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Wot i red on my hols by alan robson (influenza maxima)

Alan Has The Lurgi

Writing this month's column has proved to be rather a torment. I have been struck down by a deadly lurgi and every time I sneeze or cough, the monitor screen gets covered with a thin, translucent, grey-green layer of snotty phlegm. The letters become very distorted when viewed through this slimy, shimmering mess, and as a result, I'm never too sure exactly what it is I'm typing.

Because I cough and sneeze a lot, the slime layer grows progressively thicker and the letters behind it seem more and more distorted. Eventually they become completely unreadable and I have to stop and wait for the heat from the monitor to dry the evil stuff out. Then I peel it off and screw it up. It crackles delightfully. I throw it away into the waste paper basket. Since the waste paper basket is made of metal, the dry, crumpled up snot ball that I throw into it usually lands with a delightful clang.

Sometimes I miss the waste paper basket and the snot ball lands on the floor. When that happens, the cats chase it and then squabble mightily over who gets to munch on the cat treat.

I am irresistibly reminded of an old riddle: What's the difference between brussels sprouts and bogies?

It's impossible to persuade children to eat brussels sprouts.

At the moment, the screen is reasonably clear. I haven't sneezed or coughed for about five minutes. So while I'm fairly confident about the words that I'm typing, I'll talk about some of the books I've been leaking bodily fluids over for the last month. By the way – if you are going to read books when you have a lurgi, make sure that the books are printed on high quality acid-free paper. You can wipe the snot off those without damaging the page too much. Cheap paperbacks simply disintegrate under the load.

The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow is a novel about the Age of Enlightenment; an age that reached its intellectual peak in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Using a curious literary device, Morrow has chosen to write his story as if it is being narrated by another book – specifically Newton's Principia Mathematica which was itself the apotheosis of the age, and which is therefore a perfect choice as the narrator and chronicler of that age. Principia has a delightfully waspish sense of humour. In one highly entertaining aside, it discusses the habit that books have of writing other books and gives many examples. Most notably, it informs us that the Microsoft Windows System Documentation was written by Waiting for Godot – a premise that strikes me as eminently reasonable!

The heroine of The Last Witchfinder is Jennet Stearne. She was born in England in 1677. Her father is a witchfinder who tests people accused of consorting with the devil. He pricks moles and warts, looking for black blood, or no blood, or no sign of pain. He tests witches by ducking them into ponds to see if they float. And if he pronounces them guilty of witchcraft, the courts will sentence them – hopefully to death. Her father's ultimate authority is a book called Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of Witches); a mighty tome produced by the Inquisition. It details all the many ways that a witch can be identified, and all the many wiles that Satan uses to avoid detection. Principia hates Malleus (of course), and in some of its discursive digressions it talks at length about the war that has existed between them for centuries, and it details some of their bloody battles as each tries to prevent the other from being published.

This being the age of reason, Jennet's aunt attempts to put the identification of witches on to a more scientific basis using the techniques developed by the wise men of the time: Newton, Hooke and their intellectual friends. She and Jennet study physics and biology. They dissect the corpses of the familiars of captured witches looking for evidence of supernatural manifestations. But the results are inconclusive.

Unfortunately Jennet's aunt is herself accused of witchcraft. Jennet's father examines and convicts her and she is sentenced to be burned at the stake. Jennet witnesses the entire ordeal and it marks her for life. She denounces her father and dedicates herself to proving that no such thing as witchcraft exists.

What follows is the story of her self-imposed quest. Jennet's father is sent to Massachusetts, where the dark woods are full of savages. He earns a fee of one guinea per detected Satanist and looks forward to making a fortune. In one of his early assignments, he assists with an infestation of witchcraft in Salem.

Jennet continues to study the latest scientific treatises and attempts to use them to compose an argument so lucid and convincing that it can finally demolish the witchcraft laws that have sent so many people to an agonising death. This is no easy task, but she is extraordinarily determined and her studies lead her into many adventures. She suffers Indian attacks, shipwreck, stranding on a desert island, and is even eventually sent to jail.

During her adventurous life, she meets some of the age's most illustrious characters including both Sir Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin, an enthusiastic lecher, soon takes Jennet to his bed. But he enjoys her for her intellect as well as for her body and together they explore the mysteries of electricity (both in the lab and, hilariously, in the bedroom). Their curiosity knows no bounds. Why do the geese get sick? Why does milk curdle? Why are men sometimes impotent? Their greatest challenge proves to be not simply the presentation of the evidence they have gathered, but rather how best to challenge what their scientific peers consider to be the very nature of evidence itself! Appeals to authority (notably the bible), which have long been the ultimate arbiter of truth, must be ignored when investigating natural law. All that matters is what actually happens in front of your eyes. This heretical approach is anathema to many. Nevertheless it is fundamental to Jennet's search for the truth about witchcraft – and the truth about the way of the world itself, of course.

The Age of Enlightenment was a pivotal time and Morrow's novel brings it wonderfully to life. Neal Stephenson tried to do the same thing in his Baroque Trilogy but he didn't do it nearly as well as James Morrow has done. The Last Witchfinder is a truly remarkable (and often very funny) book.

Widdershins is the latest Newford novel from Charles de Lint. It's a sequel to The Onion Girl. Don't feel that you have to read the earlier novel before reading this one. Nevertheless, the more familiar you are with the background of the Newford characters and situations, the more you will come to appreciate just what a magnificent job de Lint has done with this book.

Widdershins is the story of Jilly Coppercorn and Geordie Riddell. They've both appeared in many other Newford stories; sometimes as protagonists and sometimes as bit players. It's always been obvious to everybody except themselves that they were made for each other, but somehow they never quite managed to get it together. Finally, in this new novel, they do.

Jilly Coppercorn is a wise,though rather eccentric, artist with a tortured past. She faced up to that past in The Onion Girl, and now she seems to have come to terms with it. She has a gift for seeing the best in all things and all people. Geordie Riddell is an itinerant musician and one of Newford's last sceptics. But even he has finally been forced to accept the reality of the faerie world that Newford intersects.

The story proper begins with Lizzie Mahone, a musician whose car stalls on a lonely country road. She is threatened and bullied by faerie thugs who are engaged in a war between North America's native faeries and the immigrants that came to the continent with the human colonists. Fortunately she is rescued by a rather more humane spirit who forces the thugs to back off.

So far so traditional and in the hands of a lesser author this would turn into a simple tale of good vs evil as the two sides battle it out. But de Lint is far too canny a writer to draw such a clear-cut line. In his universe, both sides have their share of good and bad, and there are many folk and faeries who exist somewhere in between the extremes.

Jilly vanishes into a different reality that she has built from the nightmares of her childhood. Geordie's noble efforts to save her put him in peril (but serve to confirm the growing love that they have for each other). The various protagonists in the war(many of whom are Jilly's friends) are also called upon to help save her.

And of course no Newford novel would be complete without the Crow Girls, who do indeed have quite an important part to play in the final resolution of the story. Along the way we also get to meet the great bird of the galaxy who just might have brought this world into being in the first place!

This is easily one of the very best of de Lint's novels.

The Hour Before Dawn & Two Other Stories from Newford is a short (114 page) collection of three stories by Charles de Lint.

The title story (The Hour Before Dawn) takes place in 1957. The private eye Jack Daniels (geddit? geddit? nudge, nudge, wink, wink) can talk to the dead. They come to him in his last dream just before he wakes up in the morning. One morning his ex-wife's sister-in-law shows up. That's a surprise. Jack didn't even know she was dead...

That was Radio Clash is a tribute to Joe Strummer, a musician best known for his work with the Clash and the Pogues.

The Butter Spirit's Tithe is set on the road with two musicians called Miki and Conn. Conn has angered one of the Little People, and his soul has been promised to the Grey Man. But Miki has had past dealings with the faerie realms. Drawing on the traditional ballad Tam Lin for inspiration she devises a way to rescue Conn from his fate.

They are all excellent stories, beautifully told.

Eric Flint is a writer I've never been very fond of – but he seems to be improving by leaps and bounds. His latest book is a very clever alternate history novel called Rivers Of War. It concerns the war of 1812 that was fought between America and England. Probably nobody outside America knows anything at all about this very obscure war. And I'd be willing to bet that not many Americans know much about it either, though incidents from it have reverberated through American cultural and political history. For example the words of the American National Anthem describe the Congreve rockets that the British artillery used against the American army. And the traditional folk song about the Battle of New Orleans (...we fired our guns and the British kept a comin' ...) is probably familiar to everybody. It is to Flint's credit that he succeeds in making this very obscure period of history interesting and involving (not to say fascinating) to both his American and his non-American readers.

In the world that we live in, the American General Andrew Jackson attacked the Northern Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Sam Houston (who later won fame at the battle of the Alamo) fought in this battle and was seriously wounded. He took no further part in the war. A few months later, the British army invaded Washington and burned the White House.

In the world of the novel, Sam Houston receives only a minor flesh wound in the Battle of the Horseshoe. As a result of this he is able to keep fighting in the war and his influence on the defence of Washington proves to be vital in defeating the British. They still manage to burn the White House, but the Americans successfully defend the Capitol building and eventually the British are forced to retreat. It is a turning point in the war, and it will prove to have far reaching ramifications on the future of the young American republic.

For my taste, the book had rather too many boring descriptions of military strategy and tactics and far too much dull detail about individual feats of arms on the battlefield. Nevertheless I kept reading the book, eager to find out what happened next. Eric Flint brings his characters brilliantly alive and his sense of time and place is just superb – you can smell the mud, the blood, the shit and the gunpowder. And you really care about what is happening to the people involved in this messy war.

I am also lost in admiration at the amount of research that Flint must have had to do in order to make his story so convincing. The level of detail in which he indulges himself is just amazing. And it adds immense verisimilitude to the book. Flawed though it is, it is nevertheless a superb novel.

Piece Of My Heart is Peter Robinson's 14th novel about Detective Inspector Alan Banks, and it's a stunner!

The novel tells two stories in parallel, cutting scene by scene between the two. One story is set in 1969. A young woman has been found dead in her sleeping bag following an outdoor rock music festival. She has been stabbed and left wrapped up in a sleeping bag. Her body is discovered lying among the bottles, drug paraphernalia and other detritus left behind after the concert finished. It soon becomes clear to Detective Inspector Stanley Chadwick that she was killed during a Led Zeppelin set as the concert was coming to a close. But who was she and why was she killed? All he knows (at least to begin with) is that she had some dealings with a (fictional) rock band known as the Mad Hatters.

Meanwhile,in 2005, Alan Banks is called to investigate the murder of a stranger who has recently arrived in Yorkshire. It soon becomes clear that he is a journalist who was working on a piece for MOJO magazine about the Mad Hatters. And what a band they were, back in their heyday. They seem to be an amalgam of every contemporary rock and roll tragedy - one member suffered huge mental problems and dropped out of the band because he couldn't cope with the stress, and another drowned in the shallow end of a swimming pool. However the remaining members of the band (and some new personnel of course) are currently deep in the planning stages of an anniversary tour. Nearly forty years later, they are still playing rock music and they are still popular, though their musical style has changed as the times changed around them.

Two mysteries for the price of one, though they are obviously connected. The plot is hugely ingenious, the twists and turns are fascinating and the sense of time and place is beautifully realised – both eras spring perfectly to life. Peter Robinson is one of the best writers around.

The Power Of The Dog by Don Winslow is a deeply satisfying and deeply cynical novel about America's war on drugs.

Art Keller is a brilliant Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent. Adan Barrera is an urbane but ultimately extremely brutal drug dealer. Nora Hayden is a high-class call girl and Sean Callan is a taciturn mob hit man, a cold-eyed killer. Winslow follows these four characters and assorted extras over almost thirty years of time and thousands of miles of distance, through almost every country in South America. The book begins with Keller's first encounter with Barrera in 1970s Mexico, and continues through the drug cartels' corruption of government officials in the U.S. and Mexican governments. It ends with a final showdown on the U.S./Mexican border in 1999.

As you might expect, it is a brutal and bloody tale – you will need a strong stomach to read this book. But for me the most horrifying thing about it was not so much the brutality, but the deep, conscienceless cynicism exhibited by the U.S. government and its agents. They seemed to regard the entire American continent as their own exclusive playground. They came and went almost at will, committing murders whenever and wherever they felt like it. They had no hesitation about destabilising and destroying any governments that they considered hostile to their own policies. And whenever any of the corrupt puppets that the U.S. recruited and installed in positions of power had served their purpose and were no longer useful, the U.S. had no compunctions about turning on them and killing them, imprisoning them or surrendering them to officials of their own country where their life was guaranteed to be nasty, brutal and short.

It's an ugly tale, a disturbing tale; and I really can't say that I enjoyed it. But I certainly admired it. Winslow has done a superb job.

The Spanish Game by Charles Cummings is another episode in the life of Alec Milius, who we first met in A Spy By Nature. Although this novel is part of a series, don't let that put you off. It works perfectly well as a stand alone book.

For six years, Alec Milius has been trying to escape his past. A former MI6 agent, he was abandoned by them after a disastrous joint operation with the CIA. He now lives in Spain and earns his living as an investment banker. Hopefully he is older and wiser as a result of his experiences; hopefully he has learned his lessons.

Of course the major lessons of his life were those taught to him by his masters in MI6; the tradecraft of the spy. Alec learned those lessons particularly well and he still has a talent for deception and a fatal weakness for secrets.

As part of his banking job, he is introduced to a prominent politician who is a big wheel in the Basque terrorist organisation ETA. Much to Alec's surprise, he quite likes the man and they soon become friends. When the politician disappears in suspicious circumstances Alec can't resist trying to track him down.

But ETA is a deadly organisation, and Alec isn't the only person involved in the chase. He is working alone outside the boundaries of any official agency. He soon learns that others regard him as expendable.

It's a brilliant book; the tension never flags. I was also quite pleased to learn a lot about ETA and the Basque struggle from reading the novel. All I knew before I read it were the popular misconceptions reported in the press. It was nice to be able to clear some of those things up.

Robert Littell's new novel Legends is also a spy novel, but it's one of the most original and fascinating genre works that I've ever read. It tells the story of Martin Odum, a retired CIA agent who now makes a living as a private eye. In the days when Odum was a field agent, he had adopted a number of (dis)guises for his various missions. Sometimes he was Dante Pippen, ex-IRA bomber. Sometimes he was Lincoln Dittmann, Civil War historian and gun-runner. These fake backgrounds and personalities are the legends of the title. Odum was particularly gifted at adopting new identities and sinking himself into the detail of the current legend. He really seemed to become that person. Unfortunately, perhaps he is too gifted, and he has begun to lose control of his alternate personalities.

The novel actually opens like an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective mystery. A beautiful woman called Stella Kastner hires Odum to find a missing person called Samat Ugor-Zhilov. He is a Russian criminal who is married to Stella's devoutly religious sister. Samat has abandoned his wife, and she wants a divorce but under Jewish law this can only take place if Samat authorizes it. And to do this, he must first be found. Initially, Odum wants nothing to do with the case, but when he is warned off by his ex-boss from the CIA, his interest is piqued and he starts to look for Samat.

His search will take him to many different countries: Israel, England, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania. But Samat seems to know he is being hunted and he always remains one step ahead. Odum soon realises that he is not the only person hunting for Samat. Some of the pursuers are violent and vicious, and it isn't long before people start getting killed. Odum needs to rely more and more on talents and skills that he doesn't possess, but which are available to his alternate identities. This forces him to confront aspects of his past that could explain just why his personality is so fractured and sharply divided. He comes to suspect that even Odum might not be his true self.

The prevalent theme in Legends involves the multiple identities that people construct for themselves. While Odum/Pippen/Dittmann is the major split-identity character (in the classical psychological sense), many of the other characters also lead double or triple lives. Samat himself is at one and the same time a vicious Russian mobster and a benevolent medical equipment supplier.

Legends is a grey book and it is full of subtle contradictions – there is no simple black and white situations or people in this novel. It's a formidably complex book, and Littell juggles all his multitudinous plot threads with enormous skill. This is a brilliant piece of writing.

Andrew Taylor has long been known for writing subtle, beautifully crafted detective novels. A Stain On The Silence isn't quite a detective novel, but it certainly is subtle and it certainly is beautifully crafted.

The last person James wants to meet again is Lily. But she contacts him out of the blue and, against his better judgement, he visits her in the hospice where she is dying of cancer. The news she has for him comes as quite a shock -- twenty-four years ago, she gave birth to a daughter and James is the girl's father.

James was just teenager when he and the much older Lily had their affair. Lily was the stepmother of his best friend Carlo. James used to spend his school summer holidays at their house in Chipping Weston, lapping up the breathtaking freedom and excitement.

But the last holiday he spent there came to a terrible end; an end that James has been trying to forget ever since.

Now, not only does James suddenly learn that he has a daughter, Lily also tells him that she is on the run and wanted for murder. His attempts to help his daughter force James to reach back into his past where he discovers other bitter fruits and long buried secrets which come close to destroying him. Past mistakes can reverberate down the ages.

A Man Without A Country is a collection of essays by Kurt Vonnegut. It's a very slim book, only 192 pages, many of which are blank or covered with illustrated aphorisms. Nevertheless it is brilliant – Vonnegut is never dull, is often acerbically funny and is always very wise.

The essays look at life, art, politics, and the condition of the soul of America today. He doesn't think it is in very good condition. I agree with him.

James Morrow The Last Witchfinder Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Charles de Lint Widdershins Tor
Charles de Lint The Hour Before Dawn Subterranean Press
Eric Flint Rivers Of War Del Rey
Peter Robinson Piece Of My Heart Hodder & Stoughton
Don Winslow The Power Of The Dog Arrow
Charles Cummings The Spanish Game Penguin/Michael Joseph
Robert Littell Legends Overlook
Andrew Taylor A Stain On The Silence Penguin/Michael Joseph
Kurt Vonnegut A Man Without A Country Seven Stories
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