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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (chelys sibilo)

The Silence Of The Harpo – whistle, whistle, honk

It is five o'clock in the morning. Everything is muted and misty. I'm drowsy now and I'm seesaw sleeping, up and down. I'm almost awake, I'm almost asleep and I'm drifting in low, slow fluffy clouds of unconsciousness, warm and snug. And then:


Suddenly I am wide awake, pain pulsing, my foot on fire, my eyes wide with shock at the throbbing agony that has pulled me so rudely from sleep.

Harpo the Cat, desiring his breakfast, has crawled under the sheet and duvet at the bottom of the bed and has dug all his claws deep into my big toe. As my screams of agony ring through the house, nine kilogram Porgy races into the bedroom, leaps high into the air and thumps down heavily on my chest.


Every molecule of oxygen shoots out of my lungs and I am unable to draw any more in because Porgy is such a dead weight that my chest muscles do not have enough strength to move my diaphragm. Unable to inhale, I begin to strangle while Porgy looks at me with deep and abiding love in his eyes. He purrs like a traction engine. He too wants his breakfast.

Bess, aware of sudden activity and wishing to attract my attention so as to ask me for her breakfast, leaps on Porgy and begins to fight him for possession of my chest. They scream and yowl and hurl each other up and down my torso; full body slam, sunset flip, Oklahoma roll, camel clutch, half-nelson and a Boston crab. I don't need a television set to watch WWF wrestling matches.

Harpo, having shredded my big toe, has moved on to the next one. Cats caterwaul, the bed threatens to collapse. I snatch a quick breath as Bess knocks Porgy into the middle of next week with a particularly unsubtle karate chop. I let out another shriek as Harpo brings his teeth into play on my toes.

Robin grunts sleepily, turns over and continues to snore in deep contentment. No help there. I stagger bloodily into the kitchen and fill the cats' dishes with biscuits and I make sure their water bowl is topped up. It's been just another normal morning in the Robson household.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by a new writer called Susanna Clarke is a big book in every sense of the word. It has a massive page count, a long and enormously complex plot and a huge cast of characters. It is startlingly, not to say brilliantly, original. Mark my words, it won't be long before the blurbs on other books start proclaiming: "In the tradition of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" or: "Not since Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell…". In other words this is a very important, trend-setting book.

The book opens at the start of the nineteenth century. Britain is engaged in a long, costly war with Napoleon and there is no end in sight. It has been more than two hundred years since the last British magician died. The great tradition of magic in Britain seems to be over. Scholarly groups study the history of magic and pore through the biographies of the magicians. These scholars call themselves magicians, but they have no practical ability to work magic. The skills of the art have been lost.

Then word comes of Mr Norrell, a reclusive scholar in Yorkshire. He has devoted his life to a study of magic. He has spent several fortunes amassing a huge library of books about magic (and possibly even books of magic). He claims to be the first practical magician for centuries. The scholarly magicians of Yorkshire are sceptical and demand that Mr Norrell prove himself. On the appointed day they gather in the Minster, and one and all they are astonished when Mr Norrell makes the statues talk! The statues describe all that they have viewed from their lofty perches over the centuries (and some of the sights they have seen are more than a little gruesome; most unsuitable for hallowed ground).

There is no doubt about it, magic has come back to England again and Mr Norrell is its foremost practitioner. He travels to London to offer his services to the government. He is introduced into society and is greatly grieved when the fiancée of a friend dies on the eve of her marriage. It seems to him that magic might be capable of resurrecting her and he makes the attempt. Unfortunately he makes a tactical error – he invokes the help of a fairy. Traditionally any bargain you strike with the fairy folk turns out to have hidden clauses that cause no end of trouble later on. Mr Norrell is sure that he has not fallen into that trap, but he is wrong and the fairy drifts in and out of the rest of the story; and his interventions are never happy ones for any of the people whose lives and deaths he intersects with.

