The Colour by Rose Tremain

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I read this for a Facebook group reading challenge.  It sounded interesting, but unfortunately I didn’t really get it.  I think it was meant to be very symbolic and allegorical, but I could have done with a bit more actually happening.  Also, there were several minor characters whose stories weren’t tied in with the main plot very well, making it seem disjointed.

In 1864, a recently-married couple called Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand.  Theirs is clearly a marriage of convenience rather than love.  Harriet has obviously only married him because her best alternative was becoming a governess.  He’s married her because he doesn’t want a love match, for reasons which are explained later on.   Joseph goes off to join the Gold Rush, leaving Harriet to look after his elderly mother.  He then starts paying a young man for “services rendered”.  Harriet goes to look for him, to tell him that her mother’s died, and gets involved with a Chinese gardener with a foot fetish.  As you do.  There are also some neighbours with a sick child, and a Maori woman who used to be the child’s nanny, but the stories aren’t tied together in a coherent way.

I think the idea was that looking for gold was an allegory for lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many places, but the book somehow felt unsatisfactory.   It’s had good reviews and was nominated for a prize, so maybe it’s just me; but, as I’ve said, I didn’t really get it.   The idea was to read a book set in New Zealand.  I’m sure that there are lots of great books set in New Zealand, but this isn’t one of them!

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

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Novels retelling Greek myths and legends from the viewpoints of some or all of the women involved seem to be all the rage at the moment.  I’m quite pleased about this- with most schools no longer teaching the classics, these ancient stories might have been at risk of dying out in the English-speaking world, which would have been a great shame.  When I was about 7, I had a book of Greek myths (I think it must have been the one by Enid Blyton), and I loved it.  I also loved the way that Colleen McCullough wove Greek myths into The Thorn Birds, but that’s beside the point.  I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, but I was going to read it anyway.

I may well be reading something into nothing here, but I sensed a mental health theme in this book.  There’s a *lot* of talk about the gods cursing women with “madness”, of having your mind taken over or taken away – first with Pasiphae, then with the Maenads, then with the women of Argos; and it’s strongly suggested that Ariadne’s sister Phaedra was suffering from post natal depression.   I might just be oversensitive on this issue, but this theme did seem to keep recurring.

Women generally come off badly in Greek myths and legends.  They’re rarely given a voice, and they’re treated pretty badly by gods, by mortal men, and even by jealous goddesses.  Ariadne was the daughter of the King of Crete, Minos, and half-sister of the Minotaur, who was born as a result of her father Minos disobeying Poseidon, and Poseidon taking revenge by making Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall in love with a bull.  Minos, after defeating Athens in war, demanded that Athens send seven young men and seven girls every few years (the number of years seems to vary!) to be fed to the Minotaur, who was kept in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus.  Theseus, a Greek prince,  volunteered to be one of those sacrificed, but killed the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help.  They sailed off into the sunset together … or so Ariadne thought, until Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos.   Theseus, of course, is known as one of the greatest Greek heroes, and his treatment of Ariadne is never counted against him. 

The book’s told in the first person, but some of that’s by Ariadne, and some of it’s by her Phaedra, who was later married off to Theseus.  The title’s a bit misleading, really, but maybe it just sounded more catchy than “Ariadne and Phaedra” or “The Princesses of Crete”.  It would have been interesting to have had Pasiphae telling her story too, but I suppose that only so much could be fitted into one book.  How women did suffer in Greek myths.

There are various versions of the various myths.  And, because most books have each myth as a separate story, you don’t always realise how they all fit together.  Medea, who ran off with Jason, was the stepmother of Theseus.  Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, had a child by Theseus.  Daedalus and Icarus, when they escaped and Icarus flew too close to the sun, were fleeing from Minos.  Dionysus went to war with Perseus, who killed Medusa and then married Andromeda.  Most versions show Dionysus wanting to marry Ariadne and therefore forcing Theseus to abandon her, and look unfavourably on Ariadne for betraying her father, but, in this version, it’s made clear that both Minos and Theseus are bad lots – Minos in general, and Theseus in his treatment of women.  Theseus is shown as raping Hippolyta, whereas in some versions they’re in love.  And Ariadne’s sister Phaedra, usually depicted as a villainess who tried to seduce her stepson and then made false claims about him, is shown as feeling betrayed because Theseus lied to her, telling her that Ariadne was dead, and not telling her about his son Hippolytus – and the false claims element of the myth is neatly sidestepped in this book, by showing Theseus getting the wrong end of the stick.

Because the book generally follows the myths, it wasn’t possible to show either sister as having a happy ending.  Phaedra took her own life – in this version, in despair.  Ariadne married Dionysus, aka Bacchus, the god of wine, and was happy with him and their children for a while, but she also met a sorry end. 

There are various different myths about what happened to her.  Jennifer Saint, who seems determined to paint most men as baddies, has chosen the version in which Ariadne fell victim to a war between Dionysus and Perseus.  However, in this book,  she first of all made the discovery that Dionysus was whipping his female followers, the Maenads, into a frenzy, and asking for first animal sacrifices and then the sacrifices of human babies.  I’m not familiar with the story about the babies at all: I’m not sure whether it’s the author’s own invention or a rather obscure myth.  I suspect the former, as Google didn’t seem to know about it either!   And Euphrosyne, usually the goddess of joy, was brought into this as a desperate woman seeking help and sanctuary, and the Maenads as doing the same.   

The war between Dionysus and Perseus is “canon”, though.  In this book, a lot of emphasis is paid to Dionysus caring more about trying to win the women of Argos, the city ruled by Perseus, as followers, than he did about Ariadne and their children.  I think that Colleen McCullough would have approved of that: a big theme of The Thorn Birds is men being more interested in their own aggrandisement than in their families.  And, as this was the version of events chosen, it ended – very abruptly, as if the author was rushing to finish the book – with Perseus killing Ariadne with the head of Medusa, another woman who fell victim to the jealousy of the gods.

All in all, it was an interesting read, although rather rushed at the end.  But it was also a bit depressing.  In The Thorn Birds (yes, I do realise that the two books have nothing to do with each other), Justine succeeds where Meggie didn’t, in being a strong independent woman and also in finding a man who puts her first.   At the end of this, both sisters end up dead because of the actions of men who didn’t care about them enough.  But, hey, that’s Greek myths for you – they don’t tend to end happily!

This is Jennifer Saint’s first book, and, for a first book, it’s not bad at all.   Recommended.

 

 

 

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

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  Remember the ridiculous Krystle/Rita storyline in Dynasty?  If your child, sibling, partner or parent had been replaced by a lookalike, do you not think you’d notice the difference?  And Rita had at least been coached by Sammy Jo in Krystle’s history, the family history and Krystle’s mannerisms.  In this book, we are expected to believe that a British history professor is tricked into taking the place of a French count who drugged him a short time after they met by accident at a railway station, and that the count’s mother, wife, brother, sister and daughter all failed to realise that this wasn’t actually their guy, just someone who looked like him?  I mean, seriously??!!

The dog realised that it was the wrong guy.  So, eventually, did the guy’s mistress.  But no-one else did.  The said count had got his life in a mess.  The terms of his wife’s dowry were that the money would only be released if she either produced a male heir or died before the age of 50.  One daughter, one miscarriage, now expecting again but terrified that something would go wrong.  He was supplying his mother with morphine, his sister didn’t speak to him because he’d had her fiance murdered during the war, and his young daughter was having some sort of religious crisis.  Also, his finances were a mess and putting a lot of people’s livelihoods at risk.

Our friend, John, did his best to sort it out, but the wife committed suicide.  Meanwhile, Jean, the real count, was in London, helping himself to John’s money.

Why didn’t John just go to the police and say that he’d been drugged and kidnapped and he wasn’t actually Jean?!  Did he enjoy being caught up in this very messy life, just because his own was so boring?  And how on earth did even Jean’s closest relatives fail to notice that he was the wrong person?   Even if he genuinely looked very like Jean, he wouldn’t have sounded like him, and the fact that he knew nothing about Jean’s life must surely have been obvious.   The story of Jean’s family was interesting, but the idea that no-one would have realised that John wasn’t Jean was just too silly.

