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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (cthulhu minimus)

We All Love the Craft

Matt Ruff is not a prolific writer and, until now, the novels he has published at the rate of one every six or seven years have all been stand alone stories. He did publish a trilogy in 1994, but his trilogy only had one novel in it instead of the usual half dozen or so books that other writers manage to cram into their trilogies. If you want to read it, it’s called Sewer, Gas and Electric – The Public Works Trilogy and it’s well worth hunting down. But now, for the first time, he has written an official sequel to one of his earlier novels – The Destroyer of Worlds is a sequel to Lovecraft Country and it seems likely that the series will turn into a proper trilogy in another decade or so. I’m not sure that I fully approve of the notion of a real Matt Ruff trilogy, and I’m even a little  bit uncertain as to whether or not the story he tells in this one is strong enough to withstand the weight of the excessive page count. But we shall see...

The first novel in the sequence, Lovecraft Country, is set in 1954. Atticus Turner, a black man, has just been discharged from the army following the end of the Korean war. He finds out that while he has been away his father, Montrose, has gone missing. Montrose had been researching his family’s genealogy and he has gone to New England to talk to descendants of the Braithwaite family, the people who, a few generations ago, had owned the slaves who were Montrose’s ancestors.

Atticus and Montrose had quarrelled fiercely over Atticus’ decision to go to Korea and fight for America. In Montrose’s view America is a country that despises him because of his race and therefore it is a country that is not worth fighting for. Montrose is much more radical than Atticus and he is determined to battle against that kind of injustice and racism. Indeed, there are hints that Montrose himself will later be one of the founders of the Black Panther movement – a Marxist-Leninist political organisation established in 1966 with the aim of fighting (sometimes, quite literally, with guns) for black rights. But despite their family quarrel, blood proves to be thicker than water and so Atticus, his uncle George and his close friend Letitia set out on a long journey to discover what has happened to Montrose. They travel deep into the heartland of New England, that area of America immortalised in the horror stories written by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. This will be a journey full of perils, both natural and supernatural. These are the so-called Jim Crow years, and negroes travelling across America in 1954 are in constant danger of random violence, arbitrary arrest and possibly even a lynching.

The Jim Crow laws, which were not repealed until the 1960s, mandated racial segregation in all public facilities – and of course facilities intended for negroes, when they existed at all, were invariably inferior to their white equivalents. Effectively the laws encouraged racial discrimination and, by implication at least, normalised the commonly accepted practice of violence against non-whites. Because Jim Crow defined non-whites as second class citizens, the intent was that such citizens needed to be actively prevented from entering and sullying white establishments. To be fair, actual lynchings were starting to become less frequent by the 1950s, though the infamous lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till took place in 1955 and lynchings did continue to happen sporadically until at least 1998 when one James Byrd was murdered near the town of Jasper, Texas by three white men who had stopped their car to offer him a lift. Even now it is not clear that the practice has completely died out. The 2020 murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, while not really a lynching in the strict sense of the word, certainly epitomised the societal attitudes that encourage such things. It wasn’t until 2022, when  the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was finally signed into law by Joe Biden that lynching actually became a federal crime. It remains to be seen whether or not this will have any practical effect.

In Matt Ruff’s novel, the character George Turner is portrayed as the publisher of a constantly updated handbook called The Safe Negro Travel Guide which details places that are (relatively) safe for negroes to eat in, drink in, sleep in and relieve themselves in as they travel across America. The Turner family find the information in the guide invaluable on their journey, though it doesn’t always keep them completely safe. Things change, and the guide does not always prove to be accurate. (Something similar to this fictional guide did actually exist in real life – it was called The Negro Travellers' Green Book and it was published annually by a company in New York starting in 1936. The last edition of the Green Book was published in 1966).

