How To Be Champion – Sarah Millican

Before I moved to Yorkshire (and after my early years in darkest Essex) I lived for a dozen or so years in the North-East of England. I lived in a small pit village just outside Durham and worked in both Durham itself and Newcastle. They were very happy years and I still have many friends living around the area. I don’t get to visit very often so I miss them, I miss the charm of Durham, the bustle of Newcastle and the glorious countryside of the whole region. I’d say I miss the accents (Geordie, Mackem and Wearside, among others) but I’ve been hearing them a lot on tv recently – I got quite nostalgic watching Neighbourhood Blues from Sunderland the other week. And, of course, some of my favourite comedians from the North-East are on heavy rotation on both the BBC and Dave. I’ll never pine for the sounds of Tyne and Wear while I’m sure of finding either Ross Noble, Chris Ramsey or Vic and Bob as I channel surf. My favourite though is Sarah Millican: although I can’t tell if this is mostly for her potty-mouthed humour or because of how much she looks like my sister.

34514547How to be Champion is Millican’s first book and is described as ‘part autobiography, part self-help, part confession, part celebration of being a common-or-garden woman, part collection of synonyms for nunny‘. For me this perfectly sums up what I love so much about this woman – she is refreshingly normal (complete with anxiety, weight issues and love-life traumas), a warm and nurturing human-being (she wants to help other women with their own anxiety, weight issues etc) and is hugely funny in a way that makes you wince at her honesty (as you also guffaw at her utterly filthy turn of phrase). She isn’t perfect (and the Geordie word ‘champion’ doesn’t mean being the best but rather it means being good enough…), and has never claimed to be, but she is learning to be happy in her own skin – this book is offering help to others in working out how to be happy in theirs.

Jane

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Queens of the Conquest – Alison Weir

As a small child I was often told that I had eyes bigger than my belly. You know, I’d see a great big slice of cake or an adult-sized portion of fish and chips and would think I could eat it all. Which would end up with a poorly looking Jane and a plate still half full of whatever it was I had been sure I could eat all of? Well, to be honest, I don’t have that problem any more. Not much is bigger than my belly any more! Although I have sort of transferred that over-enthusiastic optimism to books so maybe now my eyes are bigger than my, um, (frantically tries to think of a body part I read with which isn’t my eyes – fails) free time. At the start of the year I set my Goodreads Reading Challenge target and, since I was expecting to blog about twice a week, I decided that I’d set it for two books a week. That’s 126 books in the year. Not a problem when I do include quite a lot of children’s’ titles (picture books are brilliant for keeping your target in sight) but I have had a couple of blips. At the end of August I was way ahead of schedule and had even had a chance to finish a history of the Spanish Flu (although that took a month of slotting a few chapters here and there amongst the fiction) so I settled down to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for our book group meeting in mid-September. I read in the introduction that Pullman considers it to be one book, in three parts, so listed it on Goodreads as one. By the time I finished it, two weeks later, I realised my mistake. I had lost my lead over my target (even after I changed the listing to show that I had read three books rather than one…) and was concerned that I’d not be able to allow myself to read any of the things I enjoy but which take more time – usually non-fiction like popular science or history. Boo.*

33638252Well, of course, there’s history and there’s history. And for me any history written by Alison Weir is pretty much irresistible. Like me she has an abiding interest in medieval history (although we’ll both dabble in Tudors if pressed…) and wants to think about how women shaped that world. In Queens of the Conquest Weir is looking at the very earliest queens of England – the wives of the Norman kings, William the Conqueror, Henry I and Stephen – and the Empress Maud, daughter of Henry I and rival to her cousin Stephen during a bitter civil war known as the Anarchy. Which took me back to reading my Mum’s Jean Plaidy books as a child and my realisation that the best way to be a Norman queen was to be called Matilda…

The problem with books written about this period is that primary evidence is fairly thin on the ground and that which does exist is not necessarily easy to work with. Charters issued by queens on both their own and their husband’s behalf, a few letters and, in the case of Maud, some fairly scathing comments from the Gesta Stephani (a contemporary history written very much on Stephen’s side of things). The book works with this material well – it can seem a little dry at points but it certainly made me realise that the phenomenon of women being judged on their looks, compliant personalities and ability to bear children is not the invention of modern celebrity magazines. All of the queens in this book seem to be strong women, acting as regent for their husbands and making decisions both political and financial on their behalf. Maud was the queen best known to me – the daughter of a king, wife of a king and mother to a king but, sadly for her, never crowned as queen in her own right.  I was intrigued to read about the possibilities of her relationship with her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I’m quite excited to read that this is the first book in a projected series of four books. I have really been enjoying Weir’s fiction about the wives of Henry VIII but reading about the unvarnished facts (or as many as are available to historians) of the wives of earlier kings is a different kind of pleasure. More like a medieval ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than a 12th Century Hello magazine – both popular generally but the former is far more my cup of tea.

