Murder to Music by Margaret Newman

The latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series is a book by an author I thought was new to me, but it turns out I’ve read a few of her books under another of her pseudonyms, Anne Melville. This one, Murder to Music, was her first novel and was originally published in 1959 under the name Margaret Newman. It’s an excellent murder mystery and could have been the start of a great series had the author not moved on to other genres (such as the Anne Melville family sagas).

Delia Jones is on the managing committee of the Metropolitan Choir, who are preparing to give a performance of a new mass composed by their conductor, Evan Tredegar. At the beginning of the novel, we meet the other members of the committee, whom we quickly discover are not the happiest group of people. Below the surface, there are tensions, secrets and resentments, some of which we won’t be aware of or fully understand until later in the story. The assistant conductor, Owen Burr, is particularly unpopular with the rest of the choir, so when he is shot dead just as the performance draws to a close there is no shortage of suspects.

Detective Superintendent Simon Hudson is watching from the audience and is able to begin an immediate investigation. However, things are going to be slightly difficult for Simon…because Delia Jones happens to be his girlfriend. Can she be ruled out as a suspect? Then, just as Simon thinks he has uncovered the motive and is about to identify the murderer, a second death takes place and he is forced to reassess everything he thinks he knows so far.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters are strong, with some of them given interesting back stories, and the reasons behind the complex relationships and long-standing feuds between the members of the choir feel believable. I also liked the setting, which made a change from the country house or small village settings which are so common in this type of detective novel. I’m not sure whether Margaret Newman had a musical background, but I felt that she seemed to really understand what was involved in the staging of a musical performance and what it was like to be part of a choir.

As a mystery, I thought the plot worked well and I was surprised by some of the developments in the second half of the book, having been led in the wrong direction for most of the first half! I kept changing my mind between one suspect and another, but in the end I was happy just to let Simon Hudson solve the mystery for me. It’s a shame this seems to be the only book featuring Simon and Delia, but I will be reading more by this author, under her various pseudonyms, and have the third book in her Hardie trilogy lined up to read soon.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When I first heard about Daisy Jones & The Six, I dismissed it as not for me. The subject – a fictional 1970s rock band – didn’t appeal to me and it sounded as though the book was written in the sort of experimental style I usually dislike. Then I started to see some very positive reviews from people who often have similar taste in books to me, so when I came across it at the library just before Christmas, I decided to give it a try after all – and am very glad that I did.

The best way to describe Daisy Jones & The Six is like this: Imagine someone has carried out hours of interviews with the members of a rock band and then pieced them all together – a few lines from one member, followed by a short quote from another and then a brief recollection by a third – to form a cohesive narrative telling the complete story of that band, from their early days to their rise to fame and subsequent break-up. The overall effect is like watching a television documentary; it’s a brave and imaginative way to write a novel and could probably have gone badly wrong, but I’m pleased to say that Taylor Jenkins Reid gets it exactly right. In fact, I could easily have believed that Daisy Jones & The Six really existed and that this book really was a documentary transcribed onto the page.

There’s not a lot I can say about the plot of the novel, if you can really call it a ‘plot’. Taylor Jenkins Reid has said that she loosely based Daisy Jones & The Six on Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, as well as other bands such as The Eagles, so you probably know the sort of things you can expect: rivalries between band members; drink, drugs and wild parties; the stories behind song lyrics; lots of tours and rehearsals and recording sessions. The characters are brought to life both through their own words and through the observations of others, and while some of the band members are very forgettable, a few are much more strongly drawn.

Daisy Jones herself is a bit of a mystery; she’s eccentric, quirky, and a real individual who does as she pleases and doesn’t care what people think of her. She comes across as selfish and reckless, but also tragic and vulnerable, and because she spends so much of the book under the influence of drugs, I felt that I never truly knew or understood the real Daisy Jones. Daisy’s relationship with Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six with whom she writes some of the band’s biggest hits, forms an important part of the novel. Billy faces his own problems with addiction early in his career, but unlike Daisy he doesn’t face them alone – he is sustained by the love of the strong, supportive and endlessly patient Camila, whom he meets near the beginning of the book and who ended up being one of my favourite characters.

