Posted in Random Things Tours

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau.

What a great coming of age novel this is as we follow Mary Jane Dillard’s summer of 1978, caught between her straight-laced and devout home, that’s all rigorous routine and tidiness, and the home where she ‘nannies’, which is untidy, chaotic, has no rules and is harbouring a famous rock star and his girlfriend as he dries out from drink and drugs! Fourteen year old Mary Jane has a complete culture shock when she takes a summer job working for the Cone family down the road. Her role is to look after the daughter, Izzy, but as she finds out roles and rules are not very clearly defined in the Cone household. Mary Jane has grown up with rules, and her favourite things up till this point are cooking with her mother and singing in the church choir. Her mother is the great organiser of their household: tea is always on the table at the same time; they go to the same weekly church activities; she shops for groceries every Friday and always knows where her daughter is. Dr Cone’s professional status is enough for Mary Jane’s mother, who imagines a serious, professional man with a wife who keeps the household running like clockwork. Nothing could be further from the truth and even Mary Jane’s dad points out they might be different – they’re Jewish he tells his family, their name would have been Cohen but they’ve changed it. Besides which, Dr Cone is a doctor of psychiatry and has his own unusual treatment methods.

If the state of your house is truly reflective of who you are (overstuffed, slightly shabby, but full of charm in my case) then the Cones are chaotic, anarchic, full of ideas and very well read. Just like all children, Mary Jane has imagined all homes are like hers and looks at this one with horror and wonder too. There are things everywhere and in Izzy’s room she can’t even see the floor. The family are not just incontinent with their belongings, but their affections too. Mary Jane’s parents don’t show their emotions and seldom show physical affection, but here Izzy’s parents are full of kisses and hugs – something that takes quite a bit of getting used to on Mary Jane’s part. I grew up in a similarly religious and strict family during my adolescence and although my parents were always very loving, I was very shocked when friend’s mums talked to them openly about sex and relationships, or allowed them to read or watch anything, go out till late and wear what they liked. I really felt Mary Jane’s bewilderment at this complete lack of rules or schedules. As it neared late afternoon she would be surprised that no one had thought about what to have for dinner, or that no one had ironed Mr Cone’s shirts. Mr Cone’s office was in the garden, but his methods are rather unorthodox and within the week the house has two new guests; the rock star called Jimmy and his movie star wife Sheba. Jimmy is drying out, which seems to involve eating a lot of very sugary sweets! Mary Jane has been asked to tell no one the couple are there and this is the first thing she has ever kept from her parents. The second thing is her cut off shorts that Sheba has cut so high they only just cover her bum cheeks – I loved the bit where Mary Jane’s mum bumps into her and Izzy in the supermarket, and she hastily throws on an apron to cover her modesty. She knows that if her mother knew even the half of what is happening over at the Cone’s residence, her summer job would be over, and now she’s grown to love both Izzy and their happy go lucky lifestyle.

Of course these two families are not simply good and bad, they’re just different and that difference is appealing when we realise that Mary Jane is getting from the Cone family, exactly what she is missing at home. Her own mother, although rigid and a little remote, is not a bad woman. Yes she has elitist, and often, judgemental views – the first thing she asks about the Cones is which country club they belong to? She also lives a very ‘Stepford Wife’ existence, with a rota of family chores to follow and the ingrained view that a woman looks after the house, children and her husband. In teaching Mary Jane how to cook and clean, she is preparing her for a similar role in life because that is her norm. They belong to a church that reinforces those same views. However, Mary Jane is well cared for and has a very stable home life, with a mother who wants to keep her safe. By contrast, Bonnie Cone is openly affectionate, praises her cooking and cleaning skills as if they’re a magic art, and encourages her to express herself both emotionally and creatively, but she does have shortcomings. She doesn’t work outside the home, but Izzy is often unfed, unwashed and without Mary Jane’s input could be neglected. As a couple, the Cones choose to bring a known addict into their home who is a total stranger, leave food to rot in the fridge and are effectively allowing a fourteen year old to run their home, cook all their meals and be a full-time nanny to their daughter.

