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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (pomum mysticus mccartney)

This Is Not A Title For The Same Reason That It Isn’t A Pipe

I’m absolutely addicted to the SF/F stories of Nathan Lowell – I find it quite impossible to read just one of his books. Once I’ve finished the one I’m reading at the moment I simply have to go and read another one, and if the next one I pick up happens to be one that I’ve read before that’s just an added bonus because I’m bound to find something new in it.

It’s a completely inexplicable addiction, and I find it very puzzling. You see, generally speaking, almost nothing happens in most of Nathan Lowell’s books. The novels consist largely of very nice, very even tempered people wandering around eating, drinking and talking about extremely boring subjects like economics, accounting practices, cooking and how to make coffee. Nobody gets angry, nobody makes enemies. They just hold interminable conversations and, every so often, go about their daily spaceship duties. And, of course, the routine duties of guiding a ship from star system to star system are also described in tedious, and often repetitive, detail.

So what makes the books so fascinating? I have absolutely no idea. I’ve just finished reading School Days, the first volume of the Marva Collins trilogy, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m now half way through a re-read of the six volume Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series…

So, let me tell you about School Days.

A ship has been donated to the Merchant Officer Academy at Port Newmar. It is going to be used as a training vessel to give the students practical experience with working a space ship. But it is important to make sure that the students’ academic training will not suffer while they are away from their classrooms. Therefore formal schooling and exams must continue during the training voyage. Ishmael Wang (the first person narrator of many of Nathan Lowell’s novels) is tasked with taking charge of the ship and, in collaboration with the Academy staff, he has to develop an appropriate training curriculum.

That’s it. That’s the whole story. The entire novel consists of nothing but arguments about the costs and logistics involved in setting up what is, in effect, a mobile classroom. By the time the novel ends, the ship has not yet travelled anywhere and not a single class has been run. Presumably that will start to happen in the next book of the series.

And yet I read the whole thing in one sitting, eagerly turning the pages, absolutely enthralled by the minutiae of the unbelievably boring conversations. How does Nathan Lowell do it? I have no idea whatsoever, but I’m certain that even if I were to read his shopping lists I would learn a lot of fascinating details about his eating habits, the foods that he likes to eat and, by implication, the foods that he dislikes. If I picked up one of his diaries I’m sure it would tell me just how he feels when he gets out of bed each morning with a yawn and a stretch. Then it would go on to record, in excruciating detail, all the commonplace things that happened to him during his completely uneventful day. I’d really love to listen to the songs he sings in the shower and I want to enjoy the rhythm of his snores as he goes back to sleep when his dull day comes to an end. I’m sure that I’d find all of these things as brilliantly enthralling as I find his novels because all of them are, of course, the very threads that hold his stories together.

You may feel that I am indulging myself with a bit of comic hyperbole here, and you’d be quite right. Though I must insist that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly where the hyperbole ends and where reality takes over.

Occasionally (though not very often) actual plotty things really do happen in his stories. The very last novel in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series has enough drama and heartache to satisfy anyone, and the reason that it is so satisfying is because we’ve spent five earlier volumes falling in love with the characters and we simply can’t bear it when they hurt. The emotional devastation is just too overwhelming. So I am quite certain that as the Marva Collins trilogy proceeds something similar will happen. I’m greatly looking forward finding out what.

I approached The Wizard’s Butler expecting more of the same and, to that extent, I was not at all disappointed. But I was also amazed to find that the novel, while it contained a lot of Nathan Lowell’s usual bewitching ramblings about nothing of any consequence whatsoever, also had a fairly rigorous plot with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The was a villain (sort of) and a hero (well, a little bit of one) and a dénouement (though it’s a bit open ended). I found the whole thing very satisfying.

Roger Mulligan, an ex-military man and certified paramedic, needs a job. He answers an ad which is asking for someone to be an elderly man's butler / assisted living helper. During the interview, the family members doing the hiring on the elderly man’s behalf offer him $5,000 a month salary, free room and board, and a $1,000,000 bonus if he can last a year. This offer sounds far too good to be true so it probably is far too good to be true. Roger, immediately suspicious, asks what the catch is, and he is told that the old man is a bedridden invalid who is also suffering from dementia. He thinks he's a wizard. Roger takes the job. How hard can it be to look after a "wizard"?

Of course it turns out that the old man really is a wizard, albeit an extraordinarily subtle one – it is not always clear that magic has actually happened, though in retrospect it cannot be denied as long as you remember to squint a bit.

