Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (lector christi dies natalis)

Living The Life Of Alan

When Robin and I announced that we were getting married, everybody asked us what we wanted for a wedding present.

"Toasters!" I said long and loud.

And not one person took me at my word, except my mate Ian who gave us an ornamental, and therefore somewhat impractical, toaster.

Then, one recent morning, I put some breakfast bread in my reliable old toaster, the one that Noah gave me after the Ark came to a halt and the animals got off. He didn't need it any more 'cos he'd taken the opportunity to pop down to the Ararat Market and buy a new one.

I turned the toaster on.

Have you ever noticed that toasters don't toast if you don't turn them on? Every morning I have to say "Toaster, I love you, you hot, sexy brute." If I don't say that, it just sulks and refuses to turn the bread brown. But this morning, things were different. I turned the toaster on, and it exploded and burst into flames and that was the end of my breakfast.

The explosion was loud, and it made me jump. The flames went out all by themselves after a couple of seconds. There was never any danger. But morning starvation seemed imminent. Fortunately Robin had some spare cereal and the milk wasn't too rancid. I coped.

But now I've had to buy a new toaster.

My new toaster has deep slots for large bread and dynamic braces to hold the bread firmly in the optimum toasting position, no matter what its thickness. My new toaster has stay cool sides which are shiny silver so that I can stare into them and watch my reflection trim its moustache while the bread toasts itself perfectly deep inside the machine. My new toaster even has a stay cool bottom, exactly like my own. It has a button specially for crumpets and another one for frozen bread. It is a prince among toasters.

I walked straight to a shop and five minutes later I walked out of the shop with my toaster neatly wrapped and a receipt stored safely in my wallet. It wasn't hard to do and it took almost no time at all. Why couldn't any of my friends do that? Could it be, perchance, that my subtle hints were not understood?


In future I shall eschew subtlety and employ only direct instruction.

"Toasters NOW!"

Fledgling is Octavia Butler's first novel for seven years, and she's come back with a bang. At first glance it doesn't look promising. Shori is a young girl suffering from amnesia after having been given a horrible beating. As she slowly gets better it becomes clear that she is a lot more than she seems to be. She is really 53 years old and she is a vampire who has been genetically modified so that she can walk around quite safely in the sunshine. She is the only survivor of a vicious attack on her community. She has no memory left of her friends and family. She has no means of contacting others like herself (if indeed they even exist). She is completely alone and somewhere out there someone still wants to kill her. And she doesn't know who and she doesn't know why.

Oh no! Not another novel about vampires living among us? It's a theme that's been done to death in far too many books by far too many semi-romantic novelists with rose coloured word processors and it has long ago lost whatever shred of originality that it might once have had.

I should have known better, of course. Nothing that Octavia Butler does is ever ordinary. No idea that she explores is so hoary and clichéd that she can't find something new to say about it.

Fledgling is the most original vampire novel I've ever read. It is fresh, thought-provoking and clever. I didn't think there was anything left to say about vampires. I was wrong.

End Of The Beginning is the second volume in Harry Turtledove's story about an alternate second world war where Japan doesn't just bomb Pearl Harbour, but instead invades the whole Hawaiian chain of islands. If you read the first book you'll want to read this one. If you didn't you won't.

But even if you do read it, you may not find it very interesting. America re-invades Hawaii to win the islands back and there are far too many tedious descriptions of battles and skirmishes.

Haunted is the fifth novel in Kelley Armstrong's on-going saga about supernatural beings living in contemporary America. It starts off in a very promising way, but soon becomes bogged down in tedium. Eve Levine was a witch when she was alive. Now that she is dead she's probably still a witch but it isn't doing her any good. She tries to keep a careful motherly eye on her daughter because she doesn't trust the girl not to do something stupid and she doesn't trust her daughter's foster parents to do a proper job. In fact she doesn't really trust anybody to do anything, when you get right down to it. Nice lady. Yeah, right.

Then the Fates (yes the capital letter is deliberate) call in a debt that Eve owes them and they send her in pursuit of a nix, a demon who takes over suggestible women and turns them into serial killers. As you do.

Unfortunately Eve isn't really powerful enough to go up against the nix and an enormous number of dull pages are used in sending her off on silly quests in the search of various plot coupons that may or may not help her against the nix. When the page count is long enough, the arbitrary stuff stops and she goes after the nix. Ho, hum.

It's plotting by numbers, with the added attraction that like all Kelley Armstrong's viewpoint characters, Eve hasn't got a brain cell in her head. She's too dumb even to be a blonde. And so are most of the other characters as well, both natural and supernatural. James Blish used to call this kind of thing an idiot plot – that is to say the kind of plot that can only happen because everyone involved in it is an idiot. Don't waste your money on this one.

