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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (jennifer iuniperus donovanum)

Spells are Overcast

Charles de Lint’s novel Juniper Wiles is another of his Newford stories. It is a stands alone novel  – almost all of the Newford novels can be read in isolation and in any order – so there is no need to do any background reading before diving into this one.

After a less than stellar career as a Hollywood actor, Juniper Wiles has returned to Newford to renew her acquaintance with Jilly Coppercorn and to concentrate on art rather than on acting. The high spot of her acting career was when she played the part of a private detective called Nora Constantine in a mildly successful TV show. But after the show was cancelled, acting opportunities were few and far between, so Juniper came back home.

One day she is approached by a man who is convinced that she is the real Nora Constantine. He wants her to take on a case for him. No matter how much Juniper insists that Nora was just a part that she played on television, he refuses to believe her. She brushes him off as best she can, and tries to forget about him.

The next day she learns from a newspaper story that the body of a man has been discovered. He had been dead for several days before the body was found. The man is, of course, the person who had mistaken her for Nora Constantine the previous day. Clearly Juniper must have been talking to a ghost, for the man himself was long dead by the time she met him. This kind of thing happens quite a lot in Newford…

It isn’t unusual for people to become so involved in a TV series that they sort of half believe that the people on the screen are real people rather than just actors playing a part. And some very sad people have such a poor grasp on reality that they honestly believe it all the way. They cannot be convinced that the show isn’t real. In our world such people need psychiatric help. In Newford that isn’t necessarily the case. It soon becomes clear that Nora Constantine does actually have a very real existence. Of a kind anyway. With the help of their Newford friends, Juniper and Jilly embark on an adventure to find Nora and rescue her from a terrible situation.

The Newford stories have always blurred the boundaries between reality and imagination (call it reality and faerie, if you like). That’s their charm, their superpower, and they do it brilliantly well. Juniper Wiles is an excellent addition to the series and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some aspects of the novel resonated with me on a personal level as well, which added to my enjoyment. Both Juniper and Jilly adopt rescue dogs and that, of course, is how Jake the Dog came into my own life. Both dogs have roles to play in the story, and I found that very satisfying.

Additionally, an important plot point revolves around a drug called succinylcholine – in the novel this drug is referred to as SUX (an obvious abbreviation given the accepted pronunciation of the prefix succinyl as sux-in-ile), but in my part of the world the drug is more commonly called scoline. It’s used in anaesthesia – it combines with, and therefore lowers the concentration of, an enzyme that controls the autonomous nervous system. This is the function that allows your lungs to continue breathing and your heart to continue beating even when you are unconscious. Lowering the enzyme concentration has the effect of slowing down the autonomous nervous system, and that makes it easier to control the actual process of anaesthesia itself. Unfortunately I have abnormally low concentrations of that enzyme in my body so if I am ever given scoline, it is quite likely that it will suck up (pun not intended) all the enzyme available to it, leaving nothing behind. At that point my autonomous nervous system will shut down completely and it may not ever start up again. That, of course, will have the slightly undesirable side effect of killing me. I wear a medic-alert bracelet to warn people about the possibility. Because of this, I really was quite thrilled to find that scoline is used as a murder weapon in the novel!

Juniper herself is a charming and welcome addition to the cast of characters who live and love and laugh in Newford. I’m sure that we will see more of her in future stories. A sequel, Juniper Wiles and the Ghost Girls has recently been published, and I am looking forward to reading it.

Desert Star is Michel Connelly’s new Harry Bosch novel. For many years, following his retirement, Harry Bosch worked in the cold case unit that was run by the Los Angeles Police Department. He and his colleagues had some measure of success as they cast new eyes over old, half-forgotten cases. But despite their success eventually the department was deemed unnecessary and it was closed down. Harry was put out to pasture. As Desert Star opens, a local politician has reinstated the department. However he has an agenda. The department must concentrate all its efforts on solving the murder of his sister. That murder happened when he himself was a teenager and the memory of it has haunted him all his life. It was never solved; nobody was ever charged with the crime. Now that he is in a position to do something about it, he hopes that he can bring about some closure.

Bosch is glad to be back in the unit. An old case of his is still nagging at him. The entire Gallagher family – mother, father and two young children – was murdered with a nail gun and their bodies were buried in a mass grave in the desert. The grave was discovered quite by accident long after the murder had been committed and by the time that an investigation was mounted the obvious suspect had long ago vanished. Bosch is keen to use the resources of the department to trace the current whereabouts of the killer. But his boss has different ideas. She insists that he must concentrate on the case of the politician’s sister. Bosch is reluctant, but for the sake of office harmony he does spend some time with the files of the case. Rather to everyone’s surprise, he manages to come up with a new angle on the evidence and, to cut a long story short, the murderer is identified. Not only that, Bosch also eventually manages to track down the killer of the Gallagher family as well. Justice is served very satisfyingly.