 

The Island of Lost Horses by Stacy Gregg

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  If I’d read this book, combining a modern-day pony story with the Great Expulsion of 1492, when I was about 10, I would have loved it.  Reading it for a Facebook group reading challenge now isn’t quite the same, but that’s hardly the book’s fault.  There are a few silly errors, such as using “ancestor” instead of “descendant”, and my historian’s brain wants to nitpick about the use of “Spain” rather than “Castile” (I know, it’s a pony story for children, not a history textbook), but it’s generally pretty good, as a children’s book.

Twelve-year-old Beatriz’s parents have divorced, and she’s moved from Florida to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas with her mother, who’s an expert on, er, jellyfish.  The pony element of the story comes from the Abaco Barb horses, a now extinct breed of Spanish descent which used to live on the island.  No-one’s quite sure how they got there – the most likely explanation is that they were taken there by 19th century Cuban forestry workers, but other suggestions are that they were taken there by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, or came from Spanish ships wrecked on the coast of the island.

The story in this book – and, OK, it’s pretty fanciful, but never mind! – is that Felipa Molina, the young daughter of a converso and a Spanish noblewoman, serving as a lady-in-waiting to Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter Juana, was forced to flee when her mother died and the Inquisition took her father, and managed to get on board one of Columbus’s ships, with her horse, and ended up on this island in the Bahamas.  She later married one of the sailors and left the island, but left her horse behind, and that’s where the Great Abaco horses came from.  Beatriz finds her diary, and also finds a Great Abaco horse (there were a few left in 2014, when the book was published, but sadly they’ve become extinct since then), and there’s a mystical link between them all which is some sort of combination of West Indian obeah spiritualism and Native American belief in Medicine Hat horses.

OK, OK, it’s not going to win any prizes for realism, but it’s a good story!  I’m not quite sure how people might react to the phonetic spelling of the English used by the elderly West Indian lady with whom Beatriz becomes friendly – “de” “chile”, etc – or the lady’s use of words such as “piccaninny” – but the author’s tried to bring a number of different cultures together, and it’s certainly a change from the traditional pony books written back in the day … although the Patricia Leitch Jinny books certainly had their mystical elements.   I don’t normally like dual timeline stories, but I like the idea of combining a pony book with a historical story, and, as I’ve said, I would have loved this when I was the age of the intended audience.

 

 

 

 

 

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

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I’m sure that this used to be on the school recommended reading lists, but somehow I’d never read it until now – for a Facebook group reading challenge.  It’s a children’s book, about 9-year-old Cassie Logan, a young  African-American girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, where the local authorities provide school buses for white children but not for black children, where black children only get grotty textbooks already used by numerous white children and now falling to bits … and, as we learn as the book goes on, where bullying, violence and even lynchings are not uncommon.    The book’s been criticised for showing every white character as a stereotypical redneck, but that’s not actually true: there’s a white lad called Jeremy who’s keen to be friends with the Logans.

Apparently, this book is banned in some educational districts of the US, because it uses racist language.  It’s a book about racism.  How are you supposed to get that across without using racist language?  I do understand the concern that young children might pick up on extremely offensive words and, maybe quite innocently, repeat them, but people need to find a way of working this out.   The Holocaust novel “Maus” has also been banned in some educational districts of the US, because it contains scenes of violence.  How do you teach children about the Holocaust without mentioning violence?  And both these books are aimed at secondary school age children, anyway, not little ones.  As several Holocaust survivors said on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this week, education is the most important thing.

The Logan family – like the O’Haras of Gone With the Wind, a little ironically – are determined not to lose their land, come what may, and we see their determination to keep both their land and their pride.  TBH, I didn’t find this to be quite the classic that I was expecting, but it was still an interesting and important read.  And I think it is quite difficult for British readers, however much we know about American history, and however much we may love America – and I do love America – to accept that the Klan were carrying out lynchings even after the Second World War … there were even a small number of lynchings in the 1980s.  Depending on how you define lynchings, you can even say that they’ve gone on into the 21st century.  It’s hardline stuff, but it’s stuff that people need to be aware of.

