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.

Blog Tour – ‘A Christmas Wedding’

As with the popular groups in secondary school, ‘The Liberty Girls’ is a series which I have admired from afar for a while now, but never actually been included in. Of course, the difference with literary girl squads is that you only have to purchase (or loan, in a simpler time when libraries were open), a copy to welcomed into their inner circle with open arms. If only everything in life were this simple. Anyway, so there I was, thrilled to have been invited to metaphorically sit at the popular girls’ table, but simultaneously nervous about being the last person to arrive at the party. I’m a stickler for being methodical, so the idea of starting a new saga in the final instalment simply wasn’t sitting well with me. However, it’s a testament to Fiona Ford’s writing that, within a couple of chapters, all my anxieties had been alleviated and I felt like I’d been one of the gang the whole time. If anything, it might have made the story even more enjoyable, as the troublesome thing with sagas is that sometimes, when you’ve read all of the previous instalments, you become so familiar with the characters that you’re able to predict their next move, which can take away some of the suspense. In this case however, I had no pre-conceived ideas about any of the characters or where the story was likely to take me next, so every twist and turn of the plot was that bit more intriguing and kept me from being able to stop reading.

Taking place between London and Devon, ‘A Christmas Wedding’ takes the feisty and fearless ‘Liberty Girls’ on ever-twisting and yet intertwined journeys as their saga comes to an emotional conclusion. My anxieties about having not read the previous instalments of this saga were alleviated even more through the introduction of new recruit Brenda, who has an intriguing yet closely-guarded past. I was able to break into the already tight-knit cluster of main characters and familiarise myself with their rich histories through her induction into the group. As with any great saga or even standalone story, the fiercely independent ‘Liberty Girls’ share unbreakable bonds which are felt by the reader immediately, and are no doubt a result of a complex history of collective tears, laughter and perseverance; all of which is hinted towards throughout, which has left me wanting to back-track and find out more about the events which led to this nail-biting finale.

“Everyone knows it’s women what really run things, but whether menfolk’ll feel the same way whenever they come home once this blasted war is over is another matter.”

This may be an unpopular opinion, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t cause any offence or unrest among existing ‘Liberty Girls’ readers, but I must admit that it took me a while to really understand Dot’s character and her appeal. As a brusque woman myself, I should have immediately related to her character and mannerisms, but I did struggle at first to comprehend why the girls were so accepting of her somewhat harsh nature; especially in some of her behaviours towards Peter and Brenda. However, as the story progressed and more secrets were revealed about her past, I definitely warmed to her and was eventually rooting for Dot, who seems to be the fierce, mama-bear type in the group.

Something was wrong, and no matter how it distracted her from her own happiness, if one of her Liberty family was in trouble, Dot was determined to find out why.”

Dot’s relationship with Ivy and Helen in particular invoked feelings which are as warm and fuzzy as the festive final chapter, and had me misty eyed as their tragedies unfolded, yet were overcome with triumphant courage and their unbridled love and support for each other.

“She knew they could marry in a tin hut and their wedding would still be special as long as they were surrounded by so much love.”

So, with my heart sufficiently warmed and my nose phantom-smelling the aromas of pine needles and Christmas pudding, I definitely feel suitably festive now, irrespective of what a 2020 Christmas may end up looking like, and am off to make a start on my list for Santa…which definitely has the rest of the ‘Liberty Girls’ saga at the top!

Review – ‘Above Us, the Stars’

Having grandparents or other twice-removed relations who served in the War is, for ignorant Millennials such as myself, so mundane and commonplace that it is pretty much never discussed. Reading ‘Above Us, the Stars’, recently prompted me to ask my husband what his grandparents did during the War. I’ve known this man for eleven years now, and I think this is quite possibly the only thing I don’t know about him or his family, because I’d simply never thought to ask about such a run-of-the-mill topic. Having had my historical interests tickled from reading AUTS, I waited for his response with an intrigued sense of anticipation, thinking I was about to hear some heroic anecdote which had been passed down through the generations of a family which I am now part of. However, the response which followed was somewhat of a disappointment, specifically: “f*ck knows, I know my granddad went to war though”, as we continued walking the dog and the conversation quickly moved on to what we fancied for tea. ‘Went to war’. That is the legacy of a man who most likely risked life and limb, to say nothing of his emotional and mental well-being, and entered literal mortal danger to protect his family, his country and future generations; for his whole story to be entirely forgotten within just two generations of his own offspring. Not even a glimmer of recognition as to whether he was in the Army, Navy, RAF or God knows what other role? I know it’s exceptionally difficult to talk about heroes of the Second World War without someone popping up and going ‘okay, boomer’, and much as it pains my pacifist, hippy, Millennial self to admit it, my God, we are a generation characterised by completely unapologetic ignorance.

But yes, back to the writing. As with her previous book ‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ (which is also absolutely worth a read), ‘Above Us, the Stars’ takes the form of Jane Gulliford Lowes’ weird hybrid genre of non-fiction and fiction in that it reads like a fictional story but is littered with real-life accounts and factual information which helps to put the story in context and bring the characters to life. It feels a bit wrong to refer to the people in this story as ‘characters’, not least of which because (as an evening spent on Ancestry confirmed), Jack Clyde is my first cousin twice removed; thus nullifying my lifelong gripe that ‘no Clyde ever did anything remotely interesting’. As I was reading AUTS one night, my husband leaned across and uttered the question “why are you reading a book about the army? That’s not your usual tipple”, as I was squinting to focus intently on one of the more tech-y extracts which explained the types of aircraft Jack and his squadron were using and what everyone’s role was on board. I mean, I don’t even know where to start with how ridiculous that question was (disclaimer – I do love my husband, and the purpose of this post is not just to slag him off), but as I’ve said, Jane Gulliford Lowes has once again used her unique storytelling ability to breathe an exciting, fictional feel into one man’s real life story which could otherwise have easily been written off as quite ‘typical’ of his day and therefore uninteresting. Plus, even the photos on the cover make it pretty darn obvious that it’s about the RAF, not the Army, if we are going to start splitting hairs.

So, there I was, night after night, eagerly turning pages to learn more about where Jack and his family’s journey was going to go next. I will confess, I have no self control so after experiencing the anxiety of a couple of the more hairy chapters where I really wasn’t sure how his story was going to unfold, I did skip ahead to check who survives at the end. I would strongly advise against doing that, as it did take away a bit of the thrill of watching the ups and downs of this exciting journey emerge before me, however, it’s a testament to the wonderful writing of this story that I still cried at the end (and on multiple occasions throughout – I’ll never be able to hear ‘The Blaydon Races’ in the same way again). Having said that, I also wouldn’t tar AUTS with the same brush as other wartime sob-story books such as Atonement and the likes, where it’s all a bit over the top and there’s a grieving woman at home crying every night over her lost love, because the emotion of Jack’s story runs far deeper than the typical ‘he’s away from home, missing his family and sweetheart’ cliches, and the most poignant points were that Jack, and all of his mates and colleagues, were just normal young lads who were thrown into a huge responsibility which, ultimately, had them sh*t scared that they might leave in an aircraft one night and literally not come back. Sometimes, there isn’t a need to over-do a story with too many complex layers, and being able to take a fairly ‘typical’ experience shared by millions of others and render it into an emotive and epic story truly is the mark of an exceptional writer.

