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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (liber archie)

Reading Between The Lines

Like many booksellers, Dymocks has a loyalty card scheme. Most loyalty cards are refreshingly low-tech. You buy a book, they stamp your card, and when you have sufficient stamps, you get a free book. Dymocks’ card is much more complex than that. Every time you buy a book they put the card in a magic machine and it records your purchase. Over time, the purchases mount up and every so often the magic machine disgorges a slip of paper that gives you a rather large discount on the next book you buy. So far so straight forward. However the high-tech nature of the magic machine allows lots of other gimmicks as well. Every time the card is sucked into its bowels it plays a fruit machine game. If the fruit machine comes up three cherries (or whatever) you get a free book and there is a special stand in the shop full of the free books from which you are allowed to choose. And they aren’t just dull tomes that the shop wants to get rid of either – quite often there are interesting choices to be made, though there is no doubt about it, the free books are definitely chosen with an eye to future sales.

Recently my loyalty card won its fruit machine game and I got to pick a free book. I cursed as I surveyed the set of books that I’d bought at full price when they first came out and the set of books whose subject matter interested me not at all, and finally I settled on Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden, an Australian writer of whom I had heard good things.

Marsden writes the kind of books that these days are described as "young adult" novels. (In my day they were described as "suitable for the older teenager"). Generally these kinds of books are really rather good; they tell exciting stories and they hold their audience enthralled. Certainly the Marsden book was one of these – I simply couldn’t put it down. I had to know what happened next.

The premise is quite simple. A group of friends go off for a hike in the bush. When they return they find, to their consternation, that Australia has been invaded by a foreign army, their parents and friends are being held in concentration camps and they themselves are, for all practical purposes, alone.

Obviously it’s all quite traumatic. However they cope well with the experience and they form a small guerrilla group and generally harass the invading army.

What makes the book stand head and shoulders above far too many similar adventure tales is that Marsden pulls no punches and he is grittily realistic about the perils that face the teenagers. In many books of this kind they’d just have a jolly good time, with lots of cosy, heroic deeds of derring do and narrow escapes from peril. Then they’d all go home for tea.

But not in Marsden’s book. Things go wrong. Things fail to work according to plan. People die – and not just the soldiers of the invading army. The group of teenage fighters suffer their casualties as well. There are triumphs of course, but there are also great tragedies. Marsden doesn’t minimise the peril. It is all quite grim. There is violence and death and also a little bit of sex. It is an extraordinarily brilliant book, beautifully written, beautifully imagined.

And it has six sequels.

It was obvious why Dymocks put it on their freebie shelf. They wanted to get me hooked. They wanted me to buy the next six books. And I couldn’t resist. It was so brilliantly written that come what may, I just had to buy the next six books.

But I got my revenge on Dymocks for tormenting me so. I bought the next six books at Paper Plus, and got six stamps on my nicely low-tech Paper Plus loyalty card instead.

And now, for light relief, let’s think about the cold war instead. Once the war ended and the Soviet Union disintegrated it began to look as though the spy novel was dead. We got a few rather limp exercises in nostalgia from John Le Carré as his spooks relived their ancient triumphs for the benefit of the new generation, but by and large that was it. Now Robert Littell has come up with another way of revitalising the genre. With enormous cheek, he has attempted to write a novel that documents the entire history of the CIA. The Company is a semi-historical novel that dramatises the formation of the CIA just after the war and highlights its triumphs and its tragedies, its successes and its cock-ups. It explores this history from the points of view of several characters who were part of the original organisation, who have grown up with it and lived through the historical events. Furthermore, as their children grow to maturity we see several of them join the company as well and a whole new generation gets to re-enact the drama of the more contemporary political scene. The novel paints on a vast canvas ranging as it does from the early 1950s right through to the present day. Berlin, Budapest, the Bay of Pigs, the war in Afghanistan – all of these were covert and overt CIA battlegrounds. I watched many of them take place on my television screen from the comfortable safety of my sofa. Now I get to see them again with a different explanation of cause and effect. Believe me, it’s unsettling; which is exactly the effect that a good novel should always aim to achieve.

Generally speaking a project like this is a recipe for failure – the sheer size of the story often overwhelms the skill of the writer and the whole degenerates into infodumps and cardboard characters. I vaguely recall that John Gardner once tried a similar exercise with the British security services and it was an excruciatingly dull book. But Littell somehow manages to keep control of his material – he doesn’t fall into the lecture mode trap. He never loses sight of the fact that he is telling a story as well as a contemporary history and despite the fact that this is an enormously long book (894 closely packed pages) I never once felt bored.