Whilst there is so much charm in their lifestyle and love in their hearts, it doesn’t always translate to action and could be seen as dysfunctional. I can imagine many people finding their nudity troublesome – Mrs Cone is often without a bra and Mr Cone wanders naked from bedroom to bathroom, knowing Mary Jane is in the house. As I was reading I found myself drawn to the Cone’s way of life, but also a little troubled by it. While I dislike rigid, religious upbringings I had to feel a drop of sympathy for Mrs Dillard who thinks she is doing the best thing for her family and often is, in a practical sense. While Izzy seems a happy and well- adjusted little girl now, would that continue into her teenage years or might she crave some structure and safety? There’s a scene, early after Sheba and Jimmy’s arrival where the whole household sit and watch Russian and American astronauts meet in space for the first time. Mary Jane observes that as they all sit together, on or in front of the sofa, everyone has an arm round or hand on someone else. It’s a big affectionate sprawl she describes as being like a litter of puppies. This description stayed with me, and I think it is because they all seemed to be on a equal footing. There are no adults and children here – they are all children. This can also be seen in later descriptions of evenings where everyone sings together, dances to the Jimmy’s records and the adults smoke joints. She is even included in group therapy sessions where everyone is encouraged to be honest and has equal status. I couldn’t tell whether it was the whiff of 1970s nostalgia that made this communal living sound idyllic. There were times when I wondered if any five year old brought up in a similar atmosphere now, might even be flagged up at school or to social services.

However, the author’s skill is in creating that nostalgia for the past, the music, the peace, the love and the permissive family. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the reader is charmed into wanting to be a member of this loving and accepting household. I felt seduced by it, but then I was Izzy’s age in 1978 and it does feel like a golden time. These are the rose coloured spectacles of a child. Yet, if I asked my parents what was really going on in our lives then, I might get a completely different story. This is how I felt about Mary Jane, that naïvety she has lead to her being charmed by the Cones. She hasn’t stopped to think what would be happening to Izzy if she wasn’t hired for the summer? On one of the last weeks of summer, they all decamp to the coast, sharing a beach house for the week. I was simply waiting for these couples to clash, or something else to go wrong. One thing is definitely true, seeing an extremely different lifestyle opens Mary Jane’s eyes and gives her a more definite picture of who she wants to be and what to do with her life. This is an interesting, nostalgic and funny coming of age novel with a sympathetic heroine who I really enjoyed.

Meet The Author

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of US bestselling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and three other critically acclaimed novels, most recently The Trouble With Lexie. Her novels have been recommended and featured on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo, O Magazine, and many other US magazines and newspapers.

Posted in Squad Pod Collective

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor.

Happy Paperback Publication Day to Matson Taylor for his joyous novel The Miseducation of Evie Epworth. I’ve wanted to read it again this year I’ve loved it so much. As a reminder here’s my review from last year and don’t forget to join the #SquadPodCollective @squadpod3 on Twitter for the celebratory #cakeblast on Saturday 1st May where we are all sharing our Evie themed bakes across social media.

I was only three pages in to this book and I knew that Evie was going to be one of my favourite literary characters. Favourite as in – on my list next to Jo March, Cassandra Mortmain and Adrian Mole, characters I’ve also experienced growing up and setting out into the world. The book was off to a good start anyway, then as we followed Evie jumping into her father’s MG to do the milk round there was a scene so funny I laughed out loud at 2am waking both the dog and my other half. I devoured this book in 24 hours, knowing part of me would be sorry when it ended, but not able to slow down either. 

