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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (chico grouchorum zeppolin)

Alan and Robin Get Adopted

The cat wanted to sit on the mat. But there wasn't a mat to sit on. There was a lawn, but the grass was rather damp and cold, and the weeds tickled the cat's bottom. The cat sat on the grass and howled. The stairs leading up to the front door seemed promising at first, but they were very exposed to the elements. The wind ruffled the cat's fur and the rain saturated it. The cat sat on the stairs and howled. Finally the cat settled on the small gap under the stairs that led up to the front door. It was sheltered from the wind in there and the rain only blew in on alternate Wednesdays. The cat sat under the stairs and howled.

The cat was small, black and fluffy. There was a white patch under its chin and it looked for all the world as if the animal was wearing an elegant dinner jacket with a white shirt and a bow tie. Perhaps it was a cultured cat, on its way home from an evening at the Opera. It had a blue collar with a bell on it which suggested that somebody, somewhere must once have loved it. Nevertheless the cat showed no inclination to return to wherever home was. It just sat outside the house and howled miserably.

Porgy and Bess found this quite fascinating. They stood on the windowsill where they were warm and dry and cosy, and they watched the fluffy, bedraggled scrap of fur that was shivering outside.

"Yah, boo sucks," said Porgy. "I've got some biscuits left over from dinner. I think I'll have a snack. And you can't have any, ho, ho, ho!"

"Go away," said Bess. "This is my house."

The cat howled.

No matter how high we turned up the volume on the TV, we couldn't drown out the sound of the cat howling. The noise vibrated its way through the walls of the house as if they weren't even there, and then it bounced around inside our skulls, insinuating itself into all the sympathy nodes in our brains.

"Let me in. Please let me in. I'm cold and wet and hungry and miserable. I desperately need someone to stroke me. I want to sit on the mat."

Michael Connelly’s books get darker. The Harry Bosch series puts the hero through enormous strains and stresses. Poor man – he even gets caught in an earthquake. Everybody and everything is against him. Harry Bosch is a lonely man and one reason is because everybody is against him, everybody hates him. Even his lovers all leave in the end. Connelly’s stand alone works are equally dark and bleak. There aren’t a lot of laughs in Connelly’s books, but there is a lot of tension.

Robert Crais, on the other hand, remains very frothy by comparison and even his stand alone books (such as Hostage) are a little unsatisfying because the tension is largely lacking. The good guys win, the bad guys lose and nobody dies who doesn’t deserve to die. In many ways Crais is old fashioned. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had fun reading his books, I just think they suffer a bit when compared to the dark visions of Michael Connelly. I think they coined the word angst just for Connelly.

Mind you, if you want light and frothy, nobody does it better than Janet Evanovich. The new Stephanie Plum novel is called Ten Big Ones. The last few books in the series have felt a little tired, but this one is a return to the old form and I really enjoyed it. All the writing by numbers formulaic touches are there of course. Stephanie has yet another car destroyed underneath her; Grandma Mazur still enjoys funerals (preferably other people’s). But this time Stephanie is hiding from a serial killer called The Junkman and Ranger is out of town and can’t protect her. However he still takes her under his wing. He has a safe house and Stephanie gets to sleep between Ranger’s sheets. Oh Wow! That’s worth a bullet or two! Lula is jealous. Could Stephanie have finally found the legendary Bat Cave?

The jokes are funny, the plot is nicely complex. It’s the best Stephanie Plum novel for ages.

Kathy Reichs has laboured long under the shadow of Patricia Cornwell. Like Cornwell, Reichs is a professional pathologist, and like Cornwell she writes novels about pathology. Comparisons simply beg to be made. And Cornwell got there first and so inevitably there is a feeling that Reichs is in some way inferior, that she is following in someone else’s footsteps.

However nothing could be further from the truth. Reichs is a much better writer than Cornwell and her viewpoint character Temperance Brennan, is much more rounded, more real, more complete than Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta who has seemed quite neurotic and thinly drawn in recent books. Reichs has taken on Cornwell on her own turf and to my mind she is winning the battle hands down.

Fatal Voyage opens with a plane crash in a desolate forest high in the mountains of North Carolina. Tempe Brennan is involved in identifying the bodies. In an isolated area of the forest she finds a foot. Initially she assumes it belongs to one of the corpses that are littering the ground. But there is something wrong with it – it is more decayed than the (much fresher) corpses she is dealing with. And close to where she found the foot, she finds a seemingly deserted house which is buried so deep in the woods that even the locals know nothing about it. Her dog finds the place fascinating (he loves the smell of carrion) and she is convinced that there is a body inside. But before she can investigate further, she is pulled off the case and sent home in disgrace. She has been accused of tampering with the evidence and removing body parts (the foot) from the crash site.

