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Review of Jessie Gray, a novel by Emma Blair.
I am reviewing this book in paperback version. ISBN 10- 0749942673, Publisher Piatkus Books, 352 pages, cover price £6.99.
This novel is in three parts, 1947-48, 1955-58 and 1959-62.
The plot begins in 1947, we meet 15 year old Star (Jessie) Gray, in post-war Glasgow. Star is the dreamy, sheltered daughter of a church minister. Star is very musical and has a kind and thoughtful nature. When a new boy, Tommy McBride, starts at her school, Star sets out to make him feel welcome. The McBride family have come up in the world, thanks to Mr McBride's business acumen. The family have moved from one of the roughest slums of the city, Boyd Street, to a far more upmarket area.
Star and Tommy become friends, unfortunately Tommy hopes for more than friendship from Star, but is there for her when she needs him. One day Tommy's father is killed as he tries to escape from the police and it becomes clear to his widow and son, that his business was less than legal. Mrs McBride knows that her husband had a safety deposit box in a false name, but she does not know in what name, which bank or any other details. The family are forced to leave their sumptuous home and return almost penniless, to the slums of Boyd Street. They leave without telling anyone where they are going, so Star loses contact with her friend.
The story then moves on to 1955 when Star is aged 23. She has dropped her childish nickname and returned to her given name, Jessie.
Jessie is accosted by a drunken Teddy Boy in a club. She declines to dance with him and he turns nasty. The Teddy boy is dragged away from Jessie and beaten up by by another 'Ted', the leader of a rival Teddy boy gang. This turns out to be her long lost friend Tommy McBride. The pair resume their friendship and very soon become a couple. Jessie is forced to keep their relationship a secret from her staid parents who would be most disapproving.
The Teddy Boy culture is taking over in certain areas of Glasgow and the fights between rival gangs are fast becoming legendary. The Ted that Tommy beat up is seeking his revenge and through an attack on Jessie, forces Tommy to take action. The ensuing battle is one of the most violent the city has even seen and Tommy and his gang find that they are fighting for their honour and their lives. Jessie becomes embroiled in the fracas and fights alongside her man, to victory. The pair are declared the King and Queen of Glasgow Teddy Boys. They are photographed and as a result the picture appears in the press, Jessie's father disowns her and she is thrown on the mercy of Tommy's mother, as Tommy has been imprisoned for his part in the Teddy boy riots.
When Tommy is released from prison, the pair marry and at first, their life seems rosy. Unfortunately, due to his criminal record and his involvement with the Teddy Boy movement, Tommy is unable to find work and the onus of supporting them falls on Jessie. Tommy is less than happy with this arrangement especially when Jessie's birthday looms and he cannot afford a gift for her. Unbeknown to his young wife, he forms a skiffle group with some of his Teddy Boy friends and practices a routine of popular songs to serenade her on her special day. Tommy has a good voice and the group play well, Jessie is delighted and persuades her husband to take the group further and try their luck professionally.
The plot then twists and turns through the trials of the band setting up and their attempts to gain a foothold on the ladder of success.
The marriage of Jessie and Tommy falls by the wayside in 1958 as a result of Tommy's actions in his quest for fame. Jessie removes herself from Glasgow and starts a fresh life in London. Here she finds fame and fortune, but at a price, her happiness and love for her husband.
The plot then moves on again to 1962, when an older and wiser Jessie has the opportunity to re-evaluate her life and the decisions she has made.
**About the Author**
What does Iain Blair, a six foot 3, Shakespearean actor, Sydney lifeguard, Scottish newspaper journalist, American high school graduate and playwright have to do with the author of some 29 romantic novels? Well, quite a lot in this instance, as Emma Blair is actually, Iain Blair!
Brought up in post war Glasgow, Iain had a tough upbringing, his father died when he was six weeks old and his mother when he was eleven. He moved to America to live with an aunt after his mother's death. He graduated from High School in Milwaukee and decided to return to Glasgow where he began work at 16 with an insurance company. Boredom set in quickly and so at the age of 17 and alone in the world, Iain decided to emigrate to Australia. There he worked as a proof reader on the Sydney Bulletin newspaper and as a lifeguard on South Steyne Beach.
He found the lure of Scotland was too great and he returned a year later to become a feature writer on the Sunday Post.
A chance afternoon visit to the cinema was to change his life. The film was 'The Flame and the Arrow' starring the actor Burt Lancaster. After watching the movie fifteen times in one week, his mind was made up to become an actor. Iain gained a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and after this, obtained a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Small parts led to commercials, to voice over work, repertory, West End plays, radio and television. Iain's acting career spanned twenty years.
During this time, Iain discovered that he could write the lines as well as deliver them. He wrote a number of plays for theatre and television and then naturally progressed to book writing. At first he tried writing thrillers without much success. Then he completed a saga Where No Man Cries and that was when Emma Blair was born. His publishers decided he would sell far more books simply by being published as a woman.
After 11 years of keeping this secret, Iain Blair chose to 'come out' on the 'Terry Wogan television show.
Iain Blair has two grown up children from a previous marriage, and now lives with his second wife Jane Blanchard, who is a novelist in her own right.
Iain has made his home in the south west of England and many of his books reflect life in the quieter pace of Devon, however he still draws on his experiences in America, Australia, and of course his native Glasgow.
The above information was sourced from Emma Blair's website:-
**My Thoughts and Conclusion**
I had not read many of this author's novel before starting 'Jessie Gray', so had no real expectations from the book.
Jessie Gray is an absorbing novel, it is set in a period of time that I only knew by repute. My late father used to tell me tales of the Teddy Boys and the music of the era. I was surprised to find this content in the novel as the synopsis made no mention of it. I was doubly surprised to discover that Emma Blair was in fact a man!
The novel has an interesting and well crafted plot, the theme running through the storyline of struggling musicians is timeless in my opinion. The author has captured the essence of the time through the characters. The main character, Star/Jessie, is a likeable but naïve girl to start with but as the novel progresses, the reader follows her maturing into a sensible and strong woman. Tommy the main male character is definitely the lovable rogue type, he is a hard fighting, hard drinking youth who is totally drawn into the Teddy Boy culture. Tommy too matures as the story line draws towards the close and we see the man, rather than the boy.
I really enjoyed this book, I admit that I am a very fast reader, but I devoured this novel in an evening! I would give the book a 5* rating and recommend it to others.
Thank you for reading.
©brittle1906 March 2010
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