We meet Evie when she’s at a crossroads in life. She’s in that limbo summer between GCSE and deciding what to do next. Evie’s plan, if she gets the right results, is to do her A Levels. Till then she plans to spend the summer delivering milk from the family farm, baking with Mrs Scott-Pym next door, and reading all the books she can get her hands on. There is only one thing in her way; her Dad Arthur’s girlfriend, Christine. Chrissie has moved into the farmhouse and is setting about making changes. This is 1962 and she’s all for embracing the new. She wants to get rid of the old unhygienic wood in the kitchen, because what they need is some nice modern Formica. She’s already replaced the Range with an electric cooker, because she couldn’t work it. As Evie says, it takes quite an intellect to be outwitted by a kitchen appliance. Worst of all she’s replaced Evie’s Adam Faith clock with a chicken! It has always just been Evie and her Dad, Arthur, as far back as she can remember. Her mum died when Evie was little and she has no memories of her. Chrissie needs to be dealt with, but how? Arthur is a disappointment. Mrs Scott-Pym says he’s like all men, weak and easily confused by a pair of boobs. 

I have lived in villages and on farms for my whole life so I can honestly say that the author’s depiction of the characters and events of country life are not exaggerated – no, not even that cow scene. There are still characters like this in rural villages. The comedy comes from the brilliantly blunt Yorkshire dialogue, the gap between what we as adults understand and Evie doesn’t yet, but mainly the amazing characters created by the author. Mrs Swithenbank is a comedy gem, always at the mercy of her explosive bowels. The long suffering Vera, Chrissie’s mother, who is never far behind her daughter like a human ‘buy one-get one free’ offer. Then, Mrs Scott-Pym’s daughter Caroline, comes into the village like a whirlwind and along with Evie shows that constant dilemma young people in villages face – do they stay put or go out into the wider world, perhaps needing to try the anonymity of the city? It can be hard to develop into your true self in a village where everyone knows who you are and any attempt to change is the object of ridicule. I remember a perm I had at 15, thinking I looked like Baby from Dirty Dancing, only to hear ‘ugh what have you done to your hair’ at every house on the pools round. I loved the depiction of the petty rivalries around the village show and what a surprise it is that Chrissie, who struggles with making toast, wins the best fruit cake. On top of everything else she does, the fact that she possibly cheated at the village show is viewed as the worst crime and given the last reveal. 

Chrissie though is the best comic creation of the lot, but isn’t left to be one dimensional either. Though she is truly awful in a lot of ways, it’s clear that she’s from a poorer family in the village and her upbringing hasn’t been easy. There’s class war over the Range cooker for sure. She lets slip in an exchange with Evie that she’d done every job going, from waitressing to wiping arses. While that might excuse her yearning for an easier life, it doesn’t excuse her way of getting it. There are times when it’s all out war at the tea table and Arthur stays behind his paper hoping it will blow over. I loved her ever present ‘pinkness’ and a crimplene wardrobe that Evie observes doesn’t end in Narnia, but at a bingo hall in Scunthorpe (I love seeing my birthplace in print). Poor Vera is always struggling a few paces behind, usually sweating and doing all the fetching and carrying. Chrissie is always exhausted – I need to put my feet up, Mum put the kettle on – and always rushing towards getting another grasping finger on Arthur, preferably a finger with a ring on it. This should have been a mild flirtation or dalliance at most, everyone can see they are not suited. 

There are interludes between Evie’s chapters where we see the meeting of her parents, Arthur and Diana. They are serene, even romantic chapters where we see them meet at a dance, get married in a rush during the war and settle at the farm. We see Diana form a friendship with Mrs Scott-Pym and rush round to tell her friend when Evie is on the way. There’s so much of this interesting woman left, hidden in plain sight such as a particular teaspoon in the drawer and the recipe book Mrs Scott-Pym has kept for Evie. It’s so sad that Evie and her Dad don’t talk about her more openly and honestly. If wishes and spells aren’t going to change this, there needs to be a catalyst. When Mrs Scott-Pyle falls down the stairs and her daughter Caroline arrives we see a force of nature equal to Chrissie. She wears elegant clothes, big black sunglasses and scarves tied round her neck like the French do. Evie is very impressed with her sophistication, but also her nerve. She cooks up a great scheme to get Evie out of working in the village salon, takes her to Leeds to shop in an Italian deli and has the means by which Chrissie’s true nature can be revealed. She is also the only lesbian Evie has ever met, leading to her asking visiting friends of Caroline’s whether they are a lesbian too as a conversation starter! Evie is trying on different futures, and may be adding Caroline as an extra role model alongside The Queen, Charlotte Bronte and Shirley MacLaine. 