The new Kage Baker novel is Children of the Company. Rather like the previous novel in the series, it is a fix-up which combines several novelettes and short stories. Unlike the last one, none of the stories have appeared in her published collections and so I hadn't read any of them before and the book seemed fresh to me.

Executive Facilitator General Labenius is a very high official with the Company. He was the person who presided over the trial of the botanist Mendoza and who sentenced her to isolation in the deep, deep past. He's a cynical manipulator with an evil sense of humour. Over the millennia he's done a lot of nasty deeds on behalf of the Company (and on his own behalf as well). Now, having disposed of Mendoza, and feeling in a meditative mood, he sorts through some old papers and remembers some old adventures.

He has long been involved in a complex plot known as project Adonai. He has also been plotted against by another facilitator called Aegeus who has discovered a useful race of mortals known as homo sapiens umbratilis. Their unique powers have given Aegeus the edge in their rivalry and so, in pursuit of political and tactical advantage, Labenius is now engaged in an attempt to subvert one of Aegeus' colleagues, Facilitator Victor. Victor's long fall from grace is the over-riding theme of the novel but the incidents in which Labenius, Aegeus and Victor involve themselves tell a dark tale of cynicism and manipulation. Along the way we learn many more things about the Company and incidents that once were puzzling now become much clearer.

Why, for instance, does Mendoza keep meeting and falling in love with the same mortal man as he is reincarnated across the centuries? That's been niggling at me for several books now. It seemed like a weak, contrived coincidence. Silly me. I should have realised that Kage Baker knew all along exactly what she was doing when she constructed the complex story that she is engaged in telling. Her novels just keep getting better and better.

Brian Aldiss has a new novel. It is called Affairs At Hampden Ferrers and it is subtitled An English Romance and that's exactly what it is. The story is quintessentially English and probably couldn't have been written in any other way or about any other country. Hampden Ferrers is a quaint English village not too far from Oxford. The village church is approaching its fifteen hundredth anniversary, and this is a cause for celebration. Unfortunately the vicar makes a discovery which throws doubt on the age of the church, but he keeps his discovery as quiet as he can. Plans for the festivities are too far advanced to change them now, though it troubles his conscience to an extent.

Meanwhile, two (rich) Chinese students move into the village and so does a TV celebrity. Like many English villages, Hampden Ferrers is turning into a commuter suburb for the big city, something which the older villagers feel a degree of resentment about.

The village potters on and preparations for the celebrations start to come together. Love affairs flourish and love affairs die. Lives intertwine in complex strands. And because this is a Brian Aldiss novel, seemingly supernatural events play out in the background to give a delightfully ambiguous feeling to the story.

At one and the same time the book is dark and light, naturalistic and unnatural and full of the trademark Aldiss wit. He's done himself proud on this one; it's a joy and a delight.

I got another Aldiss novel this month as well. The Rose Press is a small English publishing house that produces very limited editions of very handsome leather bound, gold tooled books. Jocasta is Brian Aldiss' re-telling of the Oedipus myth from the point of view of Oedipus' mum, the eponymous Jocasta herself. Only Aldiss would have either the cheek or the talent to pull this one off convincingly. Needless to say he does it perfectly.

A companion volume is Avram Davidson's The Scarlet Fig. This is the third novel in his Vergil Magus sequence. It was found in his papers after he died, but the Philip Rose edition is its first publication, though fragments have appeared elsewhere. It was one of the last things that Davidson wrote, and he worked on it over many years. By that stage of his life his writing had grown unutterably convoluted, digressive and self-referential. The Scarlet Fig is so crabbed and cryptic as to almost defy sense (I suspect there are very good reasons why it remained unpublished for so many years). But if you are willing to make the effort, what joys await! This is not only Davidson at his most idiosyncratic, it is also Davidson at his most erudite. He spent years investigating "unhistory" (his phrase) and what he found there was strange and wonderful. It was a long and tortuous journey (and following him on it is equally tortuous) but it's worth the effort. I doubt this book will ever see a mass market edition – it's far too weird ever to sell well – and I think that's a shame, for it has many virtues.

Both Jocasta and The Scarlet Fig are two of the most beautiful books I own. I spent far too much money on them (don't ask – you'll faint with shock) but I don't regret a penny of it.

I've been deliberately avoiding Audrey Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveler's Wife. Partly because of the spelling mistake in the title, but mainly because it is a first novel by an unknown writer with no SF credentials. It's obviously SF (the title and the blurb tell us so) but it is marketed as a mainstream book (something that always sets off warning bells). No – it couldn't possibly be any good. Just another literata slumming in the ghetto. There've been too many of those and I'm old and jaded and I have better things to read.

