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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (homo barbartum)

Alan Stays At Home

I am a gentleman of semi-leisure.

For the last month or so I have been working part time. I turn up to the office for two weeks and then I stay at home for two weeks. Then back to the office for two more weeks. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

When I announced this, everybody got very worried.

"What will you do? How will you occupy your time? You'll get bored."

Well actually, no I won't. There's been heaps going on…

The first Monday of my first fortnight off dawned wet and miserable, just like every day in Wellington for the last six months. I snuggled and luxuriated in the warmth and comfort of my bed and thought about all the people who were going off to work, out in the cold, wet weather.

Eventually, once the streets were nicely aired, I got up and staggered off to the bathroom, yawning and scratching the while. A day of idleness beckoned. I showered and decided not to shave, a decision I have made every day for the last thirty years. I cleaned my teeth. A filling fell out and went clatter into the wash basin. Bugger!

Sharp edges of broken tooth rasped across the inside of my cheek. There was absolutely no doubt how I would be spending my day. I looked up "Dentists" in the yellow pages and sat down with the phone.

"We can fit you in next week."

"Sorry – we don't have any free appointments for the next month."

"There might be a free appointment in December 2010."

"We aren't taking new patients at the moment."

"You want what? An appointment for treatment? Ha, ha, ha, he, he, he. Oh dear, I haven't heard anything so funny for years!"

Considering how expensive dental treatment is, I was amazed at the number of people who seemed to have nothing better to do than visit the dentist. Most of Wellington, it appeared was over-supplied with money and couldn't think of anything better to do with it than to donate it to a dentist in return for several hours of extreme unpleasantness.

"We've just had a cancellation. Can you get here by 11.15?"

"Indeed I can, " I said, and headed for the bus.

The waiting room was empty. I reported to the lady behind the desk. She gave me a form to fill in. "The dentist won't be long," she said.

There was a computer in the waiting room. FREE JETSTREAM FOR DENTAL PATIENTS proclaimed a nicely printed notice on the monitor. I checked my email. I hadn't got any. I looked at the list of recently visited sites in case any of the other patients had been whiling away the time with pornography. No such luck.

"The dentist will see you now."

I gave the lady my completed form and went into the torture chamber.

Several subjective hours later I staggered home with a numb jaw and a light wallet. I also had an appointment for a check up on the first day of my next fortnight off and the gloomy possibility of more fillings on the horizon. Two weeks on, two weeks off was starting to seem much less attractive than once it had. Never mind – today was only Monday, I had lots of free days left before I would have to go back to work.

Captain Nemo has the potential to be an excellent book. Unfortunately that potential is never realised.

It is an example of a genre that normally I find enthralling. The assumption is that a fictional character was actually a real person, and the tale tells the true story of that character's life. In this case the character is the fascinatingly enigmatic Captain Nemo from Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Phillip Jose Farmer did this kind of thing several times to great effect with Tarzan, Doc Savage and Phileas Fogg (another Verne character as it happens). But unfortunately Anderson can't quite bring it off and the result is rather dull. I think perhaps it's more to do with Anderson's plonkingly tedious writing style than anything else. He can't even make a fight with dinosaurs exciting!

I bought this book in a second hand bookshop and now I know why its previous owner decided to get rid of it.

Another example of the genre that I have recently read is David Hughes rather odd little novel But For Bunter wherein it is revealed that Billy Bunter, the fat owl of the Remove, was the major influence behind most of the significant events of the twentieth century! This is an amusing conceit, well thought out and well described, though I can't help thinking that a lot of its potential audience might find it a little puzzling. Billy Bunter? Who?

Even in 1985, when the novel was first published, I suspect that Billy Bunter was starting to be forgotten. Today I think that he has probably been consigned to oblivion in the collective folk memory. (Amusingly, the book itself makes much of this very point).

Even in my childhood, when I first met Billy Bunter in both books and television programmes, he was coming to the end of his effective life. He was too far divorced from the reality that I lived in. He belonged (and still belongs) to the world of 1908 when he first appeared in episodes in the comic paper The Magnet.

The school stories that Frank Richards wrote about Billy Bunter were quite foreign to my experience. There were elements about Greyfriars, Bunter’s school, that I recognised, but there was much that was strange to me. Today, I think the references would be so outside of contemporary reality as to be utterly incomprehensible.