Her friends stick by her, of course. But nevertheless the accusations are a blight on her career and she feels a quite ostracised. Things get worse when a close friend is murdered and the foot disappears again.

The conspiracy turns out to be a complex one and the answers to the riddles posed by the foot are genuinely shocking. There aren’t many taboos in our very liberal society. But some do exist and Fatal Voyage goes where few other books would care to go. It steers a narrow course between excitement and disgust. This is an extremely powerful book and it’s not for the squeamish.

I want more please!

After two days of listening to the animal howl, I couldn't stand it any more. I went and introduced myself to the cat.

"Hello, I'm Alan." I held my hand out so that the cat could sniff it. There was a very bad wound on the cat's nose. It had probably been in a fight. It stopped howling for a while and looked at me hopefully. I stroked it and scratched it behind the ears. Immediately it began to rumble and its whole body vibrated as it revved its motor up to full throttle. It was a tiny wee scrap of a thing and the black, fluffy fur stuck out haphazardly in every direction. I carried it into the house and gave it some food.

It inhaled all the food in the bowl. It obviously hadn't had anything to eat for days. Then it spotted the bowls belonging to Porgy and Bess. As usual, they'd left half of their tea so that they could come back later for a midnight snack. The cat inhaled all of their food as well and then it sucked up all the water in the water bowl.

"Any more food?"

"Sorry, mate. You've just had three teas. I think that's enough for now. You don't want to overdo it if you haven't eaten for a while. You might get sick."

The cat trotted round the house for a while, exploring and looking thoughtful. Then it found the bathroom. It had obviously seen bathrooms before. It jumped into the bath and ejected all the food it had just eaten out of both ends simultaneously.

"I warned you that would happen," I told it.

"It was worth it," said the cat. "Yummy food. Got any more?"


It went into the lounge and sat on the mat. Then it washed itself and went to sleep. I cleaned up the mess in the bath.

"Perhaps we ought to make up a dirt tray and put it in the bath," suggested Robin. "Since that's where it seems to want to go."

So that's what we did. The cat seemed very grateful.

Despite being made of nothing but fluff, the cat appears to produce three times its own body weight of poo every single day. And there's an extremely efficient biological warfare factory hidden somewhere inside the beast. The smell alone turns the stuff into a weapon of mass destruction. We have all given up breathing. We've given up taking baths as well. Has that brown stain always been there or is it a new one? That is not a question you want to have to ask yourself half way through a soak.

And Robin no longer licks chocolate ice cream off her fingers. Just in case.

Robin went outside to do some gardening and the new cat went with her. Robin dug a hole.

"O, wow! Thanks!" said the cat and instantly filled it up with poo. The smell drifted into the air. Three ravens, two golden eagles, a partridge, a pear tree and an Air New Zealand jumbo jet fell dead from the sky.

The blurb on Jeffery Deaver’s books describes him as a "psychological thriller writer". I have no idea what that means, but I’m sure he really is a very good one because he is simply a very good writer, and bugger the adjective.

Twisted is a collection of short stories. In some ways they are a little annoying because every single one of them is an O. Henry twist in the tail tale. The title should have warned me. There’s nothing wrong with the O. Henry tradition of course. And the stories in Twisted are extremely strong examples of the type. They will have you on the edge of your seat. You just have to know what happens next and why. And then: Bang! Bang! Bang! Every single thing you thought you believed is turned upside down. Deaver does this extraordinarily well and Twisted is a lot of fun even if it is infuriating.

He does similar things in his novels. The Bone Collector and The Coffin Dancer are the first two novels in a series about Lincoln Rhyme, forensic scientist par excellence. What he can’t deduce from a grain of sand, a shred of fibre and a fragment of tooth is not worth deducing. Rhyme is a quadriplegic and seldom leaves his room, depending for his effectiveness on his subordinates who visit the crime scenes and bring the evidence back for him to peruse.

Deaver is doing several clever things here. He’s got a Nero Wolfe analogue and a John Thorndyke analogue all merged together in a single character. How can he possibly fail? (Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe never goes out. He solves his crimes from a distance using the eyes, ears and legs of his faithful companion Archie Goodwin. R. Austin Freeman’s John Thorndyke was a lawyer and forensic specialist in a series of novels written between 1907 and 1942. The books were hugely popular in their time, but are largely forgotten today).

