Sometimes it can be hard to remember what life was like before the internet and mobile phones. When, if you had arranged to meet friends in a town 30 minutes away at 8pm, you had to ring and let them know about any delays or problems before 7.30pm. Now, the habit seems to be to wait until 8.10 and then text that you’ll be there in an hour. First world problems really but quite irritating… The other issue, one which I’m actually quite happy about, is that when I was having my misspent youth (back in the 80s and early 90s) you did it, in modern terms, in private. There may be the odd regrettable photograph (have you seen 1980s hairstyles and fashions?), or even a bit of video but my University years are not all recorded indelibly on Facebook, Twitter or some blog. Maybe one day I’ll tell you all some of my adventures but it will be my choice – so many young people these days are putting a permanent record of their lives online before they have the judgement to know which bits are really suitable for public consumption. Maybe they aren’t bothered, maybe I’m hopelessly old-fashioned but maybe sometimes there are, shall we say, regrets…
Young Jane Young tells the story of one set of actions which led to such regrets – a young woman, while working as an intern for a popular politician, embarks on an affair with him. This, in itself, is regrettable as the politician is married to a good, if apparently joyless, woman but the real problem arises when the young woman, Aviva Grossman, sets up a blog where she talks about her life, her job and her relationship. This is a few years after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and in the early days of blogging and it seems to us, with the benefit of hindsight, obvious that the anonymity wouldn’t last. Of course it comes as a shock to Aviva and her family and this book is the story, largely, of what happened next. It is told in four parts – the first three are Jane Young, the woman Aviva turns herself into to escape her infamy, her daughter Ruby – a very modern pre-teen feminist – and Aviva’s mother. The different reactions seem to show how attitudes to women’s sexuality (and their ownership of their own bodies) have changed over the generations. Ruby’s attitudes certainly gave me a lot of hope for the future of women and feminism. All three stories overlap slightly and served to remind us that we are all, it seems, destined to make the same mistakes in child rearing we think our own mothers made. The fourth narrator is Embeth – the politician’s wife. In Aviva/Jane and her mother’s tellings she is a very unsympathetic character: when she meets Ruby she seems warmer and, in her own version of events, she turns out to be much more interesting. I’d quite like to have heard more from her but that would be another story entirely.
There seems to me to be two main sorts of historical novelist. For one sort the history is the star of the story – if historical research can’t support a character trait, an action or an event, it doesn’t go into the book. On the other side are novelists who base their stories – stories of passion, danger or love – on history but want the story itself to take centre stage. History for these authors is the frame on which they hang their plot and characters – if they have to reinterpret the sources to fit it with their plot, well, so be it… As far as I’m concerned both sorts of fiction are worth reading – although sometimes the first can sacrifice some of the excitement of fiction for historical truth and the second can seem like it is making things up as they go along. So long as you know which you are reading, it’s all good…Philippa Gregory has, according to a review in The Telegraph, never claimed to be in my first category of historical novelist. The fact that she is one of the most popular contemporary authors of historical romance fiction seems to suggest that quite a few people are quite happy to settle for my second.
The Last Tudor is the story of two sets of siblings – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, the heirs of Henry VIII and Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey, granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister. Each of the Grey sisters’ stories are told separately (although their tales obviously overlap) and while Jane’s is set during the reigns of Edward and Mary the other two are largely set in the Elizabethan period. Jane’s fate is the best-known – married to Guildford Dudley, thrust onto the throne and then deposed nine days later by Mary Tudor – but her personality much less so. What I particularly enjoyed about this book (since I sort of knew how the plot would turn out…) was the way that each sister’s voice was different. Jane is serious and pious – you could even call her a bit sanctimonious and quick to judge others as falling below her own, high, standards – whereas Katherine is rather more flighty, thinking more of her appearance and her pets than her faith. Mary, the youngest sister who was, according to Gregory, a dwarf and who was certainly disregarded by the whole court and treated as a child even when she was old enough to be thought of as an adult, was the most interesting to me. Pragmatic, rather blunt and under no illusions about herself she seems the most modern of the three – and because she was the sister whose story I knew the least I really hoped she’d be the one with a happy ending…
This may not be the story that you think you know about Elizabeth and the Grey sisters. All of the sisters are adamant that Elizabeth Tudor is not the virgin Queen that history paints her as. I don’t think that Gregory is telling us, as a historian, that Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were definitely lovers – she is showing us, however, that the gossip of the day tended to believe they were. What does become very apparent is that Elizabeth ruled her court as well as her country with an iron fist. If she couldn’t find love, marry and produce an heir – the last Tudor – for whatever reason, then she wasn’t going to let her court, and her Grey cousins in particular, do so in her stead. As Katherine Grey herself points out Elizabeth may have been a good Queen but she was a terrible person to have as a relative.
