Childhood Literary Heroes

Like a lot of book lovers (and most daughters of English Literature teachers), my love of reading began very early in life. And after recently reading The Librarian, which follows a children’s librarian as she introduces sheltered village children to the exciting world of books, it got me thinking about the books I loved while growing up. However, listing all the books I loved as a child would take several days and spill over multiple posts (clearly I wasn’t a very social child), so instead I decided to pick out some key characters who became personal heroes because, realistically, you cannot have a great book if it doesn’t include great characters.

#1 – Pippi Longstocking

Okay so I’m cheating a little bit on this one because I never physically sat down and read any of this series, but I had the audio versions of all of them on cassette (showing my age slightly here), which I listened to until the tape wore out so the sound became grainy and the tape became knotted. I was in absolute awe of Pippi; how independent she is by living in her own house, as well as how confident and self assured she is in everything she does. I desperately wanted to live in my own house like her – I used to daydream about it all the time, to the point where I started using the decrepit, mouldy old Victorian outhouse of my parents’ home as my ‘house’, where I would sit and fantasise about what it would be like to sail the high seas with Pippi and her father.

All great book characters should be people we aspire to be like, and I wanted to be Pippi so much that I dressed up as her for three consecutive World Book Days – complete with pipe cleaners in my plaits and a soft monkey sewn to the shoulder of my dress. Her fierce courage, self confidence and independence is definitely something I hope has carried through to my adult life.

#2 Georgina Kirrin – The Famous Five

I adored Enid Blyton books when I was growing up: The Famous Five, Secret Seven, The Faraway Tree, Mallory Towers, The Twins at St Claire’s; if Blyton wrote it, then I was reading it. I personally think her work hasn’t aged at all, but in the age of iPads and Fortnite, it pains me to think that children probably don’t get gangs together and go around the countryside solving mysteries together any more. The youth of today, honestly.

George is a really interesting character to look back on, because from a 2019 perspective, there is clearly an underlying gender identity issue within her, which makes it incredibly relatable for today’s kids, but is ironic because I highly doubt Enid Blyton’s conservative 1940’s view would particularly match up with this. Nonetheless, as a total tomboy misfit myself, six or seven year old Esther really needed to know that it was okay to not be feminine all the time. I don’t know if it was life imitating art or vice versa, but my young self absolutely was the George of all my friendship groups – independent, bossy, a self-imposed ringleader with a fiery temper, but probably underneath quite insecure about herself and incredibly loyal to her friends. George’s relationship with Timmy the dog was also a key feature for me, because when I got my dog Tilly at eleven she became my most trusted friend, and still is to this day. I like to think Tilly is as loyal as Timmy and would defend me from rogue treasure hunters, but she is now thirteen and probably wouldn’t wake up from her nap long enough to notice, but in our youth we definitely made a great mystery-solving double act.

#3 – Tracy Beaker

‘Finally, an actual 1990’s reference which proves she didn’t grow up in the 1940’s’ I hear you cry. Yes, like all 90’s babies, I grew up totally obsessed with Jacqueline Wilson. I think I started reading Tracy Beaker a little bit younger than I should have, but my ignorance as to why she was in a children’s home and what social workers really were probably heightened my enjoyment of the story. As far as I was concerned, Tracy lived in a really fun boarding school like Mallory Towers, where there were no parents and the kids could run riot – my secure, middle-class upbringing seemed a bit rubbish in comparison really.

Obviously now I’m older I understand what the premise of the story was, and it was great to meet Tracy again last year when she returned in print for one last time as an adult. Jacqueline Wilson stories all featured some kind of trauma – poverty, abuse, addiction, bullying; maybe this is why my generation are in a mental health crisis and all seem to support left-wing politics. But, it’s hugely important to address these issues and make kids aware of the world in which they’re growing up – I went to a really deprived primary school and had no real understanding of what other kids were going through until I discovered Jacqueline Wilson. I digress, but Tracy was a relevant, present day version of Pippi Longstocking. Tracy was on her own – she had no allies, unlike George’s Famous Five, and she preferred it that way. Like most kids, I did have periods of my young life with few or no friends as a result of silly fall-outs, but whenever I found myself alone I would channel Tracy’s independence and bravery, and know that it would all work out okay in the end.