Unfortunately it also turns out that, thanks to a curse from a magic amulet, the wizard really is suffering from occasional episodes of dementia. To that extent, the situation described in Roger’s job interview is true. However Roger soon learns that the old man is a lot more sane and a lot more able-bodied than his relatives had led Roger to believe. So that’s a good thing. Mostly.

It soon becomes clear to both of them that the old man’s relatives are engaged in a nefarious scheme to swindle him out of his fortune. Because they are paying Roger’s salary, they expect him to help them implement their evil plans. But Roger is on the old man’s side, and he manages to use the rather odd conditions set out in his employment contract to overturn their dastardly machinations.

The pixies help as well, once Roger remembers to leave them an occasional saucer of whisky.

The novel really is the cosiest of cosy urban fantasies, and full of delightful humour. Naturally I loved it to bits.

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney is a very clever homage to Agatha Christie’s  famous novel Then There Were None. But I doubt if Agatha Christie is spinning in her grave. In fact I strongly suspect that she is grinning broadly in gleeful delight at what Alice Feeney has done with her plot.

Daisy Darker, the narrator of the story, was diagnosed with a heart condition at the age of five and she is at pains to let us know that she died and was resuscitated seven times before she reached the the age of 13! Her sisters were sent away to boarding school, but because of her condition, Daisy had to stay at home and she was forbidden to do any of the normal things that children do. She was a strange child who grew up to be a strange woman.

Summers were her happiest times. She always spent her summers at her Nana’s gothic mansion, a sprawling pile called Seaglass which has been built on a tiny island just off the coast. The island is only accessible at low tide when the causeway that links it to the mainland is exposed. At high tide the causeway vanishes beneath the sea and unless you have a boat, you are completely cut off from the mainland for eight hours. If the weather is stormy even the boats have to stay at home, thus increasing the island’s isolation.

Daisy’s Nana is more than a little eccentric – she is obsessed with time. She has a wall covered with 80 antique clocks, one for each year of her life (so far) and she keeps a record of all her visitors by making them "clock in" on an old, traditional factory-surplus punch clock.

After years of feuding and avoiding each other, Daisy Darker’s entire dysfunctional family have finally been persuaded to gather together to celebrate her Nana’s 80th birthday. As the clocks strike midnight a scream reverberates through the house. Everyone rushes to the kitchen, where they find Nana dead on the floor. The tide is high and a storm is raging and with every hour that passes the clocks announce the horrible death of yet another family member…

If you’ve read the Agatha Christie novel you’ll be quite sure that you know exactly what’s going on and of course you’ll be correct in that assumption. But you’ll also find that you are very, very wrong as well. Alice Feeney’s brilliant misdirections will pull the rug out from under your feet every time, and the final completely unexpected revelation will take your breath away.

Read it and shiver.

It’s hard to know how to describe Laura Lippman’s novel Dream Girl. It has elements of a thriller, or maybe of a mystery. On top of that, it’s a psychological study that might have aspects of fantasy embedded in it if you look at it sideways, though it’s difficult to identify just who is being studied, and the line between fantasy and reality is blurred and is ever shifting its position. It’s also Laura Lippman’s obligatory "I’m a novelist so I think I’ll write a book about a novelist because that’s the subject I know better than any other" book. Move over Stephen King – Misery loves company.

Prize-winning novelist Gerry Anderson (sic – the name probably doesn’t mean much to American readers but it kept giving me supermarionation flashbacks to Thunderbirds which, most unfortunately, broke the mood of the story for me) has a double tear in his quadriceps after falling down stairs. As a result he is bed-bound in his beautiful new apartment in Baltimore. He has recently moved to Baltimore from New York to be near his mother, who has since died due to complications from Alzheimer’s. He knows no one in the city and so he is completely dependent on a recently hired day time assistant and a rather incompetent night nurse.

Gerry begins to receive disturbingly threatening telephone calls from a woman who claims to be Aubrey, the lead character in his bestselling novel, Dream Girl. Aubrey insists that the novel has misrepresented her, and she wants some recompense. Gerry has always maintained that Aubrey is a completely fictitious person and so he dismisses her claims, regarding them as delusional, but as strange things start to happen around him he begins to have second thoughts...

Perhaps he can blame the heavy doses of pain medication he is receiving? Surely the phone calls must be a drug-induced delusion? Or perhaps he is the victim of a malicious prank? Or could the dementia that took his mother away be starting to to take over his own brain? After all, the phone logs contain no record of the calls that he clearly remembers receiving. Yes, it must be early onset dementia…

The story bounces back and forth between the present and the past as Gerry relives episodes of his early life in a vain attempt to make sense of what is happening to him now. A few passages are told from other people’s points of view and as a result of these we learn that Gerry is actually a very unreliable narrator indeed. But that adds verisimilitude, of course. Don’t we all see ourselves through rose coloured glasses?

It’s a slow moving story, at times glacially so, but the twists, when they come, are well worth waiting for. They put the whole thing into perspective and they shine a bright light into Gerry’s dark places (he’s got a lot of them). The final explanations make you look at things in a whole new way. I love having my expectations overturned at the end of a story and this novel is an absolute master class in how to do it properly.

Hot Water is the last novel that Christopher Fowler published before his death. It’s not the last one he wrote – one more novel will be published some time in 2024 and a massive collection of short stories will appear in 2025. So his memory still lives on.

Summer, a beautiful, shallow and sexy teenager is on holiday in a hillside villa near Nice. She is waiting to be joined by her middle-aged lover Steve, a wine seller who has been deeply in lust with her for months. The original plan was for Steve to meet Summer for a few days of recreational rooting before his family arrives for a holiday whereupon, of course, he will have to send her on her way. After all, it would never do to have his wife and son meet his mistress in flagrante delicto.

Events beyond his control force his plans to change. Summer will be all alone at the villa for a week and Steve will be able to join her for only half a day before his wife Jennifer, his uncommunicative (and probably autistic) son Jamie, his business partner Giles and Giles’s formidable wife Melissa descend on them for a week of sunny pleasure and heavy drinking with a bit of wine trading business on the side just to keep the wheels oiled.

Summer, completely unable to entertain herself for the whole of what she sees as an empty week, quickly grows bored. She finds her days to be interminably long and tedious. There’s a limit to how much sunbathing a girl can indulge herself in. For want of anything better to do she befriends the maid, Hannah, a young Englishwoman who has taken the job as maid because she desperately needs the money. Finding that they have much in common, they quickly become close.

Steve arrives very late, with the rest of the guests hard on his heels. Hannah notices, approvingly, that Summer has disappeared, though worryingly she has left a lot of her things behind, including her phone and her passport. Steve discovers these and quickly hides them before Jennifer can notice.

Hannah becomes obsessed with Summer’s disappearance. She is convinced that Steve has done something terrible and she is determined to find out what has happened. Eventually she has no choice but to involve the appropriate authorities, They dig up the freshly turned soil of the gardener’s marijuana patch in search of Summer’s body, but nothing is found. The gardener makes a discreet exit and his customers in the village, cut off from their regular supply, become resentful and surly.

Meanwhile, as the days go slowly by, the guests at the villa drink and sunbathe and argue while Hannah continues to probe into their relationships searching for clues about Summer. As a result of all this, hideous frictions start to grow between the guests and tempers rise..

Then Steve’s business ventures come to nothing and he descends into a black rage which he takes out on everyone around him. Traces of Summer are everywhere and that only adds fuel to the fire. Summer may not be physically present but nevertheless she is tearing his world apart.

Hannah watches the holiday spiral out of everyone’s control. Conflicts rise to the surface, relationships disintegrate and events take a very, very dark turn indeed. Everything (and everyone) falls apart and finally, when it’s all over and done with, irreparably broken, we learn what really happened to Summer.

On the surface, this is a straight forward mystery / thriller novel combined with a jet black domestic drama. But just below the surface it’s a beautifully observed and sardonically scathing satire on the British class system, particularly on the fragile pretensions of the nouveau-riche upper middle classes. I absolutely loved it.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He runs courses in which he examines science fiction as a branch of literature. I first came across him many years ago when he published several extremely erudite essays in the semi-scholarly journal Foundation. How Great Science Fiction Works is a collection of his lectures about the history of science fiction and its literary influences published by Audible as part of its Great Courses series. It examines the main themes or tropes of science fiction: spaceships, planets, time travel, utopias, dystopias etc. etc. and it provides plot summaries of famous and/or best selling (not always the same thing) novels to illustrate the use and purpose of these themes.

Like Brian Aldiss before him, Gary Wolfe considers Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (published in 1818) to be the first novel that can legitimately be called science fiction in that it extrapolated from known scientific facts to tell a plausible non-mimetic tale. From there he goes on to discuss, in largely chronological order, how the field developed and how he sees it progressing in the future. And always he illustrates his thesis with reference to many, many stories. It is tempting to think that these fascinating lectures would be a great place to go in order to build what might be considered to be a completely definitive reading list for the genre, and to a large extent that would be a true assumption. But beware, in order to define his arguments he often has to give enormous spoilers about the stories he is referencing, so if you haven’t already read the work under discussion you may find that your enjoyment of it is a little bit curtailed by Gary Wolfe’s presentation of it.

Nevertheless this is a hugely detailed and very fascinating analysis of how SF has grown and flourished and how it compares to so-called mainstream or literary mimetic fiction. It’s all too easy for purists to sneer at the genre fictions. These lectures vividly demonstrate just how silly that elitist viewpoint actually is.

Philip Normans’ latest rock biography is the eponymous Paul McCartney. It’s not quite an official biography, in the sense that Norman had no direct access to McCartney himself. But the biography did have McCartney’s tacit approval which meant that Norman had free and full access to McCartney’s friends, family and work colleagues, all of whom felt able to speak frankly because of McCartney’s approval of the project. The result is a detailed and fascinating account of the life of a man who I have always admired – and now that I’ve read this biography I’ve ended up admiring him even more despite the fact that this is very much a "warts and all" story. Norman is not sparing in his criticisms of McCartney’s faults. But who among us does not have faults? McCartney is only human and his humanity always shines through the narrative.

The biography follows a conventional path as it talks about McCartney’s childhood, his education, his relationships with the other Beatles, the break up of the Beatles and his post-Beatles career. Much of this material, particularly the story of Paul McCartney’s early years, is very well known. Indeed his time with the Beatles and the part he played in the breakup of the group has been written about ad nauseam. Philip Norman himself has already documented the story at least four times that I am aware of (including this one) and he is by no means the only person to have written about the subject. Despite this, he still manages to bring an interesting new perspective to the old, familiar story.

Where the book really shines is in the telling of McCartney’s post-Beatles career. This aspect of his life is much less well documented. I was vaguely aware of the highlights from newspaper stories – his marriage to Linda Eastman, the forming of a new band (Wings), the birth of his children, Linda’s death, his marriage to Heather Mills, quickly followed by his divorce from Heather Mills, his subsequent marriage to Nancy Shevell, the ten days he spent in jail in Japan when he stupidly tried to smuggle marijuana into the country, and so on and so on. You can probably write the list of highlights and lowlights that sketch out his life just as well as I can.

But, of course, there is a lot more to the man than the headlines would have you believe. I learned a lot about Paul McCartney that I had not known before I read this book. For example, I had always assumed that John Lennon was the most artistically radical member of the Beatles, but I was quite wrong – from a very early age Paul was interested in the avant garde and the surreal in both music and in the visual and dramatic arts. He was directly responsible for many of the strange musical effects in the Beatles songs, though interestingly it was John, rather than Paul, who insisted on including the weird collage that was Revolution Number 9 on the White Album. So it goes.

Paul has always been a huge fan of the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte (he owns several Magritte originals), and the name of the Beatles Apple Corporation derived from one of Paul’s favourite Magritte paintings, a picture of a man dressed in a business suit and a bowler hat but with a green apple in place of his head.

Steve Jobs, a massive fan of the Beatles, wanted to name his fledgling computer company Apple. Since the Beatles British Apple Corporation was involved with the music business and the American Apple Computers was concerned with technology there seemed to be little possibility of overlap or confusion between the two and so, for a fee, Apple Corporation licensed the use of their name to Steve Jobs with the proviso that the computer company did not involve itself in any way with the music business. For a time all was sweetness and light but eventually Apple Computers produced ipods, ipads and iphones which meant that the music clauses in the contract had to be invoked. Apple Computers was required to  pay Apple Corporation several extremely large fortunes so that they could continue to use the name! Almost overnight Paul McCartney went from being merely a rich man to being a very rich man. How’s that for a canny bit of business?

The one thing that shines through every sentence of this remarkable book is the way that McCartney, despite being perhaps the most famous and talented composer / songwriter in the world, and despite living always in the public eye has never been overwhelmed by the show business lifestyle that surrounds him. Fame can be a corrupting mistress, but Paul has never let it go to his head. He has never lost contact with his roots and the values instilled in him by his working / middle class Liverpool life. He made sure that his children went to state schools, and he was always very careful not to spoil them. He made it clear to them that they were loved and that his family always came first with him. As a result his children have grown up to have had very successful careers of their own, quite unmarred by family feuds or psychological problems. Very, very few people of McCartney’s stature can make that claim. He must be doing something right.

This is a first class biography of a very remarkable man, a real working class hero.

Nathan Lowell School Days Durandus
Nathan Lowell The Wizard’s Butler Durandus
Alice Feeney Daisy Darker Flatiron Books
Laura Lippman Dream Girl William Morrow
Christopher Fowler Hot Water Titan
Gary K. Wolfe How Great Science Fiction Works Audible
Philip Norman Paul McCartney Little, Brown
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