject sarcastic comments that get him back on to the straight and narrow. It livens the story up considerably.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Robinson Crusoe is the scene where Defoe makes what is probably the most famous authorial continuity error in the whole of literature. Crusoe strips naked and swims out to the wrecked ship where he proceeds to fill his pockets with goodies. Ooops…

Clearly Defoe did not believe in revising or editing his work. His first drafts were always his final copy. By and large that worked well for him – he was amazingly prolific and he controlled his material well. But even Homer nods.

Moll Flanders (or The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders to give the novel it’s official title) purports to be a novel about the life and times of the eponymous prostitute. Again, the BBC have taken a lot of dramatic liberties with the text. Much of the story is set up as a series of dialogues between Defoe himself and one Elizabeth Atkins who Defoe had originally met when both of them were confined in Newgate jail. Elizabeth regales Defoe with stories of her life and Defoe files the serial numbers off them, embellishes them a bit, changes all the names, and includes the results in the novel he is working on. This combination of "fact" and "fiction" was irresistibly attention grabbing and one day Jake the Dog got an extra long walk because I was desperate to see how it all worked out.

Defoe also appears as a character in The Journal of the Plague Year. How could he not be? It is a journal after all, though it purports to have been written by one H. F.  However...

Defoe himself had no personal experience of the Great Plague (he was only five years old when it broke out), so clearly the book must be fiction rather than fact. However he did not make everything up out of whole cloth. Most authorities assume that the novel derives from a journal kept by his uncle Harry Foe – notice the "coincidence" of the initials...

As an aside, it’s probably worth pointing out that the family name was originally Foe. Daniel added the prefix De later in his life in an attempt to make the name sound more aristocratic. So, in a very real sense, Daniel did for his uncle Harry exactly what he had done for Elizabeth Atkins, and the result has a striking sense of verisimilitude that is quite enthralling.

The audiobook also includes a lengthy biographical dramatisation of Defoe’s life. Some of this material was already familiar because it had turned up in the dramatisations of the novels as well, but there was sufficient new material in it to hold my interest. There’s also a documentary which explores Defoe’s influence on the literature of the next 400 years.

All in all, this was a superb collection. It could so easily have been dull (much of Defoe’s literary output is rather stultifying to modern sensibilities), but actually it turned out to be quite fascinating, not to say exciting! Well done the BBC drama department.

John Scalzi’s new novel is called The Kaiju Preservation Society. It’s a stand alone story, which is a big point in its favour. It has an ingenious and well thought out plot – another big tick. And as a bonus, it’s very, very funny. What’s not to like? Nothing at all. I loved it to bits.

Covid is decimating New York City. Our hero, Jamie Gray, has no money to pay the rent or to buy food for himself. Faced with imminent destitution and starvation, he takes a minimum wage, dead-end job as a driver for a food delivery app. Quite by chance, an old acquaintance called Tom orders a meal using the app and Jamie delivers it to his door. They are pleased to see each other again and they have a long catching-up chat as they renew their acquaintance. Jamie learns that Tom works for something he refers to as "an animal rights organization." It has an odd name – it’s called The Kaiju Preservation Society. What’s a Kaiju? Why do they need preserving? Tom skirts adroitly around these questions.

One of Tom’s team has dropped out and now Tom urgently needs a replacement before he goes back into the field to preserve a Kaiju or three. He offers the job to Jamie. The pay is much better than Jamie’s current minimum wage slavery so he jumps at the chance. Who wouldn’t?

It isn’t long before Jamie learns that the Kaiju are not creatures from here on Earth. Or rather, they are not from here on our Earth. They live in an alternate dimension on a parallel world with a warm, humid climate. They are massive, massive to the nth power, creatures that could easily stomp the largest dinosaur that ever lived to death using just their big toe, if they even deigned to notice such a tiny creature, which they probably wouldn’t. And if they had toes, which they probably don’t. Not that the dinosaur would be any less dead for knowing any of that, of course.

Massive though they may be, there’s something undeniably cute about the Kaiju though their parasites do leave rather a lot to be desired. Jamie finds himself becoming quite fond of the lumbering monsters. But all is not sweetness and light in the land of the Kaiju – there are those who would exploit the Kaiju for their own nefarious purposes and it isn’t long before Jamie and his friends have a hell of a fight on their hands. It seems that the Kaiju really do need preserving after all...