At the end of their trip Atticus and George find Montrose shackled in the cellar of the Braithwaite mansion. The Braithwaites, it transpires, are members of a secret cabal called The Order of the Ancient Dawn, a very Lovecraftian organisation, and there are close familial links between the Braithwaites and the Turners. Miscegenation will do that for you every time! Shameful, shameful! Or is it...

The magical rituals and occult disciplines invoked by the Braithwaites make up the bulk of the story. The magic is very real, closely approximating a science – in one section Letitia’s sister Ruby takes a potion that transforms her into a white woman and the contrast that the story paints between her black life and her white life is powerful, moving and poignant. In another section Hippolyta, George’s wife, uses an occult mechanism supplied by the ghost of Howard Winthrop (a lately deceased member of The Order of the Ancient Dawn) to explore a planet in a solar system on the far side of the universe. There, probably not surprisingly, she is menaced by a vaguely cthulhuoid monstrosity.

The story as a whole has lots and lots of fun with multiple Lovecraftian tropes and the discerning eye will also spot many references to authors and stories from the golden age of pulp fiction. But despite the rollicking fun, the games and the pulpy high jinks this is a novel with a completely serious subtext. What it is really about is the truly shocking racism embedded in American society. I enjoyed it hugely but nevertheless it left a nasty taste in my mouth.

The sequel, The Destroyer of Worlds is set three years after the events of Lovecraft Country.

Atticus and Montrose are still exploring their family’s history. This time, to celebrate the centennial of the escape from slavery of an ancestor, they decide to retrace the path he took to freedom as he struggled through the swamps of North Carolina. But they hadn’t bargained on awakening powerful forces that have been waiting patiently for their visit...

Ruby is still living as both herself and as a white woman called Hillary. She continues to revel in the contrasts she finds between her two lives. But now she is running low on the potion that allows her to live this double life. As Hillary she has gained a lot of independence and professional success but as Ruby, of course, she has none of these things. She is most unwilling to give Hillary’s life up. So what can she do to keep it going?

Hippolyta has been trying to convince the ghost of Hiram Winthrop to give her another opportunity to travel across the universe to explore more planets and stars. Meanwhile George himself has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In search of a cure he makes a Faustian bargain with Hiram Winthrop’s ghost. All he has to do is bring Hiram back to life...

But then all these plans are thrown into disarray and chaos by the return of Caleb Braithwaite. In the first book he had been stripped of his magic and banished from The Order of the Ancient Dawn. Now he has found a way back into power and he is ready to pick up where he left off. But first he has a score to settle with the people who organised his downfall.

In short, it’s very much the mixture as before. I’m not sure it adds anything new to the themes explored in the first novel. Certainly, like the first book, it tells a rollicking pulpy tale of magic, mysticism and occult science living side by side with 20th century American racism, but so what? Do these things really bear repeating? Probably not – it’s just another layer of icing on the very same cake. Like the middle book of many trilogies, this one seems to be just marking time. Perhaps the third book will redeem it, perhaps not. We’ll just have to wait for a few more years to find out.

Flight Risk is the second novel in Cherie Priest’s Booking Agent series and it is just as delightful as the first. Leda Foley is a Psychic Psongstress who hones her psychic skills by singing Klairvoyant Karaoke – she touches things handed to her by members of her audience and then sings a karaoke melody related to the psychic vibrations she picks up from the things she has been given.  Her ability to divine information from found objects is a skill much appreciated by detective Grady Merritt and they often work closely together on Grady’s more puzzling cases.

As the novel opens, Grady and his daughter Molly are searching for their dog Cairo. He’s been missing for several days and they are frantic with worry. However just as they are giving up hope, Cairo returns filthy, smelly and ecstatically happy. He’s obviously been having the time of his life experiencing lots and lots of great doggy adventures. And he’s brought Grady and Molly a gift, a souvenir to say thank you for letting him have such fun. His gift is a very rotten, very smelly, very maggoty, and very, very yummy human leg…

While all this has been going on, Leda has been approached by a man whose sister has gone missing. Also missing is a large amount of money. The obvious assumption is that she has stolen the money and gone on the run, but he refuses to believe that of his sister and he wants Leda to use her "woo-woo" skills (Leda’s words, not his) to find the truth about his sister. To this end he presents her with several objects belonging to his sister.