This isn’t the best-written book I’ve ever read, and the characters weren’t that convincing, but it was on our school recommended reading lists for a reason (er, even if I never got round to reading it), and it’s an important book for “young adults” to read.

 

No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull

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  This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “tender teen romance”.  So I read a book about the persecution of Quakers during the early years of the Restoration.  It’s a tender teen romance, OK!  Will is 17 and Susanna is 15.  And it’s very hard to find historical fiction with tender teen romances which *doesn’t* involve someone getting killed in the Great War.

This is a “young adult” book (what used to be called a “book for older children” in my day) so it doesn’t go as deep as a book for adults would, but it’s still very interesting.  We tend to think of the Restoration as being a very positive time, after the repression of Cromwell’s era, but, of course, it wasn’t.  This book’s set in 1662, so we only get part of the Clarendon Code, the big clampdown on Dissenters/Nonconformists, but we get enough of it to see life made very unpleasant for our characters – they’re subjected to assaults in the street from local hooligans, to the authorities invading their homes and businesses, and then to imprisonment even for children.

This *is* a tender teen romance, as I said, set in Shropshire, and we see Will, the son of a well-to-do Anglican family, being attracted both to Quakerism and to Susanna, the daughter of a lower-class Quaker family.  Their romance and Will’s religious conversion take place against the background of oppression and the opposition of his family.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with Will going off to London to seek work, but we know that they’re going to get married and live happily ever in the end.

It’s not a pleasant time – and, of course, it’s so ironic that the official view of 17th century England was that it was Catholics who persecuted religious minorities.  Both Britain and America are still fighting the battles of the 17th century, in many ways, and this is how things could be for people before the Glorious Revolution.  It’s worth remembering that.  Having said which, look at some of what went on under Pitt the Younger.  But that’s getting off the point.  This is a very interesting young adult book, and offers a very different perspective on a time which is generally associated with – apart from the Great Plague, which we possibly don’t want to dwell on too much at the moment! – jollity and theatres and Charles II’s love life.  It certainly wasn’t like that for everyone.

 

The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

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Well, on the plus side, it was high time that someone wrote a novel about the “Montenegrin princesses”, Stana (Anastasia) and Militsa, daughters of the King of Montenegro, wives of Russian Grand Dukes, and instrumental in introducing the Tsarina Alexandra to “Monsieur Philippe” and then to Rasputin.  On the minus side, most of this particular novel is nonsense, and that’s made worse by the fact that the author claims in an afterword that it’s largely based on fact.  As a work of fiction, it’s quite entertaining.  As a work which claims to be a relatively accurate piece of historical fiction, it’s a disgrace!   According to Ms Edwards-Jones, Nicholas and Alexandra had a fifth daughter, who was taken away and adopted; Alexandra and Militsa were having some sort of affair; and Militsa was the one who shot Rasputin.  I’ve never heard such rubbish.

She also seems to have a rather vivid and possibly rather warped imagination – some of the stuff about Rasputin’s carry-ons is admittedly probably true, but the idea that the Tsar and Tsarina indulged in public naked capers and that Stana and Militsa tried to create spells with miscarried foetuses is distasteful, to say the least.   And this silly idea that the Khlysty (a religious sect) indulged in all manner of orgies was made up back in Peter the Great’s time in order to discredit them.  Over the years, a lot of unpleasant stories have been made up about different religious groups.  It’s hardly very responsible of authors to propagate them.  And some of it was just plain bonkers.  Monsieur Philippe had a magic hat which made him invisible when he wore it?!  I thought this was meant to be a historical novel, not a children’s fantasy book.

