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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (iocus fanem)

The Haul Of The Mountain King

Porgy the Cat has a cold, wet nose. Every morning at 6.00am he thrusts it in my ear and snorts loudly. I ignore the slimy trail of cat snot trickling moistly over my earlobe and pretend that I am still asleep. Porgy burrows down in the bedclothes and pushes his nose up my left nostril. Companionably we share bodily fluids for a short while and Porgy purrs like a train, perhaps with happiness, perhaps with hunger. It's hard to tell.

"Where's my breakfast then, you lazy sod?"

Ah. Hunger it is then.

Bess sits at the foot of the bed, far too ladylike to bully me. But when she sees that Porgy has succeeded in arousing me she politely asks:

"Breakfast for me too? Now!"

Hearing lots of activity in the bedroom, Harpo swaggers in on all four feet, his tail to attention. He catches sight of my shoes and is distracted by the laces. He chases them for a while, then he kills them. He thrusts his head deep inside my right shoe and inhales luxuriously. His head emerges with a great silly grin from ear to ear.

"Aaaaahhhh!" he sighs luxuriously. "That really sets me up for the day. All I need now, to make a perfect day absolutely pluperfect, is breakfast. How about it?"

Bess growls deep in her throat. She regards Harpo as a threat and doesn't even like him to be in the same room as her.

"Go away!" she says forcefully. But she's only a girl, and Harpo pays no attention.

I crawl out of bed and the cats dash ahead of me. Harpo waits in ambush just outside the bedroom door and as I stagger sleepily past he swipes at my leg. There may or may not be claws. It depends how long I've kept him waiting. I scratch his scabs to encourage him. Harpo is mostly scabs; his hobby is fighting.

There is chaos in the kitchen. Cats intertwine between my legs. Cats sit beside their bowls telling me to hurry up. I pick up the feeding bowls and get the biscuits. Normal biscuits for Harpo and Bess, special diet biscuits for Porgy because he sleeps all day and all night (except for mealtimes) and is mildly spherical as a result.

Heads down, tails up. Silence descends except for the sound of chomping. Porgy watches the other two carefully. Perhaps they'll leave some biscuits and he will get a forbidden treat. I set off towards the shower, and Harpo raises his head.

"Hey," he says, "You've studied chemistry haven't you?"

"Yes," I admit warily.

"How many atoms are there in a guacamole?" asks Harpo

I think about it.

"I don't know. How many atoms are there in a guacamole?"

"Avocado's number," says Harpo smugly, and goes back to his breakfast.

The cover of Temeraire by Naomi Norvik did not inspire me to buy the book. A blurblet compared her favourably with Robin Hobb – in many ways the kiss of death as far as I am concerned. I have no particular antipathy to Robin Hobb per se; she's a very good writer. It's just that she writes the kind of stories I do not care to read. So I was sure I would not care to read Temeraire either.

Then I came across a little snippet of news in the daily paper. Peter Jackson (he of Lord Of The Rings fame) had just bought the film rights to Temeraire because he'd read the book and fallen in love with it. I greatly admire Peter Jackson's work and I regard him as a man of impeccable taste. Perhaps I should reconsider my decision.

So I bought Temeraire and I read it and I loved it to bits.

It's set in Napoleonic times, though they are not our Napoleonic times. The story takes place in an alternate universe. This quickly becomes clear when a British war ship attacks and defeats a French frigate. Part of the frigate's cargo is a dragon egg which is just on the point of hatching. The newly born dragon bonds to the British Captain. In many ways this disappoints him – now that he is bonded to the dragon, he will have to leave the Navy and transfer to the air corps. However he quickly becomes reconciled to his new career for he discovers that there are many compensations about being bonded to a dragon. The bulk of the book concentrates on his training (and the dragon's training as well) and culminates with their first foray back into active service.

It's very Anne McCaffrey rather than Jack Vance (though it pays a certain lip service to Vance's categorisation of dragons), but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I devoured it and was left wanting more.

Fortunately there two sequels already written and published. They are not yet available in British editions, but they are available as American mass market paperbacks. I immediately ordered them from and even as we speak they are flying over the ocean on their way to me. I am greatly looking forward to reading them.

Jo Walton's Farthing is another alternate history, though it is set in more modern times and in the aftermath of a different war. It begins as a rather Agatha Christie like murder mystery in a country house. But it soon becomes clear that the family who live there have been closely involved in negotiating the truce that ended the second world war, and they are still very influential in post-war English politics. England has managed to maintain its political independence and Hitler's Nazi regime rules unchallenged in Europe. One unfortunate side effect of this has been a huge fascistic influence on British politics, and many of Hitler's nastier ideas are in the process of being implemented in England's green and pleasant land.

