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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (felix felicitatus)

Like A Fire In A Fireplace, My Cat Goes Out At Night

A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking is an utterly delightful (and quite delicious!) novel by the pseudonymous T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon). Mona is fourteen years old but already she has found her niche in the world. She’s a baker. Every day she goes to work in her Aunt’s bakery turning dough into bread and cookies. That’s her magical talent – she has the ability to persuade dough to want to bake itself well and she can persuade already baked goods to be a little better and a little tastier than they might otherwise have wanted to be. It’s not much of a magical talent, perhaps, but it’s hers and she’s proud of it. She’s very, very good at what she does, and if you ask her nicely, she’ll make the gingerbread men dance for you.

Then one day her world comes crashing down around her ears. An assassin is stalking the streets of the city. Magic workers are being hunted down and killed no matter how small their magical talent may be. Soon there will be nobody left who can work any magic at all and when that happens the city will be vulnerable, and the barbarian armies will invade.

Clearly the future of the city is at stake. Only Mona, one of the very few surviving magic users, can save it. But how do you defend a city with bread? How do you repel an invading army with dough? That’s quite a conundrum for Mona to solve…

The book made me laugh a lot. I never knew you could make so many jokes about bread or that there was so much humour to be found in the simple act of baking. The book is also full of delightful people, not all of whom have magic powers and not all of whom are human. I particularly enjoyed meeting Bob, the sourdough starter who leads a rather gloopy, egocentric and occasionally vicious life in a bucket down in the bakery’s basement. Mess with him at your peril – he doesn’t only eat flour (though it is his preferred choice of refreshment). Every so often Mona finds that Bob’s bucket has moved across the basement and he is surrounded by the remains of the rats that he has stalked and eaten. For some reason, he never eats the bones. Mona has to clear those up for him. Bob does not have much of a vocabulary but nevertheless he steals every scene in which he appears:

He likes me best, maybe because I feed him the most often. He tolerates Aunt Tabitha. My uncle won’t go into the basement any more, he claims Bob actually hissed at him once. It would have been a belching sort of hiss, I imagine.

I dumped the flour in on top of Bob, and he glubbed happily in his bucket and extended a sort of mushy tentacle. I pulled it off, and the starter settled back and began digesting the flour. He doesn’t seem to mind me taking bits to make bread, and it’s still the best sourdough in town.

We just don’t tell anybody about the eating-rats thing.

I’m also very fond of Knackering Molly whose (very minor) magical talent is that she can make dead horses get up and walk themselves down to the knackers yard so that they can turn themselves into glue. That may not sound like much of a talent, but my goodness it has its uses:

...[horses] die like everybody else, and when they’re dead, they’re about a thousand pounds of meat and bone that you have to dispose of before it starts to stink. The knackermen who run the big rendering yards at the edge of town will pay money for the dead horse, but they also charge money to come take it away, and they have to roll a cart in, and the cart takes up space and disrupts traffic and blocks people’s doorways. Then the people loading the horse onto the cart want to get paid, and sometimes they have to start butchering the horse right there if they can’t carry it out and it’s just a horrible business with blood and nastiness everywhere, and the neighbours get very put out.

Or you can go get Knackering Molly, and for sixpence, she’ll put her hand on the horse’s head, and it will stand up and walk to the knackers under its own power. It’s still pretty horrible to watch, but it’s a lot less trouble.

I have nothing but praise for A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking. I’m grinning from ear to ear at the remembrance of it as I write these words. It’s the funniest and most delightful book I’ve read in ages.

Most of Darynda Jones’ novels have a supernatural element to them and I approached her Sunshine trilogy expecting more of the same. But I didn’t find it, except perhaps very, very vaguely. The books are just crime thrillers pure and (not very) simple. They are full of Darynda Jones’ normal wit and humour, and they are peopled by delightfully eccentric characters, but I must confess that I was a little bit disappointed by the general absence of any significant hint of the fantastical.

In the first book of the trilogy, we meet Sunshine Vicram who lives in the small village of Del Sol, New Mexico. Somehow or other she’s got herself elected Sheriff. She’s not quite sure how that happened. She certainly didn’t put her name on the ballot. Indeed, when the election was held, she wasn’t even living in the village! She’d moved away years ago. But somehow her parents got her name put forward and they managed to get her elected. So now, perhaps out of a misplaced sense of duty, she has returned to Del Sol to take on the responsibilities of Sheriff. To begin with, those responsibilities are much as expected – there’s a very inventive flasher called Doug and a very bad tempered rooster called Puff Daddy who has been kidnapped. It’s no secret who the kidnapper is. The sticking plasters and bandages that festoon his face and limbs really are a dead give away. But soon things get a lot darker. A teenage girl has gone missing and now Sunshine has a big, important case to solve with ramifications that impinge on her own very troubled history.

Sunshine has a daughter called Auri. Auri is fourteen, and she’s the apple of her mother’s eye. There is some doubt as to who Auri’s father might be. Sunshine herself was abducted and raped when she was a teenager. She has suppressed all memories of that nightmare and the case was never solved. But as far as Sunshine is concerned one good thing came out of it – Auri. However as the hunt for the missing girl intensifies, Sunshine starts to see her own history in a new light.