Philippa Gregory’s claims about Woodville witchcraft are bad enough, but at least the Woodvilles, having died over half a millennium ago, aren’t likely to be hurt by them.  Stana and Militsa both died within living memory.  I really do dislike this trend of making up all sorts of rubbish about people who are either still alive or who may still have immediate relatives and friends living.   The book contains some ridiculous errors, as well.  There was no change of dynasty in Montenegro following an assassination.  That was in Serbia.  Wrong country!   Montenegro is not primarily Roman Catholic: it is primarily Montenegrin Orthodox.  And why do so many people make a mess of Russian names?

This was my book for the Facebook group reading challenge, which was to read a book about witches, but I freely admit that I wanted to read it because it was about Imperial Russia, and already had it on my TBR pile when the “challenge” about witches was posted.   I also have to admit that I’ve rather enjoyed ripping it to shreds, just because it annoyed me so much!

But what a shame.  These two women are not particularly well-known, but they should be, because they did play an important role at the court of “Nicky and Alix”, and it was partly through their influence that Alix – poor woman, desperate to produce a son and heir, and then, when he arrived, desperate to keep him safe because of his haemophilia – became involved with Rasputin.  That certainly played a part in the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and the communist takeover of Russia has had a huge influence, to put it very mildly, on world events ever since.  This could have been an excellent and very important book … but, as it was, I’m not really sure what the author was playing at with it.

 

The Mapmaker by Frank G Slaughter

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This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book set in Portugal, which was a bit problematic, as there isn’t a lot of English language historical fiction set in Portugal and I’ve read pretty much all of it!  However, I did find this.  It turned out that only part of it was set in Portugal, and, in this disastrous tennis season, I kept getting distracted into reading up on medieval Mallorcan mapmakers, but never mind.

This book’s an interesting mixture of the work of real life cartographers under the auspices of the Portuguese prince now known as Henry the Navigator, some quite detailed information about navigational techniques of the time; things probably believed to be true when the novel was written (in the 1950s) but now doubted, notably the existence of a school of navigation at Sagres; stories and theories about the Americas being discovered by the Venetians long before Columbus; legends which the characters believe but the reader isn’t meant to (all the Prester John stuff); and Boys’ Own adventure stuff.   That sounds rather strange, but I did really enjoy it!

Our hero is the Venetian cartographer and navigator Andrea Bianco, who was a real person and is best known for his 1436 atlas showing “the island of Antillia”, which some people believe to be mythical but others believe to be the coast of Florida – although, in this book, the native inhabitants refer to it as “Acuba”, so possibly the reader’s meant to think that it’s Cuba.  There are various theories about Venetian sailors having reached the Americas in the early 15th century, and we just don’t know whether or not they’re true.

In this book, Andrea’s working for Henry the Navigator, alongside various Mallorcan Jews or conversos who were amongst the leading cartographers of the time, and he holds the secret of measuring latitude.  He’d been captured by Turks and held as a slave, during which time he not only learnt how to measure latitude but travelled to China and Japan.  However, at the start of the book, he escapes during a storm and is fortuitously rescued by a wealthy Portuguese man and his beautiful daughter, Leonor.  It transpires that his dastardly half-brother was plotting against him and was the reason he was captured.  The said dastardly half-brother then makes it impossible for him to stay in Venice, so off he goes to Portugal, where he soon gets in with Henry, and joins a voyage to the coast of Africa.  We get some distressing scenes of slaves being bought from African slave traders and brought to Portugal, with the Church preaching that this is all to the good and it’ll save their souls: however, Andrea stands out against this, and any slaves assigned to him are immediately set free.  He also makes it clear that the Turks and Arabs are far more advanced in their knowledge of navigation than any Europeans are, and that the ancient Phoenicians were too.

Off they go on another voyage, to the Canary Islands, but things go wrong and they end up in the Sargasso Sea.   We do know that Portuguese ships at this time did reach the Sargasso Sea, but, here, our ship ends up in “Antillia”.   There are various adventures, in which our hero saves the life of the beautiful Leonor, who for some inexplicable reason has come along on the voyage, and eventually, thanks largely, of course, to Andrea, they make it back to Portugal.  At this point, the dastardly half-brother reappears and tries to kill him, but Andrea manages to escape – of course.  The dastardly one gets his come-uppance, and Andrea walks off into the sunset with the beautiful Leonor.

