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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (osseus frangibilissimus)

Them's The Breaks

"I think I want to be an actor when I grow up," said Porgy the Cat. "I'd be great at Puss in Boots. And I've been practicing Dick Whittington's cat. Do you want to hear me miaow in character?"

"Not just at the moment," I said. "I'm sure you do it wonderfully."

"Miaow, miaow," said Porgy anyway.

"Break a leg," I said.

And so, being an extremely literal cat, that's exactly what he did…

One Monday evening, after Porgy had been unusually somnolent for a couple of days, even by his extremely loose standards, I picked him up to give him a cuddle. He screamed in agony.

I put him down gently and he cowered against the wall, refusing to put any weight on his right back leg. I phoned the extremely expensive after hours vet.

"Bring him in immediately," said the lady. "And bring three credit cards as well."

Those of you who have been reading my articles for lo! these many years will have enjoyed my many aeroplane stories. I seem to have had more than my fair share of upsetting, frightening and amusing aeroplane incidents. So many of them in fact that colleagues at work now refuse point blank to travel on any kind of transportation device in my company. Therefore when I discovered In-Flight Entertainment by Elliot Hester I knew I had met a kindred spirit, a man who understood me; a man who I understood.

Hester is a flight attendant on an American airline and he tells the same kinds of stories that I tell, but from the point of view of a professional traveller rather than a casual passenger. And what an eye opener this book turned out to be. It's a behind the scenes look at what really goes on. Paranoid, penny-pinching pilots, flight attendants with nazi attitudes towards their passengers, the many different ways that you can join the mile high club (doing it in the toilets is far too mundane). Travellers with BO like rotting whale meat, businessmen who suffer emotional crises, raving loonies who should never have been allowed out of the house unaccompanied, let alone sold an airline ticket; Hester has seen them all.

This is an excruciatingly funny book, best read at ground level. If you read it at 30,000 feet it is liable to induce terminal paranoia. You have been warned. Would I lie to you?

At last, after eight books, Harry Turtledove has brought one of his interminable series to a conclusion. Sort of.

Homeward Bound is the latest book in the series that started with an alien race invading the Earth during World War II. I don't think you could possibly read Homeward Bound as a standalone novel. The weight of seven previous books is simply too much to bear. Those of you who have stuck with Turtledove through all the previous novels will fall upon this one with glad cries of glee. The rest of you have no need to bother.

Over the course of the seven earlier books we have followed the rise and fall of the humans and aliens as they battle each other for control of the Earth. Both have had triumphs, both have suffered catastrophes. In Homeward Bound humanity takes the battle to the aliens' home world; turning the tables with a vengeance. A conclusion (of sorts) is reached but Turtledove simply can't resist the lure of the sequel and he has left the door open for more books, should he choose to write them. I for one hope that he doesn't. He's juggling far too many characters in far too many unconnected series at the moment (and he's recently started a couple of new ones). Enough is enough. Let's hope that this book really does mark The End.

The vet examined Porgy carefully. She poked and prodded and gently moved his leg backwards and forwards. He wasn't happy about it, but he let her do it.

"He is presenting with two symptoms," she said eventually. "He has an extremely full bladder and he obviously doesn't want to put any weight on his leg at all. I'm more worried about the bladder. He might have a blocked urethra and that can be very serious – we often lose them when that happens. I'll take a urine sample."

She produced a huge syringe with a fearsome needle and thrust it deep into Porgy's body. She pulled back the plunger and it filled with urine. She took it over to the other side of the room and put a paper strip impregnated with sinister chemicals into it. After a few seconds, she took the paper strip out again and compared the colours on it to a chart.

"Well there's no blood in the urine," she said, "which is a good sign. But the pH is a little abnormal. I'm very worried about his bladder. Have you seen any sign of him urinating?"

"He's been lying on a chair for two days," I said. "And he hasn't moved at all."

"I think we need to keep him in overnight," said the vet. "I'll give him an anaesthetic and relieve his bladder and at the same time we can take X-rays of the leg. It's going to be hugely expensive."

