Review – The Cottingley Secret

“Possibility is where all the best stories begin.”

Hazel Gaynor could write flatpack furniture instructions and they would still be utterly enchanting; I honestly cannot find the words to do justice to her ability to make stories come alive. As has been the case with her other novels I’ve read thus far, I didn’t read ‘The Cottingley Secret’, I lived it. Or at least, it certainly felt as though I did. This was absolutely not a novel I could dip in and out of between appointments or on lunch breaks; as soon as I opened the pages I was totally consumed by the characters and their unique journeys. Put simply, if I’d read this while running a bath, my house definitely would have flooded.

My knowledge of the Cottingley fairies was pretty limited before reading this re-telling; like most people, I’d seen the photos at some point but never really known the story behind them. I vaguely remember seeing the film adaptation in the 90’s, but even that memory is quite hazy now (especially as I am reluctantly beginning to accept that the 90’s were 30 years ago and not 10 as I often still think they were). If anything, however, that possibly made this story even more enthralling for me. I first discovered Hazel Gaynor’s novels through ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’, which reimagines the story of a really significant part of North East history and was therefore close to my heart, and also thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Girl who Came Home’ set around the Titanic, an event which we all have some knowledge of, but having limited knowledge of the ‘real’ events made me feel so much more connected to the characters. For once, I had no desire to google every detail and compare this retelling to the story of the ‘real’ fairies because I knew Hazel’s version is the one I want to believe is true.

Having said that, for the few aspects of the story I did google in vain attempts to pacify my own curiosity, even though I knew some parts were products of Hazel’s imagination and arose from the need to advance plots or fill in gaps in the real story, she intertwines fact and fiction so well that it becomes extremely difficult to separate the two. The story of the Cottingley fairies is already a pretty solid base for an exciting and spellbinding story, but Hazel’s imagination is like adding petrol to the low embers of a bonfire and giving the reader an absolute inferno of intrigue and excitement.

It must be difficult enough to tell one story, with the complexities of character depths and managing plot progression, but again Hazel Gaynor has taken that challenge and raised it with another story interweaved through the original so neatly that they’re knitted together like stripes in a jumper. The story of the present-day Olivia embarking on a new adventure despite her heart-breaking personal losses, whilst running the bookshop of all of our dreams, had enough emotion and intrigue to be a standalone contemporary fiction novel, but using this as the lens through which we discover Frances and Elsie’s secrets means we’re gifted with two incredible stories for the price (or three-week library loan in my case) of one. Personally, I found both stories equally gripping as well, something I find quite rare in these novels which flit between past and present; usually I develop a clear preference for one story after a few chapters and find the parallel story an irritating inconvenience but that couldn’t be further from how I felt whilst reading ‘The Cottingley Fairies’.

My ever-sceptical husband did ask me, whilst I was about half way through ‘The Cottingley Secret’ why I was reading a fantasy book when this isn’t usually my genre of choice, and why I was so invested when, quote, ‘they’re obviously not real’ but, in a way, are any books real? Every time we crack the spine of a novel we’re entering someone’s world of fantasy and make-believe. And, the key question with the Cottingley fairies is not whether the photographs were real or faked, but whether you choose to believe.

“There’s magic in every bookshop, Olivia. You just have to bring people to it. The books will take care of the rest.”

Review – Curtain Call at the Seaview Hotel

The Seaview had weathered many storms, but she felt this one might be her trickiest yet.

Rain pelting the windows, the toddler finally snoring beneath his cot blankets upstairs, candles flickering on the fireplace – surely nothing could make this moment any more cosy, I hear you say? Wrong. My sense of pure comfort more than doubled as I cracked the spine of ‘Curtain Call at the Seaview Hotel’, and checked in to my favourite beachside B&B. Although Glenda Young’s cosy crime series is definitely best enjoyed snuggled up by the fire on a rainy Autumn evening, I found both instalments so atmospheric that I really believe I could have read them in the Maldives (a girl can dream), and still felt the misty sea fret dampening my face and the aroma of fish and chips wafting up from the pages just as strongly.

I’m not usually much of a crime fiction lover, (it can be somewhat of a busman’s holiday for me) but since I always thoroughly enjoy Glenda’s historical sagas, I checked ‘Murder at the Seaview Hotel’ out of the library during a rare few days off work and was hooked straight away. I was so late to this party that I read the first instalment only weeks before ‘Curtain Call at the Seaview Hotel’ was released; which worked out great in the end as I got double the intrigue without the impatient waiting period between publications.

With characters as complex and mysterious as the plot, I’m not sure how I became so invested in their stories after only a couple of chapters; but that’s the caveat of Glenda Young’s gripping storytelling; just as I start to have the characters worked out, there’s another intriguing twist which has me suspicious of everyone and second guessing myself. So, my decision to try this series in an effort to fill some spare time on days off quickly spiralled into “surely it will be resolved in the next chapter, just a few more pages before bed” and the inevitable cycle of frustration and the unrelenting need to find out what happens next; more commonly known as ‘the binge read’.

As I’ve said, crime novels can be a bit of a busman’s holiday for me, but I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, in neither ‘Murder’ or ‘Curtain Call at the Seaview Hotel’ was I able to correctly guess the murderer. In fact, on both occasions I was completely flabbergasted as I’d formulated totally different theories as to where the plot was going to progress; which again is a testament to Glenda’s talent for creating plots which are even richer than Jean’s home made chocolate cakes. Being so well established in the saga genre, it was no doubt a nerve-racking move for Glenda Young to branch out into cosy crime but I’m delighted that she did. Both instalments were equally as gripping, with the second possibly even more so since the characters were, by then, more well established which allowed her to delve further into their personalities and back stories, forcing the reader to question everything we thought we knew about these now familiar faces.

