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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Anthrenus)

The Flaw Beneath My Feet

The first sign that a cat has peed or pooed on your carpet is the scratching noise she makes as she frantically tries to cover what she has done by piling the rest of the carpet on top of it.

When you go to investigate the disturbing sound, you find that urine soaked carpet squishes interestingly beneath bare feet. If the carpet is sufficiently saturated, small squirts will gush between the toes as you walk. However it is not advisable to walk over faeces. They disintegrate distressingly and lodge beneath the toe nails.

After a few weeks of this, I began to resign myself to coming home each day to a house redolent with the odours of well matured cat urine mingled with feline faecal fragrances. Visitors would sniff appreciatively.

"Been cooking curry again, Alan?"

The Blood Tree is the latest and the least of Paul Johnston’s futuristic detective novels set in twenty-first century Edinburgh, a city state modelled on the Platonic ideal. The earlier novels were grim and gritty with much to say about both politics, idealism and the art of being a detective. This one is simply marking time. A break-in at the former Scottish Parliament buildings is closely followed by a series of gruesome murders. The deaths seem strangely symbolic. Why do the corpses have an eye ripped out and embedded in a hole gouged in the forehead? Why are the branches of trees grasped in the victims’ hands? The trail leads Quint Dalrymple out of Edinburgh into Glasgow, a democratic city state generally perceived as the great enemy. The contrasts between the two cities are quite profound but the mystery remains at best arbitrary and the motives false. The explanations (when they come) are simply the authorial tying off of loose ends. It is all very unsatisfactory and it never really grips like the earlier books did. Perhaps there is too much light and not enough dark; perhaps Quint is having it too easy these days. He was more interesting in the days of his disgrace…

China Miéville is a new writer to me. His first book, King Rat, is an archetypal London novel written by a man who (according to his biography on the back) has never been out of London. Saul returns home to find his father murdered. He is arrested as a suspect. During the night the eponymous King Rat rescues him from his cell. Ratty can come and go invisibly. He lives in the sewers, he journeys where he pleases. Now that Saul has been rescued, he is also to become a rat. Together they glide through the murky alleyways of London. The sewers are their empire, the detritus of society their food and clothing and drink. They live in the dark places, in the cracks between the worlds. But there is danger here; the Ratcatcher wants them.

The first half of the book is very gripping. However all plot resolution stops abruptly (save for minor details) once the central mystery is explained. Miéville loses control completely and the book dissolves into a welter of chase scenes, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, recriminations and more chases. It just goes on and on and on until the reader could scream. I finished it, but it was a chore. I kept wishing the damn thing was 200 pages shorter.

Thraxas is a wise-cracking, Raymond Chandleresque private eye novel set in a fantasy world. So the bad guys tend to be wizards and dragons, and the pretty young thing who helps the hero out is part orc and part elf and wholly outcast as a result. (If such combinations are so socially unacceptable, how did her parents and grandparents ever get together? This is never explained).

The whole thing is as dire as you might expect. The jokes are bad, the plot is silly and Thraxas himself is unlikeable and makes far too many correct deductions from far too little evidence. It is trite, trivial and deeply stupid.

But it has an undeniable charm. It’s candy floss for the mind. It’s a reasonable way to waste an hour. And I do mean waste.

The incontinent cat in question is Ginger. She is fourteen years old and she has always been perfectly house trained in the past. Furthermore, she has a cat door which means that she can come and go as she pleases (it just doesn’t please her to come and go any more). For both of these reasons, I decided that a trip to the vet was called for in case these were the first symptoms of something more serious. The vet was non-committal.

"Behavioural problems like these are often more psychological than physical," he said. "Cats will only pee and poo where they feel secure. Perhaps she has had a bad fright outside. Have any new cats moved into the neighbourhood? Is she being bullied?"

"No," I said. "Quite the reverse. I’ve seen her chase a German Shepherd dog off the property. There used to be a rottweiler called Fluffy who lived two doors down. It was scared stiff of her."

"Well," said the vet, "all I can suggest is that you try to discourage her by putting food down where she is doing it. Cats are very fastidious creatures. They won’t pee or poo near their food supply."

"That’s a good idea. It might start costing a fortune in cat biscuits though; her brother is bound to pig out on whatever he finds lying around."

Ginger’s brother Milo is a cat with only one binary brain cell. When it is on he eats; when it is off he sleeps. Extra sources of food would merely turn his brain cell on a bit more often than usual.

"One trick I read about," said the vet, "was someone who cured their cat of this habit by putting a food bowl down in every spot the cat used. And in the bowl was a single, solitary cat biscuit superglued to the bottom!"