I also liked Karen Karen, the keyboardist with the Six and, until the arrival of Daisy, the only woman in the band, but the other members, as I’ve said, are much less memorable to the point where I kept confusing Eddie, Pete and Warren and couldn’t tell you which instruments they played. Thinking about it, that was probably the point: most well-known bands do have one or two members who get all the attention while others are kept in the background. This is clearly a source of resentment for some of the lesser members of The Six and, when added to Daisy’s drug problems and the tensions between Karen and Billy’s brother, lead guitarist Graham, the break-up of the band seemed inevitable. However, I had been given the impression from the book’s blurb – which states that “no one knows the reason behind the group’s split on the night of their final concert at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979 . . . until now” – that something dramatic was going to happen to bring things to a head and I was disappointed that the eventual reason was much less shocking.

There are one or two twists near the end which I liked, especially as one of them made me think differently about everything that had come before. Really, though, it’s not the story that I will remember about this book and probably not the characters either – it’s the overall atmosphere of the book, the documentary style, the recreation of the 1970s music scene and the effort the author has gone to in order to make Daisy Jones & The Six feel like a real band, right down to including a collection of their song lyrics at the end of the book. I didn’t love this book quite as much as most other people seem to have done, but I’m still glad I decided to take a chance on something different from my usual reads as I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to!

Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott

I was aware that Agatha Christie had written several books under the name of Mary Westmacott but I had never really thought about trying one until I saw that the February book for the Read Christie 2019 Challenge was Giant’s Bread. Published in 1930, this is the first of the Westmacott novels, so seemed like a good place to start with them. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she used a pseudonym as it’s very different from the mystery novels for which she is much more famous, but it’s still enjoyable in its own way and I will definitely be going on to read more Westmacott books.

Giant’s Bread is the story of a young man and his love of music. We first meet Vernon Deyre as a child, growing up in a wealthy household under the care of a succession of nursemaids and servants. With a highly-strung, melodramatic mother and a father who is more interested in other women than in his wife, Vernon retreats into a world of imaginary friends – and imaginary monsters, such as the grand piano, which he thinks of as a vicious ‘Beast’ with teeth. This irrational fear makes him avoid all forms of music until, as an adult, he allows himself to listen for the first time and is enchanted by what he hears.

Although the focus is mainly on Vernon as he pursues a career in music, determined to make up for all the years he has wasted, we follow the stories of several other characters too. There’s Joe (Josephine), Vernon’s cousin and best friend, an independent and rebellious young woman who wants to become a sculptor; the beautiful, timid Nell Vereker, Vernon’s childhood playmate with whom he later falls in love; Jane Harding, an older woman who shares his love of music; and Sebastian Levinne, whose family buy the house next to the Deyres’ estate, Abbots Puissants. Sebastian is Jewish, and yes, you can expect some of the anti-Semitism that appeared in so many books from this era – but despite that, I thought he was portrayed as the most likeable of the five main characters in the novel. The others are all deeply flawed people but, of course, that is what makes them and their struggles so interesting to read about.

Before I started to read Giant’s Bread, I had the impression that Mary Westmacott’s books were light romances, but that’s not how I would describe this one at all. Although characters do fall in and out of love over the course of the novel, it’s not a very romantic story – more a story of the sacrifices we are prepared or not prepared to make in order to get what we want out of life. This is illustrated particularly well with Nell’s storyline, in which she has to decide whether her love for Vernon is more important to her than her love of comfort and luxury.

Towards the end of the novel, things became much more dramatic, with some very implausible plot twists and some coincidences that seemed far too convenient! It was disappointing because up to that point I had really believed in the story and the characters. This did let the book down, in my opinion, but didn’t spoil it too much, as there had been so much else that I’d loved. The early chapters describing Vernon’s childhood were wonderful and captured the way a lonely, imaginative little boy may have looked at the world. Later in the book, I enjoyed reading about Nell’s experiences as a nurse during the First World War.