"Let's just do whatever is right for Porgy," I said.

She looked things up on pieces of paper. "It will cost you somewhere in the region of your limit on two credit cards," she said happily. "Plus GST. And a tip."

We took Porgy into the back room and put him in a cage. He looked a little bewildered. He crossed his eyes and he crossed his legs and he looked pathetic. The vet put a dirt tray in the cage. Porgy blinked at it for a moment and his eyes uncrossed and he began to smile. He hobbled into the dirt tray and squatted and an expression of absolute bliss appeared on his face.

"About bloody time," he said.

The vet watched the dirt tray closely and stuck her thumb in the air gleefully.

"He was obviously just holding it all in until he found a socially acceptable place to pee!" she said. " Look at him – I don't think he's ever going to stop. OK – plans all changed. You take him home overnight. I'll send a fax to your vet and you take him in there for an X-ray tomorrow."

We took Porgy home.

"It hurts!" he said, and he just lay on a sheepskin rug in his travelling cage and refused to move.

Like everybody else in New Zealand, I bought The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold because I read that Peter Jackson was going to film it after he finished with King Kong. Until I found that out, I'd never heard of Alice Sebold or her novel. But the book's premise, as described in the newspaper article that talked about Jackson's film, sounded sufficiently intriguing that I thought I'd give it a go. So I visited my local bookstore where I discovered that the book was selling like the proverbial hot cakes and had almost vanished from the shelves. I picked up one of the very last copies in the shop. Fortunately the bookshops now seem to have restocked themselves. So if you want a copy you shouldn't have any trouble finding it.

The story is narrated in the first person by Susie, a fourteen year old girl who is raped and murdered quite gruesomely in Chapter One. After her death, she spends the rest of the novel in heaven from where she can watch what happens to her family (and her murderer) as they all try to come to terms with her death. She can't really interfere in any of the events (except in very exceptional circumstances, and then only peripherally) but nevertheless she remains closely involved in what happens.

In the hands of a lesser writer this would quickly degenerate into a hackneyed soap opera as Susie's family vow to take revenge and then go and hunt down her killer and bring him to some sort of vigilante justice. It is to Sebold's credit that she doesn't take this cheap and easy route. Instead she explores just what such an enormous tragedy really means to those who survive it. No family can ever be the same again after enduring such horror, and this family soon disintegrates under the strain. A ghost hangs over them all (metaphorically rather than literally, for the most part) and although Susie is only a passive observer, her presence in the hearts and minds of all the characters has a profound effect on the way their lives develop.

The years pass. Susie's brother and sister grow up, her mother and father grow old. Susie remains perpetually fourteen years old. It seems no time passes in heaven. There is a degree of acceptance of the situation now by everybody, alive and dead.

In some ways the novel is very unimaginative. Sebold never really comes to grips with heaven. It remains barely described (and, it must be said, what little we do learn of Sebold's heaven is more than a bit wishy-washy, as well as being theologically suspect). Susie herself is almost too passive to be a sympathetic viewpoint character. But despite these flaws, the whole thing remains an extraordinarily moving and emotional book. I had to know what happened to everybody involved (even the murderer, and yes – we do find out how his life progresses as well). Sebold's particular skill and particular magic lies in her ability to give us a convincing evocation of exactly how a tragedy like this spreads its tentacles over all those involved in it. A large event like a murder is not isolated in time. It doesn't happen and then get forgotten about. It is never really over, and the ramifications are profound and far reaching. Everybody and everything is changed as a result. Sebold makes us feel that, deep inside where it really matters.

This is a tough, sad and extremely moving book. It is surprisingly funny in places (how can grief have an amusing aspect? I don't know – but it does). Alice Sebold has done a superb job and I hope that Peter Jackson will do it justice when he translates it into film. I'm sure he will – and I'll be there in the queue to watch it when it arrives in the cinema.