Lincoln Rhyme’s disability is not just a novelist’s bit of business. Deaver is very sympathetic to, and knowledgeable about the problems faced by quadriplegics and the books pull no punches at all in that area. I used to have a girl friend who was a nurse and once she went to a conference called SPOD – Sexual Problems Of the Disabled. I sniggered when she told me about it, because the acronym was so silly. She got very angry. "Do you realise," she said, "that a quadriplegic can’t even masturbate, and wouldn’t be able to feel anything even if they could. How frustrating do think that is? And that’s probably the least of their problems." She was right, and I was humbled. Deaver’s novels are on that self same level of realism. Rhyme’s disability may be a gimmick, but it is an honestly discussed gimmick, and that adds a lot of humanity and strength to the books.

Like the short stories, the novels depend for their effect on turning your preconceptions upside down. Bang! Bang! Bang! Truth is a lie, lies are truth. The world turns upside down. Unlike the short stories, however, the novels give Deaver plenty of room to foreshadow what he’s doing and the surprises are not rabbits pulled out of hats. Rather they are veils stripped aside and you realise just how blind you had been up to that point. And just when you get used to the new ideas: Bang! Bang! Bang! They all change again.

The Bone Collector is a psychopath obsessed with old New York. He kills for the sake of the bones, the clean bones. Bones are honest. The Coffin Dancer is a killer for hire - cold and calculating.

In both books there are several chapters told from the killer’s viewpoint. We know a lot about the killer – in many ways we know more than Lincoln Rhyme knows and it is a huge pleasure to watch him slowly build a picture of the man we know already. Deaver shows a particular brilliance in describing psychopaths. Many passages are genuinely creepy and the tension build and builds and builds. It is imperative that you find out what happens next. It’s a cliché to describe a book as a page turner, but no other expression will do. Deaver just grabs hold and won’t let go.

Sharyn McCrumb, on the other hand, seems to have mined her Appalachian novel seam out. Ghost Riders is the latest and least of the series. It’s obsessed with the American Civil War (a subject of little or no interest to non-Americans) and it reads rather like a dull history text book. Turning the pages was extremely hard. When Sharyn McCrumb is good, she is very, very good. But here she’s bad and she’s boring.

The cat has a huge vocabulary and never shuts up. It purrs, it howls, it chatters away.

"I think its name should be Harpo," said Robin. "After the Marx Brother who never said anything at all."

Porgy and Bess were not pleased to have a new cat in the house. Porgy went on hunger strike. Despite the fact that he is three times the size and three times the weight of the little ball of fluff, he is scared stiff of Harpo and runs away when the animal gets close. Bess is slightly braver, but even she seems a little bit intimidated by the tiny, fluffy thing and tends to keep her distance.

We took Harpo to the vet.

"Gosh! What a fluffy cat," she said. "Is it a boy or a girl?"

"We don't know," I said and I explained the background.

The vet raised Harpo's tail and stared. "I don't know either! This is a fluffy cat." She moved her head closer to Harpo's bottom, wrinkling her nose as the special Harpo fragrance struck her nostrils. "Aha! He's a little boy; an un-neutered male. I think he's about eight or nine months old."

"Hmm," said Robin. "Do the arithmetic. It sounds like he's a Christmas present who has outstayed his welcome. I bet the children got bored."

The vet clicked her tongue over the wound on Harpo's nose. "That's quite nasty," she said. "It has split the septum, the join between the nostrils. It will probably never heal properly. And he's got some blisters in his mouth. He might have a mild dose of cat flu. I'll give you some antibiotics to clear up any lurking infections. They'll help the wound on his nose heal as well. And if he's still with you in a couple of weeks, bring him back and we'll vaccinate him and worm him and chop his nadgers off."

In The Moon Of The Red Ponies is the new novel by James Lee Burke. It isn’t another Dave Robichaux novel, it’s a Billy Bob Holland novel instead, a direct sequel to his earlier Bitterroot. Wyatt Dixon is out of prison and while he makes no overt threat to Billy Bob, there is still an air of menace about him. He claims he is cured of his psychopathic tendencies – he’s got medicine to take. But Billy Bob remains unconvinced. Meanwhile, Billy Bob is working hard to defend Johnny American Horse, a young native American activist who is accused of murder. The two concerns intertwine and oddly, Wyatt Dixon has a large part to play in the redemption of Johnny American Horse.