On finishing the book, I wasn’t entirely sure what message Christie wanted us to take away from it. Yes, Vernon and the others had made sacrifices, but were we supposed to agree that those sacrifices were worthwhile or not? If anyone else has read the book, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that. I do like books that leave me with something to think about and this one certainly did. I hope the other Mary Westmacott novels will be equally fascinating.

If you’re wondering, the title Giant’s Bread comes from the lines spoken by the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk – ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’.

More mini-reviews: The Sea Road West; Circle of Pearls; The Silver Swan

Time for another trio of mini-reviews! I’ll start with The Sea Road West, a 1975 novel by Scottish author Sally Rena. Set in a small community in the Scottish Highlands, the novel begins with the death of the parish priest, Father Macabe. It’s not long before a replacement arrives, but Father James, being young, idealistic and English, is not quite what the people of Kintillo were expecting. Struggling to settle into his new home and job, Father James is sure that he is destined to remain an outsider; the only person with whom he feels any connection is Meriel, the granddaughter of the elderly Laird. As his relationship with Meriel develops, there is a sense that it can only end in tragedy for everyone concerned.

I found this a strange and atmospheric story. Although it’s short enough to be read in just a few sittings, the pace is slow, with not much actually happening until the final pages. Instead, the focus is on the characters; there are not many of them, but as well as Father James and Meriel and her family, we get to know Miss Morag, the eccentric housekeeper obsessed with memories of Father Macabe, and Magnus Laver, a retired doctor with an unhappy past who lives alone in a tiny cottage and seeks solace in alcohol. They are not a particularly likeable assortment of characters and the overall tone of the novel is quite a sad, melancholy one. There are some nice descriptions of the Scottish countryside and coastline, though, and an exploration of one of my favourite themes – the coming of change and progress to a community which still clings to the old ways and old traditions.

The Sea Road West was an interesting read, but the next book I’m going to write about here, Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker, was more to my taste. Set in 17th century England and spanning the eventful period of history from the end of the Civil War through to the Restoration, the plague and the Great Fire of London, this is the story of the Pallisters, a Royalist family who live at Sotherleigh Manor in Sussex. Being on the losing side in the war, the family go through a great deal of turmoil during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule before King Charles II is restored to the throne and their fortunes change again.

There are several romantic threads to the story; our heroine, Julia Pallister, is in love with her brother’s friend, who happens to be Christopher Wren, the architect and scientist who would become famous for redesigning St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, but she is also romantically involved with the son of a neighbouring Roundhead colonel. Meanwhile, Julia’s brother Michael rescues a young woman from being hanged and brings her home to go into hiding at Sotherleigh – but before their relationship has a chance to go anywhere, he is forced to flee the country for exile in France. There’s more to the story than the romance, though. I loved the drama of the plague and Fire sections, the triumphant return of Charles II to London, and the descriptions of the ribbon-making business Julia establishes.

On the negative side, I thought the book felt longer than it needed to be and there were too many changes of perspective, sometimes several times within the same page, making it hard to become fully absorbed early on. Although I did enjoy Circle of Pearls, I think it suffered from being read too soon after Pamela Belle’s excellent Wintercombe, which is also set in an English country house during the Civil War and which, in my opinion, is a better book.

Back to a modern day setting with the final book I want to discuss in this post, Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan, one that I think will particularly appeal to classical music lovers, although with a plot involving secrets, lies and family drama, there’s enough to interest non-musical readers too.

When Mariana’s father, the world-famous cellist Alexander Feldmann, dies just days after his ninetieth birthday in 2010, Mariana expects to inherit his beloved cello, a Stradivarius known affectionately as the Silver Swan. However, when the will is read, she is shocked to learn that he has left the valuable instrument to Claude Roselle, one of his former students. The fate of the cello brings Mariana and Claude together and as they get to know each other and to understand the reasons for Alexander’s choice, Mariana must decide whether or not she is ready to give up her claim to the Swan.