Naturally the case of the maggoty leg and the case of the missing sister prove to be closely connected (they always are in books like this) and soon Grady and Leda are working together again. And no, before you ask, the leg that Cairo found does not belong to the missing sister, but she is related to it.

Flight Risk is a light-hearted frothy romp, very funny, a wonderfully entertaining way of passing a few hours and instantly forgettable once you finish the last page and close the book. But there’s nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed it hugely and I fully intend to keep reading this series for as long as Cherie Priest keeps writing it.

Simon R. Green writes fantasy potboilers. He writes them thick and he writes them fast and every single one of them reads like it’s a first draft. Presumably that’s what makes him so amazingly prolific – he’s written some seventy or so novels and goodness knows how many short stories. His major claim to fame is that a great many of his novels have a villain whose name is a close approximation of David Langford – in real life, the actual David Langford is a Hugo Award winning British critic, writer,  and fan. The Langford lookalike in Green’s novel invariably dies a horribly inventive death. Whenever Simon Green completes a Langford death scene he writes a gleeful  letter to the real David Langford describing what he has done to Langford this time, and Langford, playing along with the joke, publishes the details in Ansible his monthly SF/F newsletter.

Simon Green never takes himself very seriously and he never claims that his novels are anything other than trash. And he should know because he has a degree in Modern English and American Literature from the University of Leicester. Who else could be better qualified to recognise rubbish when he sees it?  Despite this, his books are often well worth reading if you happen to be in the mood for a nice bit of nonsense to pass the time. The Best Thing You Can Steal is the first volume in his Gideon Sable series, and it’s a jolly romp.

The story is narrated in the first person by Gideon Sable himself, except it soon becomes clear that he isn’t really Gideon Sable, he just took on Gideon Sable’s identity when the first one vanished without trace. Who did he used to be? Who knows – he’s not telling, but he clearly feels perfectly qualified to take on the new identity. Gideon Sable (both of him) is a master thief and con man who lives in a magical version of London. He specializes in stealing the kind of things that can't normally be stolen. He can steal a ghost's clothes and he can take a photograph from a country that never existed. But he is a very moral thief. The people he steals from always have it coming, without a doubt they deserve everything that they get from Gideon Sable…

In The Best Thing You Can Steal Gideon has assembled a crew which he will use to steal something from Frederic Hammer, the richest and most evil man on the face of the Earth. Gideon has been hired to do this by Hammer’s ex-wife. When she and Hammer were living together they assembled between them an enormous collection of magical artefacts, but following their divorce, Hammer used some semi-legal trickery to swindle her out of her share. All she has left are a few trifles. She burns for revenge. She instructs Gideon to enter Hammer’s secret, highly guarded vault and steal from it the thing that matters the most to Frederic Hammer…

The crew that Gideon recruits are some of London’s best heavies and thieves. All of them have personal reasons for wanting to take revenge on Frederic Hammer. Annie Anybody is an ex-lover of Gideon's. She can take on any persona she wants as long as she has the right clothes, the right wig, the right make-up and the right attitude. She also has the ability to make computers fall in love with her and want do whatever she tells them to do. She is needed to get the crew past Frederic Hammer’s security systems. The Damned is a man who is invincible in combat because he wears armour constructed from the halos he stole from the corpses of two angels that he murdered (and this murder is the reason why he is now Damned for all eternity). When Frederic Hammer’s guards attack them, the fighting ability of The Damned will be all that stands between the crew and disaster. Johnny Wilde, known as the Wilde Card distracts everyone because he perceives the universe differently from everybody else. This gives him an advantage when all the cards have been played and failure seems inevitable. Lastly but not leastly Gideon recruits The Ghost to whom no doors are barred, a perfect talent for the scouting of Frederic Hammer’s stronghold.

