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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (somnus interruptus)


The flight from Wellington to Christchurch was completely uneventful. I should have realised it was an omen.

I arrived at my hotel, weary with the day.

"Lo!" I said. "Here I am. Pray show me immediately to the room reserved for me, that I may lie down and sleep the sleep of the just arrived."

There was much clicking of mice and poking of keys and staring at computer screens. Finally, in desperation, written records were consulted.

"I'm sorry, sir. We have no record of your reservation."

"Ha!" I riposted. "Here is written confirmation."

They examined the form supplied by my travel agent.

"Well," said the man behind the counter, "that's certainly the name of our hotel. But the street address is wrong. The address on the form is the address of one of our other hotels in Christchurch. I'll ring them and see if they have your reservation."

He rang the other hotel, but they had never heard of me either.

"I'll tell you what," said the man. "We've got a third hotel in the city. I'll ring them, just on the off chance."

But they too were utterly unfamiliar with my name.

I began to experience the feelings of existential dread commonly associated with having no hotel reservation.

"Do you perhaps have a list of convenient park benches?" I queried. "I hear that they are quite comfortable at this time of the year, though rumour has it that they are a little on the chilly side in the small hours of the morning."

"I'll ring head office," said the man. "Perhaps they will have an explanation for this."

He went into the back, just out of earshot. I heard low mutterings. He came back smiling.

"Well," he said, " it really does appear to be our fault. Somehow your booking has been lost in the system. We do apologise most profusely. So to make it up to you, we will accommodate you in one of our luxury suites, at no extra charge."

Perhaps the travel gods were on my side after all.

The luxury suite had a bedroom with a television, and a lounge with a television and a huge bathroom with two of every feature and fitting except televisions, which were noticeably absent. I felt deprived - I'd been looking forward to watching Coronation Street while sitting on one of the loos. I'd have to settle for just listening to it instead. However I didn't think I'd miss too many plot subtleties.

There was no alarm clock in the bedroom, but that was OK; I had my Palm Pilot which had a built in alarm clock. I set it for 6.30am and retired to bed, where I watched one of the televisions for a time. Most enjoyable. Then I curled up and went to sleep.

Jack Vance: A Critical Appreciation And a Bibliography is a handsome book with erudite articles by the likes of Gene Wolfe, Dave Langford and Tom Shippey. But the jewel in the crown is a lengthy biographical chapter written by Vance himself. This alone justifies the somewhat excessive price of the book. It is a slim volume, but utterly fascinating and the bibliography is a superb work of scholarship. Those who admire Vance's writing will thoroughly enjoy this book. Those who don't know Vance's work will probably find it tedious and less than illuminating. I thought it was wonderful.

Langford pops up again with The Complete Critical Assembly which is a collection of short book review columns that he wrote for the gaming magazines White Dwarf, Games Master, and Games Master International from 1983 to 1991. The editors of the magazines imposed severe restrictions on the length of the articles, but nevertheless Langford managed to review much of the important SF published during these years (and a lot of the dross as well) and he encapsulated it all in short, pithy sentences of devastating wit and insight. I'm sure that many of the authors he reviewed didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Fortunately Langford never reviewed me, so I just laughed and loved it all, and so will you.

With A Short History Of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson has taken on the self-appointed task of explaining modern theories about the origin and evolution of the universe, and the place of the Earth, and of mankind, within it. His book is a history of everything that science has to say about pretty much every subject you can think of, and generally he approaches the ideas from a historical perspective in order to bring them more sharply into focus. Thus we have many strangely fascinating glimpses into the lives and times of some of the weirdly eccentric characters who have, over the centuries, contributed to the body of human knowledge. Bryson really has done a superb job, and he explains many complex ideas in clear and fascinating detail.

