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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (glebosus horribilis)

Milo and the Lump

For the last six months, Milo the Cat has had a lump in his side about the size and shape of an acorn. When it first appeared I took him to the vet.

"It’s a lump," diagnosed the vet proudly.

"What kind of a lump?" I asked.

He stuck a hypodermic syringe into it and pulled the plunger. Nothing happened. "Well," he said, "it isn’t an abscess. If it was an abscess it would have been full of lovely custardy pus. But there’s no pus. It isn’t an abscess."

He poked it with his finger. "It might be an acorn," he said doubtfully, "though I’ve never heard of it happening before."

"So what can we do about it?" I asked.

"Keep an eye on it," he said. "It doesn’t seem to be bothering him at the moment. If it changes size, or begins to distress him, or starts to grow into an oak tree, bring him back and we’ll operate."

The lump stayed static for a while. It didn’t seem to be affecting Milo at all. He didn’t mind if you stroked it and poked it, but he got a bit upset if you squeezed it. Mind you, he gets a bit upset if you squeeze any part of him, not just his lump. Most people do. He was a little lop-sided to the touch, but nothing too drastic and he continued to hoover up his food like there was no tomorrow. All seemed well in his world, so I stopped worrying.

After a time, the lump grew slightly larger and he was, perhaps, slightly more sensitive about it. Whether this was vanity or whether it was actually painful was a little hard to tell.

And then one day, quite suddenly, everything changed.

The Eyre Affair is a very odd book indeed. At some indeterminate time in the future, society is very literarily organised. The viewpoint character, Thursday Next, is a literary detective. She is hot on the trail of Acheron Hades who has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Thursday has close encounters with a multitude of John Miltons (it’s the annual convention) and has to deal with the problems of being a hero of the Crimean War which has been ongoing for more than a century. When her Aunt is marooned inside Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils the crisis deepens and all hell threatens to break loose.

The blurb on the book contains a quote from Terry Pratchett: "Ingenious. I shall watch Jasper Fforde nervously." I don’t think Terry has much to fear. The book is not ingenious; it is pretentious and self indulgent. It also helps if the reader has an intimate knowledge of Jane Eyre and Martin Chuzzlewit since vital plot points depend on things that happen in those books. The general effect is rather arch, rather sad, and rather unfunny; all of which (I suspect) are exactly the opposite of what was intended.

The first book I ever read by Simon Clark was The Night of the Triffids, a brilliant sequel to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. On the strength of that novel, I decided to try some of his other books. So I read The Fall, and was most impressed.

American TV Director Sam Baker, on a visit to England, is caught in a time slip. He and about fifty other visitor to a historical site find themselves being transported back in time. At first the journeys are very short – mere minutes. But soon the time intervals increase and the group travels further and further into the past. The reasons for the journey remain unclear (though there are hints of time manipulations by some future history-dabbling race). However it soon becomes obvious that the journey is very dangerous (several people materialise in a space currently occupied by other things – birds, cattle, trees – and these are horribly merged in to their own bodies). Furthermore there seems to be a purpose to the journey; there are barbarian armies living out of time, preparing to invade. Sam and his fellow travellers come in to conflict with them.

It’s a fairly pulpish plot, rescued only by some very fine writing. Simon Clark succeeds in telling an exciting tale that held me on the edge of my seat. I needed to know what happened next and had to keep turning the pages. The ending was a slight disappointment and the set-piece scene of the final battle between the good guys and the bad guys went on too long. But despite these flaws it still gripped me. There’s a magic about Simon Clarke’s prose; a fascination in the tale. I enjoyed it immensely and I will almost certainly read more by him. He’s a writer to watch.

The hero of The Lydian Baker is Marcus Valerius Corvinus, a Roman aristocrat who makes his living as a sort of private detective. The book concerns a search for a golden statue from antiquity. The Baker statue was a gift to the Delphic Oracle by King Croesus, but it vanished in the chaos of several barbarian invasions. Now it seems to have reappeared and Marcus’ stepfather wants to bid for it in an auction in Athens. Marcus goes looking on his behalf and is soon up to his neck in trouble and danger.

