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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (domus candidulus)

Alan And The White House

"Knock, knock!" said the front door.

"OK – I'll play your silly game," I said. "Who's there?"

"A little old lady," said the door.

"A little old lady who?" I asked.

"I didn't know you could yodel," said the door, smugly.

Annoyed with the door, I yanked it open, just to aggravate it, and to shut it up. Standing there in the entrance way was a little old lady, cunningly disguised as a man with a clipboard.

"Hello," he said, "my name's Tim and I couldn't help noticing just how amazingly dirty the outside of your house is."

"Dirty?" I asked, puzzled.

"Dirty," he confirmed. "Astoundingly so. But fortunately I have the perfect solution. In exchange for a brutally large sum of money and the soul of your first born child, I will clean all the dirt away."

"Show me this mythical dirt," I commanded him in regal tones.

"Observe this mould," said Tim, pointing at swathes of green stuff hanging from the guttering.

"You must have put that there before you knocked on the door," I accused him. "It wasn't there last time I looked."

"When was the last time you looked?"

"Five hundred years ago, when I bought the house. The previous owner was extremely proud of how mould free his guttering was and he took particular care to point it out to me."

Tim poked at a singularly virulent looking sheet of mould. It swayed sickeningly back and forth, and then a rather annoyed looking BBC camera team under the direction of David Attenborough poked their heads out from behind the green curtain.

"Stop that immediately," said Attenborough, rather peeved. "You're frightening the wood lice. And the spiders are none too happy either, not to mention the snails!"

"OK," I said, "I'm willing to concede that there is a bit of mould here and there. But surely the rest of the house isn't all that dirty?"

"Walk this way," said Tim, lurching in a hunchback manner towards the front garden. I lurched after him. Tim waited for me to catch him up and then pointed to the large expanse of somewhat dingy grey wood that made up the front of the house. "Shouldn't that be a clear, blinding white colour?" he asked.

"Yes, I suppose it should," I admitted.

Tim took out a small pickaxe and chopped fiercely at the grey grit. Lumps fell off and Tim picked one up. "Been building up for donkey's years, that has," he said. "Look here!" He pointed at something in the lump of grime that he was holding. "That's a fossil. I think it's an ammonite. It's beautifully formed. When did you say the house was last cleaned?"

"I think it was some time in the late Cretaceous," I said. "All right. You've convinced me. My house really does need washing. I suppose you'd better get on with it."

"Sign here," said Tim, proffering a piece of paper. "And here, and here and here. And here as well. And if you sign here, I'll do your garage and the concrete paths at no extra charge. And if I'm in a good mood I'll do the garden fence."

I signed there, there, there and there. And there as well.

"See you Saturday," said Tim. And it was agreed.

Einstein's Cosmos is a scientific biography of Albert Einstein. Before I read the book, I subscribed to the conventional wisdom about Einstein that I'd picked up in my physics classes at school and university. Using Brownian motion to calculate atomic dimensions, explaining the photoelectric effect, Special Relativity, General Relativity and then about forty years of absolutely nothing as he looked for (and failed to find) a unified field theory. I always got the feeling that Einstein's later years were generally regarded as an unproductive time of failure and that by the end of his life he was a bit of a scientific has-been.

There's a degree of truth to that view of Einstein's life, but as Kaku makes very clear, it is by no means as simple and as clear cut as that. Many of the ideas that Einstein formulated in his later years bogged down because of lack of data. There simply weren't any measurements by which he could test and expand on his theories. He was so far ahead of the practicalities of physics that in many ways you could say that he was waiting for the experimental world to catch up with him. And by the time it did, he was dead. Many modern ideas at the bleeding edge of theoretical and experimental physics today can trace their genesis to things that Einstein was thinking about (albeit perhaps in a half-formed way) during those seemingly unproductive years. Time after time after time, he seemed to have a special insight into the way the universe really worked.

I suppose that's what genius is all about.

Kaku's book is superbly readable and thoroughly fascinating. He's not afraid to tackle the big ideas in layman's terms (he's a brilliant explainer of the arcane and counter-intuitive things that happen when objects are very small, very large or very fast). And at the same time he never loses sight of the essential humanity of the person whose work he is describing. The book does not only concentrate on Einstein's physics, it also tells us a lot about Einstein the man.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it is just superb.

I'd never heard of Tom Piccirilli, but his novel Headstone City turned up in my recommended reading list at Amazon. The blurb made it look interesting, and so I ordered it and, based on some reviews on the Amazon web site, I ordered a few more of his books as well.