The Kaiju biology is hilariously implausible, beautifully imagined and convincingly described. I believed every insane word of it. The novel’s theme of the good and the ugly versus the bad is a trope that is as old as time, possibly even older, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad structure to hang a story on. When it’s done well (and in this novel it’s done very well indeed) it never fails to have you on the edge of your seat. The jokes come thick and fast – covid jokes, Trump jokes, Kaiju jokes, rock music jokes, slyly knowing in-jokes about contemporary SF, and just plain joking jokes. Don’t look for any depth in this story, you won’t find it. The novel paddles in very shallow waters indeed. It’s just fluff, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I like fluff. It tickles.

A Hole in the Sky and The Captain’s Daughter by Peter F. Hamilton are the first two volumes of what will probably turn out to be at least a trilogy. At the moment, they are only available as audiobooks – I have no idea whether they will ever have a print edition. They are YA novels and they are narrated in the first person by Hazel, the Captain’s daughter herself. She and her companions are refugees from Earth, travelling on a generation starship to colonise a new world. Five hundred years before our story begins, the ship had reached its original destination world, but that world proved to be inhabited by a non-sentient (though potentially capable of sentience) race of beings. So, reluctantly, the colonists resumed their flight, heading for a secondary destination. However the decision to extend the journey to the second world was not popular and there was a mutiny on board the ship. The mutineers wanted to turn the ship around and return to the original world. The subsequent fighting destroyed much of the ship’s infrastructure before the mutineers were finally defeated. Resources on the ship are now very limited, so limited in fact that at age 65 everybody is required to sacrifice themselves to be recycled. Obviously everyone is very keen to reach the new world so that this horrible ritual can be dispensed with.

The story proper opens with Hazel encountering a group of Cheaters, people who refused to be recycled when their turn came and who ran off to hide somewhere in the vastnesses of the starship. These particular Cheaters have been captured by the men of Hazel’s village and they will be forcibly recycled, whether they like it or not. Hazel will officiate at their cycling ceremony.

Soon after the recycling Hazel’s younger brother, Fraser, has an accident which leaves him partially paralysed. He can no longer be a productive member of society. Clearly he too will have to be cycled.  In order to escape this fate, the two siblings flee their village and, using information that Hazel learned from the captured Cheaters, set off for one of the Cheater strongholds. While they are living with the Cheaters, Hazel discovers that the starship has been damaged and a hole in its outer surface has been leaking air into space for quite some time. If the hole isn’t repaired soon, the starship’s population will die out within a few years.

And so the adventure begins…

The story itself, apart from being a picaresque quest, is an examination of the problems of living in a closed society which is hampered by very limited resources. It also talks a lot about the ethics of rebellion, when and why and how it can be justified. In addition, we soon learn that an implacable alien force has infiltrated the starship and much is made of the necessity of fighting and, hopefully, defeating this intruder.

The story is cleverly structured. It paints a picture of a very believable, though somewhat dystopian, society and it has very well drawn characters. Hazel herself is a constant delight. The fight against the aliens involves rather too many dei ex machinae for my taste, but nevertheless the story remains exciting and involving. However these are Peter F. Hamilton novels and therefore they are horribly over-written. Something that one writer would say in ten sentences takes Peter Hamilton ten chapters – he really, really needs a ruthless editor. The stories told in these first two books could easily have been condensed into one much shorter book, and the story would have been a lot richer for it.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s short novel Walking to Aldebaran reminds me a lot of the humour and surreality of some of Philip K. Dick’s weirder stories. It’s an oddly thoughtful tale with a strange structure. It’s fun and funny on the surface, but very dark underneath. It’s quite a tour-de-force.

Gary Randall is an astronaut, one of a multi-national crew who have been sent to investigate a mysterious object that has been discovered far out on the edge of the solar system. The lump of rock has been nicknamed  The Frog God, partly because it is vaguely frog shaped and partly because the more appropriate name of Rocky McRockface is already being used for something else. The Frog God has a large hole, about the size of the moon on its face together with some smaller holes at least one of which is just about big enough for a person to squeeze into. So that’s what Gary and his team do. Rather to their surprise, they find themselves in a hospitable environment with a breathable atmosphere – it might almost have been designed for them. Perhaps it was. That thought makes them wonder what strange environments might lie behind the other holes on the surface of the Frog God and what strange creatures may have come to explore them.