It doesn’t pull any punches about the general ineptitude of the CIA either – one of the book’s refreshing strengths is that it doesn’t toe the party line of unthinking, gung-ho American patriotism that has become so sickeningly prevalent since the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre. The CIA is simply presented to us, warts and all and Littell comes up with some very provocative reasons to explain just why the CIA has proved itself to be so inept over the years. A combination of politics and personalities and, it has to be said, the essentially rather naïve American world view of the internal structures, politics and motivations of countries other than America all play their part. The wheelers and dealers are too often too sheltered. They don’t know that the world isn’t a toy; it isn’t a movie where the good guys always win. Sometimes the bad guys have their day in the sun. The men on the ground know this unpalatable fact, but the bosses don’t (and even when the men on the ground become the bosses, they seem sometimes to forget this important lesson).

Littell has always been good. In The Company, he is superb.

Larry McMurtry has written many wonderful novels about the old American West. Boone’s Lick and The Sin Killer are two recent additions to this list.

Boone’s Lick tells the tale of Mary Margaret who is fed up of running the family farm while her husband buys and sells trade goods along the Oregon Trail and tries to make a living as a lumberjack, supplying wood to the forts that are burgeoning in response to the threat from the Indian nations. She only sees him once every couple of years when he briefly comes back home and plants another baby in her. Now she’s had enough and so she packs up the family and sets off in pursuit of her n’er do well partner.

The Sin Killer bills itself as the first volume of a tetralogy that chronicles the exploits of an eccentric aristocratic British family, the Berrybenders, as they make their way through the American West in the years 1832-36. Lots of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ and the chance to explore strange new territories, don’t ‘cha know. Eh what?

Both books are very similar in structure – rambling narratives that follow a trail and tell of adventures that happen along the way. The adventures are sometimes comic and sometimes tragic. There is great pain in both the books, offset by moments of almost slapstick farce. It is these contrasts that make the books work so well – comedy can turn to tragedy in the blink of an eye and I often found my laughter choking in my throat as tragedy descended out of a clear blue sky.

The books are prime examples of everything that McMurtry does best. Raving loonies, glorious eccentrics, sadistic psychopaths, drunks, and whores bring the narratives to life. They are glorious, rollicking tales. Highly recommended.

Robert Silverberg’s new novel is perfectly competent and perfectly written; it’s a perfectly told story, and it is perfectly dull. Silverberg is never less than competent in what he writes – he’s a brilliant craftsman. But I can’t help thinking that ever since he reinvented himself when he came out of retirement in the late 1970s he really hasn’t been trying very hard. The novels from his most inventive decade, the 1960s, are almost one and all superbly structured, thoughtful and innovative works. The novels from his second wind, as it were, are almost one and all middle of the road stories that take no risks and make no dangerous statements. They are perfect commercial fictions that must earn him a pretty penny, but they aren’t works of art. He’s just marking time; he’s just doing it for the money.

The Longest Way Home is a young adult novel; a coming of age story. Society on Homeworld is rigidly stratified. The first settlers who came to Homeworld were the Folk. They pushed aside the indigenous inhabitants and effectively took over the world (not that the indigenes seemed to mind too much). Later, a second wave of immigrants displaced the Folk and as the novel opens, the Great Houses that were established by the second wave have ruled Homeworld for more than a thousand years. Joseph is the scion of one of the Great Houses. He is visiting an estate in the far north; a long way from his ancestral home. One night the Folk rebel against the Great Houses and try to reclaim their world. Joseph is one of the few survivors of the massacre. His home is ten thousand miles to the south. Alone and friendless, he sets off on a long and perilous journey.

Silverberg uses the story to play with a lot of clever ideas about the various societies that Joseph encounters on his travels. There are the indigenes of course (there are several different intelligent species on the planet). There are also the Folk themselves. Silverberg has obviously had a lot of fun inventing all these different cultures and playing with them.

The story is very straightforward though. It’s just an odyssey, and quite a predictable one. The overall plot has no surprises. The book a nice way to pass a couple of hours but the story will quickly vanish from your mind like morning mist beneath the sun. There is no real substance to it.

