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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (effractarius felinus)


Morning rituals chez Robson are heavily encrusted with tradition and habit, and are not subject to change. The alarm goes off at 6.29am so that I can listen to the 6.30 news broadcast on National Radio. This is actually rather silly, since the 6.30 news broadcast does not usually happen until 6.31 or 6.32 or, on one never to be forgotten occasion, 6.33. This is because the previous programme is the Rural News which is run by farmers who are unable to comprehend units of time smaller than a season, and therefore it invariably over runs.

By the time the alarm goes off at 6.29am I have probably been awake for about half an hour or so anyway. This is because the cats, Porgy and Bess, have been marching up and down on top of me for thirty minutes complaining bitterly about night starvation. When the alarm goes off, they jump off the bed eager for breakfast. They find it quite frustrating to have to wait for the 6.30 news. By the time that 6.32am rolls around, I’m finding it frustrating as well.

The alarm is also a signal for me to yawn and stretch; to scratch this bit and that, and to remove the leaves from my hair. Bess brings these hunting trophies in during the night. When Peter Jackson constructed the studio set of Fangorn Forest for the film of Lord Of The Rings he collected hundreds of sacks full of leaves to scatter around the set in order to give it an air of verisimilitude. He did not, however, completely exhaust the supply of leaves in the country and Bess has been very busy over the last year bringing them in one by one. Periodically I hire a mini-skip, and fill it with the leaves that Bess has brought me.

Once the news is over, I stagger to the kitchen trying hard not to trip over the cats weaving to and fro between my legs. I fill their bowl with biscuits. Heads down, bums up, they dive in and crunch. I head off for the shower where I turn on the waterproof radio and listen to the Mana Report, which is usually quite interesting, and the Financial and Business news, which is not.

When I get back to the bedroom, Robin is slowly surfacing. Porgy has finished his breakfast and is curled up on the bed with Robin. Bess has gone outside to look for leaves. I get dressed and Robin goes for her shower. I prepare my breakfast. Toast, medium rare. Marmalade. I like marmalade.

Porgy waits outside the bathroom door. His second treat of the morning is about due and his eyes glow with excitement. A cloud of steam with Robin inside it emerges from the bathroom and heads for the bedroom where it will get dressed.

"Porgy!" calls the cloud of steam, "it’s time! I’ve finished!"

Porgy charges into the bathroom, leaps into the shower stall and licks up all the soapy, shampooey water in the tray. Then he lies down contemplatively for a time, takes a final hopeful lick in the corners in case he’s missed anything, and then plods out. His day is now over. Nothing else of any interest or excitement will happen until tea time. Sleep is indicated.

Robin dumps cereal in a bowl and smothers it with milk. "Yum!" She crunches contentedly for a while. Soon the bowl is empty. She scrapes hopefully with her spoon but nothing happens. It is time to go to work. Close the sliding door into the kitchen, check the lounge and Robin’s office for somnolent cats and toss them out if any are found. Close the doors firmly and turn on the burglar alarm. Another day has begun.

Harry Turtledove has had a particularly prolific month. Three new novels have appeared. In The Presence Of Mine Enemies takes place at the start of the twenty first century in a Germany that has been ruled by the Nazi party since its victory in World War II. Heinrich Gimpel is a respected Wermachts officer in Berlin. His wife is a respectable hausfrau and together they are raising three precious daughters. They are a typical German family, loyal to the Third Reich and to its Fuhrer.

Their daughter Alicia is now of an age where she can be told the family secret. At her birthday party, after her younger sisters have gone to bed, Heinrich tells her that she is a Jew and that the family have been living a lie. In small secret enclaves throughout Berlin, throughout the Reich, Jews survive, doing their jobs, living from day to day, praying they will not be discovered.

Turtledove brilliantly portrays the claustrophobic existence forced on the Jews. The pressure and the terror and the steps that they must take to try and keep their secret safe. Atmospherically the book is a tour de force. However it is badly let down by the details of the plot. A new Fuhrer comes to power, a young man, not one of the old Nazi guard. He has his own ideas and policies. There is a loosening of the chains that bind, a willingness to admit that in the past there might have been mistakes made.

It isn’t long before the reader realizes that Turtledove is simply re-telling the tale of what happened in Communist Russia when Gorbachev took over the reins of power. All the major events of those few years that led to the end of the soviet era are played out again in the novel with the word Nazi substituted for the word Communist and the names of the characters changed to protect the innocent (and to sound more German!). All the major personalities from real life have their exact counterparts in the novel. With absolutely no deviation at all, the events progress in the book exactly as they did in the "real" world. To those of us who actually lived through those world-shaking years it is all very stale, all very familiar, rather like chewing the gum again after it was left on the bedpost overnight. And that effectively ruins the whole book.

Gunpowder Empire is the first in what promises to be an open ended series of young adult novels. Jeremy Solters is a teenager in twenty first century California. During the summer, he and his family live and work in a city on the frontier of the Roman Empire – not the Empire of Jeremy’s world, but an alternate Empire on a parallel world, one of an infinity of possible worlds. Jeremy’s world has developed a technology that allows them to travel these parallel worlds and on those where they can successfully blend in with the populations, they trade goods across the timelines.

Jeremy’s mother becomes ill and Jeremy’s father takes her back to her homeworld for medical treatment, leaving Jeremy and his sister behind to supervise the trading. Unfortunately while they are away they gateway stops working, leaving Jeremy and his sister marooned.

The book is a bit preachy and Jeremy in particular needs to be taken away somewhere quiet to have a bit of sense thumped into him. He is so full of twentieth century American prejudices that it is at times quite vomit inducing. The words "narrow minded" fail completely to describe just how circumscribed and intolerant he is. (His sister is marginally better, but not much). He is so contemptuous and condescending about the Roman society in which he must live that I began to wish that somebody would stick a sword through him. Unfortunately nobody does.

The Sacred Land by "H. N. Turtletaub" is the third in an ongoing series of historical novels set in maritime Greece in the years following the death of Alexander the Great. Menedemos and Sostratos are merchants from Rhodes who sail the Mediterranean, trading as they go. In this novel they sail east towards Phoenicia. Menedemos will spend the summer here while Sostratos travels inland through the country of Ioudaia where there live a strange people who have only one god and who will not eat pork and who do no work on one day of the week.

Like the other books in the series, this is just spectacularly wonderful. Turtletaub brings the sprawling, brawling Mediterranean world singingly alive (and tells an exciting tale to boot). Rumour says there will be one more novel in the series and that will be that. I for one will be very sorry to see it end.

Friday December 12th 2003 started just like any other day. Robin drove off to work and I waited for the bus to take me into the city. The office was in its usual state of barely controlled chaos. I wasn’t teaching that week, so I settled down in an out of the way corner. In the middle of the afternoon, I got an email from the reception desk.

Your burglar alarm has gone off. A patrol has been despatched.

The alarm monitoring company had apparently rung my number and since the receptionist didn’t know which corner I’d hidden myself in, she simply took the message and emailed me.

I rang the burglar alarm monitoring service and got an extremely unhelpful person.

"Your code number?"

I gave her the super secret code that protects all my intimate secrets.

"I gather my alarm has gone off," I said.

I heard the clatter of keys as she consulted her computer. "Yes," she said.

"What should I do now?" I asked.

"We’ve sent a patrol," she said.

"Should I go home and see what the problem is?" I asked.

"Up to you," she said. She sounded bored.

I took a taxi home. A burly security guard was walking around the house making notes in an impressive notebook.

"There’s no sign of a forced entry, he said. "Have you got a cat?"


"I thought so," he said. "I spotted the cat climbing frame in the lounge when I looked through the window. I bet it’s your cat set the alarm off."

"No," I said. "That’s not possible. I put the cats out this morning before I went to work."

We decided to go in and have a look. I opened the front door, and the security guard went in first to look for men with masks, striped jerseys and bags marked "Swag". None were to be found and so I turned off the alarm and we examined the display. The sensor that had tripped was in the lounge. I opened the lounge door. Porgy, looking very frightened, ran straight to me. I picked him up and cuddled him.

"I’ll swear he wasn’t there this morning when I left," I said. The security guard gave me a pitying smile and a receipt.

I’ve always suspected that my cats can teleport themselves to wherever they wish to be. Now I have proof.

The third novel in Larry McMurtry’s ongoing Berrybender Narrative is called By Sorrow’s River. The Berrybender party are now travelling across the great plains towards Santa Fe where they intend to spend the winter. Tasmin has fallen in love with Pomp Charbonneau. Lord Berrybender himself is as cantankerous as ever and for the first time in a Berrybender novel does not lose any body parts (just as well, he hasn’t many left). The party are joined by two aristocratic Frenchmen who are travelling across the plains in a hot air balloon. An Indian called the Ear Taker adds to his collection of souvenirs. As always farce and tragedy go hand in hand. When all the novels in the Berrybender sequence are available it is sure to be recognised as one of McMurtry’s finest creations.

Robert Hough has written a superb book called The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. If it wasn’t subtitled A Novel you might easily be fooled into thinking it really was the autobiography of an animal trainer from the Ringling Brothers circus in the early years of the twentieth century. It even has several photographs of Mabel in her famous leather suit, posing with some of her tigers. Mabel really had only two loves in her life. Rajah, the tiger she raised from a cub, and her fifth husband Art, who taught her all about living. The life of a tiger trainer is never easy, and it’s even harder when you are barely five feet tall. But Mabel loved the circus and the reader of the book can’t help loving Mabel. You can smell the sawdust in these pages and hear the roar of the crowd. "You can’t mix tigers and husbands," says Mabel at one point. "And anyhow, I prefer the tigers."

Century Publishers got a bright idea. Why don’t we pay Iain Banks heaps of money to travel all over Scotland sampling whisky at every distillery he can find? Then he can write it all up in a book and we’ll pay him even more money! What a great idea. Let’s do it. And silly as it sounds, they did.

Raw Spirit is the tale of Iain Banks’ search for the perfect dram. And along the way he tells us how much he loves his land rover, the names of his boats, and how much he detests the British PM Tony Bliar (a mis-spelling of which he is particularly proud). He tells us how he invented the game of Drunken Urban Climbing (until his wife forbade him from doing it). He finally tells the truth about his infamous escapade at the world SF convention in Brighton in 1987. He teaches us how to recognise a Great Wee Road. And we learn lots and lots and lots about whisky, the history, the sociology, the religion, the myth and the magic. And the taste.

It’s a very funny book. All Scots, without exception, are hilariously funny in casual conversation. And Iain Banks is funnier than most. I’ve heard him speak in public and I nearly wet myself. He’s just as funny on the printed page (one of his early novels, Espedair Street, is a work of hysterical genius and even his serious novels have moments of high comedy). Raw Spirit is his first non-fiction book. He’s very proud of it, and rightly so. You should read it.

The Empress of Mars is a short novelette by Kage Baker beautifully bound in a limited edition of 500 copies. There are three Empresses – the first is a bar, the second is the lady who runs it. The third is the Queen of England. Was there money to be made on Mars? The British thought so and they invested heavily but one thing led to another and it wasn’t long before the workers had to be let go. It isn’t easy making a living on Mars when the company you work for is bankrupt and you are redundant. Certainly you are never going to get your fare home. But there is money to be made if you are lucky enough to know where to look…

Friday December 19th 2003 started just like any other day. But it was a special day, it was my last day at work before the Christmas break. I was home by mid-afternoon, much to the surprise of the next door neighbour’s cat which had snuck in through the cat flap to help itself to the remains of the breakfast that Porgy and Bess hadn’t quite finished. It sneered at me and ran away.

Porgy and I curled up on the couch with a book. He knew it would be tea time in three hours and was quite excited by the thought. He read a page or so of my book, but couldn’t get interested in it so he decided to sleep instead.

That evening, Robin and I were going to a party at a house in a particularly insect-infested area of the city. I hate going there in summer because as I walk the scant few yards from the street to the front door my ankles are stripped to the bone by huge herds of ravening sandflies and I fall onto the couch, bleeding, exhausted and itchy, and I swell up to enormous proportions with allergic reactions. The only possible treatment is champagne in copious quantities, administered internally.

I decided to frustrate the sandflies and so instead of my normal summer garb of bare feet and sandals, I donned thick socks and heavy shoes.

"Fooled you, you bastards!" I yelled as I walked towards the front door. A particularly miffed sandfly screamed with rage and flew up my left nostril. It appeared to like what it found, for it never came out again. Champagne in copious quantities, administered internally, is also a sovereign remedy for sandflies up the nostril.

Harry Turtledove In The Presence of My Enemies NAL
Harry Turtledove  Gunpowder Empire Tor
H. N. Turtletaub The Sacred Land Forge
Larry McMurtry  By Sorrow’s River Simon & Schuster
Robert Hough The Final Confession of Mabel Stark Hodder
Iain Banks Raw Spirit Century
Kage Baker  The Empress of Mars Nightshade Books
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