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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (unctissimus sanguis)


Several months ago, during a routine medical check, it was revealed that my cholesterol levels were abnormally high. I was measured at 9.0. The average is about 4.5 (that's expressed in mmol/L. Some countries report results in mg/dl - to convert, divide by 0.02586). I was so far over to the right hand side of the bell curve that I was single-handedly increasing the national average. I got three stars on the report that came back from the path lab. Something, it was made clear to me, would have to be done.

I reported the test results to a friend who thought she had high cholesterol until she heard my Olympic record breaking figures.

"Gosh," she said, impressed. "You’re the only person I’ve ever met with solid lard circulating in their veins. Did it clog up the syringe when they took the blood sample?"

I had to confess that there had been no such effect. The blood was still liquid with a distinct absence of lumpy bits. Mind you, the rainbow effect as the sunlight glinted off the layer of oil on the surface tended to give the game away. I think I might be a national resource. They can attach my circulatory system to the inlet valves of the Marsden Point oil refinery. New Zealand will never have to import crude oil again; we can be completely self sufficient. Perhaps I’ll get a medal.

On Writing is an odd little book by Stephen King. It is partly an autobiography, partly advice to the would-be writer and partly a discussion of the rules of grammar (with a diatribe against the adverb). The autobiographical chapters are the most interesting. They shed a lot of light on the character of the man behind the books; his strengths (willpower, talent, a huge love for his wife) and his weaknesses (alcohol and hard drug addiction). The chapters that describe the accident that almost killed him last year when he was hit by a car while he was out walking are particularly harrowing. The pain and the seriousness of his injuries were much more severe than was generally reported at the time. His long, slow struggle back to (comparative) health, and his initial inability to sit and write without suffering crippling pain make for uncomfortable reading.

The chapters on how to write for publication don’t say anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times before in a thousand other books. However he has two invaluable lessons to impart. He shows us the first draft of two pieces from his typewriter; one fiction and one non-fiction. Then he shows how the second draft looks and talks us through all the edits he made and discusses exactly why he made them. These two examples are worth the price of the book all by themselves. They are a perfect tutorial; a thoroughly practical guide to the art of writing; a justification for the title of the book.

To combat the dread cholesterol, a daily pill was prescribed and a strict low fat diet. Much of the savour left my dining table and I began to live on chicken and fish, cooked in sauces based on fruit juice and cornflour. Surprisingly these turned out to be tastier than you might think and mealtimes perked up a bit. I investigated interesting things to do with vegetables. I ate breakfast cereal that claimed to be 99% fat free and I anointed it with non-fat milk. I drank my tea and coffee black (this was no hardship – I’ve always done that). I stopped spreading grease on my bread. The only taste on my toast was a thin layer of jam, the only lubrication in my sandwiches was pickle, the only fillings fat-free ham, salad and fruit. When I went away on business I lived exclusively on raw fish from Japanese restaurants. I grew a dorsal fin and had to strongly resist the urge to swim home rather than fly.

Exercise (yuck!) was highly recommended and so I bought a second hand exercycle. The advert was irresistible ("late model, low kilometres"). I pedalled every day. Not surprisingly, I lost weight.

But I didn’t lose any cholesterol.

Initially the levels dropped slightly. But then they climbed up again as my liver, appalled at the lower levels it was finding, began manufacturing cholesterol at ever increasing rates and pumping it into my blood. My body, it appeared, was determined to die of a heart attack, and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to stop it.

This month I’ve over-indulged in Joe R. Lansdale, a writer I have just discovered. He has a style rather like Carl Hiaasen crossed with Joseph Wambaugh crossed with Hunter Thompson and seasoned with a soupçon of Harlan Ellison. He writes thrillers, with the occasional foray into science fiction. But no matter what the genre, he puts his own unique stamp on the material. He writes about serious subjects but he uses humour to make his serious points. His books are gross and disgusting, vicious and violent and belly-laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The first five books in the list at the end of this article form a continuing series. Hap Collins is white and heterosexual. His best friend is Leonard Pine who is black and gay. Despite the incongruity of the mixture it works well, mainly because neither Hap nor Leonard give a rats arse about those kinds of things. The early books in the series are thick with plot and short on character development and it takes a while before Hap and Leonard really start to stand out from the page. When they do the people start to take over and the plot thins down a lot (as so often happens when a writer gets really interested in the characters). Rumble Tumble has almost no plot at all worthy of the name, just a series of incidents along the way. Nevertheless it is my favourite of the novels, perhaps for exactly this reason.