The Life Of The World To Come is the latest novel in Kage Baker's ongoing saga of The Company. If you haven't read the earlier books don't start with this one – it will only confuse you. If you have read the earlier books, you will be pleased to note that Mendoza, who we last saw marooned 150,000 years in the past, now has a conduit into the future. A time ship crashes close to her garden and inside is yet another incarnation of the mortal man she has loved and lost twice before. He is Alec Checkerfield and he was born in the twenty fourth century and he has a bone to pick with Dr Zeus, the company that Mendoza "works" for.

Meanwhile, in the twenty fourth century a group of Oxford Dons consider themselves to be the new Inklings. They model themselves (to a certain extent) on Tolkien and Lewis et al and they plot treason and subversion. Dr Zeus, it seems, is their brainchild.

The plot threads tangle and dangle and at the end we know more about Dr Zeus than perhaps we wanted to know. But there is more to come. The plot thickens, the complications spread. Mendoza and Alec are in trouble.

We first met Alec Checkerfield in a series of short stories in Kage Baker's collection Black Projects, White Knights. When I reviewed that collection I remarked that I didn't think the stories about Alec had anything to do with the stories about The Company. Well, The Life Of The World To Come has proved me wrong. They are connected; very closely connected. And the stories are reprinted, seemingly verbatim, as incidents in this new novel. Consequently the novel is a disappointment to those of us who have read the earlier collection. I was a bit annoyed to be forced into reading the same material twice. Nevertheless there are some insights to be gained. And there is still more to come. Hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer for the next book in the series.

The next day, we picked up a few more credit cards from the drawer and took Porgy back to the vet. They gave him an anaesthetic so that he was immobile while they X-rayed him, though given the fact that he did not appear to have moved a muscle for at least the last twelve hours, other than to twitch an occasional eyebrow, I felt that perhaps this was unnecessary.

The verdict was not long in coming.

"Porgy has broken his right rear leg just at the place where the bone attaches to the ball and socket joint in the hip. He will have to have surgery on the hip. The ball in the hip joint is now isolated from the blood supply in the body and will simply die. So we have to remove the ball completely. He should make a full recovery. He's a young, strong cat and the bone will form a callous round the joint. The muscles in the thigh are very dense and will also hold the bone in place. In a few weeks, he'll be right as ninepence."

"Good," we said.

"Have you got ninepence?" asked the vet.

"I might have to apply for another mortgage on the house."

"We'll send him off to our surgery on the Kapiti coast," said the vet. "Sea air and lovely views. It will do him the world of good. You can pick him up in a couple of days."

The next two days passed very slowly. The house seemed empty without Porgy in it, even though, when he was around, all he ever seemed to do was sleep. We rang the vet.

"He's still out in Kapiti," said the vet. "He's making a remarkable recovery; quite the best patient they’ve ever had. They've all fallen in love with him. Are you sure you want him back?"

"Of course we do!"

"Well you can pick him up from us tomorrow," the vet explained, "or you can drive out to Kapiti and pick him up yourself."

"We'll drive out to Kapiti."

And so we did.

Porgy was in a cage. He stood up as we came in and moved to the front of the cage and gave a little chirrup.

"Just look at him," said the vet who had done the operation. "He's walking on the leg already! Usually it's at least a couple of weeks before they put any weight on it at all. But he's walking already! He really is a remarkable cat. It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. I think I'll write a paper for Vet Surgery Monthly."

It was hard to tell whether the vet was more pleased with himself for having done an extra specially skilful operation, or with Porgy for having done an extra specially unusual recovery. Either way, he was pleased as punch. Pride oozed out of every pore.

Porgy had been shaved from the middle of his body, all across his side and down his leg almost to the ankle. A wound about five inches long stretched across his thigh, the edges held together with a dozen or so stitches.

"I usually do horses," said the lady who assisted the vet. "But I just pretended that he was a small horse while I shaved him. He didn't seem to mind."

We all looked at the vast areas of naked skin that Porgy was exposing to the world. He blushed a little and shuffled his feet.

"We charge extra to make them look like a poodle," said the lady, in a hopeful tone of voice.

"I don't think we need to go to those lengths," I said. "He'd only get a swollen head when he realised how handsome he was."

"Woof!" said Porgy. "Woof, woof."

