Today’s book review of a mystery novel is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey. If you’d like your book reviewed or to send me a book review of another author’s book, see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.
The Funny Business of Life by Jenny Worstall
We travel back in time to investigate the mystery, meeting a host of colourful personalities along the way, including the bumbling Director of Music Lancelot Prokofiev, the predatory French teacher Celeste Dubonnet, Brunhilda the chocolate-loving music secretary, Dorian the sixth former who can understand complicated mathematics but forgets the day of the week and the egotistical conductor, Tristan Proudfoot.
Demons are wrestled and surprises abound before we return to Bonfire Night for the final revelation of a dramatically altered future.
‘The Funny Business of Life’ is a not entirely serious murder mystery and is the second book by Jenny Worstall in the ‘Sing with the Choir’ series. The opening scene is set in 2014, eleven years after the end of the romantic comedy ‘Make a Joyful Noise’ (Book 1 in the ‘Sing with the Choir’ series). Both books can be read as standalone titles.
I’m not usually a fan of prologues but this one is very short – less than a Kindle page – and brings us the murder as it happens before chapter one takes us ten months earlier (7th January 2014* rather than 5th November 2014).
We meet the characters – all music teachers – at a staff meeting and what felt like a writing group (I’ve chaired and attended many such sessions over the years). While there are a few characters early on, they’re all entertaining in their own way and I especially liked the term ‘Teflon Man’ and we’re soon told why. We can feel sorry for Xander and his stutter, and Brunhilda’s Harry being so poorly. (Aren’t the names brilliant!)
Our main character though is piano teacher, and fan of Cat Stevens and Bohemian Rapsody, Miriam and we get to know her better in chapter two as she heads off to the pub – the brilliantly named The Shark & Fiddle – with friend and fellow villager, Robert.
As the year moves on, we meet other characters including Brunhilda (whose name I felt a little cumbersome at times and would have thought someone would have shortened it or given her a nickname) and her husband Harry).
The teachers head off to London (and hour and a quarter from St Celia’s) which, as you would expect, doesn’t go without a hitch.
A couple of chapters later we meet the victim, Tristran, and even after just a couple of pages, I’d want to murder him too. 🙂
The months pass by and we have snapshots of a few of the characters, some endearing and some suitably dark, many entwined. An interesting weave of lives.
I guessed one of the major reveals at the end of chapter eight (just under halfway through the book) but apart from Tristran being a waste of space, I’d not guessed why the prologue happened the way it did until the last fifth of the book. There was a scene where Miriam goes back to Ireland which felt too much like a cliché and reminded me of Philomena (and wondered if the noise upstairs could be heard then the noise downstairs could be by those upstairs but a mere technicality). The subject was well handled so forgivable.
Once the main mystery is revealed it’s so cleverly done so that, after the book had finished, I went back to the prologue and realised how clever it was.
And now for writers…
* Unless it’s vital to the plot, e.g. a scene based on a real event, I wouldn’t recommend authors putting years in their novels because it immediately dates it.
Also when writing in past tense, ‘three years ago’ (as an example) isn’t three years ago because we’re already in the past. Ditto ‘today’, ‘this evening’ and ‘last summer’ because it’s past tense, especially in this novel because the prologue takes place months later. They should be ‘the day before’, ‘that evening’ and ‘the previous summer’ respectively. Only minor picks but it only takes a minor pick for some writers to become disjointed from the story and you want to avoid that.
There were quite a few clichés, mostly in narration rather than dialogue (you can get away with more in dialogue but best stuck to one character): ‘in the nick of time’, ‘were having the time of their lives’, ‘as the light dawned’, ‘a tower of strength’, ‘getting on like a house on fire’, ‘cool as a cucumber’, ‘the cat was out of the bag’, ‘no need to look a gift horse in the mouth’, ‘she was beside herself’, ‘chip off the old block’, ‘water under the bridge’ and ‘spread like wildfire’. We should always find better ways of saying well-worn (threadbare) phrases.
There were, however, very few unnecessary adverbs (which are often overused), e.g. ‘“Oh, what do I care?” she said angrily’, which could be replaced with a more active verb e.g. ‘she snapped’, although Jenny uses plenty of ‘active’ verbs and one of my favourite was ‘flopped’ (into a chair).
There were point of view slips on a few occasions, e.g. where April is the main character in a scene and is thinking back to her failed wedding but then we have Xander thinking something untrue and how tired and strained April was looking. Later, Brunhilda nods off and the point of view switches to Harry, and shortly after that, we’re in Miriam’s viewpoint but also pop into Boris’, April’s, Lourdes’ and Robert’s heads as they meet a new member of staff. Even in omniscient (godlike) third-person viewpoint, we can only be in one character’s head at a time. The only way to switch to another character is to have a section break (blank line, new non-indented first paragraph) where the second characters becomes the main viewpoint. Then another section for when we return to the original character. In this case it would be easier just to have April’s opinion / observations of Xander. Later when Tristran finally reappears, we switch from Miriam’s, Robert’s and Tristran’s points of view in the same passage.
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews about started to / began to and we have Miriam ‘began to weep’ / ‘began to rub’ and isn’t interrupted so she can just weep / have her back rubbed. Later another character begins to kiss someone so that ‘began to’ can go (where we feel really sorry for Miriam, and chapter seven is very poignant).
There are explanations that aren’t needed e.g. ‘seething with rage’ where we know why the character is seething so the ‘with rage’ isn’t needed. Hire a good editor (like myself) 🙂 and they are the sort of things they should pick up.
Some of the dialogue feels a little too fully formed, e.g. complete sentences, especially when Miriam is speaking on the phone, but I was listening to the book via my Kindle’s text-to-speech function which can be robotic at times so that didn’t help it feel as natural as it might have done had I be reading it normally. This is where the advantage of reading your work out loud can spot anything that jars, especially if reading to someone else and they wince or laugh where they shouldn’t.
Despite all these ‘picks’, it is a well-written book and it took some effort finding what I did. Anyone reading purely for pleasure probably wouldn’t have noticed, and this is where being a reviewer has its downside. My red pen can’t help but take over!
An entertaining novel, especially for fans of detailed novels, and music lovers with many references to music including the characters’ names, e.g. Miriam Highnote, Lancelot Prokofiev, Mr Spiccato, Melody, Viola, and Miriam’s cat, Allegro. Over the months of reviewing and editing other writers’ novels, few have such distinctive names and there are plenty to choose from in this book! Being a crime fan, I would have liked more mystery but I also enjoy humour and the endearing characters and intertwined plots made up for the slower pace. A well-written curl-up-on-a-rainy-day read.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, 2015 Head Judge for the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition, Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page) and has created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has nine others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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If you would like to send me a book review of another author’s books or like your book reviewed (short stories, contemporary crime / women’s novels or writing guides), see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog. And I post writing exercises every weekday on four online writing groups.