So it’s a bit daft in parts, but the information about navigational techniques is genuinely interesting.  The idea that the Portuguese reached the Americas before Columbus but Henry hushed it up to avoid distracting attention from his plans in Africa, which is how things are explained here, is highly unlikely; but could the Venetians have got there first?  Well, you never know!  And this is a Boys’ Own book for adults, rather than books by, say, G A Henty, which are clearly aimed at children, so it was something different!

 

The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey by Marcia Fine (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  This month’s Facebook reading challenge was to read a book about refugees.  There are many excellent novels about refugees.  Sadly, this is not one of them.  The fact that it got the most important date in Sephardi history wrong on the very first page was not a great start, and set the tone for the rest of the book.  Furthermore, the error was with the Hebrew date, but the characters were annoyed about being forced to use the Gregorian calendar – and, given that this was in a chapter set in 1492 and the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist until 1582, I was rather annoyed too.  But that was pretty mild compared to what happened later on, when the author seemed to get the early 16th, late 16th and mid 17th centuries all ingloriously tangled up together.

I was left with the impression that the author had heard various different stories about Sephardi history and just bunged them all in together.  It was as if, say, someone had written a book about civil wars in England and claimed that Oliver Cromwell had murdered the Princes in the Tower and then recognised Henry FitzEmpress as the heir.   What a mess!   And then people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter will read this and take it as being historically accurate, which really does irritate me.

It’s a dual timeline book.  These are very popular now.  I have no idea why.  The modern timeline involved someone who lost her job because she had a bad leg after being bitten by a horrible dog (I do sympathise over anything involving horrible dogs), went off on a three month research trip with a researcher she’d only just met, and married him.  As you do.  I wasn’t really interested in that, more in the storyline about the refugees.  However, it turned out that the refugees were actually the invention of the said researcher, who was writing a novel, which confused the issue even more.

Our two refugees, teenage aunt and illegitimate baby niece, were living in Granada, which seemed unlikely as it had only just been reconquered, and were forced to leave due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, which was unconvincing as they were actually conversos.  And why hadn’t the niece’s mother married the father?   There seemed no reason.  However, off they went to Portugal, with their parents/grandparents.  This bit was actually quite well-written, and reasonably historically accurate, with some rather good descriptions of the forced conversions which followed when the Portuguese authorities changed their policies, and the seizure and deportation to Sao Tome of children of Jewish families.

But then it just got silly.  The parents/grandparents having died (one murder, one suicide), our two girls took ship for Brazil, where they found work on a plantation.  No, no, no!   Yes, there was significant Sephardi migration to plantations in Brazil, but not until the 1630s, when part of Brazil came under Dutch rule.  Not at the beginning of the 16th century!   Yes, a very tiny number of Sephardi refugees left for Brazil at that time, but hardly any.  If you were escaping from the Portuguese authorities, you’d hardly go to a Portuguese settlement, would you?  And there wouldn’t even have been any plantations that early.

Then the auntie eloped with a slave.  Well, that’s very likely to have happened, isn’t it?!  And, again, it was too early for slavery on plantations …. especially as it was too early for plantations, full stop.  And the niece was shipped over to Amsterdam as a mail order bride.  Where she lived happily ever after in one of Europe’s most tolerant cities – and found her long-lost mother, who’d become a nun in Castile but was transferred to Amsterdam.

Oh dear.  People moved from (what’s now) the Netherlands to Brazil, not the other way round.  And not until over 100 years later.  And Amsterdam becoming a centre where religious minorities could live in peace didn’t happen until much later on in the 16th century, after the United Provinces had declared independence from the Habsburgs.

The whole thing was just a mess.   It was like when little kids think that anyone over 30 must have lived through the Second World War, because they’ve got a concept of “the olden days” but not that “the olden days” weren’t just one amorphous mass.

Amazon informs the purchaser that “the author has carefully researched the historical events”.  I beg to differ!