The interior of the Frog God proves to be no paradise. The team find nothing but pain and destruction there. In a panic, Gary runs deeper into the bowels of the structure and soon he is hopelessly lost and alone.

Gary’s explorations take him into more and more bizarre settings as the tunnels that lead from other entrances and environments intersect with each other. There are rooms that have no gravity. There are pits and traps and strange creatures – one is made of glass, one is made of intestines, many are dead. That’s nice, Gary can eat them. Yum, Yum! Their alien proteins will sustain him on his never ending quest for who knows what?

The strange, inexplicable physics of the Frog God’s interior take Gary and the many other alien explorers through twisting tunnels all the way across space and time. Gary comes to feel he really can walk all the way to Aldebaran and back again. He makes up jokes about the aliens he meets, he compares them to Star Trek creatures.

The chapters of the story swing backwards and forwards between the initial training for the mission, the actual journey to the Frog God itself, the first explorations of the tunnels and Gary’s eventual isolation and strange transmogrification. Each iteration sheds new light on what has gone before. The constant changes of time and place emphasise the corresponding changes that we see in Gary’s mental state. Gary deals with his travails by cracking sardonic jokes. Clearly these calm him. But of course his situation is not funny in itself, it is really quite desperate. Gary’s quips lull both the reader and Gary himself into a false sense of normality. We start to feel that Gary is coping well with all the strangeness and the terror that surrounds him.

But he isn’t coping well at all, of course. By the end of the story it is very clear to us that Gary is inarguably both insane and no longer human. And it is equally clear that Gary does not agree with either of those conclusions. He has suffered through a lot of extreme mental and physical transformations, some of which he describes for us and some of which we can only guess at. Nevertheless we still have some common ground with him, albeit we see him at times through a glass darkly. And that, of course, raises the question of just what defines both sanity and humanity when we each of us have our own objective certainties about those states. We know them when we see them, but do they really just amount to a consensus? It definitely looks a bit that way. The story doesn’t answer the question, unless perhaps describing what something is not can give us a handle on what it might actually be. We know what Gary is, and we know that he isn’t us. So can a negative define a positive or an absence suggest a presence? That uncertainty is not necessarily a flaw in the story – some questions can't be answered, they can only be asked.

A Very English Murder by Verity Bright is the first in a series of traditional murder mysteries set in the England of the 1920s, right smack in the middle of Agatha Christie country. At least, that’s what the surface trappings and the blurb suggest. But actually it has rather more going for it that.

Eleanor Swift is a well travelled and highly competent person. She has spent the last several years

"...taking tea in China, tasting alligators in Peru, escaping bandits in Persia and she has just arrived in England after a chaotic forty-five-day flight from South Africa..."

She has returned to England because her Uncle has died and she has inherited both the family’s title and Henley Hall, the the family home. She is now Lady Eleanor Swift, something she is not very happy about. Initially at least, Clifford, the Henley Hall butler seems quite stand-offish and difficult which just adds to her problems. His attitude upsets Eleanor – she has fond memories of both Clifford and her uncle from when she used to visit the hall as a child though she was always somewhat puzzled as to why they both seemed to keep her at arms length while she was growing up. After her parents disappeared in mysterious circumstances, her uncle was very quick to send her away to boarding school. She had always felt rather hurt by this. She had thought that her uncle loved her, but the circumstances seemed to suggest differently.

Almost the only good thing about Henley Hall is the household dog, Gladstone by name. He and Eleanor soon become fast friends and one day they head out for a walk in the English countryside, even though a storm is brewing…

Then it all turns to cottage cheese. Eleanor and Gladstone are shocked to see a man shot and killed in the distance. But by the time they reach the scene of the crime, the villain is gone and the body has vanished. With no victim in sight and with the local police convinced that she’s just a hysterical woman, who is stirring up trouble, Eleanor vows to solve this affair by herself.

As the investigation progresses, and as Eleanor learns more about her own family history, she comes to realise that her uncle really did love her after all. He had very good reasons for sending her away. It was for her own safety. But out of sight is not out of mind and he always made sure to keep an avuncular eye on her. He was quietly very proud of her. He and Clifford (who turns out to have been more than just a butler, he was her Uncle’s very close friend) were involved in mysterious semi-official actions that sometimes put them in great danger. By sending her away, they had just been doing their best to protect her.