Greyfriars was a boarding school. I did not go to a boarding school, though once upon a time my school had taken boarders – but the last of them left a few years before I started, so I never came across any. However the idea was not completely foreign to me.

Just like Greyfriars, my school had prefects but unlike the prefects that Bunter lived in terror of, they were not allowed to administer corporal punishment. Given the somewhat psychopathic nature of some of my contemporaries I suspect that this was a blessing.

I did not understand what the Remove might be though later in my school life I took some of my public exams a year early and thus had a whole year in which I was Removed from the study of the subjects that my classmates were working on. However I’m not completely sure that this was the same thing. My Remove was a success story, Bunter’s Remove seemed to carry with it some stigma of failure.

I was intimately familiar with Mr Quelch (my Latin master was Mr Quelch to the life) so the classes that Bunter and his friends attended were an island of familiarity in a sea of confusion.

It is easy to sum up the books. They are stories about children at school. We all know what children are and we all know that children go to school. Therefore it might seem that the stories are timeless constructs. But they aren’t. They are very time-bound. Over the course of two, perhaps three generations both children and schools have changed so much as to completely invalidate the premise on which the stories build.

And so, yet again, I find that I cannot really immerse myself in the culture of David Hughes' rather odd little novel. He plays a game with broken pieces. Once upon a time it might have been an entertaining game. But now the rules have changed. Bunter is just a little bit too obscure for this novel to succeed.

Riptide is a rollicking yarn all about pirates and buried treasure. It's got everything (including, perhaps, one too many kitchen sinks) but I loved it 'cos it's about pirates and buried treasure. So call me prejudiced. I don't care.

Three hundred years prior to the opening of the book, a pirate buried his booty on Ragged Island off the coast of Maine. He protected his treasure with ingenious traps. Anyone digging down to it quickly finds their diggings flooded. But now modern high-tech engineers are bringing all their ingenuity to bear on the problem. At first things go well and it isn't long before their excavations go deeper than anyone has ever been before. But they are plagued by odd happenings. Computers fail mysteriously. Illness and even death seem inextricably bound up in the mystery of the treasure and just when they think they have succeeded, failure stares them in the face.

The construction and history of the treasure chamber on Ragged Island bears a close resemblance to that of the real live Money Pit on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. The Money Pit has fascinated me ever since I first read about it as a small child and the chance to see how Preston and Child had adapted it to fiction was too good to resist. I must say that I thought they did very well, though I suspect that if the mystery of the real Money Pit is ever solved it probably won't bear much resemblance to what we have in this book. Nevertheless my fingers kept turning the pages. I wanted to know what happened next. And isn't that the mark of every good story?

In The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch, the inimitable Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen are back again with another episode in the life of the Wizards at Unseen University as they oversee the development of Roundworld. As a scheme for explaining how science works, this is really quite clever. The contrast between Discworld and Roundworld is a fertile ground for growing the crops of complex ideas. This time the writers take on evolution, with side trips into the origin of the universe, time travel and lots of very deep philosophy. Don't treat this series of books as light hearted playing. It's anything but. There are very deep and very complex things explored here (and, frankly, the real chapters written by Stewart and Cohen are far more interesting than the fluffy fillers written by Pratchett to tie the chapters together). There's lots of good stuff here, lots of scientific meat, lots of scientific jokes. Explanations of scientific ideas don't come any better than this.

The next day dawned wet and miserable again. My bed was warm and snug and shaving seemed far too much of an effort. I resolved not to bother. Nobody would ever notice. Anyway – I don't own any shaving equipment and nobody had seen fit to give me any for a wedding present. Wedding present. The phrase reminded of something. Oh yes…

Robin and I, having got married in foreign parts (well, Australia) decided that we would hold a wedding reception in New Zealand for all our friends who couldn't make it to Australia. Annette, our Best Woman, went hunting for venues.

"The Dog and Bone," she said. "It's a pub on Lambton Quay. They'll let us have the downstairs bar. It's got a huge plasma screen and it has English beers on tap. And more whiskeys than you can shake a distillery at. Talk to Preston."

I rang Preston who proved to be eager to help and quite thrilled at the romantic notion of having a wedding reception to celebrate an Australian wedding. We arranged to meet.

"Can I bring a DVD player with me?" I asked. "So we can test out the plasma screen. We want to play a DVD of the wedding ceremony."

"Of course," he said. And so I did.

We plugged cables into the plasma screen and the DVD player. The screen remained embarrassingly blank. We pushed buttons and plugged more cables into other orifices. The two devices refused point blank to talk to each other and continued to live smugly separate lives.

"I'll talk to the people we bought the screen from," said Preston. "Can I keep the DVD player for a while?"

"Of course," I said and went home.

Over the next few days Preston spoke to many people about his plasma screen. Experts came and scratched their heads at it.

"Should be quite straightforward squire," they said, one and all. And one and all they were wrong. Complex manuals were consulted. Wiring diagrams were downloaded from Japanese web sites. Video engineers were flown in at vast expense from all over the globe. Many cups of tea were drunk and a goat was sacrificed.

Eventually a special set of cables was obtained. Success! We had a DVD player and our New Zealand wedding reception went ahead as planned.

I spent the rest of my fortnight at home alternating between visiting Preston to swear at the plasma screen and visiting my sick cat to encourage him to get better. There was scarcely time to shave. So I didn't.

Caroline Minuscule is the only book I have ever read about a manuscript font; the caroline minuscule of the title. William Dougal is an amoral postgraduate student of history. When he stumbles across the garrotted corpse of his history tutor (a man he detests), he doesn't call the police. Instead he rejoices at the freedom the murder will give him and slips away unseen. Well, perhaps not entirely unseen. He makes the acquaintance of the suave and sophisticated James Hanbury who claims to have seen him leave the murder room. The dead man was an expert on medieval manuscripts written in the caroline minuscule script. Hanbury had commissioned him to translate a manuscript. And now he blackmails Dougal into continuing the commission. And then things get complicated. Cross, double cross, triple cross and even the possibility of a quadruple cross as allegiances slip and slide among the various parties as they hunt for the cache of diamonds that will make one of them very rich. Who will be the last man standing? This is a deeply cynical book, full of absolute bastards. Great stuff!

The Dark Water is the conclusion to (and completion of) the story begun in David Pirie's earlier novel The Night Calls. Interestingly it does stand alone. You don't have to have read the earlier book, though it helps with the background if you have read it, of course.

Conan Doyle and Joseph Bell are hot on the trail of super-criminal Thomas Cream. Doyle has been captured by Cream and is being tortured by him. Cream declares that ultimately he will kill Doyle. Spurred on by this, Doyle manages to escape. The escape depends for its success on a series of extraordinarily unlikely events and coincidences and is without a doubt the least successful and most unbelievable part of the whole book. However events fly thick and fast – there is so much going on that you quickly forget the weaknesses of the opening sequence. Doyle and Bell are soon involved in investigating a series of hideous crimes as they close in on their prey. Those of you who are familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories will get enormous pleasure from identifying incidents and characters that Doyle will later adapt as he writes the stories that will bring him fame and fortune. Great fun! It's not a bad story in its own right either. Cream is a convincing psychopath and the Victorian world is invoked in all its eerie, misty glory.

The late George Alec Effinger was a science fiction writer of great genius. his most popular series of novels were the Budayeen books about Marid Audran. Those stories set in a vaguely Arabic future of complex criminality brought him much fame (though little fortune) towards the end of life.

Live! From Planet Earth is a collection of Effinger's short stories. They are quirky, cynical and shot through with black, satiric humour. Often they are not easy reads – Effinger's tales repay a lot of very close attention to the text. You can't skim-read his stories; generally there is no surface story per se to skim. The devil is in the details and the details are all in the depths. But if you are willing to make the effort (and willing to put up with, in my opinion, far too much Americana about baseball and obscure politicians) there are many rewards. This is an excellent collection.

David Hewson's first novel A Season For The Dead is set in the Vatican and introduces us to Nic Costa, a detective with the Rome Police. It is, of course, the first of a series.

Sometimes, it seems to me, thriller writers move too far towards the grotesque end of the spectrum in order to attract their jaded readers who, they assume, are after ever more intense sensations – rather like the addict who needs ever more concentrated solutions of their drug of choice. Ordinary murder won't do any more. There has to be a gimmick, the odder the better.

In this case, we have a murderer who is systematically killing people and making their deaths mimic those of the early Christian martyrs. Tie this in with fraud and conspiracy involving the Vatican hierarchy and we have a peculiarly appropriate novel for a year that has seen the death of a Pope and the election of another. But this coincidence does not make the book any more believable. The psychopathology completely failed to convince me. As I read, I kept saying:

"Yeah. Right…"

In a strict technical sense, Hewson does a superb job with this unlikely material and the tension never lets up. The plot is complex and its theological and political ramifications are immense. But nevertheless I remained unwilling to make the initial suspension of disbelief that is so necessary to the acceptance of a plot as weird as this one. And therefore, because I remained so distanced from the characters and so sceptical about the structure, I could see the strings on the puppets as the author pulled them this way and that. Therefore the book failed.

John Baker never makes that mistake. Baker has written several books about Sam Turner, a private detective in Yorkshire. So far I've only read a couple of his book, from the middle of the series, but they hang together well. They also have their grotesqueries, but nothing as bad as the nonsense that Hewson asks us to accept. The oddest is a murderer known as The Surgeon because he removes the eyes from his victims bodies. It turns out that he has very good reason for doing this (peculiar reasons, but reasons nonetheless). I have high hopes of John Baker – his books are gritty, scary and tense with a cast of characters that are very easy to identify with. And he isn't afraid to kill people of whom the reader has become very fond. That adds a nervous edge to the stories.

You may recall that a few months ago Porgy The Cat broke his back leg and had to have the ball removed from his hip joint. He never really recovered from that operation and remained extremely reluctant to walk. He also became very antisocial, refusing to be picked up and cuddled. All he wanted to do was hide under cupboards. He didn't want to walk and when I tried to force him to, he hissed at me and once he tried to bite me. This was most unlike Porgy who has always been a placid, good natured cat.

I took him back to the vet. A thorough examination revealed that his other back leg was also broken and the operation to remove his ball joint had to be done all over again. It is unclear as to whether or not he broke both legs at the same time (and we only spotted the first, worst break at the time) or if he broke the other leg at a later stage. Either way it was clear that the second break had been there for quite some considerable time. The poor animal must have been in horrible pain for weeks, or possibly months. No wonder he wanted to hide himself away.

"Look on the bright side," said the vet. "He's run out of back legs now. It can't happen again."

After this second operation Porgy was very fragile and very sick. I didn't really know how to look after him. Harpo The Fluff Monster, our other extraordinarily bouncy cat, would pay no attention to Porgy's fragile state. He would only want to play. The thought of the damage he could do to Porgy by trying to play bouncy games with him gave me nightmares.

So Porgy went to Purrville to recuperate.

Purrville is the cattery just up the road and Porgy has had holidays there before. The owners, Dianne and Robert, are old friends of his and for the last month Porgy has been slowly recovering in the safe environment there.

At the beginning, he could barely walk. He limped slowly from his bed to his food bowl and then limped slowly back to his bed again. His hindquarters looked thin and fragile and the newly operated upon leg hung at an unnatural angle, occasionally crossing over the other, stronger leg as he limped along.

Slowly he grew in strength and gained more control over his leg. He walked a little further every day. He started to take an interest in things again. When Robin and I visited him he would sit up in his bed and ask for a pat and he would purr and rub his face over our hands. Eventually there came a day, a good day, when he heard our voices at the door, and he got up and limped towards us to say hello. Then he tried to chase a moth. The moth ran away, and it ran faster than Porgy.

Robert Metzger is an SF author with whom I am not familiar. Picoverse is the first of his novels that I have read. He has written several others, and I fully intend to read them as soon as I can track them down.

Picoverse is SF in the grand old manner. Researchers learn how to create new universes. But these new universes are smaller than ours and begin life as reflections or duplications of sections of our own. And then they evolve and change of course. It's all terribly quantum.

We quickly learn that our own universe was created in just this manner by beings in a greater universe. These Makers have an agent here in our universe. Alexandra has been monitoring us for billions of years. Her task is to prevent us from developing the technology that will allow us to create universes of our own. There are good reasons for this prohibition but to give you more detail would be a spoiler – so take my word for it!

Meanwhile, now that we have picoverses of our own, obviously we must explore them. After that, things get too complicated to summarise. Suffice it to say that Metzger tells a rattling good yarn full of (literally) universe-spanning thrills. Along the way he also has interesting things to say about the way that physics and mathematics describe reality. He even has a stab at defining God!

But I just knew I was going to enjoy this book the first time Alexandra's forehead sprouted glass filaments that embedded themselves in the foreheads and eyes of the other characters and downloaded information and instructions directly into their brains. Now that's what I call science fiction. Yeah!

If you ever get bored with science fiction, you could do worse than read a novel or five about the politics of the Australian Labor Party. If you think this sounds less than fascinating you've obviously never read anything by Shane Maloney.

I picked up one of Maloney's books last time I was in Australia. I was attracted by the blurb that claimed it was a crime novel (which it was, sort of), and also by the disclaimer in the front of the book that said:

The author of this book, its setting and characters are entirely fictitious. There is no
such place as the state of Victoria. The Australian Labor Party exists only in the
imagination of its members.

The authorial voice reminds me very much of Len Deighton. Maloney's viewpoint character Murray Whelan has much the same attitude to life and politics as the narrator of Deighton's early spy novels. The books positively crackle with wit and wisecracks, cynicism and sarcasm. I was also reminded very much of the TV series Yes Minister which gleefully deconstructed the British civil service and showed us how everything "really" worked.

Murray Whelan is a political wheeler dealer who knows where the bodies are buried and how many beans make five. He works for Angelo Agnelli, a Labor minister in the Victorian state parliament. Murray is a fixer, a dogsbody, jack of all trades and master of most of them. Politics can be a dirty game and Murray finds himself involved in investigating theft and fraud, bribery and corruption and sometimes even murder as he paddles in the murky political waters that lap around Agnelli's feet. Sometimes there really are bodies to bury!

These are outrageously funny and world-weary books.

After a month, at the beginning of my second fortnight off work, Porgy came home.

"Hello," said Harpo, bouncing up to him. "Want to play a game?"

"Not just now," said Porgy. "Maybe later."

"I've got a catnip mouse and a stuffed snake that crackles and a blue rat!"

"No thanks," said Porgy. "Not just now."

Harpo lost interest and went to chase a ping pong ball.

Bess, Porgy's sister, sniffed him all over from head to tail. She paid particular attention to his weak leg. Then they touched noses and Bess went outside.

We made Porgy comfortable, locked Harpo out of the room, and went to bed. The next day, Porgy was still asleep in his box – he hadn't changed position all night. But sitting close to him, where he could easily see it when he woke up, was a dead rat. Bess had brought him a welcome home present; a get well soon rat.

Last night, as I write this, Porgy voluntarily went outside for the first time in nearly five months. He sat and looked at the back door. He tried to get out of the cat flap, but he could quite make it. He sat down and looked at the door again.

"Maiow," he said. "Mwaaa!"

I opened the door. He looked out at the world for a couple of minutes. Then he limped outside and, keeping very close to the house, walked slowly round the corner. Then he sat down to rest for a while. Then he walked a little further and sat down again. He progressed slowly, exploring as he went, smelling the night smells and giving every evidence of enjoying himself. Eventually he reached the front door and asked for it to be opened. I let him back into the house and he walked to his bed and flopped down, exhausted. He went to sleep with a little smile on his face.

And so did Robin and I.

K. J. Anderson Captain Nemo Pocket
David Hughes But For Bunter Paladin
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child  Riptide Warner
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch Ebury Press
Andrew Taylor Caroline Minuscule Poisoned Pen Press
David Pirie The Dark Water Arrow
George Alec Effinger Live! From Planet Earth Golden Gryphon
David Hewson A Season For The Dead Pan
John Baker King Of The Streets Indigo
John Baker Walking With Ghosts Indigo
Robert Metzger Picoverse Ace
Shane Maloney Stiff Text Publishing
Shane Maloney The Brush Off Text Publishing
Shane Maloney Nice Try Text Publishing
Shane Maloney The Big Ask Text Publishing
Shane Maloney Something Fishy Text Publishing
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