As much as I’m desperate to check into the cosy Seaview to join Helen in her exploits, and of course to pet good old trusty Suki, I don’t know if I could handle the stress. With the amount of plot twists which emerge so subtly I hadn’t even the slightest anticipation before they were hitting me in the face, I can only imagine the anxiety Helen must feel dealing with these every day. Of course, with a location as atmospheric as the Seaview and friends as wonderful as Sally and Jean I can see why Helen soldiers on through it and, even speaking as a vegetarian, I can say with confidence that I would definitely risk a night or two under the same roof as a murderer if it came with the promise of one of Jean’s full English breakfasts…

Farewell, Shipyard Girls!

We all have certain stories, certain characters or worlds which stay with us long after we’ve turned the final page. ‘The Shipyard Girls’ may appear to the objective observer as a typical saga series (a very well-written and addictive one at that), but for me this series marked the start of my first ‘proper’ writing experience; the first time someone other than my immediate family or friends (i.e. someone not morally obliged to) told me that I wasn’t terrible at it. I was a little bit late to the SYG party, but a couple of months after binge reading the first three books on holiday, I found myself between jobs and a bit unsure of the next steps. With a decent stretch of spare time on my hands for the first time in years, I decided to start writing. On the advice of a friend who had had some success, I began by writing about things I enjoyed and so, this saga series which I couldn’t put down seemed a logical place to start. When I received an email from Nancy herself to say she really enjoyed one of my reviews and asked if I’d like to be part of the next blog tour, I couldn’t believe it – a proper, successful author liked something I’d scribbled together on my ancient laptop one rainy afternoon.

I had no idea where my writing journey was going to go, and as evidenced by my completely sporadic and random postings on this blog, I still don’t. But the main constant since I started this page has been regularly scheduled hype about the latest SYG instalments and gentle background encouragement from Nancy. Since joining the club of SYG bloggers and having the privilege of getting to know Nancy, I’ve had three more career changes (I never was able to focus on one thing for too long) and become a parent; none of which has even slightly resembled the life plan I had in mind at the time I started blogging. Which, is what made it especially poignant to be alongside the girls as they all ended this chapter of their journey in preparation for embarking upon their next unique and exciting steps.

“Life, she had learnt, was lacking in certainty, and sometimes it ended up sending you down a different route to the one you had intended or wanted to take. Sometimes…those unexpected turns in life led to something rather special.”

I’ll admit I was nervous to start ‘Three Cheers for The Shipyard Girls’, partly because, as with all of the readers who have loved this series, I didn’t want it to end but also because I was really apprehensive of a potentially rubbish ending spoiling the rest of the series. It’s strange to think that we (as readers) have these particular series and characters that we really love, which are a result of a particular author’s imagination, and yet we seem to have no faith whatsoever in their ability to take the stories where they need to go. I genuinely felt under pressure as I started to read Three Cheers, and was quite fraught about whether Nancy was going to do our girls justice; so I can only imagine the anxiety which the prospect of ending such a well loved series caused her! Of course, as always, she absolutely nailed it.

My prediction for ‘Three Cheers’ had been a final epilogue with a flash forward to the girls with their granddaughters at the 2020 VE day anniversary celebrations (obviously in a perfect universe where coronavirus didn’t exist), mainly so that I would get to find out where life took all of them but actually, the ending Nancy gave us far surpassed this. Really, the ending of ‘Three Cheers’ felt like a beginning, with all of the girls parting ways to embark on the next stage of their lives and all being exactly where they should be; their collective journey having been completed and now fragmenting into individual, enthtalling stories just waiting to be written. The imagination of the reader as to where our girls might end up after they’ve taken these next steps takes their journeys so much further than any author (even Nancy) could. Even as an avid SYG reader myself, I can’t specifically whittle down where I want each of the girls to go in life; so the possibilities being conjured up by the individual readers’ minds are boundless. Just imagine the fan fiction spin-offs we could end up with!

As sad as it is to know that I won’t have any more exciting anticipation of new SYG books, I will certainly be re-reading the previous ones from time to time to catch up with my old friends and reminisce of our adventures; and I don’t mind admitting I’m glad to have finally shed the anxiety of Helen and Dr Parker’s infuriatingly inconsistent ‘will they, won’t they?’ drama. And, it’s comforting to know that we’ve left each of our girls at the exact right place for them to embark on the next passage in their lives (including Miriam – if you know, you know) but, if the day ever does come for an on-screen dramatization then Nancy, you know where to find me. As a Mackem lass who grew up within spitting distance of Tatham Street, I can think of nobody more befitting of a cameo…

Recent Reading Roundup – December

The Girl Who Came Home – Hazel Gaynor


I discovered Hazel Gaynor a while ago and absolutely devoured ‘The Lighthouse Keepers Daughter’, but somehow never got around to reading any of her other work until now. Titanic is one of those events which has been told and re-told so many times, especially in the historical fiction/saga genre that it is hard to make it fresh. However, as with ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’, Hazel Gaynor has a really unique ability to take factual events and sensitively intertwine fictious plots which breathe fresh life and emotion into already familiar stories, rendering them like an entirely new plot to even the most well-read historian. The story of the Addergoole Fourteen is one I’d strangely never come across despite (like everyone) having seen umpteen films, documentaries and novels about Titanic; and again Hazel Gaynor strikes the almost impossible balance between respecting the real-life characters’ personal journeys and adding her own creative flair to fill in the blanks which history has left and enrich their stories for the reader. I will certainly be making my way through more of her back catalogue when time allows!