Eleanor soon comes to realise that Clifford is not being stand-offish – it is just his nature – and it isn’t long before he too joins Gladstone as her friend and confidant. Eleanor's past adventures have given her a lot of self confidence and she is more than able to look after herself, but she lacks experience of the darker side of human nature and she finds Clifford's insights into the mind of the murderer very helpful indeed.

I raced through the story, eager to find out who had been murdered, why they had been murdered and who had done the murdering. Naturally I was taken completely by surprise when the culprit was finally unmasked – as is always the case in stories like these the murder had been committed by the one person who couldn’t possibly have done it. My only criticism is that I was a little disappointed by the very long conversation that Eleanor had with the murderer after the unmasking, a conversation in which motive, method and opportunity were gone into in great and grinding detail. Far too many i’s were dotted and far too many t’s were crossed here for my taste.

The story was light, humorous, often quite witty and very cosy. It was an excellent start to what promises to be an excellent series.

By contrast, C. S. Robertson’s novel The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill is grim, dark, gritty and not in the slightest bit cosy.

Grace is a cleaner. When people die alone and lie undiscovered for months, somebody has to come and clean up the mess they leave behind. That’s Grace’s job and she’s very good at it and very proud of her skills. Reading this book taught me far more than I ever wanted to know about the sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes and the all around general nastinesses that decomposing corpses leave behind themselves. On the plus side, I also learned what has to be done to clean it all up and make everything spick and span again. I’m sure that will come in useful the next time my cat hides a mouse underneath the fridge…

The story begins with Grace cleaning the home of one Thomas Agnew, who has lain undiscovered for five months. Nobody missed him. Nobody came to his (eventual) funeral. Grace thinks that’s a crime. She is compassionate, respectful and caring of her undiscovered deaths. Often she says a prayer for them, and takes photographs to document the death scene. She takes home small items that she feels will honour their life and their memory. She builds dioramas of the death scenes. Her obsession with death starts to feel more than a little unhealthy.

Thomas Agnew’s death was a strange one. Grace finds a dried up daisy on his pillow and a collection of newspapers hidden in his wardrobe. The newspapers are all from the same day of the month and date back to the 1960s when Agnew would have been a young man in his twenties. Why was Agnew so obsessed with that date? What had happened on that special day all those years ago?

Two more people die and daisies are left on their pillows. Grace is having problems making daisies small enough to fit the scale of her dioramas but at least she is starting to get some hints about what might have occurred back in the 1960s.

But what does it have to do with her? She hadn’t even been born when it happened. Nevertheless, Grace has responsibilities, and she takes them very seriously, perhaps too seriously.

The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill is not an easy read. It is a twisted tale about a twisted mind. It is a very sick story. I enjoyed it a lot, which makes me wonder a little bit about myself...

Generations of British children have grown up reading stories written by Enid Blyton. She was amazingly prolific and her stories appealed to all age groups from the very, very young to the very, very old. I’m firmly in the latter category, but I still love her books and I’ve just re-read Five on a Treasure Island, which is the very first of her novels about the famous five – Julian, Anne, Dick, George(ina) and the dog Timmy. This is the novel in which the siblings Julian, Anne and Dick meet their cousin Georgina for the first time. Georgina turns out to be what in those days was called a tomboy – she didn’t like being a girl and she identified as a boy, refusing to answer to her girl’s name and insisting on being called George. This takes the others aback a bit at first, but they soon come to accept it and fall in with her wishes. A vital plot point late in the novel revolves around George’s identity. She has been captured by the bad guys and is being held prisoner in the dungeons of Kirrin Castle. The bad guys force her to write a note to the others pretending that all is well and encouraging them to come to the dungeons to see what she has found. She signs the note "Georgina". The bad guys see nothing wrong with this (she is a girl after all) and the note is duly delivered. But once the others see the signature, they realise immediately that something is wrong, it must be a trap. So they take precautions, the tables are turned and the day is saved. Hurrah!

By the time the novel ends, all of them, including Timmy the Dog, are the firmest of friends and they are looking forward to sharing many more adventures together. It’s a lovely story. It’s got buried treasure, very villainous bad guys, very virtuous good guys and absolutely no subtlety or subtext whatsoever. Enid Blyton was a very black and white writer, she didn’t believe in shades of grey. In her stories you always get exactly what it says on the tin, no more and no less. I find that quite refreshing.

