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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (sockitome ipitombemorum)

The Joy Of Socks

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with my clothes.

When I was a child, my family had an annual ritual. Just like everybody else in Yorkshire we would dedicate two weeks at the height of summer to sea, sand and bingo. We’d have liked sun as well, but since this was the north of England, the chances of sun in summer were small. Three out of four would have to do. Off we went to Bridlington, or Scarborough or Whitby – anywhere that had a beach and a bingo parlour.

Of course two weeks away from home meant that we had to take two weeks worth of clothes with us – and they had to be the best clothes because my mother would have died of embarrassment had we been caught on holiday not dressed in our best.

The logistics of wearing our best clothes on holiday required that we wear our worst clothes on the week preceding the holiday so that my mother didn’t have to do a special wash just before we left. She had a secret drawer that she opened once a year and it contained all our pre-going away clothes. For the week prior to the holiday my father and I wore shattered underpants and ragged shirts. We looked like charity cases. People stopped us in the street and gave us money out of pity for our neglected state. But mother was adamant – the good clothes were for the holiday.

Once we got back home, she would immediately do an enormous wash. The pre-holiday clothes that survived one more trip through the washer and the ringer were put back into the secret drawer and everything returned to normal for another year.

Charles de Lint has been described as a person who writes fantasies for people who don’t like fantasies, and I think that’s an accurate description. The Onion Girl is part of an on-going series of stories and novels set in the city of Newford (don’t worry if you haven’t read any other Newford stories – each is complete in itself). One of the regular characters in the Newford stories is Jilly Coppercorn. She is a character to whom other people turn when they need help and advice, and she’s very good indeed at helping out. Also at another time and in another place she might be described as fey. Certainly faerie is a large part of her life and she can travel there and back when she wishes to. Faerie is part of Newford and Newford is part of faerie, though it is also part of our world as well. Fortunately you don’t have to believe in faerie to receive aid from Jilly (though it helps).

The Onion Girl is Jilly’s story – or more accurately her history. Near the beginning of the book she is badly injured in a car accident and spends much of the novel in hospital. Naturally her friends rally round to help her, as she as so often helped them in the past. Of course, not all of her friends are human.

Jilly is largely paralysed and helpless in the real world and she takes to spending more and more time in faerie, where she is not injured. But there are perils in faerie as well. Someone is pursuing Jilly; someone means her harm. The reasons for this are buried in Jilly’s past and in a series of flashbacks we learn about Jilly’s childhood and adolescence and the terrible things that happened to her there. To give more detail than this would be too much of a spoiler. Read the book to find out more.

Some of Charles de Lint’s books are very heavy on atmosphere but a little thin on story. Not The Onion Girl. It is so full of story that it leaks out of the edges and I stayed up until 2.00am to finish it. I simply couldn’t bear to go to bed while there were still pages left to read. The Onion Girl is just superb!

Terry Pratchett’s new novel, A Hat Full of Sky, is one of his worst. I had to force myself to finish it. It is so excruciatingly repetitive that I was eventually overcome with a burning desire to commit witchicide every time I read (yet again) that a large part of being a witch is what Granny Weatherwax describes as headology. This idea has been done to death by Pratchett in book after book after book and in A Hat Full Of Sky he does it again on what feels like every page. Even the Nac Mac Feegle can’t rescue this one.

And while I’m in a testy mood, let me say that I’m also getting a little peeved with Sean McMullen. His new novel Voyage of the Shadowmoon has the potential to be one of the great ones. However he completely ruins it by playing extremely annoying games with the reader. Again and again and again characters perform actions that are motivated by information known to them, but utterly unknown to the reader. Consequently their actions often seem at best arbitrary or at worst stupid. We don’t learn the reasons for them until (usually) many chapters later when, very grudgingly, the hidden information is revealed and things fall into place. McMullen did this to me so many times that I almost reached the point of throwing the book across the room. Eventually I couldn’t stand the frustration any more and I said the Eight Deadly Words – I Don’t Care What Happens To These People – and I put the book down three quarters of the way through it. I have no intention of opening it again.

It’s a great shame, because Voyage of the Shadowmoon would be a wonderful book if only McMullen would straighten out the narrative and stop keeping secrets, damn him!