Break The Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli

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This was published in February 2020 but set during the Tokyo Olympics.  Now, I usually only read books which are, as my blog name suggests, “set in the past” (this one was for a Facebook group reading challenge).  Setting a book only a few months into the future wouldn’t normally be much of an issue, but, of course, in this case it was – and the author couldn’t possibly have known what lay around the corner, any more than the rest of us could.  These are the Olympics which we should have had.  For a start, they’re in 2020.  And the events take place in front of capacity crowds, with the athletes’ loved ones there to share the moments with them, with medals being hung around the winners’ necks by VIPs and with team-mates hugging each other in celebration or consolation.

Reading all that was rather strange.  However, it shouldn’t detract from the actual plot, which was about a team of young female American gymnasts getting ready to head for the Olympics, only for it to emerge that their male coach had been abusing two of them and that he’d been abusing other girls, too frightened to speak out, over a period of many years.  Obviously everyone will be aware that this is based on real events within US gymnastics, with over 350 young women affected.

It’s a challenging topic for a book for a teenagers, but the author’s handled it very well.  The protagonist, Audrey, is not one of those affected, but learns that she was almost certainly going to be the abuser’s next target.  So we’re slightly removed from what’s happened, and there are no actual scenes of abuse being perpetrated, but no words are minced and it’s made very clear what’s gone on.

Tied in with this is another main plotline, that, at just 16, our girl Audrey (funny how names come back into fashion – no-one under 50 was called Audrey when I was a kid) is being forced to retire due to a chronic back injury.  And, because it is a book for teenagers, there’s a romance, and there’s a lot of emphasis on the girls in the team falling out but then being reunited and pulling together.

It’s really very good.

It is a difficult subject, though.   BBC 1 showed a three part series earlier this year about child abuse in British football in the 1970s and 1980s.  It struck very close to home, with local lads like Paul Stewart and David White talking about what had happened to them.  How many other sports have been affected by this?   A review into safeguarding in professional tennis has just been introduced.  And, of course, it’s not just sport.  Over the last few years, there’s been one child abuse scandal after another.  It’s horrific, and it was brave of the author to cover this subject in her book.

We start off with the trials.  Then it’s announced that one of the qualifiers has failed a drugs test.  Everyone’s stunned.  And then it turns out that the coach had been abusing her, she’d told him that she was going to the authorities, and he’d tampered with her test results in an attempt to discredit her.  And the other coaches went along with the faked test results.  Later, it turns out that he’d been abusing another member of the team too.  And others come forward.

At the Olympics, the shock of it all, and the fact that the team’s initially divided over whom they believe, means that, despite being favourites, they fail to win a medal in the team event.  But Audrey pulls them all together, and they succeed in the individual events.  And all the other competitors, and everyone in the crowd, shows that they believe the girls who’ve come forward, and that they support them.   It’s a bit too “tidy”, but, OK, it is a novel.

I’m not an expert in gymnastics, but the author goes into a lot of detail and it does all seem to be pretty accurate.  And so is everything she says about top level sport in general – the physical and emotional pain involved, as well as the great rewards.  Audrey will be retiring at just 16.  She will probably have issues with her back for the rest of her life.  And there are questions over whether or not the injury could have been prevented had the coaches cared a bit more.  And, after all those years of work, one mistake, or one bit of bad luck, and dreams could be shattered.  I watch a lot of sport.  I’ve seen so many ups and downs.  I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the athletes themselves.

Random point.  How long have leotards been referred to as “leos”?!  Or is this an American thing?  And, just to add to the confusion, Audrey’s boyfriend is called Leo!

One more thing.  The book tries really hard to be diverse.  Audrey is half-Korean.  Of the other three girls in the main team, one is white, one is black and one is Hispanic.  Kudos to the author for doing that, but … it gets a bit much when, say, we’re introduced to their new coach and immediately told that she’s “a white woman”, etc.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to show that you’re including characters of different ethnicities, except in cases where it’s clear from their names, without actually saying so, but it felt a bit clunky sometimes.

This is a very 21st century “young adult” novel.  Incidentally, don’t think the term “young adult” even existed when I was in the age group for which the book’s aimed.   And, as I’ve said, it’s really very good.