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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (quadrigarius minimus)

Of Cats and Cars

I was standing idly at the bus stop across the road from my house. I noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye. I glanced up and saw Harpo, my fluffy black cat, wander casually across the roof of the house. Then he sat down and looked smug. After a few moments, he got bored with this and he stood up and strode purposefully down to the gutter. Since the guttering is only thin plastic, it bowed under his not inconsiderable weight. That didn't seem to bother him though. He scratched underneath the roof - there was obviously something very fascinating down there. He kept stretching hard in an attempt to reach whatever it was. The guttering shook. Then he crawled back up on to the roof, trotted a little bit further along and resumed his investigations.

I started to get a bit worried. He was right at the place where the electric power lines entered the house. The wires were very close to his head, and it wasn't long before he glanced around and noticed them. Oh dear...

I left the bus stop and went back to the house. I opened up the shed and got a ladder out. I anchored it firmly, well away from the power lines, and I clambered up it.

"Harpo, come over here you little ratbag."

"Oh hello," said Harpo. "Have you ever noticed these long thin things attached to the roof? I bet they go twang really nicely. Shall I give it a go?"

"I'd rather you didn't," I said. "How about coming over here so we can get down off the roof?"

"I don't think so," said Harpo. "That doesn't sound like much of an idea to me. I think there might be a dead bird just under here. I really ought to investigate more closely."

A big green bus sailed by. Everybody in it stared at me.

I got down from the ladder and went in to the house. I picked up a handful of cat treats and then went back up the ladder. Harpo was still playing by the power lines. I threw a cat treat towards him, hoping to entice him away from the power lines and closer to me.


Harpo looked up at the noise.

"Oooh! A cat treat! I like cat treats." He trotted up to it and inhaled it. "Yummy!"

I threw another one.


He trotted up again and delicately licked the treat from the roof. "Oh gosh, that's good," he said. "Got any more?"


He came closer, and I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.

"Oy! Gerroff! Bastard!"

He disapproved, but all his kittenish instincts kicked in and he simply couldn't stop himself from relaxing and going limp. Unfortunately he's far too heavy to pick up solely by the scruff. I needed another hand underneath him in order to lift him up and hold him steady. Supporting myself firmly on the ladder with my third hand, I hauled him up off the roof with my other two. He struggled and kicked a bit but I held on tight. I knew that if I let him go, I'd never get another chance. He'd be too wary.

Another bus went past. All the people in it were laughing their socks off.

I started down the ladder. Harpo wriggled and writhed and slashed at me with his claws. About half way down the ladder I lost my grip on him and he dropped with a thud into the garden. He picked himself up and had a brief wash.

"Don't think that's going to stop me," he sneered. Then he stalked off into the undergrowth and waited for me to leave so that he could go back to playing with the power cables.

I put the ladder away and locked the shed. There was a bus due. I left him to his own devices.

Kyle Mills writes somewhat sardonic thrillers which mostly star Mark Baemon, an FBI operative who is hated by all his bosses. In Rising Phoenix Baemon has to contend with an unscrupulous killer who has managed to poison a batch of illegal cocaine. Druggies are dying left right and centre and drug use falls off remarkably. And that's the point – the protagonist wants to "cure" America's drug addicts and sees this rather twisted mechanism as being the best way to do it.

This kind of thing seems to be a subject close to Kyle Mills' heart. Smoke Screen (which is not a Mark Baemon novel) is a rather entertaining polemic about the evils of another kind of drug – cigarettes. The tobacco producers are being sued out of existence by lung cancer sufferers and their relatives. The manufacturers' solution to this problem is simply to stop producing cigarettes until the government passes legislation making the tobacco companies immune to lawsuits. The thinking is that a nation full of smokers deprived of their drug of choice will force the government to give in to the cigarette manufacturers. There's rather more to the story than just that, but that is the basic plot. There's a lot of nice jokes as well – the hero has a dog called Nicotine, and the tobacco companies have merged together to form a loose conglomerate called Terra Holding Corporation, or THC for short. (For those of you who don't get the reference, THC is the usual abbreviation for tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis).

Sphere of Influence pulls a similar rabbit out of the terrorist hat. Al Quaeda is financing itself by becoming the largest player in the heroin trade. Mark Baemon makes contact with an international criminal mastermind who can help him sabotage the trade and thus defeat Al Quaeda.

I thought international criminal masterminds had gone out of fashion once Sapper stopped writing stories about Bulldog Drummond, but obviously I was wrong. They are all around us really. They move from country to country, they hold multiple passports, they provide money and arms to various regimes around the world to create safe havens for themselves, they use offshore accounts to move their money in ways that can't be traced. In other words, these people must exist because we can find no evidence of their existence. Pretty damn convincing argument, that, if you ask me.

