November Poetry – Week 1

First

Today’s the day that we celebrate you
The special man who you’ve grown to be
I’ve never known you to blossom like this under all the attention

Maybe this weird year’s been different
And you’re leaning into it because of the distance

that you’ve never had between you

and loved ones, while celebrating,
before.

I hope, my love
You feel my love
as it takes its strange form of Amazon boxes
All a-twist with tinsel and lights
Bringing some cheer.


Second

I’ve been thinking
about how this year has changed how we think about relationships
where we put in the effort
where we struggle.

It’s made it clear
That when friends matter,
Distance doesn’t

And while it can be months or even years
between hugs and catch-ups
there is always so much care.


Third

Doom scroll
Unroll
We wait for the tweets that shout and trumpet
Election counts
Anxious and praying for a divided world, spring coiled
like a wind-up toy.

I hope – and pray –
for a peacemaker and forger of unity
in that world-shaping office

Waiting.

Breathing (while we can).

Unroll the doom scroll
Write it over with finding humanity and repairing relationships
Joyful,
To give voice to the voiceless
Protect the vulnerable.

We wait and watch, bidin’ time.


Fourth

“It’s Lockdown Eve” yells the news,
with reporters gathering voxpops of the last thing we bought before the shops were closed again

“I bought slippers and some matching pyjamas”
The focus on making comfort, showing unity

“I bought some stocking fillers and Christmas cards, just in case”
Preparing psychologically for a longer time indoors – no chance to pop to the shops

The government repeating the mantra “Hands, Face, Space”, as people flood
to the pub – for one last pint out (with a substantial meal).

“I bought a cable for my son – he’s eighteen tomorrow”
One mum is hopeful for the future her boy has ahead of him – navigating a stranger career prospect
than anyone could have anticipated in a high school guidance session this time last year.

“Lockdown Eve”, as we bid farewell to places we may not even have had a chance to visit
since last time –

Until next time.


Fifth

Remember, remember
The chant in your head
As gunfire bangs
And rocket whistles
Burst the foggy night air
Into showers of stars and celebrations
So strange to our southern eyes
Unaccustomed to celebrating
A near act of treason
From four hundred years ago
Not near now.


Sixth

The day’s dawned, cold and clear
I am learning to appreciate the cold.
Later in the day, I appreciate
that crisp lungful
when darkness has fallen too early.

Pinked up jet-streams against a slowly darkening sky
The lovely dusk, post-work wander,
Allowing me  to walk
Alongside light-glinting water

Silhouetted swans
Inky black, back-lit
By the last of sunset ebbing
From the sky.


Seventh

Today will be known as the day the world breathed a sigh of relief
Celebrations in parking lots, on the street
Banging saucepans, car horns blaring (this is America, after all).

I still think there is more groaning and despairing to come
And the best this new administration can do is to figure out
How to unfracture
A society that has been so poisoned and divided
It is difficult to see how it can come together.

But, my heart is glad – for the little girls who can look to a new example
Of jobs they can aspire to
One day, when they’re big, maybe they’ll be able to be even greater.


Eighth

The thing that I’ve realised about winters that are properly cold
Is that they allow you to appreciate the coziness of home so much better
This weekend, I laboured in the home – I swept
And scrubbed
And wiped
And even baked.

At the end of it all, I have the luxury of snuggling in
On a couch, with some tea
To knit, and watch reruns of cozy murder mysteries
(far less work than continuing writing my own).

So keep investigating, Hercule, or Miss Marple,
Or those lads from the one I’ve not watched before –

And I’ll investigate who ate the last biscuit from the tin…
Or confess – “It was me!”

Book Review: Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men

After having finished the behemoth that was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (see review here), and accidentally on purpose binging some kinda spooky Netflix (nothing really terrible, just the TV show, Whitechapel, which I enjoyed but was disappointed in the ending of it – could have been better wrapped, but I understand it was not renewed, so, gotta live with that sort of thing), I desperately needed something that was light, safe, familiar and funny. I had a little look at my bookshelf, and selected a suitable pick-me-up: Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. This is actually a book intended for younger readers, but as with much of Pratchett, it’s readable by all ages.