Headstone City is the story of Johnny Danatello. He was a childhood friend of Vinny Monticelli, a big wheel in the mob, and his future in the mob seemed assured. Then he and Vinny were in a terrible car accident. Both survived, though they were seriously injured. After they recovered, each seemed to have strangely supernatural powers. Johnny can speak with the dead and with the souls of the living and Vinny can make choices among possible futures. These are good survival characteristics to have if you want to make it big with the mob.

But then disaster strikes. Vinnie's daughter Angie overdoses and Johnny tries to rush her to hospital. On the way he runs over a cop. Angie dies and Johnny goes to prison. Every day in the slammer, Johnny knows that the family blames him for her death, he knows that they will seek him out, he knows that to go home would be suicide. But he and Vinny are drawn to each other. They are both surrounded by ghosts.

It's a creepy book, beautifully written and it had me hooked from the first page.

A Choir Of Ill Children can best be described as Southern Gothic. It's the story of Kingdom Come, a decaying swamp backwater town. Since his mother's death and his father's disappearance, Thomas has inherited the town's only industry (a mill) and the rotting mansion where he lives with his three brothers – conjoined triplets who have three bodies but who share a single brain.

It's atmospheric as all hell and claustrophobic with that peculiar in-bred Southern Gentry feel that Poe, and Faulkner and James Lee Burke did (and do) so well. It's full of pitch-black humour and it's marvellously gruesome and grotesque. It's a masterpiece.

A Lower Deep, on the other hand, is rubbish. It's a bog standard black magic, pentacles and evil spirits load of junk. It tries too hard to take itself seriously and never quite succeeds. It's a supernatural painting by numbers story of no interest at all.

Tom Piccirilli seems to have made his name as a horror and supernatural author. But for some odd reason he seems to like to experiment with other genres as well. Grave Men is a beautifully written western. It contains no surprises, but it's a damn good read. Five years before the events of the novel, Priest McClaren and his sister Molly were forced to watch as their parents were rather gruesomely murdered by desperate outlaws. Molly becomes a bounty hunter – she wants to track down and kill Yuma Dean, the only one of the outlaws who is still on the loose. Priest just wants to stay at home. Maybe run a store. Keep his head down. But he isn't allowed to – Septemus Hart, a wealthy landowner, is out to own the whole town and Priest soon comes into conflict with him. Then Molly returns. She is pregnant and she can no longer ride the bounty hunter trail. It seems that Priest will have to search out and deal with Yuma Dean himself.

All these plot threads come together in the novel's climax and it ends pretty much how you'd expect it to end. I wouldn't call it a great novel, but it is certainly an interesting novel and I had a lot of fun reading it. However I suspect that part of my enjoyment came from my knowledge that this was a western novel written by a horror writer. That's a surreal juxtaposition.

I have high hopes for Tom Piccirilli.

I rather like westerns (to quote a friend of mine, "cowies is good!") so I read a couple of others this month. Pete Dexter's novel Deadwood is about the last days of Wild Bill Hickock.

Bill and his friend Charlie Utter have come to the Black Hills, to the town of Deadwood. Bill is very sick with a venereal disease and he is almost blind as well. His great days are behind him and he lives on the strength of his legend. He just wants to be left alone to drink and play cards. Charlie does his best to look after Bill, but there are many other calls on his time. Bill makes enemies of a vicious sheriff and an unprincipled pimp who is bent on revenge. He is also pursued by Calamity Jane who, in her more lucid moments, seems to think she is Bill's wife.

About a third of the way through the book, Bill dies; he is shot in the head by a man who sneaks up on him when he is playing poker. The rest of the novel shows the effect of Bill's death on the other characters as they try to come to terms with it. The major character is Charlie Utter of course, but there are many other people whose lives have overlapped with Bill's. Played out miners, bounty hunters, whores, Chinese immigrants – they all have a part to play in this wild, dirty and vicious novel. By turns hilarious (in a sick kind of way), gruesome and sad this is an utterly enthralling book.

Scott Phillips Cottonwood is somewhat similar in structure and theme to Deadwood. Cottonwood in Kansas is a one horse speck on the map. Bill Ogden is a saloon owner and amateur photographer. Marc Leval is a wealthy Chicago developer who wants to bring prosperity to Cottonwood (and himself, of course). The railroad is coming and Leval sees business opportunities. But Bill Ogden becomes dangerously obsessed with Leval's wife, so much so that he is eventually forced to leave Cottonwood under a cloud.