That last paragraph is mostly a quote from the book itself. Kyle Mills is not blind to the absurdity of his propositions. I think that's what makes his books so much fun. He knows his plots make no sense. But he just shrugs his shoulders and goes ahead and tells his story anyway. Sometimes, if you look hard, you can just see the tip of his tongue bulging out of his cheek.

Wildside Press has published two collections of short stories by Bradley Denton. The contents of the two volumes overlap quite a lot with One Day Closer To Death, a collection published in 1998 by St. Martin's Press. If you have the earlier collection, you might not want to buy the Wildside Press editions – you'll only get two or three (quite short) new stories for your money. But if you don't have the earlier collection, rush out and buy the Wildside Press volumes immediately for the stories are just superb. I simply cannot understand why Bradley Denton isn't walking away with every award in existence. He's a brilliant writer.

Currently SF readers seem to prefer novels to short stories and therefore we seldom see short story collections published these days. In my opinion that's a shame. The early strength of the field was firmly based on the short story and a lot of the golden age authors made their initial reputation with short stories and novelettes. They only came to write novels much later on in their career. Indeed, it can be argued that some writers (Asimov, for example) were never truly comfortable with the novel at all. Almost the only Asimov "novels" worth reading are actually fix-ups cobbled together from shorter works.

Bradley Denton's novels have never been particularly memorable. Oh they are competent and ingenious, but sometimes they feel a little strained, a little stretched as they strive for effect. Denton's genius lies with his shorter works and these two collections from Wildside Press exemplify that genius.

Graham Joyce is a British writer best known for his novels of magical realism. TWOC is somewhat of a departure for him. It's a novel for young adults, but the fantasy and the horror are still there and still frightening. He doesn't pull any punches.

TWOC is an acronym for "Taking Without the Owner's Consent". Teenagers stealing cars in which to go joy riding refer to their crime as "twoccing". Matt Morris and his brother Jake are twoccers. But a night of fun goes horribly wrong. Jake is dead and his girl friend Joolz is horribly scarred. Only Matt has survived relatively unscathed – his hands were badly burned in the crash, but they are healing well.

Jake is dead, but he hasn't gone away. He haunts Matt's every step. He appears out of thin air and always he is dressed in outrageous costumes and he has outrageous advice for Matt to follow. He seems to remember the accident differently. Is he telling the truth? What did happen that night? They were all too stoned to remember it accurately.

Matt is riddled with the guilt of the survivor. It must have been all his fault. Joolz won't talk to him and won't answer his text messages. His parents and his friends all try to be understanding, but none of it really helps and Matt has built a wall around himself to try and shut the world away.

His probation officer (with whom Matt is secretly in love despite the fact that she has hairy legs) sends him off on what she calls "The Programme". Matt will spend two days at a lodge in the Peak District and he'll go potholing and canoeing. It's adventure based training designed to be character building. Reluctantly, he agrees to go because going on it will give him a significant reduction in his parole period. Perhaps it's not the best of motives, but it is at least a motive.

He meets Gilbert, a graffiti artist, and Amy, an arsonist. With their help, Matt is finally able to confront the truth and face up to what Jake is telling him.

TWOC is a scary book – I'm a long way away from my teenage years, but it certainly put the wind up me. Goodness knows what it will do to the teenage audience it was written for. Give them nightmares, I shouldn't wonder. The writing is easy and fluid. There are jokes as well as horror. We really get inside Matt's head and find out what makes him tick. It's a scarily clever book. Graham Joyce is one hell of a writer!

One Foot In The Grave is a vampire novel. Sort of. Christopher Csejthe isn't quite a vampire. He seems to have a foot in both camps, as it were. The vampires find this very confusing and the humans don't find it confusing at all because they don't know that vampires even exist. Christopher needs human blood but he's quite happy to go out in the sunlight. His image is fading from the mirror but he hasn't got any fangs. Bugger!

The blurb proclaims that this is the book where Dracula meets the Godfather and that's not an inaccurate description. As you might expect from Baen, it is very much a lowest common denominator book with rather too many excessively long chase and violence scenes. Too much thud, too much blunder. It isn't as funny as the blurb would have you believe it is, but it does have its moments.

It's that time of the year again, the time when the cats go to the vet for their annual Warrant of Fitness, colloquially known as a WOF. First problem, find the cats. Porgy was easy. It's been at least a year since he was last outside for more than five minutes. Two broken legs makes you appreciate the comforts of home. Harpo was easy too – I'd had a box of books delivered from Amazon that morning and Harpo spent the entire day asleep in the empty box. Like all cats, he cannot resist a box. No box ever remains unslept in. Bess was the problem. She had taken a constitutional just after breakfast and there hadn't been any sign of her all day long.

We hunted high, we hunted low. Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber. No Bess. So only two cats went to the vet. They howled in chorus all the way there.