Oh! The frustration!

I am overawed by how brilliant Reginald Hill’s Arms and the Women is. It is a Dalziel and Pascoe novel, therefore it is a detective novel (of sorts). It is the latest in a long series therefore some small knowledge of the preceding books helps in understanding the plot and the relationships between the characters - particularly Recalled To Life; several characters from this earlier novel reappear and several points depend upon situations from that book. Arms and the Women even has a plot, though not much of one. What it mostly has, is a cast of brilliantly drawn characters interacting with each other. They hold conversations, they tell jokes. They eat and drink and love and laugh. Their pasts and their futures intertwine. Puppetmasters pull their strings and sometimes the strings pull back; sometimes they snap in two.

An attempt is made to kidnap Ellie Pascoe. Andy Dalziel is convinced that a criminal with a grudge against Peter Pascoe is taking his revenge. It is a logical response, but completely wrong. Partly it is Ellie’s past as an activist that is responsible, partly it is Dalziel’s own earlier actions in the clandestine world of British Intelligence; partly it is the sheer coincidence of Pascoe stumbling across a crime that nobody was ever supposed to have noticed. Ellie and her daughter are sent away for safekeeping under the watchful eye of Detective Constable Shirley Novello. But the decaying seaside mansion inhabited by eccentric Serafina Macallum has more going on within its rotting portals than might appear at first glance.

So much for plot. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s just sit back and enjoy the interplay of character, the brilliant dialogue, the hilarious "book within the book" that Ellie is writing. Motivation is complex and the details are slow to be revealed but they are well worth waiting for. The reasons behind the façade are devious, positively Machiavellian and more than a little melodramatic. But even the melodrama is beautifully handled. The book is John le Carré crossed with Dorothy Sayers, Len Deighton combined with Jane Austen. And it is wholly Reginald Hill, gloriously unique and uniquely glorious.

The Silk Code by Paul Levinson won the 2000 Locus award for best first novel, though it is hard to see why. It is a fix-up of four intertwined novellas. The first is so utterly inept that I almost stopped reading at that point. Only the fact that I was away from home with a limited amount of reading material available to me made me persevere.

The first, third and fourth story all involve a forensic scientist; Dr Phil D’Amato.

As the book opens, Phil and his friend Mo are travelling in deepest Amish territory. The man they are to visit turns out to be dead. With no evidence at all, Mo immediately suspects murder. Phil is sceptical, but becomes convinced when Mo himself suddenly dies of a massive allergic reaction. As the bodies pile up, Phil’s bumbling investigation uncovers a secret Amish society that has an impressive command of genetic engineering and a frightening array of biological weapons. Not all Amish agree with their methods and motives. Phil allies himself with these and their genetic magic soon proves a life saver as the crisis comes to a head.

Then we switch to 750 AD for a story about a quest for the Singers, who seem to be the last remnants of the Neanderthals. The story is actually quite gripping and reasonably well written (perhaps Levinson should confine himself to historical novels instead of SF).

The third story returns us to modern times and to Phil D’Amato who is called on to observe a post mortem on the corpse of a Neanderthal man found at the Museum of Natural History. The man died less than forty-eight hours prior to the autopsy, but radiocarbon dating shows the corpse to be at least thirty thousand years old. It turns out that other anomalous Neanderthal corpses have been found in other capital cities around the world. An international investigation is launched. Phil’s Amish friends are soon involved as biological attacks are made on several members of the investigating team. The Amish seem to have the only cure (conventional science is, of course, baffled). The rest of the book follows Phil in his investigations of this strange case. Naturally the human genetic code is closely involved in the dénouement, as are silk worms and tea. Eventually the whole nonsensical farrago reaches some sort of silly conclusion and stops.

This could have been a great book. The science is absurd, but it is convincingly argued and therefore is a perfect framework on which to hang an SF plot. It is probably this scientific background that has earned the book its praise. However the plain fact is that whenever his cardboard characters are on centre stage, Paul Levinson simply cannot put two convincing words together. He has a tin ear for dialogue and a fondness for deus ex machina drama. He exhibits no understanding whatsoever of what makes people tick. The whole thing is supremely unconvincing as a result.

The last few episodes in the life of the Stainless Steel Rat have been less than brilliant. But with The Stainless Steel Rat Joins The Circus Harry Harrison is back on form with a vengeance. This is one of the best of the Rat books. It is cunningly plotted, full of terrible jokes and a complete delight from start to finish.