Recently I’ve been enjoying some great novels with distinctive French themes and plenty of interesting YA books. So, obviously, given the chance to combine these two interests, I had to give it a try… Throw in some thoughts on body image, attitudes towards Islam and feminism and I think this book was just about perfect for me!
Piglettes is about a group of girls in a provincial French town who find themselves the winners of a rather nasty little contest run by a boy at their school. They are voted as the winners of the ‘Pig Pageant’ – the ugliest girls in school. This is, obviously, out-and-out bullying but our main heroine, Mireille, isn’t going to give the bully the reaction he wants. She just laughs it off – although her internal monologue seems to show that she is not quite as happy with her life as she professes to be – but somehow, when she meets up with and talks to the two other ‘lucky’ winners, she decides that they will cycle across the country to Paris, selling sausages from a trailer, and gatecrash the President’s Bastille Day garden party. Like you do. The three girls, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima, are accompanied by Hakima’s brother (a disabled ex-soldier) and a wonderful friendship develops between them. Mireille is very much in charge initially – she is certainly the fiestiest of the three – but the others all come into their own as time goes by. There is a hint of love interest as Mireille has an instant crush on Kader (Hakima’s brother) but it is all very innocent – the main story is about the girls, how they learn to love themselves, to realise that they don’t need to change in order to fit in with other people’s ideals, and their refusal to accept that they are worthy of being bullied.
I really loved these girls and Mireille in particular. She is a girl who loves her food and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t – she loves cheese even more than I do (which I didn’t think was possible…) – but she also has her problems. As well as her body-image and developing feminism we are shown the complicated relationship she has with her mother and step-father. In the teenage mind, at least, the unknown father is preferable to the known mother but, in the end, Mireille is able to understand all the adults in her life a little better as she becomes a little closer to adulthood herself (but while never losing her ‘sass’. Who says you should?).
As we’ve previously established psychological thrillers are still a thing. Quite a big thing, in fact. The original big sellers in the genre, Gone Girl and Girl On The Train, are still selling strongly and, more importantly, are still the books which new titles are compared to in marketing terms. This happens quite a lot, in many genres – there is a popular title and then a lot of titles hailed as ‘the next…’. David Walliams is the next Roald Dahl (and he really, kind of is…), every psychological thriller writer is the next Gillian Flynn and every children’s series with magic, wizardry or schools is the next Harry Potter. Interestingly we’ve been promised the next ‘His Dark Materials’ for the last 20 years as any high concept, literary fantasy series for young adults has come out. In the end, Philip Pullman has had to write it himself… Anyway, it seems that I’m digressing again so I’ll get back to the latest psychological thriller on my personal reading list – Friend Request by Laura Marshall…
Although the main character in this book, Louise, is a woman around 40, a mother with a good career and a decent little flat in London the whole story revolves around her experiences as a teenager in a little East Anglian town. Torn between her need to fit in with the popular girls and her rapport with new girl, Maria, Louise allows herself to be drawn into bullying behaviour. Over two decades later she gets a friend request from Maria on Facebook and doesn’t know how to react – because, as far as she knows, Maria died at their leaver’s dance back in 1989… The plot swings back and forth between the present day – with more Facebook messages and a school reunion – and 1989 until the mysteries of both past and present are revealed.
This was a good psychological thriller – and for once the narrator wasn’t so much unreliable as unaware of how much she didn’t really understand about her own childhood. She is, to all intents and purposes, a strong woman with a successful business and a bright, loving child but – in her own private thoughts and memories she is still under the influence of the bullies from her teen years. She blames herself for actions she was, in many ways, to weak to resist being bullied into herself. I really enjoyed this book – I didn’t work out what the twist was until shortly before it twisted – but only quibble is that she and her best friend seem to drive everywhere in London. Who can afford that?