The Shadowmoon itself is a small unobtrusive schooner whose passengers and crew are rather more than they seem. Laron is a vampire trapped in the body of a fourteen year old boy (ever seen a vampire with pimples before?). Velander and Terikel are priestesses. Roval is a warrior and sorcerer. Laron and Roval are working together (sort of) and are following up rumours of a doomsday weapon called Silverdeath which is supposedly under the control of the Emperor Warsovan. He unleashes Silverdeath by destroying a city on the Torean continent. However Silverdeath is not satisfied with just a city, and the effects spread out and destroy the whole continent. Other empires and protectorates seem unsure whether this presents them with a threat or an opportunity – after all, there is now an entire continent that can be annexed unopposed. On the other hand, there is still Silverdeath.

That’s the basic situation. The rest of the book concerns the strategies, tactics, plots and counterplots, politics and religion that revolve around this basic fact. It could be such a wonderful book. What a pity that it isn’t.

Enough curmudgeonly criticism! Richard Morgan’s new book is called Market Forces and despite the fact that it has one of the most ridiculous plots I’ve ever come across, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Somehow Morgan makes the whole stupid narrative work. My disbelief was willingly suspended. You can’t say fairer than that.

The events of the novel take place in the mid twenty first century. The money movers and shakers see many investment opportunities in the unstable politics of the world that Morgan presents to us. Shorn Associates specialises in conflict investment. They sell arms, intelligence and power to insurrectionists. In return they get a slice of the action when the war is won. Chris Faulkner is a newly appointed executive with Shorn Associates. He has many enemies, both inside and outside the company. The fights for promotion and for the rights to the contracts are bitter ones and literal ones. Management disputes are fought as duels using souped up, heavily armoured cars on the empty motorways.

My goodness me, it’s stupid. But the whole ridiculous farrago works brilliantly.

At various points during the year, if my parents were feeling rich or benign, (or rich and benign) it was possible that I would have new clothes bought for me. A big expedition to town would be mounted. The planning alone took days of effort.

We would visit all the clothes shops where I would be thrust forcibly into garment after garment. The clothes were always too big for me. The reason, my parents solemnly informed me, was that in order to get good value for money we needed to keep the clothes for a long time and I would, of course, grow into them. Consequently the sleeves of the shirts brushed against my knees and the waistband of the trousers had to be pulled right up into my armpits. I needed braces and two extra notches in my belt just to keep the trousers up. And we still had to roll up the legs so that I didn’t trip over them and break my neck. There was room in each outfit for both me and my twin brother. Since I didn’t have a twin brother, I had to occupy the clothes alone. A depressing thought.

Once we got the clothes home, they were hidden away in another secret drawer and I was forbidden to wear them because they were new and I might get them dirty or (horror or horrors) tear them. Eventually sufficient time went past that their newness was deemed to have worn off and I was finally allowed to wear them. By this time I had usually grown so much that they were far too small for me, but nevertheless I was crammed in to them anyway and my previous generation of clothes then got relegated to the pre-holiday drawer.

My friend Mark sent me an email asking if I’d read anything by Robert Crais and Michael Connelly, and suggesting that if I hadn’t, I should. Mark and I have been swapping authors for many years and I know that if he recommends a book, then I am almost certain to enjoy it, so I bought some books by Robert Crais and Michael Connelly and I have been having a marvellous time this month over-indulging in their stories. Each author has been very prolific, and in my normal, anally retentive fashion, I felt compelled to buy everything they have ever written.

Crais is the lighter of the two, and his novels are the most formulaic. He has written a series about a private eye called Elvis Cole and the plot of pretty much every novel can be described as:

Elvis Cole takes on an innocuous seeming case which quickly proves to be much more sinister than he first thought. Bodies start turning up and he himself is threatened, usually by the bad guys but sometimes (wait for the plot twist) by the good guys! And sometimes by both. He and his close friend Joe Pike set a trap or ambush for the bad guys but it goes horribly wrong. Elvis and Joe kill a few people and sometimes get injured themselves. Everything ends happily.

What raises the books above the cliché is the enormous humour and gusto with which they are written. Elvis has a neat line in witty repartee. One bit of dialogue that I particularly cherish goes something like this:

"Elvis? You must get a lot of teasing about that name?"

"Not as much as my brother Edna gets about his."

The above isn’t a direct quote – I’ve trimmed some extraneous stuff that doesn’t make sense out of context.

One of Elvis’ more endearing characteristics is his habit of dropping little mini-lectures about beer into his ruminations. Every so often, when inspiration fails him, he gets a bottle of beer from the fridge (often Falstaff beer, but many others are mentioned as well), and shares it with his cat. He is often moved to reflect upon the characteristics that make this particular beer most suitable for solving the problem to hand. Or perhaps he’ll give us a little discourse as to why the beer he has chosen is most representative of his current mood. I find this kind of thing endlessly amusing.

In many ways the novels are all little bits of business wrapped around a rather ordinary story – but there’s nothing wrong with that when the bits of business are as entertaining as they are in this series.

Michael Connelly is a much darker, much stronger writer. The hero of his major ongoing series is a Los Angeles police detective named Harry Bosch. Actually his real name is Hieronymous Bosch (geddit? Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.) but he prefers to be called Harry. Well, wouldn’t you? In many ways the books are standard police procedurals, but their value derives not so much from the details of the cases Bosch investigates (though often these are graphically horrid) but more for the wider implications of their effect upon Harry himself.

Like all of us, Harry has internal scars, but his are perhaps more wounding than most. He is an orphan. I’m not sure what happened to his father, but there are many references in the books to his mother’s violent death (she was murdered) and Harry was brought up in state institutions. He went to Vietnam, not as just an ordinary grunt, but as one of the people who fought a dark and deadly war below ground in the tunnels of Cu Chi. It isn’t very surprising that these experiences have marked him, both inside and out.

Despite this, he retains some sense of honour and duty. Not all his ideals have been burned out of him. But the more he is exposed to the dark things that people do to each other under stress, the harder it becomes for him to cope. The cases that Harry deals with expose a lot of dark underbellies and there are many times when the police department itself seems as uncaring and as immoral as the criminals and murderers on the streets. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between the two groups. Harry is still collecting scars, inside and out.

Like Crais, Connelly is also a master of the bits of business that keep things ticking over. I was most amused to find a little lecture on beer in one of the books. Aha! I thought. Connelly has been reading Robert Crais novels. What fun!

And then I got another email from Mark who had just read the very latest book from both writers (books I haven’t reached yet) and he told me that Elvis Cole has a cameo role in Connelly’s new novel and Harry Bosch has a cameo role in Crais’ new novel. Not only that, Mark also spotted a reference in one of the books to James Lee Burke’s "Dave Robicheaux" novels. It’s all getting terribly self-referential in there! Lawrence Block, are you listening?

Robert Crais is also a reasonably prolific screen writer. Among his credits are episodes of Future Tales and the new series of The Twilight Zone where he scripted an adaptation of a Robert Silverberg short story. He also has credit on an episode of J.A.G under the name Elvis Cole (snigger). For some unknown reason, the Writer’s Guild of America wouldn't let him have a credit under his own name.

Both Crais and Connelly have written stand alone novels that aren’t part of their major series. I’ve not read any of Crais’ stand alone books yet, but I found Connelly’s The Poet to be mildly disappointing. The book concerns a hunt for a serial killer and as such is actually extremely good – Connelly maintains the tension brilliantly and the pages almost turn themselves. But towards the end he starts to lose it, and the book turns into an exercise in plotting and reader-manipulation. The red herrings get a little too smelly and the plot twists a little too blatant. It’s almost as if he is deliberately playing the game of let’s invalidate everything we’ve learned so far. And just when the reader is comfortable with the new world view, let’s invalidate it again. And then again, and again and again. It’s all too much and all too silly and I found the rapid reversals of meaning and motive quite annoying. Which is sad, because I’d really been enjoying the book until that happened. Your mileage may vary of course. Certainly Stephen King (who wrote an introduction to the book) praises this aspect of it to the skies. Nevertheless, I still found it irritating. So there!

This odd usage of clothes continued throughout my childhood and well into my teens. But eventually I left home and went to university and for the first time I became responsible for clothing myself.

Fortunately this was in the late 1960s and we spent our time dressing down rather than dressing up. Not for us the luxury of designer labels on our trainers – we wore pumps (or plimsolls, or just plimmies) and they didn’t have labels at all because the labels had fallen off years ago. And even in the days when they’d had labels, all that the label said was "Made in Hong Kong". Tattiness was de rigueur. We clothed ourselves from second hand shops and army surplus stores. A friend of mine had a beautiful fur coat that enveloped him from head to toe like a tent. He would huddle in it, warm and snug on even the coldest days. When it rained he smelled like a polecat. Even on dry days he tended towards the musky.

We had a washing machine that had a heating cycle – you could fill the machine with cold water and then use the built-in heater to raise it to the appropriate temperature. If you chose your settings carefully, and if you made sure to jam a strategic lever in place with a lump of cardboard so the machine couldn’t automatically switch over to the wash cycle when the water came up to temperature, it was possible to boil your underpants all day long. Sometimes they would dissolve under such extreme treatment, but the ones that survived were all the tougher for the experience. That which does not kill me makes me stronger. I was in my mid-thirties before I finally threw away the last pair of underpants from my university days. I bet there aren’t many people who keep the same underpants for nearly twenty years…

Three Cheers For Me is the first volume of the so-called Bandy Papers; a series of novels concerning one Bartholomew Bandy which detail Bandy’s adventures in the early years of the twentieth century. The novels have been written by the Canadian author Donald Jack, and critics consistently describe them as being hilariously funny historical novels with a serious undertone of social comment. Since they are Canadian novels, several of them have been awarded the Leacock prize for humour, an award named after Stephen Leacock, who was himself a famous Canadian humorist.

I’ve never understood why Leacock is held in such high regard. He’s always struck me as a terribly dull writer and I’ve never found any of his material to be even remotely funny. Perhaps you have to be Canadian to appreciate it. I don’t find Three Cheers For Me particularly funny either, so perhaps it deserves its Leacock prize.

It may not be a funny book, but it is a very good book. It is set during World War I and the young Bartholomew Bandy enlists in the infantry and goes off to fight in the trenches. He soon loses his romantic notions of war in the mud and blood and carnage of the trenches and, looking for a more congenial way of fighting, joins the Royal Flying Corps. The novel concerns his adventures in the trenches and in the air.

In many ways it is full of familiar material. If you’ve read any novels about the first World War, or if you are familiar with its history there will be no surprises in the book. But Donald Jack tells his tale well and Bandy is an attractive hero. And there is a serious and sometimes bitter subtext of social commentary – to that extent the critics are correct. I just wish they’d down play their references to the humour a bit. Don’t read it for laughs unless you are Canadian.

Under an English Heaven by Robert Radcliffe is another war novel, but this time it is set during the second world war in a small village in southern England close by an American air force base. Every day the American bombers fly over Germany and every day they suffer enormous casualties. Every day village life goes on and the cares and the troubles seem eternal and unchanging (and, it must be said, very English). This is a novel of contrasts. The Americans and the villagers obviously have many social interactions. Each perhaps pays lip service to an understanding of the other, but there is really only a superficial overlap between their worlds. It takes 14 year old Billy Street, an evacuee from London, to build the bridges that truly connect the two.

The book is beautifully written. Radcliffe takes the reader completely into the world he describes. The daily horror of the bombing raids and the toll that they take, and the daily life of the village in the shadow of war grab hold of your emotions and refuse to let go. It is extraordinarily moving. It is a perfect novel.

Scandal Takes A Holiday is Lindsey Davis’ new novel about Falco, the private eye in Vespasian’s Rome. It is considerably better that the last Falco novel (which was dire) but it is by no means the best of the series. I think Davis has almost written herself out. Perhaps she’s getting bored with Falco. I know I’m starting to be.

Falco is in Ostia, the port of Rome, searching for a missing gossip columnist. His search involves him with a gang of pirates and various members of his dysfunctional family. Eventually the mystery is solved and the pirates are vanquished. That’s really it – Falco doesn’t solve the mystery, the mystery pretty much solves itself. Falco just sits around making his usual cynical observations about daily life. Every so often, by sheer coincidence, he happens to be in the right place at the right time to see something happen that sheds a bit of light here, and a bit of light there. Things happen to him rather than the other way around. There are too many coincidences; Falco is too passive. The writing is great, the cynicism is as sharp and as cutting as ever. But still the plot plods and I just couldn’t get involved.

Making the Cat Laugh is a collection of essays by Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame). The essays document Lynne’s experiences as a single person, living alone with only cats for company. It is laugh out loud funny and extremely insightful.

Like most students, I eventually discovered that my mother had lied to me about the length of time that socks and underpants can reasonably be worn. Experimental evidence soon convinced me that these garments can be kept on the body for weeks or even months at a time without any undue difficulty. It has to be admitted that, when I indulged myself in this manner, the garments did add an interestingly fragrant ambience to my bedroom, but I felt that was a small price to pay when weighed against the convenience of the habit.

However, if I was foolish enough to let my underpants and socks dry out overnight, they became quite brittle, and then they showed an alarming tendency to shatter if I treated them at all roughly when I put them on again the next day. Even the simple act of flexing my toes was fraught with peril until my socks had re-moistened themselves, and I had to severely ration my lecherous glances at attractive ladies until my underpants became flexible again. The only way I ever found of preventing that catastrophe was to sleep in my socks and underwear, thus keeping them moist and supple with my night time secretions.

Jane Lindskold’s new novel is called The Buried Pyramid and it’s high up on my list of the best books I’ve read this year.

Part of Neville Hawthorne’s time in the British army was served in Egypt. While he was there he met an archaeologist who was searching for a pyramid rumoured to be the tomb of the Pharaoh Neferankhotep. All trace of this tomb has been lost, though there are stories that the entire pyramid was buried by the gods to keep the Pharaoh and his tomb safe from the depredations of time (and tomb robbers). The archaeologist has come into possession of the journal of an explorer which purports to describe the location of the pyramid. Hawthorne is ordered to accompany the archaeologist on his search in order to ensure his safety. They find many wonders, though the tomb itself remains hidden from them.

Years pass. Hawthorne leaves the army and retires to England. But the search for the tomb remains an obsession with him and he mounts another expedition. Shortly before the expedition is due to depart, Hawthorne learns that his sister in America has died. Her daughter, his niece, is on her way to England to stay with him. Her name is Jenny Benet. Hawthorne meets her at the dock when her ship berths. Jenny soon learns of Hawthorne’s expedition and, although he is quite reluctant to allow it, she persuades him to take her along. Jenny has been brought up on the frontier and is intimately familiar with the Wild West (though she attended finishing school in Boston and is equally at home in polite society). Hawthorne’s reluctance to have her on the expedition is soon overcome. Jenny more than proves her worth.

The first part of the book tells a completely traditional ripping yarn. It’s an adventure story straight out of Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson, complete with mysterious coded messages, and hints of a shadowy evil that pursues them through the desert sands. Jane Lindskold’s sense of time and place is just superb – you can smell the unwashed bodies and taste the grit. You can hear the bullets whistle past your ears. It’s thrilling!

But when the expedition finds the pyramid, the mood changes. The gods had good reasons for burying the tomb and the gods have not gone away. There are plots afoot and sometimes even the gods themselves need help. The last section of the novel is a brilliant fantasy that involves the members of Hawthorne’s expedition with the gods and their schemes.

Jane Lindskold has set herself two very difficult tasks in this book and she has succeeded brilliantly in both of them. The first, and lesser task, is that although she herself is an American born and bred, she has chosen to tell her story from the point of view of a group of English people. It is very hard for a person brought up in one culture to portray another culture so well that even members of the other culture can believe in it. And yet she manages this perfectly. Her portrayal of English culture, language and social situations is utterly convincing. She only slipped once (that I noticed) and even that is such a minor slip that it is completely unimportant and insignificant.

The other, much more difficult, task is to segue convincingly from the grittily naturalistic adventure story of the first section to the fantasy story of the last section. One false step here would completely destroy the whole mood. I was amazed at how smoothly she slipped from one to the other. The joins didn’t show at all.

The Buried Pyramid is just wonderful. It is an absolute tour de force.

There is much debate about the optimum length of time that must pass before you really have to change into new underpants and socks. I recommend the pragmatic approach. Throw your socks and underpants at the ceiling. If they come down, you can wear them again.

Charles de Lint  The Onion Girl Gollancz
Terry Pratchett  A Hat Full of Sky Doubleday
Sean McMullen  Voyage of the Shadowmoon Tor
Richard Morgan  Market Forces Gollancz
Robert Crais The Monkey’s Raincoat Orion
Robert Crais Stalking the Angel Orion
Robert Crais Lullaby Town Orion
Robert Crais Free Fall Orion
Robert Crais Voodoo River Orion
Robert Crais Indigo Slam Orion
Robert Crais L.A. Requiem Orion
Michael Connelly The Black Echo Orion
Michael Connelly The Black Ice Orion
Michael Connelly City of Bones Orion
Michael Connelly Lost Light Orion
Michael Connelly The Poet Orion
Donald Jack Three Cheers For Me Douglas Gibson
Robert Radcliffe n Under an English Heave Abacus
Lindsey Davis y Scandal takes A Holida Century
Lynne Truss  Making The Cat Laugh Profile
Jane Lindskold The Buried Pyramid Tor
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