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen have written a sequel to their 1999 book The Science of Discworld. The structure of the new book is very similar to that of the old one. In alternate chapters, Pterry tells a small Discworld tale and in the other chapters, the other authors discourse (sometimes quite whimsically) about scientific ideas and each set of chapters illuminates and builds upon the other set. This time round though, the authors are more concerned with the ideas behind science than they are with science itself. The book talks about language and culture and the development of ideas, it talks about philosophy and evolution (and about good and evil). It paddles in very deep and sometimes very murky waters and it is a credit to all the authors that they can manage to be funny about these very hard (and sometimes abstract) ideas and yet they never lose sight of the essential seriousness of the things they are discussing. It is a very deep and very difficult book that is covered in froth and that may contain nuts. If you read it, expect to have your world views seriously challenged. It’s a bed of nails; some of them very sharp and uncomfortable.

Ongoing series are becoming more and more the staple diet of publishing. I suppose the theory is that when you have a captive audience who have become hooked on the books they will all flock to the shops and buy the new one as soon as it is released, thereby ensuring a guaranteed minimum number of sales that can probably be estimated with almost actuarial accuracy. Publishers like that kind of thing – it’s good for the balance sheet, it’s easy to budget for and it means they don’t have to take risks (publishers are conservative creatures who abhor risk taking).

I’ve recently read the latest books in several ongoing series. I enjoyed every single one of them immensely for, as it happens, these series really are very good indeed and I have nothing but praise for the books that comprise them. Nevertheless I wonder a little about the motivations of the publishers and indeed I wonder sometimes about the motivations of the writers as well. How long will they be able to maintain the standard?

Sharyn McCrumb shows no signs of slipping. The Songcatcher is the latest of her Appalachian series of novels and like all the rest it is hauntingly beautiful. Lindsey Davis has a new Falco novel in The Jupiter Myth and Falco is as cynical and as funny as ever and the plot is pleasingly complex and beautifully worked out. Reginald Hill has written an absolutely wonderful novel in Death’s Jest Book, the latest instalment of the ongoing saga of Dalziel and Pascoe, and Janet Evanovich is as screamingly funny as ever in Hard Eight, the latest Stephanie Plum book.

And yet I can’t help wondering. It seems to me that the only people who will ever read these books are those who are already familiar with the series to which they belong. The knowledge of the characters and of their past histories that we bring to each book adds so much depth, so much flavour, so much savour to the stories that I really can’t imagine anybody coming to these latest novels cold and getting very much out of them at all. The historical trail that they stretch behind them is the stabilising nine tenths of the iceberg that remains underwater. And I strongly suspect that any words I have to say about the plots, characters and incidents of any of these books are a complete and utter irrelevance. What matters is only the fact that they are the latest books in the series and they are available now.

If you already know of the stories, you will want to read the books no matter what I say. If you’ve never heard of the series before you will probably be immediately turned off by the fact that there is so much backstory to come to grips with. The Jupiter Myth is the fourteenth Falco novel and Death’s Jest Book is the nineteenth Dalziel and Pascoe story. Janet Evanovich has made it to eight and Sharyn McCrumb is lagging a little behind in the race with only seven books so far in the series.

So let me just alert you to the fact that the books exist and let me share with those in the know the fact that all of them are simply superb, despite being just the mixture as before. Indeed, the Janet Evanovich is so much the mixture as before that it almost turns into writing by numbers! But that didn’t stop me laughing out loud at every expected scene, every expected turn of phrase. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned.

Ship of Fools is a very odd book indeed. On the surface it is science fiction. The starship Argonos has wandered through space for many generations. It has been fourteen years since the crew last made planetfall and things are getting desperate. A steady transmission draws them to a planet that they name Antioch. They find the grisly remains of an old colony; there is nobody left alive.

Another transmission draws them on to another destination and the dark heart of an alien mystery which forces them to confront the existence of a malignancy that appears to have no other purpose except simply to be. (I don’t want to spoil things any more than that; so I have to be a little vague here).

However despite the SF trappings I’m not convinced that this is really an SF novel at all. The major opposition to the policies of the captain of the Argonos comes from Bishop Soldano, a cleric with his own agenda. There is a strong religious influence on the Argonos (indeed one of the most impressive structures on the ship is a huge cathedral). Despite the fact that on the surface the book concerns itself with the search for meaning in the seemingly meaningless acts of the aliens, what it really seems to be about is the conflict between church and state; particularly when that conflict enters the areas of philosophy and the old and still unanswered question of just why god permits evil to happen. An added dimension is the Bishop’s own seeming lack of belief in the tenets of his faith which lends a somewhat cynical feel to his machinations.

The prime motivations behind the voyage of the Argonos appear to be those of the Roman Catholic church – and it isn’t even a twenty first century Catholicism; it owes far more to the church of the fifteenth century than it does to contemporary times and that too gives the novel an old-fashioned and at times unconvincing feel.