My own granddad (incidentally Jack Clyde’s first cousin), was born in the same year as Jack and served in the RAF at the same time, but never once spoke about it, that I can remember. I asked my parents about it once, as I think most children do when they study World War Two for the first time in primary school, and being told that he was taken off active duty to be given the grizzly job of going to the crash sites and stripping the uniforms off his dead friends so that they could be washed and re-worn by new recruits was quite grotesque enough for my seven year old self, to the point where it put me off ever asking again. But, I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until I recently spent some time cramped inside a Halifax with Jack and his crew, that I really considered why that might have been the case. So, on a personal level I would just like to thank Jane Gulliford Lowes for breathing life into a story which could easily have been buried between generations like so many others have been, and I don’t think for one second that the only reason I was so moved by Jack’s story is because of the family connection I have; I really think that anyone who turns the pages of ‘Above Us, the Stars’ will have much the same emotional response, and will hopefully consider revisiting the same stories of their own families before they end up lost forever because, if this book is anything to go by, some stories are such that they just need to be told.

Image courtesy of Jane Gulliford Lowes, 2020

Blog Tour – The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon

A fan of Glenda Young’s sagas already, I opened this latest release with much the same anticipation as I approach a roast dinner made by my Mam’s recipe, or a fluffy Victoria sponge; on the assumption that it was going to follow much the same blueprint as her previous novels, which I knew from past experience would no doubt leave me feeling warm, fuzzy, satisfied and full. Well, perhaps not ‘full’, maybe I’m taking this food metaphor a bit too seriously. But, as with the recipe for a roast dinner or a Victoria sponge which have been tried and tested through generations, if something works and produces a great result every time – why change it? However, clearly not someone to live life in her comfort zone, I hear Glenda Young shouting “challenge accepted” to her readers as she takes us through Jess Davison’s unique and turbulent journey with each turn of a page.

“The truth of her birth, of who she belonged to, was unfolding right in front of her eyes. It seemed that anything was possible now.”

So, as I returned to 1919 Ryhope on the naive assumption that I was going to be enjoying more of the same feisty female heroines overcoming secrets which were resurfacing after being long buried in their pasts, I became my own worst enemy and consistently tried to get one step ahead of the plot. “I know where this is going, she’s built drama in this context before, such and such is definitely going to happen next” I would think, smugly. However, for the first time in my life, I experienced what I presume is the sensation of being wrong (thankfully my husband doesn’t bother reading my blog, so I know this is a safe space for such an admission). Of course, Jess is every bit as feisty and fearless as her predecessors, and yes, naturally she had a lovely happy ending which drew a satisfied tear to my eye, but that’s about where the similarities to Glenda Young’s other saga novels end. Perhaps it was deliberate, in order to throw the reader off the scent, but I was initially convinced that the heroine of the story was going to be Mary, which was of course quickly forgotten when Jess’ courage and determination came storming into the story; and then flabbergasted once again when my prediction about what Mary’s role would be in the ending turned out to be completely off the mark.

Having read quite a lot of saga novels, I really thought I had this plot worked out, but Glenda Young just kept throwing curve-ball after curve-ball, which left me totally unable to put this book down. It also feels important to point out that, even if she had played it safe and kept to a pretty ‘standard’ saga plot with typical twists and a predictable ending, this author’s wonderful storytelling ability would still nonetheless have had readers gripped. But, rolling the dice and serving her readers an ending which definitely leaves food for thought in terms of Mary’s role and her character make-up, was a gamble which absolutely paid off and more. I finished this book a few days ago now, yet I’m still pondering over what my opinion is of Mary; I just can’t make up my mind about her – perhaps there’s scope for a sequel?

Clearly not satisfied with a single dose of feisty heroine in one story, I really enjoyed the author’s creation of Lena. Initially, I thought her character would serve as the unremarkable best friend who helped the plot along by being the leading lady’s confidante, but her personal journey was really heartwarming and inspiring to read, touching on an issue which is rarely given the opportunity to be addressed in novels set in this time period.

“‘Who’s to say what’s normal or odd?’ Lena said. I think a bit of madness runs in us all.”

Similarly, I first had Miss Gilbey written off as the inevitable ‘baddie’, and was skeptical about every move her character made, which just serves as further confirmation that Glenda Young is evidently not putting her feet up and settling into an easy routine of churning out novel after novel which follows the same standard formula. ‘The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon’ is proof that she can write well outside the box and put unexpected, fresh twists on what can often be a ‘safe’ and ‘samey’ genre. I, for one, am fastening my seatbelt now, in eager anticipation of whatever exciting and unpredictable ride she’s planning to take her readership on next.

Blog Tour – A Christmas Wish for the Shipyard Girls

It’s a testament to Nancy Revell’s wonderful writing that I am sitting in my garden having just finished her latest triumph, sweating in twenty-plus degree heat, with sunglasses on and sipping a pink lemonade (partying hard); yet all I want to do is put on a cosy jumper, dig out the Christmas DVD’s, and am convinced that I can smell pine needles and cinnamon. Plus, I can’t get ‘Good King Wenceslas’ out of my head. Disclaimer – sorry to ruin the magic, but I generally write ‘blog tour’ posts ahead of time, so by the time this is uploaded it’s highly likely that sunny afternoons in the garden will be a distant memory. Sincere apologies if this bursts any kind of bubble for anyone. Anyway, back to the festive celebrations with the feisty females from my favourite saga.

“Secrets could be buried, but it was inevitable that they would be dug up. It was always just a matter of time. And when they were, she wondered how forgiving the women would be.”

The intricate back-stories beneath every character within the SYG saga is something I’ve definitely touched on before, and is one of the many things which sets this series apart from others of its genre. I had always naively thought that this was simply a by-product of Nancy Revell’s captivating storytelling ability, and a means of drawing the reader further into each character’s personal story. However, ‘A Christmas Wish’ is the bridge which we loyal SYG readers had no idea we were waiting for; after eight instalments of really enjoying getting to know our characters and their personal stories, book nine has just smacked us in the face with realisation. It was all connected! Who knew? I was too busy getting a bit too emotionally involved in the overall story-line and character development to really consider where all of these back-stories and sub-plots were going. Move over, ‘Love Actually’, there’s a new feel-good, festive story with plot twists and character overlaps popping up at every page turn.

The great thing about a longer saga, aside from the intertwining plots, is that the writer has free reign to really develop the characters. I’ve said before how I couldn’t quite believe I was reaching a point where I was beginning to not quite hate Helen’s character, but at this stage I’m now actively rooting for her. I’ve always thought she gives off a bit of a Regina George vibe – vindictive and ruthless whilst at the same time beautiful and fabulous, but I’m relieved to see she is now using her powers for good; and watching her take down Mr Royce in an ongoing battle of wits in this instalment absolutely radiated the “yesssss queen!” feminist mood which the SYG saga is all about. Every time she asks Bel to get into her fabulous car, I’m half expecting her to say ‘get in loser, we’re smashing the patriarchy’. Side note – if you don’t understand ‘Mean Girls’ references, I can only assume this is your first time using the internet ever, in which case, thank you for using it to read my blog.

“‘The thing is,’ Helen said, ‘he would never have said that to my father – or my grandfather, or any other yard manager, for that matter. So why should we be any different? Just because we’re women?”

Speaking of Bel, I also thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her a bit more in this instalment. Again, the benefit of having a longer saga allows the author to give sufficient time and attention to each of the principal characters. My favourite ‘shipyard girl’ changes with each book I read, depending on who is in the spotlight at a given moment; so it was nice to spend a bit more time with Bel this time (she says, as if these women are her real-life friends). Bel’s heartache as she patiently waits to have her wish granted is addressed so sensitively, but at the same time isn’t glossed over, pussyfooted around or minimised which I really loved; this will resonate so much with a lot of women, and was a brave topic to address. The conversation between her and Helen, where Helen struggles to find the ‘right’ thing to say about it is so spot on in capturing the awkwardness of maneuvering ‘that’ question and is something which can be related to by women, and indeed men, from all eras and walks of life. That particular interaction drew me to tears, and on a personal level, I wanted to scan it and frame it to keep as a point of reference for when ‘those’ conversations arise in my own life.

