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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (pecunia discrimenissima)

Alan And The Empty Money Box

I've had a financial crisis every November since I was nine years old.

It all began the day my father took me to one side and said, "It's your mum's birthday soon. Don't you think you are old enough now to buy her a present?"

I hadn't realised that grown ups had birthdays. I thought that only children had birthdays. I knew that birthdays meant that you got presents (I got lots of presents on my birthday), but children and adults were quite different beings and I thought of them in completely separate compartments in my head. I was sure that different rules applied. How could adults possibly have birthdays? I hadn't yet made the connection between birthdays and growing up. I didn't know that the more birthdays you had, the older you got. Indeed, I hadn't even realised that one day I would be a grown up. I thought that my parents were adults and I was a child and that's just the way it would always be.

So everything my father said in that little speech was very puzzling indeed.

"When's her birthday?" I asked tentatively.

"November 11th," said my dad.

"November 11th?"

"Yes," said my dad. "That's the day that everybody in the country wears a poppy. It's the day that all the towns in England have a celebration at dawn, and the Queen lays a wreath at the Cenotaph in London. You've seen it on the television."

"Gosh," I said, impressed beyond measure. "My mum must be really special if they do all that on her birthday."

"Yes she is," said my dad. "She's very special indeed."

My pocket money was only threepence a week. Even in 1950s England, you couldn't get anything very elaborate for threepence. Mum would have to have a small present. I was sure she wouldn't mind. Perhaps I could afford a penny. That would still leave me twopence to pay my regular bills. Frozen jubblies and a potato for my potato gun, the occasional Lucky Bag.

A few days later, my mother took me to one side. "Your dad's birthday is coming up soon," she said. " Don't you think you are old enough now to buy him a present?"

Gosh! My father had birthdays just like my mum did. Was there no end to the wonders of the world?

"When is it?" I asked.

"November 13th," said my mum. "Just two days after my birthday. That's why I find it so easy to remember."

Things weren't looking good. Two birthdays in the same week! Oh, no!

Perhaps I could manage one penny for mum, and one penny for dad, which would mean I had one penny left over to see me through the week. I wasn't sure my money box could cope with that degree of financial pressure though. It was starting to look like it would be a very lean week.

"And it's Christmas soon after that," said mum thoughtfully. "You'll need to start saving up for Christmas. Christmas presents are always bigger and better than birthday presents."

Christmas presents? What did that have to do with me? Didn't Father Christmas take care of all that? I asked my mum how that worked.

"Father Christmas doesn't come for grown ups," she explained. "And so children have to buy presents for their parents to make up for it."

I was horrified! I'd never have any money of my own again if I had to make it stretch that far.

"But I only get threepence a week," I howled in anguish.

"Well, I suppose you could borrow against your future earnings," said my mum doubtfully. "But you might find the interest payments hard to manage on only threepence a week. Compound interest, of course"

"What's compound interest?" I asked. It sounded as if it might be, er, um, interesting.

"Einstein called it the greatest mathematical discovery of all time."

"What's an Einstein?"

I really didn't know very much at all when I was nine years old.

Thud! is this year's Discworld novel. The city of Ankh-Morepork is in trouble. The dwarves and the trolls are up in arms. A dwarf has been murdered and the trolls are being blamed. They have been fighting each other, on and off, for many years. The culmination of their mutual hatred was the battle of Koom Valley where each side ambushed the other. Unless Commander Vimes of the City Watch can solve this murder, it looks like Koom Valley might be fought again in the streets and alleys of Ankh-Morepork itself.

There was a time when Pterry's books had no real plot at all. He spent most of the pages just noodling round, playing with the ideas of the Discworld. Mr Ixolite, the banshee with a speech impediment who can't howl on the rooftops and who has to write "Oooohhhh!!" on pieces of paper and push them under the door. The reasons why the tooth fairy carries a hammer and chisel. Granny Weatherwax and the practical applications (and implications) of headology. Every so often, Pterry would look up from the book and realise that the page count was long enough and it was time to tie up the whimsicalities. And so he would.

But lately he's been doing the reverse. His books have had a lot of plot – so much plot in fact that the whimsicalities have all but vanished. He's gone from one extreme to the other, and I don't think I like either extreme very much.

Thud! is almost all plot, heavy with implication, ripe with message and sub-text, some of it rather too blatant (I suppose that's why he titled the book Thud! – it really does hit the reader over the head again and again and again). But every so often, Pterry forgets himself and puts in a bit of business.