#4 Lyra Belacqua – His Dark Materials

I started reading His Dark Materials when I was about nine or ten, so a similar age to Lyra in Northern Lights. As with all the other characters in this list, her independence and courage is what initially hooked my attention, but unlike the others I don’t think I wanted to be Lyra so much as I wanted to be friends with her. Lyra and Roger’s friendship was something I really wanted to be a part of; although I did have my own friends I hadn’t experienced that kind of deep bond – probably because I didn’t live in a magical world where most of the adults were trying to kill me. But nevertheless, I wanted in.

I have never seen the film version which came out in my early teens, and I don’t have any desire to. It’s been so long since I read this trilogy that I struggle to remember the plot, but I didn’t want to see the film and have the version of the characters I have kept in my mind all these years, replaced by someone else’s interpretation. In short, I wanted to keep my Lyra and Roger for me. It’s crazy that I can’t really remember what happens in the books, but I remember Lyra, Roger, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter like they’re friends I’ve had for years. I still have a very clear image in my head of all four of them (especially Mrs Coulter who gave me nightmares), which to me is a sign of excellent writing.

#5 Matilda Wormwood

I am ashamed to confess – I saw the film version first. As a rule of thumb, I ALWAYS read the book first. But, Matilda was released in cinemas when I was two, so my family had it on video by the time I was three or four, and my sister and I watched it daily. I did go on to read the book, and all of the other Roald Dahl books – George’s Marvellous Medicine has to be my all time favourite, my sister and I used to make our own concoctions of it to try and make our parents grow bigger than the house. I watched Matilda again recently as an adult, and it has aged to perfection. All children feel at some stage like they don’t fit in with their family, and all younger siblings like myself can relate to feeling like the black sheep under the older one’s shadow for one reason or another. For some reason, I interpreted the story of Matilda as her gaining her super powers as a result of her reading so much at the library. And so began my ability to binge read books for hours on end – is reading something I enjoy, or is it an addiction I developed from a deep desire to gain super powers? Who will ever know? But I’m glad I became a reader nonetheless.

Although this is a post about my main literary heroes, I wouldn’t feel right mentioning Matilda without mentioning the secondary hero – Miss Honey. My reception teacher, whose name I won’t mention, was Miss Honey. Her name was different, she was from Liverpool and looked different, but I was utterly convinced, to the point where I used to call her Miss Honey and she would respond. I was already able to read before starting school (thanks to my older sister who somehow at eight years old managed to teach me), and this teacher saw my love of reading and nourished it into what it is today. She let me read through other lessons and break times – something you would never get away with now in the days of the National Curriculum, and I know teachers don’t have favourites but I like to think I was hers. I cried real tears, which came out in really loud ugly sobs on the last day of reception because she wasn’t my teacher any more. Perhaps the fact that I was the child who was crying about leaving school while all the other kids were bouncing off the walls to be free for the summer is the reason I had so few friends and spent my childhood immersed in books, but I digress. For various reasons which I won’t go into, our families stayed loosely in touch after this and I attended Miss Honey’s funeral when I was seventeen. I hadn’t spoken to her since I leaving infants’ school, but I don’t mind admitting that I was completely crushed to hear that she had died, and I remember looking at her photo on the coffin and feeling like no time had passed. Great teachers, like great books, stay with you for a lifetime – my love of Matilda, and consequential obsession with my Miss Honey, shaped my lifelong love of reading, which feels like a very fitting note on which to end this post.

Review – The Librarian (aka The Literary Equivalent of a Warm Hug)

I came across this book in mid-December on the recommendation of the Waterstone’s app (what a blessing and a curse that is), and although I read it quickly I wouldn’t say I devoured it in the way I binge-read quite a lot of books – it felt more like floating along the lazy river at Wet n Wild, it progressed quite quickly but I felt completely relaxed throughout the journey.