And if that wasn’t enough to be going on with, there’s always handsome hunk Levi Ravinder to consider. Sunshine has been in love with him ever since they were schoolchildren together, though she’s never been very sure whether or not her feelings are reciprocated. She’s also more than a little apprehensive about it – the Ravinder family have close ties to organised crime (though, to be fair, Levi has disassociated himself from that connection, on the surface at least).

There’s a lot going on and even after the mystery of the missing girl has been solved there’s still much about Sunshine’s own story that remains murky. That’s an arc that will be explored in the next two novels.

By and large, I enjoyed the books, though I have some reservations. The characters are sufficiently eccentric to hold my interest and to tickle my sense of humour (there are lots of good jokes) and the mysteries that Sunshine faces are sufficiently intriguing to keep me turning the pages. But as the series progressed I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with Auri. She’s not too bad in the first book – she has a very nice line in witty repartee – but the further I got into the larger story the more I came to detest her. She’s an obnoxious, selfish brat (in other words she’s a typically clichéd teenage girl). Time and again her utter stupidity and egocentric sense of self-righteousness (and complete lack of thought for other people’s feelings) gets herself and the people she loves into deep trouble. Quite how Sunshine manages to keep her temper and refrain from throttling the idiot I will never understand. Perhaps it makes a difference when the child is your own flesh and blood. But I’m afraid that Auri’s annoying antics eventually started to ruin the books for me and I found it a struggle to finish them. That’s a pity – they are clever and they are fun. But Darynda Jones is far too good at bringing obnoxious teenagers to life on the page for my taste.

I’ve been reading some more of Jonathan Dunsky’s private eye novels set in Tel Aviv in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They are stunningly good at evoking a sense of time and place. The very first novel in the series (Ten Years Gone which I reviewed last month) was so firmly dependant on the politics of the era that it could not have taken place anywhere else or at any other time. The other books are much less dependant on their environment (though The Auschwitz Violinist has its roots set firmly in the atrocities committed in that terrible place and is therefore much more time-bound than the others). Nevertheless, Dunsky’s novels would not work as well as they do if he failed to pin them so firmly into their environment – imagine how bad Raymond Chandler’s novels would be if he failed to bring Los Angeles alive on the page!

I make that comparison between Chandler and Dunsky quite deliberately. Dunsky really is that good, and both Chandler and Dunsky succeed precisely because they send their characters walking down some very real and very mean streets.

I first became aware of Christopher Fowler some time in my teenage years when I stumbled across his very first novel Roofworld. I loved the enthralling tale of a whole subculture of misfits living on the roofs of London and travelling between buildings on sometimes quite rickety ziplines, and so I always made a point of picking up his novels whenever I stumbled across them. This was not always easy – his books were so odd that they tended to be published by very small presses and they went in and out of print quite rapidly. However the advent of ebooks has made his work much easier to find and most of his novels are now available in digital form.

In later years, Fowler cemented his reputation and made his fortune with a series of detective novels about two rather unorthodox investigators called Bryant and May. I’ve quite liked the few Bryant and May novels that I’ve read, but nothing about them inspires me to seek them out and binge read them. I’ve always much preferred Fowler’s stand alone novels which are generally very weird and often quite disturbing. Time Out magazine once described Fowler as " award-winning novelist who would make a good serial killer". Fowler loved this quote so much that he used it in the header of his web site!

To see just what Time Out meant by this remark, you can’t do any better than to read Psychoville.

The story begins in 1985. The March family, working class people from London, are forced to move out of their home because a motorway is being built through it. Their house is compulsorily purchased and they are moved into a cul de sac called Balmoral Close, which is in a middle class area of Invicta Cross, a new town, well away from the places and the people that they have known all their lives. It soon becomes clear that the March family is not welcome in Balmoral Close. Class differences mean that they will never fit in. Everything about the family annoys their new neighbours. Their attempts to make friends are snubbed. Their lives become a misery. They don’t want to live in Balmoral Close and Balmoral Close doesn’t want them living there. The nightmare has begun.

Young Billy March does manage to make a couple of friends, though like him they too are social outcasts. April has a  mother who is thought to be a witch, and Oliver is the son of the local undertaker. Both are therefore quite beyond the pale. But then April’s family moves away and Oliver and Billy have a falling out. Now Billy is completely isolated.  He is bullied and beaten at school.

Billy’s parents, Ray and Angela, struggle to find work. Ray does eventually manage to find a job, but it doesn’t last. He is accused of theft and sacked. Angela has a serious accident (there are heavy hints that it was deliberate rather than accidental). Their car is vandalised, their fence is knocked down, and their house is burgled. The whole street snubs them. Eventually they are forced to gather themselves together and move out of Balmoral Close...

Ten years later, in 1995, Billy March and April meet again by chance. Life has not been easy for either of them in the intervening years. They recognise a kindred spirit in each other and together, they make plans to return to Balmoral Close. Both bear grudges and neither is willing to let bygones be bygones. They are eager to take their revenge. The old residents of Balmoral Close are all still living there, trapped in their homes by the curse of negative equity. Billy and April set out to make them suffer, really suffer. It isn’t long before the corpses start to pile up and there is much entertainment to had in the manner of their terrible deaths. Revenge is sweet, even when served cold, and the story quickly becomes gory, gruesome and very, very sick. I loved it!

