Young Jane Young – Gabrielle Zevin

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 youngYoung 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.

Jane

The Last Tudor – Philippa Gregory

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.

large_903110711c55a1dad67a46b08a57f62cThe 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.

Jane

Piglettes – Clémentine Beauvais

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!

piglettesPiglettes 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?).

Jane

 

Friend Request – Laura Marshall

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…

friendrequestAlthough 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?

Jane