"Stop messing about," I said. "Nobody is gong to fall for that."

The lady put her clippers away and looked disappointed. Porgy drooped noticeably.

Some months ago, a close friend whose judgement I trust recommended that I read The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. For once, I paid no attention to his recommendation; partly because it is a fantasy novel (and I generally don't like fantasy novels), partly because it is a children's book (I know, I know – there are lots of really good children's books that adults can enjoy as well; stop nagging!) and partly because it is the first book in a trilogy and, at the time, the other books in the series had not yet appeared (the second book, The Golem's Eye is now available).

Then I went to Dymock's book sale and The Amulet of Samarkand was in the sale at a very reasonable price. So I bought it, and took it home and I read it that night. And it was wonderful! It grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go. I read it in a sitting and the next morning I went straight out and bought the sequel (at full price, I hasten to add) and devoured that as well. And now I want the third book. Immediately!! Hey, publisher – get your finger out! Give me what I crave.

The first book opens with Nathaniel, a young apprentice wizard. He has summoned the demon Bartimaeus and he sends the demon off to retrieve the amulet of Samarkand from the wizard Simon Lovelace. Nathaniel's motives are quite base. Lovelace has angered and humiliated him and he wants revenge. He knows that Simon treasures the amulet and that is his sole motivation for relieving Simon of it. He has no idea how powerful the amulet is or what a large part it plays in the politics of twentieth century England.

Once Nathaniel and Bartimaeus have the amulet, terrible events take place. Lovelace is part of a cabal that is in semi-overt rebellion against the government and the amulet is powerful weapon in their armoury. Young Nathaniel, it seems, has bitten off far more than he can easily chew. There is also the involvement of a mysterious third party – a group of revolutionaries who have no magic of their own and who are bitterly opposed to the influential effect that magic has on the governance of Britain. Dark forces are afoot.

In the sequel, The Golem's Eye, young Nathaniel, fresh from his triumphal route of the conspiracy of the first book, is a fast rising star in the government. He is charged with investigating and eliminating the resistance movement, though he isn't having much success. And then a new series of attacks take place on London and Nathaniel is forced to travel to the city of Prague where he and Bartimaeus again face supernatural foes of frightening power.

After the runaway success of the Harry Potter books, you have to ask yourself if the world really needs yet another series of books about an apprentice wizard who succeeds against all the odds. Before I read Jonathan Stroud's novels I'd have answered that question with an unequivocal and resounding NO! But Stroud has proved me wrong. His world is fascinating and complex; amusing and very, very believable (though I gulped a bit at the thought of a fourteen year old boy being given a position of power in a large government department – but heigh ho! It is a children's book after all).

I devoured it, I loved it. The story is intriguing and engaging. There is a review printed on the back of the second book. It says:

This book gripped me like a magnet to metal.

Sam Baker (aged 10)

That says it all really. Sam Baker knows exactly what he is talking about and I can't improve on his description.

"These are the X-rays," said the vet, and he showed us where the bone had broken. "And this is the bit I took out of him."

He handed me a small plastic jar with the ball joint from Porgy's hip rattling round inside it. It was smaller than I had expected. And redder. There was a jagged edge where the bone had fractured. Something small and squishy was hanging off it.

"Can I keep it as a souvenir?"

"Oh yes," said the vet. "You've paid several fortunes for it, after all."

"When I was at university," I said, "I had a friend who took his tape recorder apart to service it. When he put it all back together again, he had a ball bearing left over. He never found out what it was for, but the tape recorder ran quite happily for years without it." I shook the jar with Porgy's ball joint in it. "I suppose cats are a bit like tape recorders really, aren't they?"

"That's right!" said the vet. "In a couple of months time he'll be bounding about as if nothing had happened."

"That will be interesting," I said. "I've never seen him bound about before. Will he be able to play the violin as well?"

"I imagine so," said the vet. "He really is a most extraordinary cat. Look! He's putting all his weight on it. Unbelievable!"

"How do you think he broke his leg in the first place?" I asked.

"Probably he jumped down from a place that was a little bit too high. It's not uncommon."

"What do we do now?"

"Keep him inside for the next three days. Encourage him to exercise the leg. The more use it gets, the faster it will heal. Bring him back in ten days to have the stitches out."

We took Porgy home. As soon as we let him out of the cage, he walked around a bit, just to make sure that he really was home, and then he went into Robin's room and hid himself in the darkest corner of the deepest closet he could find. He stayed there for two days and made the world go away. He poked his head out only for the occasional drink, the occasional nibble and the occasional visit to the dirt box.

After two days, he decided that he didn't need to hide any more. Perhaps the world wasn't so bad after all. As I write, he is asleep on his favourite chair, shaved side down so that nobody can tell he was ever injured at all.

On the surface, Blacklist is just another episode in Sara Paretsky's ongoing series about the private eye V. I. Warshawski. But under that surface there is so much going on that the book turns into a damning indictment of current American society.

The surface story begins with Warshawski's investigation of Larchmont Hall, a derelict mansion in the "rich district" of Chicago. One of Warshawski's regular clients is concerned that there may be trespassers on the property. The client's mother (who lives next door) has seen mysterious lights late at night. Warshawski goes looking and finds a dead body in the ornamental lake. The subsequent investigation reveals much about the lifestyles of the rich and decadent. Power comes with money, and old money is the most powerful. A lot of sins can hide behind it. The rich smell of corruption and the corrupting influence of absolute power is a stink that permeates the whole book. It's a complex (and extremely satisfying) story. Paretsky works out her convoluted plot with wonderful, professional efficiency. As a story it's gripping, exciting and just superb.

But there is more than just a story here. Paretsky wrote this book after the events of September 2001. The fall of the twin towers and America's over-reaction to it is the sub-text that squirms in and out through the whole book. The Patriot Act is the enabling legislation that removes all boundaries and takes away the checks and balances that normally keep the societal forces of law and order (whatever that means) relatively tame. Once you remove the bars that keep the animals in the cage, sheer anarchy is let loose upon the land and the animals feed wherever they choose. The Patriot Act has handed the American police the power to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whoever they want. The authorities are no longer responsible to anybody; they can indulge their every whim. There is nobody to say them nay. Accountability has softly and suddenly vanished from view. Stand up for your rights and they'll slap you down. You have no rights. The government has suspended human rights in America. Can you say "fascist police state"? I thought you could. It's a bully-boy's wet dream. Pass me the truncheon. I'm bored, I need to kill something.

If even half of what Paretsky writes about so illuminatingly is true, it is a blot on the conscience of humanity. It is sickening that a country that calls itself the land of the free has removed so many freedoms from its citizens. Free speech, free assembly and the freedom to espouse ideas outside the norm – all these things have been blown away like mist in the wind. Speak your mind in America today and they'll come for you in the night and you'll just disappear. You'll become a non-person, an unperson, a person who doesn't matter any more.

And if you wear a turban they'll kill you. It says so in the book.

That's the sub-text of Blacklist. I'd like to think it's exaggeration; I'd like to think Paretsky overstates her case for the sake of drama, for the sake of art. I'd like to think that, but my newspaper won't let me think that. Every day it tells me that America must be a frightening place to live at the moment. The country has a delusional president – a man who surrounds himself with sycophants who reinforce his delusions. Rampant, inward looking paranoia stalks the land. You aren’t like me so I have to kill you, and the Patriot Act gives me a reason to do it. I'm right, you're wrong. God says so, and so does the President; and he speaks with God so it must be true.

Blacklist is a scary, scary book. America is a scary, scary place. Shrub is a scary, scary man. I think it is very brave of Sara Paretsky to write about these things. How long will it be, I wonder, before they come for her in the night?

Elliot Hester In-Flight Entertainment Ebury Press
Harry Turtledove Homeward Bound Del Rey
Alice Sebold The Lovely Bones Picador
Kage Baker The Life Of The World To Come Tor
Jonathan Stroud The Amulet of Samarkand Doubleday
Jonathan Stroud The Golem's Eye Doubleday
Sara Paretsky Blacklist Penguin
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