mystery novel

by Anne Booth

Girl with a White Dog quietly and confidently delivers its message in plain sight, yet never over-dramatically. Author Anne Booth’s choice to refuse the heights of drama in this tale, preferring to use a first person narrative by a year nine (age 13 to 14) student makes for a sensitive account of how it feels to be the object of prejudice.

Drama is not totally lacking of course. The main drama is left to the denouement, when Jessie (the young protagonist) finally learns the meaning of her grandmother’s strange statements and behaviours. Until then, even the box of old photos she’s discovered, a familiar trope in many novels, hasn’t told all, and she’s respectfully left the old letters unopened. Although the Reader’s interest has been alerted that there’s a mystery!

Along the way, we meet several of Jessie’s friends, relatives, and acquaintances. And we experience her learning about the feelings of being a recipient of prejudice, both as she witnesses prejudicial behaviour towards others, and notices her own attitudes, and discovers a family secret.

Anne Booth, the author, has created a believable world of home, school, and village, grounded in place and time. Throughout Jessie’s search for information about her Gran, the family and other characters form both a secure background and a contrast to Jessie’s own life, giving a good portrait of early teenage experiences at a time when having a dependable family to return to can encourage forays into the world beyond the familiar. Jessie’s daily life of school and the ups and downs of friendship continue as a backdrop to her search for Gran’s secret past, her efforts to understand and accept the apparently negative behaviour of others whom she cares about, and her developing strong attachment to a boy who has always been there as part of her world.

When Gran’s childhood experiences are revealed and explained, as part of the wider history of our world, they are not the only learning experience which Jessie has encountered over the time of the story, they bring with them some interesting points about prejudice, and point of view.

As an adult reader, I feel this is a must-read for today’s teenagers, and indeed for today’s grown-ups. In the present political climate of the world it is a very timely tale.

Note: About the author: Anne Booth writes children’s and YA books, giving, with a light touch, an informative age-appropriate slant on society. She is passionate about inclusion and has experience as a speaker to schoolchildren about her books, and mum to 4 now grown-up children, including twins …Her first grown-up novel is due for publication in 2022.

Two English Village based Stories…

by Debbie Young, and Ruth Leigh

After Sarah Moss’s three linked, feminist, rather serious novels, (Night Waking, Bodies of Light, and Signs for Lost Children), read in autumn and winter, I have turned to a couple of lighter books. Each author is someone I know: Debbie Young, who introduced me to the Alliance of Independent Authors, and later invited me to participate in the Hawkesbury Upton literary festival, of which she is the founder, Ruth Leigh via a Facebook writers’ group.

With summer at last appearing, both these books would provide an excellent light read for a vacation or staycation. Murder Lost and Found is the seventh book in Debbie Young’s cosy mystery series, and keeps you guessing past the halfway mark as to whether or not a crime has really being committed. Or have Sophie and her friend Ella been hoodwinked by a joker?

Once verified, the pace increases, and the sad fact behind the murderer’s intentions becomes clear. No spoilers, but as is appropriate, the motives are found, as was the body, in the depths of the local primary school.

Having read most of the series, I’ve always found Sophie Sayers a wide-eyed, innocent protagonist, and her employer/boyfriend Hector not entirely someone who’s future intentions towards her I would trust. As we move through the series she sometimes seems to be becoming slightly more savvy, but in this story she is definitely showing us her most innocent side, while Ella seems slithery and suspect, and Hector doesn’t help Sophie’s peace of mind at all. The text sustains the usual atmosphere of archness and amusing irony, though as a city dweller how could I comment on the attitudes and relationships of villagers many of whom are restricted to living among the same group of people their whole lives? They were mostly together at the primary school – and long before now each found their allotted place, and knows well the foibles of the others! Certainly the denouement is unexpected and the motive gives pause for thought about traditional English education.

‘Suddenly, the church clock began to strike midday, and I knocked over a sugar bowl in my surprise’: what could be cosier, once the murderous culprit (and the body) are uncovered? A book to leave you with that warm feeling, all well in the world in a perfect English country village.

Ruth Leigh’s debut novel, The Diary of Isabella M. Smugge, also set in a village, (it’s Suffolk this time), also brings rural and cosmopolitan living into contrast, and on the first hearing about the book I expected it to be a waspish critique of well-heeled contemporary living, especially of ‘influencer’ style mums. 

I found it a pleasant surprise, and was soon captivated by Isabella Smugge (rhyme it with Bruges), known to her cult followers on Instagram as Issy. Again we are given a portrait of village life but here it is the contrast between Issy with her urban sophisticate ways and the mums at the school gates, particularly those from the council estate struggling with various family difficulties yet gamely carrying on. Issy discovers how the other half live. As various difficulties hit her family and thus her influencer status, she begins to see how other people’s lives, without the safety net of wealth, are impacted by coping with their everyday troubles. She is treated as just another mum by the Head. By contrast, her present life seems a charmed existence: her banker/hedge fund manager husband, au pair, and wonderfully written brittle, gin-drinking Mother, (‘If I begin to behave like that, shoot me!’) though clouded by memories of boarding school, from where, nonetheless, Issy left with the ‘crime’ she committed still unsolved. All these contrast with her new friend, the Vicar’s wife, (whose background I found a little extreme, though it made its point of apparent contrast.)

Other reviewers have likened Leigh’s book to the work of Jane Austen: there is certainly something of Emma in Issy Smugge…

And a clever thing about Leigh’s portrait of Issy is how true it is to reality. I have had friends from this group,  lively, life-affirming women with a strange innocence about them around the class differences and the wealth issue: this made them charming and funny, and you knew that despite the ‘big kisses’ at the bottom of their letters, these larger than life ladies, (I think of splendid blooms at the Chelsea Flower Show), are sure to melt back into their proper place, unlikely to become real bosom pals with us middle-class mortals. They can’t, they are different breed.

Again, a book which reaches its denouement as it gallops downhill towards the end, and in the tradition of that old Victorian Charles Dickens, leaves the reader waiting impatiently for a sequel. Though from early on I guessed where the problem might turn out to be. Although this is a longer and, as we begin to realise, a more serious book than it appears, it’s a page-turner which might suit a longer holiday break.

Both highly recommended for enjoyment, relaxation, and a gentle way to study the ‘human condition’.

New! Guest blog by author Fiona Veitch Smith & my review of her new book The Art Fiasco – both here Thursday 29 October…

The Art Fiasco is 5th in Fiona’s Poppy Denby Investigates series, and I was given the chance to read a copy for review. I thoroughly enjoyed this new mystery, set in Newcastle on Tyne and in the mining village of Ashington, in 1924 (with backstory in 1897-8). The book has a cast of lively and varied characters, social comment on the contrasting lives of the middle class and working class families (especially the women), and a host of possible suspects to be considered as the possible perpetrator of the crime…

Author Fiona Veitch Smith was born in the North East then spent much of her childhood in South Africa, where she graduated fromRhodes University in the Eastern Cape, and worked as a journalist. On return to Britain and her native county, she’s lectured in journalism and other writing areas, at Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, and written a number of books for both adults and children…She has a certain relation to her heroine, Poppy Denby, who also works for a newspaper…