This novel is an absolute joy. A great read to cheer you up and honestly, make you laugh out loud. Every character is beautifully drawn and the comic timing is perfect. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, because it has all the confidence and timing of Sue Townsend and also made me think back further to the blunt Yorkshire characters of James Herriot. On a personal level I needed a lift, after being very strict with lockdown rules due to my MS, and this was just the lift I needed. Thank you Matson, for such a great set of characters and for providing exactly the book I needed at exactly the right time.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Last year I read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s incredible novel Mexican Gothic and I absolutely loved it. So when I was offered the chance to read one of her earlier novels, being reissued in a beautiful hard back copy this week, I was really excited to tell you all about it as part of the blog blast.

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis: the haphazard manifestations of her powers have long made her the subject of gossip – malicious neighbours even call her the Witch of Oldhouse.

But Nina’s life is about to change, for there is a new arrival in town: Hector Auvray, the renowned entertainer, who has used his own telekinetic talent to perform for admiring audiences around the world. Nina is dazzled by Hector, for he sees her not as a witch, but ripe with magical potential. Under his tutelage, Nina’s talent blossoms – as does her love for the great man.

But great romances are for fairy-tales, and Hector is hiding a secret bitter truth from Nina – and himself – that threatens their courtship.

This book is different from either Mexican Gothic or Gods of Jade and Shadow. This is a romance, brim full of melodrama and heartache. Yet there are also those wonderful threads that seem to exist through her work: feminism, awakening sexual desire, an eye for women’s self-expression through clothing, and a sprinkle of the paranormal. I didn’t know where the book was set at first, because the city name Loisail and personal names have a French feel to them, but certain word usage such as fall for autumn made me think of North America. The manners and etiquette seem almost British regency in date (this could give Bridgeton a real run for its money on the small screen), but the far off place Iblevard sounds like South America. This is our world, just not as we know it.

I absolutely adored Nina from the start, because I’ve felt like the slightly awkward girl who doesn’t fit. Next to her cousin’s wife Valerie she seems a bit of an ugly duckling, but she’s chaperoning Nina through the Loisail season in hope of finding her a suitable husband. Valerie is the stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed, perfectly coiffed, graceful beauty and her marriage to Gaetens was a great match, because he was a steady, slightly older man with financially stability. His finances have kept her family afloat. Whereas Nina has none of the superficial qualities of Valerie. Her hair is raven black and there’s more of a handsomeness to her than prettiness. Worse still, she is awkward, often saying the wrong thing, but she’s physically clumsy too and there’s more to Nina’s clumsiness than meets the eye.

From a young age Nina has been able to move objects with the power of her mind. Sometimes it’s involuntary, such as when her emotions are roused in anger or sadness. Nina doesn’t know much about telekinesis, it has simply always been with her and back at the family home in the country she is known as the Witch of Oldhouse. Here in Loisail though, nobody knows about her strange ability and if she is dressed well, schooled in how to behave and tries her hardest to be ‘normal’ maybe she could make a good marriage. Nina is inexperienced and naive, but trusts Valerie implicitly. Her cousin Gaetens has always had her best interests at heart so she happily puts her future in Valerie’s hands, but there’s a bitterness and envy in Valerie that runs very deep. She knows that her husband dotes on his cousin and he wouldn’t force her to marry anyone she didn’t consent to, but she thinks that Nina is spoiled. Valerie had to make a decision, to marry a man she didn’t love to get better conditions for her family. She had to grow up, put thoughts of love and romance aside, and take the best decision rationally as if marriage is a business. If she had to do this, why shouldn’t Nina be expected to grow up and accept someone chosen for her?

Then Hector Auvray comes into the picture, gentlemanly, handsome and, because he’s a performer, just a whiff of scandal about him. He’s definitely not the sensible choice, but controlling her emotions has never been one of Nina’s strengths. I loved that the pair shared this talent, Hector as the mentor and Nina as the ingenue, just starting out. When he calls on Nina at home, they can easily spend hours talking about telekinesis and practicing control. Nina visits his show which is quite glitzy, and he has an incredible finale of dancing mirrors. For me, there wasn’t quite enough magic. It’s as if magic realism was something she was toying with, then in later novels she really had the confidence to go for those paranormal elements. I knew this was a reissue, but those who don’t could be disappointed there isn’t more made of Nina’s skills. It’s almost as if she learned to control it rather than celebrate it. I’d have loved the author to write sections where they perform together, because I know how incredible they would have been.

There was something very Jane Austen about this society, it’s manners and it’s dilemmas for women. I thought of the disappointment a lot of readers feel when Lizzie Bennett’s friend Charlotte Lucas accepts the proposal of the ludicrous vicar Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie has rejected him and by doing so, placed her family in financial uncertainty, but Charlotte is more pragmatic. She knows he’s ridiculous, but she also knows he has a living, the patronage of a fine Lady, and a large enough house to lose him in. This is the decision that Valerie has made, but is very angry about. Her anger is at her family, but is also directed inward. She doesn’t like to face the truth; that she was the one who made this choice.

“She wanted to cry and could not. She wanted to weep for that proud girl who had broken her own heart and tossed it to the dogs, and she wanted to weep for the woman who had been left behind with a gaping hole in her soul. But if she could do it again, she knew she’d still retrace her steps. She was not Antonina Beaulieu, who offered herself like a sacrificial lamb, who gave everything of herself to the world for the world to devour. She was Valérie Véries. She hated herself sometimes for it, but she was Valérie Véries, a Beautiful One, not some weakling nor a halfwit”.

I also got hints of The Great Gatsby, every time I saw a character allude to an elite group of ‘Beautiful Ones’ the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful’ kept floating through my head. I felt it in this passage when Hector talks of the love he had when he was younger, the girl he asked to wait for him. He thinks he’s still in love with this woman, but he’s really still in love with his idea of this girl and what they could have had.

“He was chained to her, to this brilliant ideal of a perfect love. Because he had always known that if he could have (her) in his arms again, all would be well. It would be as though the decade that separated them had never happened and they would return to the happy days of their youth when everything was possible. It was as if he could unwind the clock with her aid. And once this happened, there would be nothing but joy.”

The first part of the novel is quite slow and as Hector and Nina meet and form their friendship, but I enjoyed getting to know them. I felt as if I was watching them fall in love very slowly, but it’s as if only the reader knows it. Then comes a terrible betrayal, and Nina loses that innocence of youth, but grows so much as a person. She starts to have pride in who she is, because she has space to be herself. When she returns to Loisail the following season she is a different woman, confident enough to make her own choices. There’s a new found confidence and experience in her character as she steps out into city. She’s refusing to be the ugly duckling of this story and has blossomed, but from the inside. There’s a feminist soul in Nina and I loved seeing that awakening. She’s also more comfortable with her ‘talent’ even if it isn’t on display very much. Before long a very suitable young man starts to court her; it would be a great match, but not love. As Hector Auvray drifts back to the city again, and wishes to resume their friendship, what effect on Nina will he have? I enjoyed this novel because it’s unashamedly romantic, and magical. It’s a coming of age story, showing this young woman’s awakening conscience as well as her desire. Nina Beaulieu learns to live life on her own terms and makes her own choices, especially where her heart is concerned.

Meet the Author

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Untamed Shore, and many other books. She has also edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters).