Bookcases

Coronavirus and the lockdown have had a variety of curious side effects. For example, people have become accustomed to video conferencing in a way that they would not have considered a few months ago.  In fact, a few years ago, this level of video conferencing would not have been technically possible. TV shows where pre-lockdown there would have been a live audience watching notable people interviewed on a comfy sofa have changed radically. Now the interviewers sit at home while the interviewee appears in a picture-in-picture box, floating around the screen, talking from the comfort of their front room.

This, in turn, has given rise to a new phenomenon – other people’s bookcases. Granted, you can visit a site such as Goodreads to find out what people are reading, but you are only able to find out about your friends’ bookshelves. There is none of the voyeuristic thrill of seeing the bookcases of the unsuspecting stranger. This is a experience that lockdown has brought us. Today we watch chat shows not to hear what the guests are saying, but to see what they are reading.

For authors, this is particularly important. However original an author may be, it is a certainty that they will be affected by the authors they read. This is a good thing, because reading is one of the ways that we learn to write.

So, as we don’t have a video conference scheduled for today, after some suitable prodding from Hayley, I thought I show you my bookcases.

There are three of them, two large ones from Ikea chosen for size, and a smaller one which was chosen for looks, rather than capacity. The Ikea bookcases hold most of the books, one in the hallway, one at the top of the stairs. The smaller bookcase resides in the living room and has carefully chosen books for visitors to see.

And here’s the first bookcase:

The bookcase in the hall

It’s the one in the hall, and the books are two deep, so you can’t see everything.

What you will see in addition to copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River” is a large number of Terry Pratchett books. Of course, these days there’s not much remarkable about having Terry Pratchett on your book shelf, but I first started reading him when he wrote “Strata”, and before he was well known. If you haven’t read it, it’s a kind of proto-Discworld book. Straight science fiction rather than fantasy, and fascinating because you can see how the ideas fed into Discworld.

Alistair Maclean features quite heavily too – there are very few people who could write an action/thriller story like he did. He had an ability to write the big set-piece action sequences, and combine them with a plot that never felt contrived. Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat is another favourite on this bookcase. There is a string of Agatha Christie books on top of the bookcase, although you can’t see them here.

Worthy of mention is Genevieve Cogman’s “Invisible Library” series. If you haven’t read these, and you’re looking for a teenage/young adult book, then take a look at them. A clever idea and well written.

Scattered here and there you will also find various reference books, covering an eclectic range of topics.

Now we move on to the bookcase at the top of the stairs. Again, books are packed  two deep, and stacked on top as well.

The bookcase at the top of the stairs

Books that you can’t really see here because they’re hidden behind others include Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” saga, epic fantasy at it’s best. On the top of the bookcase, in addition to a number of Biggles books you will find Jack Campbell’s “Lost Fleet” series. Good military science fiction is hard to find, and Jack Campbell represents this genre at its best.

Various other authors you might recognise include Brandon Sanderson (who completed the “Wheel of Time” saga after Robert Jordan’s death), and China Meiville. If you haven’t read Jonathan L. Howard’s “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer” series, then you’ve missed out.

You can also find most of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles of St. Mary’s” on the shelves. The ones you can’t see are probably being read at the moment. They are highly readable and a lot of fun – another series I can happily recommend.

And of course, more reference books, and more copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River”.

The bookcase in the living room

Going back down the stairs to the living room, we find the bookcase that holds the book that we like people to know we read (including yet more more copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River”). Mostly. I will confess that Mickey Spillane is possibly not the most intellectual of writers, even if he does tell a good yarn.

On the other hand, there’s Seamus Heaney’s “Beowolf”, which has got to be one of the better translations. You’ll also find a book of his poetry in there somewhere. Probably next to Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series.

You can also see a scattering of titles like Garth Nix’s “Abhorsen” books, but also some by Catherine Aird. You may recall that she’s mentioned in the dedication of “Runaway’s Railway”, for having given me very good advice and encouragement when I started writing. Her books are well worth reading if you like detective stories. She has a devious mind.

Finally, you will find some of the novels of Umberto Eco, who really is in a class by himself.

Hopefully this little tour of my bookcases will have sated your curiosity, and maybe suggest a few authors that you might like to try yourself.

Concerning Chocolate Fountains

A Chocolate Fountain

Chocolate fountains are truly amazing.

Did you know that the world’s tallest chocolate fountain is 27 feet (8.23 metres) tall and contains two tons of chocolate?

Or that the instructions that come with a chocolate fountain tell you not to place your entire head under the fountain (presumably this means part of your head is OK)?