And yet I found the book quite heavy going; quite difficult to read. In the final analysis I felt it was somewhat dull. But I suspect that this may be much more a fault in me than it is a fault in Bill Bryson. I was already very familiar with most of the scientific ideas he discussed (many of them I'd studied in considerable depth at university). I also knew a lot about the scandals and the back-biting among the odd personalities who formulated these ideas.  I've always been interested in the history of science, and I have read quite extensively in the field. So to that extent reading Bryson's book was like re-chewing the gum that I'd left on the bedpost overnight. And also, of course, Isaac Asimov wrote about all of this long before Bryson attempted it, and in my opinion Asimov did it more entertainingly and also more authoritatively for he was himself a scientist, and Bryson is not. All of this detracted from my enjoyment. Full marks to Bryson for attempting it, but in the end I think he failed.

Jeffrey Steingarten is the food columnist for Vogue magazine. The Man Who Ate Everything is a collection of some of his articles. The title is perfectly self-explanatory; the columns are hilarious (though they have a serious purpose). Anybody who is in the least interested in food will love this book. And if you aren't interested in food then you are probably dead already and you have become food for some other creature. Read these essays if you need to learn why salad wants to kill you; if you are eager to understand why the perfect paella must contain either twelve snails or two sprigs of rosemary (but not both), if you have to know when the first death occurred from eating a surfeit of lima beans, and if you are keen to find out about the Hazardous Waist.

Ring! Ring! Ring!

My Palm Pilot woke me up. It was flashing its power switch at me and making horrible noises. Outside it was still dark. I hate winter. I pressed the flashing power switch and the Palm Pilot shut up.

Yawning, I forced my way out of bed and into the bathroom. I turned on one of the showers and waited for the water to reach a civilised temperature. I was just about to climb in when:

Ring! Ring! Ring!

The Palm Pilot was trying to wake me up again. Didn't it realise that I was already up? Obviously just pressing the power button was not sufficient to dissuade it from its self-imposed task. More subtle measures were called for. I yawned back into the bedroom and examined it closely. This time I found an obscure button drawn on the screen. "Alarm Off" it said. I took out the Palm Pilot's pokey stick thing and prodded the button. The alarm shut up. I turned the power off again and went back to the shower.

Later, abluted and only mildly moist, I took my towel into the bedroom. I turned on the television in order to watch the news on the breakfast show. Oddly, all I could find was motor racing. No breakfast show. Strange...

I finished drying myself and began to get dressed. Powerful formula one racing cars screamed round the track. The commentator was so excited that he utterly lost the power of speech and was reduced to communicating with an incoherent babbling of words that seemed to contain no vowels. Most extraordinary. I picked up my watch, strapped it to my wrist, and glanced idly at the dial.

Oh, oh.

That was when I discovered that nobody had told my Palm Pilot about daylight saving. It had dutifully woken me at what it was convinced was 6.30am. Unfortunately the rest of New Zealand thought it was 5.30am. No wonder it was so dark outside. No wonder I still felt tired after my shower. No wonder I could only get motor racing on the television.

There being nothing else to do, I went down to breakfast. Not unnaturally I was the only person there. The waitress poured me coffee and fetched me toast. She seemed grateful to have something to do and hovered attentively, refilling my coffee cup whenever I took a sip. I breakfasted in the solitary luxury of the huge restaurant. It seemed as though there were hundreds of tables covered in acres of gleaming white tablecloths. I felt quite guilty about the coffee stains and crumbs that I was leaving on mine.

It was far too early to go into work, but I went anyway.

The Wandering Hill is the second instalment of Larry McMurtry's saga about the exploits of the Berrybender family as they journey through the old west of the 1830s. Nobody brings the west alive like McMurtry. He shows us the pain and the peril, the humour and the heartache. Tragedy can turn to farce and back again to tragedy in the blink of an eye. And sometimes it is hard to tell which is tragedy and which is farce. Drunken Lord Berrybender, angry with his son, lunges at him with a fork over the dinner table and accidentally pulls his eye from out of his head. It quite ruins the mood. There is a lot of brutality in this book, but also deep compassion. I think it is the constant contrast that gives the narrative its tension and makes it so vibrant.

Abandoning their luxury steamer (and unbeknownst to them, leaving the crew to be tortured and murdered by hostile Indians) the Berrybenders and their companions have travelled overland to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Here, at the trading post of Pierre Boisdeffre they will spend the winter along with Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and other trappers down from the mountains. Tasmin Berrybender is heavily pregnant and somewhat mortified to discover that her husband Jim Snow (the Sin Killer) has a whole other Indian family that he hasn't told her about. As Tasmin's father loses his strength (and various important body parts) she tries to hold her disintegrating family together. It is a measure of the strength of her character and vision that she largely succeeds, though not without some losses, some painful deaths.

