wot i red on my hols by alan robson (juglandaceous)
"The jug is dead. Long live the jug."
After many years of faithful service, my electric jug could no longer muster the strength to boil water. Old age and decrepitude had set in, not to mention a touch of dementia. Depressed, the jug took to its bed. It could no longer work; its days of independent living were over.
The jug doctor agreed with me.
"The kindest thing to do would be to put it painlessly to sleep in a yellow council rubbish bag."
So that's what we did. And then, in an attempt to short-circuit the grieving process, I decided to go shopping for a replacement.
The new jug, Woolworths' cheapest, was not yet fully grown. It was unable to live without a permanent connection to the power. The previous jug, properly mature, had a base from which it could detach itself and walk around at will, sneering at the toaster and pulling the leg of the slow cooker which, poor bullied thing, simply couldn't run fast enough to catch the jug and give it the pummelling it deserved.
But the new jug had just a single power cable which needed to be unplugged in order to take the jug over to the sink to fill it with water. Mind you -- once the water was in the jug and the power cable was reconnected, it boiled up really well. When the jug was just a young, impressionable pot, long before its element made a full circuit, someone had obviously invested a lot of time and effort in the potty training of it. But nevertheless the constant plugging and unplugging was a nuisance. Robin never really took to it at all.
"It's an ugly juggle," she said. "It will never mature into a juggernaut."
"But it's doing so well," I protested. "It's really very proud of itself."
"Humph!" said Robin, unconvinced. "What's it got to be vain about? Is it pretending to be a jugular?"
And there things lay for a while. The jug soon settled in to the routine of life as a Robson. In its maturity, it adopted a new hare style (jugged, of course), but it never did learn how to free itself from the tyranny of tethering.
Things came to a head one ominous Saturday..
It began much like any other Saturday I got up and boiled the jug. As always it was grateful for the attention, and it steamed up a treat. I made a cup of instant coffee. Sipping thoughtfully, I wandered round the kitchen making a shopping list.
"Buy stuff," I wrote. "And beer."
I decided to check with Robin and see if there was anything special she needed. She was still in bed, snoring gently. If it hadn't been for the noise she was making, I wouldn't have been able to see her at all. She appeared to be mostly cat. Porgy was draped over her head, Harpo was warming her feet and Bess was curled up on her tummy.
"Need anything from the supermarket?" I asked.
"Urrgghhhnnnngggggg," said Robin.
I wrote it down. "Anything else?"
I wrote that down as well and went to Woollies. I came back laden with stuff. And beer. And Robin's special treats. I put the stuff away in its proper place and the beer in the fridge. It took a bit longer to find a place for Robin's things, but eventually I fitted them in. Then I went into the bedroom to report to Robin. Neither she nor the cats had moved in the hour or so that I'd been away.
"The urrgghhhnnnngggggg is in the cupboard," I said, and the gggdddnnwwwgggsssnig is hanging up."
"Pppppussleflush," said Robin. She began to twitch semi-humanly, a sure sign that she was about to get up. The cats eyed her anxiously and adopted defensive postures. Zombie-like, Robin rose from the sheets and twitched herself into the kitchen.
Disdaining the jug with which she still maintained her hate-hate relationship, she poured water into the coffee maker. She delicately inserted a filter paper and spooned coffee into it.
She flicked the switch and the red light came on.
Gradually Robin became aware that the coffee maker was silent. No gurgles as water trickled through the coffee grounds steeping thick, brown life giving liquid from them. Nothing. Silence. No coffee. The horror! The horror!
I raced into the kitchen. Robin, a look of extreme shock on her face, pointed inarticulately at the coffee maker.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!" she explained.
I examined the coffee maker carefully but the conclusion was never in doubt. It was broken. No coffee.
"It's dead," I said. "Bereft of life, it is no more. It's pining for the fords -- anglia and cortina. Possibly prefect."
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!" said Robin, and she hit me with the new gggdddnnwwwgggsssnig.
I made her a cup of instant coffee and she became capable of speech once more. "Let's go shopping," she suggested. "We can get a new jug as well as a new coffee maker." And so that's exactly what we did.
The electric shop had lots of goodies on show. Jugs and coffee makers in every shape and form known to humankind, and some that weren't. There were gleaming stainless steel ones and black dramatic plastic ones. Some were tall and thin and some were short and fat. And every single one had a digital clock embedded in the base, goodness knows why.
"Pick me! Pick me!" The chorus was deafening. And each had its own undeniable charm.
Robin's heart melted. "Can we take them all?"
"Ooooh look at that! It's shiny! Do we need one?" Robin's attention was distracted and she poked a gadget of particular intricacy.
"No, we don't need one," I said. "What is it anyway?"
Robin gave me a look of withering scorn. "It's a gadget of particular intricacy of course," she said. "According to the leaflet in the box, it opens cans and circumcises gerbils."
Something else attracted her attention. "Oh that's so clever," she said, dragging me over to the other side of the shop where something sparkled in the sunlight that poured through the window. It was long and slim with far too many knobs and switches. There were slots festooned with heating elements for making perfect toast. Nestled snugly at one end was a pot with a small coffee filter and clipped to a convenient clip at the other end was a deep dish with a detachable lid into which eggs could be broken. The leaflet explained that, in less than four minutes, this technological marvel could simultaneously make two slices of toast, a pot of coffee and a poached egg; all of which would reach perfection at exactly the same time. An ideal breakfast with no fuss or bother.
"?" said Robin.
"!" I replied.
"0", I said firmly.
Finally we chose a squat black coffee maker with a clock, and a mature jug with a base from which it could easily detach. The jug didn't have a clock, but it did have a blue light, which in my opinion, more than made up for its inability to tell the time. We took them out to the car and drove home. They were both apprehensive and they cried throughout the journey. However once they were plugged in and filled with water, they soon settled down to make the best of their new home.
The tethered jug, predictably, was not happy.
"What about me?" it wailed. "Didn't I do a good enough job? Wasn't my water hot enough? Didn't I deliver copious quantities? Please don't do this to me. Please."
"There, there," I said soothingly as I unplugged it, and its light went out for the final time.
It went without a struggle. Perhaps, loyal to the end, it knew that this was for the best.
I keep the corpse on the kitchen windowsill. I like to think that it enjoys the view.
Paul Magrs (pronounced "Mars") has written a series of novels that I'd describe as YA if they didn't have quite so much sex in them. They are very funny, very clever and wholly absorbing. The viewpoint character is Brenda, the landlady of a B&B in Whitby. She's a lady of a certain age. She is covered in scars, she has no surname and her legs look like they've come from two different people (because actually they have come from two different people). She keeps her spare parts in the attic. She lives next door to her best friend Effie, descendant of witches.
In the first novel, Never The Bride Brenda finds herself involved with a satanic beautician and a strange hotel where every day is Christmas day and the pies taste a little bit odd (could it be pork?). Oh and there's an entrance to Hell hidden in the ruins of Whitby Abbey. I almost forgot about that, what with Aunt Jessie devolving into a proto-human and the utterly suave Mr Alucard taking a close interest in the affair. Whitby Abbey is sited on the East Cliff, 199 steps abovethe harbour. I've climbed those steps. I was a lot younger then...
By the time of the second novel, Something Borrowed, Jessie has become a Zombie Womanzee. The proprietress of the Christmas Hotel is getting a little worried about some of her odder guests. Not to mention the poison pen letters that are causing so much heartache. And then there's the bamboo wickerwork god at the barbecue. Curse that Chinese master criminal and the wife he left behind when he died at the ripe old age of a hundred and something. His wife was only a teenager at the time, poor thing. Well, quite rich thing actually.
These are the oddest books I've read in ages and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Some of the jokes will make a lot more sense if you are familiar with nineteenth and early twentieth century fantasy and horror classics and what little there is of an actual British mythology (probably all of this is best absorbed by watching Hammer Horror Films in order to get that authentic frisson). But even if all that's a little too esoteric for your tastes, there's still much here to appreciate. Paul Magrs is a man to watch. Preferably out of the corner of your eye.
The Bird Of The River is Kage Baker's last novel. It's a fantasy novel set in the same world as The Anvil Of The World and The House Of The Stag, and like those earlier books it is a series of stories and vignettes cobbled together to make a novel that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. It's a completely standalone book there's no need to have read the earlier ones in order to appreciate this one.
The protagonist is Eliss who is probably in her early teens when the story opens, though the life she has led has given her a maturity over and above that of her physical age. She and her half-brother Alder and their mother Falena are stranded and starving. Alder is only half-human; his father was a Yendri -- the Yendri are elf-like beings who live in the great forests that border the river.
Falena, a sea diver by profession, is in poor health and addicted to "yellow". She takes little interest in the world outside her addiction and she leaves Eliss in charge of the family's daily survival. Eliss manages to pressure Falena into accepting a job on an enormous barge called "Bird of the River". The barge's task is to sail up river clearing it of snags (fallen trees and the like), making the river safer for other traffic. As she helps to clear a snag, Falena discovers a corpse in the river. It brings on a heart attack which kills her, leaving Eliss and Alder alone in the world. The barge becomes the childrens' home and community. The children float up the river, Huckleberry Finn-like. They visit various communities and they receive a sometimes cynical education in the ways of the broader world.
Alder comes under the influence of Mr Moss, a Yendri passenger who puts Alder in touch with his half-Yendri heritage and encourages Alder to begin making his own decisions about his future. Alder has never fitted in well with human society; his skin is green and other children tease him unmercifully. Perhaps the Yendri can help him rise above all that.
A spindly, unattractive boy called Krelan, of about Eliss's age, seeks refuge on the barge. Eliss soon learns that he is an assassin. His family are hereditary servants of another very powerful family (and have become wealthy in their own right). The body that Falena found in the river was that of Lord Encilian. Krelan has been charged with investigating the circumstances of the Lord's death and, if possible, avenging it. But he suspects that there are also other reasons why he has been sent away. Nonetheless, he is firmly dedicated to what he conceives of as his duty. Eliss is attracted to him and she helps him in his investigations.
All these various threads come together in an exciting and, in many ways very predictable, climax. But it isn't the arrival at the thud and blunder solution that matters; rather it is the journey along the way that gives this book its richness, its humanity and its humour.
On the surface it's a YA novel of love and adventure; just another coming of age book. But there's a lot going on under the surface as well, for those who have eyes to see it. The story explores profound ideas about personal identity; nature versus nurture, the question of whether a family is inherently a biological construct or is it more of a societal entity? The book also has words to say about racial and social prejudice, and the relationships between wealth, happiness and security.
And finally the story asks whether art can define a life. One of the musicians on the barge composes a moving (and immediately popular) ballad called "Beautiful Falena," as a tribute to Eliss's mother. This distresses Ellis because the ballad romanticizes her mother's hard life and Ellis, having lived through the events, sees no truth in the song. But eventually she comes to realise that truth can hide inside metaphors and so she becomes reconciled to the ballad. As the book ends, she thinks to herself, "Only Alder and I will remember what [Falena's mistakes] were, and when we forget she'll still be a beautiful song."
That could also be said about Kage Baker herself. She left us many beautiful books and the world is richer for her having been in it.
Muse And Reverie is a collection of short stories set in Newford, and really that's all you need to know. If you are already familiar with Charles de Lint's magically realistic city then you will know how wonderful these stories are and you will rush out and buy the book. If you have never travelled to Newford before, then this is a very good place to start your trip from, for here in these stories are all the characters, situations and twists that have always made Newford such a very, very special place.
Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders have edited an anthology of new swords and sorcery stories. It is called Swords & Dark Magic in deliberate homage to Fritz Leiber whose series of Swords And XXXX books about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser did much to define the genre. By and large, the editors have done a marvellous job, with exceptions. It's very hard to write a swords and sorcery story without falling into cliché -- and it has to be admitted that some of these stories do actually give the impression of having been written with a rubber stamp...
Possibly the weakest story in the book is a new Elric novella (Red Pearls) by Michael Moorcock. Mind you, by now even Elric has become somewhat of a cliché in his own right, so it is hardly surprising that Moorcock fails to do much justice to his most famous creation in this rather tired and predictable tale. I get the impression that Moorcock is as sick of writing about Elric as I am of reading about him.
At the other end of the spectrum, the best story in the collection, to my mind, is In The Stacks by Scott Lynch. A group of students at a college of magic have to return a library book. A simple enough task, you might think; we've all done it at some point in our lives. But the library, being home to literally millions of grimoires, has taken on a strange life of its own and returning a book is fraught with peril. The story is funny and inventive with a clever twist in the tail. What more could anyone want?
I enjoyed almost all of the stories in the collection. It's a book well worth investing in.
The Music Of The Primes is a book about the history of the study of prime numbers. At its heart is a discussion of the Riemann Hypothesis, an idea about the properties of prime numbers which Riemann came up with in 1859 but which he was unable to prove. Indeed, the hypothesis is still unproven in a strictly formal sense though the evidence in its favour (mostly computational) is quite overwhelming. Furthermore, it turns out that the Riemann Hypothesis is the basis of much modern mathematical thinking and it also has a central place in the cryptographic algorithms that keep internet commerce secure, so if it was ever disproved much chaos would ensue!
The book is both fascinating and annoying at one and the same time. The author paints an intriguing picture of the place of prime numbers in the history of mathematics and gives many fascinating anecdotes about the various eccentric personalities who have been involved in the development of theories about these elusive entities. He gives his readers a real insight into what it must be like to work as a mathematician. But he never quite pins down the central thesis of his tale; he never quite tells us exactly what the Riemann Hypothesis actually is! Every time he gets close to a definition, he slides off into analogy and metaphor (generally musical, hence the title of the book). It's very frustrating. On the other hand, Riemann's work is itself both subtle and complex (pun intended, and if you don't understand the pun, think hard about the square root of minus one) and so it probably doesn't lend itself easily to non-mathematical explanations. The closest we can get to it is to say that when a particular zeta function equals zero, a graph of the function on the complex plane will place all the zeros on a specific line. But what that actually means in practice and how it relates to reality (in itself a slippery concept in such a rarefied discussion) is extremely hard to say.
I enjoyed the book; it was very mind stretching. But I'm not completely convinced that du Sautoy succeeded in what he set out to do.
|Paul Magrs||Never The Bride||Headline|
|Paul Magrs||Something Borrowed||Headline|
|Kage Baker||The Bird Of The River||Tor|
|Charles De Lint||Muse And Reverie||Tor|
|Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders||Swords & Dark Magic||Eos|
|Marcus du Sautoy||The Music Of The Primes||Harper Perennial|
In the interests of verisimilitude, I feel that I should point out that the combined toaster, coffee maker and egg poacher mentioned in the first part of this article really does exist; hard though that may be to believe. I keep telling people that I never make things up in my stories of everyday life chez Robson, and nobody ever believes me when I say it. But cross my heart and hope to die, this bizarre gadget is not a figment of my imagination.