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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (scintillans igniculus)

Alan and Robin Lose Their Spark

"Let's go out for dinner."

And so it was decided. It's something we often do of a Friday, for I have religious objections to cooking on Friday evenings, and there is a perfectly magnificent Malaysian restaurant not a five minute drive down the road.

Robin drove, and as she drove we chatted idly of cabbages and kings, having long ago exhausted the more mundane possibilities of shoes, ships and sealing wax. I'd been teaching all week and I was deep in lecture mode (something I find hard to turn off - Robin pulls my leg unmercifully). I was half-way through an animated and somewhat Rabelaisian monologue on cabbage seeding strategies when Robin said, "The car's stopped."

I listened carefully. Indeed there was no comforting whirr, buzz, click or even thud from the engine compartment. Silence reigned supreme. Robin coasted us to the side of the road but the car ran out of momentum a little too soon, and the tail was left poking slightly out into the road. Uncaring, the New Zealand traffic continued to roar past at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, missing our tail by mere millimetres, doppler shifting themselves into the darkness. Robin leaned over the steering wheel concentrating hard as she turned the ignition key. Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. The engine remained stubbornly silent.

I was about to suggest putting it in gear and using the starter motor to inch us forward away from the traffic when a car pulled up behind us and a knight in shining armour said, "Would you like a push?"

With his help, we got the car further on to the hard shoulder. I turned on my cell phone to call the AA.

Bugger! The battery was flat.

"Here - borrow mine," said the knight in shining armour.

"Thanks, Mr Knight."

Martin Millar is a Glaswegian writer who, under the pseudonym Martin Scott, has written a lot of thoroughly enjoyable, but nevertheless trashy fantasy novels about a private investigator called Thraxas. His mainstream novels under his own name are far less trashy, much more interesting and often very funny. Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me concerns a concert that Led Zeppelin played in Glasgow in 1972. For the youthful hero (the "me" of the title) this is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe. It is so extraordinarily wonderful that he is quite convinced that a real zeppelin must be flying over the city, bringing the ghosts of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Hank Williams down from heaven to marvel at the cosmic importance of it all.

But looking back at it later from the beginning of the twenty first century, it all seems long ago and far away. The "me" who looks back on the event has a totally different perspective. It remains important – but a lot can happen to a man in thirty years. Priorities can change. The book is surprisingly moving. The contrasts play against each other beautifully. I immediately went out and bought the only other two Martin Millar novels that are still in print…

Love and Peace With Melody Paradise is a novel about the Travellers. Melody Paradise is a member of the Tribe of the Last Free Moonbeam. Several of the tribes are feuding with each other (and many of the feuding members are brothers and sisters of Melody Paradise herself). The feuds appear to stem from the time when someone destroyed a wishing tree in a peaceful valley. The death of the tree soured the atmosphere. Melody Paradise resolves to hold a festival in the valley to bring everyone back together. She wants to plant a new wishing tree. Her sister Iris The Peaceful is currently in Portugal looking for a wishing tree that might be happy to come to England. Melody plans to invite The Clan of the Night Time Elves so that everyone can help them with their unicorn survey, also the Tree Planters (to nurture the wishing tree of course). Mary and the Golden World Eternal Party tribe will be there so that the tribes can party madly and the Universal Leyline Protectors will bring their Space Pyramid so that everyone can enjoy some astral travelling. She is sure it will be a great success.

Of course it isn’t. And the reasons for the failure of the festival, together with the delightful cast of wild eccentrics who comprise the tribes that attend it, makes this an extremely funny and also extremely sad book. It has such an air of verisimilitude about it that I’m sure the tribes must be authentic. In many ways it is a perfect SF novel for it examines a remarkably strange and alien society and yet manages to make it perfectly comprehensible (and even attractive, in an odd sort of way).

Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation is a wonderful exercise in paranoia. Alby Starvation is an unemployed teenager with a large comic collection. He makes a precarious living as a small time drug dealer. He is allergic to milk. His alarming symptoms are reported in the newspaper and many other people discover their own milk allergy. Sales of milk drop alarmingly and the Milk Marketing Board puts out a contract on the life of Alby Starvation. Alby doesn’t know which way to turn. If he could sell his comic collection he could buy a gun, but what if the person who wants to buy his comics is the assassin? And who is the Chinese man who appears to be relentlessly pursuing him? Are his drug deals hurting someone big? Alby scarcely dares to go out any more. This is a grimly funny lowlife novel with much arcane lore about comics.

Nicholas Griffin is starting to make a name for himself as a historical novelist with an interest in the seamy side of life. The Requiem Shark is a jolly gruesome novel about pirates (I never could resist pirates) and The House of Sight And Shadow is a jolly gruesome novel about body snatchers and the dissection of cadavers. Sometimes medical insights are sorely achieved.

