Sunday 26 May 2024


I don't normally spend great chunks of time reading a novel during the day; I'm a woman . . . I'm busy. But I could hardly put this psychological crime thriller down because I was hooked right from the word go. It's written with the lightest of touches, almost as if it's chick-lit . . . but it's most certainly not chick-lit.

It all kicks off on Saturday 8th June 2019 in a trendy London gastropub where two women are celebrating their forty-fifth birthdays with their families. 

The more attractive, popular and successful woman - Alix Summers (and of course why wouldn't she be given her upbeat name) -  is with her husband, two children, three sisters and their husbands, plus close friends, and they're having a ball. Champagne, presents, balloons, lots of excited chatter, other diners are drawn to this noisy, happy group, and why wouldn't they be. I've seen plenty of similar party groups and it's very easy to assume that people like this have exceedingly happy and exciting lives. 

Alix in particular seems to have it all: stunning good looks, tanned, tall, slim, trendy ice-blonde hair, fabulous clothes and jewellery, doting husband, nice kids and supportive sisters. The stuff of chick-lit but, as I said, this is not chick-lit. Is she as nice as she appears to be, though, and is her family as perfect as it seems to be?

Our second birthday girl is Josie Fair, who has more of a quiet attraction or so Alix thinks. She's particularly taken with Josie's long wavy auburn hair and brown eyes which are almost black. Josie is with her husband, Walter, who's so much older than her that he looks more like her father than husband, wearing new clothes still creased out of their wrappings. Eating out is not what they usually do and it shows. 

We learn very little about Walter to begin with, although more about Alix's husband, Nathan, who's an estate agent dealing with top-end properties. Although he earns a lot of money, physically he doesn't appear to be the kind of man that a stylish, beautiful woman like Alix would be attracted to:  his unruly shock of bright red hair, undescript face and white, shapeless legs rather like school boy, are hardly flattering attributes. 

There's just one birthday present for Josie and a simple meal compared with the many plates of food which keep arriving at Alix's table, plus very little in the way of conversation So right from the beginning, the two birthday parties and the two birthday girls couldn't be more different.

Josie is so immediately fascinated by Alix Summers that she Googles her name on her mobile while she's sitting at her table (she knows her name because the waitress called it out) and learns that Alix is a successful podcaster whose subjects are highly successful women. So as soon as Alix retreats to the cloakroom, Josie follows her, announces that they are birthday twins and invites Alix to the clothes alteration business where she works because she has an interesting proposition for her.

Intrigued by this, Alix does visit Josie. She's looking for a way to expand her podcast business and when Josie tells her that she wants to totally change her life and for Alix to document this, Alix takes the bait. Particularly when Josie hints at dark secrets she wishes to reveal.

'Don't do it, Alix !!!' many readers will already be shouting at the pages of the novel. Because Josie Fair is a seriously spooky person who quite clearly has a will of iron. From her eccentric denim wardrobe to the aggressive Pomchi look-a-like dog she carries in a dog carrier to her relentless worming her way into Alix's life, she appears to be a person to avoid not embrace.

But Alix thinks that a podcast centred around Josie is a potential big hit and so the Hi! I'm Your Birthday Twin podcast begins to take shape. Every day Josie makes her way from her dingy council flat to Alix's fabulously stunning Edwardian house to tell her story in Alix's recording studio in her garden.

And what a story it is. Married at seventeen to Walter, who she met when she was just thirteen, with a daughter, Roxy, who ran away from home when she was sixteen, and another daughter, Erin, who stays in her untidy, smelly bedroom gaming on her computer all day. Erin has never eaten solid food and lives off baby food in jars and tubs of deserts, which Josie religiously prepares for her every day and leaves outside her room on a tray. Really? The word gross comes to mind.

We learn about Josie and her family bit by bit and not in massive detail.  In fact, Jewel's writing style of less is more threads its way throughout the novel, and Jewell forces us to speculate for ourselves rather than tell us straight off . . .  and it works. We want to learn more so we keep turning those pages, which is very clever writing.

Is Walter is a paedophile? Are the girls nightmare daughters? Is Josie a tragic victim?  One thing is for sure: this is a highly dysfunctional family.

The story unfolds through day by day by accounts of the two women and extracts of Alix's interviews, including details of lighting and props, not just with Josie but also the people she's come in contact with. It's an effective technique, adding variety to the delivery of the story, and I particularly enjoyed these chapters because it was refreshing to hear the interviewees talking so freely. 

BUT at the back of the reader's mind is the title of the novel - NONE OF THIS IS TRUE.

So what is true? And who is not telling the truth?

You'll have to read the novel to find out. I hope I've given enough background to have wetted your interest but not enough to spoil the read. And there is a lot of violence I should add - this is, after all, a crime novel- but Jewell doesn't go into too much gruesome detail. Again she lets your imagination run riot. 

So what is it about this novel that I so like?

The immediate hook for me was Alix Summers. I can't remember ever understanding and sympathising with a character so much. Firstly, although I'm an author, I'm also a journalist and blogger so I appreciate that desire to get a big story, which is what drives Alix despite all the warnings signs. Secondly, she reminded me of Mollie King, the Saturdays girl band member and Radio One D.J. in appearance, charisma, openness, happy family and life style. But that's where the similarity ends, I should add straight away. However, it meant that I had a picture in my mind of Alix which in some way helped me to understand and relate to her.

And then there's Jewell's writing style which has to be amongst the best in contemporary crime writing: fluent and seemingly effortless but packing an enormous punch to the gut as she allows the story to slowly unfold. Every detail, every description, adds to the story without being over-flowery or over-dramatic. Economical writing is a good way to describe it and believe me, that's not easy to achieve.

I previously read an earlier novel by Jewell - The Family Upstairs - which is different in structure but just as powerful. It was because I enjoyed this novel that I chose to read None Of This Is True. Jewell has also written a further nineteen novels, which means that there are more novels for me to read. 

And she's been noticed in Hollywood. In 2022 she was commissioned by Disney to write a full-length novel for Marvel. It'll be the first novel in a new series called Marvel Crime, using the existing character of Jessica Jones, a private investigator. This is a new genre for Jewell to tackle and she admits that it's been quite a challenge. Titled Breaking the Dark, it comes out in July 2024. Guess who'll be reading it.

And finally, and this is just on a personal level, Jewell is a dog lover and has just adopted a rescue dog from Romania. No surprise then that there are two dogs in None Of This Is True. I'm also a dog lover and in the process of editing my two fun fantasy novels which have dogs (and a cat) as main characters. If I can write anywhere near as well as Jewell I'll be a very happy woman.

Something really spooky happened while I was researching Lisa Jewell which I'm going to tell you about because we all need to be vigilant when using the internet. From time to time I've been getting a Facebook Friend request plus messages by someone calling themselves Robert Tammy. He claims to be an ex-military American and apparently likes what I write on Facebook and would like to get to know me better !!! These messages are interspersed with flower emojis and since I'm highly suspicious of such requests,  I've always immediately declined such offers of friendship. 

So, Lisa Jewell's Facebook site is available for all to see and I decided to write a brief message on her post about None Of This Is True saying how much I liked the novel. Imagine my horror, then, when I was notified that Robert Tammy had posted a message to me right after my message to Lisa Jewell on HER Facebook site. 

By the time I showed this to my husband, the message had disappeared but re-appeared after a comment from another woman on this post, changing my name to hers !!!  My husband photographed the message and reported it to Facebook so I'm hoping that it'll be investigated.

Robert Tammy is probably a made-up name, his smiling photograph not his, and it could even be a woman or a group of people who are looking for easy targets to con out of money at some stage, or, even worse, to arrange a meet.  And the irony is that this scenario could easily be part of a Lisa Jewell novel. So be warned . . . anyone can be the target of such despicable people.

Sunday 7 April 2024

MY NEW BOOK REVIEW: VERA WONG'S Unsolicited Advice for Murderers . . . by Jesse Sutanto (published in 2023 by Harper Collins)

I found this novel in the book section of my local Sainsbury's, thought the cover was eye catching and the title interesting, flicked through and read a few paragraphs, liked what I was reading and bought a copy, despite having never heard of the author before. And as soon as I started reading it, I was hooked. And that hook was VERA WONG.

Vera runs a most unusual teahouse called VERA WONG'S WORLD FAMOUS TEAHOUSE in Chinatown, San Francisco, although it's far from being world famous. It's dingy, uninviting and claustrophobic, with grubby windows and just one customer: ALEX, an elderly Chinese man with a wife suffering from dementia.

What Vera doesn't know about tea isn't worth knowing. A cabinet containing one hundred and eighty-eight drawers full of high quality tea imported from China completely covers one wall, and everyone who samples her tea agree that Vera makes a mean cup of tea. But Vera's original customers have either moved away or died and she doesn't have the money to modernise the place. In fact, it runs at a loss and Vera has been covering the bills out of her savings, which have dwindled to almost nothing.

But Vera is one hell of a determined woman, with an unshakeable belief in herself and her abilities. Pig-headed, stubborn, judgemental and unable to take no for an answer are just a few of her many qualities.

Still very active at the age of sixty, she takes a brisk walk every morning and then bombards her son, TILLY, with messages e.g. complaining that he sleeps for too long and reminding him to eat. Quite clearly she's disappointed with his lack of contact with her, and she is obviously a very lonely woman.  

But that all changes one morning when she descends from her also small and dingy flat above the shop to find a dead body in the middle of her teahouse. 

That dead body is a young man called MARSHALL. The police don't suspect foul play, but Vera is convinced that he was murdered and so decides to find the murderer by herself. In her opinion, the police are way too incompetent to solve the crime themselves, and Vera is nothing if not self-opinionated. She even unashamedly hides vital evidence from the police. 

That very same day four people arrive at her teahouse, all of whom are connected to Marshall in their own, very different, ways. There's RIKI, a young man who claims to be a reporter; SANA, a nervous young woman; JULIA, Marshall's wife and mother of his young daughter; and OLIVER, Marshall's twin brother.

What becomes very clear is that Marshall was not a nice person, and each of the four visitors had every reason to murder him, but which one is the murderer? Vera befriends them all and then ruthlessly prises out the truth that each one has been desperately hiding from her. And so the story unfolds as the four interact not just with Vera but also with each other. 

Vera keeps notes recording her discoveries and speculations, and I'm going to share with you an excerpt of her notes which reveal something of the way that Vera thinks and also gives a flavour of Sutanto's writing style, which is one of the reasons why I absolutely adore this novel:-


Victim: Marshall Chen, 29

Cause of death: Unknown

Suspicious signs:

1. Bruise on left cheek (someone punch him??)

2. Scratches on right cheek (someone scratch him!?)

3. Holding a flash drive (WHAT IS INSIDE?! Maybe nuclear code? Is he spy? (KGB?)

4. His fingers swollen. Everything swollen. Like me in third trimester.

5. He has baggie full of DRUGS. You see? Must be a bad person. This is not Hollywood, why is he carrying drugs around?

So scary! EXCITING! I am helpless old lady. What to do? Is my duty to find killer before killer go on rampage. Killer will come back for flash drive. I will identify killer and catch him her them!

Vera also has another weapon in her vast array of tactics. FOOD. Copious amounts of Chinese food, of course, and absolutely mouth watering. She feeds not only her new friends but also the police, arriving at their headquarters armed with a multitude of her home made dishes to tempt the officers into divulging facts about the case. They know that they should send her packing but really, that food is just so darn good.

Of course, Vera does eventually discover the murderer and, for me, it was a big surprise but totally making sense. And all the loose ends involving her four main suspects are neatly resolved, leaving me, the reader, feeling exceedingly happy.

So what is it about Vera that I like so much, given her brutal honesty irrespective of who she's talking to? Well, it's just that . . . her brutal honesty. She says exactly what she's thinking, which is so refreshing, and something I wish I could do more but am often just too polite to do so. Vera is certainly not polite but she has a very big heart. She might annoy the hell out of everyone but she's a lot of fun to be around and there is that glorious food and those perfect cups of tea.

All the other characters are also well-rounded and likeable. So much so that I wondered how Vera would respond (and how I would respond) when she eventually does solve the case. She may be satisfied that she has been right all along but does she regret her discovery?

I've given you the bare bones of the plot and characters, with just a smidgen of spoilers included, so it's up to you, if you so wish, to buy a copy and enjoy the read, probably laughing out loud as you do so. 

My opinion of this novel? 



Jesse Sutanto is a young (and stunningly beautiful) Chinese-Indonesian writer based in Jakarta, who has already published nine novels for adults, young adults and middle grade readers. Most of her characters are Chinese and she has an astute understanding of the clash of ideas, expectations and behaviour between the older and younger generations within Chinese families. Which makes for fascinating reading.

But here's the strange thing. Because I so loved Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, I bought two more of her novels and was surprisingly unimpressed. (This is where my brutal honesty kicks in, which is a must for all writers and if it isn't then it should be.)

The first novel was Dial A For Aunties, published in 2021. It won the 2021 Comedy Women in Print Prize and has been optioned for a film by Netflix, so obviously a lot of people enjoyed reading it. But not me. I found the story ridiculous and the main characters irritating. Those aunties didn't even have names but were referred to as numbers so it became a tad confusing.

The second novel was I Haven't Done With You Yet, published in 2023. This was told mainly as narrative with way too much telling and way too little showing. I found the plot exceedingly slow and boring, and I didn't like the main characters.

So how come a writer can produce a brilliant novel like Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers  but doesn't sustain that brilliance in her other novels? I usually finish a novel even if I'm not particularly engaged with it but expecting it will improve, but I had to put these two aside, unfinished. Life really is too short to waste.

Perhaps Sutanto has been experimenting with styles, because the three novels I've mentioned are very different in style, or because she has published to many novels within a short time frame so quality has been sacrificed. Or perhaps I'm just too picky but I'm just telling it as I see it. But the one novel of hers that I love, I really love.


Maggie Knutson is a published author, reporter and blogger. Her humorous animal fantasy novel WALKIES and the sequel, THE GREAT ADVENTURE, are soon to be published. If anyone has ever read a really funny animal adventure novel, will you please pass on the title and author so I can assess the competition !!!