Mr Norrell takes an apprentice called Jonathan Strange and it is not long before (in the opinion of some people) the skills of the pupil exceed those of the master. Jonathan Strange travels to Spain to aid the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War. The Duke is reluctant at first, but soon comes to appreciate how useful a powerful magician can be to his forces. Years later, at the climactic battle of Waterloo, Jonathan Strange proves to be a vital component of the coalition that finally sends Napoleon down into defeat.

In the aftermath of the war, Strange and Norrell take up the great quest again; the quest to bring magic properly back to Britain. But personal concerns intervene and the road is never smooth. The war may be over, but that doesn't mean the enemies have gone away. The Raven King may be involved. He wrote a book once. Vinculus might know of it in some odd manner…

The really great writers set themselves tasks that have never been done before. Tolkien set out to create a grand mythology for England. Susanna Clarke has gone one better; she has created a whole magical history for England. And she makes it all seem so convincing that never was disbelief more willingly suspended.

The whole tale is written in a style designed to capture the spirit of the times. She tells her story in relentlessly Austenitic prose and it is an utter joy to read because (unlike many Austen imitators) she is able to capture not only the authentic voice but also the authentic humour – and for those who have ears to hear, this is a delightfully funny and witty book.

By the very nature of her subject, there are times when she must describe grotesques (both people and places) and here her prose takes on a distinctly Dickensian flavour; which again seems very appropriate. She is particularly Dickensian with her characters' names: Childermass, Drawlight. I kept expecting Gradgrind, but of course he never appeared.

It is impossible to over praise the joy and the beauty of this book. It is purely and simply brilliant. And it is one of the important books, one of the once-in-a-generation books. It is a book for the ages.

Jack Dann's new novel The Rebel could be described as an alternate history SF novel, though it has been published as a mainstream novel with no mention of SF on the cover. And that's probably a good thing because it means that the book will be treated seriously by the glitterati – and it deserves to be treated seriously for it is a serious book, and a very good one indeed. The premise is simple: James Dean didn't die in a car crash. He survived and lived on to become a respected establishment figure. The novel is a biography of Dean's life after the car crash.

It's really a history of the 1950s and 1960s. The 1960s in particular were a very turbulent time. Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the death of Marilyn Monroe. Dean is involved in all of these and as he grows up, the Rebel Without a Cause actually finds a cause (much to his own surprise) and the social and political conscience that he develops turns out to be of seminal importance. The whole history of the twentieth century changes. The decades that follow the 1960s in the book are not the decades that you and I lived through.

Several years ago, at an SF convention in Australia, I heard Jack Dann read an excerpt from this novel in progress (as it then was). Dann certainly knew how to attract an audience.

"I'm going to read the blow job scene," he announced at the top of his voice. "You don't want to miss that, do you?"

Not surprisingly, he attracted a huge audience. And the blow job scene was everything a blow job scene ought to be. But there was a lot more as well, and it was obvious that, if he could make it work, this would be a brilliant book. I've been looking forward to reading it ever since. Now that it has finally been published, I am very pleased to report that it more than lives up to its initial promise. And it gives great blow jobs.

Harpo the Cat has lived with us for nearly three months now, and we all defer to his wishes. Like Edward Lear's pobble, I have no toes. Robin is getting nervous about her shed.

Robin is currently deeply engaged in concreting the floor of her garden shed. Every so often she gets into the car, disappears for a couple of hours and comes back with a boot full of bags of cement and builder's mix. When we go shopping, she scours the shelves for interesting things to embed in her concrete.

"Plain concrete is dull," she said to me. "I want concrete that is vibrant and exciting; concrete that has a personality."

She is building the shed floor in small sections. Some sections have had glitter scattered upon them. Some have small stars twinkling, and one has a pair of eyeballs. It is quite disconcerting to walk into the shed and feel the floor staring at you. You can't help wondering what it is thinking about.

She has a birthday coming soon.

"What would you like for your birthday present?" I asked her.

"Ooohh - builder's mix," she said dreamily. "Cement. Perhaps a collection of coloured pebbles to make a mosaic. Just to add a touch of class."

"Would you like the new DVD of the Star Wars Trilogy?" I asked.

She looked slightly affronted. "That would look silly embedded in concrete!"

Every time Robin digs out a section in the shed and levels the dirt, Harpo poos in the nice, soft earth she has just exposed. Porgy, who hero-worships Harpo, immediately follows suit. The floor of Robin's shed is actually a nice layer of concrete perched on top of a thick layer of cat poo which is sitting directly on the soil. Judging by the corrosive effects of Harpo's poo on his dirt tray, both Robin and I are expecting the concrete floor to disintegrate any day now. Either that, or a small, fierce volcano will erupt as his poo eats through the Earth's crust and exposes the raw magma below.

Dies The Fire by S. M. Stirling is another alternate history story. It is the first volume of a trilogy (sigh!) and is loosely connected to his earlier Island In The Sea Of Time trilogy. In the previous series, Nantucket Island is sent back in time to the stone age by some mysterious (and unexplained) force and the books discuss the trials and tribulations of the people as they try and cope with life in the distant past. Dies The Fire tells the story of what happens here in the twentieth century after Nantucket has vanished into the past. What happens is that all electrical gadgets stop working and chemical explosives (like gunpowder) stop going bang. Engines won't work (the chemicals won't combust and anyway, engines need electricity). Therefore the whole of the world is reduced, at a stroke, to a very primitive, almost medieval way of life. Most people die, of course. But some survive and gradually they seek each other out and start to build (or rebuild) their communities.

It's an extremely good book and the story romps along. Stirling is particularly good at describing people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and learning to cope with vastly changed social and technical situations. He did it in Island In The Sea Of Time and he's done it here as well.

Unfortunately one of Stirling's major interests is military history and the books that followed Island In The Sea Of Time turned into very boring descriptions of set piece battles as the rival factions fought each other for control. And I am absolutely convinced that the books that will follow Dies The Fire will do the same thing. All the signs are there. The main protagonists have been identified and we've already had some minor skirmishes. The scene is set and it is obvious (given Stirling's predilections) what comes next. I'm not looking forward to it.

I think Mick Farren's new novel Kindling might be an alternate history as well. America is being invaded by an army that seems to comprise an alliance between Arabs and Mongols (with perhaps a few others thrown in for good measure). Internal evidence suggests that in this world the Moors were never defeated in Spain, there were no crusades and the Mongol Horde under Genghis Khan never turned back. Europe has been dominated by this culture for centuries and now it looks like America's turn.

This is (again!) the first book of a series. The situation is that there are four people who, if they can get together, will unite into some sort of superbeing that will (hopefully) throw the invading army out on its ear. One is a young boy running away from his village, one is an aristocrat in a besieged city, one is a private in the invading army and one is a slave girl. The chances of them getting together do not look good. This first novel concentrates on getting them together. Subsequent books will turn them into a superbeing and they will do superbeing things.

It's all a load of absolute tosh of course. The only thing that makes it worth while is Farren's delightful cynicism. Everybody is a complete bastard whose only concern is to look out for number one. Bugger principles, sod idealism, screw patriotism. What's in it for me?

The story also reintroduces a character who has had major walk-on parts in other Farren stories. Yancey Slide – we're never quite sure just who (or what) he is, but he definitely isn't human. He has his own agenda and he's an even bigger bastard than everybody else. I love Mick Farren's books – they are so delightfully dark.

Jeffrey Deaver's novel The Blue Nowhere is very irritating – it could have been extremely good, but unfortunately it isn't and I must confess that I didn't finish it. Normally being unable to finish a book means that I don't really have any right to criticize it (how can I criticize it if I can't see the whole picture?), but I'm going to restrict myself to discussing only the reasons why I couldn't finish the book, so to that extent I think that my criticisms are valid.

First let's get the plot details out of the way. The plot is extremely strong and brilliantly conceived. A serial killer is attacking computer geeks. It seems that he himself is a computer geek and he is targeting and killing all the geeks that he considers to be his intellectual equals (or betters). In other words, he's getting rid of the competition. He has a very sophisticated computer program that will track these people down across the internet.

That's a stonking good idea for a thriller and the tension never lets up. Deaver admits in an afterword that the program the killer uses to track his victims does not currently exist (and perhaps never will, at least not in the way he describes it). But that's no big deal – vapourware like this has a long and honourable history in the computer business and I'm more than happy to willingly suspend my disbelief about that. But the thing that irritated me and finally made me give up on the book was the incredible number of mistakes that Deaver made about the technology as it currently stands.

You might argue that I'm a specialist in this field, so of course I will notice the mistakes. Probably most people wouldn't notice a thing; so who cares if he got a few little details wrong?. Stop picking nits! Usually I'd agree with you. But not this time.

Computers are becoming more and more ubiquitous in our lives and more and more people are involved with using them. Deaver's target audience is getting more sophisticated almost by the minute. Consequently people are going to start noticing the elementary errors that he makes and more and more people are going to give up on him as a result. Deaver owes it to himself to be a bit more diligent in his research.

He should also have had the final manuscript reviewed by someone who knows his stuff. That way some of the more egregious errors could have been cleared up before the book even got published. It really wouldn't be all that hard to remove references to the "source codes" of a program, for example. All you've got to do is get rid of the letter 's' at the end of the word, for goodness sake! Neither would it have been too difficult to modify the scene where the geek looks in a machine's root directory to identify the other computers on the network. That's the point where I finally gave up – I was half-willing to let Deaver have "source codes", but this scene really stuck in my craw. I simply couldn't believe in his computer geek character any more after the man went through that bit of nonsense on his hunt for his next victim. So I said the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") and gave up.

Perhaps these kinds of things don't bother you. But I promise that as you become more familiar with your own computer they really will start to irritate all the bits in your byte.

Deaver is a very good thriller writer – all the other Deaver books that I read this month (see the list at the end) were excellent. They all follow the usual Deaver formula of misdirection with a triple whammy at the end when you find out who really did it. They are all thoroughly entertaining ways of passing an afternoon.

But The Blue Nowhere isn't.

Harpo is the smallest cat in the house but he has the largest personality. I've never seen anyone take such an exuberant joy in simply being alive. His every waking moment appears to consist of pure pleasure. He leaps and gambols, he races and chases. Everything is a toy – butterflies, bumble bees, the cables that plug the units of my stereo system together, the mouse on Robin's computer and the large tennis balls that Porgy and Bess have long ago given up on because they are too heavy to control. Not a problem to Harpo. He bats them around as if they are feather light. He chases them across the room. He lies in wait for them and ambushes them when they aren't looking. He makes the games more challenging by attacking the toys around corners and from behind curtains.

Last week our vet had an open day and was offering big discounts on items in the store. We bought a large climbing frame for the cats. It has columns that are scratching posts and platforms at the top of each column. It is three storeys high and the middle platform has a curtain around it which transforms it into a cave that is just wonderful to hide in. Things dangle on strings and jiggle enticingly, just asking to be chased and killed. All the cats love it and they perch at different levels and have boxing matches with each other.

Harpo hides in the cave and dangles his tail outside. He waits patiently – a fisherman hunting for prey. Eventually the temptation becomes overwhelming and either Porgy or Bess (or both) will leap for the tail to attack it. Quick as a flash, Harpo takes his tail out of danger, whirls round and beats seven kinds of brick dust out of the intruder, grinning delightedly from ear to ear. What a game!

Porgy and Bess retreat to lick their wounds. A few minutes later, being rather dumb cats, they have completely forgotten what happened. Glancing idly round in the middle of an important wash, they notice a black fluffy thing dangling down from the cave in the middle of the climbing frame.

"That looks like something worth attacking," says Porgy.

"Good idea," replies Bess.

"Snigger," says Harpo.

Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer is a marvellous history of stage magic. It's major thesis seems to be that Houdini was a lousy magician. That's rather an odd position to take since Houdini considered himself to be primarily an escapologist rather than a magician. Stage magic was very much a second string to his bow (even though he did once make an elephant disappear!). Steinmeyer's obvious dislike of Houdini both as a person and as a magician does taint the atmosphere of the book a little, but nevertheless the insights into stage magic, the exposing of many of the tricks of the trade and the potted biographies of many of the famous stage magicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the art was perhaps at its most sophisticated give the book an eerie fascination. I loved it.

Not Safe After Dark is a collection of short stories by Peter Robinson; a man who writes some of the best detective novels around. I approached the collection full of anticipation, but I'm afraid it simply proved that great novelists do not necessarily make good short story writers. Generally speaking the stories are very plodding and a bit contrived. I'm afraid I can't recommend it.

Neither can I recommend The Best of Xero by Pat and Dick Lupoff. Xero was an influential science fiction fanzine that was published between 1960 and 1963. It's only real claim to fame was that many of the articles it published were not only by big name fans, but also by big name authors: Frederik Pohl, James Blish et al. However despite that, the columns were about all the usual fannish obsessions: fan politics, backbiting feuds, the shortcomings of various editors and far more than I ever wanted to know about comic books that I've never heard of. The magazine won several awards during its short lifespan and is remembered with nostalgia by those who were there at the time. But its world was a tiny world even in 1963 and the ephemera of forty years ago seem merely quaint and uninteresting today.

Cradle Song and Siren Song by Robert Edric are the first two volumes of a projected trilogy of detective stories. Edric is a mainstream literary novelist and some of his previous works have been long listed for the Booker prize. Normally when such a person goes slumming in the genre fictions they make a bit of a mess of it since they are generally unaware of just what it is that makes the genre fictions tick. I'm sure we could all come up with examples. Edric, however, is the exception that proves the rule. He has managed the transition brilliantly and these two novels are a tour de force. I anticipate the third with eagerness.

The novels are set in Hull and concern the cases of a seedy (though very moral) private detective called Leo Rivers. So far, so ordinary – but what makes these novels stand out above the crowd is Edric's brilliant sense of time and place which brings Hull so vividly to life, and also the rather nasty nature of the cases that Rivers' has to handle. The first book concerns itself with paedophilia, the second with a slumlord and the entangled streams of property speculation, violence and extreme corruption that allows him to flourish. I almost felt like I needed a long hot shower after reading the books; they made me feel so dirty, both inside and out. Now that's good writing!

The other day the whole family was gathered together watching the television. Porgy found the programme less than enthralling and fell asleep. Bess felt the need to indulge in a practical critical evaluation of it and spent the duration of the programme licking her bottom. Harpo vanished.

The programme finished and Robin yawned.

"Coffee?" I suggested.

"Yes, please."

I went into the kitchen and did the coffee thing. While I was doing it, the cat flap flapped and Harpo came in. There was a sort of a black swish across the kitchen as he headed for the lounge. I paid no attention. Just Harpo, oozing cute as normal.

Soon I heard rattle, rattle, rattle. Harpo playing with some toy or other. Nothing odd there. I took the coffee in to the lounge.

"Beware," said Robin. "I'm armed and dangerous!"


Robin brandished a blue tube at me.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Eye shadow," she said.

"What's dangerous about eye shadow?"

"I don't own any," said Robin.

We both looked at Harpo. Harpo looked at us.

"Nice eye shadow," said Harpo. "Great to play with. Just try chasing it – it rattles. Really neat!"

"Where did you get that from?" I asked.

"Dunno," said Harpo vaguely. "Somewhere. Isn't it great?"

A lady walked past the house. One eye was blue. One eye wasn't.

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Bloomsbury
Jack Dann The Rebel Flamingo
S. M. Stirling Dies The Fire Roc
Mick Farren Kindling Tor
Jeffrey Deaver The Blue Nowhere Coronet
Jeffrey Deaver Shallow Graves Coronet
Jeffrey Deaver Hard News Coronet
Jeffrey Deaver The Stone Monkey Coronet
Jim Steinmeyer Hiding the Elephant Carroll & Graf
Peter Robinson Not Safe After Dark McMillan
Pat and Dick Lupoff The Best of Xero Tachyon
Robert Edric Cradle Song Black Swan
Robert Edric Siren Song Doubleday
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