As always, there are so many more things I could list which I loved about this instalment, but we really would be here all day and I don’t want to spoil it too much for those who are yet to read it. All I will say is that the usual warm fuzzy feeling of having caught up with my old, familiar friends was made all the more warmer and fuzzier by it being a festive edition. The chapter where everyone is singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ in the snow with the Salvation Army band had the smell of chestnuts and Christmas trees wafting from the pages. Inevitably, this being a ‘Shipyard Girls’ story and all, Nancy Revell has once again cruelly finished the story on another unbearable cliffhanger which has me counting down the days until book ten reaches the shelves and can hopefully provide some relief. But until then, I’m off to binge-watch some TV Christmas specials and bulk buy cinnamon scented candles…

First on the blog tour – eek! Follow @arevellwalton and @arrowpublishing on Twitter to stay tuned for some less ridiculous takes on this wonderful book!

Thoughts After ‘Midnight Sun’

Yes, it’s been quite a while since ‘Midnight Sun’ landed and rescued us all from the horrors of 2020 by mentally transporting us back to the blissful time of 2005/6. However, 768 pages is quite a lot of angst to get through, especially when one has a very demanding full time job. Sadly, ‘new book which I’m excited about leave‘, isn’t a thing; and a 768 page hardback is quite difficult to sneak under the table to read on the sly in meetings…not that I’ve ever done that…for a while. I thought about making ‘Midnight Sun’ the subject of my next review, but honestly by the time I ploughed through to the end, I had largely forgotten any significant points from the beginning or middle. Nevertheless, I did still enjoy it on the whole, and it prompted some after-thoughts which my husband and dog had no interest in listening to, but I felt the need to share somewhere – so naturally I reasoned that strangers on the internet would make the perfect listening (or reading) ears.

The experience of reading ‘Midnight Sun’ was the closest sensation I’ve had to being able to re-read a familiar book with fresh eyes, and without having to first experience some level of memory loss. I never re-read books; my late mum always said one of her biggest fears about dying was the possibility of leaving this planet without having read literally all of the books ever, and that really stuck with me. It has never made sense to me to get hung up on re-visiting the same stories when there are always so many new and exciting ones to discover, though the sad thing about reading a great book is that, even if you re-read it, you’ll never experience that same level of excitement and anticipation of unexpected plot twists and character development in the same way again. But re-telling the same story from another character’s perspective? This, I can get on board with. Despite my personal objections to Edward Cullen as an entity in himself, ‘Midnight Sun’ was the closest I’ll ever get to re-reading ‘Twilight’ for the first time, which was a special and important rite of passage for pretty much every female born in the early 90’s.

I was always very firmly ‘Team Jacob’ (and still passionately am, especially when I’m a few glasses of wine deep and watching ‘New Moon’ on Netflix); so of course I opened ‘Midnight Sun’ with a scowl and emitted very deliberate tuts at regular intervals throughout its reading, much to the irritation of my husband. But they do say to keep your enemies closer, and it has to be said that Stephanie Meyer definitely made full use of this opportunity to explain and somewhat defend Edward Cullen’s massive personal flaws. Some books will always remain classics despite some quite troubling themes, and although I seriously doubt that a generation of former mid-Noughties emo girls could ever generate sufficient hype to give the ‘Twilight’ saga anything approaching the same level of status as the universally classic, and yet equally problematic, ‘Wuthering Heights’; it was refreshing, and definitely relieving, to have the more problematic aspects of ‘Twilight’ re-visited and explained in a new light. In summary, we finally found out why Edward appears to be such a controlling d*ck throughout.

