I have always been rather interested in the concept of alternate universes and the often related time travel theme. Both ideas are regularly tapped by SF/fantasy writers with varying degrees of originality but the latest one to appear, Replay by Ken Grimwood (Grafton £2.95) really is a little gem of a book. Grimwood has a highly readable style, often reminiscent of Luke Rhinehart which is no bad thing, and corny as it sounds, it is one of those books I couldn't put down. The pace does seem rather rushed at times but that is probably a reaction to wanting to see how the story unfolds. The plot revolves around the sudden death of the main character who instantly finds himself twenty five years back in time. He is apparently given the chance to relive his latter life, while retaining the memories of his previous existence. There are obvious benefits here, not least in the betting and investment line. Those who remember the excellent Dominic Hyde plays on TV will know the financial benefits of one day's knowledge, let alone 25 years. The only factor that dates the novel is that there is no mention of Black Monday so I suspect it was written some time before this.

The first of many plot twists is that he dies again at exactly the same time the second time around and it all repeats in a weird kind of continuous loop. I can say no more without spoiling the rest of the book but suffice to say it is a superb yarn that is thought provoking at the same time. The well drawn main character is a child of the sixties who has seen some pretty drastic changes that have shaped the world he knows in the late eighties, with which he is far from happy. His choice the first time is that which many would take - to quickly make enough cash to be very comfortable and have that solve all his problems, if not the world's. The subsequent 'replays' give rise to those questions that we all face as to whether the greater good is more importnat than selfishness, whether money makes one truly happy and what life is all about anyway. For this reason, it is in many ways a serious book but at the same time it highlights those joyous parts of life that hold true whether one is facing life on a multiple or one-off basis. The appeal of having a chance to change those decisions made earlier in life is very real to me, it is just a shame it will never happen which is why this book is classified 'fantasy'. On face value, it is a very competent, clever novel but is also one that may encourage some thoughtful self-analysis as it did in me. Excellent, my book of the month this time.

Browsing in Smith's last week I was confronted by Tom Clancy's mug staring at me from the cover of Newsweek. A quick purchase made, I read the article that confirmed at least a few of the suspicions I had after reading his first three books. What we have is an insurance salesman who came good in the best traditions of rags to riches authors and who is now enjoying every moment, as would I. The first book has now sold over four million copies and Clancy has earned an estimated $10 million from the sales and advances. He comes over as very much a good old boy, smoking heavily, shooting pistols, disliking commies and homosexuals and threatening to blow anybody away for hurting his family or spitting on the sidewalk so his politics seem on a par with Genghiz Khan. The novels clearly convey the black and white of the good guys and bad guys and have thus been very popular with the American forces mentioned and he is, apparently, treated as a hero wherever he goes. Red October was seen very much as Top Gun for the submariner arm and the upcoming film should reflect this. He also has reacted badly to critics who have termed his characters wooden. That includes me I'm afraid but Clancy gives us short shrift, 'A critic is someone who can't write and hates anyone who can'. Mmm. It doesn't change the fact that he isn't a particularly good writer as far as humans go but I don't think there is anyone to touch him for hardware and action. The next book due out concerns a defector and returns to the hardware emphasis with a vengeance. Patriot Games has been his weakest seller so far, so the people are pushed in favour of space-based defence. A fifth novel is in the works. I guess I will keep reading them despite disliking just about everything Clancy is and stands for.

Just occasionally the many pleasant hours spent browsing around second-hand bookshops are amply rewarded. Last week I was lucky enough to find a first edition of David Lodge's Write On, a selection of his essays written between 1965 and '85. It cost a massive £5. Unlike many authors, everything I have read by Lodge is enjoyable and this collection was no exception. Most of the pieces are literary criticsm in one shape or another but all offer a different angle on some famous author. There are also some excellent essays on the sources for some of his many fine novels. If you can find one, it is well worth a read.

With the continuing controversy over whether actually Cyberpunk exists as a sub-genre boiling away in the background, there seems to be a new trend developing which has been termed 'Steampunk'. The characteristics seem to be anachronistic technology, weird characters, a touch of fantasy and magic and a healthy chunk of human and urban degeneration, all usually set in the Victorian era. Typical examples are the excellent Anubis Gates by Tim Powers and Homunculus by James Blaylock, both of which I have reviewed, and recommended, in the past. They are now joined by a fine effort from K.W.Jeter called Infernal Devices. In quality it fits in somewhere between the two, not being quite up to Power's masterpiece, but still a marvelous yarn. The book is written in the first person and creates excellent atmosphere, especially as Jeter does an admirable job on his portrayal of Victorian Britain. A worthy addition to the growing number of books on this theme which, like Cyberpunk, I am rather partial to.

It has been a while since I have mentioned magazines as I have taken only a couple of new ones onto the already too large list. The best addition is Military History, an American import that I found in a large branch of W H Smith but nowhere else so far. The magazine is well produced, with some nice colour prints, and the writing is of an acceptable to high standard. Lead articles cover Inkerman, Simon Bolivar, Battle of Copenhagen and the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto. Interesting, diverse and very good value at £1.75. Subscriptions are available at $16.97 for six issues and I have sent off for a trial sub.

After Ellis' favourable reviews of various comic novels I thought I'd give some of them another try. As a rule I have never liked any 'adult' comics with the sole exception of the Freak Brothers which appeal on all levels. Further, I also fail to find many cartoons humorous apart from those in Punch. Perhaps it is just me. Anyway, it strikes me that much of the appeal of the likes of The Dark Knight Returns is the superb artwork and atmosphere thus created. The actual text is of course minimal but it is assisted by the drawings to convey mood, attitude, posture etc. The outcome was that I found it a good read but overall a poor substitute compared to a decent book. I appreciate the comparison may be invalid but there it is, I have no other frame of reference. I suppose it is that I like to do my own mental picturing rather than having it drawn out for me. I will be getting hold of Killing Joke, because I like the artwork, and that will probably be my last effort in the field unless it impresses me otherwise.

Company of Adventurers by Peter C. Newman (Penguin £4.95) is a fairly old paperback but I only got to read it recently on a longish train journey. It tells the story of the Hudson Bay Company from its beginnings in the eighteenth century to the present day. The company started out as a trapping exercise that quickly grew in stature to form the basis of Canadian culture that still remains today. The book is history that reads like an adventure novel and is fascinating stuff. The author has a unique style that is informative, easy to read and is liberally sprinkled with entertaining quotes. The subject matter is somewhat unusual but is as interesting as you could hope for. Definitely recommended.

Do you know what recent trend I really hate? Barcodes on books.

Mike Siggins. 8/8/88.

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