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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (verdus anthropophagus)

In Which We Sit In A Box, Fly To Australia And Make A Phone Call

Books from WarriorWomanWithOnlyOneBreast arrive in cardboard boxes. This is a law of nature. Cardboard boxes have to be sat in by cats. This too is a law of nature. In our house, Harpo, being junior cat, has been designated as the box sitter. The sequence of events goes something like this.

A courier man bangs on the front door and runs away before I can catch him (courier men are notoriously shy and are seldom observed in the wild). Porgy and Harpo, who are asleep on the bed, wake up in alarm at the hideous noise and stare at me suspiciously as I open the door and retrieve a parcel.

"It's OK," I reassure them. "Just another book."

They settle down and watch me open the box.

"Hurry up," says Harpo, his red eyes gleaming. Harpo is a very impatient cat who belongs to the instant gratification generation. Slowly I unseal the box. Porgy generally finds this boring and goes back to sleep, but Harpo is soon jumping up and down with frustration as I tease him with the prospect of a box.

Eventually the books are unpacked. Porgy opens a world-weary eye and watches as Harpo hops in to the box, turns round three times and settles down. Some boxes are too big and, feeling exposed, Harpo soon gets out again.

"That's a useless box," he says in disgusted tones as he stalks off to relieve his frustrations by beating Bess up. Hisses, spits and squeals from the back of the house indicate success.

Some boxes are too small and the sides bulge as Harpo squirms, seeking a comfortable spot. Eventually, unable to support the strain, the box ruptures.

"That's a useless box," says Harpo in disgusted tones as he stalks off to relieve his frustrations by beating Bess up. Hisses, spits and squeals from the back of the house indicate success.

But just occasionally the boxes are exactly the right size and Harpo snuggles down to snooze in cardboard coated bliss. Bess, let off the hook, sleeps soundly on the back of the sofa.

One such box is currently sitting on the floor of the lounge. Harpo seldom leaves it except to eat. Scruffy though it is, I don't dare throw it away. Bess would suffer too much, and she needs her sleep.

A few years ago, The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss was published to huge critical acclaim. It was his first novel, but nevertheless everyone said it was a brilliant debut, the best fantasy novel ever. Blurb writers pressed the special key on their keyboard which produced words to the effect that the book was "...comparable to Tolkien at his best...". Everybody raved about how absolutely brilliant it was. Naturally I avoided it like the plague – I had no interest in reading yet another story about the trials and tribulations of a young man learning to be a wizard. Ursula Le Guin did that one brilliantly, many geological ages ago. Even Raymond Feist made a pretty good attempt at it. And they were by no means the first to tell this story; the plot is a fantasy cliché. Obviously Rothfuss was just following in their more famous footsteps. The book was almost guaranteed to be a load of rubbish. I sneered at it from a distance and left it alone on the bookshop shelves.

And then I found a cheap copy and, in a moment of silliness, I bought it. And in an even more silly moment I read it. And guess what? It was an absolutely unputdownable page-turner of a book. I was hooked by the end of the first chapter and I gulped it all down eagerly and at the end I wanted more. But I'll have to wait until April 2009 to read the next volume. Bugger.

It is a clichéd fantasy-by-numbers story, make no mistake about that. But nevertheless, Rothfuss puts a new twist on it. We meet the wizard in old age, after the legends have accreted to him. We learn some of the legends (told in appropriate high fantasy language). And then, in the wizard's own words, we learn the real story; a story which is very different from the legends (though like all good legends, they do contain a kernel of truth). Somehow Rothfuss manages to sidestep all obvious things; he fails to fall in to the obvious traps and he tells a truly compelling story. So put your prejudices to one side and give this book a try. I promise you won't regret it.

The extraordinarily prolific Harry Turtledove is back with yet another alternate history novel. The Man With The Iron Heart assumes that Reinhardt Heydrich survived the assassination attempt against him in Prague in 1942 and went on to form a resistance movement that conducted a guerilla war against the allies after the supposed end of World War II in 1945. From his underground headquarters, Heydrich keeps the ideas and ideals of the Reich alive as his booby traps, time bombs, and mortar and rocket strikes in the dead of night kill American, British, French and Russian soldiers. Heydrich and his men keep coming up with new and ever more horrific ways of fighting their guerilla war. Fanatical extremists turn themselves into human bombs and die in a blaze of glory; aircraft are hijacked and flown into buildings. It seems there is no end to Heydrich's gruesome ingenuity. The morale of the allies sinks lower and lower and, particularly in America, there is growing resistance to the idea of their soldiers dying in this undeclared war and growing pressure on the government to bring the troops home.

The parallels with the current situation in Iraq are obvious and Turtledove pulls no punches. It is hard to tell where his personal sympathies lie – he presents positive arguments to justify every side in the struggle. This attempt to be fair is what stops the novel from being merely propaganda. It does seem to be an honest attempt to understand just what America has bitten off in Iraq and why it won't be able to chew and digest that self-imposed meal. Nevertheless (particularly near the end of the book when a very simplistic solution to the problem presents itself) it remains a little too preachy for my taste. Your taste may differ.

Mike Resnick is one of my favourite authors. He doesn't often write deep and meaningful books (though Kirinyaga comes close) but he does write vastly entertaining stories, many of which are screamingly funny. Stalking The Vampire is his latest novel and I giggled all the way through it. John Justin Mallory is a private eye in Manhattan; but not the Manhattan of our world – this one is inhabited by ghoulies and ghoosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night. It's Halloween, the biggest holiday of the year and preparations are in full swing. His partner, the big game hunter Winifred Carruthers, seems short of energy and pale. Mallory puts this down to the amount of work she's been putting in to get ready for the celebrations. But then he notices the two puncture marks on her neck. Oh dear...

Soon Mallory, Winifred, and Felina the Cat Girl are stalking the vampire. They start at Creepy Conrad's Cut-Rate All-Night Mortuary where he gains many useful clues from his interrogation of both the living and the dead. The Vampire State Building and the Zombies Ball teach him much about the habits of the undead. They need to sleep during the day, preferably on soil from their homeland. Perhaps the vampire he seeks has taken up residence in the Hills Of Home Mortuary, Cemetery and Delicatessen. You can probably figure out how the rest of the story goes.

The novel is an unalloyed delight, full of brilliantly witty supernatural jokes and wry observations. It's Mike Resnick at his best, and believe me, that's as good as they come.

The Book With No Name, by the terribly prolific writer Anonymous, is extremely weird. It's a classical western full of psychopathic gunmen, but it takes place in the late twentieth century and the cowboys all drive cars. It concerns a mysterious book with no name by an anonymous author. Everyone who reads this book dies horribly. There's a blue jewel known as the Eye Of The Moon which has gone missing. It all happens in Santa Mondego, a border town on the edge of reality where Sanchez the bartender, El Santino the crime boss, some killer monks and a hitman known as The King who dresses up as Elvis Presley kill everyone who gets in their way. Except for the people killed by the Bourbon Kid, of course.

I have no idea whether or not I enjoyed The Book With No Name, it's far too strange to tell.

Wastelands is an anthology of "after the catastrophe" stories. Once upon a time this was a science fiction staple but it seems to be less common now than once it was. Perhaps the global warming crisis will revitalize the genre. Despite the fact that the theme is a little out of fashion, quite a lot of today's writers do seem to have played with the idea in short stories (and Stephen King has written at least two novels that use the theme). a lot of the names in the contents list will be familiar to all: Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, George R. R. Martin, Cory Doctorow and many others.

The stories are a mixed bunch. Some (such as Stephen King's The End Of The Whole Mess and Octavia Butler's Speech Sounds) are heart-stoppingly good, some (such as Orson Scott Card's Salvage) are merely adequate and some (such as Paolo Bacigalupi's The People Of Sand And Slag) are rather dull. One (Corey Doctorow's When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth) is incomprehensible unless you happen to be a computer nerd. Since I am a computer nerd, I understood it perfectly and I found it trivial and boring. However the general standard of the stories is sufficiently high that the book is not completely a waste of money. That sounds like faint praise, and perhaps it is.

There was a time when I would buy a new book by Tom Holt as soon as it appeared on the shelves. His early fantasy novels such as Expecting Someone Taller and Who's Afraid Of Beowulf? were brilliantly funny and I kept hoping for more of the same. But I was always disappointed and his books got more and more dire and eventually I gave up on him completely (except for his historical novels, of course – but they are quite a different kettle of fish). It's been ten years or more since I last read a Tom Holt fantasy novel and I have no idea why I suddenly decided to buy and read The Portable Door. Perhaps it was because the blurb made it sound more like a satire on working in an office than a standard fantasy novel, perhaps it was because I needed something to read on the bus. But whatever the reason, I bought it and I read it and I loved it; it's the best thing he has written in years, easily as good as the novels that turned me on to him in the first place.

Paul Carpenter has a new job as a junior clerk at J. W. Wells & Co. The job is dull; he and another newly appointed clerk called Sophie spend their days sorting computer generated spreadsheets into date order and then stapling them firmly (when they can find the stapler; it tends to hide in the most amazingly odd places). Sometimes, for variety, Paul is given photographs of anonymous deserts to run his fingers over. When his fingers tingle, he has to draw a circle with a green magic marker over the tingling spot.

Paul is such a dull and boring person that his parents have emigrated to Florida and refused to take him with them. Consequently he now lives in a grimy bed sit which is so very small and cramped that there's almost no room left in it when a huge granite block with a sword sticking out of it appears in the room. Paul tries to pull the sword out of the stone, but fails miserably. Since he can't get to what he laughingly refers to as his wardrobe any more, he hangs his clothes on the sword.

He soon learns that Sophie has also been presented with a sword in a stone. Despite having this in common, they still find it hard to talk to each other. Naturally Paul falls in love with her.

The book is a satire on office life, but it is also a fantasy novel. Neither Paul nor Sophie have any idea what J. W. Wells & Co. actually do to make a crust, but the name of the company and the plethora of Gilbert and Sullivan references in the text make the big secret hiding behind the facade fairly clear to the knowledgeable reader. Paul, being an ignoramus who knows nothing about Gilbert and Sullivan, misses every clue. Consequently it all comes as a terrible shock to him when he finds out the truth.

The story is perfectly plotted and the outrageous back story is gradually and beautifully revealed. The jokes are fresh and funny and the whole thing is delightful. I loved it so much I immediately went out and bought the two sequels. I wish I hadn't; they are absolutely dire. I think the reason is that there are no more surprises left – The Portable Door is full of nasty (funny-nasty) shocks as Paul gradually learns the secrets lurking behind the facade of J. W. Wells & Co. These surprises (bang!, bang!, bang!) make the book glitter; they are ingenious and funny because they are so unexpected, even to the reader who has already figured out the big secret. But by the time we reach the sequels, there are no more surprises left, no more revelations to reveal, and the story becomes mundane; quite plodding and pedestrian in comparison to the sparkling humour of the first. What a shame.

Robin was going to Australia to visit her sister. The plane departed at sparrowfart and check in time was two hours earlier than that. All of which meant that we had to get up at THERE'S NO SUCH TIME o'clock in the morning. The cats were thrilled:

"Hey, wake up everyone," yelled Porgy. "Breakfast is early today."

He bounced into the kitchen, eager for food. Bess yawned and stretched and followed rather reluctantly. "If there's food going," she said, "I want more than my fair share. But really, at this time of day, I'd rather be asleep."

Harpo biffed her on the nose. "Shut up you silly girl," he said. "If you keep saying that, the big apes might go back to bed and then we'd have to wait for hours before we had a chance at breakfast again."

I put some biscuits down for them. Soon their heads were down, their bums were up and the soporific sound of crunching filled the kitchen. I put a pot of coffee on to brew and went for a shower. Perhaps I'd feel better if I was wet.

I washed and dried and dressed. Robin stumbled, half-blind with sleep, into the bathroom, intent on ablutions. When she emerged, I poured coffee into her. Eventually she became capable of speech.

"What time is it?"

"Half past dark," I said. "We ought to be going."

I carried her luggage out to the car and then we set off for the airport. The roads were empty and we made good time, though the closer we got to the airport, the denser the traffic became. Most of the people of Wellington, it seemed, were off to Australia this morning.

As we drove towards the terminal Robin spotted something interesting. "There's an Air New Zealand plane over there," she said. "I know it's an Air New Zealand plane because of the koru design on the tail. But the plane is green all over. Why is that, do you suppose."

"It's feeling poorly," I said. "Those are the recuperation gates. It'll stay parked there until it feels better and its colour improves."

"Oh poor thing." Robin was immediately sympathetic. "I wonder what's wrong with it."

"Air sickness, I should think, " I said.

Many of Charles Willeford’s hard-boiled and very noir novels were published in the 1950s and early 1960s. We tend to think of those as rather prudish times and so it comes as somewhat of a shock to find quite frank discussions of sex (both hetero- and homo-) and violence and drugs. I imagine they must have been quite scorching when they first appeared. Perhaps they were sold in plain brown wrappers.

In Pick Up we meet Harry Jordan, a failed artist and alcoholic who keeps body and soul together by working as a counterman in a greasy spoon. He meets Helen, another alcoholic searching for redemption and picks her up. They both come to realise that the only way out of the mess they are in is to kill themselves, but they are so dysfunctional that they can’t even manage that! So Harry kills Helen and waits to be arrested, hoping to earn his own death at the hands of the state. The first half of the book, which describes Harry and Helen’s deteriorating mental state, is very grim and very scary. The second half, when Harry is in prison awaiting trial, is much less successful. Prison is far too nice a place and the wardens are far too forgiving and understanding to be believable. The jail resembles a well-run hotel. Harry has a single room, which he describes as being quiet (there seem to be no other inmates in the jail), food is good, and the warden acts like a hall porter, providing Jordan with various amenities to make his stay pleasant. In one scene, Jordan finds his street clothes have been returned to him, freshly laundered and starched!

Before reading Cockfighter I knew nothing about cockfighting. Now I know more than I ever wanted to know. Thankfully there’s an extremely good novel hiding inside the blood, guts and cruelty. Frank Mansfield’s goal in life is to win the Cockfighter of the Year award, and he's taken a rather silly vow not to speak a word until he does so. The book opens with a fierce fight in which Frank’s last cock is killed and Frank loses everything he owns as he pays his gambling debts from the fight. Destitute, he sets off on a last ditch attempt to fulfil his life’s ambition. It’s a twisted (and dumb!) Odyssey, I suppose. The novel was filmed by Roger Corman and Willeford himself had a bit part in the movie.

High Priest Of California is a very creepy portrayal of a sociopath. The amorality of Russell Haxby’s view of the world is so nasty that I really felt quite uncomfortable by the end of the novel. Haxby is a used car salesman, who picks a woman up at a dance club. Intriguingly, she won’t have sex with him and so he devotes his time to breaking down her resistance. Once he has succeeded in bedding her, of course, he has no further interest in playing the game and no further interest in her. Haxby is a very violent man, though he remains coldly uninvolved in the mayhem he provokes. It’s just something he has to do as payback for rudeness and bad service. The two explosions of violence in the novel are fast, bloody and bleak; over almost before they have begun. Haxby is completely unaffected by them. He goes home and reads Kafka and James Joyce. He is a mass of contradictions.

In Wild Wives we meet Jake Blake, a private detective short on cash. He meets a rich and beautiful young woman looking to escape her father’s smothering influence. This influence includes two thugs he has hired to "protect her". It soon becomes clear that the woman is in fact not the daughter of the man she wants to escape, but his wife. Now Jake has two angry thugs and one jealous husband on his case. The only good thing about his situation is that he gets lots of sex. But that’s probably not sufficient compensation for the web of deceit, intrigue and multiple murder that is woven by this crazy woman. The book is brilliant, sardonic, and full of surprises. In many ways I think it is the best of Willeford’s books. It’s certainly the darkest.

Despite its brilliant title, The Shark Infested Custard is probably the weakest of his books. It is cobbled together from four loosely related novellas. Four young men live in an apartment block in Miami. Through bad luck, greed and even innocence, each is revealed as corruptible, weak and extraordinarily misogynistic. In the first novella they bet on successfully picking up a woman. She dies from a drug overdose and they have to hide her body. While doing this, they are forced to commit a murder. In later stories, one falls in love with a married woman and tangles with the man she lives with; another returns to the marriage he hates and then schemes his way out of it. It’s all a little contrived and more than a little sick in its cruel amorality and coldly casual violence.

David Rottenberg has written a huge novel called Shanghai which is a dynastic history of China (more specifically, the city of Shanghai itself) stretching from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The viewpoint moves around between the British traders getting rich from the sale of opium and the Chinese who plot to rid themselves of the scourge. It's the kind of thing James Clavell used to do so well in his early novels. Shanghai is a quite typical example of its genre. However Rottenberg introduces too many anachronisms for my peace of mind. I got rather tired of nineteenth century Chinese people who, by thinking really, really hard, managed to come up with lots of neat twentieth century ideas. I know the Chinese are deuced clever, but this was just a bit too much.

We know almost nothing about the life of William Shakespeare and that is why Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare (called, imaginatively, Shakespeare) is such a thin book. It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know apart from some interesting statistics: Shakespeare was an inveterate coiner of neologisms; he invented 2,035 words of which 600 appeared in Hamlet. However not all the new words he created went into common use. When did you last exsufflicate? How often do you bepray or indulge in insultment?

Bryson's book is thin with pages, but it is thick with interest and I enjoyed it a lot.

The telephone in the hall was looking a bit sad. The aerial had been chewed by a cat, the numbers on the buttons were so worn as to be barely legible and the buttons themselves could not be trusted to send proper signals down the wires. For the last three months we had been unable to ring any of our friends who had a 4 in their phone number and we were getting an anti-social reputation as a result, since almost all of our friends had one or more 4s somewhere in their phone number.

"Let's go to Dock Smooth and buy a new phone," I said.

"OK," said Robin.

There were multitudes of phones on display. Big phones and small phones; pink, blue and green phones; slim phones and plump phones; self-satisfied phones and slightly anxious phones. "We'll take that one," said Robin when an assistant came to see if he could help us.

The phone we chose had a base unit with an answering machine built in. It had three handsets the size and shape of a television remote control. Each handset could store an enormous collection of phone numbers. The caller-ID feature could be configured so that whenever any of our friends rang us up their name and number would display on the handset screen in large, friendly letters. We could assign each of our friends their own special display colour and their own special ring tones. We agonised for hours over the correct colour for Robin's mum and the correct ring tone for the president of the science fiction club.

"I wonder who will be the first person to ring us on our new phone?" asked Robin.

"Me!" I said, taking out my mobile phone and dialling my home number. The handset flashed red and played something vaguely Wagnerian involving lots of Valkyries a couple of dragons and a sword.

"Hello," said Robin.

"Hello," I said. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes," said Robin. "What's the weather like over at your side of the lounge?"

"It's a bit cold," I admitted. "What's it like at your side?"

"Much the same," said Robin. "Bye, bye"

"Bye, bye."

We both turned our phones off.

"Well, that was fun," said Robin. "What shall we do now?"

"Why don't we watch TV?"

"Will you pass me the TV guide, please?" asked Robin. I passed it across and she studied it and then picked up the remote to change the channel. She pressed a button. Nothing happened, so she pressed it again. Still nothing happened, so she tried one more time.

"Emergency. Which service do you require? Police, fire or ambulance?" asked an official voice.

"Oops, sorry," said Robin contritely. "I was trying to watch Coronation Street on channel 1." She turned the phone off and tried again, with the proper remote control this time.

Patrick Rothfuss The Name Of The Wind Daw
Harry Turtledove The Man With The Iron Heart Del Rey
Mike Resnick Stalking The Vampire PYR
Anonymous The Book With No Name Michael O'Mara Books
John Joseph Adams (Editor) Wastelands Nightshade Books
Tom Holt The Portable Door Orbit
Tom Holt In Your Dreams Orbit
Tom Holt Earth, Air, Fire And Custard Orbit
Charles Willeford Pick Up Black Mask
Charles Willeford Cockfighter Black Mask
Charles Willeford Wild Wives and High Priest Of California Resurrectionary Press
Charles Willeford The Shark Infested Custard Vintage Crime
David Rottenberg Shanghai Bantam
Bill Bryson Shakespeare Harper
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