When it is complete, the four volume series that will make up The Berrybender Narratives will almost certainly prove to be McMurtry's magnum opus.

Danny King goes from strength to strength. The Hitman Diaries is his third novel and in my opinion his best so far. The title says it all. This is a story, told in the first person, about the life and times of a professional assassin. That such an intrinsically revolting subject can be at one and the same time both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply serious (not to say insightful) says a lot for Danny King's writing ability.

Ian Bridges is the hitman. He has a job he loves. He can choose his own hours of work within reason - sometimes there are deadlines to meet (ho, ho). He earns good money and lives a luxurious life. But he is lonely. He needs the love of a good woman (or even a bad one) but he is unlucky in love. All his girl friends end up dead. Sometimes by his own hand. It's tough being a hitman - particularly when you have to give lessons to the boss's psychopathic nephew...

The Lost Army Of Cambyses is Paul Sussman's first novel. It's an archaeological thriller - in 523 BC the Persian King Cambyses despatched an army across Egypt's Western desert to make war against Siwa. The army never returned. They simply vanished in the trackless wastes of the desert. Legend has it that they were overwhelmed by a great sandstorm and buried forever.

Two and a half thousand years later a mutilated corpse is washed up on the banks of the Nile at Luxor, an antiques dealer is savagely murdered in Cairo and a British archaeologist dies of a heart attack in the ancient necropolis at Saqqara. Inspector Yusuf Khalifa is put on to the case.

It soon becomes clear that the connecting link between these disparate deaths is a mysterious artefact covered in hieroglyphs which is eagerly sought by all parties, though not all of them are clear as to just why it is so important. And brooding over all the action is the deadly figure of a terrorist freedom fighter, one of the more extreme of his kind, responsible for many atrocities in his pursuit of freedom and Muslim purity.

It doesn't quite work. Sussman isn't quite skilful enough to keep all his balls in the air at once. I'd figured out the so-called sting in the tail long before I got to the great revelations of the last chapter. Sussman didn't do nearly good enough a job of obscuring his plot. His red herrings were merely a pale, somewhat translucent pink and not at all hard to see through. Perhaps he'll do better next time.

Island In The Sea Of Time is an alternate history novel by S. M. Stirling - and a damn good one it is too! One day in the twentieth century, for no adequately explained reason, the island of Nantucket is transported back in time to the year 1250 BC. The novel concerns the difficulties the islanders face trying to survive in the bronze age. It soon becomes clear that in order to stay alive the Nantucketeers will have to make alliances with many of the bronze age people. To this end an expedition is mounted to what will one day become England. The effects of the subsequent alliance immediately begin to skew contemporary history (and many worry that they will destroy the future that they themselves came from). Eventually (almost inevitably) war breaks out.

The novel was followed by two progressively more dire sequels. Against The Tide Of Years and On The Oceans Of Eternity continue the story but they quickly bog down in tedious militaria. The Nantucketeers are involved in a war on several fronts. The story briefly comes to life as we meet several historical characters (Odysseus, Agamemnon, Meneleus et al) but Stirling spends far too much time on the minutiae of strategy and tactics, and blow by blow accounts of battles and skirmishes. There is too much padding and not enough story. He should have stuck to just one book.

That evening, exhausted, I carefully checked the time on the Palm Pilot and compared it to the time on my wrist. I got out the pokey stick thing again and prodded the Palm Pilot awhile. Now the two times agreed to the second. I turned the alarm on and watched something that wasn't motor racing on one of the televisions. I got bored, and watched something else that also wasn't motor racing on the other television. I went into the bathroom and washed my hands in one wash basin. Then I washed my face in the other wash basin. I contemplated the two toilets and used them both, for different purposes. Then I went to bed.

