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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (felinus minimus)

The Cat Sat On The Mat

It is nearly three months since Milo the Cat died, and the house has now been repussied. We have two tabby kittens called Porgy and Bess. I’ve taken four weeks holiday over Christmas and the New Year to socialise the kittens and I’ve done a lot of reading on my hols while Porgy and Bess have played around me, gouging lumps of flesh from my legs, arms and ears whenever the mood took them. They seem to be very moody animals…

We took them to the vet to have them checked out.

"What are you feeding them?" asked the vet.

"The usual things," I said. "Sofas, cushions, people."

"Just what they need," he confirmed. "Lots of fibre and flesh."

When we picked them up from the cattery they had small ulcers in their mouths and the cattery lady had some antibiotic tablets she’d been given by the vet.

"Nothing to worry about," she said. "It will soon clear up. It’s just a kitten thing."

As it happened she was quite wrong; there was a lot to worry about. My own vet confirmed that the ulcers were actually a symptom of cat flu and suggested that we keep them isolated from our current cat for they would be highly infectious and cat flu can be very serious in very young and very old cats (even the annual immunisation injections are not a one hundred percent guarantee of safety). So we’ve been keeping Porgy and Bess in quarantine in the downstairs room. Every so often Ginger stares at them through the window and growls and hisses a bit.

On Christmas day I had to take them to the emergency vet. Bess had such a high temperature that she felt like she was burning up. Her ulcers had spread from her mouth to her nose. She was shivering with fever. The vet gave her an anti-inflammatory to reduce the fever and changed the antibiotic from a tablet to a paste.

"It’s beef flavoured," she said. "It’s really easy to administer. They love it!"

The infection hasn’t slowed them down much. The world is wonderful, so much to explore. And everything is a toy. Sandals and belt buckles, ears and watches and medic-alert bracelets. All must be chewed, chased and tested for playability.

We tied a ribbon to a small orange ball with a bell inside. It looks just like a Quidditch snitch. Porgy has decided that it lives by the water and food bowls. No matter where in the room we throw the snitch, he always drags it back to the bowls.

Sometimes Bess takes a drink. But she hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet and she always puts one foot in the water to hold it steady while she drinks it.

It’s wonderful to watch the world being discovered.

James Lee Burke has a fascination for history and historical processes. The roots of contemporary politics and social attitudes are buried in history. Burke’s novels about Dave Robichaux are firmly fixed in the present day but none of them could have happened if the Civil War hadn’t been fought through Louisiana; if the generations of slaves hadn’t been treated the way they were. Burke sees the beginnings of things and traces their contemporary effects, and sometimes (as with White Doves at Morning) he writes a novel about the way things were.

White Doves at Morning is a novel of the Civil War. Robert Perry and Willie Burke are soldiers of the Confederacy. Perry is from the slave owning aristocracy, Burke is a poor immigrant. Burke has befriended a slave called Flower Jamison. He teaches her to read and write (this is against the law – both will suffer if her skills become known). Flower receives the help and protection of Abigail Dowling, an abolitionist from the North (and an organiser of one of the stations on the underground railroad that smuggles escaped slaves to freedom). Both Willie Burke and Robert Perry are in love with Abigail.

These friendships and love affairs play themselves out against the backdrop of the history of the war. Fortunes rise and fall – the mighty are brought down and the not so mighty have their moments in the sun. These are the formative years for much that will come after and the story is told with all of Burke’s considerable skill in the drawing of character, the explaining of motives, the analysis of cruelty. And over it all the sheer poetic love of the country and the people that suffuses all his work. He isn’t blind to the faults that he documents – rather he is forgiving of them, looking perhaps for explanations rather than the casting of blame (but some men are beyond forgiveness and their fate is often truly terrible).

Burke restricts himself to the social politics of the American south, but every so often larger concerns intrude. Several of his novels flirt with the metaphysical and in Jolie Blon’s Bounce (the latest of the Dave Robichaux novels) he hints at this more strongly than he has ever done before. In previous novels Robichaux and his other main series character Billy Bob Holland have had conversations with the dead. Always there have been suggestions that these conversations may not actually be taking place. But in Jolie Blon’s Bounce the character called Legion Guidry is quite explicitly seen to be other worldly. He is known only as Legion (and the biblical parallels are obvious and are explicitly invoked). He is an evil man. When Robichaux was only twelve years old, Legion threatened him with a knife, and despite the many years that have passed since that day, age has not mellowed him at all.

In a couple of quite disturbing episodes Legion is seen to be inhabited by devils (perhaps literally) and talks, on occasion, in a multitude of voices. He is a hugely effective symbol of evil but in some odd way also a literal embodiment. Burke gives him no redeeming characteristics at all and the novel is decidedly creepy.

Again, Burke’s interests in roots, in beginnings, is manifest. Ostensibly the story revolves around the rape and murder of a young girl. A prime suspect is a negro boy called Tee Bobby Hulin. He protests his innocence and Robichaux is by no means convinced of his guilt. But Hulin does seem to have had some involvement. The reasons are complex and they are buried in the past. The things that our parents and grandparents did can have complex repercussions. Tee Bobby Hulin is more than just a strung out, dope addicted, vicious negro kid. He’s a puppet being pulled on biochemical, social and political strings and some of the strongest and thickest stretch a long way back in time. Burke’s novels have a solid depth to them; they are complex and rewarding and extremely satisfying.

Andrew Taylor is another writer interested in roots and beginnings, reasons and influences. Requiem For an Angel is a compilation of three novels originally published as The Roth Trilogy. The first book is Four Last Things which is set towards the end of the twentieth century. Four year old Lucy Appleyard is kidnapped by Eddie and Angel. We (the readers) know who has done the kidnapping and what is happening to Lucy, but of course her parents in the book have no idea. Lucy’s mother is a newly ordained cleric (one of the first women to be ordained). Lucy’s father is a policeman. But neither God nor the police force seem able to help find Lucy. Macabre reminders of Lucy’s possible fate keep turning up. A severed hand is found on a gravestone. Legs are found in a church. The body parts are not Lucy’s and interestingly they appear to have been kept for some time in a deep freeze. We know that Lucy is the fourth child that Eddie and Angel have kidnapped. It is obvious what their fates were. But Lucy seems to be someone special.

During the course of the novel we learn a lot about Eddie. He’s a pathetic creature, easily manipulated by the much stronger willed Angel. However we learn little of Angel herself. That has to wait for the second novel, The Judgement of Strangers which is set in 1974. David Byfield is a priest in the village of Roth. He has been a widower for ten years but is now newly married. However the marriage is soon in trouble. Meanwhile he has a parish to look after. The village fete will soon be upon him. But all is not well in the village. A cat is found beheaded and hanging in the church porch. David’s daughter appears unhappy. The pressures mount.

The last novel, The Office of The Dead, is set in 1958. David and his wife Janet and their small daughter live in Rosington. Their friend Wendy Appleyard comes to stay. Her marriage has broken up and she seeks solace in companionship and gin. Also living in the house is Mr Treevor, Janet’s senile father. The seeds of tragedy and destruction are sown. Forty years later, Wendy’s grandchild Lucy will be kidnapped because of the things that happen in this book.

The story is told backwards and that is the most effective way to tell it. We quickly see events unfolding but we don’t find out the real reasons until a lot later on. The roots of the behaviours of some of the characters go back almost a century and the reasons are slowly exhumed and brushed off like an archaeologist uncovering a historical site and gradually working down through the layers from the present day at the top to the original settlement at the bottom of the pile. But we can only go slowly. Each artefact must be examined carefully in situ in order to understand it properly. Only when we fully understand one layer can we move down to the next to see what light it may shine on the one above it.

On one level this is a trilogy about social habits from the 1950s to the present day. Those of us who grew up in those times will find a lot here that is familiar. Gosh! Did we really behave like that? Yes of course we did, and it didn’t feel strange even though it looks strange now as we peer back at it through our modern perspectives. On another level, the books are about the changing attitudes of the Church of England; a subject which leaves me completely unmoved in emotional terms but which does have a certain intellectual interest about it. And there are people who have a passion for these things. There is erudition here for those who care.

But really the books ask the simple question why do people behave as they do? And the answers prove to be complex, complicated and utterly fascinating. They probably aren’t definitive answers, but they are answers (albeit sometimes from the realms of abnormal psychology). It’s all about roots and beginnings.

Coyote is a novel in the grand old manner from Allen Steele. A series of novellas chronicles the flight of a starship from Earth to the moon of a gas giant in another solar system. The moon is habitable and the bulk of the novel concerns the events surrounding its exploration and colonisation. Nothing could be more traditional and seldom, if ever, has it been done so well. It held me absolutely enthralled; I stayed up until the small hours of the morning because I just had to finish it and when it was over I felt a distinct sense of loss – I wanted more.

By contrast, Fallen Dragon is a novel in the grand old manner from Peter F. Hamilton. The age of human starflight is drawing to a close. The few ships that are left simply plunder the colony worlds on behalf of the big corporations who own them. There are no new ships, no new explorations. Lawrence Newton has taken part in several such asset realisation raids, but this time he has his own secret agenda. There are rumours that this planet has a holy place where a mythical creature fell from the sky millennia before. Here the people guard a treasure hoard. Lawrence wants the treasure for himself. But what he discovers is worth far more than gold, it’s the key to the universe. Nothing could be more traditional and yet it failed to grab me. I read the book over several days and mildly enjoyed it for it was competently done. But there were no thrills, no spine tingles, no compulsion to keep turning the pages.

So what is the difference? Why can two perfectly good writers tackle two traditional themes and one can succeed brilliantly and one can merely pass the time? I’m on very dangerous speculative ground here, but I think that one of them is writing out of passion and one of them is writing because its what he does to pay the bills. There is a coldness to Fallen Dragon, a distance and a feeling of writing by numbers which is simply not present in Coyote. If anything Coyote is by far the more clichéd of the two books in terms of both plot and incident. Nevertheless the coldness is not there. Steele gives the impression of caring about his material. He still finds the traditional SF themes exciting, they still have a magic and a sense of wonder for him and he passes that passion on to his readers. Perhaps he never grew up? Well neither did I. Perhaps Peter Hamilton did grow up, and somewhere along the way he lost the sense of awe and mystery; he lost the tingle in the spine that you get when you look up into the night sky and contemplate the infinite.

Nancy Collins made her reputation with a trilogy of novels about Sonja Blue, a vampire turned vampire hunter; a supernatural predator who preys on the supernatural. Now, in Darkest Heart, she has written another episode in the life of Sonja Blue but only a completist would want to read it for it is a very weak story. In a rather self-indulgent afterword, Nancy Collins makes it very clear that she is sick to death of writing stories about Sonja Blue and has no intention of ever doing it again (famous last words; as she admits herself). This weariness with the character is quite obvious from the novel itself which simply moves by rote through stock incident after stock incident. It never comes alive (it doesn’t even come undead), it just sits there like soggy suet. Don’t bother with it, you aren’t missing anything.

Ruled Britannia is yet another alternate history novel from Harry Turtledove. It is set nine years after the Spanish Armada successfully routed the British forces. Elizabeth is a prisoner in the Tower of London and William Shakespeare finds himself recruited into a resistance movement which aims to overthrow the Spanish rule and restore Elizabeth to her throne.

It’s really quite a silly book whose major reason for existing appears to be to allow Turtledove to write lots of Elizabethan dialogue, a certain amount of blank verse and to have a bit of fun with some alternate history versions of Shakespeare’s plays. This might be entertaining enough for a scholar but I think the general reader would like a little more and I have to confess I found that it dragged a little. Well actually it dragged a lot.

Visions of Sugar Plums is a novelette, a fable for christmas starring Stephanie Plum the bounty hunter. It’s four days before christmas and Stephanie hasn’t got a tree. She hasn’t bought any presents. There is a strange man called Diesel in her apartment (he just turned up, even though the door was locked). He seems to have some involvement in her search for a toy maker called Sandy Claws who has skipped bail.

In many ways it is Stephanie Plum by numbers; all the expected incidents and people are present. But nevertheless it is a delightful little story, extremely odd, extremely funny and possibly even SF. How can any of you resist reading it?

Joe Haldeman’s new novel is called Guardian. During the Civil War, Rosa Coleman is uprooted from her southern home. Eventually she settles in Philadelphia and marries a man who treats her cruelly. She and her son Daniel run away from the increasingly intolerable life at home. They travel into the uncivilised west and later make their way up to Alaska where they start a new life among the gold fields.

Guardian is a superb historical novel which brilliantly evokes the time in which it is set. The characters and places of nineteenth century America spring out from the pages and dance around you. They are so real, so vital, so lived in. It is a beautifully written and superbly realised story. It’s only flaw is the ridiculously clichéd and quite gratuitous bit of SF business that Haldeman shoe horns into the tale. It simply doesn’t belong and it spoils the whole thing. I wish he’d stop thinking of himself as a science fiction novelist first and a novelist second. Not everything has to be SF and some stories are stronger without their Sfnal elements.

Peter Robinson’s new novel The Summer That Never Was concerns an incident from the youth of his hero Inspector Alan Banks. In 1965, when Banks was fourteen years old, his friend Graham Marshall went missing during his paper round. No trace of him was ever discovered. Now, nearly forty years later, his body has been found and Banks comes to realise that guilt never goes away. He involves himself in the investigation and soon discovers that even though Graham was his best friend, he never really knew him properly. And as he delves into the dark secrets that Graham kept hidden he finds that some crimes never go away and some motives are timeless.

Like Ian Rankin and Reginald Hill, Peter Robinson is dragging the formulaic police procedural novel out of the doldrums in which it has been becalmed for a generation and is making it the vehicle for serious art. But that doesn’t mean that he loses sight of the story – he never makes that mistake. However it is the quiet art that gives his books their depth and solidity. The Summer That Never Was is simply superb.

Underland, the new Mick Farren novel is the fourth and last in his series about the vampire Victor Renquist. The National Security Agency has kidnapped Renquist in order to recruit him (forcibly) into their ranks. They urgently need his help. It seems that after the second world war, a number of high ranking nazis escaped into a secret world beneath Antarctica. In the years since then, there has been a clandestine trade between this underground world and the world above. The nazis have developed some amazing technologies (the occasional reports of flying saucers in the popular press are actually sightings of the nazi anti-gravity ships flying between here and the world beneath). Human teams have failed to infiltrate the underground world. Perhaps a nosferatu will succeed where human beings have failed.

Somehow Farren manages to make all this nonsense convincing and turns it into a rollicking good read. But beware, it is the fourth in a series. If you haven’t read the others, many of the references will leave you bewildered.

Tim Moore has had a brilliant inspiration for a travel book. In Do Not Pass Go, he travels round London visiting all the places on the Monopoly board and describing their history and importance (or sometimes lack of importance) in the history of London. The blurb on the cover calls him "the new Bill Bryson" but don’t be mislead by that. Unlike Bryson’s work, the book is not particularly funny. However it is particularly fascinating. I learned a lot about both the history of Monopoly and the history and geography of London (and why Cluedo is such a rotten game – I was pleased to have my prejudices reinforced. I never liked Cluedo). What a brilliant idea for a book!

Every year the Nobel prize is awarded to the good and the great, the leaders in their respective and respected fields. And every year the igNobel prize is awarded to the weird and the wonderful and the extremely odd. Marc Abraham’s book igNobel Prizes will tell you all about the inventor of the charcoal filled underwear that removes bad smelling gases before they can escape. It will tell you about the scientists who fed prozac to clams and taught a pigeon to tell the difference between the paintings of Picasso and Monet. You will learn about the years of research that finally succeeded in defining the optimum way to dunk a biscuit in your tea.

And let us not forget the man who produced a detailed mathematical analysis of the mechanics of falling toast which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that toast will fall butter side down more often than not. Similar investigation has also proved that if you drop a cat from a great height it will invariably land safely on its feet.

Inquiring minds claim that it is possible to combine these two avenues of research. All we have to do is strap a piece of buttered toast to the back of a cat and then allow the combined mechanism to fall to the floor. As they fall the toast will spin the cat round so that it can land butter side down on the floor. However the cat will then spin the toast round so that it can land on its feet. Whereupon the toast will spin the cat round again so that it can land properly, butter side down.

These events will repeat again and again and it would appear that such a cat/toast combination will actually come to a halt about six inches above the floor where it will do nothing but spin round as both the toast and the cat attempt to get the better of each other. Thus we invent both anti-gravity and perpetual motion with one apparatus. Isn’t science wonderful?

Porgy! Bess! I’ve got something for you…

James Lee Burke   Cadillac Jukebox   Orion
James Lee Burke   Sunset Limited   Orion
James Lee Burke   Jolie Blon’s Bounce   Simon & Schuster
James Lee Burke   Heartwood   Orion
James Lee Burke   White Doves at Morning   Simon & Schuster
Andrew Taylor   Requiem For an Angel Harper   Collins
Allen Steele   Coyote   Ace
Peter F. Hamilton   Fallen Dragon   Pan
Nancy A. Collins   Darkest Heart   White Wolf
Harry Turtledove   Ruled Britannia   New American Library
Janet Evanovich   Visions of Sugar Plums   St. Martin’s Press
Joe Haldeman   Guardian   Ace
Peter Robinson   The Summer That Never Was   Macmillan
Mick Farren   Underland   Tor
Tim Moore   Do Not Pass Go   Yellow Jersey Press
Marc Abrahams   igNobel Prizes   Orion

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