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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (hocus pocus)

Alan Robson And The Half-Boiled Mince

With a hiss and a roar, the (presumably) penultimate Harry Potter novel has arrived in the shops and on to my bookshelves. Let me say straight away that I enjoyed it immensely – I think it is the best of the series so far, though paradoxically almost nothing happens in it. Apart from the dramatic climax, which definitely does move the prime story forwards, the book consists of little more than bits of business that illuminate the back story and reflect the growing up of the protagonists.

Sex rears its ugly head a bit and lots of snogging happens. Relationships are made and broken. Hogwarts humour is funnier than it has ever been and as always Ron Weasley gets the best dialogue and the funniest lines. I really think Ron is the most fully realised character in the series; his scenes are a constant delight. Hermione has little to do in this book and is very wishy-washy and girly all the way through it. I can't help thinking that Rowling is getting tired of her. Harry himself is as dumb as he ever was. He demonstrates his usual genius for Getting Everything Wrong.

Dumbledore is as infuriating as always. Despite being forced to eat humble pie in the previous book because he made the mistake of keeping his cards too close to his chest, he continues to behave in the same extremely annoying way in this one. I'm sick of hearing him say words to the effect of "I can't tell you that yet, Harry. It is not yet time for you to know." Of course it's bloody time! If Dumbledore would only stop keeping secrets the place wouldn't be in as much trouble as it is and a lot of people who have died might well have survived. Dumbledore is a foolish and very arrogant person and the back story that comes out in this book makes it clear that he is largely responsible for the misery in the wizard world. Dumbledore gave Voldemort the world on a plate and then acted surprised when he took it (and smashed the plate). Again and again and again, Dumbledore's complete misreading of both character and situation leads to trouble. It is a mystery to me why everybody loves and respects him so much. Stupid, stupid old man!

And yes – somebody important dies.

One more book to go and Rowling has given herself a lot of work to do in it. Harry must find and destroy the horcruxes (horcruces??) and presumably enlist the mysterious R.A.B. to his cause before the final confrontation with Voldemort. Will he succeed? Of course he will, and I for one am dying to find out how.

Although I have watched and admired Leo McKern playing Rumpole in the wonderful BBC television series, to my eternal shame I have never actually read any Rumpole stories. However one day recently I stumbled upon all three Rumpole omnibus volumes sitting on a bookshop shelf along with several other stand alone Rumpole books which are not collected in the omnibi. Someone was obviously trying to tell me something and who am I to disregard the voices I hear in my head? Look what the voices did for Joan of Arc! So I bought all the books and devoured them and I thoroughly enjoyed them because they are, of course, quite superb.

Rumpole is a curmudgeonly old barrister who always handles the defence in the various briefs that come his way ("I never prosecute and I never plead guilty."). In hands less skilful than John Mortimer's, Rumpole would simply be an English Perry Mason. However Mortimer is too canny a writer to fall into that trap. Rumpole does not win every case (indeed, he loses rather too frequently for his own peace of mind). But often winning or losing the case is not the main issue. Rumpole has other things on his mind; and that too adds a dimension that other courtroom dramas often lack.

Mortimer uses Rumpole to poke gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) fun at British institutions: the practice of law, the importance of the old school tie, the weight of history and precedent, the snobbery of the class system. Rumpole is a rebel who is thoroughly familiar with the conventions and who is cynically prepared to use them to accomplish his aims.

When you overindulge in Rumpole (as I have done) some of the stylistic tics become irritating. The constant mention of cooking champagne and Chateau Thames Embankment, the fact that Rumpole refers to his wife Hilda as She Who Must Be Obeyed – you know before you begin that every Rumpole story will have these things, and they do. But the general good humour, the biting sarcastic wit, and the sometimes very wise social commentary that underpin every story really make those stories the classics that all the critics claim them to be. I'm not going to go against the trend. John Mortimer fully deserves all the praise that has been heaped on him over the years by critics and reviewers far and wide. They are wise, witty, funny and terribly, terribly British stories. However...

In story after story after story, Rumpole harks back to the days of his youth and his greatest triumph before the bench. In one of his first cases he successfully defended a murder case. Normally a barrister as junior as Rumpole would be lead by a Queen's Councillor (QC – a barrister who has taken silk). However in the case of the Penge Bungalow Murders, Rumpole had no leader. He conducted the case himself and his client was acquitted. Almost every single Rumpole story has a reference to this case as an important sub-plot.

And now the novel Rumpole And The Penge Bungalow Murders tells us all about this famous case. Unfortunately Mortimer has revealed so much about it in other stories that he finds himself quite constrained in this one. The plot and many of the details are engraved in tablets of stone and he has very little room to manoeuvre. Consequently this book never takes flight like the other stories do. If it is possible for Rumpole to be pedestrian, then he is pedestrian here. It is a novel for completeists only. It is John Mortimer's only Perry Mason novel. I suppose he had to write one some day.

There is only one reason to buy Mountain Magic. It collects together all of Henry Kuttner's stories about the Hogben family. As far as I am aware, these have never been collected together in one place before and have only ever appeared scattered through various obscure and long out of print anthologies. They are unfailingly funny stories about hillbillies who are so inbred and mutated that that they have magical powers. For example Uncle Lem is so lazy that he spends most of his time fast asleep. When he gets hungry he wakes up just enough to send his mind out into the forest where he hypnotises a raccoon which gathers up a pile of firewood and carries it back to Uncle Lem. Then it builds a fire and cooks itself so that Uncle Lem can eat it. Only one thing worries the narrator of this story. He's never been able to figure out how Uncle Lem gets the 'coon to skin itself first...

Unfortunately Kuttner only wrote four Hogben stories, so the bulk of the book is made up of other hillbilly stories by the other writers who are given credit on the cover. These other hillbilly stories are uniformly dire in comparison to the brilliance of the Hogbens.

Mammoth, the new John Varley novel, is actually a short story pretending to be a novel. The basic premise is ingenious. A perfectly preserved mammoth has been discovered frozen in a glacier in Canada. Further excavation reveals that a neolithic hunter has been frozen and preserved with the mammoth. And he's wearing a wristwatch.

Cue a lot of time travel, a couple of paradoxes and a twist ending.

As a short story or a novella this would probably have been pretty good. Varley has an intriguing situation to explore. Unfortunately he pads it all out with far too many gratuitous chase scenes (anything for the sake of action) which appear to be there simply to make up the page count, and the book bogs down. I suggest you take a razor blade and cut out the boring pages. You won't miss them, and what's left will keep you well entertained for half an hour.

Tom Holt has taken to calling himself Thomas Holt for his "serious" historical fiction (as opposed to his "funny" fantasy where he remains just plain Tom). That doesn't stop his serious stuff being funny of course and Meadowland is no exception. Here he re-tells the Vinland saga; the story of the Viking discovery of America. I've actually read the Vinland saga (in translation of course) and so has Holt, because he sticks very closely to the classical model and you can superimpose them incident for incident, character for character. To that extent his work has already been done for him. His genius lies in his interpretation of those events and characters, and as always his style and wit makes the tired old story spring into new life. I highly recommend it.

Despite what it says in the blurb, Robert Rankin's new novel The Brightonomicon is not strictly a stand alone book. It is actually the third in the Chiswick Townswomen's Guild series. Not that you'd be at a loss if you hadn't read the earlier two books; it is completely self contained, and not a little mad.

Hugo Rune, the Cosmic Dick and re-inventor of the ocarina, has discovered a new zodiac in the patterns formed by the street map of Brighton. Together with his faithful sidekick Rizla, he must solve twelve mysterious cases, one for each zodiacal sign. Each case is centred around the streets that make up the picture of the zodiacal creature and involves the creature itself. When all the cases have been solved, Rune will be given access to the Chronovision, a device invented in the 1950s by a mad Benedictine monk. The Chronovision allows its user to see the secrets of the past. Should it fall into the wrong hands it could give ultimate power to a world dictator. Only Rune and Rizla can save the world.

The book is mad, bad and dangerous to know; not to mention utterly insane.

"I told you not to mention that."


It's just like Rankin's other novels. Read it; see Brighton and die.

When we left the colonists in Allen Steele's previous novel Coyote they had started exploring their new world and they were learning to live on it and with it. As the novel ended, more starships were arriving from Earth and the original colonists had moved into the wilderness to escape the new colonists. Now, in the novel Coyote Rising we learn what happens as the new colonists come into conflict with the old.

The book is much less satisfying than the first one. It merely details the fight between the old and the new colonists and the planet Coyote itself has only a small part to play. It could be any other post 9/11 American book about insurgency and to that extent it is rather dull and predictable. However as the rather ponderous tome ends, there is some hope that future novels in the series might return to the same brilliant high standard of the first. The second wave of colonists have been defeated or assimilated, and now the exploration of Coyote can continue.

I enjoyed the first book; I didn't think much of Coyote Rising, but I have high hopes for whatever comes next.

Reginald Hill has taken a break from telling tales of Dalziel and Pascoe and his new novel, The Stranger House, is a stand alone book which seems unlikely to spawn sequels. It centres around the scandal of the British orphans who were shipped off to Australia in the 1950s and delivered into virtual slavery under the "care" of the Catholic institutions who "looked after them". Samantha Flood is a feisty, red-haired Australian. Her grandmother, also called Samantha Flood, was one of those unfortunate children sent off to the far side of the world and now her granddaughter has come back to the sleepy Cumbrian village of Ilthwaite searching for her roots. Also in Ilthwaite is Miguel Madero, a drop out from a Spanish Seminary. One of his ancestors sailed with the Spanish Armada and Madero has some evidence that he might have ended up in Ilthwaite.

Small villages in the north of England don't change much over the centuries. Many of the families still living in Ilthwaite are direct descendants of the people who were living there in the days of the first Elizabeth. Old scandals and new scandals still have the power to affect them and both Samantha and Miguel come up against a wall of silence. The story of what is hiding behind that wall is what makes this book so utterly fascinating. With wit, wisdom and immaculate prose, Reginald Hill explores the effects of scandals ancient and modern. Surprisingly they are very intertwined. The Stranger House is his best book yet. He's written some humdingers in the past, but nothing that comes anywhere near the brilliance of this one.

Extended series of books often start to bog down and lose their attraction. Both the author and the audience start to get fed up with them and gradually they fade away. Sometimes there are exceptions to this. Sometimes the series take on a new lease of life, for whatever reason. Janet Evanovich's stories about the exploits of Stephanie Plum is one such series. The eleventh book has just been published and I loved it. The series as a whole reached its nadir round about number eight or nine. They really were dire. But it started to pick up again and Eleven On Top is great fun. Stephanie has decided that the life of a bounty hunter is too stressful. She's fed up of having her cars burned out and her apartment blown up. She's sick of being shot at, spat at and attacked by dogs. So she resigns.

She takes a series of normal jobs. She works at a button factory, she works at a dry-cleaners. She even (in desperation) takes a job behind the counter at the fast food outlet called Cluck-in-a-Bucket. She loses all these jobs because her car keeps getting burned out, her apartment gets blown up, she is shot at, spat at and attacked by dogs. Her employers don't like her private life intruding into her job (it tends to have unfortunate side effects on their business premises). Something drastic has to be done. Stephanie goes to work for Ranger, the sexiest bounty hunter on the planet.

Another series that has had a long and very successful run is the "Dave Robicheaux" series by James Lee Burke. Robicheaux is an ex-alcoholic, ex-cop in the deep South of America. Crusader's Cross is the fourteenth in the series and is one of the weakest. The past has come back to haunt Robicheaux. In his teens, he and his brother Jimmie had their lives saved by Ida Durbin, a prostitute. Jimmie fell in love with her and was quite devastated when she vanished without trace. There were hints that she had fallen foul of the mob and had been murdered. Jimmie never believed that she was dead and he continued to search for he, on and off, for the rest of his life. Dave is drawn in to the search. A series of recent murders seem linked to the old disappearance. A couple of redneck cops try to warn him off. Robicheaux never takes kindly to threats and he starts to dig more deeply.

The book seems forced and it never really comes to life. Burke populates his novel with far too many Southern stereotypes for comfort. The redneck cops, the decaying aristocratic family living in the glory days of the civil war. It's all a bit of a rubber stamp. I've enjoyed the previous Robicheaux novels and I hope I'll enjoy the next one. But this one dragged a bit.

New Zealanders will soon be electing a new government. One of our sharpest political commentators is Jane Clifton and she has just published a scathingly witty memoir called Political Animals. She tells of her life reporting on politics and politicians and she surgically dissects many of the current crop inhabiting the Beehive. Read it just before you cast your vote and you will probably be sorely tempted to spoil your ballot paper. Don't vote; it only encourages the bastards. In many ways this is a sad and sorry book. I guess we always knew that they had feet of clay. Now we have had it confirmed.

Meanwhile we've still got Alan Robson And The Half-Cooked Quince to keep us amused. Not to mention Alan Robson And The Half-Hair Rinse.

"I told you not to mention that!"


J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Bloomsbury
John Mortimer The First Rumpole Omnibus Penguin
John Mortimer The Second Rumpole Omnibus Penguin
John Mortimer The Third Rumpole Omnibus Penguin
John Mortimer Rumpole Rests His Case Penguin
John Mortimer Rumpole And The Primrose Path Penguin
John Mortimer Rumpole And The Penge Bungalow Murders Penguin
David Drake, Eric Flint, Ryk. E. Spoor and Henry Kuttner Mountain Magic Baen
John Varley Mammoth Ace
Thomas Holt Meadowland Abacus
Robert Rankin The Brightonomicon Gollancz
Allen Steele Coyote Rising Ace
Reginald Hill The Stranger House Harper Collins
Janet Evanovich Eleven On Top St Martin's Press
James Lee Burke Crusader's Cross Simon and Schuster
Jane Clifton Political Animals Penguin
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