Both books have a wonderfully authentic feel to them. There is no artificial imposition of twenty-first century attitudes. Far too many historical novelists make judgements about the morality of the times of which they write. Not Nicholas Griffin. He lets the times speak for themselves through the words of their contemporaries and his books stand head and shoulders above the rest as a result.

I dialled the AA magic code, keyed in my membership number on request and waited to be connected. A charming lady asked how she could help and I explained the predicament.

"Where are you?" she asked.

"On the motorway, just before the Johnsonville exit."

"Where's that?" she asked.

"About half way up the Ngauranga gorge," I explained.

"Where's the Now Rongo gorge?". The mispronunciation, and the fact she'd never heard of either it or Johnsonville was the final clue. Pennies began to drop; light bulbs went on over my head. The AA call centre was obviously not in Wellington. I began to wonder where it might be. Auckland perhaps?

"Wellington," I said. "Ngauranga gorge. It's one of the steeper hills."

"There aren't any hills on my map."

I began to worry. What sort of map was she using? Wellington is all hills; there aren't any flat bits. Indeed, there aren't even any down bits. All directions in Wellington are up. I've never been able to find any downwards at all. Everybody in New Zealand knows this. Perhaps she wasn't in New Zealand. Perhaps she was in Outer Mongolia where maps are cheap, though inaccurate.

"Tell them I'm on State Highway 1, just before the Johnsonville exit. They'll know what you mean."

"There'll be a patrol car with you shortly."

"Thank you."

I returned the phone to the knight in shining armour. He drove off, his halo gleaming in the moonlight, and Robin and I settled down to wait for the AA man.

Robert Charles Wilson is slowly and surely building a substantial body of work. Blind Lake is his latest novel, and it’s a scorcher! Blind Lake itself is a research establishment where scientists are using a rather mysterious technology to spy on alien creatures on a planet many light years away. They cannot communicate with the aliens in any way – all they can do is watch and try to make sensible deductions about what they see. This isn’t easy, of course. These are very odd aliens indeed and there are few, if any, analogies that can be drawn from terrestrial experience.

Without warning, a military cordon is placed around Blind Lake. Nobody can enter, nobody can leave. Several people try to leave; but they are all killed. There is no communication at all with the outside world. There is much speculation as to the reason for this. Many believe that there has been some kind of catastrophe at a sister organisation which was studying another planet (albeit an uninhabited one) and Blind Lake has been put in quarantine until this is resolved.

But whatever the reason, they are completely cut off. The scientists get on with their work of course (though personality clashes in what is now a very small society soon start to have adverse effects). And then, impossibly, evidence accumulates that the aliens are aware that they are under observation. Perhaps communication may be possible after all.

Not only is this an extraordinarily fascinating story in its surface details, it also examines a lot of peripheral questions beneath the surface. How do societies work? How influential are personality types? What does it mean to see things from an alien point of view and how will we ever understand it? This is a great book and I loved it.

Spider Robinson is back with Callahan’s Con. And no, unusually for the Spider, the title does not refer to a science fiction convention (he’s almost given up his self-referential science fiction, thank goodness). Jake Stonebender’s bar in Key West has been going for ten years now and it’s a great place to be. Pixel, the cat who used to own Robert Heinlein, pops in every so often. There’s a merman with eczema in the swimming pool and Jake’s daughter Erin is starting to grow up (though she does a lot of time travelling). The puns are pungent and so is the coffee. Everyone seems happy. But then a gangster called Tony Donuts Jr. decides to muscle in and starts demanding protection money. A good con trick is needed to get rid of him, and the collective minds at Jake’s place come up with one.

But even they can’t do anything about it when death comes calling as well. The Callahan stories have traditionally always been quite light and frothy and they always have a happy ending. But not this time – this time things are a bit darker and I think the story is all the stronger for it.

With The Victorious Opposition, Harry Turtledove closes his American Empire trilogy. Jake Featherston has consolidated his position as President of the Confederate States. He proves to be a consummate politician as he manoeuvres the USA into returning many of the lands that were lost in the bitter aftermath of the first world war. But his final goal, admitted only to his closest confidantes, has always been to fight the USA again and as the novel closes, the guns are firing again and the second world war is beginning. Doubtless another trilogy is on the way…

Diana Wynne Jones is a marvel. The Merlin Conspiracy is her latest novel and I think it is one of her best. It is a sequel to Deep Secret and has some characters in common with it, but you don’t have to have read the earlier book to appreciate this one. It stands alone very well.

