Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (tussis maxima)

Books, books, books.

I have a cold. My throat is full of barbed wire and foul green liquids ooze within my tubes and sometimes escape to the outside world where they slither between layers of tissues and down plugholes. I have a temperature and my skin tingles. I feel stuffed with cotton wool and the hairs on my legs are standing up and scraping the insides of my trousers.

I just thought I'd share that.

Serge A. Storms, the hero of several novels by Tim Dorsey, has spent his literary career chasing a briefcase stuffed with five million dollars across Florida. Finally, in The Stingray Shuffle, he catches up with it – with mixed results. And monkeys.

Dorsey's novels have a complex structure. Vignettes involving small groups of unconnected people make up the chapters. Slowly the people begin to intersect and by the end of the book all connections are clear, in a muddy sort of way. The vignettes are often surreal and always funny. Sex and drugs and sometimes monkeys play their part. Serge is a man whose brain chemistry keeps him permanently high. He has to take psychotropic drugs to even approach normality – but he doesn't take his drugs and so he sees the world through rose coloured brain cells. He is an obsessive compulsive with a fierce concentration and an urge to collect the minutiae associated with his subject of interest. His overwhelming topic is the history and culture of Florida. In The Stingray Shuffle this manifests itself as an utter devotion to trains. He doesn't wear an anorak, but Serge is a train spotter. At one point in the story, he comes across two college students vandalising a historic train. Annoyed, he kills them over the course of several agonizing days in a surprisingly imaginative way. The medical examiner who autopsies the corpses is astonished; he knew it was theoretically possible, but he'd never seen it done before.

Serge has a casual attitude to the lives of the people who come between him and his interests. The body count is at least nine and possibly rising. But that's what Florida does to a man.

In the final analysis, how can anybody resist a book in which Johnny Vegas, seeking to seduce Sasha, produces vast quantities of coke:

She vacuumed.
"Wheeeee!" squealed Sasha, hopping over the side and running down the beach ripping off her bikini. "Let's go see the monkeys!"

And a little later on:

He returned and pulled a watertight capsule from a velcro pocket.
"Gimme that!" She snatched it out of his hands and stuck it up her nose until it was empty. Her eyes glassed over and her lower lip jutted and tremored with predatory sensuality. Show time, thought Johnny. But instead of making her amorous, it only made her want to look for monkeys.
"Here, monkey, monkey…"

In Cadillac Beach, having finally found his five million dollars in the last book, Serge needs a new interest. In 1964, three champion surfers knocked over New York's Museum of Natural History in a midnight burglary. They made off with many famous stones (some so famous that they had names). Within days they were tracked down to Miami and most of the gems were recovered. But a dozen large diamonds were never found. And Serge's grandfather died bizarrely in mysterious circumstances. Serge's Master Plan requires him to solve these mysteries. To this end, he and his drugged up buddy Lenny form "Serge And Lenny's Florida Experience", a tour company. During the tour Serge and Lenny encounter a sports reporter, the CIA, the FBI, the Mob, Fidel Castro's secret service, some travelling salesmen and City and Country, two stunningly sexy blondes with a pot habit. There are no monkeys, but who cares?

Alexander McCall Smith visited Wellington recently and I went to hear him speak. He is a gentle, soft spoken man with a wonderful sense of humour and a white suit. The audience loved him.

"Have you noticed," he said, "that nothing ever happens in my books?"

Actually I had, and so had everybody else. But none of us thought that mattered at all. We just enjoyed the characters in the books bouncing ideas off each other, going about the daily business of living as they eat and drink and attend concerts and talk to each other and fall in and out of love.

McCall Smith made his reputation with a series of novels about the Number One Ladies Detective Agency. The books concern the deeds of a lady private detective in Botswana. One of the characters in these books is called Mr J. L. B. Matakoni. In his talk, Alexander McCall Smith told us what the letters J. L. B. stand for. He would never, he said, put it into a book, but because we were nice people, he would tell us that they stood for John Limpopo Basil. Mr Matakoni, he said, was rather embarrassed by Basil.

Both The Sunday Philosophy Club and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate are set in Edinburgh. Isabel Dalhousie is the editor of a journal called The Review Of Applied Ethics. She also belongs to a study group called the Sunday Philosophy Club which meets on Sundays to discuss philosophical problems. Unfortunately it is hard to find a Sunday that suits everybody, and the club has never met. Because of her philosophical bent, and her ethical interests, Isabel is well aware of the difference between good and bad. Thus she is, by instinct, an amateur sleuth. In the first book, she sees a man fall to his death from the balcony of Usher Hall after a concert. Her instinct tells her that he didn't fall, he was pushed. In the second book, a friend has had a heart transplant and is bothered by visions and memories that he cannot explain and which appear to have come from the donor of his transplanted heart.

In both cases, Isabel gathers the clues and makes her deductions. But her philosophy undoes her, and her understanding of the human mind and its approach to ethical problems is flawed. In other words, things are not always what they seem, a lesson she seems destined never to learn.

The books are charming, gentle and funny, just like Alexander McCall Smith himself. I loved them.

Robert Ryan has written a loosely connected trilogy of violent noir novels. The connecting thread is that the characters in the books are based on the authors and characters of popular children's books. Underdogs derives from Alice In Wonderland, Nine Mil derives from Winnie the Pooh and Trans Am derives from Peter Pan. There is an undeniable fascination in playing the game of recognition. A detective called Tenniel, a fat taxi driver called Edward Behr, a solo mother called Wendy. But when you stop playing that game and simply read the books as stand alone stories, they don't really hold the interest. They are quite ordinary stories of sex and violence with nothing to make them stand out from the rest.

Sara Paretsky's new novel Fire Sale sees private eye V. I Warshawski back in her old Chicago neighbourhood coaching the girls basketball team at her old school. One of these girls is called Josie and her mother works in a flag factory and is worried by what appear to be acts of sabotage at the factory. She is concerned about her future if the factory has to close down. The only other employment open to her is at a discount store called "By-Smart" which pays derisory wages.

The flag factory burns down. V. I. herself is injured in the fire and the factory owner is killed. As she investigates, V. I. comes up against the family who own "By-Smart". The only one who has any feeling for or appreciation of the problems faced by the people who have been put out of work by the factory fire is "Billy The Kid", the nineteen year old grandson of the founder of "By-Smart". He runs away with Josie and V. I. finds herself under pressure from both families as she tries to resolve the situation.

Paretsky often uses her novels to explore her political agendas. In Fire Sale she dramatises the battle between the rich and the poor, the haves and have nots, the bosses versus the workers, the morality of unionism, capitalism versus communism. Paretsky herself has socialist leanings that are unusually extreme for an American which makes her very unpopular in her own country (her last novel Blacklist took on the implications of the Patriot Act and she was vilified for it). She sometimes stacks the odds by turning her villains into caricatures – the thing that always gives the bad guys away is that they cannot pronounce Warshawski's name and don't even try. The good guys often can't pronounce it either, but at least they usually make an honest effort. This little writing tic gets a little irritating after a while. The baddies tend to have no redeeming features and the story becomes very black and white.

I must confess a bias. As far as I am concerned, Paretsky is preaching to the choir. I find myself agreeing with every political and social point she makes. Therefore I tend to forgive her sins of characterisation and her occasional mini-lectures because they push my buttons. Nevertheless those sins are there and other people find them more irritating than I do. I love Paretsky's novels for her stories as well as for her messages. Your mileage may vary.

Sir Robert Jones (Bob to his readers) has written another volume of essays called My Property World. In some ways it is just an update of his very first book Jones On Property, but along the way he makes his usual acerbic comments on the social and political phenomena of our times. He is particularly scathing about cell phones and sunglasses worn on the top of the head.

I love Bob Jones' books. They are beautifully observed slices of life that are often laugh out loud funny. And yet they are deeply serious (all the best humour is serious). The major concern of this book is the buying and selling of property and I found much of the economic discussion tedious for it is a subject that does not interest me at all. Nevertheless almost every page has profound insights and wonderful anecdotes and I have no hesitation in saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Also appearing with a new essay collection is Dave Langford. The SEX Column and Other Misprints collects together all the essays he wrote for the magazine SFX. What can I say? I laughed so much that I cried, and so will you.