Jane

 

 

*Yes. I know the Goodreads target is just a bit of fun. I can read whatever I like and take as long as I like but, heck, I just enjoy setting a goal and going for it. Whether it’s a two book a week reading schedule or eating every single slice of the pizza I ordered – I should be able to put this on my cv…

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

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

 

Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.

Jane

 

 

There’s more than one way to be a princess

So there have been a couple of ‘days’ recently. You know, like International Boycott Sausages Day or World Lemon Day but these ones were a bit better. In fact they were right up my street…Thursday 2nd March was World Book Day – a day for celebrating books and dressing up as your favourite character – and because we love WBD so much we invite local schools in for class visits for the whole of that week and the next one too. This is great fun as there is nothing so energising a class full of 6 year-olds roaring like lions when you read Lion Practice to them – but it does mean I now have a stinking cold. And then, yesterday 8th March, was International Women’s Day – a great opportunity to celebrate everything that women do. What was really heartening was, when I asked the groups of children visiting the store what they dressed up as for World Book Day, as many girls said they’d dressed as superheroes or pirates as princesses. To mark these two ‘days’ I have been reading about two very different sorts of princesses.

Frogkisser! – Garth Nix

I’ve not previously read any Garth Nix but I have heard a colleague raving about how good he is on YouTube so I was expecting good things. I wasn’t disappointed, I’m very pleased to say.

9781848126015Anya is a Princess, for what it’s worth. The world she lives in is a patchwork of tiny kingdoms, after a terrible magical accident, and Princesses (and Princes) seem to be fairly thick on the ground. She’d rather be in the library, learning about sorcery, than anything else but her stepstepfather (it’s a long story) is a real sorcerer and, therefore, quite evil and she finds herself having to undertake a Quest to save her sister, her sister’s Princely suitor who has been transformed into a frog, her own life and, along the way many, many other things. She is accompanied by a talking Royal Dog, a boy thief who has been transformed into a giant newt and the aforementioned frog-Prince and must hunt for the ingredients for a magical lip-balm which will return the Price (and the thief) to their original forms. Along the way she meets some very cool wizards, seven dwarves, river otters and some highly responsible robbers but gains a lot of extra aspects to her Quest. The whole book is really funny but you also end up learning that Princessing is hard work if you are going to do it right.

My Name is Victoria – Lucy Worsley

Now, Lucy Worsley is someone I am familiar with – not so much as a writer but as a tv historian. I quite enjoy her slightly off-beat view of history and definitely appreciate her enthusiasm for her subject. I was certain that this book, another book for children aged 9-12, would be well researched and I hoped it would have Worsley’s charm. Again, I think the book did everything I asked of it.

victoriaThe book is narrated not by Princess Victoria, heir to the throne of Great Britain (and the Empire etc…), but by Miss V Conroy. Miss V, as she is known to everyone, is the younger daughter of John Conroy, comptroller of the household of the Princess and her mother, the Duchess of Kent. All the characters in this book are real – Conroy and the Duchess, Miss V, Victoria’s other attendants and the rest of the Hanoverian Royal Family, even her dog, Dash – but the story of what happens to her is altered, very slightly. Victoria and Miss V become friends – in fact Miss V is the only young friend available under the repressive Kensington System set up by Conroy – and support each other through the years leading up to Victoria’s reign. Miss V learns to mistrust her father and to understand the life that Victoria will have to lead when she is Queen.

Lucy Worsley has some fun with the story of Victoria and Miss V, blending solid historical facts with both the speculative rumours of the day and few interesting ideas of her own. The ending would certainly come under the heading of alternative history but, because it is reasoned out and handled so well, it is entirely believable.

Jane

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Sometimes I forget that I’ve tried sweet-talking a publisher into letting me have a book to review until the book turns up. Maybe its my age but I keep running out of space in my head to keep all the things I’m meant to remember – sometimes this is a bad thing (when I get home and realise I didn’t remember to get any milk) but when books I was quite excited to hear about show up unexpectedly then it is definitely a Good Thing…

9780141986005The Good Thing that turned up today was a book which came out of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign – a collection of beautifully illustrated short biographies of inspirational women. It is aimed at young girls, from 5 or 6 upwards, but I could see it being a useful resource for older children looking for information for history projects (I am going to be googling so many  of the women and girls whose stories are outlined here) and it would be good reading for boys too. The women/girls in this book are queens, warriors, scientists, mathematicians, athletes, artists and politicians. I loved the fact that while girls are being encouraged to push into male dominated fields credit is also given to girls in more traditionally ‘girly’ roles – singers, models and ballerinas for example. The message really is that girls can do, and be, whatever they want. There is plenty of diversity too – the girls seem to be from every continent, every ethnicity and there are girls who don’t let disability stand in their way. They have been giving the patriarchy a run for its money for 2,000 years – if our current generation of girls read this book then we should be able to continue to build on their work. Some of the stories told in these pages bought a tear to my eyes but they all made me proud to be female.

Jane