The vet kicked their tyres and checked their oil pressure. Harpo was so fluffy that it took the vet about five minutes to find his exhaust pipe so that she could check that his thermostat was OK and he hadn't blown a gasket.

"I know it's here somewhere," she muttered, poking blindly under his tail with her thermometer. "Aha! There it is!"

She gave them both a lube and a shot of antifreeze and pronounced them perfect.

We made another appointment for Bess.

"When would you like to bring her in?"

"Saturday morning is the only free time," I said.

"We've just introduced a $5 surcharge for weekend visits."


When we got home, Bess was waiting patiently for us.

"Where's my tea?"

I'd never heard of David Baddiel until I turned the television on one day and found him half way through an interview with a talk show host that I'd never heard of before either. Goodness knows why I didn't just start channel hopping immediately, but I didn't and in retrospect, I'm very glad. Baddiel, apparently, is a stand up comic of some note in Britain. But he wasn't being interviewed about that; he was being interviewed about his career as a novelist. Oh God! I thought. Another Ben Elton wannabe.

Baddiel is Jewish. His grandfather came to Britain as a refugee from Hitler's Germany; one of the very few who saw the writing on the wall and left while he still could. During the war, Britain had a policy of internment for foreign nationals who could conceivably be regarded as security risks and Baddiel's grandfather, along with many other German Jewish nationals was sent to a camp on the Isle of Man. Baddiel still has the letters that his grandfather wrote during his internment.

Baddiel spoke about this and about other things as well. It soon became obvious why he is a successful stand up comic. He was wry and witty and spontaneously funny, albeit in a rather shallow way, and the audience and I were lapping it up. But whenever he talked about his grandfather, he stopped being shallow and although the humour did not entirely disappear, it was on a very different, much more thoughtful level. He made a big impression on me.

Baddiel has written a book based on his grandfather's experiences as an internee. It's called The Secret Purposes. I noted the title and thought no more about it. But then, by one of those strange coincidences that sometimes spring up out of nowhere, I stumbled upon the book in a local bookshop, and I remembered Baddiel and I remembered the interview and I remembered how much he had impressed me and so I bought the book and I wasn't disappointed. It's exuberant, amusing and sometimes very profound. It's about man's inhumanity to man and how, on occasions, that inhumanity can be transcended. It's a story about bigotry and love and loss. It's a story about subjects that are even more relevant today than they were during the time in which the novel is set. Bigotry and racial and religious hatreds are back in the driving seat with a vengeance, and if we don't understand them how can we ever hope to banish them? We are living in times of ethnic hatreds the like of which the world has not seen for a generation. As a wise man once said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This clever, and very moving, novel is one of the ways we can start to learn the lessons that we so very much need to learn.

Having been so knocked out by The Secret Purposes, I went and found another novel by David Baddiel. It's called Time For Bed. It's a shallow, unashamedly funny and completely trivial novel about sex and insomnia.

Aristotle Detective is yet another detective novel set in the ancient world. They seem to be coming thick and fast these days. As you can easily deduce from the title, the detective in question is Aristotle himself and the series (for this is, indeed, the first of a series, but I'm sure you managed to figure that out as well) is set in Athens in 332 BC.

Philemon, an exile, is accused of the brutal murder of an upstanding Athenian citizen. His cousin Stephanos must conduct Philemon's defence. To begin with, the line that Stephanos must take seems obvious. Philemon has been exiled from the city. How could he have possibly committed the murder? He wasn't even there! But then witnesses come forward who claim that Philemon had returned to the city in secret. Stephanos takes his dilemma to Aristotle, his old philosophy tutor.

Aristotle plays Sherlock Holmes to Stephanos' Dr Watson. He is much given to gnomic utterances and the details of evidential minutiae. What on earth is Stephanos to make of a lecture on the colours of various clays used for making pottery?

I can't say that the novel is bad – it is full of erudition and the details of daily life in ancient Athens are a never ending source of delight. But I can't say that it held me enthralled. The mystery is not intrinsically interesting and I was pretty sure who the murderer was long before the secret was revealed. This book is definitely a curate's egg.

The Fiction Factory is a collection of short stories which Jack Dann has written in collaboration with several other people over several years. It's not the first time this kind of thing has been done. Thirty years ago, Harlan Ellison published Partners In Wonder, an anthology with exactly the same theme. But just because an idea has been done before doesn't make it any less valid an idea. Like Partners In Wonder before it, The Fiction Factory serves to illustrate that sometimes the whole can be significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Probably none of the stories in either collection could have been written by the principal author alone. It took the magic of an alternative point of view (and the game of "let's write the other partner into an impossible situation") that makes both collections shine. And they truly do shine – there isn't a dud story in either one.