Bored on a backwater planet, Slippery Jim and Angelina meet a 40,000 year old multi-billionaire who hires them (at four million credits per day) to find out who has been robbing all his banks. Detailed computer analysis of the case with a super-computer provided by one of Jim and Angelina’s sons, reveals that the common factor in the robberies was that in every case, the circus was in town when they happened.

As the title would lead you to believe, Jim therefore joins the circus in order to investigate from the inside. The plot thickens.

Actually the plot gets so thick, you’d swear it had three and a half pounds of cornflour and arrowroot in it. Furthermore, it twists and turns like a twisting turning thing, and to reveal any other details would be a spoiler of massive proportions; so I’ll shut up now.

Just promise me that you’ll read this one.

We bought some more food bowls and put some biscuits and water beneath the stairs. Both cats enjoyed this and we would lie in bed at night soothed by intermittant crunching sounds and the occasional slurp. Ginger never peed there again. She did it round the corner, out of sight of the food.

A hurried clean up, another bowl of biscuits. She peed all over the carpet in front of the right hand stereo speaker. I curbed my felinocidal tendencies. Wreaking grievous bodily harm on the cat is at best a temporary palliative. I made a mental note to refrain from asking visitors to check out the balance of my stereo. It wasn’t a good idea to squat down near the speaker. It brought the carpet too close to the nostrils.

Perhaps the internet would provide some help. I felt rather odd typing "carpet cat urine" into There were a depressingly large number of hits. I was obviously not alone in the world. One document spoke of the delights of a house filled with eau de pussy which is quite a clever multi-lingual pun. But one and all they agreed that there was no cure. When cats pee on carpets it is forever.

"So what’s under the carpet?" asked Robin, thinking outside the square. "Why can’t we just take it up and live on bare boards? It’s a horrible carpet anyway."

Cautious investigation revealed that the carpet was stapled to a wooden floor. Lifting the edges showed nicely polished planks of unidentifiable wood. There was, of course, no guarantee that this continued all the way across the floor. Many misdemeanours could be concealed beneath the vast expanses of carpet covering the rest of the room and the hallway.

"Let’s do it over Christmas," said Robin.

So we did.

Downs-Lord Day is the second book of a trilogy. I always thought that the first book didn’t need a sequel and this book proves me right. Hardly anything happens. The few things that do happen are described at such inordinate length and in such exquisite detail that the eyes glaze over and the head nod. Goodness knows what the third book will be like. I don’t think I will…

The Stars’ Tennis Balls is a stunningly good novel, partly because it is by Stephen Fry who simply cannot write an inelegant sentence, and partly because the plot has been lifted almost incident for incident and character for character from The Count of Monte Cristo. With two such mighty forces behind it how could it possibly be less than brilliant? Fry, of course, is not the first person to steal a novel from Dumas’ masterpiece - Alfred Bester did it, though not quite so blatantly, in Tiger! Tiger! and I am sure there have been others.

It is a timeless tale. In Fry’s version, young Ned Maddstone descends from riches to rags. He is Head Boy and Captain of the school cricket team and he is in love with the beautiful Portia Fendeman. But behind his back there are sinister machinations afoot and a spiteful trick played by his fellow pupils will have far reaching ramifications as Ned finds himself in solitary confinement in an asylum. Escaping eventually, Ned is bent upon revenge, and revenge is a dish best savoured slowly.

One reason that the plot is so appealing is because of its wish-fulfilment aspects. How many times have we all dreamed of a long slow revenge on someone who has injured us? Now we can live that revenge (albeit vicariously) and enjoy the feeling of power that it gives. It is so very easy to identify with Ned Maddstone, so very pleasant to see the villains get their just desserts and to admire the skill with which Ned brings about their downfall.

Nancy Collins first came to my attention as the author of a series of hard-boiled vampire novels. Angels on Fire represents quite a radical departure from that style. Lucy climbs to the roof of her apartment building, probably intent upon suicide. Certainly it is at the forefront of her mind. But there is an angel unconscious on the roof. She carries the angel back to her apartment (it is very light – perhaps it has hollow bones?). From this point onwards, the story becomes a little predictable. Generally these things go in one of two directions; either they turn into a mawkish love story or they turn into a tract full of painfully obvious symbolism. Interestingly Nancy Collins’ novel turns into both these things, but she never loses control of it. She skates a fine line, but she never falls off. The story is not mawkish and the symbolism (while obvious – there simply isn’t any way around that) is never obtrusive. She never lectures and she doesn’t hit you round the head with a heavily weighted opinionated hammer.

I thoroughly enjoyed both the love story and the tale-within-a-tale of the quarrel between heaven and hell. And I loved the little twist in the end which gave some hope that the future would not recapitulate the past. Angels on Fire is a thoroughly entertaining and thoughtful book which I strongly recommend.