Given the nature of the protagonists it comes as no surprise to find that the books concern themselves with race and violence, sex and violence, drugs and violence and just plain violence. Sometimes I didn’t know whether to laugh or be sick, so I laughed. It doesn’t make as much mess on the carpet.

Freezer Burn concerns a rather unsuccessful armed robber called Bill Roberts. His mother has died and is slowly decomposing into the sheets on her deathbed. Bill finds the smell somewhat distasteful (though a strategically placed electric fan blows most of it out of the back door), and she is turning an ugly colour. Even wrapping her up in garbage bags doesn’t help much. They leak. He has a drawer full of welfare cheques that he can’t cash because he can’t forge her signature well enough. So he decides to rob a fireworks stand. The raid goes horribly wrong and Bill escapes into the marshes. Evading snakes, alligators and a homicidal deputy, and wearing a face full of mosquitoes he eventually comes across a travelling freak show. He takes refuge among the pinheads, pumpkin heads, bearded ladies and dog men. Initially he is so disfigured by mosquito bites that that they consider him to be one of their own; perhaps a new star attraction for the show? No, he could never replace the Freezer Man. The bulk of the novel chronicles Bill’s adventures with the freak show. No taboo is left unbroken, nothing is too revolting to describe. Eventually the plot comes full circle and the little matter of his dead mother and the bungled robbery are resolved in an unexpected way.

The Drive-In is an omnibus volume of two short science fiction novels. In the first novel, a group of friends go to a Saturday night drive-in movie theatre. There are five screens, and each is showing a horror flick. Half way through the show a comet crosses the sky. After it passes, the drive-in is completely cut off from the world. It is surrounded by darkness, there is no way out. The audience must live off popcorn, chocolate and coke. Anarchy reigns and real horror comes to the drive-in as the horror flicks continue to screen in never ending loops (oddly there is still power coming in). A new God is born and demands worship and sacrifice. There is only one possible source of real food whether for gods or for people. The population thins out dramatically.

The second novel in the omnibus explores what happens after the drive-in is reattached to the world. It proves to be a mixed blessing. For one thing the tyrannosaurs out there have a huge appetite. Dark, deadly and utterly deranged, The Drive-In has to be one of the most grotesque books I’ve ever read. It says much for Lansdale’s talent that he can turn such silliness into an enthralling tale, that he can make you willingly suspend your disbelief and accept the weird things that happen on the page. I don’t think his tongue actually poked out of his cheek, but his cheek didn’t half bulge a lot.

Mind you, given that one of the short stories in Writer of the Purple Rage concerns a baby’s nappy (diaper) that is possessed by aliens, I suppose he can make anything believable.

Shrine of Stars is the third book of Confluence. As seems to be traditional in quest stories, the company was broken apart at the end of the second book and the third book explores their several separate adventures. Without the uniform point of view that held the earlier books together, this one seems bitty and fragmented. Yama’s quest loses its urgency and a lot of earlier history is re-examined. I found it much less powerful than the previous books and ultimately it was disappointing (and more than a little overwritten).

An appointment was made for me to see a cardiologist and an ECG examination was scheduled so that we could all find out how much damage had already been done. I was instructed to bring shorts and running shoes for they intended to put me on a treadmill and measure all the different ways my body didn’t cope with the pressure.

Fully equipped, I turned up at the appointed time.

The lady in charge of the ECG equipment told me to get changed. "Bare chest, shorts and running shoes, please."

When I was ready, she took my blood pressure. It was normal. Then she produced a razor. "I have to shave your chest, so that we can get a good contact for the electrodes."

"OK," I said.

"I’ll try and keep the pattern symmetrical," she said, "so that nobody will laugh at you when you take your shirt off in public."

I brightened up a bit. This began to have possibilities. "Can you write your name instead?" I asked. She gave me The Look – you know, the one that means they are beginning to have serious doubts about your sanity. I was starting to enjoy myself.

"Now we have the sandpaper." She scrubbed vigorously at the freshly shaved areas then she dabbed an electrically conductive adhesive on the patches of bare skin. I began to feel like a plank of wood that had been planed square, sanded smooth and smeared with glue. Perhaps I’d end up as part of a coffee table. These ambitions died as she attached electrodes to the adhesive. She hung wires on the electrodes.

"Oops," she said.

"What’s happened?"

"I stuck one too many electrodes on you," she said. "I thought they looked a bit unsymmetrical." She pulled the extra one off and threw it away and then she rearranged the wires, frowned and rearranged them again. The wires came together in a belt which hung loosely round my waist. A single, rather fat cable led from the belt to a machine that stood by the treadmill. A screen showed the peaks and troughs of several graphs that marched implacably across it from right to left in response to mysterious electrical activity inside my body. In the top right hand corner of the screen was a glowing green number.