Lucy Kahn, the daughter of the house, is married to a Jew called David. The wedding caused a huge family scandal and Lucy is hoping that the weekend get together with her parents will bring about a reconciliation. However one of the other guests is murdered and the circumstances of the death seem to implicate David. Scotland Yard, in the person of Inspector Carmichael, is called in to investigate.

If this was really an Agatha Christie novel, the murderer would be unmasked in the library in the last chapter and everyone would live happily ever after. Since it isn't that kind of book, the whole thing becomes quite twisted and dark. The motives behind the murder are political, of course, and as Walton's alternate world becomes clearer to us the nastier it all appears to be. Lucy, David and even Inspector Carmichael are forced to face some unpalatable truths about themselves and the scene is set for a sequel which I for one will grab the instant it appears in the shops.

Harry Turtledove is best known as a writer of alternate history novels but paradoxically Fort Pillow is not an alternate history story at all. It is a perfectly straightforward historical novel set during the American Civil War (one of Turtledove's obsessions). In an essay that follows the story, he attempts to put the story in context, but he makes the invalid assumption that his audience is already familiar with the circumstances and personalities surrounding the battle at Fort Pillow. I've never heard of it, so the whole of his justification for writing the story completely passed me by. It would seem that there are several rather controversial things about it, but I confess the furore left me unmoved.

It's a rattling good yarn full of exciting battles and I can't fault it as an entertaining waste of a few hours. But given the monumental obscurity of the battle itself, I can't see a lot of point in it.

In the 1970s stories by a writer called James Tiptree Jr. started to appear in the magazines and anthologies. They were quirky, often very funny and sometimes quite rude. Tiptree began to attract a lot of interest and won several awards. But nobody knew who Tiptree was – he seemed to be a recluse who refused all invitations. The wildest rumours began to circulate: he was terminally ill, he was a spy working for the CIA. He was a woman.

In an introduction to a collection of Tiptree's stories, Robert Silverberg sneered at the rumours. Tiptree, he declared, must be a man. All you had to do was read the stories. The style was indisputably masculine.

Well, eventually the secret of Tiptree's identity was finally revealed. James Tiptree was actually Alice Sheldon, much to Silverberg's chagrin! Though interestingly, she really had been employed by the CIA at one stage of her life.

Strangely, after her identity was revealed, she never again managed to write at the same level of intensity and her later stories (and two novels) are generally considered to be her weakest works.

Alice Sheldon died in 1987. She shot and killed her bedridden husband and then turned the pistol on herself

Journalist Julie Phillips has written a wonderful biography of this enigmatic and elusive writer. Alice Sheldon was a fascinating and very tortured person, and so was her alter ego James Tiptree. Phillips was given completely free access to Alice Sheldon's papers and she interviewed the surviving members of Sheldon's family. From this she has managed to paint a detailed and utterly fascinating picture of the very private life of James Tiptree Jr.

If, like me, you read and enjoyed those haunting and funny Tiptree stories that sometimes seemed to define the decade in which they were first published, you will dive on this biography with glad cries of glee. Believe me, you will not be disappointed.

After my shower, I have breakfast. There are no cats to be seen, for which I am grateful. I have my own breakfast. Toast and marmalade. I like marmalade. Alan's psychedelic breakfast. Then I go and wait for a bus.

I stand shivering at the bus stop. A wind from the antarctic blows up my trouser legs and freezes my naughty bits. I wonder if the lady standing next to me will massage them so as to prevent frostbite. Unfortunately I suspect she will not. Wind ripples are running hither and yon across the long grass on the verge as the wave front curls and shifts. The timetable insists that the bus should have been here ten minutes ago, but buses are always late in cold weather. The wind makes their tyres sluggish.

The lady standing next to me has icicles dangling from her nostrils.

"How do you keep your hat on in such a strong wind?" she asks me.

"Clean living," I tell her. "And extremely strong follicles."

A bus appears. It stumbles slowly to the bus stop and I get on.

"I don't think the bus before this one ever came," I complain to the driver. "I've been waiting for ages."

"This is the bus before this one," the driver tells me gloomily. "I'm running a bit late. Too much frost on the fetlocks."