The Silver Swan is not a bad novel – it’s quite a pageturner in fact – but I finished it with a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Half of the novel is written from Mariana’s perspective and half from Claude’s (in the form of alternating chapters) which I thought worked well as they are both equally important to the story. However, I struggled to engage with either of them; they didn’t seem like real people to me, although that could be partly because the world they live in is so different from my own that I just couldn’t identify with them. There are some plot twists, but I found them too easy to predict and wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. Anyway, this was a quick read and one that I enjoyed without feeling that it was anything special.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them tempt you?

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

It’s 1941 and Russia is now at war with Germany. As the Nazis surround Leningrad with the aim of starving the city into submission, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich begins work on his Seventh Symphony. While other important musicians are being evacuated, Shostakovich insists on remaining to help defend his city. To his wife, Nina, the real reason he doesn’t want to leave is because he doesn’t want to be disturbed while writing his symphony and it seems to her that he is putting his music before the welfare of his family.

During the siege, the government orders that the Seventh Symphony be performed to raise the morale of the Soviet troops at the front. Since the members of Leningrad’s famous Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Mravinsky have already been removed from the city, the job of performing the Seventh Symphony falls to another, less highly regarded conductor, Karl Eliasberg and the second-rate Radio Orchestra. Eliasberg finally has the chance to do something great, but it’s not going to be easy…of the musicians who have stayed in Leningrad through the long, cold Russian winter some of them are dead and the others barely have the strength to lift their instruments.

Alongside the stories of Shostakovich and Eliasberg is the story of a third man, Nikolai Nikolayev, and his beloved nine-year-old daughter, Sonya. Nikolai must make the heartbreaking decision of whether to risk sending Sonya out of Leningrad on her own while he stays behind to continue his work as violinist in the orchestra.

The Siege of Leningrad was surely one of the most horrific episodes of the Second World War. This book was maybe not quite as emotional as other novels I’ve read on the same subject (The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons, for example) but it was still very moving. The idea of people being so hungry they’re driven to boiling down leather briefcases for protein or mixing water and hair oil to make soup, while watching as their family and friends die one by one of starvation or cold, is horrible to think about. And yet the story is not too bleak or depressing because it’s not just about war and suffering – it’s also about the power of art and music and how something good can come from even the worst circumstances imaginable.

The characters Sarah Quigley has chosen to focus on in this novel are all interesting, three-dimensional people who each have their own set of problems and obstacles to overcome during the siege. My favourite was Karl Eliasberg, the conductor of the book’s title. Based on a real person but one who we don’t know much about, the author imagines him as a shy, awkward man with low self-esteem, desperate to have his talents recognised and to be accepted by the cultural elite. Shostakovich is his idol but every time he comes face to face with him he finds himself saying the wrong things and failing to give the impression he was hoping to give. Eliasberg’s character is so well-written and believable I felt I could really understand him and empathise with him.

Despite Shostakovich being one of the central characters and the story revolving around one of his compositions, you don’t need any knowledge of classical music to enjoy this novel. However, I would highly recommend listening to the Seventh Symphony after finishing the book – it’s definitely worth it and it really adds to the reading experience. I loved this book and I have a feeling that when I make my list of favourite books of the year in December this might be one of them.

Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Sarajevo is a city under siege. On 27th May 1992, twenty two people are killed by a mortar shell as they wait outside to buy bread. In memory of those who died, a cellist sits in the street on twenty two consecutive afternoons and plays Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello.

The cellist, however, is not the main character in this book – although he is there in the background throughout the story, playing his music as a message of hope and inspiration. Instead, Galloway has chosen to focus on three different characters, who are each coping in their different ways with the changes war has brought to their lives.