"That’s your pulse rate," explained the technician. We stared at it. It was normal.

There was a keyboard attached to the machine and she typed a few commands on it. The graphs changed shape slightly as the scale altered. "I’ll go and tell the doctor you are ready," she said. "He has to give you the once over before we put you on the treadmill. We don’t want you dropping dead on us."

Ferney is James Long’s first fantasy. His earlier novels have been minor thrillers and Knowing Max, the book he wrote after Ferney is a completely naturalistic mainstream novel. But Ferney stands head and shoulders above the competition. If this one doesn’t move you, excite you, make you laugh, make you cry then you are an emotional cripple and I pity you.

It is hard to describe the story without giving spoilers, but I’ll try. Gally has had a miscarriage. She has suffered great depressions and nightmares all her life long, but this tragedy has made them worse. She dreams of the boilman, the burnman and wakes screaming in the night. Her husband Mike loves her to distraction, but he is powerless in the face of these strong emotions.

One day, out exploring, they discover a derelict cottage deep in the wilds of Somerset. Gally falls in love with it and insists that they buy it. More for her sake than for any other reason, Mike agrees. The cottage needs extensive renovation. While the builders ply their trade, Mike and Gally live beside it in a ramshackle old caravan.

Gradually they become involved in the life of the village, meet the local people, learn something of its history. Ferney is an old countryman to whom Gally takes a special shine. He seems to know everything there is to know about the history of the village and the history of their tumbledown old cottage. But there are closer connections between Ferney and Gally than she realises. Sometimes he frightens her. Did he really make her dream of a time long ago when the rebellious Duke of Monmouth, fleeing from the victorious armies of the King, turned up at the cottage? Did Monmouth really reward the lady of the cottage for her help with his ring, and did she bury it beneath the front doorstep, fearful of the danger of discovery?

Gally digs beneath the doorstep and sure enough the ring is there. What mysterious hold has Ferney got over her life and why does she both fear it and long for it? Who are the boilman and the burnman? Ferney claims he knows.

The novel is utterly engrossing. It is a love story and a hate story; a story of the ages. The reality of the connection between Ferney and Gally is breathtakingly audacious, but James Long pulls it off perfectly, never missing a trick, never losing control. The ending is a superbly done double whammy that will leave you gasping in shock (and fearful for what comes next – the implications are terrible). You will read this one in a single sitting, for its spell cannot be broken.

On the strength of Ferney, I just had to read Knowing Max, and so I did. It contains not a trace of the fantasy elements that give Ferney it’s power, but I still found that it exerted the same magic spell and I couldn’t stop reading. (At one point, as the hero sneaks through the woods towards his lady love hoping to take her by surprise, he is confounded when she informs him that he is making so much noise that he sounds like the Ents marching on Isengard. So perhaps there is a fantasy reference after all).

As a child, Miles Drummond is fascinated with racing cars, with speed. He visits the speed trials at Brighton where he becomes involved with a beautiful woman who lets him help her prepare her car for the trials. The next year, Miles returns, hoping to meet her again. But tragedy strikes. The very car he had helped with the year before crashes and burns, killing her.

Years later, in an old trunk bought on a whim at an auction, he finds a photograph that takes him back to that tragedy. As he goes through the papers in the trunk he finds himself exploring the life of its owner, Max Owen, perhaps a thief, perhaps a war hero, perhaps a friend and confidante of Royalty. Perhaps a liar. There are unsuspected connections between Max and Miles. The tragedy at Brighton was one incident that they shared which has alarming repercussions, but there are other places where their lives have crossed as well. And as Miles comes to know Max more intimately as he follows up the clues from the trunk, he also begins to know a lot that he had never before suspected about himself.

The cardiologist came in and listened to me with a stethoscope. He read my notes and said, "Hmmm. You’ve been referred to me by your GP."


We discussed my complete lack of any symptom other than the high cholesterol itself. "I feel remarkably well, in fact. That’s what makes the whole thing so ridiculous," I complained peevishly. "It wouldn’t be so bad if I felt ill, but I don’t."

"I’ve never had a patient who complained about not feeling ill," he said thoughtfully. "I wonder if it’s a new syndrome?"

