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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (ventus maleficus)

Alan Flies Undone

I arrived at the airport in good time for my flight. Some might say I was excessively early. Hah! Such people are not wise to the ways of the travelling world. There are no worms left at the feast when the late birds get there.

"Lo! Here am I," I said to the nice lady at the check in desk. "You can stop worrying now. I've arrived. Pray provide me with my boarding pass for flight NZ446 to Auckland."

The lady clicked keys on her keyboard and peered short-sightedly at the screen.

"I'm sorry sir," she said gleefully," but that flight has been cancelled due to engineering problems. Would you like me to rebook you on to the next flight?"

Cancelled? Could it be that the engine had fallen off the aeroplane and they'd run out of string and duct tape, and thus were unable to fasten it back on?

"Yes, please," I said.

She clicked more keys, frowned and then clicked them all again.

"I'm sorry sir," she said with a happy smile, "the next flight is fully booked. Would you like me to try the one after that?"

I heaved a deep sigh at her, but she dodged it skilfully and it bounced harmlessly off the wall behind her and fell on to the luggage conveyor belt.

"Yes, please."

Fortunately that flight still had seats available (though not many). I would fly to Auckland a mere three hours later than I had originally planned. I was glad that I had chosen to arrive at the airport excessively early (as some might say). Who knows how many flights would have filled themselves up if I had arrived fashionably late? Who knows how much longer I might have been delayed?

I took myself off to the Koru Club Lounge so that I could indulge myself excessively in strange, grotesque and debilitating luxuries utterly unknown to the common herd milling below.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Lounge, eager for debauchery, I discovered that the majority of the place was blocked off and completely inaccessible to me. An enormous storm the previous week had ripped the roof away and saturated the carpet with tons of rain water. Presumably this was why my flight had been cancelled. It wasn't just an engine that had dropped off the aeroplane; the entire machine had disintegrated into tiny shards when the Koru Club Lounge roof fell upon it from the sky, driven by a mighty wind. The amount of duct tape required to stick it back together again beggared the imagination. No wonder they hadn't finished the job yet. No wonder they wouldn't let anyone fly on it.

The Lounge was undergoing massive repairs, but until they were complete, it was reduced to less than half its normal size, and the luxuries were reduced to less than half their normal level of sinfulness. Furthermore, the reduction in the lounge size meant that all the people were forced to sit much closer together than would otherwise have been the case. It is very hard to debauch yourself when everyone is crammed too close together to let the dancing girls through.

The time passed slowly.

Aeons later I arrived in Auckland and I went in to the office to set up my classroom for the course I would be teaching the next day. It was a routine operation and it was soon successfully complete. I staggered off to my hotel feeling reassured that nothing else could possibly go wrong…

I found Val McDermid's novel A Place of Execution, very disturbing. It is set in the winter of 1963. Some children have been reported missing from villages in the North of England. Although the police don't know it yet, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the so-called moors murderers, are just starting their terrible serial killings.

In an isolated Derbyshire village, 13 year old Alison Carter has also vanished. It seems unlikely that this has anything to do with the other missing children (they are a bit far away and the circumstances are different). Nevertheless the mood of the times adds a special urgency to the case.

The village is very isolated indeed – so small and so far away from anywhere else that everyone in the village is a close relative of everyone else in the village and so the tragedy of Alison's disappearance affects them all very badly. At first they are disinclined to help the police. The police are regarded as outsiders, as interlopers. The villagers have solved their own problems and minded their own business for generations. But eventually, albeit a little grudgingly, they do come forward with information and the culprit is found, tried, convicted and hanged.

Any other novelist would have left it at that, satisfied with a successful conclusion to a murder mystery. But Val McDermid has a different view of things. By this point we are only three quarters through the book. The last section takes place about thirty years after these events. The policeman who solved the murder has now retired, covered with honour and glory after a successful career. A journalist has approached him with a view to writing a book about the Alison Carter case. He agrees, and he and the journalist go back to the village.

And that's when they discover the real meaning of what happened all those years before. Everything they thought they knew about the case is turned upside down and inside out. The truth is genuinely shocking. For once the twist in the tail isn't just a gimmick; it isn't the usual "the one person who couldn't possibly have done it did it" ending. It's much more fundamental than that, and it really does grow properly out of the situation rather than being a melodramatic, crudely stitched on shocker.

Brady and Hindley buried the bodies of the children they tortured and killed on the moors just a short drive from where I lived. Although my parents tried to shield me from it, it was obvious that something horrible was going on, and I remember that there was an upsurge of warnings from parents and teachers about what these days we'd call "stranger danger". I doubt that I was ever in any serious danger of abduction and death – as far as I know they were taking their children from other areas. But they were undeniably close to home and it was the first time that I realised that the world could actually contain real dangers.

Although Brady and Hindley are not involved directly in Val McDermid's novel, they are always on the periphery of it and the whole of the fear that they imposed upon the time and upon the place permeates the narrative. I felt distinctly uncomfortable while I was reading it. But I couldn't stop reading it for it grabbed hold of me and it wouldn't let go. There was an awful fascination as the events unfolded and the final truth became clear.

A Place of Execution is an astonishingly brilliant and moving novel. It is beautifully plotted and flawlessly structured. It transcends its genre.

Val McDermid also has a major series in progress concerning a psychological profiler called Tony Hill. He specialises in serial killers. His psychological qualifications and his experiences running a mental health unit where many of the killers were incarcerated, not to mention his own rather troubled psyche, have given him a unique insight into how the minds of such killers work. The novels The Mermaids Singing, The Wire In The Blood, and The Last Temptation detail three of the cases in which he is involved.

Whenever you have a series character there is always a certain amount of writing by numbers. There is an unavoidable repetition of background details between the books in the series and it becomes very easy to fall into the formulaic trap. McDermid tries hard to avoid this (not always successfully) and she keeps the interest high with excessive violence and grossly detailed descriptions of mutilation and death. She also has extremely complex and satisfying plots. Unfortunately the plotlines depend far too much on the twist in their tail and on the artificial drama of making everyone involved not realise just what's going on until it is too late to do anything about it. I can't help feeling that the books would have been a lot stronger without the melodrama. There's more than enough drama in the stories without ratcheting it up so artificially.

Nevertheless the books are a tremendously gripping read and I will certainly read more of them should more become available. And anyway, the first novel makes it clear that Tony Hill was born and brought up in the West Riding of Yorkshire – specifically in the town of Halifax. And that's where I was born and brought up as well. Of course I want to know how his career progresses!

In The Distant Echo, four students on their way home from a drunken student party stumble across a body. The police never solve the murder and the students themselves are prime suspects, although nothing is ever proved. The book follows their lives and shows how the murder (and the suspicions that surround them) affect their whole future. The book isn't about murder – it's about what murder means to others; to the family, the friends and the suspects. But it is also a detective thriller; a whodunit and yet again Val McDermid can't resist the temptation to give the book a twisted ending that reveals the murderer to have been the one person that nobody ever suspected. Her red herrings are delightfully smelly, her characters marvellously drawn and the ramifications of the death on the lives of the characters brilliantly evoked. But the ending detracts from the theme and cheapens it.

Killing the Shadows is just silly. A serial killer is at large (as in so many McDermid novels). But this one specialises in killing the authors of detective novels. Even Val McDermid can't make this one work, and it is very pedestrian in comparison to her other books.

So how to sum up Val McDermid? She has written a brilliantly inspired and flawless novel in A Place of Execution, and her other works are also usually very strong. She has rather a penchant for the twist in the tail and she doesn't always manage to bring it off. But if you can forgive her that little sin, you will thoroughly enjoy the books (I certainly did, once I decided to put aside my irritation with her silly games).

And despite the fact that she herself was once a journalist, she hates journalists with a deep and utter loathing. Almost every journalist in her novels (and there are a lot of journalists in her novels) is a complete and utter scumbag without an ethic or a moral to their name! And that is truly a delight.

Jeffrey Deaver is kind of the American equivalent of Val McDermid (though he’s much more prolific – on the other hand he’s been writing for longer than she has). He deliberately structures his books so that he can go for the double whammy (or sometimes even the triple whammy) at the end. Manhattan Is My Beat and Death of a Blue Movie Star are novels about a young girl in New York. She calls herself Rune (because she likes the sound of it) and she is more than a little self-centred and flaky. But nevertheless she has her redeeming features.

In the first novel she is working in a video store. One of her customers, an old man, regularly hires the same movie – a black and white detective film from the 1940s. When he is murdered, Rune is convinced that the secret of his death will be found in the movie. She starts to watch it obsessively and to investigate his background. But nothing, of course, is as it seems.

In the second novel, Rune is walking past a movie theatre which is showing a porn movie when a bomb explodes inside it. Everybody in the theatre is killed and Rune herself is injured. She decides to make a documentary movie about the bombing, but while putting it together she meets the star of the movie that was playing in the theatre and she changes the emphasis of her film to make it a sort of biography of the porn actress. But nothing, of course, is as it seems.

The novel has two Australians in it and Deaver tries to write their speech phonetically. All this proves is that he has an utterly tin ear for accents. They sound like no Australians I’ve ever heard.

Despite my cynical remarks, the books are actually very entertaining. Utter fluff – but fluffy fun.

The Empty Chair is Deaver’s second novel about quadriplegic investigator Lincoln Rhyme. Like the first it is brilliantly and very sympathetically written. Rhyme is a bit out of his depth in this one. He is away from his normal environs, in North Carolina where he has an appointment for some experimental surgery that might alleviate his condition a little bit. But the local police invoke his help to try and find two women who have been kidnapped by a psychotic known as the Insect Boy. Rhyme finds the case very challenging because he does not know how to interpret the forensic evidence. On his own turf he is unbeatable – he knows the geography and geology and history of New York intimately and the small traces the criminals leave behind them speak volumes to him. But in North Carolina he is starting from scratch and has to depend far more than he would like on local expertise to tease out the meaning behind the samples he gathers from the crime scenes. It is a humbling experience and he isn’t sure he likes it. And nothing, of course, is as it seems. Watch out for those whammies at the end – they’ll get you every time.

Karin Slaughter writes pathology based thrillers somewhat along the lines of those written by Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. But where Cornwell and Reichs sometimes draw a veil around the more grotesque forensic details, Slaughter pulls no punches at all. These are the most graphically gory, gruesome and nasty novels I’ve ever read. Needless to say I enjoyed them immensely. I strongly urge you to read them while eating lunch. Preferably lunch made with mystery meat and covered with a glutinous blood-red sauce. Instant nausea guaranteed.

With Like A Charm Karin Slaughter takes on the role of editor. This book is a round-robin thriller consisting of a series of short stories each written by a famous writer in the genre. The stories are complete in themselves but they are thematically linked and taken together they build into a novel. It’s a cute idea that has been tried several times before with mixed success. Usually the joins show and the artificial constraints of the plotline tends to limit the effectiveness of the approach. But Like A Charm is one of the better examples of the genre, probably because the only linking theme between the stories is a gold charm bracelet which is involved in a series of brutal murders that take place over the course of more than a hundred years in several countries. There are hints that there is some sort of supernatural connection between the bracelet and the deaths that occur in its presence.

The link is so tenuous that it allows the various writers involved to spread their wings in stories and styles, situations and scenarios with which they feel wholly comfortable. Consequently this is quite a strong book. Karin Slaughter has done a great job as an editor and the various writers involved in the project can feel proud of their contributions.

Carl Hiaasen is back with Skinny Dip and it’s a great book. His last few novels have been a little dire, the humour a little forced, the message taking pride of place over the medium. But with Skinny Dip he’s got the mixture right again, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Chaz Perrone is a corrupt (and highly incompetent) marine biologist. He’s in the pocket of a ruthless business tycoon who is illegally dumping fertilizer into the Everglade swamps, secure in the knowledge that he will get away with it because of Perrone’s reports which prove that the water is uncontaminated.

Chaz becomes convinced that his wife Joey has tumbled to his wicked scam and so he pushes her overboard from the deck of a luxury liner. Unfortunately for Chaz, she doesn’t die. Mick Stranahan, a retired cop and semi-hermit, finds her clinging grimly to a bale of Jamaican marijuana and rescues her. But instead of rushing to the police with the story of what Chaz did to her, she decides to remain dead, and with Mick’s help begins to play with Chaz’s head in a series of ever more bizarre psychological pranks designed to push him over the edge.

It is hugely hilarious in Hiaasen’s inimitable style and while he simply can’t stop himself preaching every so often about the importance of conserving the Everglades, he (mostly) keeps it under control, and it is never too overt.

I arrived at the office for the first day of the course. It was a cloudy and drizzly day. I squelched in to the classroom and waited for my students to arrive, and then I began to teach. And as I taught, I made reference to slides that I was projecting on to the screen behind me. I began to suspect that all was not well when one of the students asked:

"Where can we find these slides in our manuals?"

Before I could say anything, another student said, "They are right there in the first chapter. One on each page, just as Alan is projecting them."

"Not in my manual," said the first student.

Close examination revealed that some of my students had the same manual and slides that I was teaching from, but others had a later version of the manual and at first glance it seemed to be quite different from mine. However it soon became clear that the later version of the manual contained all the same chapters that mine did – they were just in a different order. And when we found the chapters that corresponded to mine, they contained (almost) exactly the same information and the same slides but again they were arranged in a different order. There seemed to be no very good reason for this – the order of both sets of chapters and the information within them made perfect sense whichever way you presented them, so the shuffling that the material had been subjected to between the two versions of the manual seemed more than a little arbitrary. I suppose that this is the kind of change that you implement for the very best reason of all – because you can!

I began to consider slicing both myself and the classroom up the middle so that I could present each set of students with the material that corresponded to their manual. Perhaps I could clone myself. Maybe I could address every alternate word to the opposite side of the room. I listened to myself carefully. This is what I heard myself say.

"For those of you with a manual like mine, this is chapter three. For those of you with the new manual, it's a combination of chapters five and eight and you haven't got this slide, but don't worry because it isn't a very important one and I think I'll ignore it anyway. I usually do."

Some of the students looked a little twitchy at the extra complications I was introducing into their lives, but mostly it seemed to work. I spent the day teetering on tenterhooks, madly comparing the manuals one chapter ahead whenever I got a spare minute.

I finished the day quite exhausted, but triumphant. We'd got through everything I wanted to cover that day and the students seemed to be keeping up well. Crisis solved, nothing else could possibly go wrong…

Until I read Speed of Dark, I knew Elizabeth Moon only as the author of some fairly crap military SF. I’d seen the book on the shelves, but I avoided it because I don’t like crap military SF and I assumed this was more of the same. But friends whose opinions I respect recommended the book to me and so I bought it. And it is just magnificent.

Lou Arrendale is autistic. However this seeming disability has given him the skill to see and understand complex patterns, patterns that not even the most sophisticated computers can analyse. As a result of these skills he works for a large company in a special unit with other people like himself. His work has made a lot of money for the company. Nevertheless a lot of prejudice remains and a new general manager takes it upon himself to close down the unit and get rid of the freaks. Another division of the company has come up with an experimental treatment that can make autistic people normal. Without their consent, Lou and his colleagues are "volunteered" to take the treatment. Whatever happens, success or failure, nothing will ever be the same for them again.

The book is largely narrated from Lou’s point of view and therefore we see the world as an autistic person sees it, and we react to the world as an autistic person reacts. Immediately this invites a comparison with Mark Haddon’s award winning novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time which does the same thing. Both books brilliantly convey the rather odd way that autistics see things. The narrative style is extremely similar – short declarative sentences, all in the present tense and no use of contractions at all. And the world view is slightly cold and emotionless with little or no understanding of the motivations of other people. There is a strong emphasis on often arbitrary rules and rituals and a sense of cold logic as an emotional replacement.

Elizabeth Moon’s own son is autistic and she has obviously written this book from the heart. It is intensely moving. Despite his autism, Lou is a very attractive leading character and our sympathies are with him all the way. Emotionally the book is quite wrenching. Elizabeth Moon has done a wonderful job.

Camouflage is Joe Haldeman’s new novel, and it’s one of his better ones. In the third decade of the twenty first century an alien artefact is discovered deep beneath the sea off the island of Samoa. It resists every effort to analyse it or communicate with it. Meanwhile, unknown to the scientists investigating the artefact, two immortal beings who have been roaming the world for millennia are heading for Samoa. The artefact is calling for them.

The novel is told in a series of vignettes some of which revolve around the efforts of the scientists to determine just what it is they have pulled from the sea. The others tell the history of the immortal creatures and shows what has happened in the past when their paths have crossed the lives of ordinary human beings. The results have often been tragic. Eventually the narrative lines coalesce as the immortals reach Samoa and the story behind the story is revealed.

The novel is nicely complex and the plot is quite fascinating in its detail and its ramifications. But I felt the book was a little too short to explore the ideas properly though in this day and age of monumental door stopping tomes that is actually quite a relief. I can think of many other writers who would have taken this same basic idea and turned it into a trilogy of at least seven volumes as they traced the story of the immortals throughout the whole of human history. Fortunately Joe Haldeman doesn’t write those kinds of things and so we have a single volume which gives us only the highlights of the immortals’ lives. Because of this necessary compression of the timelines, many of the events in which the immortals took part are presented in a very perfunctory way. That’s a fine and very subjective line to draw, and generally speaking I think that Joe has drawn it very well, but just occasionally I think he erred too much on the side of brevity and some of the incidents were not well enough fleshed out to hold my attention. An extra fifty or so pages would not have bulked out the novel very much and they could have added a lot to the depth of the story. But that is, of course, just a personal opinion. As I said, this kind of decision is a very subjective one indeed and other people might not agree with me; as Joe himself obviously does not. And that’s fine by me.

The ending of the novel is extremely satisfactory. Joe isn’t very good at endings. In the past they have tended to be arbitrary, or incomprehensible, or just a deus ex machina. But Camouflage suffers from none of these disadvantages and I closed the book after the last page with a good feeling. It is Joe’s best book for years, and it held me enthralled from beginning to end.

Yeh!! Robert Rankin is back with a new novel called Knees Up Mother Earth. It’s a stand-alone sequel to his earlier The Witches Of Chiswick and it’s the seventh novel in the Brentford Trilogy which means that our old friends Pooley and Omally and Neville, the part time barman, are back as well. Also sprouts.

There’s big trouble in Brentford. Property developers are threatening to destroy Brentford’s football ground and build executive homes on the site. The team hasn’t won a match in living memory. Their greatest triumph was in 1928 when they won the FA Cup, and they have been going downhill ever since. The developers agree that if the team can win the FA cup this year, the football ground will be spared. All that Pooley and Omally have to do is make the impossible happen. It shouldn’t be too hard. The Professor is there to help them and H. G. Wells has just materialised in Norman’s kitchen. Surely he will have something useful to contribute.

But this is Brentford and terrors from the Old Testament, beasties from the Pit and hideous Lovecraftian horrors are never far away. Not to mention the Beverley Sisters.

The Beverley Sisters?

I told you not to mention the Beverley Sisters.

The Beverley Sisters (Larry, Curly and Moe).

I did say it was a Robert Rankin novel.

Return Engagement is the eighth book in an ongoing series in which Harry Turtledove is rewriting the entire history of the twentieth century. He himself regards the series as being made up of several distinct sets of related novels and consequently he refers to this one as the first volume of the Settling Accounts trilogy. But that is a very artificial view of things. This is not a stand alone book. The events (and the characters) follow on immediately from The Victorious Opposition (which was the last volume of the American Empire trilogy). But don’t let such bibliographic minutiae bother you. Return Engagement is volume eight, and if you haven’t read the previous seven books, don’t bother reading this one.

If you have read the previous seven books, you’ll enjoy this one immensely. The second world war is now in full swing. Jake Feathersone, the President of the Confederate States, drives a wedge through the Union forces, effectively dividing the country in two. He fully expects that the USA will sue for peace. But they continue the struggle, hopeless though it is starting to seem. And deep within the most secret circles of the Northern government, there are rumours of weapons research being conducted out in the desert.

In the South, Jake Featherstone is approached by a physicist who has a theory about a super weapon that can be manufactured from Uranium-235. He comes to Jake with a request for funding to research methods for extracting it from the much more abundant Uranium-238. Jake sends him away with a flea in his ear.

Meanwhile the war drags on. Large events strut upon the stage of the world, and small people take part in them. As with all the other books, the events are seen through the eyes of a myriad characters. Some of them are old, familiar faces, some of them are new. Some of them are the sons and daughters of people from previous books. The older generation are dying, many of them violently. We lose many friends in this novel, but we make many more.

As always it ends with a cliff-hanger. As always it is wonderful book. Turtledove’s tale of an alternative twentieth century, while clever and exciting in its own right, is truly magnificent for the incisive and insightful way in which it illuminates the events that took place in the real twentieth century. It is a perfect illustration of the fragility of history and a complete refutation of the theories of those who see history as the exploration of political and sociological forces that are independent of the personalities involved in the events.

These are important as well as entertaining books.

It was raining again when I walked home to the hotel after the class. As I walked, I became conscious of a certain dampness seeping through my left sock, and strange squelching noises made themselves heard.

When I got back to the hotel room, I examined my shoes closely. At some unknown moment during the day, the upper surface of my left shoe had split in two directions and there was a large flap of leather that bounced up and down as I walked, thus exposing a huge hole to the elements. Needless to say the water had eagerly poured in through this enormous gap, which explained my damp sock and my squelching sounds. My left shoe was ruined and completely unwearable – even the act of gently removing it from my foot widened the split.

I had no other shoes with me. Oh gloom!

Close scrutiny of the yellow pages revealed that there were no late night emergency shoe shops anywhere close by. It seemed that I would have to wear my unwearable shoe until at least tomorrow lunchtime, when perhaps I would be able to find a shoe shop within walking distance of the office. I was not looking forward to this. The office is in a very posh part of town. Any shoe shop available to me would doubtless impose a huge posh surcharge on top of the basic price. Oh my aching credit card!

Fortunately I was having dinner with friends that night and when I explained my predicament, Sue had the perfect solution.

"Come with me to The Warehouse," she says. "It is open late tonight, and you are certain to get a bargain. Everyone does. All the adverts say so, and adverts never lie. It is against the law."

Sue took me to The Warehouse.

"Over there are the shoes," she said. "I'll go and look at the bargain books while you choose."

I glanced around. Shoes. Shelves full of shoes. I picked up a pair. Too large.

I picked up another pair. Too small.

I picked up another pair. Just right.

"Who's been trying on my shoes?" said baby bear inside my head.

I put one of them on to a foot. Perfect.

"OK," I said to Sue. "These will do."

Sue looked a little flabbergasted. "Don't you think you should try them on?" she asked.

"I've done that," I said, puzzled. "They're fine."

"But you've been gone less than two minutes," said Sue. "You haven't had time to make an informed choice. Shopping with men is so frustrating! Don't you know that you are supposed to compare prices and styles and try on at least a dozen pairs before you finally settle on the first pair you tried?"

"No," I said. "I didn't know that. Why do you have to do that?"

"In case you find a better bargain, or nicer shoes."

"Nicer shoes? Shoes are shoes. They cover your feet and stop your toes from fraying at the edges. As long as they fit, what else matters?"

"Oooh!" said Sue. "Aaaahhh!" she explained. Then she hit me with a bargain book and took me back home and we ate dinner.

Val McDermid A Place of Execution Harper Collins
Val McDermid The Mermaids Singing Harper Collin
Val McDermid The Wire In The Blood Harper Collin
Val McDermid The Last Temptation Harper Collin
Val McDermid The Distant Echo Harper Collin
Val McDermid Killing the Shadows Harper Collin
Jeffrey Deaver Manhattan is my Beat Coronet
Jeffrey Deaver Death of a Blue Movie Star Coronet
Jeffrey Deaver The Empty Chair Coronet
Karin Slaughter Blindsighted Arrow
Karin Slaughter Kisscut Arrow
Karin Slaughter A Faint Cold Fear Arrow
Karin Slaughter Like a Charm Arrow
Carl Hiaasen Skinny Dip Knopf
Elizabeth Moon The Speed of Dark Orbit
Joe Haldeman Camouflage Ace
Robert Rankin Knees Up Mother Earth Gollancz
Harry Turtledove Settling Accounts: Return Engagement Del Rey
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