The genius of this device is that it is so simple. A heated bowl at the bottom for melted chocolate, and an auger. An auger is about the simplest form of pump there is. You know how an electric drill digs stuff out of a wall or a piece of wood? Same principle, except you’re drilling for chocolate. Once the chocolate gets to the top of the fountain, it then trickles down to the bottom, coating any items of fruit that it encounters on the way. It is so incredibly simple that you can’t help thinking, “I could have come up with that!”. Except the mere mortals like us don’t have ideas like this.

For me, though, the most amazing thing is how difficult it is to find out anything about the origins of this machine. You would think that for an invention of such great significance to human advancement a quick Google would provide you with everything you need. Indeed, you can do this, and discover that the chocolate fountain was invented in 1991 by Ben Brisman for a Canadian company called Design and Realization.

Except that isn’t quite right, as you soon discover if you probe a bit further.

If the chocolate fountain was invented less than thirty years ago, the chances are that the inventor is still around. Why not look them up on LinkedIn? Or Facebook? I mean, how cool would that be, to have the inventor of the chocolate fountain as a friend on Facebook? Plus, what would they have been doing for the last thirty years? Sitting around eating chocolate-coated strawberries? I don’t think so! What else might they have invented in the intervening years?

Except the inventor is not present on any social media. There isn’t even an obituary.

Eventually, you discover that although the Canadian company Design and Realization popularised the chocolate fountain (and will very happily sell you one), and that indeed the inventor was Ben Brisman, he invented it in 1920.

Ben Brisman is not on Facebook.

Finding out anything about him online is an uphill struggle. There’s no biography, no Wikipedia entry, just a void.

There are no photos, either. You might have expected a Google image search to bring up a sepia-tinted picture of Mr Brisman. He should be standing in front of a chocolate shop in America – probably New York, as that’s where everything seems to happen – a straight-backed fellow with a moustache, wearing a bowler hat and carrying a walking cane.

Yet there is none of that.

When I consider that my single greatest personal contribution to the culinary art is to put tomato ketchup in a cream whipper (this works really well – try it sometime), it seems a tragedy that Ben Brisman is all but forgotten.

I am very much aware that we all have many things to worry about now, many important things. But what better time than this to indulge with a chocolate fountain? It is for times like this that they were created.

And after all, how else should you celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its invention?

Free short story – Feeding the fishes

To celebrate my e-mail working again, here’s a free short story.

It’s not set in the universe of Runaway’s Railway, and it doesn’t feature any of the characters from those books, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

“Fishes” – section of a mosaic by Hayley Wood

Feeding the fishes

“Two handfuls of pellets from jar one,” read Mary from the sheets of hand-written paper.

She unscrewed the top of a clear plastic jar which had a large “1” written in indelible marker. Two handfuls of pellets were duly scattered over the surface of the pond. The fish looked fat and well fed, as indeed they were. They showed little interest in the grudgingly provided food.

“Don’t know why they keep all these fish anyway.”

It was a large pond, taking up almost three quarters of the back garden. Tilde, her sister, boasted that it was almost six feet deep. Mary knew that this was true.

She blamed Tilde’s husband, Jon.

He was the genius who had first had the idea of the pond. He would confidently assure any listener that each fish was worth over three hundred pounds. Mary shook her head. From her point of view, the only place for a fish was on a newspaper.

She sighed and moved back inside where there were more fish to feed, each tank with careful instructions.

Fish feeding finally completed, she began cleaning the house. More accurately, she continued the cleaning of the house. It was incredible to her that they could go on holiday and leave the place in such a mess. When she went on holiday, she always cleaned her house from top to bottom first. That way, if someone came in to check the house she didn’t have to worry about what they’d think of her. Tilde and Jon didn’t worry about what anyone thought of them.

For the last week, she had tackled a room a day, cleaning, scrubbing, polishing… The wheelie bins were overflowing, but gradually the mess was conquered.

“How anyone can live like this is beyond me.”

It wasn’t as if they had children to worry about. All Tilde and Jon had to care about was themselves. In fact, all they did care about was themselves. Yet despite that, the house was a tip. During the week’s holiday – which they had insisted on calling a vacation – she had been cleaning the house in microscopic detail. Every year they went to Spain for a week, and every year she’d baby-sit the fish, and clean the house. She ended up doing it every year. She could not bear the thought of leaving the house so… squalid. There was no other word for it. They lived in squalor.

Mind you, as her husband Daniel had pointed out, there was a certain advantage in that routine. She had griped to her neighbors about it every year for the last ten years or so, explaining how she had cleaned everything. Everyone received an annual information overload on the subject.

She dusted the living room thoroughly. On the TV stand the dust looked like it was an inch thick. There was a dust-shadow where a Blu-ray player had been, cables still hanging off the back of the stand. Not a DVD player, oh no. A DVD player was too last year for Jon. No, it had to be a Blu-ray player. Time to clean the place up might be strangely lacking, but there was time to watch a Blu-ray disc.

Eventually she gave up shuffling the dust around and used a vacuum to shift the worst of the mess. Then she could dust and polish it. A ten second job that had taken ten minutes because of neglect.

A space that might have once held a Hi-Fi deck of some sort received the same treatment.

That was the story of every room, but all had succumbed to her cleaning. Not a speck of dust or a fingerprint left anywhere.

What really grated was that while Tilde and Jon might not earn much more than her Daniel, they didn’t do anything with the money. If Mary and Daniel had had the same money that they did, it would have been used far more wisely. After all, Daniel managed to keep their house maintained, and ferry the kids to different clubs, while Mary took care of everything else. By comparison Tilde and Jon’s house was all but falling down around their ears.

The result?

Mary and Daniel lived in a better house, in a nicer area, with three adorable – if horrendously expensive – children.  

Tilde and Jon lived with a bunch of fish in the only house in the country that had decreased in value over the last ten years.

Mary doubted they even realised how much money they had. They certainly didn’t spend much, apart from on trivialities. Daniel had a shrewd idea, though. He had shown Mary his back-of-an-envelope calculations. He was smart like that. Mary had been surprised by the figures, and even a little impressed.

It was all so unfair.

Tilde and Jon did nothing with their lives, just coasting along. Meanwhile, Mary and Daniel put themselves out, trying to better themselves. And now look at it. Tilde and Jon had all the cash – which they never used – and Mary and Daniel had to scrape by. All that money, and they did nothing with it. Nothing sensible, anyway.

The Battle of the Dust complete, the hoovering could begin in earnest. General debris was dumped in the overflowing dustbin, clearing a central floor space. Furniture was shifted into the middle of the room, and the edges of the room were attacked.

“Oh, Tilde, you have excelled yourself – or was it that slob, Jon?”

Behind an armchair was the remains of a take-away curry, which appeared to be developing a life of its own.

“On with the Marigolds.”

She snapped the yellow rubber gloves on with an attitude like a soldier snapping a magazine into a rifle. She carried the offending item through to the kitchen. The kitchen had been a nightmare a week ago, too, but with a bit of attention each day, it was now almost usable.

“Not that they’ll thank me.”

Still, despite the kitchen units being rather battered, her husband assured her that the damage was only skin deep. Daniel was confident that the house only needed a few thousand invested to reach its full market potential.

“Could always sell the fish to get the money, I suppose.”

Once she finished with the living room, the house would be ready for the return of Tilde and Jon, scrubbed clean throughout.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tilde and Jon didn’t phone tomorrow. You wouldn’t expect it, not by the time they’d flown back, come through baggage claim and customs, and got a taxi. Actually, you wouldn’t expect it anyway, not from them. That was like hoping they would remember to send you a postcard. The next day, though, it would be strange if they didn’t get in touch.

When they didn’t phone, she’d pop around, just to check, and of course, they wouldn’t be there. That would be when she’d contact the police, who presumably had a routine for these things. She imagined it wouldn’t take the CID or whoever it was very long to find out they’d never caught the plane, or even taken their early morning taxi to the airport.

A quick glance would surely reveal to a trained officer the absence of the Blu-ray player, and other assorted oddments. All expensive electrical goods, the kind of things that might be removed in a burglary. As it happened, they had been safely recycled at the local waste facility, but who was to know that?

Any investigator would be sure to jump to the conclusion of a burglary gone wrong. Such a shame she had cleaned away all the evidence, but how was she to know?

After these miracles of deduction, it would only take the police a few minutes to work out why the fish were so fat.

Bats

Having just written about reliability, I am mortified to discover that my e-mail (kevin@kevinwoodauthor) isn’t working. My apologies to anyone who has e-mailed me and not received a response. I will let people know when it is fixed. Hopefully my service provider is still doing the support thing during lockdown.

Whereas I, on the other hand, have been putting up a bat box:

We have three bird boxes and an insect house, all of which are empty. I’m not sure why this is. It doesn’t appear to be location, as last year sparrows built a nest right next to the sparrow box that we had bought for them. Persuading them to move their nest a few inches proved impossible. The box remained untenanted.

Still, we have high hopes for the bat box (which was made by the wonderful people at the Stepping Stones Project in Skipton), and we’ve carefully followed all the advice on where it should be sited.

There have been many tragic stories as a result of Coronavirus and the lockdown. People who have lost loved ones, families which have been broken, people who have died doing their job at the NHS. If you have been affected, then you have my sincere condolences.

Yet one of the tragedies is still to play out. It has been suggested that a possible origin of the Coronavirus is bats in China. Sadly, certain people have drawn a somewhat wobbly line from A to B and decided to go on a bat hunt. It seems that these animals will become collateral damage of the pandemic.

A good reason to put up a bat box, if ever there was.

The conspiracy theories of people like David Icke (former footballer and sports presenter, who has had his social media accounts deleted for spreading harmful disinformation) are, at least, somewhat easier to stomach. After all, you can have a good laugh and feel suitably superior to those who believe them. 5G towers and covert operations gone wrong? Very amusing. Unless the exposure of the conspiracy theories is, itself, a counter-intelligence operation on the part of the lizard people known as the Archons.

Imagine the scene in the Archon’s secret bunker (located beneath Buckingham Palace, if you believe everything you read):

“How does that David Icke fellow keep uncovering one’s plots?”

“He was once an operative of the Archons. It is unfortunate, Supreme Archon, that he was able to escape prior to re-education.”

“Unfortunate? One is appalled by the incompetence!”

“Yes, Supreme Archon. The effects have been devastating. Revealing the British Monarchy as being rulers of the lizard race has been particularly awkward.”

“Awkward is too mild a word. One finds it incredible that the public is prepared to believe such things.”

“The analysis suggests that one’s difficulty with the personal pronoun is unhelpful in this respect.”

“One finds that difficult to believe.”

“Indeed. However, this still leaves the problem created by David Icke.”

“Is it possible to discredit him?”

“He appears quite capable in that regard himself – yet it only takes a few people to give him credence in order to disrupt the Supreme Plan.”

“Then use that American asset. One has a 5G tower nearby. Use it to reprogram his brain. Again. As soon as he says something, everyone knows it must be false.”

“An excellent idea, Supreme Archon. Initiating 5G mind control to reprogram the American asset’s brain now…”

Reliability

I finished my last post by alluding to the reliability of the Circumvesuviana train. A break down on this train is made more entertaining for the tourist as there are no announcements made. You are left to your own devices to guess why the train isn’t leaving the station. Eventually a member of staff will come past to find out why you didn’t get off the train. They are extremely nice (a characteristic I associate with the Italians) to the stupid English who haven’t noticed that the train isn’t moving – and just a little puzzled.

Strangely, I didn’t really go into train breakdowns in Runaway’s Railway. There was one allusion to a train failure when the Railway was herding Mark in a particular direction. There was also a locomotive that gradually fell apart due to accelerated entropy as the heroes passed through the Ghost region. Still, considering the thousands of miles travelled, the world of the Railway was remarkably reliable.

Unlike my shower.

Considering we are in lockdown, it has chosen the worst possible moment to fail. Not only that, but the part which failed is a little bit of plastic in the on/off switch. The shower itself is fine, and if you can manage to wedge the switch in place, it’s still possible to shower. You must accept that it’ll probably switch itself off halfway through, and then scold you when you jam it back on again, but it’s just about usable.

Normally, I’d call out someone to repair or replace it. In lockdown, that’s not possible, But! I am an Engineer! I am fully confident of my ability to repair the shower given the right parts. Except that the replacement has been discontinued.

No matter – contact the manufacturer directly. And yes, they have a few of these parts left in a box in the office. Wonderful! Except we’re lockdown. So, the office is closed. And my shower remains broken.

I couldn’t manage to find a suitable word to describe this sequence of events. Clearly, there should be a word for it – we’ve all had similar experiences – but there was nothing obvious. Finally, in desperation, I approached the writer of the Inky Fool Blog (and some rather excellent books), Mark Forsyth. He is an etymologist, a word guru, and a rather clever chap. Options for a suitable word are limited, it seems, so I shall settle for describing it as a multifail.

Consider, instead, this:

A surprisingly clever contraption

It looks like a bit of iron that someone has nailed to a couple of planks. It looks like the kind of thing that you would trip over and bark your shins. It looks like it will break at any moment.

Except it’s been there for about 150 years, and it still works. Not only that, but it’s kind of clever, too. In electronics or computing it would be called an inverting switch. If you push one side, it’ll make the other side pull, and if you pull, it’ll push. If you doubt that it’s clever, then cover up the picture and try and come up with a design yourself.

This demonstrates two things.

The first is that given sufficient cast iron, the Victorians could build anything, up to and including super-computers.

The second is that people would rather have something made of sleek white plastic in their bathroom, even if that means it won’t last 150 years.