Animal narrators are nothing unusual. I’d imagine very few children are brought up without some experience of stories told from the point of view of various bunnies, puppies and kittens and I, personally, have strong memories of crying my eyes out at some of the episodes narrated by Black Beauty (poor Ginger, I’m filling up just thinking about it…). It is, it seems, a tried and tested way of introducing youngsters to events and emotions which might seem too harsh if they had to contemplate them happening to people – I can’t even guess how many times I’ve recommended Badger’s Parting Gifts, for example – but as adults do we want the same things? Most animal-narrated books for adults that I’ve seen previously, such as A Dog’s Purpose, have been on the sentimental side so I’m not sure I was quite prepared for Lineker – the canine half of the narrating double act in the Last Dog on Earth.
Lineker and his master, Reginald (he really doesn’t like being called Reg, although he often is), live in a deserted tower block in London after some not quite specified disaster. This suits them as Reginald is anxious about leaving his flat and, even before London became a deserted wasteland, he does everything he can to avoid any kind of physical contact with other people. However, when a starving, silent and persistent child shows up on their doorstep – and refuses to leave – their lives change. They have to leave the safety of the flat and try to cross the city to get the child to a refugee camp. They meet allies and enemies – the latter generally being the purple-clad followers of a charmingly plausible politician whose inflammatory views set the destruction in progress – and discover that no-one can get through it all on their own.
I liked Reginald, a fragile, fallible but, in the end, downright decent man. He has his issues – an inability to be touched rooted in a terrible personal tragedy – but, when it comes down to it he overcomes them to protect those he feels responsible for. The child is fearful, fierce and, essentially, hugely resilient – you can see why both Lineker and his master come to love her – and other, minor, characters (human and canine) are well described. But Lineker himself, well, he really was the character which made the whole story come alive for me. He is pure dog. He adores his master, especially his various smells, and thinks deeply on many subjects (and also about smells, food and squirrels – he really hates squirrels…). His language is earthy, but this seems pretty dog-like to me. He uses words we would consider to be bad swear words but they are the ones connected to bodily functions and sex – what else to we expect a dog to be interested in? I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels (as I’m sure I may have mentioned previously) but this one stands out. Partly because the apocalypse itself is unusual – an eerily realistic political disaster rather than a plague/zombie attack/nuclear war/environmental crisis – but largely because Lineker is one of the oddest, if most engagingand joyful, heroes I’ve come across in the genre.
How do you like your crime? Hard-boiled, cosy, police procedural? The list seems fairly endless and, after a while, one cosy crime novel or psychological thriller can seem pretty much like another. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good books out there but, well, after a hard week’s bookselling I start to get my franchises a bit mixed up. And this means I’m always glad to see a book which has something a bit more distinctive than usual about it. Ariana Franklin’s medieval female atheist pathologist perhaps, or A.A. Dhand’s Bradford-based Harry Virdee; or a distinctive setting like Bryant & May’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. But how about a crime novel where even the killer may not be aware that they committed a crime?
The world in which Yesterday is set is our world. There are tabloid newspapers, reality tv, general elections and iPhones. All people, however, are one of two types – Monos, who can only remember the previous 24 hours, and Duos, whose memories span a whole 48 hours. Each night people fill in their diary (by law a private document, except in the case of serious crimes like murder) and each morning they learn the ‘facts’ of the day before. Society is split – Monos are barred from many careers and Duos are treated as a superior group – but academics are satisfied that, if people could remember everything they would divide themselves some other way. By nationality, skin colour or religion, perhaps… Against this setting Mark, a best-selling Duo novelist with a promising new career in politics looming, and his Mono wife are an unusual couple. They are being seen as the poster boy and girl for the government’s new policy of encouraging mixed marriages until the body of a woman, who turns out to be Mark’s mistress, is found and the police have only a short time to find the killer.
This was an interesting psychological thriller with a novel twist. Everyone has secrets – Mark, his wife Clare, his dead lover and the detective in charge of the case – and they are revealed as each of the four takes it in turns to tell their side of the story. But when facts are what you memorise from the words you write in your diary each day how do you find the truth?
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?