‘The Librarian’ follows Sylvia Blackwell as she moves to a remote country village in Wiltshire to work as a children’s librarian (the dream). It’s definitely a must-read for any lifelong bibliophile, with so many references to classic children’s books – as she guides the local children through the first steps of their reading journeys it feels like a walk down memory lane. Although it takes place in the 1950’s, Salley Vickers’ writing style is so compelling that the era becomes almost irrelevant, the characters are so well developed that this could take place in any time period and still work. I would say the main ‘plot’ focuses on Sylvia’s affair with a married GP, while at the same time trying to find her own way in her life away from her parental home, but this isn’t the sole focus of the book.

It sounds very negative to say this book is ‘plotless’, but it’s one of those great stories which doesn’t need a single focus point, it simply consists of great characters with rich histories in which you become really invested as they gently trundle along through life; and the reader knows that whatever the next chapter brings, they’ll enjoy it. Quite like The Breakfast Club, or Downton Abbey – with Downton there is an overall plot, but every time I sat down to watch it I didn’t feel the urgency of ‘I MUST KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT’, it was rather more ‘whatever happens this week with these characters, it will keep me interested’. As with any good read, I definitely became invested in the characters, but Salley Vickers took this even further and by a couple of chapters in, I feltlike I was living vicariously through Sylvia Blackwell. Yes – my idea of living vicariously is by living in a cottage and working in a library, there is not one single hint of sarcasm in that. Picking up this book every evening after work felt like catching up with old friends, or relaxing into a warm bath on a cold, rainy night; and when a book can have that effect, who cares what the plot is?

My Year in Five Books

Somehow, despite seemingly never having time to do anything but go to work and plan a wedding, I have managed to read 45 books this year. 46 if I manage to finish the one I just started by midnight, which is entirely likely (I know how to party hard on NYE). So, when I thought about writing a summary of all the books I’ve read this year, on reflection it seems like that would be impossible to do without losing the reader’s interest. Instead, I’ve decided to pick out a few highlights from my year’s reads. Not all of them were released in 2018, some were just books which I happened to discover this year, but loved nonetheless. Here goes.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

Obviously this is not a 2018 release. If that is new information, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Like most women, I read Jane Eyre in my late teens and absolutely loved it, but somehow managed to leave my Bronte interest there for a while. In May of this year, me and the other half took a romantic trip to Oxenhope, near Haworth. Yes, there was a bit of fantasy on my part of pretending to be Jane and Mr Rochester and a lot of time spent wishing I was wearing a bonnet, but I digress. After visiting the Parsonage (excellent day trip by the way, completely worth the travel if you’re a literature enthusiast), I picked up copies of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. The latter is neither here nor there for me, but that’s a post for another day. Anne is probably the least well known of the Bronte sisters, but I would go as far as saying that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is even better than Jane Eyre. I’m fairly sure Anne Bronte had a time machine because this level of just pure feminist protest at the status of women in Victorian marriages is completely unheard of within this era. And even though its intention was to make a statement about the position of Victorian women, most of it is still very much applicable for today and the issues surrounding domestic violence and coercive control. I absolutely couldn’t put it down, and the role reversal of the desperate man chasing after the woman instead of the other way around is so refreshing, especially for books of this era.

My Mum Tracy Beaker – Jacqueline Wilson

I’ll not say too much on this one as it does already have its own post. However, stepping back into Tracy’s world was like going back to my childhood home and everything being in place as it was when I was ten years old – so comforting and nostalgic. Having said that, it is also a fantastic read in itself and being able to see how one of your favourite children’s literary heroes grew up is such a rare treat.

The Shipyard Girls series – Nancy Revell

Again, I won’t dwell on this one too much because the latest instalment has its own post already. It wasn’t until this year that I discovered this series, so I binge-read the first few back in April and became completely transfixed. Strong, independent women finding their way in times of complete adversity and turmoil, and charging through a male dominated environment with no fear – it’s just completely inspiring and, for me anyway, humbling to read about the amazing women who paved the way for the rest of us, especially in the North East which is an area usually not given any publicity unless it’s negative *cough* ‘Brexit’ *cough* ‘Sunderland Til I Die’.

