Sunday, October 31, 2010

head over the water, on the Transporter

A couple more recent photo galleries for you:
  • The annual Swanage trip - a month or so later than usual this year, so we were even luckier than usual with the weather. The standard Saturday pub crawl had to omit the Purbeck, usually a focal point of Jägermeister consumption and pool competition, as it's still closed following a drugs bust earlier this year. We managed to work around it, though, by taking along a hip-flask full of Jag and having a ceremonial swig on the pavement outside. Incidentally the evil-looking cocktails pictured alogside the breakfast things are Green Bastards, which are made by mixing a shot of blue Bols with a pint of cider. Yum. The reason there's a picture of an Appletise ice bucket in there is that we were having a discussion about when it switched to being called Appletiser. Their website is a bit vague, but the answer appears to be 2001. The strange picture of the guy with the sword is taken at Kirkwood Park golf course, and portrays the proprietor in the guise of some sort of mystical democracy warrior; this is by way of publicity for his website. Have a look at some of the embedded YouTube videos if you like; if you're trying to gauge the nuttiness quotient you'll find the first mention of the Illuminati tucked away here.
  • We had a visit from Doug and Anna yesterday and to entertain ourselves we went to a couple of pubs up in Caerleon, most notably the Red Lion, which has nice London Pride, good grub and a nice big garden out the back with a gravelly pétanque area and a pub rabbit hopping around. The original plan had been to visit the nearby Roman remains, but we got a bit carried away drinking and playing pétanque and had to skip it. Instead we headed down to have a ride on the newly renovated Transporter Bridge, and very exciting too. It moves a bit quicker than you might expect, so the crossing only takes a couple of minutes, and it's free to pedestrians, so you can just ride to and fro all day if you like. The sign pictured shows the distances to the handful of other transporter bridges in the world. Anyway, we went across and back and then went to the pub again. We had intended to go to the Waterloo, which we've been to before to eat (and very nice too), but it was shut, so we went round the corner to the West of England instead, which despite the welcoming tone of their website I couldn't honestly say I'd recommend. Anyway, I took a few pictures from the bridge, which can be found here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

oh dr beeching what a naughty man you are

Here in Newport we're sooooo over the Ryder Cup. We're far more excited about the brand spanking new enormous branch of Sainsbury's that's opened up at Crindau, near junction 25a of the M4. So having negotiated the new traffic lights on Heidenheim Drive (aka the A4042) to get in via the main entrance I wondered if there was a sneaky back way in that might provide a short-cut. It turns out there isn't, or not a particularly useful one anyway, but while looking for an aerial photo on Google Maps I made the in hindsight fairly obvious discovery that Google's aerial view of the store is still of a big grassy wasteland. Which wasn't very helpful, but made me wonder: I wonder how regularly Google refresh the pictures on the aerial view and StreetView maps? And how would they know which ones need updating? Maybe they monitor new building works and the like and just send the car and helicopter round once the work's finished. Anyway, I'll monitor things and let you know when a new Sainsbury's miraculously appears fully formed on top of what was previously just grass and concrete.

What the cleared waste ground also reveals (via StreetView) is the interesting former life of what is now Heidenheim Drive as a railway embankment. Zoom in a bit and the brick architecture on top of which the A4042 now sits is instantly identifiable as a former railway. It's actually the former line between places like Cwmbran and Pontypool and now defunct stations like Newport Mill Street and Newport Dock Street. Defunct in this case for a pretty good reason, which is that there was (and indeed still is) another perfectly good railway line between Newport and Cwmbran, and two was felt to be a bit of an extravagance. In this case I concede Dr. Beeching probably had a point. The picture captures a fleeting moment between the warehouses that formerly occupied the site (and would have obscured the view) being demolished and the new Sainsbury's being completed and the whole historic edifice being covered with anonymous stone cladding (as it now is).

You can compare the line the old railway took with the line Heidenheim Drive now takes (and verify that they are the same) by looking at this old map and this new one.

Monday, October 25, 2010

yours sincerely, P Dantic

A bit more comedy innumeracy on the Today programme this morning, during a piece about the counter-intuitive robustness of the profit margins of companies like LVMH during the current economic crisis. Now you would naturally assume that among the first things to be pared back when the recession starts to bite would be the sort of high-gloss aspirational designer-label bling that people like LVMH sell, as people tighten their belts and start to buy fewer ruby-encrusted handbags and concentrate more on haslet and cauliflowers. Not so, apparently.

Anyway, it was mentioned in a similar context that sales of the new Ferrari had stayed buoyant, despite its carrying a hefty price tag of, and I quote, "347 hundred thousand pounds". By my calculations that's 34.7 million pounds; if you can afford one of those you're probably pretty much recession-proof.

A couple of other things that caught my ear:
  • an interview with Gerald Scarfe on the publication of his illustrated memoir of working on the Pink Floyd/Alan Parker film The Wall - Scarfe's apocalyptic animations being by far the best bit of the film; the live-action bits all being a bit heavy-handed and portentous, and featuring Bob Geldof looking mildly embarrassed (to his credit) about the whole thing. There was a brief interview with Roger Waters wherein he bigged up Scarfe's work and also let slip that David Gilmour would be putting in a guest appearance at one of his upcoming Wall shows, at which he promised to "make the poor old bugger climb the wall". Nice to see a bit of a thawing of the 20-year feud between the two: as well as the Live 8 reunion Waters and Gilmour played together at a chariddy gig in Oxfordshire recently, one that (according to the linked article) was "compared by Fearne Cotton". Compared to what? Oh, you mean compèred. Waters did also let slip that most of the communication between the two regarding the Wall gig was by their respective roadies talking to each other, so they may not be back on each others' Christmas card lists just yet.
  • a brief snippet of Start The Week with Andrew Marr in which he talked to, among others, Alasdair Gray, maverick Scottish novelist and artist. I've never read any of Gray's stuff (Lanark remains the book for which he's most famous), but on the evidence of the 5-minute segment I heard he is an absolute textbook comedy caricature Scottish nutcase, prone to extravagantly rolled Rs, high-pitched "eh, eh, eh" interjections as a prelude to making a point, random SHOUTING at incongruous times, and that less specifically Scottish (but still recognisably British) thing some shy people have of saying Proper Serious Things in a Comedy Accent (either upper-class English or American in Gray's case), as if to self-deprecatingly undermine one's own seriousness yet also slightly passive-aggressively draw attention to it at the same time.
  • on a similar linguistic/anthropological/behavioural note I caught part of a later show while doing a quick run to Tesco's at about 11:30am on which comedian Sue Perkins was revisiting some of her childhood haunts in Croydon. She was making a joke about drinking cider in car parks with teenage boyfriends (this presumably pre-dates her coming out as a prominent Showbiz Lesbian) and used the widely-used (but to my ear slightly grating) comedy construct of doing a gag and then saying "Ummm...." (it could be "Errrr...."; same difference) with barely a pause as if to say: hey, I'm just throwing this stuff out - you can laugh if you like, but I've already moved on to something else (note that the "um" never actually precedes another sentence). So it's something like "rambling comedy buildup, rambling comedy buildup...[pause]...throwaway punchline! Ummm...." It's another specifically British thing, I think, again almost undercutting the notion of anything so brash and vulgar and American as waiting for a laugh. Sandi Toksvig does it all the time as well (absolutely textbook example from QI here, about ten seconds in), as does Clive Anderson. I have a vague recollection of (rather incongruously) Tom O'Connor doing it back in the day as well.
  • Sticking with the Perkins-bashing (and I should interject at this point to say that I generally like her stuff very much) she was having a conversation with some bloke about some Croydon architectural eyesore, which he characterised as being shaped "like a square with the corners cut off", at which Perkins got all sniffy and said "surely you mean a hexagon". Trouble is, a square with the corners cut off would be an octagon, a hexagon being a triangle with the corners cut off. It's a small nit, but I felt the need to pick it anyway.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

nernernernernernernerner QUAILMAAAAN!!!

Here's my stab at one of those internet memes for you: type your name and the word "is" (with spaces before and after the "is") into that Google and see what suggestions it prompts you with. Here's mine:

To which I would respond, respectively:
  1. yeah, perhaps
  2. why certainly
  3. hell yeah
  4. why not?
  5. you better believe it
  6. meh
  7. you betcha
  8. certainly not
  9. huh?
  10. that depends where you're calling from
I've experimented by plugging in the names of some people I know with (no disrespect to them) fairly common names. The results range from the mundane to the surreal, as you can see:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

topsy turvy whisky servy

One last thing: it appears that the technique required to get a steady flow from the plastically enhanced Johnnie Walker Black Label bottle is to invert it fully, i.e. hold it upside down. What possible benefit there is to arranging things in this way I cannot imagine; you've also got to make sure you've got hold of the right bottle before you execute the 180° bottle-inversion wrist-flip manoeuvre, or there'll be a terrible mess. I managed to work this out for myself; just as well, as they never replied to my e-mail. And I was reasonably polite as well.

how do cardhu what you do to me; I wish I knew

Here's that whisky round-up I promised the other day.

I was in Sainsbury's a few weeks ago and noticed that they were knocking out Cardhu 12-year-old for about £22, about a tenner less than the usual price. Clearly this was like a red rag to a bull, so I snapped it up.

Cardhu is quite hard to get hold of - Sainsbury's is the only supermarket I've seen it in, and they don't always have it - for a number of reasons; firstly well over half the volume of whisky they produce ends up in the various Johnnie Walker blends, and secondly for some reason the Spanish are absolutely nuts about the stuff - it's the biggest-selling malt whisky in Spain. So there isn't a great deal left to be bottled as single malt and sold in the UK. I suspect that the page for Cardhu at the normally reliable Malt Madness may exaggerate slightly when it claims that "more than 3,000,000,000 bottles" of Cardhu are sold every year. I assume there's an accidental factor of (at least) 1,000 error in there, otherwise after two years everyone on the planet would have a bottle.

Anyway, the whisky. It's hard not to be subconsciously influenced by the funky squashed square bottle, which makes it look less like a single malt and more like something liqueuer-y like Glayva or Drambuie. So you're half-expecting something sweet. And then, as if in some kind of elaborate double-bluff, that's what you get anyway. You get a big inviting whiff of honey and shortbread, and something similar when you drink it, though it's thinner (subtler, you might say, if you were in a charitable mood) than you'd expect. It's nice, but it's probably something you'd have to be in the mood for - better suited for a warm house, a roaring fire and an Arran sweater than a hip-flask on a cold night in a bothy, when you might want something a bit beefier and more aggressive.

Secondly, Cragganmore - I acquired a duty-free litre bottle of this for about thirty quid on the way out to Turkey. It's another Speysider, and reputed to have been one of Michael Jackson's (no, the other one) favourites. It's another one of Diageo's Classic Malts, which in real-world unspun English means "distilleries owned by Diageo", as were the Oban, Caol Ila, Royal Lochnagar and Talisker. And the Cardhu and Johnnie Walker, come to that.

It's instructive to compare this with the Cardhu - the Cragganmore is a fair bit darker, and when you have a sniff you get the same sort of dry fruit-cake with a faint wisp of smoke that came with the Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve (though that was a bit smokier), and just the faintest bit of the almondiness you get with the Aberlour and the Tormore. It's much more satisfyingly chewy to taste as well; imagine a Christmas cake that someone's peeled the marzipan off, and then set fire to just a corner of. Probably my favourite Speysider of all the ones I've tried so far, which is not to say it's up there with the best of the Highlanders, but it's pretty good.

check out my 22 inch panhandle, and balls

It seems a bit remiss of me not to have done a recipe post since moving to the lavishly appointed kitchen surroundings of the new Halibut Towers back in June (the haggis sausages - haggisauges? - don't count as we were in Scotland at the time). It's very nice to have a kitchen you can get a television and a table and chairs in and mill around in casually while cooking, rather than the cramped single-file galley arrangement with the ever-present threat of staving your skull in on either the doorway or the light fittings.

That said, this isn't actually a new recipe post, so I've sort of lured you in here under false pretences. Sorry about that. Stick around, though. No, what I did this afternoon was make another big batch of meatballs according to this still unimproved-upon recipe. Now the mildly tedious bit of this recipe is the browning of the meatballs before introducing them to the sauce, a normal-sized frying pan will take 6-8 at a time so you're looking at up to eight separate batches, which gets a bit tedious, not to mention smoky. So I decided this was the perfect time to road-test (all right, stove-test) the bigger of the two paella pans I acquired last Christmas. The smaller one makes a decent-sized paella for four, but this one is twice the diameter (a whopping 22 inches), and therefore four times the area. So it should be ideal for a jumbo batch of meatballs. Also, our new kitchen has a halogen hob, so I theorised that I could just plonk the pan on it, switch all the rings on at once, and Bob's your uncle.