In Crossfire Nancy Kress gives us a human colony on a far planet. Jake Holman has wheeled and dealed and put together a colonisation mission. Initially things go well, but then the colonists discover that they are not alone on the planet. There are a few isolated villages of primitive humanoid aliens. Oddly, although the aliens are all biologically identical, the villages are socially and technologically different from each other, as if they have grown up in isolation. The colonists refer to them as "furs". The truth is only revealed when another alien race visits the planet. This race is the first life form the humans have ever found that is not based on DNA. The aliens are plant like and the colonists dub them "vines". The vines are at war with the furs and the colonists are caught in the middle. Soon it is time to take sides.

The novel presents some interesting philosophical and moral dilemmas as well as some intriguing scientific speculation. But somehow it never really takes off – it is a rather plodding book, earnest and worthy but eventually dull.

Neil Gaiman has a new novel called Anansi Boys and a wonderful book it is too. Fat Charlie Nancy was named Fat Charlie by his father, and when his father named things, the names stuck. Charlie's dad was Anansi the spider god. But even gods die and at his father's funeral Mrs Higgler, his father's neighbour, tells Charlie that he has a brother who was separated from him when they were very young. His brother inherited all the god stuff, the miracles and the magic. Louella Dunwiddy made him go away and Charlie hasn't seen him since. If Charlie wants to meet his brother, says Mrs Higgler, all he has to do is tell a spider, and his brother will come. Charlie isn't convinced; but nevertheless he tells a spider and his brother duly arrives and then things get complicated for Charlie has a fiancée called Rosie and Spider falls in love with her. Charlie would like his brother to go away again but it isn't that easy.

As well as the problem of his brother, Charlie is also unwittingly embroiled in corporate fraud. His boss is a theatrical agent who has been systematically robbing his clients blind for years. The police start to take an interest and Charlie is set up to be the fall guy.

Only a god can straighten this mess out.

Anansi Boys is a complex book dealing with the dynamics of a son's relationship with his father, the manner in which ancient mythologies can manifest in the contemporary world, the machinations of financial wheeling and dealing, several love stories and the sociology of the Caribbean islands. Despite this complexity, Gaiman writes with such an easy free-wheeling style that it all slips down very easily. The book is full of humour, sometimes slapstick, sometimes subtle and while you may not laugh out loud you will certainly be smiling inside. It's a black, buoyant and utterly delightful book.

John Varley was a huge name in the SF scene of the 1970s and 1980s and then he fell silent for many years as he laboured to no great effect in Hollywood. He has recently started writing again, but his newer novels show none of the originality and punch that made him such a contender in the past. The John Varley Reader is a collection of stories from his heyday, together with a few new ones that have never been collected before. One, The Bellman, was Varley's contribution to Harlan Ellison's famously unpublished Last Dangerous Visions. The stores are linked by biographical snippets in which Varley discusses his life at the time each story was written. The biographical bits are fascinating and the stories are without doubt his very strongest. This is a superb and definitive collection. Even if you have all of Varley's stories and novels in other editions (as I do) this collection still deserves a place of honour on your shelves.

I will now go and suck on a throat lozenge, if you'll excuse me.

Tim Dorsey The Stingray Shuffle Harper Torch
Tim Dorsey Cadillac Beach Harper Torch
Alexander McCall Smith The Sunday Philosophy Club Abacus
Alexander McCall Smith Friends, Lovers, Chocolate Little, Brown
Robert Ryan Underdogs Review
Robert Ryan Nine Mil Review
Robert Ryan Trans Am Review
Sara Paretsky Fire Sale Putnam
Bob Jones My Property World Trio
Dave Langford The SEX Column and other misprints Cosmos
Nancy Kress Crossfire Tor
Neil Gaiman Anansi Boys Morrow
John Varley The John Varley Reader Ace
Previous Contents Next