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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (erubescendissimus)

Alan In The Pink

There are times when you wish with all your heart that you could melt into a puddle, ooze between the cracks in the floorboards, and trickle down deep into the bowels of the earth never to be seen again. You have said or done something so exquisitely embarrassing that you just know that people all over the world will be talking about it for years to come, and every time you walk down the street people will point at you and giggle.

When I was three years old I approached my grandmother, a dinosaur lady with extraordinarily advanced wrinkles, and I asked her, "Nana – how old are you?"

"I'm 42," she said proudly.

I was aghast! I'd realised she was old. But I hadn't realised she was quite as ancient as that.

"Nana," I said, somewhat diffidently, "if you are that old, why aren't you dead yet?"

After a start like that, the rest of life can only be an anti-climax. Fortunately I'm not alone in my suffering. Sometimes I have watched my friends open their mouths and insert both feet up to the ankles. That's always fun.

For instance, every so often, when the mood takes me, I go ten pin bowling. I'm not very good at it and apparently I have a somewhat unique style as I race up to the line and release the ball. My friends in England used to refer to me as the Sugar Plum Fairy which I am sure was a reference to the balletic grace and style that I brought to the game.

When we had finished bowling, it was our custom to retire to the pub, compare score cards, and analyse every roll of every ball to death. As the levels of Guinness dropped in the glasses, the volume of the conversation tended to rise.

My friend Jennifer was a lady with a screeching voice that cut right through every conversation even at the best of times. After she'd soaked up a couple of pints, you could etch glass with her.

"Look how good my husband is," she declared, waving his scorecard in the air. "Look how well he did tonight."

We agreed that he had done very well indeed, rolling his ball and knocking down the pins like an automaton. Strike after strike. Classy stuff.

"He owes it all to me," howled Jennifer. "I taught him everything he knows. Before he met me he didn't even know which holes to put his fingers in!"

Every single conversation in the pub came to an abrupt halt as Jennifer's words vibrated across every eardrum in the building. A cone of silence descended and every male face assumed the same thoughtful look.

Joe Haldeman's new novel Old Twentieth both is and isn't a very clever book. The ending is a complete cliché – every single piece of writing advice you will ever receive from anybody will tell you never, ever to end a story this way. The cleverness in Joe's novel stems from the fact that this appallingly hackneyed ending is actually a perfect ending for the plot he has sketched out and it makes complete sense in terms of the story proper. However this brilliantly clever ending still remains profoundly annoying because it is such a cop-out, such a no-no, no matter how well it fits. Ultimately, therefore, the novel is a disappointment.

The ending isn't the only thing wrong with it. The beginning is a bit flawed as well. The story opens with a wonderful evocation of the fighting at Gallipoli in 1915. You can feel the sun, smell the blood and dodge the bullets. But then everything bogs down in a huge infodump before the story proper begins again. Joe seems to have taken a vow to write only small, slim novels (and I applaud him for it – I'm fed up with door stopper books). But this time his desires have let him down. He has far too much material here for a slim novel and so he starts with a long lecture that sketches in the backstory before he begins to tell the real story. Another writer, writing a longer book, would have dramatised the backstory and made it interesting. Joe turned it into an infodump and made it boring. The backstory is necessary in order to understand the story that Joe actually wants to tell – but did he really have to present it in such a dull way? Given the page count, I suppose he did.

The infodump tells us that after the discovery of an immortality drug there was a civil war between the haves and the have nots (the mortals and the immortals) which resulted in the death of all the mortals. Civilization pretty much collapses in ruins since all the people who did the mundane jobs (telephone sanitisers and the like) aren't there any more to keep the wheels turning. Gradually the immortals bring it all back together and start making some sort of progress. A habitable planet is discovered in orbit around a distant star and an expedition is sent out to explore it.