Connelly is an amazingly skilful writer. I have no idea how he managed it, but he kept me turning the pages of the book with eager anticipation even when the only thing happening in the story was Bosch turning the pages of the old cold case files. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and I recommend it highly.

And yet…

I find it quite appalling that a politician is able to use public funds in this way for his own private purposes, however understandable those purposes may be on an emotional level. Not only does he subvert the public purse, but once the go ahead has been given to resuscitate the cold case unit, he insists that one of his own staff members be appointed to it so that he himself can keep a close eye on the department’s work, bypassing the official communication channels that might filter the reports they provide to him. And such blatant corruption and unwarranted procedural interference goes completely unremarked upon and unpunished! Everyone recognises that it is taking place, but nobody seems to care. They just shrug their shoulders and accept it as a perfectly normal thing. That is the way the world works. There’s no point in fighting it.

I don’t live in America and so I have no idea whether or not Connelly’s depiction of corrupt politicians reflects reality. Are such people really so far above the law that they can get away with this kind of thing with no fear of any retribution? In the country where I live that kind of behaviour is simply not tolerated. Not very long ago a member of the government was found to be using his position and his influence for his own private gain. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to six years in prison. And even as we speak, a local council official is under investigation for a similar offence. Nobody is above the law and political corruption is a crime here. I prefer it that way...

I know nothing about Jonathan Dunsky and so, on the face of it, I had no real reason to read Ten Years After. The blurb suggested that it was a private detective novel, and they, of course, are ten a penny. But I picked it up anyway because the time and the place and the protagonist intrigued me – I knew little or nothing about any of them, except in the most general terms – and so I thought that the novelty might add a degree of interest to the story. Boy, did it! The book is utterly brilliant and it kept me up way past my bed time.

The story takes place in the late 1940s in Tel Aviv. The newly independent state of Israel is taking a breather after the withdrawal of the British forces that administered the protectorate and after the Israelis themselves defeated the Arab armies that wanted to wipe the country off the map. Adam Lapid, the private detective who narrates the story, is a Hungarian Jew. Before the war he had been a police inspector. But when the war came to Hungary he and all his family were transported to Auschwitz. By the time the camp was liberated, Adam was the only one of them left alive. He emigrated to Israel where he served with distinction in the Israeli army. When the fighting died down, he set up in business as a private detective.

As the story opens, Adam is asked by Henrietta Ackerland to trace her missing son.  She had grown up as a Jew in Germany. By 1939 she had seen the writing on the wall, and that forced her to make a heart-rending decision. She gave her infant son to a friend who was leaving Germany to travel to Israel. Henrietta planed to follow along soon, but the outbreak of World War II stranded her in Europe. Somehow she managed to survive the war. Now that the war is over, she has finally made her way to Israel. However she can find no trace of her friend or of her son – she isn’t even sure if they actually made it to Israel in the first place! On the face of it, her search is utterly hopeless. Reluctantly Adam agrees to see what he can find out. Somewhat to his surprise, he does come across some leads and he follows them back through Israel’s murky past to a truly terrible conclusion.

The immediate post-war years were when two paramilitary organisations – Irgun and the Stern Gang – were waging a guerilla war against the British who, at the time, administered the Palestine Protectorate. The Stern Gang have no part to play in the novel, but Irgun are very closely involved indeed in the plot...

I don’t care how you define the term, Irgun was a terrorist organisation. They planted bombs, they killed indiscriminately and eventually they succeeded in their aims – the British withdrew and the state of Israel came into being. One important Irgun operative, mentioned in passing in the novel, was called Menachem Begin. In later years he was elected Prime Minister of Israel and some time in the late 1970s he made a state visit to the UK. This caused some embarrassment because Begin was still under sentence of death, a sentence passed in absentia by a British court for his part in a bombing that killed a lot of British soldiers. It required a special act of parliament to set the sentence aside and so allow Begin to visit. I vividly remember the fuss and bother – it was headline news. Ironically, given his background, Begin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. Terrorism, eh? Who would have thought it could be so successful?

Anyway, this is the murky world that Adam dives into in his search for Henrietta’s missing son. I can’t say much more without venturing into spoiler territory, but I can reveal that Henrietta’s friend was involved in several Irgun operations, one of which failed spectacularly. As a result, there were a lot of casualties on both sides.

Part of the secret of success for a guerilla war is that the operatives know only what they need to know. That way, if they are captured, they cannot reveal too much to their interrogators. The tragedy that surrounds Henrietta’s son is a direct result of this extreme compartmentalisation. Left hands and right hands working in total ignorance of each other. There was a completely avoidable death hiding in the overlap between two Irgun operations and the ramifications of that death are tragic.