"It’s probably all my GP's fault," I explained. "I think she must have put the cholesterol in there when I wasn't looking"

He agreed with me that it was a distinct possibility

He turned to the keyboard and played with it for a while. A window opened on the screen and displayed mysterious figures and the graphs ceased their stately progress. Something went beep. "I think I’ve broken it," he said. "Damn computers. I hate them."

The technician glanced across. "Press Escape," she said.

He looked puzzled. "What?".

I decided to intervene. "Top left hand corner of the keyboard," I said. "It's a key with the letters ESC on it."

He found it and pressed it and the machine started working again. "Thank you," he said, greatly impressed. "How do you know so much about computers?"

"It's what I do for a living."

The technician stood me on the treadmill and attached a blood pressure cuff to my left arm. "The test will last for 12 minutes," she explained. "Every three minutes the speed will increase. I’ll be taking your blood pressure at each increase. We’re going to get your heart rate up to 144 and then work you hard for a little while. If you feel faint or get chest pains, tell me and we’ll stop immediately."

The treadmill began to move and I started to walk.

"Relax," said the technician in soothing tones. "Stop being so tense. You’ve got a poor technique. Don’t grip the handlebar. I don’t want to see any white knuckles." In the top right hand corner of the screen, my pulse rate began to increase. The ECG machine began to excrete paper as it made a permanent record of the graphs that marched in such a stately fashion across its screen.

"Three minutes," said the technician. The blood pressure cuff gripped my arm briefly and the treadmill got faster. The belt around my waist that all the wires led to felt loose. I wondered if it would fall off. I hoped not. I’d hate to have to start this all over again.

"Six minutes." Again my blood pressure was taken and the treadmill increased it’s speed. I was starting to feel it now. My legs were aching and I was beginning to pant. My pulse rate was up to 140. As I watched it reached the magic figure of 144. "Oh good," I thought. "Maybe we can ease off now." No such luck.

"Nine minutes." This time the speed increase seemed out of all proportion to the previous ones and I really had to hurry so as not to fall over. My body was leaning at a 45 degree angle as it fought against the treadmill that was trying to make it fall over in a heap. Try as I might, I couldn’t get vertical. Looking in the mirror on the wall, I could see that I had turned distinctly pink. I was panting quite hard now and my pulse was racing at 168. The technician was looking anxious. "Are you feeling OK? Any chest pains? If it gets too much, just say and I’ll stop immediately."

"I’m OK," I said, in between gasps. "Let’s keep going." My thighs were on fire and I was sucking air deep into my chest. Apart from a hammering heart that was giving the distinct impression that it wanted to leap out of my chest and go for trip to the seaside where it could eat fish and chips, drink beer and attempt to pick up women, I felt great.

I watched my pulse hit 183 just as the technician said, "Twelve minutes." The treadmill decelerated and soon came to a complete stop. I hung on to the bar and panted and listened to the rapid thumping inside my chest. "Come and lie down for a moment," said the technician.

She led me to a trolley and I stretched out and looked at the ceiling while she removed the electrodes. There were several cartoons stuck to the ceiling. In one, a sorry looking man lay on a bed. He was covered from head to foot with enormous zig-zag surgical scars crudely sewn together with huge Frankensteinian stitches. A doctor was saying, "You’ll be pleased to hear that the exploratory surgery found nothing wrong."

Another showed an enormously fat man swimming in the sea. Two sharks circled below him and one was saying to the other, "I was tempted, but I thought he might contain too much cholesterol."

Once everything had calmed down and I was slightly less pink, I got dressed. The technician took the huge roll of paper that the machine had regurgitated off to the cardiologist.

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine is compulsively readable. I was half way through it when I got the new Terry Pratchett novel, but I put Pratchett aside because I just had to finish Asta’s Book first. That’s how good it is.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Asta and her husband Rasmus and their two little boys have emigrated from Denmark to England. They live in London, in a poor suburb. Rasmus is constantly away on business, seeking his fortune. He has an obsession with motor cars, convinced that they will soon be in common use. His wife thinks he is silly.

It is at this time that she starts to write a diary, a diary that she will keep at irregular intervals for most of the rest of her life. Long after her death, the diaries are edited and published by her daughter Swanhilde and they become runaway best sellers. When Swanhilde dies, her niece Ann continues to edit the remaining volumes.

Swanhilde’s motives were mixed. Late in life she came to suspect that she was not her mother’s natural daughter. When she questioned Asta about this, Asta either shrugged it off or claimed to have forgotten the details or simply refused to talk about it. When Swanhilde found the diaries after her mother’s death, her first thought was that perhaps they would tell her the truth about herself. Now that Swanhilde herself is dead, Ann takes up the task on her behalf.