But the reviews were uniformly ecstatic. And people whose judgement I trust told me to my face that I was an idiot. This, they informed me in hallowed tones, is one of the great ones.

So I let myself be persuaded and one evening I grudgingly opened the book and read the first page.

Four hours later, I surfaced and staggered off to bed. The novel was not yet half way done, but I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. I had to sleep, but I resented sleeping. I couldn't wait to wake up tomorrow so I could continue to read this wonderful novel. Yes – it really is that good.

Henry has an unfortunate genetic defect that causes him to travel through time at unpredictable intervals. He can take nothing with him and bring nothing back. He arrives naked, which is acutely embarrassing and his major concern is always to clothe himself. To this end he develops great skills in lock picking and general thievery. When he is thirty six he travels back in time and meets Clare who is six. She is travelling through time in the normal way, and as she ages Henry visits and visits and visits her again. He is not always the same Henry of course. He is a Henry of varying ages from many different points in Clare's future who is visiting her again and again in her past. She is never certain which Henry she is going to see, and the Henry she sees never has any continuity of memory or incident from her point of view (and sometimes even from his). But all of the Henrys have one thing in common, they have all fallen deeply in love with Clare. The couple get married when Henry is thirty and Clare is twenty two.

The novel is a love story – perhaps the most romantic and gripping love story I've ever read (and believe me, I've read a few). The SF notion of time travel is its central theme, and Audrey Niffenegger never puts a science fictional foot wrong. She explores the implications of Henry's peculiar form of time travel with rigorous SF'nal exactitude (the grand masters of the field would be proud of her) but, much more importantly, at the same time she tells a story about very real people that will tug your heart strings, no matter how cynical you are about the ways of the world. My friends were right. This really is one of the great ones.

One of the most influential events that has helped to define modern science fiction is an annual series of workshops known as Clarion. The workshops were run by the late Damon Knight and his wife Kate Wilhelm. Many best-selling writers served their apprenticeship at Clarion. Clarion graduates are a roll call of the famous and the influential in our rather oddball field. In Storyteller Kate Wilhelm looks back over the Clarion workshops and tries to present us with the distilled wisdom of those years of teaching and criticizing. And along the way she drops a name or three and tells intriguing anecdotes about some of our favourite writers and how they approached their art in the years before they began to make their mark. The book is much more than just a how to write recipe (indeed, it isn't really a "how to write" book at all except in the general sense that it points, gesticulates and hints broadly about what it means to be a writer). Rather it is a memoir, a remembrance of Damon Knight, an appreciation of just what a wonderful teacher he was, and a lasting tribute to the wonderful, inspiring thing that was Clarion. And that continues to be Clarion today, for although Damon may be gone, there are others that are committed to carrying on the work that he pioneered. Long may it be with us.

One day I was sitting in the classroom while my students worked their way through some exercises. Because it was getting close to the middle of the day, I suggested to them that once they had finished the exercises, they should probably go straight off for lunch. I reminded them of the time that the class would start again in the afternoon, and left them to it. I've always found this to be a successful tactic because it gives the students an incentive to finish the tasks ahead of them. Their reward is an extra long lunch hour.

And so, in dribs and drabs, off they went for lunch.

By the time the official lunch time arrived, only two students were left. By coincidence, both were of Chinese descent.

At that moment an email arrived in my in tray. Naturally I read it. It contained a joke, and so I laughed out loud.

The two students looked up and for a moment I felt embarrassed. Teachers aren't supposed to do that sort of thing.

And then I realised that both of the students were looking at me with very puzzled expressions on their faces. The penny dropped. I'd been laughing in English, with a Yorkshire accent, and they hadn't understood me.

Churchill's Triumph is the fourth and final volume of Michael Dobbs magnum opus; a Churchilliad which dramatises (warts and all) Winston Churchill's wartime career. The events of this fourth novel take place over the eight days of the Yalta conference in 1945 when Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met to decide the shape of the post war world. It was one of the twentieth century's defining moments. Had the decisions taken here been slightly different, the subsequent history of the latter half of the twentieth century would have been profoundly altered. For a time there was a very real possibility that post-war Europe would become a communist Europe. Stalin had territorial ambitions that could have taken the Soviet Union across Germany to the borders of France and perhaps even beyond. Roosevelt was a dying man with little interest in the future and what small interest he had was concerned largely with restoring America's pre-war isolationist policies. Europe was a long way from America, and he wanted to keep it there, at arms length. He also had an idealistic vision of the future, and to that end he proposed something he called the United Nations to oversee the post war world. (As Roosevelt envisaged it, the UN was probably doomed to failure. And there is still a school of thought that believes that one of the reasons why America so consistently reneges on its current UN obligations and pays so little attention to the UN rulings is because Roosevelt failed to get his way with regard to its structure, fatally flawed though that structure was). But which ever way the cookies at Yalta crumbled, it was quite clear that Roosevelt wasn't at all interested in post war Europe, and he was inclined to let Stalin have his way with it.