This is a truly stunning novel. Jonathan Dunsky brings the time and the place and the politics so vividly to life that you can smell it and taste it. The setting is just as much a character in the novel as are the people. The plot is satisfyingly complex and convoluted. The surprises are truly surprising. I loved it.

Inspired by the novel, I picked up The Dead Sister, the second book in the series. I was mildly disappointed with it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly competent example of the private eye genre – noir and gritty – but unlike the first book, it could have been set in any city in the world and at any time. The strength of the first book lay in its complete dependence on the time, the place and the politics. Because The Dead Sister had no such dependency, it felt much weaker in comparison.

A young Arab woman has been murdered and nobody seems to care. The police aren’t investigating, she was only a prostitute, she didn’t really matter to anyone. They consider the case closed. Adam is hired by the dead woman’s brother to find out what happened. Apart from some considerations which suggest that it might have been a so-called "honour killing" there is really nothing much to tie it to Tel Aviv in 1949. The solution turns out to revolve around normal dirtbag criminals committing normal dirtbag crimes, so to that extent it really tells quite a timeless story.

On the other hand, the novel is full of beautifully observed characters who are, without exception, products of their time. Once again Auschwitz looms large in the background. The character development is what kept me turning the pages. I really wanted to know what happened to all these people. I was much less interested in the crime itself, it was all too ordinary.

The ending was extremely satisfactory. All the loose ends were tied up neatly in a bow. It’s by no means a bad book, it’s just somewhat routine and predictable, something which was never true of the first novel. But that certainly hasn’t put me off reading Jonathan Dunsky. I will definitely be seeking out more of his novels.

Lisa Jewell’s novel The Family Upstairs is one of those extremely satisfying books that takes great delight in turning the tables on your expectations. You start off knowing everything – it’s all quite clear and logical (though definitely more than a little odd). You know who’s who, you know what’s what and you know why is why. It all makes perfect sense. But as you continue to read the story you start find out that almost everything you thought you knew is completely wrong and you constantly have to re-examine your assumptions and the events on the basis of your new knowledge. It’s an extraordinary clever accomplishment. I read the book with ever increasing delight as the jigsaw pieces slowly slotted into place.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find a letter from her solicitor. She has always known that this letter would arrive, and she knows roughly what it will contain. Now, for the first time in her life, she will get to know the details of who she really is.

The letter tells her the identity of her birth parents and of how they had died in a suicide pact when Libby was just a little baby. Their will made Libby the sole inheritor of her parents’ house despite the fact that her parents had two other children, Lucy and Henry. But her older siblings are not mentioned in the will. Only Libby will inherit…

The house is on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighbourhood. It is worth many millions of pounds. Suddenly Libby has become a very rich woman indeed!

From the letter and from conversations with her solicitor, Libby learns that twenty-five years ago, police broke in to the house in order to investigate reports of a crying baby. There they found a healthy ten-month-old girl, Libby herself, happily cooing in her crib. Downstairs in the kitchen they found three dead bodies, Libby’s parents and an unidentified man. A scrawled suicide note lay beside them.

Neighbours reported that four children had been living in the house, Henry, Lucy and two others who belonged to the tenants that Libby’s parents had taken in. Nobody really knew just how many adults were actually living in the house or what their relationships were – they kept themselves to themselves, so it was very hard to tell. But however many people had been living there, none of them were living there now. Apart from Libby and the three dead bodies, the house was completely empty. Henry, Lucy and everybody else had vanished, leaving no trace of themselves behind. The trail quickly grew cold. Libby was taken into foster care, the house was boarded up, and the police lost interest.

Now, twenty five years later, Libby has received her letter. And at the same time, unbeknown to Libby, Lucy – who is now living in France – receives a text message. It simply reminds her that the baby is twenty five. Clearly it is time for Lucy to go back home. Henry needs her…

I’ve been very careful to tell you no lies in this summary but, like Lisa Jewell herself, I’ve been equally careful not to tell you very much of the truth either. Remember, nothing is what it seems to be.

The story is told in alternating chapters by three people, all of whom are unreliable narrators. Libby, Lucy and Henry each have their own agendas. Slowly we begin to learn what happened in the house all those years ago and, more importantly, we find out what is happening now as Lucy and Henry edge ever closer to Libby, and their intentions become ever more clear. The tone becomes very dark indeed when we find out about David Thomsen (yes, that is the right spelling), a charismatic cult-leader who infiltrated the house and dominated the people who lived there. Unending abuse, both physical and psychological, eventually drove some of those people to take extreme measures. It was a matter of survival. Everyone, adults and children alike, has a breaking point and when a person breaks, they tend to break all the way. Under the right circumstances, everybody can turn into a murderer. I did not have it in me to blame anyone for what they did to escape their torment, and horrible though their crimes were, I felt that they were necessary crimes and I found myself hoping that the culprits would never be found out, and that they would never be punished.