So, having seen Stephanie Meyer achieve the impossible and finally get me kind of on the side of Edward Cullen after all these years, I started to wonder (like Carrie Bradshaw), why stop there? I have no doubt that this has been a thing for a long time, and there must be a multitude of fantastic books already in circulation which have equally gripping spin-offs from the perspective of other characters, but how great would it be if this was a thing for every book we enjoyed? A quick google of this phenomenon on my post-Midnight Sun buzz uncovered some absolute dynamite book ideas which clearly other people were much quicker off the mark about writing than me. I mean, Jane Eyre from Mr Rochester’s perspective? You’re keeping your secret wife in the attic, bro, there must be another story worth telling there. Watch this space for my thoughts on that one…

Clap for Our Authors

Lockdown really was alright for a few minutes there, wasn’t it? Obviously the looming spectre of a potentially deadly virus hanging over our every move wasn’t (and still isn’t) ideal, but those first few weeks of ‘working from home’ i.e. lazing around in the sun-soaked garden while making a serious dent in my ‘to-read’ pile was ideal. Even my literature-hating husband, delighted at the prospect of three whole weeks on furlough (how naive we were), was happily spending whole afternoons with his nose in a book. But somewhere within that strange, increasingly unsettling cycle of ‘Groundhog Day’, reading, for me anyway, became less of a relaxing indulgence and more of a survival technique.

It’s a truth which is universally acknowledged that the more you do something, the less enjoyment you will ultimately take from it; I cite the great vomiting incident of 2008 as a prime example – when a six hour turbulent plane journey became the first and last time I ever chain-ate Oreos. Anyway, somewhere around mid-May, when I had exhausted all of my flour-free baking recipes and was even starting to find the ‘Tiger King’ memes less and less funny, I became increasingly reliant on books to pass the endless hours; binge reading anything I could get my hands on until I found myself at the bottom of my reading pile and experiencing what can only be described as withdrawals.

With the bookshops closed, I wiped the dust off my Kindle (never an adequate substitute for the real thing, but it always comes through for me in times of crisis) and spent hours trawling through Amazon in desperate search of a story which I could get excited about. Unfortunately, as with clothing and life partners, if you go searching for something with pre-existing standards in mind, you’ll never be able to find the ‘right one’. So, by June I was reading what can only be politely described as ‘any old rubbish’. As has been made abundantly clear by the general content of this blog, the only thing which excites me as much as reading books is writing about books; but, I’m also a firm believer that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all – especially on the already-cruel place that is the Internet. I would never name and shame books that I didn’t enjoy, not least because it’s just not very nice, but also just because one person doesn’t ‘get’ someone’s writing, I find, generally has no bearing on whether anyone else will; so what would the point be in being rude?

Having said that, even when I was in a lockdown-induced rut of reading things that weren’t really exciting me, books remained the perfect escapism. Obviously, us book-nerds knew that already, but in the midst of new film releases being postponed and production of new TV shows or series being halted, books became one of the few joys which hadn’t been cancelled. I may have missed out on travelling for my honeymoon this year (for the second time, thanks Covid AND Thomas Cook), but no pandemic or financial crisis could stop me from flipping through the pages of a book and allowing the author to take me into another world. We’ve clapped for our key workers (rightly so) for keeping us safe, praised (and subsequently cursed) Joe Wicks for making us realise how unfit we all are and praised the TV networks for uploading our favourite throwbacks (yes, I binged ‘My Family’ and ‘Big Brother’s Best Bits’ because I love a bit of nostalgia). But, at no point do we seem to have acknowledged our authors. Books have remained a constant; their releases have still largely gone ahead (albeit without signings), and well-written stories will always continue to be there to take us away from all the horribleness and transport us to somewhere new and exciting. So, to the world’s authors, I just want to say thank you – for continuing to create inspirational characters, thrilling plots and enchanting settings from within your lockdown workspaces, which are always there to whisk us away from the awfulness to somewhere wonderful, with the simple ease of turning a page.