The story itself takes place on the starship. Immortals can obviously make the journey without having to be put into stasis (or whatever) for the duration of the flight. But equally obviously they will need to have something to occupy themselves with for the many thousands of years that it takes to cross all those light years. The protagonist operates the ship's "time machine", an elaborate virtual reality device that lets people explore historic time periods (hence the opening scene at the Gallipoli landings – it was just an episode in the machine). However the machine has a flaw (don't they all?) and a crew member dies while inside one of the virtualities. The bulk of the novel concerns itself with the investigation into why the death happened and the implications it has for the expedition. If there are any more deaths, will there be anybody left alive when the ship finally reaches the planet?

When the story gets going it's just superb. It has everything that a great SF novel needs – the romance of exploring the universe with a beautifully realised starship, the extremely convincing technology of the virtual reality machine, lots of sex and violence, philosophy and fun. However I suggest you start reading it round about Chapter 4 and stop reading it about four pages from the end. Trust me in this -- the infodump is a hard slog and the ending will thoroughly piss you off.

Mothers and Other Monsters is a collection of short stories by Maureen F. McHugh (the award-winning author of China Mountain Zhang). The stories are about families, usually dysfunctional families, struggling to cope with life, the universe and everything. I know that you should never make deductions about an author's real life from the fiction that they publish, but so many of these stories concern Alzheimers victims and rebellious children that I really couldn't help wondering just how much they do reflect reality, and also just how much they might be wishful thinking (one story involves a sort of a cure for Alzheimers). I found the themes that McHugh explores quite depressing and I read the stories in short bursts, interspersing them with other books. They are powerful, haunting and beautifully written stories and yes, if you were wondering, they are science fiction (or at least, fantasy). Maureen McHugh is a superb writer.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova opens in Amsterdam in 1972. A teenage girl browsing through her father's library discovers a medieval book full of blank pages. Only the centre spread has anything printed on it and that is a woodcut print of a dragon with a looped tail and the dreadful word "Drakulya". Tucked into the book is a set of letters addressed to: "My dear and unfortunate successor."

When confronted with these Paul, the girl's father, reluctantly confesses that twenty years earlier his doctoral supervisor, Professor Rossi, had convinced him that Dracula (or rather Vlad the Impaler, an inventively sadistic ruler of Wallachia in the mid-15th century) was still alive. Shortly after revealing this, Professor Rossi disappeared. Paul and Helen Rossi (Professor Rossi's illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter) continue the search.

Over many days, her father tells her the tale of his search for both Dracula and Professor Rossi, and she herself begins to research the story, starting her own hunt for the legendary vampire.

Three basic story lines weave through this very long novel. There is one from 1930, when Professor Rossi begins his search, one from 1950, when Paul takes up the hunt, and the main narrative from 1972. There are also some scenes from the early twenty first century when the narrator reflects upon the events she is telling us about. Despite this, there is never any confusion about the narrative thread even when we get flashbacks within flashbacks. That is story telling of a very high order.

The linking theme of all the threads is the search through dusty libraries and collections of old manuscripts looking for tantalising hints about Dracula and the things that he has done since his supposed death in the fifteenth century. Along the way we are exposed to a lot of (to me at least) unfamiliar history about the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman Empire. Eastern Europe has always been a hotch-potch of religious and military conflict. This sounds as though it might be dull, but it never is. Elizabeth Kostova has an enviable ability to bring dusty history fascinatingly alive.

But the book is more than archivist's dream scenario. There is also a mounting casualty count. Lots of necks are bitten, and the big showdown not only revels in the gruesome, it tugs at the emotions as well. In many ways this book has everything -- exotic locales, tantalizing history, a dark family legacy and a bloodthirsty mystery wrapped all around it. I loved it.

Shortly before I left England to come and live in New Zealand, I visited the family home for the last time to say goodbye to family and friends. The village was all of a twitter – my parents had told everybody that I was off to the other side of the world and every single person in the village was amazed that I could even conceive of such a plan, let alone carry it out. Most of them didn't believe that there was any such place as New Zealand. Mind you, many of them weren't too sure that far away, exotic places like London or Redditch existed either. And Wigan just had to be the product of someone's fevered imagination...