The book is a sort of clone of Lindsey Davis’ novels of Falco (Marcus is a cynical wise-cracking character, much like Falco and the historical detail is as beautifully observed as in the Falco novels). Because it is so imitative, so unoriginally similar to the Davis novels, I can’t really enthuse about it. It is mildly amusing in its own way, but I couldn’t get involved and I didn’t really care. It’s just a copy – beautifully written, impeccably researched, full of convincing detail and interesting characters (David Wishart is a good writer). But it is too derivative.

Steven Saylor’s Roman Blood is also a Falco clone. This time Falco is called Gordianus and he predates his doppelganger by many years (the action takes place in 80BC; Falco works in the AD 70s). Gordianus is not as cynical or as wise-cracking as Falco but other than that it is business as usual. He is called on to find the facts in a case of patricide. The defender in the case is a young Cicero. This is Cicero’s first big case and he is anxious not to mess it up. Gordianus digs deep, uncovering scandal left, right and centre.

Interestingly, the novel is (somewhat loosely) based on fact. The accused parricide Sextus Roscius really did exist and really was accused of the crime, and he really was defended by Cicero. Saylor plays a little fast and loose outside of this framework, but nothing too drastic, and it is (mildly) interesting though I could have done without the lecturing at the end. But I’m afraid I’m suffering from a surfeit of private-detective-in-ancient-Rome novels and I really couldn’t be bothered with it.

I picked Milo up and turned him upside down (so that the dribble went back inside him instead of all over me) and I tickled his tummy as is my wont. He purred and wriggled with pleasure, as is his. My fingers passed lightly over the lump and it felt different, quite rough (it had been smooth before) and even though I touched it very lightly, he made his displeasure known. Milo is the most placid of cats. He never gets upset about anything and so I knew that there was something seriously wrong. I looked closely at the lump. It was scabby, as if it had been bleeding recently and there was an ugly looking dark slit in it that seemed to vanish into the depths of his body.

I put him down on the floor and he began to lick the lump and then to chew at it. Blood began flow and it dripped on to the floor and also into Milo’s mouth as he desperately massaged his lump.

He paused and sat there for a moment with a thoughtful look on his face. He licked his lips and pondered the taste. Hmmm. Nice! He went back for seconds. And then for dessert. It became obvious that much of the blood in his body was going to end up on the floor or in his tummy. Despite the fact that it was quite late, I rang the vet.

Fortunately there was still someone at the surgery. I explained the situation.

"Bring him round here straight away!"

No sooner said than done. I got the cage out and Milo went and hid under a chair. I moved the chair, picked Milo up and dropped him into the cage. Ginger looked on in horror! What was I doing with her brother? Then she ran outside in case I did the same thing to her. I put the cage in the car and drove off to the vet. Ginger peeked out from under the house and watched me go.

The trauma of being incarcerated was too much for Milo. He cried pathetically all the way to the vet (as is also his wont) and completely forgot to take reviving sips from the wound in his side.

I’ve gone off Piers Anthony as a novelist, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of his autobiography (Bio of an Ogre) and so I couldn’t resist buying the second volume How Precious Was That While. And I enjoyed this one too. In both books Piers comes across as a rather unpleasant person (though the second volume is much less bitchy than the first – maybe he’s mellowed). It becomes very clear that he insists on standing up for what he perceives to be his rights. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and goes out of his way to get his own back for perceived slights. Both books are full of incidents that exemplify this and they leave a little bit of a nasty taste in the mouth. But to counter that there are many acts of sheer selflessness that really make you admire the man. For example, there is Jenny, the young girl in a coma, a fan of his, to whom he wrote (and continues to write) letters full of interest and gossip purely on the off chance that when her mother reads them to her, they may penetrate into her coma and help her, perhaps bring her back to the world. (Many of these letters were published in the book Letters to Jenny). She is the most famous of his charitable cases (if I can use that phrase without sounding patronising) but she isn’t the only one. Others are mentioned in the autobiography. It isn’t self-serving – he isn’t blowing his own trumpet for the sake of it, and when he talks about these things his normal somewhat shrill self-back-patting egomania (and arrogance) completely vanishes and the humanity underneath shines through. I don’t think I’d like Piers Anthony were I to meet him. His attitude irritates and appals me. But after reading the two volumes of his autobiography (particularly the latest one) I do respect him. The book is a wonderful insight into Piers Anthony the man and also has a lot to say about Piers Anthony the writer. Even if you dislike his books, that insight is valuable. And though I don’t like the majority of his fiction very much, I must admit to having a soft spot for some of his books, and there are one or two that are truly outstanding – seek out Macroscope, and Prostho Plus, and Sos the Rope and Orn and Firefly and The Tatham Mound and the wonderfully obscene Pornucopia; yes, there are several nuggets of gold among the dross.