I opened my eyes. I was wide awake. I wondered what time it was. I turned on the light and stared at my watch, which stared back at me. It was 5.30am. The Palm Pilot sat smugly. It wasn't going to ring for an hour yet. It knew what it's responsibilities were. My body clock had betrayed me this time.

I considered going back to sleep, but instead I got up and used the shower that I hadn't used yesterday. I watched the motor racing for a while. This morning, for a change, the commentator's vocabulary contained no consonants. I went down to breakfast and yawned my way through cereals, toast and an amazing amount of coffee.

That evening, after work, I decided to go for a drink. Just across the road from the hotel was a pub which sold Guinness. However when I went in, I discovered that they also sold Bailey's Best Bitter and they had a special offer on. If you drank five pints, the sixth was free! Fortunately not all of the pints had to be drunk on the same night. What Yorkshireman could resist such an offer? Certainly not me. I drank several pints and vowed to return the next night and, ultimately, claim my freeby.

Bailey's Best Bitter obviously did the trick, for the next morning I was awoken at precisely 6.30am by the gleeful ringing of my Palm Pilot. I showered and shampooed (though only once) and finally got to watch the news on the breakfast show. However I felt that the motor racing commentary of the previous two days had been considerably more lucid. The breakfast room was crowded and I utterly failed to obtain a second cup of coffee.

Nevertheless, for the rest of the week I drank Bailey's Best Bitter and it never failed to work. I recommend it highly.

I arrived home from Christchurch on Friday 20th June. I was in a state of high excitement, for the next day the new Harry Potter novel would arrive in the bookshops.

Saturday June 21st dawned clear and fine. Shortly after 11.00am (when the book went on sale in New Zealand) I went down to the local suburb on the theory that the bookshops there would be far less crowded than those in the centre of town. I couldn't have been more wrong. Both bookshops were seething with people and furthermore there were no copies of the book on display - the shops seemed to be only supplying those people who had pre-ordered the book. I gave up in disgust and wandered across the road where, purely on the off chance, I popped into The Warehouse (Where Everyone Gets A Bargain). Somewhat to my surprise, they had boxes and boxes and boxes of the book on display. There were no queues (because nobody knew they were selling the book) and what is more, the price was 50c cheaper than it was across the road in the official bookshops! I bought it immediately and took it home to gloat.

Harry is fifteen years old now, and full of teenage angst and hormones. Rowling captures him perfectly (we were all fifteen once). Now that he is growing up he is starting to realise that the world is far more complicated than once he believed it to be. In the earlier books a younger Harry saw the conflict with Voldemort in strict black and white terms. Now he is seeing the shades of grey and he doesn't like them very much. He is also just young enough to be treated like a child by the adults and just old enough to believe that he isn't a child any longer. For much of the book he knows that things are going on, but nobody will tell him what they are. Naturally he resents this and more than once he throws spanners in the works, to everybody's consternation. It all cumulates in a splendid tantrum thrown in Dumbledore's study - and it serves Dumbledore right I say! He behaves abominably towards Harry (for much of the book he refuses to speak to Harry at all).

It's an introspective novel. Not a lot happens in terms of actual incident (and much of what does occur happens off stage, only to be reported later by the various Greek Choruses of Hagrid, Dumbledore et al). Nevertheless Rowling manages to keep the narrative tension at an extremely high pitch. The pages turn rapidly; it's an easy and absorbing read, though a very dark one. The normal bits of business are as inventive and delightful as ever, but the dark undertone lends the book a melancholy air. And as we all know, there is a death, and it is a significant one. I'll let you into a secret. The person who dies...

...isn't Harry Potter.

A. E. Cunningham Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations And A Bibliography The British Library
David Langford The Complete Critical Assembly Cosmos Books
Bill Bryson A Short History Of Nearly Everything Broadway
Jeffrey Steingarten The Man Who Ate Everything Review
Larry McMurtry The Wandering Hill Simon and Schuster
Danny King The Hitman Diaries Serpent's Tail
Paul Sussman The Lost Army of Cambyses Bantam
S. M. Stirling Island In The Sea Of Time Roc
S. M. Stirling Against The Tide Of Years Roc
S. M. Stirling On The Oceans Of Eternity Roc
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix Bloomsbury
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