At one point, Vimes has a near Death experience. As a logical consequence of this, Death has a near Vimes experience. But that's all right, He brings a book with Him to pass the time…

Thud! is this year's Discworld novel. What more needs to be said?

Donald Kingsbury's novel Psychohistorical Crisis takes the ideas that Asimov played with in his Foundation stories, and runs with them. In some ways it feels a bit twee. For copyright reasons, Kingsbury isn't able to use Asimov's settings and characters. So the discoverer of psychohistory is always referred to as The Founder rather than as Hari Seldon. The two Foundations cannot be named explicitly and are always referred to euphemistically. Even Trantor has been renamed as Splendid Wisdom.

Eron Osa has been sentenced to the equivalent of death. He is deprived of his fam – his electronic familiar. The fam provides a digital augmentation to his brain. Without it he simply cannot cope with the complexities of life in the 761st century. It is the 14,810th year of the Galactic Era and the Second Empire has spanned the stars for more than 16 centuries, guided and controlled by the Pscholars who apply the principles of psychohistory to keep the galactic wheels turning.

Without his fam, Eron Osa can barely even navigate the streets of Splendid Wisdom. Most of his memories are gone, including the memories that would tell him why his fam was taken from him. His crime must indeed have been a terrible one.

It takes Kingsbury almost 600 pages to tell us exactly what has befallen Eron Osa and why. The book is glacially slow but it is not without its virtues. Kingsbury explores the background and the implications of psychohistory in much greater depth than Asimov ever managed to do. Like Asimov, Kingsbury is greatly in love with the intellectual exercise he has set himself and he positively revels in the cold joy of it. But unlike Asimov, he never really manages to dramatise the ideas properly; he never brings his characters properly alive. I found it very hard to care about Eron Osa in the same way that I cared about Salvor Hardin, Han Pritcher and Arkady Darell in Asimov's original stories.

I also find it interesting that although it is probably twenty years since I last read the Foundation trilogy, I had no difficulty at all remembering the names that I mentioned in the last paragraph, and it was easy to recall the parts that they played in Asimov's stories. It's only about a month since I read Psychohistorical Crisis and I had to pick the book up and read the blurb again before I could remember the name of Eron Osa.

Draw your own conclusions.

Richard Bowles is a writer much favoured by Kage Baker and she has written an introduction (entitled An Appreciation) to Bowles' mosaic novel From The Files Of The Time Rangers. The novel is a series of interludes and incidents that take place as the Time Rangers span the twentieth century, interfering here and there. The Time Rangers are servants of the God Apollo and they must maintain peace and order along the time stream. Mercury, the messenger of the Gods, works in public relations. Diana the Huntress is a New York City cop with questionable ethics. Dionysus brings bacchanalian orgies to the masses and Pluto, the God of Death, is grooming his successor.

It didn't work for me. I just can't reconcile time travelling rangers and Greek Gods and Bowles doesn't even try, he simply presents it as axiomatic. I think I'd have been wiling to suspend my disbelief, given half a chance (Zelazny gave me the chance in Lord Of Light, and that worked well, albeit with different Gods) but Bowles doesn't even give me that much. It was a disjointed and confusing book.

Orphan's Destiny is Robert Buettner's sequel to his earlier Orphanage. The invading alien slugs have been defeated and Jason Wander is a hero who has to come to terms with life in a post-war world. However it turns out that the slugs haven't been as comprehensively defeated as everybody thought and a new invasion fleet arrives. Once again, Jason and his army cronies have to save the day.

The book has a self-serving essay at the end by Buettner in which he compares himself to Heinlein and Haldeman. He claims that unlike Heinlein and Haldeman, his novels avoid politics. Buettner invokes the spirit of the post 9/11 generation that once again finds soldiers relevant, and he claims that soldiers fight not for flags or for ideals, or against tyrants, but simply for each other. His novels, says Buettner, aren't anti-communist or anti-war like their predecessors. They are just pro-foot soldier.

The essay is, of course, utter bollocks. Buettner's novels are about politics. They are positively steeped in politics, albeit very na´ve, childishly jingoistic and ethnocentric politics. Patriotism – the word is supposed to bring a tear to the eye. Well, it does bring a tear to mine, but it is a tear of nausea. The books are gung-ho to the point of lunacy and so sentimental and sickly-sweet as to induce vomiting. All Buettner can do is set up straw men to demolish. He is so sure of himself, so sure that his little black/white and right/wrong view of the world is the only possible truth. Don't read this book if you have blood pressure problems. The apoplexy might prove fatal.

My teenage years passed in a haze of beer, exams and sexual frustration. All three things may well have been connected. Compound interest soon revealed its mysteries to me and I learned that if you divide 72 by the interest rate, the answer is the number of years it takes for your investment (or, more likely, your debt) to double itself. If you borrow $2000 at 6% and never make any repayments, after 72 / 6 = 12 years, you will owe $4000. It was all very depressing and not at all interesting. My parents continued to have birthdays far too close together for comfort and Christmas remained irritatingly close to the birthdays – bad planning on someone's part, I always thought.

University seemed like a great way of putting off the evil day of having to get a job. Students are notoriously poor. Surely to goodness I could be allowed to forget birthdays and Christmases?

"Buy a poppy for armistice day, guv?"

"No thank you."

"Your mum will never forgive you if you don't buy one. It is her birthday, after all."

"Oh all right then." I dug my beer money out of my pocket and clanked it into the collecting tin. The sacrifices I had to make! Being a student was very hard sometimes.

Eventually I couldn't put the decision off any longer. I had to get a job, and so I did. November rolled round with its normal irritating precision and I went to see the boss.

"I'm having my annual financial crisis," I explained. "Can you do anything for me?"

"As it happens I can, young Robson," he declaimed. "Walk this way."

He lurched out of the office and I lurched after him. We both pretended that we had one leg shorter than the other and that we were hunchbacks. The old jokes are the best ones. We cackled as we lurched.

He took me to the computer room. "One of the operators is on holiday," he said. "If you stand in for him on the night shift, we'll pay you a miserable pittance and it will be much cheaper for us than getting in a contractor."

"It's a deal," I said, and for the next few weeks I worked my normal 9.00am to 5.00pm job and then I did the 5.00pm to 1.00am shift in the computer room. After a month of 16 hour days I was a zombie – but a zombie who could once again afford birthdays and Christmas. I did this every November for eight years until I'd had enough and so I moved to New Zealand to escape from it.

Everyone knows that the French are the traditional enemies of the English. For more than a thousand years the two countries have despised each other and poked fun at each other's habits. Stephen Clarke is an Englishman who lives and works in Paris and his two books A Year In The Merde and Merde Actually detail his stormy relationship with French bureaucracy, French business practices, French politics, French meals, sex with French women and the dog shit that liberally covers the Parisian streets and perfumes its air and which sticks like revolting brown glue to his shoes. If you hate the French (who doesn't hate the French?) you'll love these books.

I always get a sinking feeling in the pit of my tummy when I read about a literary writer who has decided to go slumming and write a genre novel. After all just look at the embarrassing mess that Doris Lessing and Paul Theroux and P. D. James (to mention but three) produced when they turned their attention to SF. It doesn't have to be that way, of course. Kingsley Amis and Margaret Atwood proved that. But all too often it is.

Therefore it was with a bit of trepidation that I started to read The Various Haunts of Men. Susan Hill is not known as a writer of detective novels – she has a much more serious background than that. Despite the excellent reviews that the book had received, I was still dubious and it sat on my shelves for some considerable time before I finally managed to bring myself to start reading it.

But once I started, I simply couldn't stop. It is just superb.

The Hill is a lonely piece of moorland much favoured by hikers and dog walkers. A woman has vanished. She was last seen on The Hill. The police are not unduly worried – people often disappear. They have their reasons. Perhaps they are running away from intolerable situations, or running to a new life with new friends and new lovers. But then more people start to vanish. A young girl, an old man and even a dog. Something odd is happening in this quiet town.

The book calls itself a detective novel, and it does have detectives in it, but they don't do very much detecting. Indeed for a lot of the novel they really aren't sure if anything is going on at all and it isn't until very nearly the end that they realise that something quite gruesome, quite ugly is happening right underneath their noses. Even then, the full scale of it does not become apparent to them until after everything is over.

Really the book is just about people living their lives, doing ordinary things. It sounds dull as ditchwater, but it isn't. The sense of place and the sense of personality is so strong that you can't help but identify with every person in the book. You weep at their tragedies and laugh at their triumphs, both large and small. It's the most skilful piece of writing that I've read in years.

Susan Hill proclaims herself to be interested in the psychology of crime rather than the investigation of it. And that's why her detectives don't really do very much at the police-procedural level. But my goodness me, does she know how to get inside the heads of both ordinary people and psychopaths and she knows how to take them apart and how to poke at the dangly bits and watch them swing backwards and forwards.

The Various Haunts of Men is a tour de force.

Christopher Fowler is a writer best known for his horror and fantasy novels (if you ever find a copy of Roofworld, grab it immediately. It was his first novel and (he'll hate me for saying this) I think it is by far his best one). Once, in an autobiographical blurb, he described himself thus: "…like a fire, I go out at night." I always thought that was very clever. Anyway, he too has decided to go slumming in another genre and has started to write a series of detective novels featuring a detective called Arthur Bryant and another one called John May, thus contriving a pun ("Bryant and May") which will be completely lost on everybody who didn't grow up in England. For the sake of all you foreigners out there, Bryant and May were (probably still are, for all I know) the manufacturers of one of the most popular brands of matches in the UK. All of which has nothing to do with Fowler's novel Full Dark House, but never mind.

The novel has a curious structure. It opens in the present day. Bryant and May are very old men with a lifetime of friendship and a lifetime of cases behind them. But tragedy strikes – Bryant dies in what seems at first to be a terrorist attack. Certainly there has been a big explosion. May is devastated. But for the sake of his old friend Bryant, he determines to seek out whoever is behind the bombing. But the clues that he gathers suggest that somehow Bryant's death is connected to the first case that they ever worked on together – a series of gruesome and grotesque murders that took place in the Palace Theatre in London at the height of the blitz during the second world war. From that point on, the novel alternates between scenes set during the blitz and scenes set in the present day. Both cases draw to a conclusion and they are indeed connected in a very strange way.

The novel is wonderful. It is not in the slightest bit realistic, but it is a grotesque and eerie delight from beginning to end. Fowler's background in horror and fantasy stands him in very good stead and he has written a truly gothic detective story!

Many years ago you knew where you were with a detective novel. Someone committed a murder, often in a country house. Policemen gathered clues. Train timetables were consulted. Everyone gathered in the library and the killer was unmasked. He immediately confessed and was led away.

Now you simply don't know where you are. In an effort to drag the genre out of its various ruts, the writers have started to ransack all of time and space to find material for their stories. Today a detective novel is as likely to be set in Vespasian's Rome as it is in a contemporary country mansion. So let's raise a cheer for Yaotl, the Aztec detective in the dying days of the Empire of Montezuma in the year 1517 AD.

Apart from the exotic setting, Simon Levak's novel Demon Of The Air is actually fairly conventional. There aren't any train timetables or libraries. There's a lot of sacrifice and blood and some jaw-cracking names, but what else would you expect in a novel about Aztecs? Everything else is fairly routine.

It plods along to its not very surprising conclusion. I can't honestly say it's a bad book, but nothing about it excited my interest. Given that the book is set in 1517, I doubt that the series will be a very long one. By November 1519, the Aztec Empire had been completely destroyed. Most of its people were dead and most of its gold was on the way to Spain.

When I arrived in New Zealand, I made an interesting discovery. Mum's birthday was on April 25th here. I never really worked out how they calculated that, but sure enough, every April the poppies went on sale and the dawn ceremony took place. I told mum and she was horrified.

"But that means I'll be seven months older than I really am!" she declared and nothing would shift her from this idea.

I hadn't been in New Zealand very long when my parents died. It was a sad time, but it proved to have hidden benefits. November ceased to be as financially frightening as once it was. This would never do – I was at a complete loss! Financial habits are hard to give up. I immediately arranged for my house insurance, house contents insurance and car insurance to fall due half way through November, thereby guaranteeing me my usual impoverished Christmas. As an added attraction, I got the AA to demand their membership fee in November as well. I paid all these bills with my credit card and then I spent the next twelve months carefully not paying the credit card bills, so that I could be absolutely certain that when November rolled around again I wouldn't have paid for last November yet.

At last I could relax. Things were back to normal. Then I met Robin. "It's my birthday soon," she hinted one day.

"When?" I asked her.

"November 17th," said Robin.

"Perfect!" I cried. "Will you marry me?"

"Yes," said Robin.

Terry Pratchett Thud! Doubleday
Donald Kingsbury Psychohistorical Crisis Tor
Richard Bowles From The Files Of The Time Rangers Golden Gryphon
Robert Buettner Orphan's Destiny Aspect
Stephen Clarke A Year In The Merde Random House
Stephen Clarke Merde Actually Random House
Susan Hill The Various Haunts of Men Vintage
Christopher Fowler Full Dark House Bantam
Simon Levak Demons Of The Air Pocket
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