The latest Janet Evanovich novel Seven Up is her best yet. It had me in fits of hysterical laughter. The semi-retired gangster Eddie DeChooch is caught trafficking contraband cigarettes. He skips bail, and bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is soon hot on his trail. An unwanted complication is that her grandmother is having an affair with DeChooch ("Eddie DeChooch couldn’t get it up. I went out with him a couple times, and that thing of his was dead as a doorknob. No matter what I did I couldn’t get nothing to happen.") He’s also quite short sighted, and once shot an ironing board by mistake. He’ll never live it down.

Stephanie is looking after Bob, a dog with an inordinate appetite for sofas, houseplants and the like. Because he has so much roughage in his diet, he tends to excrete (and vomit) copiously. Stephanie always takes him to her worst enemy’s house so that he can do it on her lawn.

In between hunting for Eddie and taking Bob out to poop, she also has to cope with The Mooner, who is constantly high, has a super hero costume, and has misplaced his best friend.

And there’s her fiancée Joe Morelli and her would be lover Ranger to cope with as well. Life is fraught (and funny) for Stephanie. This book will make you laugh until you cry. Don’t read it in public, you might embarrass yourself.

Robert Parker is best known for his private eye novels and Gunman’s Rhapsody is a bit of a departure for him. The book tells the well known story of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Until I read it, I’d have sworn that we didn’t need yet another novel about that hackneyed old situation. It’s part of the folklore. We all absorbed the tale by osmosis as we grew up with the mythology of the old west. I’ve even been to Tombstone, and I’ve seen Boot Hill, and the Clantons’ graves and the OK Corral itself and I’ve seen how touristified the town has become.

But Gunman’s Rhapsody proved me wrong yet again. It is a superb re-telling of the story. In sparse, clean and unadorned prose, Parker tells an almost mythical tale. The characters leap out of the page at you – all the heroes from our childhood comic books are there. Wyatt and Virgil and Morgan Earp (and James and Warren too), Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, the Clantons. Men of folklore, men of cheap Hollywood movies, cardboard men, clichéd men. Who’d have thought they had such life left in them? Parker proves that they have. The tale is old, the plot has no surprises but the book is magical and the characters throw off their clichéd attributes and come alive again, become real again. This is a great book.

In Space No One Can Hear You Laugh is a collection of short stories by Mike Resnick. Sixteen of the thirty nine stories in it also appear in his other collection Will The Last Person To Leave The Planet Please Turn Off The Sun? which is rather too much of an overlap to my way of thinking. Of course all thirty nine of them are, without exception, brilliant, quirky, funny and hugely entertaining stories, but you may not want to spend money on both books when the overlap is so large.

Putting It Together (which is subtitled Turning Sow’s Ear Drafts into Silk Purse Stories) is an invaluable book for the would be writer. Here Mike Resnick presents early drafts of several of his award-winning stories and discusses in great technical detail how he revised and changed the stories until eventually they turned into something of which he could be proud. He highlights the weaknesses of the early drafts, shows where and why they went wrong and takes us painstakingly through each revision, explaining the reasons for all the changes. It is a perfect object lesson in how to write. Every would be fiction writer should study this book closely. There are valuable lessons to learn on every page of it.

Milo and I arrived at the vets to find him in the middle of a computer crisis. His system had crashed earlier that day and he was currently unable to issue invoices or receipts or to record the treatments he had given that day. He was surrounded with scraps of paper covered with indecipherable notes all of which would have to be transcribed once he managed to fix the computer. A badly bleeding cat was a welcome relief.