Suffragette Girl – Margaret Dickinson


Obviously I love historical sagas and all things feminism, so there was no way I could have walked past this when I saw it in my local library. I will admit that I was initially taken aback by the prologue taking place in the 1930’s, and a bit confused as to how it could possibly link to pre-WW1 suffrage, but the plot was so multi-faceted that, before I knew it, I was following the characters into the 1920s and still wanting to know more about where their journey would take me. I did find the pacing a little bit fast for my taste, but this didn’t occur at the expense of any individual character development, I just would’ve enjoyed delving deeper into the shorter term milestones of the characters’ lives rather than skipping to bigger events which take place many years apart. That said, I do think this story had enough layers to it that it could have been a two, or potentially even three, part saga as it has definitely left me wanting more – which I suppose is the mark of any great story!

Skipping Christmas – John Grisham


On the hunt for some more specifically festive reads which don’t include a single woman finding love where she least expects it in a country village over Christmas after having her heart broken in the big city, and as a fan of ‘Christmas with the Kranks’, I was very much looking forward to this. As a footnote to that last point, there’s nothing at all wrong with chick-lit, I love chick-lit, I just don’t personally love Christmas chick-lit. I find good, standalone, Christmas stories quite difficult to find if I’m honest – Dickens really has the market on that one doesn’t he? Anyway, I did the strange and taboo thing of reading the book version after being familiar with the film, but in my defence it was only recently that I was made aware that this story was a book first. I was a little bit disappointed that some scenes and even dialogue were word for word the same as the film version, but then again I complain if “film versions” differ even slightly from books I’ve enjoyed so I suppose there was no winning either way in this scenario. I did however really enjoy the difference in Nora and Luther Krank from the “film version”. If I’m honest, the book makes a little bit more sense and the plot is more believable than the film – Nora in the film never seemed very sold by the whole scheme and I never quite understood why she got on board in the first place, but I found the Kranks’ literary counterparts much more united and a little bit more likeable in that sense; I was really rooting for them to have their Christmas-free holiday whereas in the film I always find the portrayal much closer to the stereotypical “grinch” dad and overly festive, motherly housewife. A testament to why the “book version” is literally always better.

Blog Tour – The Miner’s Lass

“Polly’s words about her never accounting to anything made her blood boil. She didn’t know how, not yet, but she vowed to herself that one day she would prove the woman wrong.”

Having my annual trip to Glenda Young’s dramatic yet enchanting world of Ryhope Village in 1919, I wondered what most saga fans do when they come across another story from the same context…how much further can she really go with this? What can she give us that we haven’t already seen? Well, once again, my ponderings became immediately redundant.

As with its predecessors, of course there were many aspects of ‘The Miner’s Lass’ which continue to set Glenda Young’s stories apart from others of this genre, but the element which really jumped out for me, more so than anything else, was the sensitive, poignant and yet contextually appropriate depiction of mental health issues. Coal mining is such a fundamental part of the North East heritage that it is often romanticised in novels of this kind, but Glenda wasn’t afraid to shy away from this by depicting the harsh reality which accompanied this profession for probably the majority of those who experienced it. The account of Michael’s first day down the pit, and the subsequent impact which it continued to have on him, was so moving that I wanted to jump right into the pages to give him a huge hug and tell him that everything would be alright. Similarly, Mary’s experience of depression was framed through the context of 1919 Ryhope, wherein the collective understanding of such issues was of course very narrow and the prospect of appropriate treatment for a working class woman was essentially non-existent, but it was written so sensitively that it could easily have been lifted from a contemporary story, or even real life in 2021. Balancing the ignorance and misconceptions of this time period with a need to portray these issues in an empathetic way cannot have been an easy task, but Glenda Young managed it seamlessly with her unique and heartfelt ability to make a reader really ‘feel’ the characters’ journeys.

“Maybe a little bit of madness runs in us all. The trick is not to let it overwhelm us.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Glenda Young saga novel without our headstrong heroine having hurdles metaphorically thrown at her every few chapters, but, (without spoiling any twists for anyone who hasn’t read this book yet), I was really struck by the potential conflict and betrayal between Ruby and one of her closest friends. The feminist overtones of Glenda’s previous saga novels (and indeed this one) have always been so fierce that it was an intriguing change to come across conflict between some of our hardy, independent Ryhope lasses. Again, one of the things I love so much about Glenda Young’s sagas is that, although the attention to historical detail is so meticulous that you can almost smell the coal dust emanating from the pages, the plot elements are always so universally human that the reader feels as though the characters are people from our own lives.

“Whatever happens, we’ll get through it. We’re Dinsdale women, we’re strong.”

It was also an interesting change of pace to have a romantic lead who, quite frankly, made my skin crawl; and also that of the majority of the other characters except our protagonist. Again, I never like to spoil plot twists for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but fear not, our latest heroine isn’t fooled for long – Glenda’s team of fearless females never are ones to be fooled twice, they’re far too intuitive and headstrong for that. Although that scene with the bath tub will live rent-free in my mind for a while; I heard inklings about that particular moment a while ago from Glenda’s twitter and all I will say is that it did not disappoint! Fear not, confused reader, you will know when you get to it!

So, we’re six stories deep into Glenda Young’s Ryhope saga novels, but rest assured, things are far from getting boring. In fact, it seems as though every time she graces us with another exciting installment, I find myself feeling less satisfied and only hungrier for more drama and heartache; so once again I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next. And I’m still waiting for her to announce a spin-off wherein all of her strong Ryhope heroines unite like ‘The Avengers’ in some epic finale to this enthralling collection of novels.

