Are you sitting comfortably?: A review of Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

He was well enough connected to have secured a living in one of the prettiest villages in England, complete with a vicarage about which anyone might be moved to write poetry. Verdant lawns, bushes, shrubs, climbers; light-filled rooms with elegant lines, and old, good furniture. Wonderful views from its hilltop site, across three counties which today all lay under a shifting blanket of snow.

Do you like a cosy yet gripping whodunit? Is an English country village murder mystery your thing? Yes…? I bring to you Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown. Light the fire, make a hot drink and snuggle up in your favourite chair for it’s Christmas Eve and snow is falling heavily on the village of Byford when Chief Inspector Lloyd is called to attend a violent death at the vicarage. It soon emerges that the victim is the vicar’s son in law, estranged from his young wife. While it seems the suspects are few, the case proves to be more puzzling than straightforward for both the detectives and the reader. 

First published in 1988 under the title Redemption, this is Jill McGown’s second book featuring Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill. There’s a lovely relationship  between the two detectives, both personally and professionally, and this is a great perk of the book. They are a very good sleuthing team and there’s some fine dialogue from them. McGown creates a strong double act, a duo that between them has the intellect, shrewdness, directness and dedication to solve murky, misleading and baffling mysteries. But it is their love affair which also had me hooked. It seems very genuine despite its complications and it is the catalyst for some truly touching moments.

He watched as Judy worked her way through her copious notes, in which every little puzzle had of course been entered, and he found himself thinking how soft and shining her hair looked, how pleasing the line of her jaw. Unprofessional. He had never admired Sandwell’s hair or Jack Woodford’s jaw-line, fine specimens, though they doubtless were.

Billed as a homage to Agatha Christie, this is indeed a traditional crime story in the sense that it is told sequentially; there are no flashbacks here. The golden age of detective fiction is also emanated by the whole point of the story (though it may sound obvious) being the unraveling of the mystery, and the elements of said mystery being clearly presented at an early stage. Our curiosity is then aroused throughout, with clues offered within the narrative leading to our gratification at the end and the great unveiling. It’s setting also follows the cosy whodunit format, in all its  picturesque snow-covered village glory, with an old isolated vicarage as the crime scene. There’s a non believing vicar with a wandering eye, his dutiful and dedicated wife, their seemingly hapless daughter, and the organ-playing harlot from the church playgroup. Except she’s no harlot, she’s just a woman that the vicar falls for, and this is just one example of how stereotypes are less stereotypical than in the golden age of crime genre. The balance of traditional and modern is just right. There’s no obvious classism which I find rife in Agatha Christie’s work, but there’s also no cringeworthy cop speak that I find abounds in contemporary crime fiction.

The reader is treated to a truly flummoxing whodunit. Who *did* do it? That’s the question we all want the answer to, isn’t it? But we also want to be taken on a riveting and stimulating investigative ride. There is much toing and froing in this investigation and the reader is allowed to feel included in the discussion. Paying attention is vital though! This is part of enjoying a crime mystery – picking up on details and clues that will add to the satisfied feeling at both the case and story’s conclusion.

Does that seem likely to you? He arrives drunk, gets drunker, beats her up, and it all ends happily ever after? Or would have done, if the invisible man hadn’t popped in and murdered him?

So what are you waiting for? Is the kettle on the boil? Is the fire lit? I hear that armchair calling! It’s time to lose yourself in a marvellous murder mystery.

This Could Get Ugly: A review of Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I run hot and I always have. I am not going to sit around sweating my ass off just so men can feel more comfortable. It’s not my responsibility to not turn them on. It’s their responsibility to not be an asshole.

I finally picked up Daisy Jones and The Six thanks to my buddy read partner over at Bookstagram. There’s a lot of fanfare surrounding this book (as with a lot of books you choose initially because of its visibility on social media platforms) and it’s difficult to cut through that. However, this is my attempt to put that aside and give it my honest overview. 

Daisy Jones and The Six is a fictional seventies rock band from L.A. The book covers their story in an interview style format, with band members and other significant people looking back, and talking in more recent times. This style serves the subject of the novel well, and makes it a quick and easy read, while adding perfectly and appropriately to the storytelling of a once world famous, but short lived, ego filled, drug fuelled, rock group. The style is a welcome diversion from the usual novel format and offers a different reading experience that, if embraced, provides enjoyment in its own right. It doesn’t seem strange or out of place that it should be written this way, it feels right to me. However, there are, of course, limitations to this narrative style, and it may not be to everyone’s taste. Yet, for me, there is sufficient sense of place and time, character development, drama, conflict, and narrative progression, to call it a success.