Stephen Dedman is a young writer from Western Australia who is rapidly making a name for himself. The Art of Arrow Cutting is his first novel and what a brilliant book it is. The cover blurb describes it as a novel of magic-noire suspense and that is a perfect description. It is partly a hard-boiled novel from the school of Dashiell Hammett, partly an urban fantasy and partly a tale of pure magic. The fantasy elements on which the book rests are derived from the mythology of Japan; a mythology unfamiliar to many westerners. This adds an oriental spice to the mixture which is particularly delightful.

Michelangelo Magistrale (known as Mage) is travelling the Greyhound bus trail through Canada. In a bus station in a small town in the middle of nowhere he meets Amanda Sharmon. She needs $27 to make up the fare for the bus ticket. Mage lends her the money and she gives him the key to her apartment.

Mage never sees her again, but the casual encounter will have far reaching ramifications. The key will open any door; it can adjust itself to the tumblers of any lock. But it has deeper powers than this. It is a focus. It has been stolen from the Yakuza boss Tamenaga and he wants it back.

Mage is on the run. Terrible creatures from Japanese mythology pursue him, ninja assassins attack him. Masters of the art of arrow cutting can avoid arrows in flight, pluck shuriken out of the air. This is only one of many skills that Mage must learn if he is to survive and confront Tamenaga face to face.

Salt is also a first novel, but Adam Roberts is no Stephen Dedman and Salt is deeply flawed. The eponymous planet has been colonised by several rival political factions. The planet is a salt encrusted desert with few sources of free standing water. The two major political factions congregate around the two major sources of water. The novel is told in alternate chapters from the point of view of the leaders of each political group. Salty metaphors abound.

The novel is mainly a tract designed to compare and contrast two political opposites. It sets up straw men (salt men?) and knocks them down. The planet, the people and the situations are merely there to dramatise the political differences. Like most politically inspired novels it quickly becomes boring. The only author I can think of who has managed this successfully is Ursula K. Le Guin with The Dispossessed, a tour de force beside which Salt fades into insignificance. It is valid to compare the two books since both attempt to deal with the practical problems of a state working along anarchist principles. Le Guin succeeded brilliantly. You have to admire Roberts’ cheek in taking on such a towering success, but it isn’t something to attempt the first time out. It comes as no real surprise when his aim falls so far short of his target.

Christmas Day and Boxing Day are holidays and by mutual agreement carpet lifting is illegal. The next day, however, we girded our loins and began.

"Let’s start over here," said Robin. "There isn’t much furniture. We’ll just move it over to the other half of the room, do this half and then move everything from the other half of the room over here and do the other half."

"Why not move everything out the room into the bedroom and then do the room as a whole?" I suggested.

Robin didn’t think much of that idea.

"You are wrong!" she explained convincingly.

I couldn’t argue with the logic and so we began in the front half of the lounge. We ripped up the carpet. Clouds of dust arose and covered us from head to toe. We rolled up the carpet and the underlay and carried it into the laundry out of the way. Stretching half way across the lounge were beautifully varnished, though very dirty, wooden planks. We brushed up the worst of the dust. Much of the detritus consisted of an inordinately large number of insect parts – mandibles, legs etc. All the chitin-covered, inedible sections. I knew my cats had caught a lot of insects over the years, but only now was I starting to realise just how many!

On hands and knees, I crawled across the floor armed only with a pair of pincers. I pulled out hundreds of staples. In some sections the person with the staple gun had gone completely berserk and there were staples every quarter of an inch or so. Then we washed and scrubbed the boards. They positively glowed. It was a satisfying moment.

Then we moved all the furniture from the still carpeted section of the room over on to the boards we had just finished and repeated the exercise.

For many years, a mysterious lump in the carpet had puzzled me. This was now revealed to be an unsanded, unvarnished piece of tatty wood about three feet long and an inch wide nailed, for no readily apparent reason, to the middle of the floor. Removing the wood revealed the only piece of floor in poor condition. There was no varnish on the planks and several half inch diameter holes gave a lovely view beneath the house. Either Avondale has very large borer to go with its very large spiders, or some long-forgotten project had once required half inch holes. Being an SF fan, I am reluctant to discard the idea of woodworms that can chew out half inch holes. Doubtless the cats will soon hunt one down and bring it home for me to admire.

We covered this manky bit with a rug so that nobody will know it is there and retired to bed tired, dusty but very pleased with the beautiful floor in the lounge. Tomorrow the hallway!