Recent Reading Roundup

Having taken a somewhat unplanned maternity leave from blogging, the pressure around what my first post in about 6 months should be about has felt pretty intense. As with many other difficult periods in life, reading is the only thing which has kept me somewhat sane over the past few months, and mastering the art of holding a paperback in one hand with my napping baby balanced on the opposite arm was a total game-changer. So, having binge-read my way through at least half of my local library’s stock, I started to get a backlog of books I wanted to rave about; but every time I started to get into something approaching a normal routine, my baby would hit another milestone and send everything haywire. If you know, you KNOW. To ease myself and my sleep-deprived brain back into blogging, the easiest thing seemed to be to bullet point the highlights of my recent reads, although being concise is not one of my strongest qualities, as anyone who follows this blog will know; so I will try my best to keep it snappy.

Letters On Motherhood – Giovanna Fletcher. I love everything Giovanna Fletcher does, from her You Tube to her podcast, fiction and non-fiction I devour it all, and two weeks after becoming a mother myself, this seemed like the perfect read. But, if you want my brutally honest opinion? It was lovely to read in the newborn bubble; full of heartfelt and emotive reflections on past moments of motherhood and those yet to come, I was cradling my bundle of joy and planning all the sentimental letters I would write to him about this wonderful time together. However, just after I began this read, my partner went back to work and the reality of colic, reflux, eczema and sleep regression set in. In a nutshell – can be enjoyed by anyone not currently experiencing what my perinatal mental health worker calls “the fog” (sometimes also aptly referred to as “the storm” by other professionals). I’d recommend this whilst in the newborn bubble or once one’s child(ren) are pretty much self sufficient, but whilst riding the storm, to be honest, it’s as fluffy as an NCT course or a Fairy washing powder advert and overly romanticised the utter hell of those early days in the same way the concept of “the blitz spirit” must infuriate anyone who actually lived through that nightmare. Sorry Giovanna! (In her defence, I found “Happy Mum, Happy Baby” much more realistic and relatable).

The Midnight Library and How to Stop Time – Matt Haig. My edgy, former teenage self is reeling that I chose a book based on its currently high level of commercial popularity, but sometimes there is a good reason as to why things are popular. I am not usually one for reading books with abstract or magical elements, they’re often a bit too wishy washy for me, but both of these concepts were too intriguing not to explore. I loved the honest and unfiltered depictions of mental health in ‘The Midnight Library’, and wondering what might have been is such a fundamentally human element of everyone’s psyche that we can all relate to Nora’s journey, but Matt Haig manages to balance out the darker themes with a wonderfully optimistic ending which I’m still reflecting on a couple of months later. I then read ‘How to Stop Time’ off the back of how much I enjoyed The Midnight Library and again was intrigued by the concept. I love a historical fiction novel, obviously, but seeing a character experience so many different contexts within one journey is such a unique way of framing this, and raised the age old question of nature v nurture – who would any of us be if we lived in different time periods and cultures? Are we universally ourselves or products of our environment? Again, it’s been two months and I still don’t know.

The Munitions Girls series – Rosie Archer. Again, we know I love a historical saga, and this was one I hadn’t got round to reading yet, even though I have enjoyed a lot of her standalone novels. I was surprised to learn that this series was only in four parts, since the amount of different characters which Rosie Archer juggles throughout the plots is crazy, and yet is still able to provide enough rich detail to ensure the reader is fully invested in each character’s personal journey. The plot moved very fast, and it’s impressive how far she was able to take each character’s journey in just four installments, but it never felt rushed or skimmed over at any point, nor were any of the more rich or emotive aspects of the plots spared. That must have been a really difficult balance for the author to strike, but I’d absolutely recommend this series for any saga lover wanting a quick and exciting binge without sacrificing the depth of plot, emotive themes and character development.

Christmas with the Bobby Girls – Johanna Bell. I have followed this series since it first came out, but I somehow got waylaid in pursuing it. When my local library received its first copy of this book, of course I was at the top of the waiting list (also the thrill of being the first person to check out a book was one I didn’t know I needed). I do love that this saga seems to shift focus between different primary characters in each installment, so although the overall passage of contextual time in the story isn’t particularly rapid, the reader’s interest is still gripped by the stark differences in the characters’ lives and journeys as they intertwine with one another. I definitely need to read the most recent installment of this saga, and will be doing so as soon as my baby allows me to have more than 1 hour of sleep in a twenty four hour period!

Blog Tour – The Shipyard Girls on the Home Front

“The next few months would decide the fate of the war – and thereby, the fate of humanity.”

The feeling of being at the tipping point of a totally unprecedented moment in history, where the efforts made not just by those on the front lines but by all of us at home too, could essentially make or break whether the hardship will end successfully or continue for goodness only knows how long; is something which will resonate with anyone who reads the tenth installment of ‘The Shipyard Girls’ in real time of its release. Life often has a funny way of imitating art, and although I would like to think our world leaders are all ‘Shipyard Girls’ enthusiasts too, it’s probably more likely that this is a happy coincidence; or Nancy Revell has a crystal ball. Every book in this series has a multitude of themes and sub-plots, but the overarching theme within ‘On The Home Front’ is sacrifice, which, reading whilst I’m sat at home, having not seen family or friends in months, wearing a mask just to step outside of my front door and wondering if my hair will ever be a normal length again; felt quite poignant. Surely if our old friends from Thompson’s Shipyard are still putting the graft in, day in day out and in all weather conditions to do their bit in the fight against global fascism, often without any hope or assurance that it will end successfully, if at all, then we can do our bit on our ‘home front’ against the pandemic; by staying snuggled up indoors with a good book. As inspiring as our Shipyard Girls are, I know which ‘home front’ I’d rather be on – so thanks for giving us another great story to make that a bit easier, Nancy.

So, we’re ten books in and are still getting to know new characters; which must be quite the juggling act for Nancy Revell. I often imagine she must have an entire wall in her house covered in photos of all the different characters, with string and notes pinned in between which join and inter-connect their stories; like the briefing room on a really good police drama. Having said that, to anyone who is new to this saga, don’t let that put you off starting it. I’m a stickler for reading sagas in the correct order, but the characters in this series are created and written with so much love and detail that I do firmly believe a reader could pick up any ‘Shipyard Girls’ book and become fully immersed in the story straight away. Their rich back stories and carefully orchestrated interactions with one other allow the characters to tell more of their story in a few short lines than any summary or spoiler ever could; so even though Bobby is somewhat of a fresh face (aside from being referenced third hand by other characters previously), as always it only took a couple of pages for him to become part of the furniture.

I must admit, I wasn’t initially sure whether I really liked Bobby, but as Nancy Revell drip fed me more and more of his feelings and perceptions around significant events which us familiar ‘Shipyard Girls’ readers already knew inside out, it definitely made me look at Gloria’s long since buried back-story from another angle. Despite being a bit frustrating for the reader who has become a bit spoiled by happy endings in this saga, Bobby’s reaction to Gloria’s story was told very bravely and sensitively. Within my day job I work with a lot of people who have had similar experiences to Gloria and her boys, and as lovely as it would have been to have a rosy family reunion where all past evils are forgotten and made right by the promise of a better future, in reality the process of moving past something like that is usually quite messy and fraught with even more conflict and resentment. It would have been easy for the author to put a wholesome glow over this whole sub-plot, but she bravely gave a more ‘warts and all’ interpretation, which I’m sure will resonate with many people who may read it.

“‘Love!’ Dorothy put both hands on her chest. ‘There is to be a lot of love this year! I can feel it in my bones.'”

Of course, this being a ‘Shipyard Girls’ book, the path to true love, in whichever form that takes, continues to be anything but straightforward. We may now only be two more books away from the finale, but that evidently doesn’t mean the drama is going to slow down. I am usually a binge-reader of this series, but ‘On The Home Front’ was the first instalment I’ve read which I had to put down for my own well being. Granted, I am significantly more hormonal than usual these days, but the rollercoaster of emotions within the whole D-Day chapter did get a bit too much, especially after Rosie and Gloria’s brief interaction at the bar where they simply admitted to not being alright; which served as a moving reminder that the joyous success of D-Day, and the war itself, didn’t come without sacrifice. The statistics of fatalities throughout the War are something which can never really resonate for those who read them; numbers on a page are just that, but it’s the thoughtful re-telling of these personal stories, despite being fictional, which preserve the personal struggles felt by so many people throughout those tremendously difficult years.

Speaking of binge-reading, I did also commit a cardinal reading sin when I was about two thirds of the way through ‘On The Home Front’. My baffled husband looked out of the corner of his eye to me frantically thumbing through the pages ahead with a determined look and asked what on Earth I was doing; to which my response was something like “I need to know if he’s alright after this, I need to know what I’m getting into before I continue!” To which he said “can’t you just read it?”. Of course I could have simply read the book at a normal rate, but I felt the need to emotionally prepare. Once I found the reassurance I needed, I snuggled back down into the duvet and continued happily. Until the next evening. Being a ‘Shipyard Girls’ book, of course there are still plot twists at every turn; and so the smugness I felt at having spoiled some perfectly good tension building for myself by skipping ahead for reassurance, was quickly wiped away when Nancy Revell threw another unexpected twist at me. I certainly deserved it, but I was furious. I don’t mean to speak (or write) in riddles, but I don’t like to spoil these things for anyone who hasn’t already read this, however if I simply mention the foreshadowing of the aeroplane having done this journey umpteen times without issue, anyone who has read it will know what I mean. It was with the same smugness that they said the Titanic was unsinkable; so I really should’ve seen that one coming.

Still, if we’re ten books in and I’m still finding the plots to be unpredictable, then this is absolutely not a bad thing. Just, maddeningly frustrating at times – but I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m sure all you other ‘Shipyard Girls’ enthusiasts would agree!

Blog Tour – The Paper Mill Girl

“If she wanted to protect her family, she had to make an impossible choice.”

A young girl living in an already difficult situation is faced with an even bigger challenge and must find strength she didn’t know she had to overcome said challenge; then ultimately comes out on top and with her dream man in tow? Saga readers like myself do like to think we have it all worked out, don’t we? But, as with its equally exciting predecessors, Glenda Young has once again blown all of those pre-conceived assumptions out of our minds like a gale swirling around the pier of Hendon Beach with her latest novel ‘The Paper Mill Girl’, and its fiercely independent heroine Ruth Hardy.