Churchill found himself to be a man in the middle. He was deeply distrusted and disliked by both Stalin and Roosevelt. They may have been his allies but they certainly weren't his friends. Churchill plainly saw the dangers that both men represented and he needed all his wit, cunning and political nous to gain any amelioration of the situation at all. He played each man against the other in a masterly fashion. Perhaps he didn't do as well as he had hoped to, but now that the dust has settled, when we look back from our modern perspective I think we can see that he succeeded in gaining far more than he had any right to expect. He managed to manipulate both Roosevelt and Stalin into concessions that neither wished for, but which they could not avoid. Yalta was not a triumph from Churchill's point of view – and he found much pain in the ironic necessity that required Britain to sacrifice the Polish freedom that she had originally gone to war to protect. But nevertheless the conference remains one of Churchill's great successes, perhaps the last truly great achievement of his life.

Michael Dobbs' four novels about Churchill are inspired and inspiring works and this last book in the series is a magnificent capstone to the whole triumphant cycle.

I've been avoiding Ben Elton's novels lately. The last few that I've attempted to read have been truly dire. But I decided to read The First Casualty because it is set during the carnage of the First World War, a period of history which I have always found horribly fascinating. Let me say straight away that I think this book stands head and shoulders above anything else that Elton has written. Certainly I feel more favourably inclined towards him than I used to be – and if that sounds as though I am praising him with faint damns, I'm sorry. I don't really mean it to be taken that way.

Flanders, June 1917. A shell shocked officer is recuperating in hospital. He is quite a famous man – he has published some very patriotic, some might say inspiring, poems about the war. And then somebody murders him.

Because of his fame as a poet, and wishing to avoid a scandal, the authorities keep the fact of his murder quiet. His death is simply announced as another casualty of the war. He died in action, that's the official line. However the murder is investigated, and a young soldier is arrested and charged.

Meanwhile in England, an ex-policeman called Donald Kingsley is going through his own private hell. He has registered himself as a conscientious objector. He sees no justification for the war and he refuses to fight. There was little tolerance for this point of view in those days and conscientious objectors were treated with much cruelty. Kingsley is imprisoned and beaten and threatened with death. He sees no way of surviving his imprisonment, and the contempt and disgrace that his beliefs have brought upon his family is tearing him apart.

In his previous life as a policeman, he had proved himself to be one of the best detectives on the force. For this reason, and somewhat to his surprise, he finds himself released from jail and seconded into the secret service, which has a vested interest in the circumstances surrounding the murder. He is sent to France to investigate it. As the British Army mounts one of the bloodiest offensives of the war (the Third Battle of Ypres, known colloquially as Passchendaele), Kingsley finds that his evidence and the people involved in the murder are literally dissolving in the mud, the blood and the bullets of the battle. As the hell of war surrounds him, he follows the evidence to the front line and beyond.

Elton is asking age old questions here. What is murder? What weight does one death have when it is surrounded by thousands of others? What makes one bullet illegal and millions of others legal? Is there any honour in saving a condemned man from the gallows if his only future is to die in a suicidal battle? And how can a man who is so opposed to the evil that he sees in the war justify himself to his god and to his conscience when the war surrounds him and forces him to behave in ways that he abhors?

These aren't easy questions and they don't have easy answers. To an extent Elton is setting up a straw man to explore them, for the situation he envisages is so extremely contrived that it is hard to suspend disbelief and allow the drama to take over. And as a detective story per se it is rather unconvincing, to say the least. But straw man or not, Elton manages to convey the sheer bloody horror that was the First World War in a manner that few other writers have achieved, and that alone raises the book to the level of art. It may be flawed, but it is flawed in ways that ultimately don't matter. I suspect that this is the book that Ben Elton will be remembered for.

One day I went browsing around John Varley's website. I like John Varley's books so that seemed a natural thing to do. And there I discovered that he was rather enamoured of a writer called Thomas Perry, of whom I had never heard. Naturally I went hunting and I found that Perry's most popular novels seemed to be The Butcher's Boy and Metzger's Dog. So I decided to try them out. I loved them both, but for very different reasons, for they are very different books.

