Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (peditatus humidus)

Alan Goes Squelch

The lady at the check in desk handed me my boarding pass. Despite the fact that I had checked in at the Koru Club counter and identified myself with my Koru Club card, there was no mention of my membership on the boarding pass and I was not in my preferred seating position.

"I prefer an aisle seat near the front," I said.

"There aren’t any," she snapped. She didn’t even glance at the screen to check. She just naturally knew these things. She attached the flight tag to my case and pushed it towards the carousel.

"Don’t forget my priority tag," I said mildly.

She sneered at me and, with bad grace, attached a priority tag.

I made my way to the Koru Lounge and presented my boarding pass.

"Oh dear," said the lady. "They haven’t put your details on the pass. Let me give you a new one."

"Thank you," I said.

"And they haven’t given you your preferred seat," she said as she checked my details against the boarding pass. "Would you like an aisle seat near the front? I can give you 4C."

"Yes please, that would be lovely."

She clattered keys. "Oops!" she said. "That one’s just gone as we were talking. I’ll give you 6C and block the middle seat so you won’t have to sit next to anybody and you can stretch out a bit."

"Thank you." I felt bemused. Such friendliness. Such service. She must be a new recruit. They’d soon knock that out of her.

"My pleasure, sir," she said. "Enjoy the lounge."

The doors swished open and I splashed across Alph the sacred river, and entered a stately pleasure dome where luxuries beyond the dreams of mortal men awaited me.

I sipped a glass of lemonade and nibbled a water biscuit. I checked my flight details on the monitor.

The flight was delayed.

At first glance, the subjects of Peter May’s series of Chinese detective novels seem a little odd. Each deals with a bizarre murder or series of murders and each involves Li Yang, a Beijing detective and Margaret Campbell, an American forensic pathologist. They are an unlikely couple – made even more unlikely by Margaret’s initial antagonism to, and her complete and utter ignorance of, all things Chinese. Yet somehow Peter May makes it work – the couple fall in love and together they solve the murders.

The novels are fascinating slices of Chinese social and political history. Li Yang himself is of the modern generation. He was only a child when the excesses of the Cultural Revolution ripped the country apart. One fascinating story strand concerns itself with the plight of the victims of the Cultural Revolution and also the plight of many of the former Red Guards, some of whom are now suffering crises of conscience. Mao’s legacy continues to have a profound effect on modern China though his policies have long been discredited.

China is an ancient culture and the Chinese character is complex and often bizarre to Western eyes. Peter May is a British journalist, but he has extensive experience of China. His books are a fascinating evocation of a completely alien way of living and looking at the world. The plots are extremely silly, not to say trite. But the characters, the situations, the sociology and the politics are utterly enthralling.

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather was a seminal work that spawned three brilliant movies and several dire sequels. Puzo never again reached the magnificent heights of that first brilliant success. Mark Winegardner has written another novel about Puzo’s mafia family, attempting to fill in the gaps that Puzo left in the saga. But it’s an even worse book than Puzo’s own later attempts to cash in on his own fame. Winegardner’s book is The Godfather by numbers and it never really comes alive. It is perfectly possible to take a book full of clichés and make a work of art from them (Look at The Godfather itself). But Winegardner isn’t the man to do it. The Godfather Returns is a dull book with a dull title and page after stultifying page of dull prose. Don’t bother with it.

Churchill’s Hour is the third novel in Michael Dobbs’ series about Winston Churchill’s war years. It is 1941 and the war is going disastrously. Britain stands alone, battered and bloody and slowly sinking into defeat and despair. Churchill’s one hope is to persuade the Americans to enter the conflict and all his policies are geared towards that aim.

The history of the time is well known and well documented and well understood. Dobbs’ genius lies in his ability to personalise it, to get beneath the skin of the flamboyant Churchill and to show us and tell us about the man’s thoughts and feelings. Despite the grand theories of many historians, history really is about people, and there really are seminal people without whom the history of the world would have been very different. To argue otherwise (as many do) has always struck me as utter nonsense. Churchill was one of those pivotal historical characters and it is both a pleasure and a privilege to live his life vicariously in the pages of these novels. This ongoing series marks the coming of age of Michael Dobbs as a novelist. The books are, quite simply, brilliant.

I wasn’t at all surprised that the flight was delayed. The only time I’ve ever been on an Air New Zealand flight that wasn’t delayed was one glorious day when all the ground staff were on strike and had been replaced by emergency management volunteers. It was amazing! The counter staff were friendly, cheerful and helpful. The plane took off to the second and landed right on schedule. My luggage, festooned with priority stickers, came out of the hold first, within seconds of my arrival at the baggage carousel. Normally the baggage handlers ignore the priority tags and my luggage comes out last. And often I have had to hang around the baggage area for almost as long as the flight itself took before any bags at all appeared. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the day the Air New Zealand ground staff went on strike. I would suggest to the Air New Zealand management that they encourage their staff to go on strike more often. The airline would run far more efficiently.

But today the staff were all working as normal, and my flight was delayed.

"Bing, bong! Air New Zealand regret to announce that flight 465 to Auckland will be delayed for at least thirty minutes."

Let me guess, I thought to myself. It’s delayed because of the late arrival of an inbound flight. That’s the normal, vague excuse. That or the ubiquitous engineering concerns. The voice continued:

"This delay has been caused by the fact that flight 465 has no cabin crew, technical staff or pilot. They are all arriving on an inbound flight which itself is running late. We apologise for this delay."

Just as the microphone clicked off, I heard the beginning of a giggle. At least somebody at Air New Zealand still had a sense of humour. Must be a management volunteer. The ice-cold ab-humans who usually make the announcements would never do anything but sound smugly satisfied at the inconvenience caused by the delay.

I returned to my book. Eventually, thirty minutes late, as advertised, we began to board. The flight crew looked exhausted. Perhaps they’d had to hand crank the propellers on the incoming flight.

In The Company Of Cheerful Ladies is the latest instalment in the adventures of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency. Suffice it to say that Alexander McCall Smith has not lost his touch. Precious Ramotswe and her husband Mr J. L. B. Matakoni are as delightful as ever. If you have not yet made the acquaintance of Precious Ramotswe, go forth and buy all of Mr McCall Smith’s books about the Number One Ladies Detective Agency immediately. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.

John Harvey is best known for a series of detective novels featuring Inspector Charlie Resnick. However Flesh and Blood is a stand alone novel about a retired policeman called Elder (he is referred to by his surname throughout the book). One of his last cases had been the particularly brutal torture and murder of a young girl. Two young tearaways, Shane Donald and Alan McKeirnan were found guilty of the crime. Elder has always felt that they were guilty of many more crimes than they were convicted of. In particular, he feels they were involved in the disappearance of sixteen year old Susan Blaylock who vanished without trace. When Shane Donald is released from prison, Elder feels compelled to take up the trail again. The unsolved cases never go away; they always remain, gnawing at the conscience. Was there more he could have done? Was there anything he had missed?

On the surface, this is just another murder mystery – and as a murder mystery it is a particularly satisfying one. But it is also about the dark watches of the night, about the dreams and nightmares that haunt us. It’s about duty and betrayal, debt and the knowledge of things left undone. It’s about shades of grey. The good guys have their bad moments and even the bad guys have their redeeming features. It’s John Harvey’s very best novel.

Strange Affair is the new Inspector Banks novel by Peter Robinson. As you would expect, it is superb. But it is the fifteenth novel in the series and while I am sure it could be read as a stand alone book, it cannot help but be full of references to things that have gone before. This may detract from the story if you haven’t read the earlier books.

The plane soared into the air and levelled off at its cruising altitude. The crew prepared to serve coffee and tea and water. They bustled down the aisle with the trolley, handing out plastic mugs and small, sealed containers of water. As the lady reached my row, she dropped one of the water containers. It landed with a thump, split itself in two, and poured water all over my right foot. My sock absorbed the water gleefully. I wriggled my toes. They went squelch.

"Oh, I’m so sorry," she said, embarrassed. We both mopped my sock with paper napkins. It made no discernible difference. She marched away with her trolley, determined to get as far away from me as possible.

I pushed my crew call button. Sirens screamed and red emergency beacons flared. The lady reappeared. "Yes?"

"You forgot to give me my plastic mug and small, sealed container of water." I said. She plonked them down in front of me and ran away again. I drank my water quickly in case it caused sudden, unexpected turbulence. Every so often I flexed my toes experimentally. They continued to go squelch. A man with a coffee pot filled my plastic cup with something that might have been coffee. I drank that as well.

We began our descent into Auckland. I could feel the pressure building up in my head and I held my nose and popped my ears to relieve it. A small baby began to scream with pain. We thumped on to the runway.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Auckland. For your comfort and safety please remain seated until the captain has switched off the fasten seatbelts sign."

Owls to Athens is the fourth book in H. N. Turtletaub’s series about ancient Greece. Rumour has it that this is intended to be the last in the series, though since it ends with both protagonists still alive and with the basic situation much the same as it always has been, there is plenty of room for Turtletaub to return to the series if he wants to.

In this book, the cousins Menedemos and Sostratos head out on another trading voyage. This time they plan to head for Athens. Sostratos is particularly thrilled to be returning to the place where he originally studied philosophy before he entered the family business and became a trader. They leave early in the trading season, partly to try and get a lead on their rivals and partly so that they will arrive in Athens in time for the Greater Dionysia, a parade and an arts festival.

History is being made in Athens. One of the local warlords invades the city, displaces his political rival from the throne of the city and announces plans to institute a democracy. Though there appears to be a certain corruption behind the façade as the representatives of the people shower him with honours and riches.

Sostratos gets a good price for his papyrus and ink at the Lykeion but it is a bittersweet triumph. For all his love of learning, Sostratos finds that he can’t go back and retrieve his past. He is a merchant now, for better or worse.

Menedemos has no such philosophical qualms. He continues to drink and wench as he has always done. And in typical fashion, he starts yet another affair with the wife of an influential man. But this time he goes too far and she becomes pregnant. Menedemos’ solution to this problem is typically ingenious. He might even get away with it…

The brawling, roistering and politically charged life of ancient Greece has never been brought more fully alive than in Turtletaub’s books. He wears his erudition lightly, but it is obvious that he is intimately familiar with the times. The four books of this series are the best things he has ever written.

Gaudeamus is a weird book! Every so often John Barnes’ friend Travis Bismark pops around to his house and keeps him up to date with his ongoing adventures as he investigates the theft of government secrets from a research establishment. It soon becomes apparent that the secrets revolve around a gaudeamus machine which bends the laws of physics in such strange ways that it can be used as a teleportation device, a time travel device and a potent source of energy. A rival company is stealing the secrets by feeding the research scientists gaudeamus pills which induce telepathy. The spies then read the scientists’ minds. There are also aliens, flying saucers (theirs and ours), a serial killer and lots of bad taste remarks about science fiction fans and the profession of being a writer. It’s a good novel about bad novels (metafiction anybody?) as well as being a bad novel in its own right. The plot is ridiculous and the jokes are in poor taste. It’s the best thing Barnes has ever written. I loved it.

Very Bad Deaths is Spider Robinson trying to be serious. Russell Walker, the first person narrator, shared a room in college with a student who smelled so bad, nobody else could bear to be near him. Only Russell knows Smelly’s secret – he’s a telepath, and reading minds hurts. So he smells, in order to keep people at a distance. Russell is the only person he can bear to have near him; and then only in small doses.

Many years later, Smelly seeks Russell out. He needs help. He has picked up the telepathic emanations of a sadistic serial killer. He knows enough to know that the killer will strike again soon, but he doesn’t know enough to identify the killer or his victim. And he can’t approach the police himself. It would hurt too much.

Somehow Russell manages to convince a police officer of the truth of this and together they set out to track the monster, unaware that simultaneously the monster is tracking them.

It’s mainly an excuse for the Spider to write lots of sadistic stuff which induces a great deal of projectile vomiting in his protagonists, but which didn’t do much for me. It’s a shallow novel, written in a shallow way. The plot is extremely clever with some lovely twists in its various tails. But it is nowhere near as horrid as he would like to think it is, and his vomiting protagonists fail to convince.

We rolled slowly towards the gate. The plane came to a gentle stop, the engine noise dropped away. Bing, bong! The fasten seatbelts sign went off. There was the normal mad scramble to get bags down from the overhead lockers. We all stood in the narrow aisle, waiting for the door to open. Through the cabin window I could see the air bridge moving out towards the aeroplane. It stopped about six inches from the door, thought for a moment and then retreated. Then it tried again. And again. But no matter how hard it tried, it could not reach the plane door. It always stopped six inches away.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the delay, but there seems to be a fault with the air bridge. We’ve called engineering to come and take a look at it."

Several people sat down to wait. Through the cabin window, I could see men hitting the air bridge with hammers of gradually increasing size. It quivered under the onslaught, but remained stubbornly six inches away from the aeroplane. Eventually the men ran out of hammers and walked away scratching their heads.

"Sorry squire, can’t find anything wrong. Looks perfectly normal to me. Perhaps you are doing something wrong?"

We waited a few more minutes and then the captain himself made an announcement.

"I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but the engineers tell me that they can’t do anything with the air bridge and so I shall have to move the plane six inches to the left. Can you all please sit down while I do this. You don’t have to fasten your seat belts, but you must sit down."

We sat down, clutching our in flight baggage to our chests, eagerly anticipating our extra free ride. Slowly the plane reversed away from the air bridge.

"Left hand down a bit, co-pilot."

"Left hand down a bit it is sir."

Then we straightened up and edged our way in again.

"Anchors out, co-pilot. Handbrake on. Ignition off. Put the gear stick into neutral."

The air bridge gently kissed the side of the plane and the crew opened the door.

"Thank you ladies and gentlemen, you may now disembark. We hope you enjoyed your flight with us."

Iain M. Banks new SF novel The Algebraist is receiving rave reviews and I can’t for the life of me understand why. It’s a hugely lengthy and very traditional space opera which contains, as far as I can tell, not a single clever idea, revolutionary concept or indeed anything that hasn’t been done a million times before. I found it extremely dull and I had to force myself through it. I really don’t think it was worth the effort.

If you like long descriptions of gas giants, convoluted intergalactic politics, trite love affairs and tedious super-science you’ll love The Algebraist. I don’t, and didn’t.

Lurulu is the sequel to Jack Vance’s earlier novel Ports Of Call. Or, more accurately, it completes the earlier novel. Neither book stands alone. The first ends with a cliff hanger and the second starts with a summary of the first in order to make the material comprehensible. Together these two very slim books make one complete novel. And what a wonderful tale it is! It exemplifies everything that Vance does so well.

The book is a picaresque adventure built from a series of vignettes that allow Jack Vance to indulge to the full his delight in conjuring forth oddball societies and eccentric customs. Myron Tany and the crew of the space freighter Glicca travel from world to world carrying strange cargoes to stranger destinations. After many adventures, Myron is reunited with his aunt Hester and he hears the bitter tale of the misfortunes that befell her after she abandoned him at Port Tanjee. The plot comes full circle; all receive their just desserts.

The prose is rich and deep and witty, the societies are extraordinarily odd, the food is often weird. Jack Vance is a wonderful writer and Lurulu completes a wonderful book.

I squelched out of the plane. On the horizon, the setting sun was busy turning the clouds pink. The aeroplane, embarrassed at being driven by a pilot who landed six inches too far to the right, was blushing all the way down to its wheels and all the way out to the tips of its wings.

I squelched over to the baggage claim area. My case, complete with priority tag, was the very last one to appear on the carousel. It had been a completely normal flight.

Peter May The Firemaker Coronet
Peter May The Fourth Sacrifice Coronet
Peter May The Killing Room Coronet
Peter May The Runner Coronet
Peter May Chinese Whispers Coronet
Mark Winegardner The Godfather Returns Random House
Michael Dobbs Churchill’s Hour Harper Collins
Alexander McCall Smith In the Company Of Cheerful Ladies Polygon
John Harvey Flesh and Blood Heinemann
Peter Robinson Strange Affair Macmillan
H. N. Turtletaub Owls to Athens Forge
John Barnes Gaudeamus Tor
Spider Robinson Very Bad Deaths Baen
Iain M. Banks The Algebraist Orbit
Jack Vance Lurulu Tor
Previous Contents Next