From clues scattered through the pages of the diaries, Ann learns details of a man called Roper who was charged with the murder of his wife, but was acquitted. Who was the murderer? What happened to his daughter who disappeared the day after the murder, never to be seen again?

The secrets are nearly a century old, but Ann is a trained researcher (something Swanhilde was not) and eventually, after a lot of work and investigation, the past begins to reveal its secrets. And they are surprising ones.

The writing is superb, the plot is intricate and (to quote a review on the back of the book) red with herrings. The diary extracts are fascinating; the book is superb.

The Truth is the 25th Discworld novel. The dwarves have learned how to turn lead into gold the hard way. They have a printing press and lots of lead to turn into letters. When William de Worde comes across them he is struck by a brilliant idea (and the letter R).

Soon the first edition of the Ankh-Morepork Times hits the streets. Foul Ole Ron (bugrit!) and sundry companions (millennium hand and shrimp) are recruited to sell the paper.

"Hoinarylup!" they yell. "Squidaped-oyt!"

The patrician buys a copy but finds no mention of hoinarylup or squidaped-oyt! How curious. But soon he has more important things to worry about. It would seem that he has attempted to kill his secretary and abscond with much of the Ankh-Morepork treasury. And his dog Wuffles has vanished. The Watch are called in. But what is really needed is a proper investigative journalist.

Unlike a lot of Discworld novels, this one has quite a good plot as well as the usual funny touches. The combination of the two is unbeatable and this book is a superb addition to the series. The bits of business are wonderful. For example there is Otto the vampire (who has taken the pledge – nobody say the b-word please). He is a photographer who is allergic to bright light and screams in agony when his flash goes off. If it goes off too brightly, he tends to disintegrate into a pile of dust.

It’s an -ing good book.

After the cardiologist had analysed the results of my ECG, he summoned me to his office.

He said, "Regrettably…"

(Oh shit!)

"…your ECG is completely normal. I can’t find any evidence of damage at all." He looked glum at the thought of all the money I wasn’t going to pay him.

We examined a chart that correlated my age (ancient), blood pressure (normal), whether or not I smoked (no), and whether or not I had diabetes (no). It seemed I had a 5% to 10% chance of a cardiac related event (heart attack or stroke) over the next 5 years. The longer I continued with a high cholesterol level, the greater the chances of fatty deposits blocking the arteries to the heart, and the higher the likelihood of such an event. I had been lucky so far. This probably wouldn’t continue.

Given the nature of my new diet, and the fact that I’ve always eaten a fairly low fat diet anyway, it seems likely that I have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. It is a completely symptomless disease, apart from the rather extreme symptom of the heart attack that appears one day out of the blue and kills you. However some people with astronomically high cholesterol start to deposit fat in unlikely areas of the body and often they will have a white fatty circle around the iris of the eye. My father had such circles around his eyes. I remember noticing them as a child and thinking how odd they looked. At the moment my body seems quite tolerant of its high cholesterol and that too is probably genetic. But I can’t continue to rely on it for protection.

The doctor and I decided that I was a prime candidate for one of the new statin drugs. These, he explained to me, would cut through my cholesterol like a hot knife through butter (apt analogy there, I thought). I will have to take the drug every day for the rest of my life.

In the short term (i.e. the next few months) I probably don’t have much to worry about. In the long term I should be able eventually to reduce my chances of a cardiac related illness to something more reasonable. The future looks hopeful, as long as I continue to eat sensibly and generally take care of myself. "What I suggest you do now," said the doctor, "is go and have a celebratory lunch. Perhaps a cheese and cream sandwich. Deep fried, of course."

As I left, he shook my hand. "I hope this handshake guarantees that a large part of your computer expertise will rub off on me," he said.

"Oh yes. But you have to WANT to change…"

Stephen King On Writing Hodder and Stoughton
Joe R. Lansdale Savage Season Indigo
Joe R. Lansdale Mucho Mojo Mysterious Press
Joe R. Lansdale The Two Bear Mambo Mysterious Press
Joe R. Lansdale Bad Chili Warner
Joe R. Lansdale Rumble Tumble Warner
Joe R. Lansdale Freezer Burn Warner
Joe R. Lansdale The Drive-In: A Double Feature Omnibus Carroll & Graf
Joe R. Lansdale Writer of the Purple Rage Carroll & Graf
Paul J. McAuley Shrine of Stars Millennium
James Long Ferney Harper Collins
James Long Knowing Max Harper Collins
Barbara Vine Asta’s Book Penguin
Terry Pratchett The Truth Doubleday

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