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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (felis adjuro)

Bess 2002-2017

Bess was 10 weeks old when she came to live with us. It soon became clear that she wasn't at all well. A trip to the vets confirmed our fears. She had cat flu. But she was a feisty little kitten, full of life and curiosity. Sniffles and sneezes were not going to stop her investigating the world around her. There were adventures to be had, and much bouncing to be done! But even the most vital of kittens must eventually succumb to that insidious virus, and so we spent Christmas Day 2002 at the emergency vet. Bess had a raging temperature. She was so hot she was almost glowing, and she could barely move. All her kitten curiosity drained away and she sagged.

But that inner strength of hers pulled her through, and she made a full recovery – or as much of a recovery as is possible. "Cat flu is forever," the vet told us. "The virus stays dormant in the body for life. You might notice a resurgence every so often. Sneezing fits and the like, perhaps a shortness of breath." But we never saw any of that. As far as we could tell, Bess was never bothered by the cat flu ever again.

She was always fascinated by water. As a kitten, she would put her paw into the water bowl so as to stop the water running away from her while she drank it. Eventually she grew out of this habit, but her fascination with water remained a lifelong hobby. When Robin watered the garden, Bess was often to be found stalking the stream that flowed from the hosepipe. Sometimes she would leap up and bite it. She always seemed puzzled that it continued to flow after she'd killed it...

Bess loved all the high places of the world. She needed to look down on everyone, both for the sake of safety and for the sake of her personality. She also liked to hide and to observe the world from places where the world could not observe her back. A favourite observation place was the shed at the bottom of our garden. As an added bonus, it had spiders and beetles and sometimes, if she was really lucky, it had wetas.

She felt that the best way to get to her shed was to hurry along the top of the fence that ran down the side of the garden. Naturally it was a high fence, and it was barely a couple of inches wide, but that was fine by Bess and she scampered down it on a daily basis.  She always encouraged her brother Porgy to follow her to the shed, promising him untold delights if only he would come with her. Porgy actually preferred to amble at his leisure down the garden path to the shed. It was wider, it was lower, and it was infinitely safer. The top of the fence was really far too scary for him. But when your big sister tells you to walk along the fence, you do what you are told, if you know what's good for you. So many a time we would see Bess bounding lightly along the fence with Porgy struggling slowly behind her looking for all the world as if he was about to fall off in an undignified heap. "Come on," Bess would say. "Get a move on. You really are a slowcoach! Stop wobbling!"

Bess was a hunter. She was particularly good at rats and mice and she had a skilful sideline in lizards. One day she brought home six lizards, all of which I rescued and returned to the garden. At least, I think she caught six lizards... Actually it is highly likely that really she just caught one lizard six times. I began to suspect that this might be the case when I noticed that the last lizard I rescued was looking particularly fed up, almost as if it had been caught in this situation far too many times before, and it really wished that the damn cat would stop carrying it into the house. But whether it was six lizards or whether it was one lizard six times over didn't really matter. That day remained one of Bess' proudest moments.

She put her hunting skills to very good use when her brother Porgy was bedridden with two broken legs, quite unable to do anything at all for himself. She obviously felt really sorry for him and so she would bring him pre-chewed rats to try and cheer him up a bit. Clearly she was not without compassion, and I think that Porgy really appreciated what she was doing for him.

Y is for Yesterday is the penultimate book in Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" novels about private detective Kinsey Mulhone. If you have read the previous twenty four novels you'll know pretty much what to expect and you won't be disappointed. If this is your first "Alphabet" novel, you won't be disappointed either – but beware, the novel is not quite standalone. Kinsey is being stalked and threatened by a character from the previous novel (X). If you have read X you will know why the character is threatening Kinsey. If you haven't you won't – though actually it doesn't matter much. As long as you are willing to accept that Kinsey is indeed being threatened, you can carry on reading Y is for Yesterday as if it really is standalone.

The story begins in 1979 at an elite private school. A student steals the answers to an upcoming exam in order to help a friend who desperately needs to pass the exam. This sets in motion a series of events that culminates in a murder. The killer goes to prison – but he was tried and sentenced as a juvenile and so, ten years later he is released. That's when Kinsey's involvement begins. It seems that he and his friends also raped a classmate and filmed what they did. The film has now turned up, and he and his parents are being blackmailed...

It's a sordid little story about sordid little people. Kinsey neither likes nor approves of her clients. But she is a professional and she does her best for them, putting her personal feelings to one side as best she can.

The novel really tells two stories – Kinsey's involvement in the present day, and the slow unravelling of what actually happened a decade ago. Both stories are fascinating and gripping, but there are so many horrible people in the book that I felt slightly dirty after reading it. But, undeniably, it was a page turner with a delightful twist in the tail!

With A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré revisits the decades of the cold war and the events of his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. The children of the agents who died at the end of that novel have now grown up and they are determined to sue the secret service that caused their parents' deaths. Naturally the service does not want to have its secrets exposed in open court, but the people involved in that long ago operation are either long since retired or dead themselves. Nobody now working for the service knows anything about the case and the dusty files that might help them defend themselves have mostly disappeared...

Peter Guillam is called out of retirement by his masters and they pick his brains as best they can. The ghosts of old le Carré characters stalk through Guillam's tale and once again we meet Bill Haydon, Toby Esterhase, Jim Prideaux, Oliver Lacon and, of course, the subtle and enigmatic George Smiley.

The novel moves slowly. It is full of deep history and murky motives. But it is a masterpiece. John le Carré is well into his eighties but he has lost none of his skill, and his insight into the grubby morality of Realpolitik is as sharp as ever it was.

I didn't like The Western Star by Craig Johnson. It's the thirteenth book about Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County in Wyoming and I was eagerly looking forward to it because I thoroughly enjoyed the previous dozen stories. But perhaps thirteen is an unlucky number.

The story is not complete. It ends on a cliffhanger that will not be resolved (presumably) until novel number fourteen is published. Furthermore, much of the humour that characterised the earlier books is absent from this one. Henry Standing Bear, the most interesting character (apart from Walt himself) has very little to do in this story. I was very disappointed.

Fortunately the next book I read was The Drop by Dennis Lehane and it was brilliant. The novel has a convoluted history. Originally it was a short story called Animal Rescue which was later filmed. Lehane wrote the screenplay and then revisited the story and expanded it into a novel by incorporating some of the ideas from his screenplay.

Bob is a bartender. Walking home from his job late one night he finds an abandoned puppy. Bob is a lonely person and he adopts the puppy. The local hard man who abandoned the dog makes threats against Bob, but Bob is more than able to cope with them because Bob, once upon a long time ago, was himself a very hard man indeed and threats of violence are nothing new to him. He's had them before and he'll have them again. Indeed, there have even been times when he's issued them to other people!

The manager of the bar where Bob works used to be Bob's boss when he and Bob were in charge of the district. But Chechen gangsters moved in and, in the interests of leading a quiet life, they both went into retirement, leaving the district to the Chechens. Now they keep their noses reasonably clean. The Chechens own the bar where the two men work. It is one of many bars where money earned from gambling, prostitution and drug sales is dropped off for the Chechens to collect. So naturally the Chechens get a bit upset when their drop bar is robbed one evening.

And then a very complicated story slowly unfolds. Things are not what they seem and there is a tremendous amount going on beneath the surface. The only character who really is exactly what he seems to be is the dog. Everybody else has a secret agenda. Dogs don't have agendas. They are very simple creatures...

As part of another project, I've recently been re-reading Light of Other Days, a collaborative novel by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. It concerns the invention of a device which can be used to view events that have taken place in the past. It's an intriguing premise – perhaps one of the best uses of the idea was in a short story (also called Light of Other Days) by Bob Shaw and in an Afterword Clarke and Baxter explain that stealing Shaw's title was their way of paying homage to him, recognising the fact that he got there first.

The novel itself is cleverly told, though the "scientific" explanations of the phenomenon that allows the time viewer to be developed are a little too full of hand-wavium for my taste. This so-called science is so unconvincing that I got a little irritated at the large number of pages devoted to discussions of it. In my view these lectures simply slowed the story down and it wasn't long before  I found myself skipping them.

But once you get past the nonsense and into the story proper, things do actually start to improve. The novel supposes that the time viewer effectively abolishes the idea of privacy. Anyone can be observed in any act at any time. The book explores the effect that this has on society as a whole and this aspect of the story is well thought out and cleverly presented.

Along the way the authors come up with some eerily prescient predictions – the novel was first published in the year 2000. But nevertheless it introduces ideas of rabid patriotism and xenophobia that were quite foreign to the world at that time but which have since been implemented, to a greater or lesser extent, by a lot of countries. The book also discusses political pressures that, in the world of the time viewer, have led to the disintegration of the UK and, although it hasn't happened in real life (yet), the story also tells in passing of a war between England and Scotland, and of England eventually becoming an American state. Back here in the Real World (TM), the ramifications of Brexit make these predictions seem a little less bizarre than they must have appeared to be when the novel was first published.

So it's a curate's egg of a book. It has some very clever and intriguing aspects but it falls down badly in its attempts to justify the mad science that lies behind its central premise.

Bess ruled our household with a whim of iron. Everything had to be just so and if it wasn't just so she would curse at us until we adjusted things to her liking. She had a very extensive vocabulary that consisted mostly of swear words. "Rip!" she would say when things were particularly annoying. "Rip!" When she said that to you, you knew you were in trouble.

Her last illness came upon her quickly. Robin and I were with her to the very end. We have had her cremated and her ashes will be scattered around the roses, prickly self-willed plants, just like Bess herself. She'll feel comfortable there. She'll have birds to watch.

And if Robin doesn't keep the flower beds spick and span or if I inadvertently let the grass grow too long, I'm sure I will hear the word "Rip!" carried faintly on the breeze...

Sue Grafton Y is for Yesterday Putnam
John le Carré A Legacy of Spies Viking
Craig Johnson The Western Star Viking
Dennis Lehane The Drop William Morrow
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter Light of Other Days Tor
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