A review assortment – Johnston – McGlasson – Dawson

I didn’t mean to leave a week between posts, but I’ve got some very welcome overtime at the moment, which means that everything else moves into blogging time and so on. So here are three medium length reviews of recent reads for you.

A Sixpenny Song by Jennifer Johnston

It was Kim’s post here, celebrating Irish author Jennifer Johnston’s 90th birthday that reminded me I’d got one of her later books sitting in my library pile. I’ve enjoyed the two previous Johnston books I’ve read (see here and here, I particularly enjoyed the first of those, The Illusionist), and knowing Kim as a big fan, have kept her in mind when browsing charity shops and the library. A Sixpenny Song was published in 2013, while Johnston was in her eighties, and she’s kept writing – there’s another novel after this one which came out a couple of years later. It’s a short novel, and not unusually for Johnson, takes a dysfunctional family relationship as its theme.

Annie is returning to Dublin from London after her father’s death. She had run away once she could, her father was a domineering man, a banker, chiefly concerned with money. Her mother had died when Annie was younger, and her father sent her off to boarding school, erased her mother from his life and married again. Now he is dead, and Annie has been left the house, Miriam, the second wife, got the money and choice of contents. Odd-job-man Kevin has been looking after the large house and its extensive grounds, which Annie has every intention of selling. Kevin had been close to Annie’s mother, and seems to have something he wants to tell Annie… Whose memories about her mother should she trust though?

This was a quick and comforting read and, however much I hate to use the word, the plot was predictable, but that’s not to say that this slight novel wasn’t a good read. Johnston is as good as ever at dissecting feelings and emotions and getting to the heart of things without padding. I’m with Kim though, the cover does Johnston no favours at all, Johnston’s writing is never in soft focus. I’d love to read more of Johnston’s earlier novels, but imagine they’re not necessarily easy to find now – but I’ll keep looking. Read Kim’s review here. (7.5/10)

Source: Library. Jennifer Johnston, A Sixpenny Song (Tinder Press, 2013) paperback, 208 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

I do like a good novel about a weird Christian sects or cults, from Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, to Grace McCleen’s The Land of Decoration or Will Hill’s After the Fire. But the cult in Claire McGlasson’s debut is arguably the strangest of the lot – being based on a real cult formed in the 1920s in Bedford, called the Panacea Society. As McGlasson’s foreword explains, she has used passages from the Society’s own pamphlets and letters, rooting the narrative in reality, and the novel is based upon real events.

The Panacea Society centres around Mabel, a vicar’s widow, who now calls herself Octavia, believing she is the Daughter of God, and a messiah whom God has told will bring salvation to the world through women. Octavia’s mission is to persuade the 28 bishops of the realm to come to the house the women are preparing for them in Bedford to open the sealed box of the prophetess Joanna Southgate. The group is mostly peopled by middle-aged war widows, plus two men (emissaries from God sent from America and Australia). However, the novel is narrated by Dilys, the Society’s youngest member who has finished school. Dilys observes, rebelling in little unseen ways when she can, wryly commenting to us about everyone, such as Octavia’s second in command, Emily, who flings a Shakespeare quote into the conversation:

Octavia loves it when Emily quotes the Bard. It’s proof She has succeeded in moulding her, improving her. God made man in His own image. And Octavia is doing the same with Emily; she knew nothing of Shakespeare before she came to us, found God and joined the middle classes.

When Dilys recuits Grace, a young woman she meets after church one day, she is delighted to have someone of her own age in the Society, although Grace must perform servant’s duties in return for bed and board, so opportunities for the two girls to be together are somewhat limited. However, they do strike up a friendship, which soon becomes close and Dilys starts to have feelings for Grace which she realizes are impure according to Octavia’s rules. She starts to doubt Octavia and especially Emily’s manipulation of their leader, and to seriously question her faith. Outside events begin to exert their pressure on Octavia, who is beginning to panic. We also discover more about Dilys’s own family, why she’s there, as she feels everything closing in.

This was a superb debut novel. It begins so innocently, yet you know that the walls of the Society are bound to come tumbling down – in that respect, it’s a waiting game. I loved Dilys’s wryness, she’s a great narrator whom you can really sympathise with, especially as her own confusion increases with her feelings for Grace. You wish she could be free, but 1920s suburbia is unlikely to approve. I also found that I had some sympathy for the women members of the cult, (well, not Emily or Octavia), husbandless after the Great War, they needed to belong to someone or something again – but the Panacea Society wasn’t it in the long run.

A well-researched and well-paced debut that I thoroughly enjoyed and found unexpectedly thought-provoking. See also Clare’s review here. (9/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you! Claire McGlasson, The Rapture (Faber, 2019) Hardback, 351 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links).

Meat Market by Juno Dawson

YA author Dawson was one of the BBC panel who chose their list of 100 Novels that Shaped our World last November. Although I read little YA fiction these days, I thought it was time I read one of her books, especially as Juno has become such an advocate for young people on identity and gender issues.

Meat Market is a kind of a Cinderella story set in the cutthroat world of modelling. Jana Novak is sixteen, tall, very tall (5’11”), lanky, flat-chested and is at a theme park with her school friends post exams, when a talent scout gives her his card. Her androgynous looks are exactly what the fashion industry wants. Jana’s Serbian mother takes some persuading to let Jana follow it up, but once they arrive at Prestige Models in the West End and they declare that she could be the next top model making a fortune, how could she say no, although of course she promises that college work will have to come first.

No sooner has she signed on the dotted line, with some weeks/months of development in how to walk and pose etc promised, than she is instead thrust into castings for jobs, winning one prestigious contract and thus in demand for the upcoming month of madness that is British/NY/Paris/Milan fashion weeks. Jana has to learn the job on her feet, and barely has time to see her bestie Sabah, nor boyfriend Ferdy. She has to leave college, there are now too many jobs to get time off, but all too soon, she discovers the grimy side of the industry, and how the girls manage to grin and bare bear it, and at sixteen, Jana is a relatively late starter.

Drugs, anorexia, size 0 models, #MeToo, prostitution, paedophilia and more – think of an issue associated with the fashion world and you’ll find it to a degree in this novel. Dawson doesn’t pull any punches, although Jana is too grounded a protagonist to let all of these happen to her, just some. Her best friend Sabah is wonderful, and Ferdy is too good to be true – but they too will suffer along with Jana. It’s not all negative though, in the second half of the novel, Dawson turns one negative event into a positive outcome that echoes the changes that the fashion industry is undergoing.

Published by Quercus Children’s Fiction, this novel has a 14+ age marker on the rear. Given that the ‘F’ word occurs first on the second page, and the ‘C’ word is liberally sprinkled in too, plus some sensitively handled yet fairly graphic teen sex, and those predators in the industry doing their thing, I wouldn’t give this book to a 14-year-old, however, some teen models are signed up as young as thirteen, so maybe it’s appropriate for 14+ to read.

That aside, I enjoyed this book immensely, feeling engaged from the outset in Jana’s story, and I particularly loved the ebullient Sabah whenever she was part of the narrative. Dawson has evidently done her research well, for everything in the novel felt very plausible. I was glad too that she gives a strong message that it doesn’t have to be like this. (8.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you. Juno Dawson, Meat Market (Quercus, 2019) paperback, 416 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links).

13 thoughts on “A review assortment – Johnston – McGlasson – Dawson

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I lived in Bedford for a few years in the ’80s when the Pancaea Society was still in existance but knew nothing about it until reading a non-fiction book whose name now escapes me. As a result, I’m very keen to read The Rapture and pleased to see you rate it so highly.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Gosh – I’d imagined that with the events in this novel, it would have petered out – but then I remember, it’s fiction! 🙂

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Terrible, isn’t it. I don’t watch it, but someone showed me a before and now photos of the twins on Love Island at the moment – those young women were so pretty before their so-called improvements, now … Makes me despair. This was a great novel for older teens – but I enjoyed it too.

  2. Laura says:

    Johnston is definitely an underrated writer. I’ve only read How Many Miles to Babylon? but I was struck by the strength of her prose. Her novels tend to be a bit short for me though – I struggle with anything under about 200 pages.

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