Miss Tick, Tiffany Aching and a horde of Nac Mac Feegles.

Non-spoilery synopsis

This book tells the story of young witch-in-waiting/training, Tiffany Aching. She was born into a shepherding family “on the chalk”, a rural community on the Discworld. Her granny, Granny Aching, is something like a witch, but of practical magic, like never losing a sheep to the wolves. When Tiffany’s little brother is stolen by the queen of fairyland, she must team up with a crew of tiny, wode-painted pictsies (fond of fighting, stealing and swearing) to get him back. There’s plenty of hijinks and fairytale reference, comical namings (looking at you “Smaller-than-medium-sized-jock-but-not-as-small-as-wee-jock-Jock” and “Rob Anybody”). A good introduction to the Discworld witches from an alternative avenue.

Worth it?

Yes. Definitely. Like, I wanna get a bookshelf and slowly but surely collect all of the Pratchett that exists in the world. One day I’ll have a delightful library, and will have a whole section dedicated to these books written for adults of all ages.

It’s the kind of book that you have to laugh out loud at points while reading, and one day, I’ll definitely be reading Tiffany Aching to my children. She’s a wonderful, clever bad-ass, with pluck and plenty of common sense.

Book review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

It has taken me so long to finish this. Really. It was given to me as a birthday present in May, and I think I started reading it in July-ish (if my Goodreads start date is accurate, which I think it might be here). I finished earlier today. It is slowwwwww going. Very interesting, but sloooooowwwwww. It was Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, which, now I am writing a novel of my own, I find really impressive, because it means she sold it at its mammoth length of over 1000 pages. From reading about selling your writing (not that I’m there yet, or will be anytime soon), it’s uncommon to sell such a tome as a first book, because, well, it’s expensive for the publishers, and you’re not a safe money-making bet just yet. To see this in action, consider Harry Potter – book 1 is normal novel length, and, well, JK’s editors could definitely have cut down books 4 onwards just a bit, but it wasn’t quite as necessary as she got more well-known and more of a guaranteed sell. So, props to Clarke for selling her epic debut. The edition I own was published as a Bloomsbury Modern Classics imprint.

Non-spoilery synopsis

The story tells the story of the rebirth of English Magic at the hands of the scholarly and antisocial Mr Norrell and his pupil, the more conventionally magician-like Jonathan Strange. They progress through polite regency society, debating the challenges and practice of magic in England. The magicians have differing opinions on how one should use magic, with Mr Norrell buying up all books of magic around the country and secreting them in his country house library to protect Strange from them or vice versa, and Strange being convinced that they should make proper, dynamic use of the power available to them. Via the Napoleonic wars and various personal tragedies, they go separate ways, but end up needing to come back together.

The point of this book

It’s an exercise in beautifully constructed prose.

It’s a long satire of the time period, specifically the politics and society. Kind of reminds me a bit of Vanity Fair meets something Dickensian (though slightly too early), meets an alternative history of England meets folklore. It’s a really interesting take on Englishness (v different from my last review, which also considered Englishness, but in the present day), with a very long and mystical view on English history. I really like the alternative history sense, going back to two English kingdoms, with the northerly one being ruled as of old by a human/fairy king.

Plot is not the major thing in the book. At one point (around page 500) I found myself googling whether it would ever speed up. Someone’s helpful review on Goodreads said yes, from about page 650. So I persisted. I feel like there is a helluva lot of book for relatively few plot-points. Go into reading it knowing this. In Writing Excuses, one of my favourite podcasts, Brandon Sanderson called this book “the best boring book he’s ever read”. Yup, that works.

There are a number of things that get a bit much over the course of this tome of a book. One of them is Mr Norrell’s insistence on removing books from other people who might be keen to read them. More annoying is the use of extensive footnotes. Note, not the extensive use of footnotes (like in the Bartimaeus sequence by Jonathan Stroud – where the footnotes are the demon character’s sidebar story), but the use of extensive footnotes, like footnotes that sometimes run on for the bulk of 3 pages or more, with over half the page devoted to the subtext. In lots of cases, these footnotes are quasi-academic, references to the books from Mr Norrell’s extensive library, but sometimes they just tell a somewhat-related context-adding story that is tangentially related to what Strange and Norrell are up to. I think my frustration is that they’re often so drastically off piste from the main text that I had to go remind myself what was up, and that honestly, in a book of over 1000 pages, particularly in this verbose style, you could probably have added these narrative diversions in the text-proper rather than as a sidebar.

I’ve not got the inclination to do into depth about the characterisation, but would like to say that I like two of the ‘secondary’ characters (Childermass and Stephen Black) a lot more than I like the title characters. I think Strange goes through the most drastic journey over the novel, and the narrative follows his experience most closely. Stephen is probably the most sympathetic character, and Childermass is a lot more interesting (in my opinion) than his master, Mr Norrell.

Worth it?

You have to be into verbose regency-period alternative history stuff. You have to like Old English style magic (try Puck of Pook’s Hill for a more straightforward, accessible version of this kind of magic). It’s fantastical, it’s magical, it’s satirical and witty. But you’ll have to be stubborn to make it through. I think it would possibly be better to have read to you (yes, Audible, you advertised this to me for AGES and I didn’t take the bait) than it is to read. Tiny print, for 1000 pages. I did enjoy it, though.

Oh, there’s also a miniseries version – I’ll have to get hold of it somehow, and see if it’s any good in adaptation.

Book Review: Ayisha Malik’s This Green and Pleasant Land

This is one of the best books I’ve read in ages. No, that’s not a spoiler for the review, it’s just a fact. I got it as part of my ABoS box, and it was the best of the books in the box. I left it til last, because it was chunky and was physically the biggest of the books. But also because I’d heard of the author, and so it was kind of the most ‘known’ factor.

It’s got beautiful gold foiling on the cover too.

Brief non-spoilery synopsis

The novel tells the story of Bilal, a Muslim man who lives in an idyllic English village, as he navigates belonging and community spirit. On her deathbed, his mother charges him to build a mosque in Babel’s End, the village, which causes drastic alarm to the parish council and even his own wife, Mariam. Their aunt comes from Birmingham to join the family, and further complicates how they relate to the other members of the small community. Following several islamophobic issues and some accidental youtube virality, the town is brought together unexpectedly on a Christmas mission.

Themes

The biggest theme throughout the book is the challenge of belonging or otherness, thrown into stark relief when Bilal surprises himself by taking up his mother’s challenge, to the not-so-subtle horror of some members of the village. The central discussion of what it means to be British – what it means to belong – is at the core of the book; how Bilal (called ‘Bill’ by some people in the village) initially conforms, but then realises he needs to negotiate an identity with himself that doesn’t neglect who he is in favour of fitting in. “This green and pleasant land”, the book’s title, is a nod to William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem, later turned into the Women’s Institute anthem, basically a hallmark of small-town English village life. When held in tension (or is it tension) with the mosque image on the cover, you really have the core conflict of the book.

Death is another major theme in the book, particularly as it motivates characters to consider their religious practice, cultural experience, and coping with life, the universe and everything. Bilal’s mother, before her death, dug herself a grave in her back garden in Birmingham, and used to lie in it. Bilal does this when trying to figure out how to progress with his mosque project. Weird, but definitely an interesting way to introduce the conflict about the characters’ dealing with death.

Related to both the death theme and the theme of belonging, religion is shot through the book. Bilal and his family navigate being Muslim and ‘other’, but even the village’s Christians have religiously-based internal conflict about what it means to be Christian and how to deal with loss and death. Most of the characters battle with their experience of belief and religion, both how it sustains in the face of adversity, and how a modern practice is often really challenging, and sometimes feels inadequate. Richard, the local vicar, is a good contrasting character to Bilal (not really a foil, though I did type that first), in that he represents a devout Christian perspective, but demonstrates that it’s not all smooth sailing for him either. His support for Bilal’s mosque balances him against the other parish do-gooders, who campaign in a particularly unchristian way against the erasure of “English values”.

Why I liked it so much

It was heartwarming, challenging, and gives me a sense of familiarity, while at the same time, making me recognise my lack of knowledge around what it means to be British and Asian. The book also has some relatability for me as an immigrant to the UK finding her way in a culture that’s kind of been held up as an aspirational target (South Africa was also a colony, and there is definitely still a bit of a cultural ideal held up that has its roots in ‘Englishness’ (TM) ); but I know I don’t have an additional axis to understand the discrimination experienced by Bilal and his family, because I’m white and Christian. The text considers what it means to be British, through the life of the very British Bilal. It brings through personal and emotive themes around belief and relationships, dealing with grief, loss and identity. So so rich. Malik’s light touch and characterisation makes it super readable and engaging.

Worth it?

Best book I’ve read in a long time.

I’m going to try to find Malik’s other book, Sofia Khan is not Obliged, and put it high on my TBR list.

Project Songbird: Two weeks in a row!

Despite the fact that I’ve done a lot of sitting on my butt watching mindless telly this weekend (okay, not totally mindless, and also I’ve done some exploring), I’m pretty pleased with the fact that I’m posting an update today. It’s not great, but it’s something. I feel like even if I make embarrassingly little progress week to week, that doesn’t matter, as long as it’s kind of heading in a direction.

Vital statistics

  • Word count: 32797 (wow! 38.6% – like, honestly, halfway is getting closer. Kophou, Milne!)
  • Words this week: 2487.
  • Best day: Tuesday, by far. 1532 words. Go me!

Challenges

Complete lack of motivation. Like, not with writing, but with like, life. (Yes, with all the teenage-sounding apathy that can be brought out in using two ‘like’s in one sentence). I feel like all this *gestures wildly with arms* has been a bit much for me recently. I feel a bit like I’m holding my breath to find out what new restrictions/hoops we’ll have to jump through in the North, and refreshing the news sites hasn’t been great for my mental health. Been a bit of a sucky week. There’s just this sense of combative north-south UK politics going on, and feeling stuck because of people who just don’t seem to care that there’s a bloody pandemic on (we went for a walk yesterday – several groups of 12+ people… aka at least twice the limit for “the rule of six” – and because of this, I can’t see my family? Feels tough).

I think I’m also being a bit avoidant of writing, because it’s not always super easy, and I should just try do it without listening to my inner critic who keeps telling me what a total pain in the arse this first draft is gonna be to edit. I know (in the sensible part of my brain) that that’s the whole damn point – you can’t expect excellence on your first run at a task. But the brain-critic-idiot-voice is often loud and it’s easy to listen to her saying “ugh, why bother tonight? It’ll just be crappy and you’ll have to rewrite. Tomorrow you’ll be in a better mindframe for creativity.” (The sneaky part about that inner critic voice is that she’ll say the same thing the next night, and suddenly another week has zoomed past).

Wins

I wrote more than 1500 words on one of the days, even though I had other days that I didn’t manage to write at all.

I am back to updating my blog at least twice a week. Little progress, but progress.

Goals for next week

So, I didn’t meet my 4000 word goal last week, so I’m going to pitch this week’s goal a little lower. (Be kind to yourself and all that). 3000 words of novel. But, I’ll also commit to writing half of my portfolio for this thing I have to do for work, so that at least is some writing, even if it is not novel-words.

Gif of the week

Book review: A.A. Milne’s Four Days Later

Another week, another book review – which when I finish, I really need to keep reading so I can keep up the review pattern (currently reading a very long book, so it’s taking me quite a while). For a change, this is not a random book I scrounged off the ground following a message on the building’s stuff-I-don’t-want-the-faff-of-taking-to-the-charity-shop group. So, where did I get it? I actually visited a charity shop myself, and walked out with a small pile (okay, three) books. My next step on the book acquisition journey is to actually get my butt to the library and finish the membership process. But I’ve got a few more on the TBR pile to go before I need to brave a public space like the library. #winterlockdownhermit

A cover that spoke to me in my deep 20s-obsessed brain that is not at all trying to match my writing with my reading

Non-spoilery Synopsis

This novel tells the story of Jenny Windell, who is fascinated by murder mysteries. She finds herself, through some accident of fate, in the same room as the body of her estranged aunt, and becomes convinced that the police will come after her. She flees the scene, heading towards the countryside to pretend to be a hiker, aided by her friend who lends her clothes, pawns a watch and provides her with an alibi. Much hilarity, coded letter-writing, and fake names later, the story comes to a pleasing conclusion that definitely shows off its ironic handling of the genre.

Spoof of a genre: the cosy detective novel

It’s not a book that takes itself too seriously. Published in 1933, the tail end of the golden age of detective fiction, it’s got plenty of source material to riff off. As it reads, you can see the impact on the main character, Jenny Windell, of the detective novels she clearly loves. The novel treats her devotion to the tropes with an authorial/narratorial wry smile and raised eyebrow. She’s clearly being silly, isn’t she, dear reader? In terms of humour, there is also a similarity to P.G. Wodehouse; somewhere between Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, maybe. Quite a lot of irony used throughout.

The blurb on the back cover calls it “a hilarious spoof on the detective novel” – I feel like “hilarious” is an overstatement. It’s not really a laugh-out-loud spoof. More like a witty and ironic takedown of the fans of the genre, rather than the genre itself. It’s a tightly written and edited text that’s pleasing to me as a writer because of how it lays out the major plot points and characters, and its very neat wrap-up of events. Like a Shakespeare tragedy ends with lots of deaths, a Shakespeare comedy ends with lots of marriages, Poirot novels end with a denouement… This wrapped itself up just as I was led to expect.

About the author: a shift from Winnie the Pooh

So, yeah – the reason I bought this book was its author. I have a deep love of A.A. Milne, borne of many years of Winnie the Pooh admiration, and appreciation of the poetry he is also well-known for. Alan Alexander Milne (yes, he shares names with two men who are significant in my life) wrote plays, novels and essays before his children’s books eclipsed his other literature. He apparently (k, I researched this on wikipedia) greatly resented that he became known more for his kids’ lit than his ‘more literary’ (pah!) work. I feel like I will definitely need to read more of his other work before I can judge this – largely because his poetry has always been part of my cultural experience, and this book feels more like an outlier at the moment.

The charity shop had some other books in a similar imprint that I didn’t pick up that time, but maybe they’ll still be there, or maybe I’ll be able to find them digitally.

Worth it?

Erm, well, I wanna go back and grab the others from the charity shop I found this in so I can judge more of A.A. Milne’s work, more generally. This book itself – well, I’ll probably keep it, rather than recycling it into the charity shop donation pile. It felt familiar, but not the best book I’ve ever read. I feel like Christie and Wodehouse do each of their respective genres better than this book does the combination of them. But it was a fun diversion. Secret codes, fake names, a touch of romance… it’ll do.

Project Songbird: It’s been a while…

So, it has really been a while… At least on the novel front. I’ve been better with my book reviews, but it’s been difficult to write over the past few weeks. Since I last did a book update, we have bought a car, been going on adventures, and I’ve been getting stuck into work in a big way. All of this has been very positive. Our car adventures have included going to visit some green spaces just out of the city that have filled me with joy, and going to choose my own lettuce from Tesco, which has filled me with a sense of self-sufficiency and independence from online grocery delivery slots.

But all in all, it has meant that my novelling has been languishing, undone, on my harddrive.

Never fear! Here comes the series reboot… the chance to get going again and build up some good habits once more, after having been a slacker and a layabout.

Vital statistics

  • Word count: 30315 (35%)
  • Words since last update: 5342 (eep. Like, a month.)
  • Best day: well, not really had a best day.

Challenges

I took a bit of a needed break, but then have been struggling to pick up my story again. I have seen on several writing-people forum posts that there is sometimes a bit of a weird 30 000 word mark at which no matter how much you seem to write, the plot struggles to advance. I think I unfortunately hit that trough at the same time as my break, so getting back my early momentum has felt more like a chore than I was hoping. Anyway, here’s committing publicly to it once more. I also think that work picking up (which I’m very thankful for) has meant that I have less energy to spend on my after-hours creative space. I had to look myself in the mirror and honestly address with myself that attempting to participate in NaNoWriMo this year would probably not be an option. I have 2 courses I need to complete by the end of the year and it is already October. There is always next year. 🙂

Wins

Well, small win number one: I’ve novelled more than once this week. Small win number two is that I’ve posted an update and set a goal for the week to come. Small wins, but they can build up over time.

Goals for next week

Write at least 4000 words of this novel by next Sunday. Build up a bit of a habit again.

Gif of the week

Book Review: Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects

Yet another interesting book from the ‘scrounged from the building’ TBR pile. I’ve heard about Gillian Flynn, the author who wrote bestselling Gone Girl, but I’ve not read anything by her. It was another bit of a departure from my usual/comfortable. I was interested because of the genre – it’s a murder mystery, and hey, I’m writing one, so I should read some too. Though mine is set in quite a different era and setting.

The cover, nicked off Amazon – it’s an HBO series! I considered watching it to see how it compares, but I’ve filled my nasty crimey TV section of my brain with British stuff on Netflix at the mo.

Non-spoilery synopsis

Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille, a journalist who is dispatched to the small town in which she grew up to cover the second in a string of murders – young girls killed and their teeth removed. The town is full of painful memories for her, including the death of her younger sister and her own spiralling mental health issues, none of which is made easier by her fraught relationship with her mother. Camille slowly pieces together the facts about the crimes, drawing together memories of the past with her knowledge of the small-town life she left behind. There are a couple of twists and turns towards the end.

Meditations on American small-town life

I think this book manages to balance a sort of small-town gothic with bigger psychological themes. By small-town gothic, I mean that sort of feeling of knowing everyone… and not in a good way. That rather hashed out trope of insiders vs outsiders, in a small town rocked by a tragedy (go back and read that last clause in a movie trailer announcer voice).

The bigger themes, particularly coming through in Camille’s mental health concerns and previous self-harm, are covered in a very personal way, through the close first person perspective. It’s quite challenging to read, as she looks over her self-harm scars, words carved into her skin. The connection between writing and pathology, keeping records of occurrences and feelings, makes for a creepy and interesting story lens.

Book-club books

So, something else that a lot of these books I’ve been reading from random sources, is that lots of them seem to have lists of questions for one’s reading group at the back of the book – time to delve into the themes in conversation. I find these lists quite interesting, because often, I flip through the questions before I’ve finished the book, and they definitely shape my reading of the text.

Worth it?

Eh. Really not my taste at the moment. I didn’t find it as compelling as I expected, really. I think I might give Gone Girl a read if I come across it.

Have you read it? Watched it? What do you think?

Book review: Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places

Soon to be a major motion picture – written on the cover, in the form of a post-it note. “The story of a boy called Finch and a girl named Violet”, it declaims. This was another of my TBR (to-be-read) pile from the building exchange. I’ve offered it to a colleague, but I’ll need to figure out how to send a parcel… these weird little things that you have no idea of the process for, when you move countries. I’m sure it’s easy, but yeah, I’ve never sent a parcel by mail in my life.

A Violet and Theodore Finch – some post-it-notes and a story of figuring out life

Genre: Young Adult… LitFic?

It’s definitely a book that’s outside my usual reading range. I’ve been branching out – I’ve not read much young adult fiction at all. I know lots of people rave about it, and lots of it is written. Lots of wild tales of teenage heroes and heroines, usually up against the world that is doing some monstrous wrong or living in some weird society. I’ve read a good deal more Buildungsromans in my literary adventures this far – characters start as children and slowly age over the course of the book.

This one, also, I would say is LitFic-ish, in a post-modern kinda way – it’s certainly got flavours of classic literature dashed through it, with references to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I’ve not read this particular one (and, well, the characters haven’t either, initially). But there is a bit of a Woolfian energy around time and death in it. The characters quote The Waves at each other via text message, post-it and facebook over the course of their relationship, as they figure out what it means to be still alive, as they navigate time and place and being teenagers.

Characterisation and Themes

It’s a good book for characterisation, with Theodore Finch (commonly called just Finch), a suicidal teenage boy who catches himself up in a mission to prove the value of life to Violet, a girl who lost her sister in a car accident. He calls Violet ‘Ultraviolet’ – one of the bright places or people that come through the story. The tension between Finch’s drive for Violet to find normality in life after her sister’s death and his own suicidal tendencies makes for really complex and interesting conversations and view-points. The novel is told between their two perspectives in first person, giving the reader a vivid glimpse of counting down the days to leave (Violet), and counting the days without dying (Finch).

Other central themes of the book include art and local exploration around their small town and the greater state it’s set in. Finch and Violet create a list of places to visit for a school project, with Finch slowly but surely increasing Violet’s confidence, and with both of them falling in teenage love. The cover evokes another YA favourite, A Fault In Our Stars, and yes, while thinking of this book after reading, it comes around again to that sort of thematic handling of young love, life and coming to terms with death.

I think this would be a very good book for a grade 11 setwork, because it’s got some good talking points and strong thematic development that could make for good essays. On the other hand, I can see that setting a book like this would likely kill it quite dead.

Worth it?

Yeah, a good read – if not my cup of tea. It made me much more emotional than I was expecting, and the characters were compelling. I don’t know if I’ll seek out YA contemp/LitFic like this again, but I’m glad I read it.

Book review: G.M. Malliet’s The Haunted Season

As you know, I’ve been avidly reading my way through the pile of books that I happened upon thanks to my building’s internal facebook-group-of-sharing-all-the-things. This was book three of this haul, and I’ve read another two and a bit of the remaining ones. This book, as I found shortly into the first chapter, is actually the fifth in a series (yes, I flipped it over and saw the back cover, which told me it was not the first… “the handsome vicar’s talent for sorting through clues to solve a murder is once again called into play”.)

Cover ruthlessly stolen off Amazon, as per usual.

So, half a chapter committed to this new story, I had a moment of doubting whether to continue or whether to find book one, but on realising that this was largely an activity in reading what was available, I dug in and got going.

Non-spoilery synopsis

The book tells the story of a dishy vicar (#keepingupappearancesreferences) who lives in a small town that seems to be beset (unfortunately) by murders. Thankfully only one per book, but it draws a bit of an eyebrow-raise from his local bishop, to say the least. The main character, Reverend Max Tudor, seems to live an interesting small-town life that bears witness to several previous books’ worth of dramatic conflict (falling in love with the local New Age shop owner, etc.) The town is full of some stereotyped characters who are officious at parish council meetings, or are eccentric and extremely wealthy. When the local lord of the manor is found murdered, Max and his friend, Detective Cotton have to figure out who would have the motive to do such a terrible thing. They eventually pull the pieces together of some family drama, wrap the plot, and avert a last-minute crisis in Max’s church.

Cozy mysteries and their challenges

So, this book is pretty solidly in the cozy mystery category. I read it with interest, having actually read very few that didn’t feature Poirot or Marple. What I felt while reading it was that it tended a little towards a pastiche of typical mystery tropes and the Vicar of Dibley – down to the personages on the parish council and the unusual vicar (this one having spent some time in MI5). I looked up the author some way into the book, because it gave me an odd impression of writing an imagined version of England. “Baaden-Boomthistle” as a surname is a bit too far a reach for even the lord and lady of the manor, and everything was just a little too… post-cardy. I found she’s American, but spent some time in the UK at Oxford. Aha! This made sense to me, because I have previously tried to write (plotted and nearly started) a similar book, taking place in a small English village somewhere (such a good setting), except I felt like I didn’t really know enough about the workings of the setting and its people to get into it. I would have been writing what I didn’t know. And, while I think it is quite an enjoyable story, I get the same feeling from this book too.

The denouement that is such an important part of a mystery novel lacked some clarity for me; I ended up going back a chapter to re-read because I thought I’d missed something. After this, the last few pages of the book featured further dramatic tension and action, which I read as a possible other ending – it could have been the climax of an entirely separate book, and didn’t seem to connect to the main plot line at all. I understand that subplot exists, but I sorta didn’t feel it gelled well as a subplot either.

I may just be being horribly picky, because after all, I read it and enjoyed it – even if I got a bit confused towards the end.

Worth it?

Yeah, sure. Kind of fun, lots of escapism. I feel like it would make pretty good bad TV if that makes sense – another small town murder series, but a light-hearted one. As I said, the novel has some things that give me pause as a writer, and the last few chapters feel confusing, but if I were to find books 1-4 in the library, I’d read ’em. The characterisation is good, the escapism is fun, and that’s the whole point with this type of book, isn’t it?