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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (brevis mortuus notificata)

The Bubble and Squeak of Champions

Claire North is well known for writing quirky and ingenious SF novels. However her new novel Ithaca marks a complete change of direction from her usual material and style. And a very successful change of direction it is too! The book is the first volume of what will eventually be a trilogy of novels that re-tell the story of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus the King of Ithaca, as she waits through all the long years for his eventual return home from the war against Troy…

Penelope faces a lot of problems. First, there are the crowds of suitors – men who, convinced that Odysseus must be dead, have come to Ithaca in an attempt to woo and (hopefully) win both her and the Kingdom itself. But Penelope is not yet ready to admit that her husband is dead and so, while the suitors wait for her to come to her senses, they eat, drink and make merry. All at Penelope’s expense, of course.

She also has a problem with pirates who have been raiding, raping and pillaging Ithaca’s coastal towns. On the face of it, there isn’t much she can do about the pirates since Ithaca has no men of fighting age to defend itself – they all went to Troy with her husband and like him, they have not yet come back home. Under pressure, Penelope comes up with an ingeniously controversial solution to the issue. Then, during the course of implementing her cunning plan, she finds evidence suggesting that one of the suitors is using the pirates to pressure her into accepting his suit. At which point, presumably, the piratical depredations will cease and he will be covered in glory. Clearly Penelope cannot afford to let this happen.

But her biggest problem is simply that she is a woman. That means that she is expected to stay out of matters of state. She is supposed to know her place. She should be seen but not heard. Tradition makes her powerless – but fortunately Penelope is not much of a traditionalist. She is clever and cunning, and she skilfully juggles the few resources available to her, playing one problem off against another and generating a bit of a stalemate in order to maintain the status quo. All of this buys her the time that she needs so badly while she waits for Odysseus to come home. And although she doesn’t know it, she also has a powerful ally in her endeavours. Hera, Queen of the Gods, is on her side.

The whole story is told in the first person by Hera herself. This is a very cunning literary device on the part of the author. It allows the reader to see what is happening from many different points of view at once as Hera manipulates the events. Hera’s place in the story gives legitimacy to its completely omniscient narrative voice. Badly handled, omniscient narratives can make a story confusing, clumsy and distancing as the readers find themselves "head hopping" from one person to another, sometimes with neither rhyme nor reason. But Claire North never puts a foot wrong; she is always perfectly in control. Hera’s power as a goddess makes the technique work convincingly and, as a bonus, she herself comes across as a very appealing narrator with a bitingly sarcastic and cynical tongue, often laugh out loud funny even in the middle of tragedy.

Penelope’s story is an old and familiar one; it’s part of our cultural DNA. With Ithaca, Claire North has succeeded in rejuvenating it. She has turned it into an enthralling new story which is an absolute joy and delight to read.

I never cease to be amazed at just how prolific a writer Stephen King is. Holly is the second great big doorstop of a novel that he’s published this year, unless I’ve lost count which I don’t think I have.

The eponymous Holly is Holly Gibney, a private investigator who we’ve met before in some of King’s other stories. She was a minor, though increasingly important character in his Bill Hodges trilogy and she had quite a large part to play in The Outsider, an offshoot novel from the Hodges books. She had a complete novella to herself (If It Bleeds in the collection of the same name), and now she is the major protagonist in her very own novel. Despite all these references to other Stephen King stories, Holly is a completely stand alone book. There are some very brief references to her other appearances, but if you’ve not read those other stories, you’ll probably never even notice that the references have been made. So don’t be afraid to pick the book up cold and settle down with it for a nice long read. Of course, whether you enjoy reading it or not depends on how strong a stomach you have – not for nothing is Stephen King best known as a writer of horror fiction…

Holly is a very, very dark crime novel. Unusually for Stephen King there are no supernatural aspects to the story at all. All of the horror is very much man and woman made.