The surface story is exciting and interesting, but the religious conflicts are artificial and somewhat old fashioned and the whole novel feels peculiar as a result. I’m really not sure what Russo thought he was trying to achieve. For me his relevances seemed quite irrelevant. Consequently I could never feel any involvement with the characters and the novel was ultimately unsatisfying.

After all that old time religion, it was time for some light relief. I turned to Space Suits, allegedly by Charles Sheffield. It’s a collection of short stories that Sheffield has published over the years in the SF magazines but which have never (to my knowledge) been collected together before. They concern the exploits of a team of interplanetary lawyers who get involved in a lot of dubious cases (Space Suits - geddit, nudge, nudge?). The stories are very light hearted, very funny, and mostly about very icky things like head lice, dentists, pigs (which actually manage to fly!), opera, morticians, sewers, diets, and tapeworms. Even the titles are icky: The Dalmation of Faust, Parasites Lost. I’m sure you get the idea. I’m not surprised that Sheffield denies all knowledge and threatened to sue when the stories were published. But doubtless the royalties will curb his anger…

The Amazing Dr Darwin is another of Sheffield’s short story collections. It was originally published in the early 1980s as Erasmus Magister, but that collection was incomplete. This is the first publication that brings together all of Sheffield’s stories about Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather.

Erasmus Darwin was born in 1731. He took a BA degree from Cambridge in 1754 and then studied medicine in Edinburgh for two years. Later he moved to Derby where he built a reputation as a physician and scientist. He was a contemporary of James Watt and Joseph Priestly and was a member of the Lunar Society – a learned body of the most influential scientific and philosophical men of the time. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s Darwin’s reputation grew and grew. He was physician to King George III; he was the most famous doctor of his day. He was a best selling poet and he even flirted with ideas that would later be codified by his grandson into the theory of evolution.

So much for the facts. Now for the fiction. Charles Sheffield has used the historical Darwin as the hero of the stories in this collection. He comes across as a kind of Sherlock Holmes figure, hired to solve baffling cases that appear on the surface to be supernatural but which under Darwin’s cold, calculating scientific eye prove to have natural explanations after all. There are vampires and ghosts, monsters and demons and a mysterious calculating engine that gives at least the appearance of being a truly scientific device. All are reduced to their lowest common denominator as Erasmus Darwin brings the light of reason (for it is, after all, the Age of Reason) into play.

The stories are superb and I cannot imagine why they are not more famous. I’d never heard of them until I picked this book up (and I only picked it up because generally speaking I like Sheffield’s stories). But obviously they’ve been around for more than twenty years, languishing in some sort of obscurity. That’s a shame.

In the Devil’s Garden is subtitled A Sinful History of Forbidden Food. The seven deadly sins are examined in detail and suitable food is recommended as an accompaniment to each. It’s every foodies delight! It’s a richly layered culinary treat, stuffed with foody anecdotes. If ever you wondered about the mysterious effect of theobromine, look no further than the Marquis de Sade who demanded only two things when imprisoned in the Bastille: replacements for the mahogany dildos that he kept breaking while amusing himself, and lots of chocolate. If ever the attractions of an ortolan have tempted you, read about the last meal consumed by French President Mitterand where he ate two of the small songbirds that have been force fed on millet, grapes and figs, then drowned in Armagnac and roasted in an oven for eight minutes. It is a crime to buy or hunt them, it is illegal to eat them – but Mitterand died of cancer a week later. He didn’t care any more.

It’s a tasty, tasty book. Yum, yum!

One of my very favourite writers is Mick Farren. He writes seedy, cynical SF novels full of sex and drugs and violence, about grittily decadent people living in grim, corrupt societies. Sometimes for light relief he writes vampire novels full of sex and drugs and violence, about grittily decadent undead people living in grim, corrupt societies. And once he wrote a novel about what happened to Jim Morrison after he died. It was full of sex and drugs and violence and gritty decadence and grim, corrupt societies.

But despite all this, the books really are enormous fun. Yes they are – honest!

Farren has also written four biographies of Elvis Presley. I haven’t read them, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that they are grim and decadent and corrupt with lots of sex and violence and drugs.

Now Mick Farren has written his autobiography. It’s called Give the Anarchist a Cigarette. Not surprisingly it is grim and gritty with more than its fair share of decadence. But it is also shot through with insight and humour. Not unlike his novels, really. You can easily see where they all came from.