One of these is Arrow, a young woman who was once the star of the university target shooting team. Now she’s been recruited as an army counter-sniper and given the responsibility of protecting the cellist from attack. Then there’s Kenan, a man in his forties for whom the simple task of going to collect water for his family means putting his life in danger. And finally there’s Dragan, an older man who sent his wife and son out of Sarajevo before the siege began, and is now slowly making his way across the war-torn city to the bakery where he works.

I was only 11 years old when the Bosnian War started so probably wasn’t paying a lot of attention to news reports about it – I’m ashamed to admit that I know very little about what happened and before I read this book was only vaguely aware that Sarajevo had been under siege. However, if you’re looking for a book that will teach you the facts about the war, you’ll need to look elsewhere as this book does very little to educate the reader about the war itself. We are never even told the nationality of any of the characters. The snipers surrounding the city are referred to as simply ‘the men on the hill’; those defending Sarajevo are ‘the men in the city’.

This vagueness was very effective because in a way, Steven Galloway was saying that it doesn’t matter who’s fighting who, it doesn’t matter why a war began, because people everywhere are the same, have the same feelings and emotions, and are similarly affected by the pain and suffering of war. The author could have taken any war or any siege as the basis for this book and the overall mood he created would have been the same.

I can’t say that I enjoyed this book because ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word. Neither is ‘loved’. But it was an incredibly powerful book and I’m glad I finally found time to read it. I think some readers would probably dislike the structure of the book with its alternating chapters from the viewpoints of each of the three characters, but it worked for me. Arrow’s storyline was the most compelling and could have been a whole book on its own, but I also found it interesting to follow Dragan and Kenan as they dodged the snipers and negotiated hazardous bridges and ruined buildings on their dangerous journeys through the city.

The Cellist of Sarajevo doesn’t tell us how the war started, the reasons for the war or even who the war was between. What it does attempt to tell us is the effects the war had on individual people, how they felt and how they tried to survive.

Highly Recommended

Summer Reading Challenge: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Until today, the biggest decision seventeen-year-old Mia has faced is whether to go to Juilliard to study music or stay at home with her family and boyfriend. Now she has an even more important choice to make: a choice between life and death.

It’s been snowing outside and school has closed for the day. Mia, her parents and her younger brother Teddy decide to take advantage of the unexpected day off to visit friends. They pile into the car, laughing, joking and arguing about which music to listen to, like any other family going on a drive. The next thing Mia knows, she’s standing in a ditch looking down at the wreckage of their car. At first she thinks she’s survived unscathed, but then she discovers her own body, unconscious on the ground…

If I Stay follows Mia as she watches herself lying in a coma in a hospital bed and witnesses the reactions of her friends and family as they sit outside her room, waiting for news. In a series of flashbacks, we learn what Mia’s life was like before the accident and why she’s finding it so difficult to decide whether she wants to live or die.

I don’t read many YA novels anymore (I think this might even be the first one I’ve reviewed here) but I probably should, because it means I’m missing out on great books like this one. Although If I Stay may sound like a dark and depressing book, it’s actually not. It’s a story about the importance of love and friendship and is a book that can be enjoyed by both adults and teens.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was because Mia was a character I really cared about. She seemed a genuinely nice person, the type of girl I would have liked to have been friends with at school. She does have some insecurities – she loves playing the cello and listening to classical music for example, and worries that she’s too incompatible with Adam, her rock musician boyfriend – and these are explored throughout the book. I liked the way the musical aspect of the book was handled to show how people from different musical backgrounds are able to respect each other’s tastes and how music can form a bond between them. At the end of the book Gayle Forman gives us her reasons for choosing the various songs that are mentioned in the story, which I thought was a nice idea.

There was one part of the book that I thought was unrealistic – a scene where Adam’s punk rocker friends descend on the hospital – but apart from that, I really enjoyed If I Stay. It’s a very moving and emotional read and I was kept guessing what Mia’s decision would be until the final page.

I received a review copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge.