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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Unglabrous)

Cap’n art thou reading there below?

Have you noticed how most people these days do everything with one hand? They have to – the other hand is always firmly grasping a bottle of water (or perhaps one of those evil energy drinks that bounce you off the walls) and as a consequence that hand is no longer free to perform any action more significant than lifting the bottle to the mouth. Every so often, throughout the day, the mono-palmed people take a sly sip, keeping themselves topped up and staving off imminent death by dehydration.

Judging by the lack of wizened, desiccated corpses cluttering up the streets, they seem to be doing a good job, but I really can’t help wondering why they bother. If you are thirsty, go and get a drink (they aren’t hard to find). When you have quenched your thirst, go and do something else until thirst strikes again. Your body will give you plenty of warning, that’s what bodies do. One sip every five minutes does nothing practical at all except make a fashion statement to the crowds around you. Look at me, I’ve got a designer bottle with designer water in it in my hand. I’m cool and trendy.

Or perhaps these sly-sippers are just missing their mother’s breast and the water bottle is merely a fin de siècle tit substitute, a comforter on a par with a baby’s dummy, designed to take the stress out of life.

Goo, goog a joob, anyone?

The year is only half over as I write this, but already I am sure that Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is the best novel I will read this year. It isn’t science fiction (except thematically and possibly stylistically) but that doesn’t matter a damn for it is one of the great books.

It is an enormous book – in excess of 900 pages – and it tells a lot of stories. Several take place during World War II and concern the efforts of the allies to decrypt the German and Japanese radio traffic. One story takes place in the present day when the descendants of the World War II cryptographers and soldiers are heavily involved in computing and are in the process of setting up a data haven in the Philippines. Except for a common cast of characters there seems at first to be little to connect the tales but as the book meanders through its complex plot, gradually the connections emerge and the final dénouement is tremendously satisfying. Stephenson never loses control once.

Along the way, he has an enormous amount of fun. For no very good reason except that he feels like it, he invents a completely fictitious Hebridean island called Qwghlm and an islander called Ghnxh (and bugger the spelling checker). The islanders all speak Qwlghmian, of course (a language that contains not a single vowel – perhaps they are all descended from New Zealanders), and they feud ferociously with the mainland Scots. Stephenson is one of the few American authors ever to have demonstrated some degree of understanding about the feelings the British have for other Britons (they hate them). The British only unite against foreigners. Germans, Japanese and (especially) the French.

Real people and fictitious characters run cheek by jowl through the book. Alan Turing has a huge part to play, for example, though his American counterpart Lawrence Waterhouse is (as far as I can tell), purely fictional.

The book has blood, guts, high camp humour, mathematical equations and mathematical jokes, lots of codes and ciphers, internet and computer jokes, Nazis, sunken submarines full of gold, violence, murder and occasionally sex. What more could any rational person want? Read it - I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Of course, as soon as I had read the book of the year, I immediately read two more of them. Murphy rules the universe and He is not mocked. But perhaps these books can share the limelight with Cryptonomicon for they are in a completely different category. In fact they are children’s books – recommended reading age 8 to 11 years old. Well I have to tell you that this almost 50 year old found them to be unputdownably enthralling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are the first two volumes of a projected seven volume series by J. K. Rowling. As the first book opens, the baby Harry Potter is left in a basket outside the home of his Aunt and Uncle. Curious characters dressed in cloaks discuss him in awe. They seem to be enormously impressed with something about him. His Aunt and Uncle, however, are less than happy about it. They have to take him in (his parents are dead) but they do not like him. They dote on their own child and Harry is treated very badly.

Until he is eleven years old he has a reasonably normal, if somewhat unhappy, childhood. Odd incidents keep happening (his Aunt cuts his hair, but it all grows back overnight), but nothing too untoward. However on his eleventh birthday, a letter arrives from Hogwarts School for Wizards. Harry, it seems, is a Wizard and he has now reached an age where it is necessary to train him formally in his skills. His Aunt and Uncle must buy him a wand and some spell books and he must depart from King’s Cross – the train to Hogwarts leaves from platform nine and three quarters.

Harry, it seems, is the child of two wizards. His Aunt (his mother’s sister) has inherited none of the family penchant for wizardry, which explains much of her animosity towards Harry. We also learn that Harry’s parents died in an attack by the evil wizard Voldemort and not in a car crash as Harry had always assumed. And it seems that Harry did not get the odd scar on his forehead from the car crash, rather it is the last trace of a wound left when Voldemort tried (and failed) to kill Harry as well. Somehow, though he was only a baby, Harry managed to defeat the power of Voldemort and the evil one was vanquished. Nobody knows how he did it (least of all Harry) but he is a great hero to all those who Voldemort oppressed.

The novels are in many ways very traditional. They are simply tales of a boy having adventures at a boarding school. Heavens, how many thousands of children’s books have been written around that theme? Even P. G. Wodehouse wrote some. But the added dimension of wizardry and magic and Rowling’s never-failing wit and wisdom lift these books well above the common herd. Both the Harry Potter books have won awards, both have had huge praise heaped on them by organs as august as the TLS. Both have raced onto the best seller lists in the UK. I was completely involved in the story. I just HAD to know how it all worked out, and I am eagerly anticipating the remaining volumes.

As I write, Stephen King is in hospital seriously ill after having been injured when a van hit him while he was out walking. His condition is described as serious but not life threatening (thank goodness). Thus there is an added poignancy to his latest offering. Storm of the Century is not a novel, it is a screenplay written for a TV miniseries. However once your eyes get used to the somewhat odd format it is very simple to fall into the spirit of it. It reads as easily as a novel.

The action takes place on a small island off the New England coast (the same one, in fact, where the action of his novel Dolores Claiborne was set). The island is cut off from the mainland by a huge storm. Martha Clarendon lies dead in her house. Andre Linoge, a visitor to the island, is sitting in her living room helping himself to the brownies that she has cooked. They are smeared with blood, for Linoge himself is covered in the blood of his victim. But it doesn’t bother him. He chews on blood-smeared brownies and every so often he sings:

                I’m a little teapot, short and stout.
                Here is my handle, here is my spout…

He watches the weather forecast on the television. Huge storms. The television set isn’t plugged in, and the tube is smashed. But still he watches the weather forecast anyway.

When the murder is discovered, Linoge is arrested and put in temporary custody in the town’s rather flimsy cell. Nothing more can be done until the storm blows itself out. But Linoge is only just embarking on his plan of attack, and there are many more murders and mysterious happenings still to come.

"Give me what I want and I’ll go away, " says Linoge. But not until quite late in the book does he reveal what he wants, and when it is known, despite all the death and all the grief and terror, there are many who would deny him his desires.

King ratchets up the tension and the horror. Just when you think there can be nothing worse to say or do, he turns the screw again and worse is revealed. And all this in a screenplay for prime time American television, probably the most heavily sanitised, least uncomfortable, most heavily censored public broadcast medium in the world. Straying from the straight and narrow is not allowed. And yet within these constraints King has created a most terrifying tale that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go. I can’t wait to see the miniseries itself.

On the other hand, The Lost Works of Stephen King by someone called Stephen Spignesi is a waste of time. It describes (but does not quote from) a lot of King’s juvenilia, including two unpublished novels which (from the descriptions given) would do well to remain unpublished, and some journalism written when King was a college student. Who cares? I certainly don’t.

I have a tendency to steer clear of books with lots of authors on the spine. But who could resist Terry Pratchett’s name? Also I have heard Jack Cohen speak at many an SF convention and enjoyed him mightily. Ian Stewart has made a name for himself with many a popular exposition of scientific ideas. So I bought The Science of Discworld and an odd thing it is too. Every second chapter is by Pterry himself and he tells a story of the research that goes on under the direction of Ponder Stibbons in the High Energy Magic Building at Unseen University. It would appear that an unfortunate experiment in a squash court has released a rather large thaumic charge and unless it can be contained catastrophe will ensue. Quickly it is diverted into an artificial universe and, how odd, there aren’t any world turtles, and no elephants supporting a disc; rather the worlds are round and they spin and there are all these blobs of burning gas. What’s going on?

And so in alternate chapters, the wizards (and one particular wizzard, yes him) explore this odd universe and in the intervening chapters Stewart and Cohen explain the relevance of what they find to the world (and universe) as we know it here.

It is a most unlikely formula, but oddly it succeeds brilliantly. Despite the alternating viewpoints and the multiplicity of authors, the styles mesh very well and the ideas explored are anything but trivial (the depth of thought is quite awe-inspiring). The gentle humour is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down a treat. Much of the book is on the same level of abstraction as Stephen Hawking’s works and it pokes around with many of the same ideas, but the ideas are never overwhelming (though they do have a frightening tendency to sneak up on you two days later and hit you over the head). This is definitely a must-be-read book.

Death’s Domain is another Discworld mapp. Mostly it’s black, but there’s a nice picture of Binky.

Chris Ryan is an ex SAS soldier who now writes best selling novels about SAS soldiers. I’ve managed to avoid them quite successfully up to now, but recently, caught up in Whitcoull’s "50% off all paperback fiction" sale, I indulged myself in a couple. They turned out to be exactly what you would have expected them to be. Long on action and short on character and plot (though to be fair, Ryan does try hard and the scenes where the hero’s wife is killed and his son is kidnapped, while merely melodramatic in themselves turn out to have startling consequences in terms of the people involved). It is impossible to dismiss the books out of hand. Every so often Ryan astonishes you with his insight. If he ever grows up and stops writing disguised cowboy and indian tales, I think he might actually have a real novel in him somewhere.

King Con was also a product of the Whitcoull’s sale. Beano Bates is a legendary con man. So successful is he that he is on the FBI’s most wanted list. He gets into a poker game with a Mafia boss and has the bad luck to win heavily. The Mafia man takes unkindly to this and beats him very severely. Later the Mafia man is also involved in the murder of Beano’s favourite cousin Carol. Two strikes. Beano wants revenge and he takes it in the only way he knows how, by organising a scam of epic proportions.

The tale is long in the telling, and very convoluted and it owes a huge debt to the hit movie The Sting. But it is strong enough to stand firmly on its own. Beano is an engaging villain and his con-game is enormously complicated (and, it must be said, enormously improbable). There is much fun to be had following the ramifications. It’s a silly book really, so light-weight that you have to hold it down firmly to stop it rising to the ceiling. But I enjoyed it.

Mick Farren, my very favourite pulp writer, has a new book out. Back from Hell is an episode in the Car Warriors saga. This appears to be a shared world scenario (I have read no others). The premise is a somewhat Mad-Max-like after-the-apocalypse situation where crazy anarchy reigns and crazy gangs of outlaws ride crazy cars in a crazy tyrannical rampage. The fearful population is fed bread and circuses by the remnants of a corrupt government in collusion with the TV companies and nightly they watch gladiatorial combats between mechanised car warriors, many of whom are themselves reformed outlaws.

This particular novel concerns Iggy Mengele, who has assembled a rag-tag army of outlaws in Palm Springs and is now about to mount a raid on Pomona, the giant arena from which the gladiatorial bouts are broadcast. Val Paladin is the champion gladiator. An ex-outlaw himself, he has a long standing grudge with Iggy Mengele and now it seems fate will match these two once again…

It’s actually rather good, despite being nothing but a cliché from beginning to end. Farren is remarkably talented at depicting druggy, drunken sex-and-violence-obsessed low-life characters, and he is particularly good with outlaw gangs. There are many echoes of his first novel The Texts of Festival in this one. Indeed, several of the characters would fit without difficulty into either book. It is a completely silly waste of time, but I loved it.

The Great War – American Front is Harry Turtledove’s sequel to How Few Remain. In the latter he described how the American Civil War ended in a stalemate with the successful secession of the Southern states, backed up by their British allies. In this new book, which is set in 1914, the political situation in Europe has deteriorated and the Great War has broken out. Old hatreds are stirring in America, particularly since the Southern states are allied with Britain and France and the Northern states with Germany. It isn’t long before the Great War erupts here as well.

The novel is episodic with a huge cast of characters. Turtledove follows the same pattern as in his other major series (Worldwar, which is set during an alternate World War II) and follows his characters through various episodes until the book is long enough, whereupon it stops. It will be continued in later volumes.

Surprisingly, this isn’t at all irritating. Indeed I found the book quite enthralling. I also got an extra degree of amusement out of it since I am a little bit of a student of that period of history and I enjoyed recognising real incidents from the real World War I which Turtledove had lifted wholesale and transplanted to his fictional American interpretation of the war (for example, the famous incident in Christmas 1914 when the opposing troops in the trenches congregated in no-man’s-land and played football and held an impromptu party).

As an evocation of the horror, misery and utter stupidity of that terrible war, I think Turtledove’s book is way out in front of the pack. He doesn’t have the emotional impact of All Quiet on the Western Front, but he certainly comes close. I await the next books with eagerness.

Derek Robinson’s new novel is thematically very closely related to Turtledove’s. Robinson has written several novels detailing the exploits of Hornet Squadron, a fictional air force unit. He has followed their career through both world wars (one of his World War II novels of Hornet squadron Piece of Cake was filmed as a miniseries by the BBC, to great critical acclaim). Hornet’s Sting is the third novel he has written set in World War I. The thing that gives Robinson’s novels their strength is that he pulls no punches in terms of the sheer horror of war (particularly during the dark days of World War I when the average life expectancy of an RFC fighter pilot could be measured in days, or sometimes hours. Many pilots didn’t even have time to unpack their gear before they were killed). But even within this grim framework, he continues to find humour. Much of it is necessarily very dark indeed, but nonetheless funny. Robinson is the only writer I know who can have me in fits of laughter in the middle of extreme carnage.

Chloe’s Song is another bitter-sweet tale of murder and intrigue. Chloe Smith becomes housekeeper to Sir Benedict and Lady Annabel Bowling. Two years later she is on trial for murder. The tale of those two years is, of course, the substance of the novel. The Bowlings are an eccentric couple (to put it mildly) and there is also a scandal to be concealed, though Chloe learns of it soon enough. Raving loonies march on to the stage and off again (Thomas is particularly good at raving loonies). Just who Chloe has killed (and why) is not revealed until almost the end of the book, which makes it hard for me to say very much without spoiling things. Suffice it to say that this is Leslie Thomas at the height of his form. Hugely funny and hugely sad at one and the same time.

Maybe I have overdosed, but I really didn’t like the new Patricia Cornwell. Mainly I think the reason is that it feels too much as if it was written on automatic pilot. It is the mixture as before. Lots of grue in the autopsy theatre, threats to Scarpetta and her niece. The villain is known right from the start – it is someone from an earlier book who has escaped from prison and is out for revenge. To try and add a bit of shock value, one of the mainstay characters of the series is killed at the end. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Next please…

In Kissing the Beehive, Jonathan Carroll gives us Samuel Bayer, a successful thriller writer who revisits the town where he was born. As a child, he found a dead body in the river. Pauline Ostrova was a few years older than Sam, but he knew her and her family. Edward Durant was charged with her murder. Later he committed suicide in prison. His father still lives in the town, and so do many of Sam’s old friends. One of those old friends is now Chief of Police. Together they rake over old coals and Sam decides to write about the Ostrova case.

Meanwhile, the unfortunately named Veronica Lake, with whom Sam is having an intense affair, turns out to be a rather flaky, unstable character. The Ostrova investigation brings out the worst in her and soon Sam’s emotions are coming apart at the seams as his private life unravels and threats from his past re-surface.

This is a complex novel. The surface story is deceptively simple (and if you want a gosh, wow, I never expected THAT to happen ending then you certainly won’t be disappointed), but the surface story isn’t what it is really all about. What it is about is the meaning and significance of love and death - in other words it is examining one of the great themes, the things that always bubble to the surface of great art and literature. Carroll does this disturbingly often, and this is one of his best works. Without a shadow of a doubt, the man is both an artist and a storyteller of the highest degree. When you combine two such enormous talents into one body you can’t fail to win.

In his novels, Michael Marshall Smith never fails to impress. However the short stories collected in What You Make It are less than memorable, perhaps because they don’t give him room to stretch. Only completists should buy this one (guess why I bought it…)

Parable of the Talents is Octavia Butler’s sequel to her superb Parable of the Sower. If you haven’t read the first book, much will pass you by, but if you have, you will quickly be sucked in by the magic spell this new book casts. It continues its exploration of Earthseed, that curious half-religious half-philosophical, half-pragmatic lifestyle developed by Lauren Olamina in the aftermath of the collapse of society (and yes I know that makes one and a half. Sue me).

The novel is told from the viewpoint of Olamina’s daughter (though extracts from Olamina’s diaries allow her to continue the story of her personal odyssey). This curious structure adds a bit of a distancing effect to the book and despite the violent society in which it takes place, it lacks the emotional, gut-wrenching involvement of its predecessor. Dramatically this makes it a weaker book, but philosophically it is a stronger one. Olamina was always the worst person to explain Earthseed because she was too close to it. Only someone standing outside can put it properly into perspective and Olamina’s daughter plays this role. She is particularly suited to it because for a long time she never knew her mother (they were separated shortly after her birth when the Earthseed community was overrun by outlaws). The closest Olamina can really get to defining Earthseed is in the verses that she wrote and published as the Book of Earthseed, and while they are often effective, far too frequently they are also trite.

The two perspectives add up to a whole that illuminates all of its parts. This is novel writing as it should be done. It also helps that the story is a strong one, albeit somewhat of a cliché in terms of post-apocalyptic societal decay. We’ve seen all that before. Fortunately, that part is largely window dressing (though necessary to move the plot along). It’s the structure in which the windows are embedded that holds the whole thing together, and that is truly outstanding.

I feel thirsty. Goo, goog a joob.

Neal Stephenson Cryptonomicon Avon
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Bloomsbury
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Bloomsbury
Stephen King Storm of the Century Pocket
Stephen J. Spignesi The Lost Works of Stephen King Birch Lane Press
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen The Science of Discworld Ebury Press
Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby Death’s Domain Corgi
Chris Ryan Stand By, Stand By Arrow
Chris Ryan Zero Option Arrow
Stephen J. Cannell King Con Signet
Mick Farren Back From Hell Tor
Harry Turtledove The Great War – American Front Del Rey
Derek Robinson Hornet’s Sting Harvill
Leslie Thomas Chloe’s Song Arrow
Patricia Cornwell Point of Origin Warner
Jonathan Carroll Kissing the Beehive Vista
Michael Marshall Smith What You Make it Harper Collins
Octavia Butler Parable of the Talents Seven Stories Press

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