Right from the very beginning the reader knows exactly who is committing the crimes which Holly, is investigating. Of course, the characters in the story don’t have the same advantage. Consequently to the protagonists the story is a traditional whodunnit, but to the reader it’s definitely much more of a whydunnit. Just why, we ask ourselves, are the bad guys doing the terrible things that they do? When we finally find out the answer to that question it turns out to be very grim and stomach-churning answer indeed.

The story opens in 2012, when we meet Jorge Castro, a creative writing teacher in a university town somewhere in America – King is very vague about exactly where the story is taking place so we never learn the town’s name. Jorge is out jogging when he comes across two of his university colleagues. Emily Harris is a teacher in the same English department as Jorge. Her husband Rodney Harris, is a researcher and teacher of biochemistry. Both are quite old and close to retirement.

Jorge sees Emily struggling to load Rodney and his wheelchair into their van. Jorge offers to push the chair up the ramp for her. As he struggles with the wheelchair, Emily injects him with something and his world goes dark. Some time later, Jorge wakes to find himself locked in a cage in their basement. He has no idea what Emily and Rodney want from him, but clearly being locked in a cage does not bode well for his future prospects. Time passes. Jorge becomes more and more thirsty. Eventually Emily Harris comes down into the basement and offers him a raw calf’s liver swimming in its own rich, blood-red juices. If he eats the liver, she tells him, she will give him some water to drink. Things go downhill for Jorge from that point…

Eleven years later, in 2021, Holly Gibney is hired by Penny Dahl to find out what has happened to her missing daughter Bonnie. As her investigation progresses, Holly begins to suspect that Bonnie’s disappearance is somehow connected to other disappearances in the neighbourhood that have happened now and again over the last eleven years. We, the readers, already know that Emily and Rodney are still collecting people. In several flashback episodes we learn many more disquieting details about how the two retirees choose their victims, and we find out more about what they eventually do to the people they lock into that cage in their basement. We even start to get some small insight as to just why they feel so compelled to inflict such horrors on the people they abduct.

Slowly, very slowly, Holly begins to piece many small clues together. Watching her gradually come to a full realisation of exactly what is going on is a real joy in and of itself. We already know everything, of course, because Stephen King has spared us no appalling detail about what goes on in the Harrises basement. But Holly does not have our advantages and she has to come to a full understanding without help. Stephen King slots the jigsaw pieces into the puzzle masterfully and there’s a real aesthetic joy to be found in listening to the pieces click together as, little by little, Holly manages to find something else that fits. When the puzzle is complete and the whole picture is revealed, the climax is both shocking and satisfying in equal measure.

The bulk of Holly’s story takes place in 2021 and it is rooted firmly in our reality. The covid lockdown is in place and characters (mostly) bump elbows when greeting each other. They eagerly exchange the names and details of their vaccine brands for all the world as if they are supermarket shoppers discussing the merits of different brands of breakfast cereal. Of course, there are many people who don’t take the pandemic seriously and the novel has its fair share of anti-vaxers, anti-maskers and people who think that covid is a hoax. Holly’s own mother, a rabid anti-vaxxer, contracts covid and dies, insisting to the very end that she’s just got a cold or possibly the flu. Holly takes the lesson to heart.

But of course covid wasn’t the only threat to society in 2021. The novel makes much of the utter ineptitude of the Trump administration, the raving insanity of the qconuts, the ignorant stupidity of the MAGA maniacs, the horror of the January 6th insurrection and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. One character hires a car and drives it very, very carefully. He doesn’t want to be shot by a cop for the crime of driving while black which, given the mood of the times, he feels is a very real possibility.

Like so many of Stephen King’s stories, this one is also a meditation about writing – Jorge Castro, the first victim, is a creative writing teacher. Before she retired, Emily Harris read creative-writing submissions on behalf of the English department. Another character, is writing a book, and his even younger sister is an aspiring poet. All of these things are important to the novel’s conclusion, but they are also fascinating asides in their own right.

Holly tells an exciting, enthralling and truly shocking story, but that’s just its surface structure. There’s a lot of depth to the novel as well. It mixes some quite insightful social commentary with clear journalistic reporting that together define an important historical context. It is one of Stephen King’s very best books, and certainly one of his most thoughtful and profound. Very few Stephen King novels are worth reading more than once, but I think that Holly is an exception to that general rule. It is a novel which has so much to say that it would greatly repay several slow and careful readings. Yes, it really is that good.

Dead Mountain by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child is the fourth of their Nora Kelly novels. But don’t worry if you haven’t read the others in the series. This one stands alone very well, and it’s also quite a page-turner. These are all points in its favour.

The story starts with two drunk and stoned students who get themselves stranded in a mountain range in New Mexico in the stormy winter of 2022. Seeking shelter from the storm, they stumble upon a cave and start another round of drinking and smoking. Eventually they hunker down to sleep, but one of them feels uncomfortable, something is sticking into him. He digs around and uncovers a human skull…

Next morning, sober(ish) and hungover, the students report their findings to the FBI and Special Agent Corrie Swanson is assigned to the case.

As an aside, the FBI job title Special Agent never fails to induce a fit of the giggles in me. Again and again and again, in book after book and in movie after movie, FBI employees are invariably introduced as Special Agents. It makes me wonder if the FBI employs any agents who aren’t special? We never actually meet any Ordinary Agents so, given that they seem not to exist, I’d really like to know just what it is that makes those FBI Agents who we do meet so very, very special. What do they specialise in? Lacking such an explanation, I can only assume that the title Special is supererogatory. Or perhaps the FBI are really just showing off, claiming that only very special people are ever allowed to work for them! That, of course, is a demonstrably false claim given how many cases the FBI fail to solve in both fiction and in real life. I hope I never get interrogated by an FBI Special Agent. I wouldn’t be able to stop laughing long enough to answer their questions.

All right – I’ve calmed down now and I’ve regained control of myself. Back to the book!

It seems clear to Corrie that the skull unearthed by the students is prehistoric so she asks her old friend Nora Kelly, an archaeologist, to examine the site and confirm this. Nora does indeed confirm Corrie’s conclusions, but as part of her scene examination of the whole of the cave, she finds two more bodies that are definitely very modern. She suspects that they are two more victims of the terrible Dead Mountain tragedy of 2008.

In 2008, nine experienced mountaineers failed to return from a winter backpacking trip. When rescuers found their last camp site, the evidence suggested that something quite terrifying had appeared at the door of their tent, something so terrifying that in a frantic attempt to escape from it they had slashed their way out of the side of the tent and fled barefoot and without any of their protective clothing into the blizzard that was raging outside. The lack of protective clothing in such extreme weather conditions meant that they faced almost certain death. After a diligent search, the rescuers did indeed find six bodies, two of which were violently crushed and missing several body parts. Oddly, the bodies were also heavily contaminated with radioactive material suggestive of contact with nuclear warheads. What a puzzle!

And now, in 2022, it looks as if the bodies of two more of the mountaineers have finally been found. As before, the condition of the corpses is puzzling. One of them is covered with knife wounds and the other has a knife stuck into his chest. Corrie speculates that one of them went wild from the effects of hypothermia and stabbed the other to death. Then he turned the knife on himself. But what could they have quarrelled about? What could have forced two extremely close friends to do such terrible things to each other?

So now eight bodies have been found. Only one still remains missing...

Over the years, conspiracy theorists have come up with a host of crackpot theories to explain the tragedy. It was only a bear that scared the mountaineers say some of the more conservative thinkers. Others claim that it must have been a Yeti, or possibly alien invaders. How else could you explain the hysteria that forced these experienced mountaineers to flee the safety of their tent and run towards certain death in the blizzard? And clearly only aliens can explain the radioactivity. Also, the government knows the truth but is covering it up, because that’s what governments always do!