The novelist Kate Atkinson reminds me very much of David Lodge in the sense that both of them write delightfully comic novels about serious things. In many ways, I find her more approachable than David Lodge; primarily because Lodge, in his early books at least, was expiating a lot of Catholic guilt – something I will never understand and with which I have very little sympathy. Atkinson also has a lot of guilt to explore, of course, but it is good old fashioned protestant guilt about things that really matter like death and taxes, bread and circuses, families and responsibility and dustbins.

It is obvious that she has been heavily influenced by both Laurence Sterne and Lewis Carroll. Sterne is mentioned admiringly by name several times in the books and the start of Behind The Scenes At The Museum is narrated by a foetus who is conceived in the first sentence. Also Emotionally Weird contains a page (well half a page, actually) of solid ink. Homage doesn't get more blatant than that. Carroll is not explicitly named, but several small chunks of dialogue are lifted almost verbatim from scenes in the Alice books and again, the homage is obvious.

I first encountered Kate Atkinson in Case Histories which might almost be described as a detective novel if you want to stretch a point a bit. It opens with a detailed description of three cold cases – a disappearance, and two murders. People who have been affected by these cases approach a private detective and ask him to try and find out more about what really happened. He doesn't hold out much hope – some of the cases are very old – and indeed he really doesn't do very much detecting at all because this isn't really a detective novel, it just pays sufficient lip service to the genre to fool the casual reader. It's really a novel about relationships and families and the sometimes corrosive effects they can have on the people involved. It turns out (not surprisingly) that the cases are much more closely related that we thought at the start of the book and as the stories are explored, we learn a lot about the lives of the people involved; far more, in some cases, than the people themselves learn. By the end of the book, the reader possesses a lot more information than the private detective does. But again, of course, that isn't the point.

What brought this book alive for me was that despite the sometimes quite harrowing tragedies that Atkinson was exploring, a delightful humour kept breaking out. I literally laughed out loud on several occasions. There's a very good reason why the masks of comedy and tragedy are used as symbols of the theatre. Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart. I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately went out and bought all her other books as well. I've not read them all yet, but I'm well on the way and I'm still thoroughly enjoying them.

Emotionally Weird is a sort of a coming of age novel – not quite a rite of passage, but there's a definite feeling of crossing some kind of boundary into adulthood. Effie and her mother Nora are temporarily stuck in a mouldering old family home on a remote island off the Scottish coast. To pass the time, they tell each other stories about their lives. The major part of the book is Effie's story. She relates her experiences at university in the 1970s. She lives in a lethargic relationship with another student called Bob. He never goes to lectures and spends most of his life in bed. Sometimes Effie has to remind him who she is – he forgets things. Probably because he smokes too much dope and believes too much in Klingons. Star Trek is far more real to him than the actual people who share his life.

Nora is evasive at first and tries to fob Effie off with trivialities. But as it becomes clear that Effie is being stalked and that possibly a lot of old people are being killed, Nora opens up a little and reveals some secrets that shake Effie to the core. Much of her world view is changed by these conversations.

Kate Atkinson and I were born within months of each other and we both went to university at the same time. I immediately recognised the world that she conjured up in Effie's story and I knew every one of the weirdoes with which she peoples her narrative. She's got the zeitgeist of the times exactly right. We went to physically different universities, she and I, and we studied utterly different subjects, but nevertheless our university worlds were exactly the same and Atkinson has enormous fun laughing at the academic structure and the university atmosphere. Universities then were much concerned with protest and political unrest. It was a time of dope and booze and not nearly as much sex as you hoped for.

Effie briefly brings her tale up to date at the end of the book, and we discover just what happened to all those bombed out, drugged out, vacuous and vacant students from her youth. We see them all again in the twenty first century. And once more, I think that Atkinson has got that bit exactly right as well. I'm sure the revelations will not be quite what you expect them to be.

My only regret is that we never find out what happened to the yellow dog.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum was Kate Atkinson's first novel. It won several awards and was a huge critical (and commercial) success. It opens with the conception of Ruby Lennox, child of Bunty and George. Ruby is eventually born on a day when George is drinking in the Dog and Hare in Doncaster and telling a woman in an emerald dress and a D-cup that he isn't married.

Bunty hadn't wanted to marry George, but he was all that was left. So she ended up living above a pet shop not far from York Minster. She is mother to Patricia, Gillian and Ruby.

From Ruby's narrative we learn the whole history of her family, starting at the end of the nineteenth century when an itinerant French photographer snapped a picture of Ruby's great-grandmother, Alice. We follow Alice's children and grandchildren through the carnage of two world wars and again, despite the tragedy involved in that, the whole book is startlingly witty, often laugh out loud funny and extraordinarily insightful. It's a book to wallow in. It's fizzy and fun. You'll laugh and you'll want to cry, particularly when Ruby's hidden secret is finally revealed.

I spend a cold day teaching. When I get home in the evening, Robin shows me the solar lights that are growing in our garden. They soak up sunshine during the day, charging their batteries. During the night they glow, lighting up the whole garden. Planes en route to the wide, wide world take diversions and fly low over our garden so that the passengers can enjoy the view. Robin waters the solar lights assiduously and feeds them solar light food. She's obviously doing something right, for they are thriving – nothing else in our garden grows quite so well. The gnomes are thrilled.

Yes – we have gnomes living in our garden. I'm not quite sure when they moved in (Robin is in charge of the garden; I seldom go there). They seem quite happy; presumably we have provided them with all the comforts of home. They can fish, chase frogs, and bathe each evening in the glow of the solar lights. They are getting quite tanned. We call them the garden gnomes of Zurich.

Robin has a new toy for the garden. It's a big noisy device. You put trees in the top of it and wood chips fall out of the bottom. Very useful. Fortunately Robin has access to a lot of trees, so now we are awash with wood chips. A gnome drowned in them last night.

In The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid Bill Bryson does the thing that he does best. He mocks himself.

It's a gentle book about growing up in the 1950s in America. Bryson describes his family and friends, and what it meant to be a kid in post-war America. The Thunderbolt Kid of the title is Bryson himself. He has super powers which allow him to zap unpleasant people to destruction. Oddly, nobody ever seems to notice, not even the people who have been zapped. It doesn't stop him zapping them, though.

I love Bryson's delightfully eccentric take on life (he's very funny). And he and I are of an age; I grew up in the 1950s in England. I was interested to learn just how closely our two lives mirrored each other. There are many differences of detail, of course. West Yorkshire is demonstrably not Des Moines. But there was a similarity of attitude in our childhood that makes a lot of what Bryson has to say very familiar to me. I suspect that England and America were a lot closer then than they are now. I wonder what happened to change that?

I always used to think that Joe Bennett was brilliantly funny New Zealand writer. Today I know better. He's a brilliantly funny writer who just happens to live in New Zealand. He was actually born in England, and I've lived in New Zealand longer than he has. Nevertheless, when he writes he seems to have a genuinely New Zealand voice even when he is writing about the land of his birth.

In Mustn't Grumble, he tells us about a recent return to England and what he found there when he went exploring. At first he tried to hitch-hike, just as he had done in his youth. But he quickly found that didn't work. Nobody stops for hitch hikers in England any more. So much against his will he was forced to use a car. Humph!

And so he rambles through England's sometimes not so green and pleasant land, meeting the usual collection of loonies, eccentrics and the downright insane who seem only to be found in the British Isles. This is Bennett doing what Bennett does best of all: cocking a quirky eyebrow at our foibles, showing us just how ridiculous we really are.

It's a deeply funny belly-laugh of a book, and as an added bonus it's a bit confessional as well. We learn a certain amount about Joe Bennett's sex life. What more could the prurient among us want?

To pass the time, I have been honing my haiku. A haiku is a Japanese verse form. It has three lines and seventeen syllables. The first and last line have five syllables each and the second line has seven syllables. In those seventeen syllables you are supposed to say something pithy, and perhaps even profound. Instead of forcing you to read the last few thousand words, perhaps I should simply have written these one hundred and nineteen syllables:

Porgy and Bess sleep
I open up the cat food
Two cats inhaling


Harpo has a fight
Crusty scabs adorn his head
Happiness is gore


Wind in the morning
A frozen moment in time
Buses die of cold


Alan reads a book
The words swim round on the page
A book reads Alan


Robin mulches a big tree
Chlorophobic chips


Solar cells unfold petals
Tanned gnomes are drowning


Here is a haiku
Compressed essence of static
Prose under pressure

Naomi Norvik Temeraire Harper
Jo Walton Farthing Tor
Harry Turtledove Fort Pillow St Martin's Press
Julie Phillips James Tiptree Jr St Martin's Pres
Kate Atkinson Case Histories Black Swan
Kate Atkinson Emotionally Weird Black Swan
Kate Atkinson Behind the Scenes At The Museum Black Swan
Bill Bryson The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid St Martin's Press
Joe Bennett Mustn't Grumble Simon & Schuster
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