The book finishes with several loose ends unresolved and questions unanswered. For example, we never find out what happened to Justin, a cult member who broke early and who mysteriously vanished one day. We are also not certain about what happened to Phin, David Thomsen’s son. Eager to learn more, I picked up the sequel, The Family Remains.

It starts pretty much where the first novel left off, and though Lisa Jewell does an excellent job of explaining the background, I’m not sure that it can be read as a stand alone novel – too many nuances will be lost.

The story opens with someone discovering a black plastic bag full of human bones in the mud banks of the River Thames. Anybody who has read the first book will immediately know whose bones they are and for once, despite Lisa Jewell’s penchant for obfuscation and plot twists, they will be right. The bones really are those of the obvious person.

Forensic analysis suggests that the person was murdered some twenty five years ago, but the bones themselves have only been in the river for a year or so. Where has the body been for the last quarter of a century? Further forensic evidence leads Detective Inspector Samuel Owosu to the roof of the house in Chelsea that Libby has just inherited. It seems clear that the body lay on the roof for many years before being hurriedly disposed of  just before Libby took possession of the house. Obviously Libby could not have done any of this, she was only a baby when the murder was committed. So who did it. And why?

Once again we get to follow a tangled and twisted tale through a lot of dark and dangerous places. The loose ends from the first novel are all tied up nicely – we find out just what happened to Justin and to Phin. Justin’s tale is a sad one, Phin’s is actually rather happy in many ways, which is more than a little odd for a story as sadly horrific as this one is. I suppose it makes up for his terrible childhood. We also learn a lot more about Lucy and Henry. I finished The Family Upstairs feeling somewhat ambivalent about Lucy, and positively despising Henry. I finished The Family Remains appreciating and understanding them both. I was much more on their side than I had been before. That’s an amazing about turn and it just goes to show how well Lisa Jewell manages to ring the changes on such uncompromisingly nasty material. Like the first novel, this book is a tour de force. Taken together they are simply stunning.

Sam McAlister’s Scoops is subtitled The BBC's Most Shocking Interviews from Prince Andrew to Steven Seagal and that sums up the content quite precisely. Sam McAlister was a researcher and producer for the prestigious Newsnight programme, the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs platform. Her job was to seek out potential interviewees, to make the appropriate behind the scenes arrangements that would bring the interview to the screen, and to research the background details that would provide ammunition for the pointed questions that the interviewer would pose. Often setting up an interview involved prolonged and intricate behind the scenes negotiations lasting for months (or sometimes years). She was extraordinarily skilful at persuading people to come forward and at digging up the dirt on them. As a result she organised some quite amazing interviews.

Her greatest coup, of course, was setting up the famous interview in which Prince Andrew shot himself in the foot and then followed that up by blowing his whole leg off. He made a complete fool of himself over the sex scandals with which he may or may not have been involved. His fatuous (and quite obvious) lies left his life and his career in ruins. In the days that followed, he was stripped of his ranks and titles and removed from his public duties. More than half the book is dedicated to the story of how McAlister went about setting that interview up. Mainly it involved her taking advantage of Andrew’s complete naivety about the way the world really works. He comes across as an amazingly shallow and gullible person. I suppose that is part and parcel of living such a shielded life. Once the interview was over and the damning revelations were safely in the can, McAlister observed that he was ebullient and very cheerful. He  seemed to be extraordinarily pleased with the way things had gone. He honestly felt that he had made a good impression, that he had rescued his reputation and that the rumours and the scandal would wither and die leaving him clean and unsullied. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth.

McAlister herself comes across as rather manipulative, egocentric and cynical. Probably these are required characteristics – I doubt that she could have been so successful at her job without them. But it doesn’t make her a nice person and I was very struck by how little sympathy she had when her squirming victims talked themselves into a scandalous corner. Often she seemed to be quite gleeful at the revelations that came out in the interviews. She felt that they made great television – which they certainly did, but at what price? Although this is a fascinating and absorbing book, I found its coldness and its lack of humanity really rather distasteful.

Charles de Lint Juniper Wiles Triskell Press
Michael Connelly Desert Star Little, Brown
Jonathan Dunsky Ten Years Gone Kindle
Jonathan Dunsky The Dead Sister Kindle
Lisa Jewell The Family Upstairs Atria Books
Lisa Jewell The Family Remains Atria Books
Sam McAlister Scoops Oneworld Publications
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