I would like to thank the publisher Severn House for the review copy of this book.
When I first heard about this upcoming book, I was incredibly excited about getting my hands on it. I am a lifelong fan of Annie; she is the one writer who made me so passionate about literature and publishing that I actually became a publishing professional myself (currently working for an academic publisher in a job I love.) Throughout my childhood I was in love with Annie’s Angels Unlimited Series – they stuck with me for a long time, and for this reason I really wanted to read this. As a child I read her children’s novels, and now as an adult I have read her adult novel and it’s really made me feel like I have grown up alongside her literature. And the best part of all? She’s just as good an adult fiction writer as children’s fiction writer. What’s even better? Her daughter Maria, with whom she wrote the book, is just as talented.
Now, I want to stress that I genuinely, genuinely loved and enjoyed the book. There is no bias here whatsoever. I’ve often talked to publishing professionals and authors about the need for honest reviews. Gushing about a book just because somebody has sent you a review copy is all well and fine if you’re in it just for the free copies – but that’s not my style! As anyone can see from my book review blog, if there’s something I don’t like about a book, or indeed a whole book I don’t enjoy, I will come right out and say it. As the author Matt Haig stated in a recent book event, there is not enough criticism in book review blogging right now. People are trying to please authors, rather than being honest about the quality of the work. And I agree 100%.
First in the brand-new Anna Hopkins dog walking mystery series: an intriguing new departure for award-winning YA writer Annie Dalton. It is Anna Hopkins’ daily walk through Oxford’s picturesque. Port Meadow is rudely interrupted one autumn morning when her white German Shepherd, Bonnie, unearths a blood soaked body in the undergrowth. For Anna it’s a double shock: she’d met the victim previously. Naomi Evans was a professional researcher who had told Anna she was working on a book about a famous Welsh poet, and who offered to help Anna trace Bonnie’s original owner. From her conversations with Naomi, Anna is convinced that she was not the random victim of a psychopathic serial killer, as the police believe. She was targeted because of what she knew. With the official investigation heading in the wrong direction entirely, Anna teams up with fellow dog walkers Isadora Salzman and Tansy Lavelle to discover the truth.
All this means in this case is that this proves that Annie is genuinely a great writer in a number of genres. The story is carried along at a good pace and I didn’t find myself getting bored or side-tracked at any point, which personally I feel is essential in a murder mystery novel. There is a fantastic twist at the end and nothing is too obvious or easy to predict.
Also crucial to a good novel for me are believable characters. Annie’s characters are three-dimensional, believable, and they each develop and grow throughout the novel in ways that a lot of characters in other books don’t. The main protagonist Anna is a troubled and introverted young woman, haunted by the tragic events in her past. She suffers from social anxiety as a result, and is all but a recluse. Ironically, it is the occurrence of another tragic event that brings her out of her shell and results in a new-found social life, when it was a tragedy which originally robbed her of it. It proves that she has become much stronger emotionally as she has gotten older. But it also says a lot about the people she surrounds herself with – more of Annie’s and Maria’s colourful and skilfully crafted characters.
Jake, the American ex-soldier who was the previous owner of Anna’s White Shepherd dog Bonnie, is one of the characters most able to help Anna find and remember herself and who she was before the events of her past which scarred her mentally and physically. The interplay between Anna and Jake shows how skilled Annie Dalton is at crafting a complicated but effective relationship on the page. Anna finds herself becoming more animated and enthusiastic about life when she is around Jake:
“‘Catte Street?’ he said, glancing back at the sign. ‘That’s not named after actual cats?’
‘No, it really is!’ she said, catching his enthusiasm, ‘because I happen to know that at one point they changed the name from Kattestreete to Mousecatchers’ Lane!’”
An additional character who is also essential in helping Anna keep sane is her grandfather. She nurtures and looks after him to such a touching degree that it’s obvious that this is a part of a subconscious need on Anna’s part to protect those she still has around her. Anna may shy from social situations and find communicating with people difficult, but she hasn’t lost love or the warmth of who she once was. Her deep affection for the immensely lovable Bonnie, her White Shepherd dog who plays an integral role in the book, also reflects this. Bonnie becomes her rock and Annie pulls off the writer’s ultimate goal perfectly – making the reader fall in love with a central character. Along with these there are of course Anna’s new-found friends Isadora and Tansy, so utterly different to her but who compliment her perfectly.
I find that a lot of murder mystery novels, especially those that try too hard to be flat-out bleak and grim in order to achieve a certain pathetic fallacy, are often lacking in richness and depth. This wasn’t so with The White Shepherd. Annie has a beautiful way with words and paints Anna’s world and her home life as a place of total beauty. Annie’s love of nature shines through the book and makes the reader want to step into that world – even if it’s a world often tinged with sadness and pain. Her writing stimulates the senses, as though you’re almost in the book itself.
“At the top of a steep hill, the breathtaking view of the valley below stopped them in their tracks. Sandstone cottages were dotted about here and there. In one of the gardens a man was tending a bonfire. Anna could hear the snap of burning wood mixed with the cawing of rooks above their heads. They hadn’t seen a single car since they’d started walking.”
The beauty of passages such as these make for an effective and brutal contrast when the menace and foreboding of a murder mystery is introduced alongside it. It serves to make the unpleasant and grim parts of the novel all the more satisfying, entertaining and gripping.
The novel has a very strong plot, rich in detail and very cleverly done. It is difficult to know what has happened – it truly is a murder mystery.
In all, this is a richly woven tale full of everything that a reader could want – intrigue, mystery, love, sadness, happiness, lovable and believable characters, a strong plot, an unpredictable twist, and most of all, very talented writing. I adored this book, and I urge you read it.