Dame Jennifer Susan Murray has been in broadcasting for decades, most prominently on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, where she’s been a presenter since 1987. Jenni Murray has worn other hats, too: she’s been a journalist, contributing to The Guardian, The Times and more, and, since the late 90s, she’s published a handful of books.
Her latest is Fat Cow, Fat Chance, a part-memoir, part-bird’s eye view study of what it’s like to be overweight in a fatphobic world. Weaving in questions of science and social history, Murray tells the story of her own struggles with weight loss and gain, and the misery it can cause.
In the lead-up to her book’s release next week, Murray spared some time to shine a light on five books she couldn’t put down recently, from empowering memoirs to white-knuckle thrillers.
Coming Undone: A Memoir by Terri White
I’m not the sort of person who tends to be driven to tears over a sad and moving section of a book, but Terri White had me weeping so much I was barely able to focus on the horrific details of the violent and sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of men who became her mother's companions.
“It’s hard to live”, she writes, “when you suspect your life ended at 5.” Nevertheless, this is not a misery memoir, but a testament to courage and hard work. She made it to University, became an award-winning magazine editor, suffered the “coming undone” in New York and now, in her early forties, is the Editor-in-Chief of Empire magazine. Her memoir is beautifully written and full of hope.
Dead Land by Sara Paretsky
I’ve read so much Sara Paretsky I feel I could find my way easily around Chicago even though I’ve never been there. The city is as much a character as her clever private eye, V. I. Warshawski. There’s a rather sad introduction to Dead Land. She tells us it’s the first book she’s written without the support of her husband, who died recently.
She needn’t have worried – the novel sees her back on top form. As usual, a seemingly small incident, in this case concern for a young, homeless musician, leads to a monstrous web of evil-doing that takes V. I. to the Kansas countryside and the history of Pinochet’s Chile. She is the master of the gripping and complex crime story.
How the Dead Speak by Val McDermid
I am a great fan of those novels – hence Val McDermid is next on the list. If Paretsky is the master, McDermid is the Queen of crime writing, and in How the Dead Speak, she reunites her familiar forensic psychologist and profiler, Tony Hill, and the former police officer, Carol Jordan. Tony is in prison as a result of misdemeanour in an earlier outing, Carol is working on unsolved crimes, and it’s the discovery of a number of skeletons in the grounds of a former convent that bring them to seek out each others’ skills. A complex, ‘stay up all night to finish it’ thriller.
Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr
I think I loved Deborah Orr’s Motherwell because at its centre is not simply the working class, Scottish town in which she was raised, but a fraught relationship with a mother who was traumatised by the war and strove in the 50s and 60s to make everything, including her daughter, perfect.
I know how difficult it is to write about the pain such a childhood can bring – I’ve done it myself – and I was constantly drawn back, in reading this beautiful memoir, to the fact that throughout the story she is looking at her mother, Win, and asking, ‘Did she mother well?’ Interestingly, my mother was called Win, too.
Sadly, Deborah, whose journalism I had long admired, died shortly before this book was published. I can only describe it as a masterpiece.
The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule is part thriller, inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, and part an expression of fury at the extremes of poverty and riches that influence the lives of so many.
Hannah is a single mother living in a grim flat in London and trying to make ends meet as a cleaner whilst she tries to divorce her rich, money-grabbing husband. On the train to Cornwall, where her mother is dying, she meets Jinni, rich, well-dressed and claiming it’s better to be a widow than a divorcee. They agree to kill each others’ husbands.
Any further explanation would give too many spoilers of a complex plot; I’ll just say it’s a great read, bursting with humanity, and has one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever read, in which Hannah and her daughter are trapped in a cave as the tide rushes in. Did nothing for my fear of the sea!
Fat Cow, Fat Chance by Jenni Murray is out 16 July 2020.