It was decreed that I had to have a haircut. It was not possible to visit other countries when you had untidy hair. What would people think? And so my mother made an appointment for me to visit her hairdresser. I turned up at the appropriate time and sat myself down in the chair. The lady whose job it was to do me up nicely approached and wrapped several bedsheets around me and then set to with the scissors and shampoo.

"Why are you going to New Zealand?" she asked. "It's such a long way away."

I muttered something innocuous.

"We were so thrilled when your mother told us all about it," she said. "It's so exciting."

I muttered something else innocuous.

"I recognised you as soon as you walked into the salon," she said. "You look exactly like your mother."

"It's the beard," I said loudly. "It fools everybody."

There was a horrified silence. Everyone in the salon stared at me.

Fortunately I was 12,500 miles away when the story finally got back to my mother. I heard her shrieks of outrage as clear as a bell.

I soon settled down in New Zealand and began to make friends. I got invited to parties. Life was good. One of my friends was an extremely well endowed young lady who I will refer to as Sue, for that is indeed her name.

Sue arrived at the party wearing her new T-shirt. She was very proud of it, having only just bought it, and this was the first time she had worn it. The slogan on the front was quite witty, though the letters were somewhat distorted by her very shapely bosom.

"Isn't it great?" she said happily. "Isn't it just the cleverest thing you ever saw on a T-shirt?"

"Indeed it is," I said. "I wish I was blind so I could read the Braille version."

Slow circles of silence spread around the room as people turned towards us. There were whispers as those who had heard what I said told the people who had missed it. The story quickly reached the furthest corner, and a whole room full of people stared in shock and horror at me and at Sue. It was a silence of the jaw-dropping variety and everybody was dropping jaws. The absence of noise was deafening.

Sue and I looked at each other and held a blushing competition. Sue won on points – even her toenails blushed.

She never wore the T-shirt again.

My Life is David Lange's autobiography. It was published just a few days before his death and I suppose he really didn't care who he upset with it because he certainly doesn't pull any punches. His judgement of his fellow politicians and cabinet ministers during his Prime Ministership of New Zealand is quite scathing. And given the subsequent non-careers of most of them, it is clear that Lange's opinion of them is absolutely spot on.

David Lange was a very funny, very witty man and during his time in office he never let political sensitivities get in the way of a good joke. A few months after a Russian cruise ship sank off the coast of the South Island, New Zealand was visited by a prominent and powerful American politician. Lange was heard to boast that New Zealand had sunk more Russian ships than America had. So there!

The book, however, was much less witty than I was expecting it to be. Nevertheless there are the occasional gems. When Lange visited Singapore, he asked Lee Kuan Yu why he was imprisoning people without trial. Lee said:

"Because it has become unfashionable to shoot them."

A case of the quipper quipped, I think!

Not only does the book discuss Lange's political life, it also talks about his childhood and adolescence. Lange was a Methodist and he took his religion seriously and I suspect that it had a profound effect on his early life. He grew up in the 1960s but they seem to have passed him by and in a lot of ways he comes across as a very naïve young man, much more so than most of his contemporaries. In his later years, he abandoned Methodism to an extent as he grew wiser in the ways of the world. It is hard to tell which is cause and which is effect.

I enjoyed his autobiography. Before I read it I knew him only as a politician. After I read it I knew a little of him as a person.

Locked Rooms is the eighth book in Laurie King's series of novels about Mary Russell, the wife of Sherlock Holmes. It is 1924 and Holmes and Mary are on their way to San Francisco. Mary needs to take care of some legal business connected with the estate left by her parents, who died ten years earlier in a car crash.

Mary is reluctant to visit her past and she has suppressed many childhood memories. She is adamant that she was not in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake. However it soon becomes clear that this is a false memory – she was there during the earthquake. We also learn that she blames herself for the accident that killed her mother, father, and younger brother. She is having nightmares about flying objects, a faceless man, and a house with locked rooms to which only she has the key. She stops eating. Holmes is very concerned about her mental and physical health.

As Mary pursues her business, Holmes starts to investigate the mysteries in her past. Both he and Mary uncover some long buried family secrets. There seems to have been some sort of scandal connected with the aftermath of the earthquake and it appears that for a time Mary's parents were estranged, though again she has no direct memory of any of this.

The plot is deliciously complex and Laurie King has experimented with the structure a little. Normally these books are written in the first person as if by Mary herself. However in Locked Rooms there are several sections told in the third person which deal with Holmes' investigation away from Mary's presence. Holmes has a much larger part to play in this book than in previous ones, and in the third person narratives we see a lot more of his working methods than we have seen before. Laurie King also has a lot of fun introducing the writer Dashiell Hammett, who gives Holmes a helping hand with his investigation.

The story see-saws between the prohibition jazz-era 1920s and the early years of the century and Laurie King never puts a foot wrong. The historical scenes are vivid and alive. They feel lived in and real. In many ways, this is the best book so far in what has always been a first-rate series.

Drive to the East is volume umpty-ump in Harry Turtledove's ongoing alternate history of America. The Confederacy has cut the U.S. in two between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, but the U.S. is fighting back and is starting to regain lost ground. Meanwhile deep in the South, Jake Featherston's final solution to the Negro problem picks up speed as new, more efficient extermination methods are implemented.

If you've read and enjoyed the earlier books then you will want to read this one. If you haven't read the earlier books you won't want to read this one because it won't make any sense to you. I enjoyed it a lot.

I've also spent a lot of this month re-reading Patrick O'Brian's novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. I've indulged myself by buying all twenty books in a uniform presentation edition. They are beautiful books. I've been referring to them in conversation as The Aubreyiad and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself as I re-read them.

In the fullness of time I got a job that required me to teach people how to look after their computers. One of my more boring courses involved running mysterious unix programs with names like iostat and vmstat and netstat. They gather performance statistics about the computer and when you analyse the figures you should be able to work out just where you are going wrong, and then you can tweak various system configurations and the computer's performance suddenly goes through the roof and everybody says:

"Wow! I've never seen a computer run as fast and as efficiently as this one is running!"

Your boss gives you a huge pay rise and for the first time in your life you have so much money that you don't know what to do with it. You can't think of a single thing to buy. You've bought a home theatre and a plasma screen TV. You've bought an ipod and you've bought a cell phone with a built in video camera and a gadget for taking stones out of a boy scout's feet. You've bought everything you can plug into a USB port, including a USB memory stick in the shape of a barbie doll, and a USB vibrator with a built in french tickler. You've completely run out of ideas.

At least that's the theory. In practice, you gather the figures together, analyse them, tweak lots and lots of system configurations, and absolutely nothing happens at all. The system continues to run like a dog, only now it's a Rhodesian Ridgeback instead of the Jack Russell Terrier it was last week and everyone is after your blood, and it doesn't look like you'll ever be able to afford the USB vibrator with a built in french tickler that you've got your heart set on, and even if you could afford it you'll never have time to play with it because you are too busy working 24 hours a day trying to keep the computer running at all, let alone running more efficiently. Oh God, I'm so depressed.

Anyway, the course was designed to teach people how to gather the figures together and, more importantly, how to interpret them. We also deliberately set the computers up in, shall we say, slightly sub-optimal ways, so that we could see the kinds of figures that corresponded to a three-legged Rotweiler with mange.

One student, David by name, had been working with computers for almost as long as I had. He was old with knowledge, grey-haired and stooped with experience.

"Let's try this," I said to the class, and I instructed David to modify certain parameters and to compare the results he got with the unmodified machines belonging to the other students. I was aiming to have his computer slowly get worse and worse as a backlog built up. The differences should be quite obvious.

"David," I said in ringing tones, "as time passes, does your performance degrade?"

Joe Haldeman Old Twentieth Ace
Maureen F. McHugh Mothers and Other Monsters Small Beer Press
Elizabeth Kostova The Historian Little, Brown
Laurie King Locked Rooms Bantam
David Lange My Life Penguin
Harry Turtledove Drive to the East Del Rey
Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin Novels Norton
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