Rationally, this is a really stupid and very derivative book. The best way of summing it up is to describe it as Oceans Eleven with magic. It’s dumb, it’s predictable, the plot twists and turns are all rather obvious. But rationality can only take you so far. Somewhat to my surprise I found myself rather enjoying the whole ridiculous story. Gideon Sable is sly and endearing and he effortlessly makes all the nonsense believable. The magic artefacts that Frederic Hammer surrounds himself with are inventive (and sometimes breathtakingly cheeky). The dialogue is witty and the action scenes never go on too long.

I hate to admit it, but I find myself quite looking forward to reading the next book in the series...

Some people binge watch television programmes. I binge read books instead. I’ve just surfaced from over-indulging myself in far too many novels by JD Kirk, and I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent doing it.

JD Kirk is a pseudonym used by one Barry Hutchison who, in another life, makes a very successful living as a writer of more than 140 children’s books and comics. He has also written 36 episodes of Bottom Knocker Street, a television show starring comedian Phill Jupitus. He chose his pseudonym because he thought it sounded nice and he says he has absolutely no idea what the initials JD stand for.

As JD Kirk, he is a master of the so-called Tartan Noir branch of crime novel writing. The characteristics that define Tartan Noir are very simple – the cases that the police investigate are all set in Scotland and the protagonists are all Scottish The cases are invariably incredibly gruesome. Every foul stench, disfigurement, mutilation and leaking bodily fluid is described in more close-up loving detail than you probably ever wanted to know in ways that have a very negative appeal to every sense organ that you posses. And yet despite the horripilation induced by the descriptions of such sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures the books are always hysterically funny. You never know whether you want laugh or throw up. Generally I settle for laughter.

I’ve never been able to work out why – probably it’s some combination of accent and phraseology – but Scottish people always sound hilarious, particularly if they come from Glasgow where the art reaches a peak of perfection. A Glaswegian doing something as mundane as ordering a coffee from their favourite coffee shop will have you in fits of laughter and if they are actually trying to be funny on top of it you are likely to rupture something vital when you react to what they say. Just listen to Billy Connolly if you don’t believe me. He’s very proud of the fact that he never tells any jokes when he goes on stage. He claims that he doesn’t actually know any jokes and even if he did he says that he’d be absolutely shite at the telling of them. Nevertheless he always sends his audiences into rapturous hysterics.

One of JD Kirk’s recurring characters is a man who rejoices in the name of Hoon. Hoon is particularly skilful at obscenely inventive cursing – foul mouthed and funny at one and the same time. One of the many delights to be found on JD Kirk’s web site is a Hoon Insult Generator. Don’t go near it if you are at all strait-laced. The foulness of Hoon’s language is such that reviews of JD Kirk’s novels posted on sites such as Goodreads invariably contain a few reviews from precious snowflakes who find themselves in danger of melting as a result of reading a Hoon tirade. Fortunately such people are vastly outnumbered by reviewers who take great delight in Hoon’s obscene ingenuity.

Another major practitioner of Tartan Noir is one Stuart MacBride. MacBride’s policeman hero is called Logan. JD Kirk’s policeman hero is also called Logan. I have no idea whether this is deliberate or if it is a coincidence and neither do I know which is the chicken and which is the egg. Perhaps the very best Tartan Noir always requires a Logan to make it work properly. I find that Loganless novels are all very dull in comparison…

Matt Ruff Lovecraft Country HarperCollins
Matt Ruff The Destroyer of Worlds HarperCollins
Cherie Priest Flight Risk Atria
Simon R. Green The Best Thing You Can Steal Severn House
JD Kirk Colder Than The Grave Zertex
JD Kirk Come Hell Or High Water Zertex
JD Kirk City Of Scars Zertex
JD Kirk Here Lie The Dead Zertex
JD Kirk One For The Ages Zertex
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