I’ve always identified very closely with George. When we first met each other, we both had a dog called Timmy. It was an instant bond and it probably explains why the famous five novels remain my very favourite Enid Blyton stories. George's Timmy is immortal, of course – he’s always alive, panting, barking and licking faces in the pages of the books. My Timmy died more than half a century ago and there’s nobody left alive in the world who remembers him apart from me. And George, of course. I told George all about him.

Enid Blyton died in 1968 and her reputation went into a bit of a decline. Librarians in particular seemed to be strongly biased against her. Many libraries removed her books from the shelves and refused to put them back. She was criticised for her racism, her xenophobia, and her sexism. She was excoriated for talking down to her readers, for her simplistic plots and for her lowest common denominator vocabulary. And there is a certain undeniable truth to all these accusations. Her golliwogs were definitely presented as racial stereotypes, her villains were often foreigners and  she had very firm opinions about the different roles played by boys and girls.

But Enid Blyton didn’t invent golliwogs (they were devised by the nineteenth century author Florence Kate Upton). They were part of the common culture and she just wrote what she knew.  albeit perhaps a bit unthinkingly. And as far as her xenophobia is concerned, we should always remember that Flanders and Swann insisted that:

The English, the English, the English are best
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest

Then they went on to point out that the trouble with all non-English people is that deep down inside themselves they all just know that they are foreign… So because foreigners clearly all have inferiority complexes about not being English, it’s hardly surprising that they turn to villainy in order to compensate.

Flanders and Swann had their satirical tongues poking very firmly into their cheeks when they sang that song, but the joke only works as well as it does because it contains a rather squirmy element of truth. It’s a reflection of a very real societal attitude that Enid Blyton would have grown up with and absorbed with her mother’s milk. It was just the zeitgeist.

As far as the accusations of sexism go, George may have had gender identity problems, but at no point in any of the stories is there any real hint of prejudice. George is simply accepted as being the person that George is. That acceptance strikes me as being a rather healthy attitude to adopt and I’m sad that it always seems to be overlooked when Blyton is criticised for her sexism and gender stereotyping. She was a lot better than that.

So yes, Enid Blyton was demonstrably racist, xenophobic and (to a certain extent) sexist in her attitudes and those attitudes certainly are reflected in her stories, but only, I strongly suspect, because she was just reporting what she saw going on in the world around her without thinking very much at all about what she was saying. She was certainly not a deep thinker – her simple, straightforward stories told in simple, straightforward prose make that very clear – but it seems to me that she might actually have been rather more broad-minded than her many critics would like us to believe. I’m not sure that her contemporaries would have been as sympathetic towards George as she was, and I can think of many present day writers who would also disapprove of George.

There have been a lot of attempts over the years to bowdlerise Enid Blyton’s works in a misguided attempt to address its perceived shortcomings. Children were no longer allowed to buy fireworks from the corner shop, teddy bears were substituted for golliwogs. References to George's short hair making her look like a boy were removed. Even the vocabulary was changed: a "school tunic" became a "uniform", "mother" and "father" became "mum" and "dad", "bathing" was replaced by "swimming", and "jersey" became "jumper". In 2016, the publishers abandoned all their attempts to re-write Blyton’s words. Feedback from the readers suggested the revisions had not been a success...

In 2008, forty years after her death, Enid Blyton was voted Britain’s best loved author. Her books continue to sell in huge numbers to this day, and the critics continue to denigrate her work. The literati despise Enid Blyton, but her readers adore her. She herself once remarked that she wasn’t interested in the opinions of anyone older than twelve. And why should she be?

Daniel Defoe The Daniel Defoe BBC Radio Drama Collection BBC
John Scalzi The Kaiju Preservation Society Tor
Peter F. Hamilton A Hole in the Sky Tantor Audio
Peter F. Hamilton The Captain’s Daughter Tantor Audio
Adrian Tchaikovsky Walking to Aldebaran Solaris
Verity Bright A Very English Murder Hachette
C. S. Robertson The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill Hodder and Stoughton
Enid Blyton Five on a Treasure Island Hodder and Stoughton
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