Sure enough, the pan turns out to be perfect for a full 2.5-kilo batch of meatball mix (I think there are about 50 meatballs here - feel free to count and tell me if you like).

The only drawback with doing it this way is that it becomes a bit difficult keeping track of which balls need turning, and which ones you've just done, especially as the four-rings-at-once approach means the heat distribution is a bit uneven. All in all it works pretty well, though. Now I just need to find enough freezer space to accommodate 10 portions of meatballs, or my diet for the next week or so is going to be (while delicious) a bit monotonous.

Friday, October 22, 2010

the last book I read

Eight Months On Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel.

Frances Shore's husband Andrew is something biggish in construction, and has just got a lucrative contract job in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Shores have just returned from a similar stint in Africa, so while Frances takes care of some packing and domestic stuff Andrew heads off to Jeddah to get started and Frances flies out to join him some weeks later.

As soon as she gets off the plane it becomes clear that the life she's about to slot into is radically different to anything she's experienced before, either in England or in the relaxed environment of Africa. For one thing, there's no question of her being able to work (she's a cartographer); she's also not going to be allowed to drive, and there are severe constraints imposed on her being out of the house on her own. This is reinforced by the set-up of the house that she and her husband are assigned: all barred windows, locked doors and high walls obscuring the view both in and out.

This sets up something of a conflict for Frances: on the one hand she's an intelligent and articulate woman who chafes at the repressive practices imposed by the Saudis' peculiar branch of ultra-conservative Islam, but on the other hand she's conscious of not wanting to piss on her own chips by disturbing the delicate framework of compliance with, or at least lip service to, these constraints within which the various expatriates, her husband included, make great wodges of cash far outweighing anything they could make at home.

So there's a lot of sitting around the house with nothing to do - after all it's too hot to be outside for much of the day, and when Frances does negotiate all the locked doors and gates to get out of the compound she runs the gauntlet of having decidedly non-Islamic sexual abuse shouted at her by men in passing cars. So she starts to focus on her more immediate surroundings - her neighbours Yasmin and Samira, the air and solitude afforded by the compound's flat roof, and the mysterious apartment immediately above her own, which is ostensibly unoccupied but from which Frances has heard occasional comings and goings as well as (she thinks) someone crying. And what is in the packing crate that she can just about see on the empty apartment's balcony from her rooftop vantage point?

But what can she do? As a woman she effectively has no voice, as well as no means of obtaining information. Yasmin doesn't want to get involved, and in any case she has her own problems with her husband Raji and his overbearing mother-in-law who has installed herself in the apartment while Raji is off doing various murky wheeling and dealing, not all of it necessarily within the bounds of strict Islamic propriety. Andrew should theoretically be more inclined to listen to Frances, but is unwilling to start rocking the boat with his superiors or the Saudi authorities.

It takes the arrival of a colleague of Andrew's from England, a dinner at which too much illicit home-brewed hooch is consumed and an ill-timed late-night visit to the roof for a bit of fresh air to bring things to a head, after which everything happens at once. Fairfax (Andrew's colleague) is found dead after a car accident (which may or may not have actually been an accident), Raji survives an attack by Islamic fundamentalists which may or may not have been initiated by his wife, and a body is furtively brought down from the upstairs flat and spirited away.

We never really find out much in the way of detail about any of the climactic events I've just described, in particular exactly what has been going on in the upstairs apartment; this is presumably deliberate, and intended to reflect the informational vacuum the Shores are inhabiting, and the way the Western contingent are tolerated and accommodated for precisely as long as it suits the Saudis to do so, beyond which point the mask of urbane Middle Eastern sophistication slips to reveal the brutally oppressive structure on which the whole society is built, and from which Westerners are decidedly not immune unless the Saudis choose to permit them to be.

To be honest I found the chapters describing the tedium and isolation of expatriate life, the forced hanging out with people you don't necessarily like much but who just happen to share the same language, the furtive drinking and affairs in an attempt to relieve the tedium, and the casual racism towards those whose country you're inhabiting more interesting than the climactic revelations; the screeching change of pace between the two sections was a bit jarring as well. That's not really a complaint, though, as overall I enjoyed this very much. Hilary Mantel lived in Saudi Arabia for four years in the 1980s so the book is clearly at least partly inspired and informed by that.

I suppose one of the reasons this struck a particular chord with me was that a lot of the aspects of expatriate life are very recognisable to me from my childhood, the 18 months of it I spent living in Bandung in particular. Indonesia, though also nominally a Muslim country, is (and was, even in 1978) a much more easy-going and liberal place than Saudi Arabia, so for instance the strictures regarding public drinking didn't apply (well, they did for me, but I was only eight at the time), but a lot of the rest of it is very familiar: the tedium and isolation, the contrast between the cool marble-floored house and the rasping heat and dust outside, the occasional encounters with huge spiders and cockroaches, the uneasy relationship with the locals. Obviously at the age of eight you miss a lot of the nuances, but I bet there were a lot of goings-on among the substantial international community in and around Bandung. I mean, what else would there have been to do? I should go on to say that obviously I exempt my parents from any suggestion of all this; I'm sure they were sitting around eating grapes and reading Proust.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

turkey - bootiful

More to come when time permits, but for the moment some photos of our trip to Turkey a couple of weeks ago can be found here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

howard's way

It was nice to see someone I've actually read stuff by - Mario Vargas Llosa - winning the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of weeks ago, and so it's doubly nice to see the same happen with the 2010 Booker Prize going to Howard Jacobson. There's a suspicion that this is one of those Booker awards that's made for a body of work rather than a specific book, a sort of Lifetime Achievement award if you will, but while I haven't read The Finkler Question I have read and enjoyed quite a few of Jacobson's books, the earlier ones like Coming From Behind, Peeping Tom and Redback probably more than the later ones like No More Mr. Nice Guy and The Mighty Walzer to be honest.

One thing I was struck by in the news articles, though, was the insistence that this was the first comic novel to win the Booker. Well, I'll grant you there have been a lot of pretty po-faced Booker winners, including quite a few I'm in no particular hurry ever to read, but to say that no comic novel has ever won before is a bit of a stretch, particularly when you see Kingsley Amis' 1986 winner The Old Devils staring out at you from the list. There may well be others - I haven't read it, but I would have thought 2003 winner Vernon God Little might qualify as well.

As I've said before, critical opinion of Amis senior's work has taken a bit of a downturn in recent years, but I suspect that's a consequence of a series of books of letters and biography that reveal him to have been a bit of a shit, and an increasingly intolerant and cantankerous one in his later years, rather than anything relating to the books themselves. The Old Devils is a very different book from Lucky Jim, as befits an author who was 30+ years older when it was written, but both remain absolutely essential reading. Those are the two you really want, plus perhaps Take A Girl Like You and Stanley And The Women.

Monday, October 11, 2010


I have a couple of whisky posts to do as we were on holiday in Turkey a week or two back and I've now learned to cash in big stylee on the ridiculous duty-free offers available.

These are in no particular order, so, first: Johnnie Walker Black Label. A couple of points of interest here, not least that it's the first blended whisky featured. This litre bottle cost me 32 Euro, which at today's exchange rate is £27.95, which in turn is the equivalent of £19.57 for a standard-size bottle, compared with the £25-ish you'd pay in the shops. It's a better deal than that, though, as the bottle came in a gift pack with two nice chunky JW-logoed whisky tumblers, one of which is pictured here.

There is a long and fascinating history to the whisky-blending industry - nay, some might say, art - but I don't propose to launch into describing it here (Dr. Whisky has some interesting thoughts, as usual). There's a general perception these days that single malts are where it's at if you're a true whisky connoisseur, but this was most certainly not always the case, and has only really been so for perhaps the last 20 years or so.

What you basically want to do if you want to become a world-bestriding whisky blending house is to buy your own distillery. That's what Johnnie Walker and family did when they snapped up the venerable Cardhu distillery in 1893. Teacher's did the same with Ardmore around the same time, and Chivas snapped up Strathisla in the 1940s. The point of doing this, of course, is to ensure a steady supply of whisky to put into your premium blends, and sure enough Cardhu single malt (of which more later) is at the heart of Johnnie Walker's blends.

That there are other whiskies in here as well is very obvious when you drink the stuff, though, as while there's an initial sweetness from the Cardhu there's a good drying chunk of peat and smoke at the end - I would guess, looking at the rest of Diageo's whisky stable, that it's probably a dollop of Caol Ila. Anyway, it's absolutely one of my favourite things and an excellent argument for not being all malt-snobby. If you want an everyday entry-level blend recommendation then Teacher's is unquestionably the one in my book (and indeed in my cupboard).

One weird feature of the bottle of JWB I've got, though, is this crazy cap attachment - unscrew the cap and underneath is this clear plastic thingy with a little rattly ball-bearing in it. I assume this is some sort of whisky portion-measuring arrangement, but a) it's far from obvious how it works, b) it dispenses ridiculously small measures and c) there doesn't (at first glance anyway) appear to be an obvious way of removing it that doesn't jeopardise the contents of the bottle. Quite frankly if I've shelled out upwards of 20 quid for a bottle of whisky, I'll decide for myself in what size portions I drink it, thanks very much. Consider me mildly annoyed.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

the last book I read

Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd.

It's 1770, and Thomas Chatterton is a poet, born and brought up in the shadow of St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, but now in London to attempt to make his literary fortune.

It's also 1856, and painter Henry Wallis is working on a depiction of Chatterton's death, using aspiring writer George Meredith as a model.

It's also something approximating to the present day (the novel was published in 1987), and aspiring writer Charles Wychwood is having a slightly peculiar encounter with an eccentric couple who run an antique shop in Kensington. He eventually emerges having swapped a couple of books for a painting which caught his eye, a portrait which his friend Philip declares depicts none other than Thomas Chatterton. The only thing is, Chatterton is supposed to have died at the age of 17, and the painting depicts a man in middle age. Intrigued, Charles returns to the shop to find out where the portrait came from and is directed to a Mr. Joynson in Bristol. In Bristol he acquires a couple of bags of old papers whose contents suggest that Chatterton may have faked his death and continued to write, under a variety of pseudonyms, for many more years. Well, that would explain the painting, anyway.

Various other characters join the action, firstly Charles' wife Vivien, who works at a London art gallery, the proprietors of which may or may not have just been duped into buying some fake paintings. Then we meet eccentric novelist Harriet Scrope, who is employing Charles to assist with her biography, but is also haunted by guilt at an undiscovered bit of literary plagiarism in one of her early books.

So you can see the emerging theme here: authenticity, fakery, the impossibility of really knowing the provenance of a piece of art unless you happened to have been present at its creation, the question of whether knowing the provenance of a piece of art makes any difference to its merit, that sort of thing. In addition to the multiple layers of all this in the book, there are others outside it: Chatterton, Wallis and Meredith were all real people who lived much as they are depicted as having lived in the book: Chatterton made his name with a series of poems allegedly penned by a 15th-century monk called Thomas Rowley; Wallis was not a faker in as obvious a way, but of course the most famous existing depiction of Chatterton, his painting, in fact depicts George Meredith, whom Wallis only employed as a model because he was working up to running off with his wife.

Eventually Charles' obsession with the Chatterton painting and manuscripts leads him to have some sort of stroke which eventually proves fatal. In the aftermath of this Philip takes it upon himself to take the manuscripts back to Bristol to determine their origin, and Harriet Scrope takes the painting of the older Chatterton to Vivien's art gallery for the same purpose. Both are eventually revealed to be fake.

It's all very clever, the brief interludes back in time to catch up with Chatterton and Wallis being played pretty straight, while the main present-day bit of the narrative has some archly farcical moments: the catty interaction between Harriet and her best friend Sarah Tilt, and the pair of screamingly camp old gay couples - Mr. Joynson and partner in Bristol and Mr. Cumberland and Mr. Maitland, the proprietors of the art gallery. In fact the general tone of the book might be said to be a blackly ironic raised eyebrow throughout. It perhaps revels in its own cleverness a bit too much, and there's no sense (in the present-day sections anyway) that real people actually behave in this way, but considering the potentially dusty and uninviting subject matter this is very entertaining and easy to read. Not perhaps quite as obvious a poolside lager accompaniment as the previous one, but it seemed to work out OK.

Chatterton was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1987, and is in fact the second book in this series from that year's list, the first being The Colour Of Blood. Other unsuccessful Booker nominees in this list are: The Children Of Dynmouth (1976), The 27th Kingdom (1982), Utz (1988), The Gate Of Angels and Amongst Women (1990), Every Man For Himself (1996), Unless (2002), The Accidental (2005) and On Chesil Beach (2006), plus of course the solitary winner, 1972's G.

the second-last book I read

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson.

So here we are again, then. At the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, our kooky anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander has just concluded a bewilderingly involved financial scam at the expense of crooked financier Hans-Erik Wennerström which has netted her a cool 3 billion kronor (about 300 million quid). She's also distanced herself from her erstwhile sleuthing colleague and lover Mikael Blomkvist, out of concern that they were Getting Too Close and she was starting to Have Feelings. Tell me more of this thing called love, James T Kirk.

Anyway, Salander decides to escape the Blomkvist situation by going on a round-the-world trip for a year or so, during the course of which she has a bit of a makeover by having a boob job and having one of her more obvious tattoos removed. She winds up in Grenada where she spends her time chilling out at the hotels and coffee shops, and also sexually initiating a local teenage boy in exchange for some ganja. All very idyllic, except for the occasional shouting and wife-slapping that's going on in the hotel room next door, a room which turns out to be occupied by an American evangelical preacher and his wife.

Meanwhile Blomkvist and the team at Millennium magazine are preparing to go public with a feature and associated book on the subject of sex trafficking, a scoop brought to them by Dag Svensson and his girlfriend Mia Johansson. Blomkvist has been making intermittent attempts to contact Salander, but to no avail; little does he know, however, that she has installed some spyware on his computer that allows her to monitor his hard drive from anywhere in the world. Handy.

After some exciting holiday activities in Grenada (getting caught in a hurricane, foiling the preacher's attempt to murder his wife, the usual sort of thing) Salander returns to Sweden. After catching up on a bit of computer spying she gets wind of the Svensson/Johansson story and decides to pay them a visit. The next thing we know, Svensson and Johansson have been brutally executed, Salander's fingerprints are all over the gun (conveniently left at the scene) and she's on the run from the police. Naturally all the evidence points to Salander's guilt, equally naturally Blomkvist is convinced she didn't do it, and starts a clandestine dialogue with her via his hacked computer.

But if Salander didn't commit murder, who did? And why? Could it be connected to the exposé they were about to publish, which was going to name names including some high-ranking police officers and government officials? And what about Salander's legal guardian and former sexual tormentor Nils Bjurman, who was also found murdered? And what was Salander doing getting involved with the sex trafficking case in the first place?

Not entirely surprisingly the answers lie back in Salander's troubled past - committed to a young offenders' institution in her early teens, she was then systematically abused by the psychiatrist assigned to her case; after running away from a series of foster-families she ended up being assigned to the legal guardianship of cuddly old Holger Palmgren, and after a stroke rendered him incapable of carrying out his duties, nasty pervy old Nils Bjurman.

But, still, what's the specific connection to Svensson and Johansson's sex trafficking case? The answer involves the mysterious Zala (short for Zalachenko) and some of his unsavoury sidekicks, most notably a Swedish chapter of the Hells Angels and a giant blond bloke who seems impervious to pain. As keen as the police are to track down Salander, these guys are even keener, and they have motorbikes and chainsaws and stuff like that. The eventual climax turns on the nature of Salander and Zalachenko's connection (which anyone who can read the first four letters of each name might have had a guess at beforehand) and the nature of the incident that got Salander committed to the institution in the first place. As this is the second book of a trilogy things are resolved as satisfyingly as they can be while still leaving a few titbits to lure the reader on to the third book.

As with the first book this bowls along very grippingly, as with the first book it's far from perfect though. It takes a while to really get going; I reckon it's only about 350 pages in (of a total of 560 or so) that the action really starts to heat up. Also, the prologue involving Salander in Grenada is a bit odd - the reader would tend to assume that the attempted murder there and Salander's foiling of it would be woven into the subsequent story in some way, but no, that bit just seems to be tacked on to reinforce her heroic credentials and underline (as if it were necessary) that she really hates men who abuse women, and is likely to get all Bud White on their ass at the drop of a hat. Back in Sweden, by the time Salander has foiled various attacks on her by men several times her size and tazered them in the balls, kicked them in the face, shot them in the foot, and so on, she's starting to come across as some sort of implausible cross between Lara Croft and James Bond. On the plus side, at least this one ends with some climactic revelations, shooting and axe-wielding at a remote cottage, rather than the anti-climactic ending of the first book.

Again, this is a lot of fun, but let's not kid ourselves that there's any sort of genre-busting literary revolution going on here. These are good, pretty intelligent thrillers, with an interestingly quirky heroine (who is just starting to veer into slightly irritating Mary Sue territory), and that's all. If you're on a sun-lounger by a swimming pool with a cold beer beside you, though, as I was when I read it, then it fits the bill pretty much perfectly.

the third-last book I read

Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

Here's the dilemma of the contemporary novelist in the aftermath of 9/11 - on the one hand, how can you avoid the subject of the attacks as source material? When this is all anyone is thinking about, how can you write about anything else? On the other hand, how do you depict events which pretty much everyone in the world has watched in unprecedented detail on 24-hour rolling news coverage without resorting to crassness and cliché? What are you going to say? Flying commercial jet aircraft into buildings is bad? Do we need to read a novel to tell us that?

Probably the only approach you can sensibly take is something a bit more tangential, skipping most of the widescreen detail that people already know about and focussing on something a bit more specific and personal. So it's no accident that the book starts (a bit like Slow Man) just a few moments after the main action has been concluded - Keith Neudecker has escaped down the stairwell of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre and emerged at street level just after the collapse of the South Tower. Dazed, covered in dust and debris, nursing a broken wrist and carrying a stranger's briefcase, he turns up at the door of his estranged wife Lianne, who lives nearby.

Gradually drifting back into resuming something of his former relationship with Lianne, Keith locates the former owner of the briefcase, a woman named Florence, and enters into a vague sort of affair with her. Meanwhile a performance artist called David Janiak has taken to suspending himself on a makeshift safety harness off various parts of the city in the pose of the infamous Falling Man photograph in a sort of mute tribute to the events of 9/11, or possibly just an elaborate attempt to annoy everyone.

Interspersed through all this stuff are a few brief interludes depicting the preparations of the terrorists for the hijackings, seen mainly through the eyes of a low-ranking operative called Hammad but also featuring occasional appearances from real-life hijacker Mohamed Atta. Gradually these converge on the final chapter where the events of 9/11 are finally addressed head-on, including Keith's escape trom the North Tower after the impact of Flight 11.

Of course the drawback of the excessively oblique approach to a subject is that the connection between what you're describing and the real subject won't be obvious; for instance what the significance of the lengthy section describing Keith's sojourn playing poker in Las Vegas is isn't totally clear. Presumably it's just to illustrate his retreat from "normal" human relations into an impersonal world of emotionless staring at other people across a table, and in a more general sense his disconnection from human interaction altogether. This post-traumatic numbness culminating in a cathartic reliving of the key events right at the end (plus the obvious aeroplane connection) reminded me strongly of the underrated Jeff Bridges film Fearless.

The scenes describing the events immediately preceding the crashing of the planes are powerful, indeed it would be hard for them not to be, depicting as they do loosely fictionalised versions of real-life events in which we know everyone is going to die. The rest of it, while beautifully written, seemed to be striving for a significance that it couldn't really muster, paradoxically because of its determination to avoid obvious real-time newsreel-style narrative of the day itself. Maybe it really is just impossible to write anything about 9/11 that isn't either clichéd, banal or incomprehensible.

Maybe the passage of time is what's needed - ironically the only other DeLillo novel I've read, Libra, addresses another seminal event in history, the JFK assassination. This couldn't be more different from Falling Man in that it's a big thick book, densely written and plotted and hard to follow in parts, while Falling Man is relatively short and very starkly written (and there isn't much of a plot to speak of). Ironically, though, excellent as Libra is, if you want a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the JFK assassination then the book you really want is James Ellroy's American Tabloid. You could always read both, of course.