When you’re in a situation like that, when you have a man looming over you, it’s as if every decision you made to lead to that moment – alone with a man you don’t trust flashes – before your eyes. Something tells me men don’t do the same thing. When they are standing there, threatening a woman, I doubt they count every wrong step they made to become the asshole they are. But they should.

The spin of the book is that the details of the band’s history differ depending on who is recalling them, and this serves to be more of a character development tool, rather than revealing anything, either subtle or earth shattering, that will affect the narrative. In this way it’s a bit misleading, although it can be forgiven depending on your expectations. The author succeeds in creating quite unreliable characters, whether this be because of their fervent drug taking at the time or because of their huge egos still presenting themselves, and in my opinion, quite unlikable characters too. Daisy, of the title, is a privileged, rich, white girl who seemingly falls into the limelight without much effort beyond frolicking with musicians and celebrities. Her talent seems unquestionable by her peers and critics, but I found myself totally questioning it. Was this intended by the author? I hope so. Leaving a lot unsaid and allowing your readers to read between the lines and create a slightly different narrative to work alongside your own, is a great skill and a clever way to tell a story. Billy, the lead singer with Daisy, is at least equally repellent. Repellent isn’t quite the word, but there’s something about him that’s not endearing despite obvious qualities such as strength of character. It may well be his silent narcissism. In fact, I struggle to pinpoint a band member or other supporting character that I can genuinely say I cared for. And maybe this is because of the world they inhabited – a world of huge egos, huge money, huge excess, and little self control. 

Taylor Jenkins Reid portrays the ugly side of being in a band – the jealousy, the conflict, the addictions, the drugs, and the clash of personalities and big egos. Of course, these are people looking back on their lives: there will be guilt, remorse, regret. But I felt little of the joy they must have experienced as part of making music, performing live, doing what they had always dreamed of. I wanted to feel their joy, their buzz. I missed this. It felt more negative than positive and that was somewhat disappointing. 

A great aspect of the book, however, is the description of the songs. It makes you want to whip on that remastered CD! But, of course, you can’t, as it’s not a real band, it’s not a real album, it’s not real music. Yet, you still want to hear it: is it really as good as everyone says? Is Daisy really amazing? Are the collaborations and performances by Daisy and Billy spellbinding? This book makes you want to know.

In conclusion I think Daisy Jones and The Six has a lot to offer. It’s an addictive read that succeeds in transporting you to late seventies California, to the hot, indulgent days and nights of living an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I think it’s very American – beautiful weather and beautiful people. Yet, for me, it also highlighted the undesirable side to fame and ‘success’.

“I wish someone had told me that love isn’t torture. Because I thought love was this thing that was supposed to tear you in two and leave you heartbroken and make your heart race in the worst way. I thought love was bombs and tears and blood. I did not know that it was supposed to make you lighter, not heavier.”

Suffragette City: Strong writers, strong leads

Inspired by Bookstagram and the hashtag #whoruntheworld, the following eight books are ones that I have enjoyed, and recommend unreservedly. But much more than this, they are books by brilliant female writers, featuring strong female characters. All characters, I may add, that I loved when reading them, and that will stay with me, I hope, forever. 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee ‘only’ published two books in her lifetime, but the magnificence of To Kill a Mockingbird will endure forever. It is one of the very few novels I have read more than once. It’s female lead, six year old Scout, is just fantastic, and I sooo wanted to name my baby girl after her! She is a very clever child with a questioning and combative nature who has her faith in humanity tested when her lawyer father defends a black man wrongly accused of rape. The story is known for its great warmth, despite its harsh themes of racial injustice and the destruction of innocence.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

With its similar time and place setting to To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel is also told from the perspective of a young girl, and tells of racism in its pages. Cassie Logan is the feisty but naive protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the unimaginable ugliness of prejudice in her community. Mildred D. Taylor tells Cassie’s story with skilfulness and beauty, describing Cassie’s happy home life with scrumptious detail, while refusing to shy away from the realities of racial inequality.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 