Meanwhile, just out of town, a family called the Benders are quietly butchering (and perhaps eating) lonely travellers. Complex plot twists tie Bill's fate in with the fate of the Bender family.

The whole story is full of malicious fun and sharply observed history. The Benders, it seems, really did exist. Scott Phillips has woven them seamlessly into his story tapestry. It's bleak, bitter, nasty and beautifully written. I loved it.

When they're good, cowies are very, very good indeed.

Saturday dawned warm and sunny and semi-tropical. Layers of humidity caused gushing faucets to open in my armpits. I bribed the cats with dead rodents and in return they lashed their tails backwards and forwards, fanning cool air over my greasy body. Then they got bored and ran off with their rats. Crunching sounds could be heard from beneath the sofa.

"Knock, knock!" said the door.

"Who's there?"

"Doctor!" said the door.

"Doctor Who?"

The door began to make noises like the BBC Radiophonic workshop.

"Shut it!" I yelled and then opened it. The door, now being open, stayed shut.

Tim was standing in the entrance way dressed from head to foot in rubber, leather and PVC. He was a fetishist's dry dream, though given the humidity and the hosepipe he was brandishing I suspected he would soon be a wet dream.

"Okay to start?" he asked.

"Go for it," I said.

He unpacked a compressor, attached things to it and turned it on. It roared into gleeful life and Tim started spraying high pressure water all over my house, my garden and himself. Enormous layers of steaming grot flew everywhere and it soon became blindingly obvious that my house had been dirtier than even Tim had realised. It also became clear to me that my windows and door were not waterproof. Niagras of filthy water streamed in; and for the next few hours, as Tim sprayed the outside of the house, I followed him around to corresponding positions inside the house armed with ever diminishing piles of increasingly soggy towels as I vainly tried to cope with the influx.

Eventually Tim reached the extractor fan in the kitchen window. An extractor fan is simply a hole in the window with fan blades that screw all the kitchen fumes out into the wide world so that your neighbours always know what you are cooking for tea. A small roof sticks out over the top of the hole to protect it from the rain. This setup was no match at all for Tim's super high pressure portable storm, and a huge torrent of water erupted through it into the kitchen. Even though it wasn't turned on, the fan decided that it didn't like the situation at all.

"BANG!" said the fan, and let all it's magic smoke out in a smelly cloud.

It is a well known truism that electronic equipment works by passing magic smoke down its wires. The plugs in the wall are a never ending supply of all the smoke necessary to keep the equipment going. When a gadget has used up all the smoke inside itself, it simply gets more from the supply in the plug. It's a completely closed system with one fatal flaw. If you ever let the smoke out, the equipment stops working immediately. My fan had lost all of its smoke because the thousands of gallons of high pressure water flowing through it had joggled two wet bits that weren't supposed to be touching into a loving embrace. The excitement was all too much to bear; the fan died in mid-orgasm and the smoke blew everywhere. The neighbours complained immediately.

"Now we can't tell what Alan is cooking for tea. Our lives are ruined!"

"Sorry," said Tim, and he began to spray the security sensor lights which started to flash on and off in a very worried fashion. I immediately turned off the power to the lights in case they too decided to let their smoke out. Everybody knows that during the hours of darkness, security lights surround the entire house with an impermeable force field. If the lights ever stop working, the force field goes down and all the burglars that have been vainly beating their swag bags against it slither in through the cat flap and steal your ornaments. I definitely didn't want that to happen!

Castle In The Air by Diana Wynne Jones is a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle. You don't have to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one (it is largely stand alone) but if you have read Howl's Moving Castle, the ending will be a little easier to understand.

Abdullah is a humble carpet merchant who dreams of being a prince. He buys a magic carpet from a passing traveller who is down on his luck and the carpet transports him to a garden where he meets a princess called Flower In The Night. However a hideous djinn carries her off into the sky. Abdullah is determined to rescue her – but things aren't as simple as all that.

In many ways the plot is completely straightforward and traditional. It's a fairy tale and we all know how they work. But in other ways, it isn't a straightforward traditional fairy tale at all. Diana Wynne Jones is a sneaky writer with lots of tricks up her typewriter. Nothing is ever quite what it seems to be in the worlds of her stories and Castle In The Air is no exception. She tells a subtle, funny and extremely clever tale. And she mocks the genre clichés even while she makes extremely clever use of them.

As with everything she writes, Castle In The Air is wholly delightful and wonderful fun.

Joe Lansdale is having a lot of fun as well. Flaming London is a sequel to his earlier Zeppelins West, but you don't have to have read the previous book to enjoy this one. All the important details from the earlier books are explained in this one, so it is completely stand alone.

Ned, the seal who has his intelligence artificially enhanced, has escaped the shark attack that ended Zeppelins West and together with Jules Verne, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells and some attacking Martian machines, he's ready for a new adventure. In order to fight the Martian invaders, he allies himself with Rikwalk the forty foot tall ape and with Beadle and John Feather, the masters of the giant steam driven man.

If you think that all sounds very silly, you'd be right. It's a pulp adventure, grotesquely over the top. Just wallow in the hilarious tongue-in-cheek beauty of it. You'll love it, particularly when you find out that every Martian has two arseholes.

Elizabeth Peters' new novel Tomb Of The Golden Bird is the latest in her ongoing saga of Amelia Peabody. The overall theme concerns the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamon and that event seems to have overwhelmed Peters so much that she can do nothing with it except graft a rather dull and slow moving so-called thriller plot on to the side of it. And the joins show.

For much of the book, it isn't even clear if there is a plot or not (indeed many of the characters spend a lot of time telling each other not to be silly, there isn't a conspiracy at all). The book is extremely slow moving as a result and the final wheels within wheels explanation is rather mundane. Without a doubt, this is the weakest of the Amelia Peabody books and I was very disappointed in it.

However Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith is a shining little gem of a book. I really didn't think it was possible to breathe new life into the Sherlock Holmes saga. Everybody has done it to death. And then I read Steve Hockensmith's book and I realised that there's life in the old cliché yet!

It's 1893 in Montana. Big Red Amlingmeyer and his brother Old Red Amlingmeyer sign on as ranch hands on the Bar VR cattle spread. They are looking forward to hard work, bad pay and a comfortable camp fire around which they can enjoy their favourite pastime: reading Sherlock Holmes stories in the magazine Harper's Weekly.

Then they come across a dead body that seems to have been trampled into the ground after an unfortunate encounter with a cattle stampede. Old Red sees this as a perfect opportunity to put into practice the deductifyin' skills he's picked up from the Sherlock Holmes stories and he sets out to solve the mystery.

And what a mystery it turns out to be! There is much wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes as the movers and the shakers gather together for the final denouement. Old Red and Big Red are in the thick of a lot of mystifying trouble and the book is an absolute comic delight from beginning to end. Holmes himself would be proud of them.

Eventually the house was completely clean.

"Knock, knock!" said the door. It sounded grumpy.

"Who's there?" I asked.


"Tim who?"

"Tim, the man who's been cleaning the outside of the house all day long," snarled the door. "Which other bloody Tim could it possibly be?"

"My, my," I said. "You do sound pissed off at something. What's wrong?"

"I'm soaking wet," said the door petulantly. "That's what's wrong. And the water's got into my joints and they're all swollen and painful. Humph!"

"But at least you are clean," I pointed out. "I could eat my dinner off you."

"Don't you bloody dare," said the door. "Come on, open me up and get rid of the soggy bastard."

I opened the door.

"Come and have a look," said an extremely moist Tim, and so I did.

He had done a magnificent job. The house gleamed as white as as an Antarctic iceberg. It reflected the sunlight in a dazzling glare. The concrete had stopped being muddy grey and was now pale and interesting. The brick path, small but beautifully formed, had lost all the weeds that had been growing up in the gaps. The garage looked piebald where chunks of old paint had fallen off under the pressure from the water blasting. I was very pleased indeed with the final result.

"What happened to David Attenborough and the BBC film crew?" I asked.

"Oh, they went next door," said Tim. "Have you noticed how incredibly dirty the house next door is?"

"Now you come to mention it," I said, "I have."


Michio Kaku Einstein's Cosmos Phoenix
Tom Piccirilli Headstone City Bantam
Tom Piccirilli A Choir of Ill Children Bantam
Tom Piccirilli A Lower Deep Leisure
Tom Piccirilli Grave Men Leisure
Pete Dexter Deadwood Vintage
Scott Phillips Cottonwood Ballantine
Diana Wynne Jones Castle In The Air Harper Collins
Joe Lansdale Flaming London Subterranean Press
Elizabeth Peters Tomb Of The Golden Bird Morrow
Steve Hockensmith Holmes On The Range St. Martins
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