"Hmmm. Quite a lump. Definitely not an acorn. I was wrong about that. Not surprising really. It looks like a cyst and it’s breaking through the skin and bleeding round the edges. I’ll give him a painkiller and an antibiotic and I’ll operate on Monday. You can pick him up on Monday evening."


"Just as well, really," mused the vet. "I can’t give you a bill at the moment. Much better to keep him here until Monday when I will be able to give you a bill."

He picked Milo up and plonked him in a cage. Milo stared in horror. What was happening? As I left the room without him he wailed piteously. I felt terrible.

When I got home, Ginger was very suspicious indeed. Where was her brother? She stalked around looking for him and seemed a little upset not to find him. However it soon became clear that there were distinct advantages to not having him around. Like most cats, Ginger prefers to take her meals in small doses. She is a snacker, returning again and again to her bowl during the day and taking dainty mouthfuls. This simply cannot be done when Milo is there because he immediately sucks up every scrap of food in sight (Ginger’s food as well as his own) and then asks for more. For the next few days Ginger was in cat heaven. She could snack properly for the first time in her life. She made the most of it, eating her meals in small, ladylike portions at genteelly spaced intervals throughout most of the day. She began to express her approval. Why hadn’t I got rid of Milo years ago?

I used to think that the definitive alternate history novels on the theme of "what if Hitler had won the Second World War" were Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Enigma. But now that I’ve read J. N. Stroyar’s The Children’s War, I’m starting to change my mind.

Peter Halifax was named for the industrial North of England town where he was found abandoned as a child (my home town, as it happens. That pre-disposed me to like the novel). His papers are not in order – this is a capital crime in post-Hitlerian England. Peter is lucky; he is sent to the camps. He escapes, but is recaptured. After months of interrogation and torture designed to break him and re-mould him, he is reclassified as a slave labourer and assigned to the household of Karl Vogel, a high ranking Nazi official. Beatings, humiliations and back-breaking labour are daily occurrences and his spirit is all but broken. However he escapes again and this time makes contact with the Underground Home Army, a Polish resistance group. Initially they are hostile towards him – particularly since it soon becomes apparent that his history is nowhere near as clear cut and straightforward as it seemed at first. Peter Halifax is an alias, only one of many that he has used over the years. Who is he? What is his background? What is his connection to the British resistance? What is his relationship to the Nazi hierarchy? Peter has enemies on both sides.

A truce of sorts is reached and Peter begins to make genuine contributions to the Polish resistance movement. The suspicions begin to die down, though they never completely go away. Then an opportunity arises to make use of Peter’s relationship with Karl Vogel; there are propaganda prizes to be won and even a hint of freedom in the air if only the cards can be played right. Peter has a vital role to play, but there are those who remain dubious about where his true loyalties lie.

The book is a massive 1149 pages long. The complexities and subtleties of the plot are enormous (barely hinted at in the summary of the last two paragraphs). This is a hugely deep and complicated book. On the surface it tells an enthralling tale of Europe under the Nazi yoke. But beneath that is a much more subtle examination of the effect of totalitarian politics on society. And beneath that is a soul-searing exploration of the effects of torture and psychological conditioning on an individual and beneath that is a strongly expressed discussion of love and duty; where does one end and another begin and how do they each affect the other? And beneath that…

There are layers within layers within layers. You never stop peeling them back, you never stop finding new themes, new concerns and new, thought provoking ideas. And you never lose the page turning excitement of the surface story with its monstrously complicated plot either. This is a great book, one for the ages.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s contribution to the mythology and rationale of religion. Shadow is a big man and his three years in prison are relatively easy. The bad men leave him alone and he puts his head down and serves his time. But mere days before his release, his wife is killed in a car accident and he is let out into a colder and much crueller world that he had imagined.

He is recruited by Mr Wednesday and asked to act as a bodyguard cum trouble-shooter cum dogsbody (Wednesday’s reasons for this remain unclear for, as subsequent events prove, he is quite capable of looking after himself). In his travels with Wednesday, Shadow meets many strange and enigmatic figures – the murderous Czernebog, Mr Nancy, and others. He also has several distressing run ins with a gang that seem opposed to Mr Wednesday’s murky schemes. They have odd names: Stone, Wood…

It quickly becomes obvious that we are reading a mythical allegory. Mr Wednesday is an avatar of Odin and his peculiar friends are other figures from the European pantheon transplanted to America with the immigrants. His opponents are more modern incarnations of newer ideas. It is a tale of the old versus the new, of tradition versus innovation, of gods versus man.

Within the framework of a road novel, Gaiman tries (and fails) to say something profound about the nature of religion and the habits of gods and the necessities that create them in the human psyche and keep them nourished there. It’s all a little too heavy for the framework and it distorts as a result.

The book has received rave reviews and I suppose in some ways that makes me a voice crying in the wilderness because I disagree with the seemingly unanimous paeans of praise that have erupted over it. But I’m afraid it left me unmoved. I found its profundities shallow and its characters uninteresting and its plot twists and incidents uninvolving. I really wanted to like it - honest. But I didn’t like it.

Michael Moorcock doesn’t write many short stories, so it is always a pleasure to welcome his infrequent collections. London Bone is the latest of these. As the title implies, most of the stories are set in and around London (though the longest story in the book, The Cairene Purse is actually set in Egypt). The stories are very Dickensian in the manner in which they bring London alive. The characters are often larger than life – again a very Dickensian touch. There is Edwin Begg, the Clapham Antichrist, and Ray Gold the entrepreneur who makes a fortune selling scrimshaw bones dug from the ground beneath the city. Moorcock wallows in their excesses and his impish wit shines through on every line. He even provides us with another episode in the life of Engelbrecht the Surrealist Boxer who was first immortalised by the late Maurice Richardson!

The stories are all gems. They show Moorcock in a quieter mood than usual and working on a much smaller canvas, but this is no bad thing. I loved every word of it.

As I drove to the vet on Monday evening I felt quite apprehensive. Milo is nearly fifteen years old and the operation was not a minor one. Would he survive it? Also I was worried about the lump. What would the vet find when he opened Milo up?

I smiled at the nurse. "I’ve come for Milo."

"Ah yes – I’ll just go and fetch him." An enormous feeling of relief washed over me. Obviously it had all been routine.

"He’s been talking to me all day," said the nurse. "He came out of the anaesthetic really fast, and every time I walk past his cage he calls to me and we have a long conversation."

She brought Milo out and he chirruped hello, obviously pleased to see me. There was a huge naked patch on his side where he had been shaved for the operation and an enormous wound with eight crude stitches in it.

"It was quite a straightforward operation," said the nurse, "and the lump wasn’t malignant. We didn’t even bother to send it to the lab."

"How do I look after him for the next few days?" I asked.

"These are antibiotics," she said, giving me some hideous blue pills. "Half a tablet twice a day for the next five days. Don’t let him chew at the wound. Don’t give him much to eat tonight, he might vomit after the anaesthetic. Bring him back in a fortnight to have the stitches taken off. That will be $177."

Milo howled all the way home. He really doesn’t like car journeys and he makes sure that I know about it. I spoke soothingly him and, when traffic lights permitted, I stroked the pathetic paw that he stretched through the bars of the travelling cage, but it made no difference. He was miserable, and he wanted the world to know. I got home and I lifted him gently out of his cage.

Ginger went straight to his wound and sniffed it. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. She didn’t approve, and she departed in high dudgeon. There was some food left in Ginger’s bowl; she was saving it for later. Milo inhaled the food in nothing flat.

"Where’s the rest of it then?" Milo’s expression was eloquent. But I was hard-hearted and didn’t put any more food out. He sniffed around the bowl for a while and then curled up and went philosophically to sleep. Ginger returned and went for a snack. There was nothing left.

"What did you want to bring him back home for?" she said, and went outside to find a rat to eat.

Jasper Fford The Eyre Affair NEL
Simon Clark The Fall NEL
David Wishart The Lydian Baker Flame
Steven Saylor Roman Blood St. Martins
Piers Anthony How Precious Was That While Tor
Janet Evanovich Seven Up St. Martins
Robert B. Parker Gunman’s Rhapsody Putnam
Mike Resnick In Space No One Can Hear You Laugh Farthest Star
Mike Resnick Putting It Together Wildside
J. N. Stroyar The Children’s War Pocket Books
Neil Gaiman American Gods Morrow
Michael Moorcock London Bone Scribner

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