I always liked Wyatt Dixon. He’s a raving loony and a sadistic, psychopathic killer. But I’m sure that James Lee Burke is just as fond of him as I am because invariably he gets the best dialogue, the wittiest lines, the cruellest put-downs. He may be a ratbag, but he’s a charming ratbag. As long as he isn’t losing his very short temper with you.

Burke tells a complex and morally ambivalent story. In The Moon Of The Red Ponies is one of his very strongest novels.

The Patient’s Eyes is David Pirie’s first novel, and it’s a good one. The narrator and hero of the novel is one Arthur Conan Doyle, a young doctor in his first practice. He teams up with his old college lecturer Dr Joseph Bell and together they solve a dastardly crime. In this book we learn the real truth behind the untold story of the world’s most famous detective.

In real life (if there is such a thing) Doyle freely admitted that Dr. Joseph Bell was his model for Sherlock Holmes. The accurate observations, the intricate deductions – all these were characteristics that Bell exhibited and which Doyle appropriated for his own purposes and made famous. Pirie has taken the next logical step and has begun to construct the story behind the story; the secret life of Conan Doyle as he plays Watson to Bell’s Holmes. And the game’s afoot!

Heather Grace has a strange eye affliction and she is being followed by a phantom cyclist of whom she is very afraid. Doyle attempts to intercept the cyclist, but he vanishes without trace. And then a flamboyant Spanish businessman is murdered. Doyle is now so out of his depth that he calls on Dr Bell to come to his aid. Rather to his surprise, Bell dismisses the murder of Senor Garcia as a triviality (as indeed it quickly proves to be when Bell brings his formidable intellect to bear upon the problem). Bell is far more concerned with the matter of the patient’s eyes and the phantom cyclist. He finds that mystery quite puzzling.

What a beautiful conceit! And how cleverly done. You’d swear it really was a Sherlock Holmes novel with only the names changed to protect the innocent. I am greatly looking forward to more tales of derring do as Dr Bell and Conan Doyle battle against the forces of evil.

Kage Baker is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers. Mother Aegypt is a new collection of her short fiction and it showcases her talent brilliantly. The stories range from contemporary fables, to the roaring twenties, to Victorian England, to imaginary realms. One and all they are cleverly constructed with a sly, delicious wit that put a semi-permanent grin on my face as I was reading them. I’ve bought every single Kage Baker book in hardback as soon as it has appeared. And I’ve never once been disappointed.

Harpo has been with us for nearly a fortnight now. His nose has healed nicely and you have to look very closely indeed to see the damage to the septum. It doesn't appear to worry him at all. He's definitely the boss cat – he eats first, he owns our bed, he gets first choice of toys. Ping pong balls are good. He chases them up and down the polished wood of the hallway and when they bounce unpredictably he skitters like a cartoon cat, legs going a thousand miles an hour, body not going anywhere at all. Eventually he manages to get a bit of traction and he changes direction and heads off again at a gallop.

Porgy is slowly getting his confidence back. He has started eating again, though he is still a bit nervous and will back away if Harpo comes after his food. Bess has pretty much accepted him and they largely ignore each other. If he gets too stroppy she usually talks to him severely. Sometimes it works.

Nobody appears to be missing him – there's nothing on the SPCA list, no notices on the supermarket notice boards, no adverts in the local paper, no pleading leaflets in every mailbox in the street. Harpo doesn't seem to care. He likes it here. He's a very affectionate cat. He loves a cuddle. And his tiny body is jammed full of enough personality for three ordinary cats. He's a bloody nuisance! I hope he decides to stay.

Michael Connelly The Concrete Blonde Orion
Michael Connelly The Last Coyote Orion
Michael Connelly Trunk Music Orion
Michael Connelly Angel’s Flight Orion
Michael Connelly A Darkness More Than Night Orion
Michael Connelly Void Moon Orion
Michael Connelly Blood Work Orion
Michael Connelly The Narrows Orion
Robert Crais Sunset Express Orion
Robert Crais Hostage Orion
Robert Crais Demolition Angel Orion
Janet Evanovich Ten Big Ones St. Martin’s Press
Kathy Reichs Fatal Voyage Arrow
Jeffery Deaver Twisted Coronet
Jeffery Deaver The Bone Collector Coronet
Jeffery Deaver The Coffin Dancer Coronet
Sharyn McCrumb Ghost Riders Signet
James Lee Burke In The Moon Of Red Ponies Simon & Schuster
David Pirie The Patient’s Eyes Arrow
Kage Baker Mother Aegypt Night Shade Books
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