Farren was a child of the 1960s. Indeed he was one of the shapers of the decade. He was a man in the right place at the right time and he had the right attitudes. He was close to many of the influential figures of the time and was involved in many of the seminal events.

In the Britain where both Farren and I grew up, one of the more prominent political activists was called Tariq Ali. You could scarcely turn on a TV set without seeing reports of Tariq Ali inciting a group of students to protest and mayhem. He was often to be found visiting Nottingham University where he had a lot of friends. I was a student there and I met him several times – in person he was charming and witty, fiercely intelligent and full of strongly held beliefs and he was a brilliant conversationalist. He was sometimes accompanied on his visits by a frizzy haired man who appeared to live on cigarettes and beer. Having read Farren’s autobiography it now becomes clear to me that this must have been Mick Farren himself – though I didn’t know it at the time. We never exchanged any words.

Farren was there when Pink Floyd debuted at the Roundhouse. He was a bouncer at the UFO club and he was the driving spirit behind the publication of the International Times (or IT as it was affectionately known). I used to enjoy IT, it had a very high standard of literacy which was most unusual for an underground newspaper. Of course it suffered rather too much from the psychedelic times in which it was published and the occasional articles printed with fancy type faces in dark green ink on a light green background were often an extraordinary strain on the retina.

Farren was there when Richard Neville faced prosecution for publishing "The Little Red Schoolbook" and he faced prosecution himself over the publication of Nasty Tales, an underground comic book of startling obscenity for the times (though it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today). For a while there was a very real possibility that Farren would go to prison. However he successfully defended himself and the prosecution was overturned. The trial marked a watershed in the relationship between the establishment and those who were (in however small a measure) anti- establishment. These people demanded (and eventually received, albeit grudgingly) a freedom of expression that perhaps we take too much for granted today. The ability to say (and write) "fuck" whenever we want to, to broadcast subversive propaganda disguised as entertainment ("The Simpsons", "South Park") – all these things trace their descent from those two pivotal court cases. And Mick Farren was there.

I enjoyed his autobiography immensely. It gave me a new interpretation of the times that I lived through in my youth. Looking back on it, I was very naïve and so were many of my contemporaries. Farren seems different somehow. Even then he tempered his idealism with cynicism; something that few if any of his contemporaries seemed able to do. Maybe that’s why he proved to be a survivor and they fell by the wayside. And maybe also that’s why he kept some of his ideals when many of his contemporaries lost theirs. The American yippie Jerry Rubin organised some quite violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and duly had his day in court, charged with conspiracy against the government and rioting. But Rubin later sold out to the establishment. The yippie turned yuppie, put on a shirt and tie and became a business entrepreneur on Wall Street. Even Tariq Ali vanished into academia and now publishes complex political novels and learned articles in obscure journals which are linked to every so often by "Arts and Letters Daily". You don’t get much more establishment than that.

Farren tells the tale of those times with enormous gusto and great humour. And does he draw any conclusions from those years of semi-anarchy? Well he does tell us that after a lifetime of smoking dope in enormous quantities, the only drawback that he has ever discovered is that when you open the fridge door after a heavy night on the weed you generally can’t remember whether you went there for a beer or a cheese sandwich.

Personally I think that’s an advantage. Under those circumstances you may as well have both.

Hmmmm. I feel hungry. And thirsty…

John Marsden   Tomorrow When The War Began    Pan
John Marsden   The Dead of Night   Pan
John Marsden   The Third Day, The Frost   Pan
John Marsden   Darkness, Be My Friend   Pan
John Marsden   Burning For Revenge   Pan
John Marsden   The Night Is For Hunting   Pan
John Marsden   The Other Side of Dawn   Pan
Robert Littell   The Company   Macmillan
Larry McMurtry   Boone’s Lick   Pocket
Larry McMurtry   Sin Killer   Simon and Schuster
Robert Silverberg   The Longest Way Home   Gollancz
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart
and Jack Cohen  
The Science of Discworld II - The Globe Ebury Press
Sharyn McCrumb   The Songcatcher   Signet
Lindsey Davis   The Jupiter Myth   Century
Reginald Hill   Death’s Jest Book   Harper Collins
Janet Evanovich   Hard Eight   St. Martin’s Press
Richard Paul Russo   Ship of Fools   Ace
Charles Sheffield (allegedly)  Space Suits   FoxAcre Press
Charles Sheffield   The Amazing Dr. Darwin   Baen
Stewart Lee Allen   In The Devil’s Garden   Canongate
Mick Farren   Give the Anarchist A Cigarette    Jonathan Cape

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