That said, Ruth’s mission to navigate almost Dickensian conditions which just seem to get periodically harder as more and more obstacles present themselves, with no real hope or guarantee of when things will get better made for an incredibly humbling read. Of course I don’t mean to say that ‘The Paper Mill Girl’ is depressing and will leave you feeling like this poor girl could never catch a break in life, but her inspiring story just became that bit more thought provoking through reading it in a time when we really don’t know when we’ll be coming out of the horrible situation that we’ve all found ourselves in for the past year; and yet all we seem to do is complain and dwell on the awful sides of it, whilst the Ruth Hardys of the world are simply putting on their tattered old boots, lifting their skirts and putting one foot in front of the other with no solid hope or reassurance that things will get better. In a nutshell – I felt a bit crap reading about her incredible and inspiring story on a Saturday afternoon in my warm house whilst feeling bitter about how long it’s been since I could go shopping and get an overpriced latte from a coffee chain.

“You’re an angel, Ruth Hardy. You know that? You care for everyone else and take nothing for yourself. I don’t know how you do it.”

Obviously Ruth’s story is fictional, but no doubt inspired by the real tales of so many women from a time period which is largely overlooked by the history books, and as with all of Glenda Young’s stories, was so well researched that it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it turned out there really had been a real life woman who had this, or an extremely similar story to tell. I actually grew up near the old Hendon Paper Mill, and went to school just around the corner from where it stood, but am embarrassed to admit that I had to have a little google of where it actually stood and how long it had been in operation. I was aware of it to an extent, but unlike Sunderland’s more dominant industries like the mines and shipyards, the paper mill has largely been lost to the history books like a battered old toy forgotten at the back of a cupboard. That is, until Glenda Young obviously came along, realised the potential for so many amazing stories which have been sitting in the back of a metaphorical cupboard and breathed new life into this largely forgotten part of our Mackem history. (Google that phrase if you’re not from the North East).

Of course it wouldn’t be a saga novel without some romance weaved in between Ruth’s overarching endeavours, but once again Glenda Young has left the ‘know it all’ saga readers such as myself perplexed, intrigued and sometimes a bit angry through the twists and turns in Ruth’s relationship with the charming but, at times somewhat disappointing, Mick Carson. I really try not to spoil the plot for anyone in these reviews, but I must say I was bloomin’ furious when he started being a bit of a, well, a bit of a bloke really! Fictional leading men aren’t supposed to be useless – we have real life men to provide us with disappointment and we read books to escape and dream about men who don’t sometimes say the wrong thing or get intimidated by our fearlessness and let us down.

“Love seemed to have a nasty way of making itself felt in hurt and despair.”

But, I’ve said before how I love Glenda Young’s stories in particular because they don’t follow the typical reassuring plot themes of some other historical saga novels; and the relationship between Ruth and Mick definitely kept me on my toes as I turned the pages and had genuinely no idea as to how it was going to pan out. Again, as with all of Glenda Young’s wonderful novels however, it was apparent throughout ‘The Paper Mill Girl’ that she really knew Ruth inside out, and so graced her readership with the ending that she and the other characters deserved, without falling into the trap of being a sickeningly perfect romantic reconciliation which we all saw coming from chapter one. I have no doubt that it would’ve been easier to write a consistently perfect romantic hero, but as many of us know that’s very rarely how it goes in real life. The perfectly imperfect, human nature of Glenda Young’s characters are what keeps her readership hooked, and we come back time and time again as we know she will always take us on a journey through unexpected twists and turns which challenge both our beloved characters and our assumptions; always leading to a surprising yet perfectly fitting and thought provoking ending. After all, the path to true love never did run smooth did it?

Positives of a Pandemic Pregnancy

I thought a lot about the content of this post, and initially really wanted to write the whole thing about how being pregnant in the current situation is great, and something to be celebrated because I am getting really fed up of seeing article after article circulating about how awful it is being pregnant or having a new baby in the pandemic. But, it then occurred to me that trying to preach the message that being pregnant at the moment is exclusively positive would be just as biased and one-sided as the articles which I’m trying to counteract. Plus, it really felt like it would be disloyal to the mothers who had their babies in early lockdown – you guys are such troopers. Going to scans alone, missing out on all the mum and baby classes, spending maternity leave in the house and even giving birth without a partner in some cases are all horrible things which I’m beyond thankful that I am largely unlikely to experience. However, in amongst all that doom and gloom, I really feel it’s important to say that there are some positives to being pregnant within the current situation, and they don’t seem to be getting mentioned anywhere. So, without further ado and in an attempt to counterbalance some of the doom and gloom articles, I’ve compiled a list of the things I’m really loving about being pregnant in these strange times.

No creepy tummy-touchers.
All of the articles and magazines I’m reading say that around this point in my pregnancy (bump just starting to become clearly ‘baby’ and not ‘carb-heavy lunch’), people will start doing the unwelcome tummy grabs. I don’t like being touched at the best of times; even before social distancing existed I was the furthest thing from the office ‘hugger’, so the non-consensual tummy grabs were something I was really dreading. But, nobody is able to come close enough to do it – crisis averted!

Less pressure to tell people
I’ve written previously about how there really shouldn’t be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ time to announce your pregnancy; when you and your partner feel like it is the best time in my eyes. But, for those who perhaps do want to wait until a certain point for whatever reason, that must be a total minefield within normal life. I had a spa day booked for very early into my first trimester and did wonder how I was going to get around not having the bubbly, a massage or the hot tub – i.e. the only reasons for one going to a spa in the first place; but the second lockdown hit just before then so it was cancelled anyway! Having to pretend my lemonade had gin in it at social functions or trying to conceal the fact I was sweating constantly and didn’t want to eat any particularly strong-flavoured foods would have been really hard to navigate under ‘normal’ circumstances.

More time to relax at home
I’m in the extremely fortunate position of being able to work from home, which I know it not everyone’s situation and to those pregnant women still working on the front lines – you’re seriously all effing heroes. But, it’s no secret that generally, regardless of our personal circumstances, we’re all having more time at home. Trips out on our days off are a no-no, so we have no choice but to rest at home which, as any person who has experienced pregnancy will know, sometimes that’s the dream. Of course like everyone I have days where I want to be out for lunch with friends, at the cinema or whatever else I might fancy doing, but on the days when my hips are killing, my sciatica is playing up and I feel really tired, being able to laze at home and nap in the middle of the day if I need to is just the best; and we get to do that without feeling guilty about letting people down or not being productive.

Less unsolicited advice
None of us are immune to this, but with this being the first baby for both myself and my husband, I really was gearing up for more of the ‘you must buy this’ or ‘I hope you aren’t doing x, y and z’ and ‘why are you going to the gym? You should be sitting on a cushion and wrapped in bubble wrap for nine months’. Of course I’ve had some of that, no matter how well meaning your family and friends may be, unsolicited advice is an inevitability of pregnancy. However, it’s quite difficult to randomly text or message someone a piece of advice – almost as if it’s generally a rude thing to do (has the pandemic made these people self aware of their own rudeness? Praise be!), so the lack of face to face chit-chat over a coffee with friends or in the office at lunchtime has definitely filtered most of this out. And, the beauty of texts/messages are that you can just ignore them!

Less colds/flu
Obviously, the risk of infection of one particular illness is very much on everyone’s mind; especially pregnant women and new mums who are conscious of the weakened immune systems of themselves and their new babies, but there are countless articles coming out on how the transmission rates of cold and flu have dropped massively over the last year. I personally get a cold if someone sneezes within a three mile radius, so having pregnancy weaken my immune system even further definitely worried me. The idea of battling colds and flu when I can’t take anything much stronger than a Berocca was quite frightening. But, in a lot of ways, I weirdly feel safer now – most people are in masks and everything is massively clean and sterile which is paradoxically quite reassuring if you just ignore the big horrible scary reason why we’ve all suddenly upped our hand washing and anti-bacterial-ing of things.

I’m writing this in the immediate aftermath of Boris’ announcement to the U.K. about our roadmap out of lockdown. I’m not going to comment on my personal views around the logistics of this plan, because I want my blog to be a happy place and at the moment, politics really has no legitimate place within that, but I must confess that I felt a slight disappointment to learnt that restrictions are (theoretically) going to be fully lifted right around my estimated due date. Does that make me a horrible person? I am planning on taking the golden advice of ‘a week in bed and a week on the sofa’ once baby comes so I can speed up recovery and really make the most of my husband’s short paternity leave so we can bond as a family of three, and covid restrictions really would have played nicely into that. Of course I do want my baby to get to know my family and friends, but for those initial weeks where I really just want to be a bit selfish and have privacy for us to recover and find our feet as a new family, I was so looking forward to not having to have the ‘no visitors, please’ conversation with everyone. Still, we complain when we’re in lockdown and we complain when we’re out of it – I suppose I could always get away with blaming hormones if people think I’m being an antisocial bitch when baby comes and I refuse to answer the door?

New Year, New Topics – To Tell or Not to Tell?

Ugh. I feel like I start every form of communication with other people with some variation of that noise now. I had planned to finish last year with some Christmas themed blogs and maybe some more book reviews, but between being a key worker and not being able to do anything remotely fun or enjoyable when I wasn’t at work (bloody Covid); I really found myself struggling to think of content which would be even remotely positive. Despite being a huge pessimist in my day-to-day life, I’ve always tried to make blog content positive, because who wants to read a load of negative waffle? We have the news for that. But then again, trying to find positivity in the current climate isn’t always the easiest, and so I let my blog fall into a state of neglect not dissimilar to Cair Paravel at the start of ‘Prince Caspian’ – forgotten for what feels like a thousand years. So, I’m going to try and breathe some new life into this site, and sometimes a change is as good as a rest, so I thought I’d give some new content a try. (Disclaimer, book reviews and all things literary will still continue as normal, I’m reading for another blog tour as we speak, so please don’t run away, little booklings – you can just skip past this crap if it’s not for you!)

Having said all of this, I now look like a total ungrateful so-and-so for saying I was struggling to think of positive things to talk about for three months, because whilst I was writing my last post I received the wonderful news that I’m pregnant! Not literally – I don’t generally blog on the loo. Not least of all because my laptop isn’t insured against water damage, but hopefully you get the point. The idea of a pregnancy blog seemed appealing initially, but then I became quite hesitant because, well, there are already so many of those out there that straying into more than one or two can feel like getting lost in a car dealership – so many technical terms that I don’t understand, everything looks basically the same and someone is always trying to sell me some inexplicable and confusing product which will allegedly change my life. And the further I looked into it, the more it seemed like you have to pick a side when it comes to pregnancy/mummy blogs. Essentially, you’re either a bit crap and proud of it (aka the ‘real’ mums), or you’re a Mary Poppins type who has a storage solution for everything, a perfectly tidy, middle-class home and can turn any household object into a wonderfully educational activity for the whole family (aka the ‘Instagram’ mums). What if we want to be a bit in the middle? Some days I eat in excess of my five a day and manage to save £70 on the must-have breast pump whilst out for a power walk (my proudest moment yet), and other days I eat cookie dough and Doritos instead of my evening meal. I swing between both ‘mummy’ camps, sometimes multiple times in one day, and if that’s not marketable, then that’s fine.

There are a lot of divisive topics in all things pregnancy and baby, so I’m going to try my very hardest not to fall into those controversial rabbit holes, and nor do I profess to be any kind of expert – I’m muddling through with remote midwife appointments and absolutely no face to face antenatal classes, so if anything the ‘class of 2021’ mums are going to be even less prepared than those who ventured before us. But, all I can offer is my own experience, and hopefully it doesn’t offend anyone.

The decision about who and when to tell about a pregnancy is something which I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to. I’m now comfortably into my second trimester and only made the first reference to it on social media yesterday. I thought about keeping my pregnancy off social media entirely, and absolutely see the benefits of that, but ultimately it just felt like the right moment for me to address it, and I didn’t want to be ducking out of photos in months to come when things get a bit harder to hide (we’re still very much in big-jumper weather and just had Christmas, so I don’t think anyone had really questioned my slightly thicker middle yet!). I certainly wasn’t in a hurry to do a big showy announcement; not that there is anything wrong with celebrating your news in that way, but having spent a year feeling horribly bitter and resentful every time I saw yet another beaming couple holding the standard ultrasound photo and thinking ‘for f-‘s sake, they probably weren’t even trying!’ I felt a strange sense of loyalty to my past self and everyone who might still be experiencing those feelings. As if, somehow, by finally getting pregnant after that monthly vicious circle of hoping, allowing myself to wonder and then feeling a crushing disappointment, I’d sold out and abandoned all my previous loyalties, which, is utterly ridiculous.

So conflicted I was by this, that I really didn’t know how or when to tell my friends and family. Of course I told my husband straight away, possibly too soon actually, as he was just parking his van up at work and noticed a barrage of calls from me. He has since admitted that he spent the rest of that day unable to concentrate on anything at all! I actually saw two separate friends that same day and was so worried that I would end up blurting it out by accident; I was convinced that they could tell straight away, but I’ve since been assured that my poker face is better than I previously thought. There is a dominant school of thought that you should wait until after 12 weeks to tell people about a pregnancy, because of risks around miscarriage, which I was quite aware of but wasn’t sure if I could hold out quite that long. But, my husband and I agreed that there was some merit to waiting at least a few weeks “just in case”. I still don’t know what our “just in case” logic was really about, because I now know that there’s no way to really confirm an unborn baby’s health until you have a scan (usually at 12 weeks), but it seemed the sensible thing to do. Unfortunately, as 1 in 4 women sadly know, sometimes not telling people inadvertently makes things harder later down the line, for the exact same reason why many people choose not to tell anyone.

I have absolutely no desire to turn this into a cry for sympathy because, as horrible as that feeling was, I am fortunate enough to now be in my second trimester and in possession of several photos of a blurry, yet very active little baby. I have a lovely group of friends, but one in particular is my ‘in sickness and in health’ or, more accurately, ‘in my worst, most reckless decisions and in my sensible and proud ones’ go-to person. So, having woken up a few days after seeing that little blue + sign (and four other versions of it – we wanted to be properly sure), to what looked like a nose bleed but from an entirely different orifice, I knew there was only one person who could realistically calm me down and say something helpful. Of course I told my husband straight away, but it’s quite difficult for the person who is in that situation with you to really provide reassurance; because they’re just as clueless and panicked as you are. This particular friend is no longer phased by my ‘call me right now, something has happened’ messages, nor is she surprised by their totally random subject matter any more (that’s what eleven years of speaking daily does for a friendship), but having the ‘I think I’m losing the baby you had no idea I was having’ conversation frankly just added a totally unnecessary level of complexity and confusion to an already awful situation. Backtracking to explain when I had found out, and how far along I now was, although this was necessary to provide context, was an aspect of that conversation which anyone would naturally prefer to leave out.

Again, the last thing I want is to make this into a sob-story, because despite an agonising few days, an emergency scan with some absolutely wonderful and supportive NHS staff the following week all but erased this awful chapter from our story. But, I certainly would not have made it through those few days without having another person who was entirely separate to the situation to speak to. I spent the last evening before I was allowed to re-test at her house drinking tea in total silence, but I will never be able to thank her enough for that. My husband made the decision not to tell anyone in his circles about it until after our minds were put at rest, which I completely respect and understand – everyone is different after all and there is no right or wrong way to deal with such an awful situation. However, it would be a lie to say that his decision didn’t take a toll whilst he was in the midst of it.

I’ll never know what my next step would have been if things hadn’t had a happy ending for us; maybe I would never have discussed it with anyone, and my husband, friend and I may have taken it to our graves. Or, I might have told my nearest and dearest when the time was right. As of right now, I’m incredibly lucky that I didn’t have to make that decision this time, but all I would say to anyone in those early ‘to tell or not to tell’ weeks, is that having even just one person who was separate to the situation to share the load and distract me at the necessary moments, was probably the only thing which allowed me to put one foot in front of the other when I needed to walk into that emergency scan.

As a footnote, having just proof-read this post, it definitely reads more negative and doom and gloom than I had intended. I feel the need to again add that I am now well into my second trimester and experiencing a wonderful, healthy pregnancy. My first trimester was, despite this obvious setback, on the whole pretty straightforward and nowhere near as horrible as some people’s are. So I do feel very fortunate for all of this; and to those 1 in 4 women, you all deserve a medal at the very least. As awful as it was to have a scare and those few days of uncertainty, I still had hope in the back of my mind that nothing was certain. For those who aren’t so lucky, you all deserve the world and more, seriously.

https://www.tommys.org/get-involved/campaigns/tell-me-why

Tommys’ ‘Tell Me Why’ campaign has a great deal of support and advice available for anyone affected by pregnancy and baby loss.