We seem to be living in an era of anniversaries. As well as the whole period from 2014 to 2018 being a commemoration of the Great War (with honour given to major individual battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) 2017 has also seen the Centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the birth of Arthur C. Clarke, the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film The Graduate and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Closer to home it is the 150th birthday of the beautiful building my workplace is housed in (an excuse for a party of some sort? I do hope so…) I’m not sure I remember quite so many major anniversaries in my childhood and youth (the only ones that stand out are the Queen’s various Jubilees – mostly because of time off school/my own wedding….) but perhaps I just didn’t care enough to remember them. One event which has recently (October 2016) marked what I tend to refer to as a ‘tombola’ anniversary – one ending in a 5 or a 0 – is the Jarrow March. You know, the Jarrow March? The march from Jarrow to, um, London? Because of jobs? Or something? The one which so many people have forgotten about, never heard of or have dismissed as some kind of bolshie nonsense? Well, that’s the one which Stuart Maconie has made the subject of his latest piece of travel writing.
Maconie’s travel writing is always worth a read. He is a keen observer of the places he visits and is never afraid to give you his own views. In this book he decides to follow in the footsteps of the Jarrow Marchers, to find out why they marched, how they were received and whether they are remembered: also, he fancies a nice long walk. Along the way he compares 1936 – with its rise in right-wing politics, wide-spread unemployment and reliance on food handouts and other benefits, and frequent protest marches – with the present day. Some of the comparisons are quite chilling, if I’m honest – at some points the only improvement we seem to have is the NHS – but he is also happy to point out that his nightly accommodation, at least, was a great improvement on the drill halls, schools and churches the marchers were offered. He never downplays the physical effort the march represented but, in order to keep appointments with certain people he meets via social media, he does occasionally jump on a bus. These meetings are often with people who are able to fill in background information on the marchers but he also takes in choral music, a classical piano recital, a pub covers band and a wake. He speaks fondly of many of the marchers themselves (and their dog) and of the Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, but is scathing of most of the Labour party of the time (who made every effort to distance themselves from the marchers). He’s not fond of Corbyn either but does end his march by meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen (elected after the murder of Jo Cox) in the House of Commons.
This book is a fascinating history of the Jarrow March of 1936 but also of the country as it was at the end of last year. In many ways it feels as if very little has changed but maybe books like this can help us – through gentle humour and a little anger – to make sure that the history of the late 1930s is not allowed to repeat itself.
Some people like books to sit quietly in their genre. If it is a spy thriller it should be thrillery, but not contain elements of fantasy; historical novels shouldn’t be set in space; hard-boiled crime should not contain chapters with descriptions of cute kittens (unless, of course, they are the ones being hard-boiled….). I don’t mind a bit of a mash-up – post-apocalyptic love stories? historical thrillers? Bring it on….As Tom Stoppard assures us, all stories have a little bit of romance, death and eloquence. I’m particularly fond of a bit of quirkiness drifting into my reading – although strictly speaking I should call it by its Sunday name, Magical Realism…
In The Bedlam Stacks Natasha Pulley brings us to a world which is undoubtedly real – the East India Company has become the India Office, malaria is still hampering Britain’s ambitions in the East and Peru has banned the export of the seeds or saplings of the trees whose bark supplies life-saving quinine. The main character, Merrick Tremayne, is a gardener/botanist who has worked as an opium smuggler for the East India Company during the Opium Wars with China is the perfect person to send in to try and succeed where others have failed. Tremayne, however, was seriously injured during his last mission and is living on his family’s dilapidated Cornish estate. He is on the point of taking a job as a curate when he is called to travel to Peru, accompanied by his good friend Clem and his wife Minna. There they find themselves in a world which is ruled by cartels controlling the sale of cinchona (the tree from which quinine is derived) but also superstition, religion and the mysterious geography of the region. This, of course, is where the magical part of the story happens. Living statues, exploding trees, a mysterious community built up from children with disabilities left there by the inhabitants of other villages deep in the forbidden forests, not to mention a key character, Raphael, the village priest who seems to suffer from a strange condition.
I’ve often enjoyed books which feature magic realism (or quirkiness, as I insist on calling it – it sounds so much less daunting and lit-crit-like) and I enjoy good historical fiction. This, I think, is one of the first times I’ve been able to enjoy them together – I have to say it is a combination I will try again in future. In fact, I think I may have to go back to Pulley’s previous book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which seems to involve at least one character from Bedlam Stacks…(my to-read pile is never going to get any smaller, is it?)