The Big Blow is a completely naturalistic novel about a hurricane which devastated Galveston, Texas in 1900. Joe Lansdale paints the city as it goes about its natural business sublimely unaware of the disaster that is building out to sea. This being Joe Lansdale though, most of the natural business is perverse and decadent. The Sporting Club has brought in a prize fighter in the hope that he will beat that upstart nigger Jack Johnson to a pulp. John McBride is vicious and unprincipled. Some say he could be a contender for the heavyweight championship. He takes up residence in the best whorehouse and screws and drinks the days away (at the expense of the Sporting Club, of course). When the red-headed whore gets uppity he soon puts her in her place with his fists. Other smaller narratives circle around this major thread and all come to a climax as the hurricane hits. Some people are cowards and some are heroes. Some become looters, some assume a nobility you would never expect. And you can’t always predict who is who and which is which. It is a very short novel (barely 150 pages) but every page counts and it is a little gem.

High Cotton is a collection of Joe Lansdale’s short fiction. It is gross, revolting and sick. I loved every perverted gemstone of a story in it. What goes on in the mind of a serial killer? What would you do with a holy relic, a cunt hair from the Virgin Mary? How would you cope when your best friend fails to get laid but succeeds in getting killed by an alligator? If you kept your dead dog Bobby in a sack, would you kiss him goodnight after you push him at one end to make the guts fill up the other end?

All these devastatingly important questions, and many others, are discussed in more detail than you ever needed to know in High Cotton. Read it and vomit. It’s brilliant.

A writer that Joe Lansdale often mentions approvingly is fellow Texan Neal Barrett Jr. On the strength of Lansdale’s recommendation, I decided to read Perpetuity Blues, a collection of Barrett’s short fiction.

The title story concerns Maggie McKenna who dreams of Broadway, fame and fortune. Her only friend is Oral Blue, a stranded space and time traveller. In many hands this would have turned into trivia (we’ve all read the story thousands of times). But Barrett tells the tale straight. Oral Blue is just a bum who drinks from a brown paper bag and lives in a decrepit trailer. Everybody knows about his delusions and mocks him for them. But Maggie’s innocence allows her to believe the unbelievable. She is a literalist who cannot imagine that someone might lie to her. The whole rubber-stamp story takes on a new lease of life that way…

Some of the tales are just plain fun (the Wright brothers, Erwin Rommel and Billy the Kid meet up in a small Texas town) and some are very dark (a group of friends supply sex, tacos and dangerous drugs to the survivors of World War VI). All the stories are surreal and often very disconcerting. I liked them a lot. I may have to investigate Neal Barrett Jr a bit more closely. Stand by for progress reports.

The next day we arose achingly from our bed and admired the floor in the lounge as we breakfasted. Then we attacked the hall. It has several unique characteristics that distinguish it from the lounge. It is much narrower and therefore smellier and the stairs that come down from the upper storey proved to have been installed on top of the carpet which presented us with a very knotty problem. Robin spent several very fiddly hours with a very sharp knife trimming the immoveable carpet chunks to the shape of the stairs.

I repeated my staple removing marathon. Along the way I trod on one I’d missed and bled copiously over the bare boards. I suppose these kinds of things always require a libation to the gods.

I also had to purchase brass carpet trim and use it to tidy the edges of the carpet in all the rooms that lead off from the hall. I cut my finger on one of these and made another blood sacrifice.

By now it was very late in the day. The hall has a much smaller surface area than the lounge but it took us the same amount of time to clear and it was much harder work. Tired but happy we went to bed.

The following day was a day of rest. We ached all over. Indeed I am convinced that not only was I aching in places I didn’t know I had, I was also aching in places I hadn’t got at all! But it was worth it. The floor looks beautiful. It isn’t perfect; there are areas that need attention. However as Robin rightly says, everybody’s wooden floor has places that need attention. Almost by definition they are imperfect, for it doesn’t take much to scratch and gouge.

In the twilight the wooden floor glows golden brown and warm. Why would anyone have wanted to cover such beauty with carpet?

Paul Johnston The Blood Tree NEL
China Miéville King Rat Pan
Martin Scott Thraxas Orbit
Reginald Hill Arms and the Women Dell
Paul Levinson The Silk Code Tor
Harry Harrison The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus Tor
John Whitbourn Downs-Lord Day Earthlight
Stephen Fry The Stars Tennis Balls Orbit
Nancy A. Collins Angels on Fire Borealis
Stephen Dedman The Art of Arrow Cutting Tor
Adam Roberts Salt Gollancz
Joe Lansdale The Big Blow Subterranean Press
Joe Lansdale High Cotton Golden Gryphon
Neal Barrett Jr Perpetuity Blues Golden Gryphon

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