Nora and Corrie don’t believe in yetis or aliens and they find the bear unconvincing. Their investigation does eventually come up with an explanation for the tragedy. And it is a satisfyingly complete explanation. Every single odd aspect of the case is fully explained, all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed. It’s an amazingly satisfying conclusion.

The story unfolds gradually, and as it progressed I was fascinated to learn a lot about the relationships between the Native Americans of the New Mexico area and the authorities who govern the state. I also gained quite an insight into the thought processes (if you can dignify them with that term, I’m not sure you can) of the conspiracy theorists. It is very noticeable that when the true explanation of the tragedy is finally revealed, the conspiracy theorists refuse to accept it; seeing it as just another cover up by the authorities. Sadly, this has the ring of verisimilitude about it – Preston and Child have captured the closed mindset of these people perfectly.

All in all, Dead Mountain is an exciting, well written, and engrossing thriller which kept me enthralled right to the very end. What more needs to be said?

The author Christopher Fowler died in March 2023 which made me very sad. His major fame as an writer came from a popular series of detective novels about a pair of unorthodox sleuths called Bryant and May. I’ve mildly enjoyed the few Bryant and May novels that I’ve read, but I never felt any great urge to seek them all out and devour them. It was all his other novels that made me such a huge fan of his writing. He himself always claimed that these other novels were unclassifiable and he’s probably right to make that assertion. But it always seemed to me that their unclassifiable nature was a significant part of their charm. And it was that same charm which made a reviewer in the magazine Time Out remark that: Christopher Fowler is an award-winning novelist who would make a good serial killer. He enjoyed this remark so much that he put it in the header of every page of his web site. And that too was part of the charm of both the man and of his stories.

Word Monkey is the third volume of his autobiography, following on from Paperboy (2010) and Film Freak (2013). He started writing it after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2020 and naturally his illness looms large in the book. But the book is about many other things as well. It is the story of his career as a writer. It is full of writing advice, his opinions on how the publishing industry works (inefficiently of course, what else would you expect?), together with meditations about various authors and his opinion of their place in the pantheon. Because he never took anything completely seriously, not even his own final illness, everything he says in Word Monkey is presented with joyful humour, keen observation, hilarious wisdom, profound insight and an enviable lightness of touch.

One of the things that endeared him to me right back in the beginning was an autobiographical squib that used to be printed on the covers of his early novels. After a brief chat about his lifestyle it concluded by saying: Like a fire, I go out at night. That joke may not mean very much to people who grew up with gas and electric heating, but it speaks volumes to those of us who grew up with coal fires burning in the grate, as both Christopher Fowler and I did. We are about the same age, he and I, and we shared some of the same growing up experiences. I knew exactly what was in his mind when he wrote that line. It’s an utterly glorious pun.

Word Monkey quite literally made me cry and laugh in equal measures because It is about death as much as it is about life. The years covered by this book are filled with hospital appointments, anguishing diagnostic tests, radiation treatment and chemotherapy – and he doesn’t shy away from telling us all the details. The humour is grim beneath its light hearted surface. But through it all he never stopped writing, he never stopped thinking about writing and he never stopped telling us his thoughts.

One interesting thing I learned from Word Monkey was that Christopher Fowler’s husband Pete is a New Zealander. That gave us another connection that I hadn’t known existed before I read the book. Somehow discovering Pete’s nationality made me feel closer to Christopher.  It was an unexpected bonus.

Word Monkey is not Christopher Fowler’s last book. Through the years of his illness he was also working on a novel called The Foot on the Crown which will be published in Spring 2024. And some time in 2025 a massive complete collection of all his short stories will be published. I look forward to reading them both.

Claire North Ithaca Little, Brown
Stephen King Holly Scribner
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child Dead Mountain Grand Central Publishing
Christopher Fowler Word Monkey Doubleday

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