I very much doubt that you'll find Partners In Wonder any more. Thirty years is a long time in the life of a book. But The Fiction Factory is newly published. However it is a limited edition of 2000 copies. Mine is number 42. I wonder if that's significant…

The Blue Girl is the latest novel from Charles De Lint. It's a Newford novel, which almost goes without saying these days. But no matter how many times De Lint returns to Newford, he always manages to tell a story that is new and fresh. Probably because he has such a large cast of characters with so many different stories to tell.

Imogene is seventeen years old. At her last school she ran with a bad crowd and she was heavily into drugs and violence. But when her family moves to Newford she decides, for whatever reason, to turn over a new leaf. Part of the motivation comes from a new friend she makes at school. Maxine is almost the antithesis of Imogene. She's strait-laced, studious and shy. But somehow the friendship works and each girl complements the other.

But trouble shows up. The school, like most schools, has its quota of bullies and both Maxine and Imogene fall foul of them. Imogene can cope, but Maxine has a hard time.

Adrian is a ghost. He used to be a student at the school but he was bullied and harassed both by the students and by the fairies who live in the hidden corners. The fairies offered to teach him how to fly, but when he tried to fly off the school roof they withdrew their support and he fell to his death. He befriends Imogene and later Maxine. Even the fairies that led him astray are soon involved with the girls.

But there are perils awaiting in the shadows and soon Imogene and Maxine and Adrian are fighting for their souls. Sometimes it is possible to simply cease to exist.

Despite the youth of the protagonists, this isn't really a children's book (not unless the children reading it are mature enough to cope with real existential horror). There are great depths here, great subtleties, and great mysteries. It is a truly wonderful piece of storytelling and a marvellous addition to the Newford canon.

Just before Christmas, our car got written off in an accident. Nobody was hurt, but the back of the car was caved in where the hoon ran into it, and the front was caved in where it hit the median barrier. The whole thing was a terrible mess.

After the excitement died down, I went to the tow yard to get all our personal belongings from the car. The usual polite and helpful towie was sitting behind the reception desk.

"You haven't got any tools with you, have you?" he asked suspiciously. "No ripping the radio out or any clever tricks like that. You can only take personal things that aren't nailed down."

"No," I said, "I haven't got any tools with me."

"Oi, Derek!" yelled the towie.

"What?" growled Derek.

"Go with him and show him where the car is. Make sure he doesn't nick anything he shouldn't."

Derek took me out to the car. It looked quite forlorn and I felt very sorry for it. I collected a rather pathetic pile of things. A torch, a book of maps, a tyre pressure gauge.

"There's a blanket in the boot," I said. Derek and I pushed and pulled, but the boot was too distorted and we simply couldn't get it open.

"Wait here," said Derek. "I'll get a crowbar."

He jammed the crowbar under the boot and heaved hard on it. With a shriek of tortured metal the boot opened up. It sounded like the car was crying. I collected the blanket and wrapped all the other things up in it and then I went home. I could feel the car staring after me as I walked away.

"Don't leave me! Please don't leave me. I'm hurt and I'm frightened."

It was worse than taking the cats to the vet!

To cheer ourselves up, we went shopping for a newish car. I began with a nostalgic visit to the outskirts of Wellington, to the car yard from which I bought my very first car after arriving here in New Zealand twenty five years ago. The car yard has gone through several ownership changes and name changes since then, but it still exists.

"That's a nice blue car," said Robin.

"Ah yes," said the sales thingy. "The Norwegian Blue. Beautiful plumage!" The sun was hot and the sales thingy was oozing grease. "Handles like a dream. You should see it drive through the pine trees around the fjords."

"I don't want a car that is pining for the fjords," I said.

We moved on and outwards in ever increasing circles.

In the Hutt Valley we found a car yard with a human being in charge. Either that or he was just extremely good at his job.

"Take a look at this," he said. "It's got a spoiler!"

And it had.

"It's got an aerial that goes up all by itself when you turn the radio on."

And it had.

"And the aerial retracts when you turn the radio off."

And it did.

"It's got a cup holder."

It did too.

"Did I tell you it's got a spoiler? It's got a spoiler."

"I'll buy it!"

And I did.

It's an eight year old Nissan Primera. Sort of silvery. With a spoiler.

Vroom! Vroom!

Kyle Mills Rising Phoenix Coronet
Kyle Mills Smoke Screen Coronet
Kyle Mills Sphere Of Influence Coronet
Bradley Denton The Calvin Coolidge Home For Dead Comedians Wildside Press
Bradley Denton A Conflagration Artist Wildside Press
Graham Joyce TWOC Faber & Faber
Wm. Mark Simmons One Foot In The Grave Baen
David Baddiel The Secret Purposes Abacus
David Baddiel Time For Bed Abacus
Margaret Doody Aristotle Detective Arrow
Jack Dann et al The Fiction Factory Golden Gryphon
Charles De Lint The Blue Girl Viking
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