The story is told from the points of view of two characters.- Roddy Hyde and Nick Mallory. Roddy is the daughter of two court wizards and travels with them as the King’s Progress wends its never ending way around the country. Nick is from a more mundane world, very similar to our own, where magic (if it exists) is practised in secret. He somehow stumbles into another world (or perhaps half-world) where he meets Roddy who has discovered a conspiracy to subvert the King. The current Merlin has died and a new one must be appointed. But it seems that there are powerful influences at court and the new Merlin may not be all that he seems to be. Together Nick and Roddy must try and rescue the situation.

It’s not a new plot – well, there aren’t any new plots, are there? What gives the book its attractiveness and its sheer page-turning power is the very complex storyline, the wonderful characters who leap alive on every page, the fully imagined (and well lived in) worlds and the sheer exuberant joy of the story. Diana Wynne Jones has never been better.

McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is a return to the good old days of the pulp magazines. The writers of the stories in this collection were given a simple guideline. Write a story full of great deeds of derring do; just like stories used to be once upon a time before the literati took over and made them dull. Write the stories the best you know how. Use the lessons you’ve learned as writers of well crafted fiction. Bring all your skills to bear, don’t commit literature, just tell me a story. Surely the results will be magnificent? And they are.

Harlan Ellison, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock and many others responded to the challenge and have produced some of the most wonderful pulp tales you will ever read. This is what the pulps should have been like but never were. Believe me, the tales are truly thrilling.

I was about to continue my discourse on cabbages when I gradually became aware of a flashing blue light. A police car had pulled up behind us. Presently it disgorged a policeman and we got out of the car to talk to him.

"Need any help?"

"It's OK - we've rung the AA. We're just waiting."

"Oh good," he said. "We got a phone call reporting that you seemed to have broken down but your tail was sticking out into the traffic, which seemed a bit hazardous."

It would appear that one of the maniacs speeding past us was somewhat public spirited. Or perhaps simply resentful of something that required him to slow down and take evasive action. Obviously we must be removed immediately so that he could continue to exercise his god-given right to exceed the speed limit.

"Also," continued the policeman, "the report said..."

Before he could complete the sentence, more flashing lights and a siren split the welkin and an ambulance shrieked in and pulled up in front of us. It disgorged two paramedics.

"...that the driver was slumped over the wheel," finished the policeman. "So we called an ambulance."

"Ah," said Robin thoughtfully. "That was me, concentrating hard on turning the key as I tried to restart the engine."

"Never mind," said the policeman. "No harm done."

He had a brief word with the paramedics, who laughed, got back into their ambulance and drove off again.

"Good luck," said the policeman, and he too drove off into the night, completely ignoring the speeding drivers racing along the motorway. Obviously he'd filled his quota for that day - not hard to do when you are on motorway patrol.

High Spirits is a slim volume of ghost stories that Robertson Davies wrote to be read aloud at the annual Christmas festivities at his college. By and large they are lightweight and rather thin with a lot of obvious in-jokes and references to contemporaries who have long faded from view (if indeed they were ever in it). There are also many references to Canadian history (an obsession of Davies’ for he was himself Canadian) and again the personalities and events are largely unknown outside of Canada. All in all, it is a disappointing book. I am sure that Davies himself would agree with me – I don’t think he really intended these little light-hearted squibs to be for general release.

Murther and Walking Spirits is probably Robertson Davies’ most self-indulgent book. The story opens with the murder of Connor Gilmartin by the Sniffer, his one time journalistic colleague who is having an affair with Gilmartin’s wife. Somewhat to Gilmartin’s surprise, his spirit or soul remains earthbound after his death and Gilmartin gets much amusement out of the reactions of his wife and the Sniffer to the murder. He seems to be under some small compulsion to follow the Sniffer around and to an extent he regrets this for the Sniffer is a film critic and Gilmartin does not always like the films that the Sniffer goes to see. However it turns out that when the Sniffer is watching a film, Gilmartin sees a completely different film on the screen. Gilmartin’s films tell the tale of how his family came to Canada and how Canada grew to be the country that it is today.

Much of the material is autobiographical and Davies indulges himself too much in it. The book is quite tedious for long stretches as Davies dwells for too long on far too many dull people.

By contrast, The Cunning Man, which was Davies’ last novel and which is a direct sequel to Murther and Walking Spirits, is altogether different and much more sprightly. Father Hobbes dies mysteriously in the pulpit halfway through the celebration of Good Friday. Doctor Jonathan Hullah (the cunning man of the title, named thus for his diagnostic skills and rather unorthodox views) wants to know why. His search for answers again involves much autobiographical delving, but it is much wittier and more interesting than it was in the previous book. Many characters from the previous book are met with again in this one, but they have larger roles to play and the canvas is broader and splashed with much brighter colours. I’m glad that Davies ended his life on such a high note. It would have been a terrible shame if Murther and Walking Spirits had been his last book.

Horror: 100 Best Books consists of a hundred small essays by a hundred writers wherein they discuss the horror novels that have had the greatest effect on their lives and works. Many of the essays are little gems. Even if you don’t like the horror genre I think you will find a lot of insight and value here. Many writers who do not themselves write horror stories have contributed essays (Terry Pratchett, Joe Haldeman et al) and their conclusions about the genre and its effect on them are often refreshing.

Spike Milligan was one of my heroes. I consider that the world is a much better place for having had Spike in it and I was very pleased to read the essays in Spike Milligan: His Part In Our Lives wherein many people who knew Spike contribute their memories.

There was the time when Milligan, feeling bored, walked into an undertaker’s parlour, lay down on his back on the floor, crossed his arms over his chest and yelled, "Shop!"

In 1992 he was awarded the CBE and he said," I can’t see the sense in it really. It makes me a Commander of the British Empire. They might as well make me a Commander of Milton Keynes – at least that exists!"

Milligan was a genius – and often a very difficult person. He was hated as much as he was loved by those who knew him. Michael Parkinson, who interviewed him several times, said that he could veer from being absolutely obnoxious to being wonderful, depending on the mood you found him in. It is clear that some of the contributors to this book remain at best ambivalent about Spike.

I found the book warm and funny. I laughed out loud many times at the reminiscences. And I couldn’t resist reading many of the anecdotes to Robin. She was, bless her, very patient with me. She laughed a lot as well.

It’s a great book about a great man.

Robin and I settled down again to await the AA man. Rather to my surprise, he turned up a few minutes later. Obviously the lady in Outer Mongolia had successfully got the message through, probably on a caravan of supersonic camels.

We explained the problem.

"Turn the engine over," he said. "Let's have a listen."

Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. Silence.

"Hmmm." He dived into his van and brought out wires with mysterious mechanisms attached. He unscrewed a spark plug from our engine and attached it to one of the mechanisms.

"Do it again."

Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. Lots of absolutely nothing happened to the spark plug.

"Well that's it then," he said gloomily. "No spark. Your ignition system's dead. Nothing I can do about that. I can give you a tow to a garage though."

Robin and I conferred.

"OK - there's a garage just in Johnsonville; on the right as you take the Johnsonville exit."

No sooner said than done. He towed us to the garage which was (predictably) closed. We had no choice but to park outside it and leave the car overnight.

"Nobody's going to steal it," said Robin. "They can't take it for a joy ride."

We left the car and walked to the Malaysian restaurant.

"I'll get up early tomorrow and give them a ring," I said. "The sign outside said they were open from 7.30am."

"Did you write down the phone number?" asked Robin.

"There wasn't a number on the sign. But they're bound to be in the book. I'll look it up when we get home. Autostart."

"I thought they were called Autostop," said Robin firmly.

"No, no," I said. "Autostart. Nobody is going to call a place that fixes cars Autostop. Who'd be silly enough to take their auto to a place that promised to stop it? Autostart. Has to be."

"Quite right," said Robin. "Autostop doesn't make any sense at all. I was wrong."

Later, replete with impeccable Malaysian cuisine from Givas Restaurant, we walked past the garage on our way to catch a taxi home.

'Autostop ' said the sign, in large friendly letters.

"What really pisses me off," said Robin, "is that you sounded so certain, and your reasons were so logical that you actually made me doubt the evidence of my own eyes. I should have had the courage of my convictions and insisted you were wrong!"

"Sorry," I said. "I've been teaching all week. I'm always convincing in the classroom. Always certain, always full of logical explanations. It's part of the act. Students will believe any old rubbish as long as you keep your face straight."

"Humph," said Robin, and she held my hand as we walked to the taxi.

"Mind you," I said, "I convinced myself as well. I honestly thought it was Autostart."

Over the next couple of days, Autostop put the spark back into the car. Robin went to pick it up.

"Here you are," they said. "We've filled the spark tank full. Lots of spark now. By the way - your clutch is slipping. You need a new one urgently..."

Martin Millar Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me Codex
Martin Millar Love and Peace With Melody Paradise IMP Fiction
Martin Millar Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation IMP Fiction
Nicholas Griffin The Requiem Shark Abacus
Nicholas Griffin  The House of Sight and Shadow Abacus
Robert Charles Wilson  Blind Lake Tor
Spider Robinson Callahan’s Con Tor
Harry Turtledove American Empire: The Victorious Opposition Del Rey
Diana Wynne Jones  The Merlin Conspiracy Collins
Michael Chabon (ed) McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales Vintage
Robertson Davies  High Spirits Penguin
Robertson Davies  Murther and Walking Spirits Penguin
Robertson Davies  The Cunning Man Penguin
Stephen Jones and Kim Newman (Ed)  Horror: 100 Best Books Xanadu
Maxine Ventham (Ed) Spike Milligan: His Part In Our Lives Robson Books
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