The Butcher's Boy is hard, gritty and brutal. The butcher boy himself is a professional assassin and the book tells the tale of a job that goes a little wrong. He fulfils his latest contract by killing a senator, but when he arrives in Las Vegas to collect his fee he finds that somehow he has exposed himself to too many interested factions, and his employers want him removed from the picture. Their efforts to eliminate him attract the attention of the police and now he has another set of enemies to foil! The tension never lets up and this story really will have you on the edge of your seat.

On the other hand Metzger's Dog is an absolute laugh out loud, extremely clever farce. Normally I hate farce – the slapstick element embarrasses me. But not this time. Metzger is Dr Henry Metzger and he is a cat. The dog is a vicious fighting animal that Leroy Gordon (who is owned by Dr Henry Metzger) acquires after a robbery. Leroy and his friends are terrified of the dog. Only Dr Henry Metzger can control him.

The job in which Leroy gained a dog also gained him a kilo of cocaine and some secret CIA plans that detail a foolproof method for throwing a city (or, by simple extension, a country) into chaos. Neat – all he has to do is blackmail the CIA. If they don't pay he'll destroy Los Angeles. It's all quite straightforward. The CIA don't take too kindly to his plan, but that's just a detail. Read the rest yourself.

The book has an introduction by Carl Hiaasen. In it he remarks "Many novels I've read would have been greatly invigorated by the presence of a psychotic two-hundred pound mastiff and a writer who wasn't afraid to throw away the leash."

It's hard to argue with that and I'm not even going to try.

Talk To The Hand is Lynne Truss' follow on to her best selling punctuational treatise Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It's about the "utter bloody rudeness of everyday life". In six extended essays she discusses six good reasons to stay at home and bolt the door. It's mildly amusing, but no more than that. A minor work at best.

Joe Bennett is a journalist whose columns appear regularly in New Zealand's newspapers. I always read them avidly for he has a delightfully cynical and witty style that will often make me laugh with sheer delight at his felicitous phrasing. A Land Of Two Halves concerns his experiences hitch hiking around New Zealand in an attempt to define just what it is that makes New Zealand such a unique and interesting place. Over the course of a couple of years he stuck his thumb out and followed where it led him. Along the way he saw great beauty, great sadness, and much wild eccentricity. I'm not sure whether he solved the riddle he set out to solve, but along the way he certainly had a wonderful time. The blurb suggests that he is "…Spike Milligan crossed with Jack Kerouac…". That's a perfect description.

On the strength of A Land Of Two Halves, I bought Dogmatic, a collection of his newspaper columns. It was a much less satisfying book. Partly this was because there was no unifying theme and so the book felt disjointed, and partly it was because I resented paying a hugely high price for a very thin book. I felt ripped off. So it goes.

The cats and I often sit in our nice warm lounge watching Robin working outside in the cold, cold garden. Sometimes she will notice us and she will say something to us in a normal conversational tone of voice and at a normal volume. We have no trouble at all hearing and understanding her. The words penetrate the glass in the window as if it was not there. So we say something back, the cats and I.

Robin stares at us in a bewildered way.

"?" she says.

We try again.

"Can't hear you," she says, and goes back to her weeding.

It would seem that the glass in the window is preventing our voices from reaching Robin. Sound travels in from the outside but does not travel out from the inside. Obviously all the windows in my house have had the glass installed the wrong way round.

I now intend to go round to each window and reverse its polarity by turning it through 180 degrees in its frame. That way all the sounds inside my house will go outside, and all the outside sounds (including noisy cars and aeroplanes) will fail to enter the house, thus ensuring peace and tranquillity in all the rooms.

I will then sue the original glazier for failing to fit the glass the proper way round in the first place.

Octavia Butler Fledgling Seven Stories Press
Harry Turtledove End Of The Beginning NAL
Kelley Armstrong Haunted Bantam
Kage Baker The Children Of The Company Tor
Brian Aldiss Affairs At Hampden Ferrers Little Brown
Brian Aldiss Jocasta The Rose Press
Avram Davidson The Scarlet Fig The Rose Press
Audrey Niffenegger The Time Traveler's Wife Vintage
Kate Wilhelm Storyteller Small Beer Press
Michael Dobbs Churchill's Triumph Headline
Ben Elton The First Casualty Bantam Press
Thomas Perry The Butcher's Boy Random House
Thomas Perry Metzger's Dog Random House
Lynne Truss Talk To The Hand Profile Books
Joe Bennett A Land Of Two Halves Scribner
Joe Bennett Dogmatic Hazard Press
Previous Contents Next