There’s also a magnificent twist at the end which, in retrospect, I probably should have expected. But the fact remains that I didn’t and it took me completely by surprise. That’s clever writing!

The beauty of this book lies in the detail of its setting. Fowler gets everything absolutely right which makes the whole thing feel very real. For example, in the section of the novel that takes place in 1985 he talks accurately about the government policies that led to compulsory purchase orders being issued in order to allow for the building of new infrastructure. This in turn really did lead to the rapid expansion of housing in the countryside in new towns like (the fictional) Invicta Cross. Fowler also perfectly encapsulates the class distinctions that even today are still very real and which provide the motives that drive the whole story. ("I know my place..."). Without middle class snobbery combined with working class envy and resentment nothing about the novel would make any sense at all. But because of them, the terrible tale makes perfect sense. The whole thing is completely believable and quite unputdownable.

Christopher Fowler has reported on his web site that he is terminally ill. This makes me very sad.

A Spy Among Friends is Ben Macintyre’s examination of the careers of the so called Cambridge Spies – five young students at Cambridge university who, for purely ideological reasons, allowed themselves to be recruited as Soviet agents some time in the 1930s – Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and, to a lesser extent, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. All of them went on to have very successful careers in the Foreign Office and the various secret services and Philby at least continued passing information to the Soviet Union until the early 1960s. The harm that those five men did to British world interests (and the large number of British agents who were killed as a result of what they did) is incalculable. I align myself very much towards the left of the political spectrum and so I have some sympathy with and understanding of their motives. Nevertheless I feel very strongly that what they did was unforgivable.

The book concentrates on Philby because he was the most "successful" of the five men. Maclean was unmasked in 1951 and he and Guy Burgess immediately fled to Russia where they lived for the rest of their lives. Burgess died in 1963 and Maclean died in 1983.

After Burgess and Maclean defected, suspicion fell on Philby, but he weathered the storm and managed to clear his name. He rose rapidly through the ranks of MI6, becoming powerful and influential and privy to more and more secret information, all of which he dutifully passed on to his Soviet controllers. At one point it seemed likely that he might be appointed head of MI6 itself – what a coup that would have been for the Soviets! But his high-flying career came crashing down in 1963 when he was finally unmasked. Like Burgess and Maclean before him, he fled to Russia where he died in 1988.

This is not a biography of Philby. Far too many of those have been written over the years by far too many people. But the book most definitely is an attempt to examine Philby’s motives and his loyalties, though because he was a contradictory man, much about him continues to remain murky. The closest it gets to biography is when it discusses the life and career of Nicholas Elliott, a high ranking MI6 officer and a lifelong friend of Philby’s who, once he became convinced of Philby’s guilt, flew out to Beirut, where Philby was based at the time, and confronted him with his crimes. Presented with a fait accompli, Philby confessed all during Elliott’s lengthy debriefing sessions. Even though Philby had been offered immunity from prosecution, he fled to Moscow rather than face the rest of his life being vilified in Britain (and perhaps he was also afraid of the spectre of poverty as well – clearly he would never be able to work in any position of responsibility again). Macintyre has based his book on the recordings that Elliott made of those debriefing sessions with Philby. What fascinating listening they must have made.

I don’t remember anything at all about Burgess and Maclean. I was still a baby in my pram when they defected. But their careers were re-examined in detail by the newspapers when Philby defected and I do remember that event very clearly indeed.

It has long been an open secret that John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based around the Philby affair. Bill Hayden, Le Carré’s mole in the secret intelligence service, was simply Philby in a skin. Look at the names – Kim Philby, Bill Hayden. They are exactly the same in their syllables and their stresses. Trust me, that is not a coincidence. But what is only now becoming clear, with the publication of Macintyre’s book, is that George Smiley, the SIS investigator who unmasks Bill Hayden in the novel, was directly inspired by Nicholas Elliott. Le Carré has written an afterword to A Spy Among Friends in which he reveals that he knew Elliott well and worked with him on several occasions. The parallels between Elliott’s real life career and the fictional career (and personality) of George Smiley are really quite striking.

In 1938, E.M. Forster wrote an essay entitled What I Believe, in which he famously stated: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Philby, in an attempt to have his cake and eat it too, betrayed both his friends and his country and Macintyre's book makes it quite clear that his actions did not bother him in the slightest. What a cold, cold man he must have been.

T. Kingfisher A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking Argyll Productions
Darynda Jones A Bad Day for Sunshine St. Martin's Press
Darynda Jones A Good Day for Chardonnay St. Martin's Press
Darynda Jones A Hard Day for a Hangover St. Martin's Press
Jonathan Dunsky The Auschwitz Violinist Kindle
Jonathan Dunsky A Debt Of Death Kindle
Jonathan Dunsky A Deadly Act Kindle
Christopher Fowler Psychoville Kindle
Ben Macintyre A Spy Among Friends Crown
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