Is Jane Eyre the ultimate feminist heroine? Of course, that is subjective, but she is certainly a very strong character who endures much hardship and heartache, and always fights to preserve her sense of self. Charlotte Brontë wrote a formidable story and created a celebrated and timeless character in Jane Eyre – one which I will always love.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain is the seventeen year old narrator of this wonderfully enchanting novel. Her observations of her life in a dilapidated castle with her family and eccentric father, are charming and witty. Dodie Smith – a playwright and novelist, famous for writing One Hundred and One Dalmatians – created a book that had me totally captivated, at times in stitches, and that whooshed me away with its thrilling love story. It has one of the most famous opening lines in novels: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Fabulous.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

I read this following the first couple of series of the television dramatisation by the same name. I fell in love with Vanessa Redgrave’s narration and wanted to discover the real Jenny. Jennifer Worth was a nurse who worked in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s, and recounted it all in a trilogy of memoirs of which Call the Midwife was the first. A harrowing read with great moments of elation, this book overflows with gorgeous prose and beautiful wisdom.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

My favourite of Maggie’s novels. Just one word needed: Motherhood.  Arguably the greatest challenge a woman faces, motherhood is the overriding theme of this book, and the reason why I am drawn to it so much. It’s a heartbreaking, touching novel by one of my most familiar writers. I saw myself again and again in this narrative and I will always recall the effect it had on me.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I loved this epic book. Donna Tartt is an amazing writer whose second novel – published a decade after her first – centres around Harriet, a twelve year old girl whose older brother was found hanged in their garden at the age of nine. The murderer has never been found and Harriet makes it her mission to solve the mystery of what happened and enact revenge on the killer. A fabulous read – enjoyed all the more because of its length – by a super talented American author. This is a novel to get your teeth well and truly stuck into.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery 

Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian classic, for both it’s heroine and it’s author. If you’re not familiar with Anne (with an e) one way or another, where have you been? I read this book as a young teenager after falling completely and utterly and wholeheartedly in love with the 1985/7 TV serialisation. After the depiction of Anne Shirley by the stunning Megan Follows, I must admit I found the literary Anne to be quite annoying! But this is where the Megan Follows character came from and I soon began to appreciate this fact. Anne, like Jane Eyre, is an orphan who clambers her way up, making the best of what she’s got at any given time, and forges the way to make the life for herself that she really wants. Lucy Maud Montgomery writes consistently with compelling beauty and wisdom, creating and shaping the character of Anne so lovingly that she has become one of the most well loved literary characters of all time.

I know there are many more books like this that I have yet to find and adore, but, Reader, I will, I will. Who are your favourite female writers? Who are your favourite female leads?

Sweet Summer’s End: A review of The Legacy by Katherine Webb

I remember exactly when I started reading The Legacy. It was my birthday and I was sitting in the car in the car park of our local Lidl in Wembley, waiting for my husband who was probably getting booze. I had no idea that in a few days I would’ve turned the last page and exclaimed a silent wow to myself. It was read at perfectly the right time – summer’s end, with the days still long and warm.

One of the things I love about reading books is that some are very season specific, and you can get much more from a book if it is read at the right time of year. For example, you should only read A Christmas Carol at Christmas (obviously), and there are clearly books that should only be read lying against a big ancient oak in a summer meadow (like, um, Larkrise To Candleford). You get my drift. But more than this; books can improve your enjoyment of a season, as in winter when you curl up with a good book (coal fire optional). It’s a thing you do in winter to make the season cosier. And then, in summer, you take a book to be read on the beach for some relaxing holiday me-time. You choose your book to suit the season, and if you haven’t already done this, I highly recommend trying it.

Anyway, The Legacy, for me, falls into the category of a great summer read. However, if you do happen to pick it up in the colder months, do not save it – devour it at once – as the modern strand of the book is set in winter, making it a superb read all year round.

I have read three novels by Katherine Webb so far and they have all had the same narrative structure – two stories told parallel to each other, one set in the past and one in the present, with a connection. In the case of The Legacy, that connection is slowly revealed in the course of the book. There is a mystery (or two) to be solved, and the two stories coming together is the key to its conclusion.

Both stories are told beautifully. I loved them equally, and that’s unusual. More often than not, one is preferred over the other. Yet, it is a testament to the author that both were able to capture my attention and keep me hooked and reading on. The Legacy is a near perfect read. My only issue with it, as with many great books I have read, is that it wasn’t lengthier, simply for me to enjoy it longer.