Five Years from Now – Paige Toon

I had heard of Paige Toon years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that I actually sat down and read some of her work. This was the first one I tried, back in August, and I’ve only got two or three left now before I’ve read her entire back catalogue. So if that doesn’t say something about how good a writer she is, I don’t know what will. Five Years from Now is definitely my favourite Paige Toon book, which follows two people in five-year intervals who had a connection as children but end up being separated for a variety of reasons. As with all of her books, I laughed and cried in equal measure. Yes, actually cried. I shed proper tears over this book which dripped down my face – this wasn’t just a lump in the throat, oh no. The emotional attachment she made me have towards Nel and Vian was unlike any I’ve felt for any other characters, and given how much I read, that is quite an achievement. Again, as with the rest of her work, no loose end is left untied and the story comes full circle to a perfect ending which incorporates all the characters you meet throughout, leaving your heart full and your tissue box empty.

How to Be Famous – Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran is one of many authors my mam introduced me to when I was a teenager, and I would read her stance on anything. Seriously, she could produce a manual for NASA on rocket science, and it would still be hilarious. I loved its predecessor ‘How to Build a Girl’, so it was amazing to re visit Dolly Wilde (the person I really wanted to be, and sort of thought I was, as a teenager) and her crazy life in London following rock stars around. I particularly loved her corresponding column in defense of teenage groupies. As a former boy-obsessed wannabe teenage groupie, they are not given enough credit. How many rock bands would actually get off the ground if they didn’t have hoards of screaming, horny teenage girls chasing them around and trying to get onto the tour bus? Essentially, none. And the world would be deprived of good rock music, so really they provide a great public service and deserve this recognition, which has come in the form of our collective hero and representative – Dolly Wilde.

Christmas Reads

Somehow, December is upon us. I know, I can’t believe it either (and I have confirmed this shock with every shop assistant, colleague, friend and stranger with whom I have come into contact in the last 48 hours – ah, Britain). So between the general festivities, a very busy job and planning a wedding, both reading and blogging have taken quite a hard hit for me over the last few weeks. December is a bit effing stressful generally though, and finding that selfish time to lose yourself in a book seems to get moved further and further down the priority list. But, the beautiful thing about most Christmas books is that they’re shorter than the typical paperback (ah, those tight deadlines to get it on the shelves by October – must be a total nightmare for the authors but such a win for the reader), so even in the Christmas craziness there is still plenty of time to get through at least a couple. Plus, Christmas books are actually the only books I will actually read more than once, so if that doesn’t convince you to partake then I don’t know what will. But anyway, here’s a list of some of my favourites, in no particular order (cue dramatic X factor music).

Christmas With Billy and Me – Giovanna Fletcher
This was the first Christmas novella I came across which related to an existing book, and it was beyond thrilling being able to re visit characters I already knew and loved and see how they spent Christmas. Although it does work as a standalone book in that you can follow the story without knowing the background, I would say that you don’t get the full effect of the plot if you don’t have the back story. But, it’s the perfect length for a quick festive indulgence when you get a spare moment, and like all of Giovanna Fletcher’s characters you feel like you’ve known them for years after only a few pages. And who doesn’t love a heartwarming love story set in a rustic countryside cake shop, Christmas or not?

Dream a Little Christmas Dream – Giovanna Fletcher
Just like the former, it’s the literary equivalent of a beloved rom-com you find yourself re-watching each year – think Love Actually but not several hours long and without all the unpleasantness -throws a quick glance in Alan Rickman’s general direction-. Again, I loved this particularly because it’s a spin-off featuring characters I was already invested in, but it still hits the spot for a little injection of Christmas romance for unfamiliar readers.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
Honestly, if you don’t know the plot of this one then why are you even here? Obviously I knew what I was getting  myself in for when I first read this a few years ago, I was raised on the Patrick Stewart film adaptation every Christmas Eve on the BBC (but the Muppet version still takes the prize in my humble opinion). But, that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. I love Dickens and it’s a constant source of embarrassment that I haven’t read more of his work (reading leave from employment needs to be a thing, my to-read list just keeps growing), but everything of his that I have read I’ve become completely immersed in. When I read this for the first time I wasn’t picturing Richard E Grant trying to stand up to Patrick Stewart, or Miss Piggy scoffing the chestnuts before dinner was ready, I was visualising entirely different people because his descriptions just make your imagination go wild, but the magic of the story is retained nonetheless. I have only one problem with this story though, and I say it every year, but WHY DOES MARLEY’S GHOST TELL SCROOGE HE’LL HAVE A GHOST VISIT HIM EACH NIGHT AND THEN ALL THE GHOSTS COME AT ONCE? IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE TO THE STORY SO WHY IS IT WRITTEN IN THERE?
Seriously, if someone knows the answer to that then PLEASE tell me and put my out of this annual misery.

Ruth’s First Christmas Tree – Elly Griffiths
I want to be Ruth Galloway, I’ll just get that out of the way first. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t given this series its own post yet, but that will definitely come with time. This installment is quite lesser known even by existing fans, I’m pretty sure it’s only available as an e-book, but it’s very unique in that while it does work as a standalone story, at the same time it doesn’t drastically move the overall series’ plot forward to make things tricky for readers who missed this one. That’s a difficult task to master when there are already so many established characters and sub plots in the saga so far, so well done to Elly Griffiths on that one. If you ask me, all established sagas need a short Christmas story somewhere in there because there is something magical about revisiting your old friends (fictional characters who I see as my friends) at Christmas time. And what’s not to love about Ruth’s cosy cottage on the breathtaking Norfolk coastline in the winter? Honestly, the image I have in my head of her house since this book has been of Kate Winslet’s house in The Holiday, and if that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

A Family For Christmas – Helen Scott Taylor
I came across this as an e-book a few years ago when I was looking specifically for a festive book to enjoy over the Christmas period, and I was not disappointed. I must confess I haven’t read anything else by this author, I have no idea whether she’s even written anything else, which is really shameful considering how much I love this book. It ticks all the boxes for the perfect festive story: a career woman who wasn’t looking for love until she found it, a widower not realising he’s ready to love again, a cute child, a quintessentially English country cottage in the snow, some sheep, you get the idea. In a nutshell, it’s heartwarming without being corny, but for some reason is not very well known – which is a bit of an injustice if you ask me.

One Perfect Christmas (and other short stories) – Paige Toon
Confession time – I bought this book three days ago and haven’t had a chance to read it yet. However, I love Paige Toon and have never not been totally overtaken by the story when reading one of her books so I have no doubt that this collection of short stories will be anything shy of their full length counterparts. Again, I just love the idea of being able to revisit your already beloved characters and see how they’re doing at Christmas. It’s like the literary equivalent of the Friends Christmas specials.

If you haven’t guessed already by this point, I LOVE a Christmas novella from an existing saga. When I rise to power, all sagas will have Christmas editions at regular intervals. Even the ones that have no real influence within the overall plot are so special, and they must be so fun to write by just having free reign to let your characters enjoy Christmas without worrying where the plot is going or whether you’ve tied up all the loose ends. Well, if anyone wants to hire me as a freelance Christmas spin-off writer for their existing sagas then please let me know. That is definitely my dream job right there.

Review – Belle of the Back Streets

This week I found myself with three days off work (bliss) so, what did I do in that time? Get ahead with wedding planning? Finally redecorate the living room? Work out? Well, I sent one email to a photographer and repainted one wall of the living room, which in itself made me get a sweat on so *technically* I did do all three, but obviously not before binge reading a great new book.

Belle of the Back Streets is Glenda Young’s debut novel which only just came out I believe last week, but don’t cite me as a reliable source there. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Glenda Young or read any of her work until I saw some buzz about this novel on Twitter, buzz which came from Nancy Revell and anyone who has read my previous post will know that I pretty much live and breathe for her Shipyard Girls saga. Slight exaggeration, but it is really good, so obviously this was an endorsement I felt I could trust.

So, I went into Belle of the Back Streets with admittedly very high expectations, and I was certainly not disappointed. The story takes place in Sunderland in 1919, an era which doesn’t get a lot of coverage I think (usually it’s one of the World Wars or the Tudors when it comes to historical fiction), so my interest was piqued immediately, along with the fact that Meg ends up working as a rag and bone man (or girl, I suppose) – something which I knew very little about, but is basically the 20th Century version of Houghton’s scrap men.

But, of course, none of us are reading fiction books for a history lesson. Even if you come for the historical learning curve, Glenda Young makes sure you stay for the character development and overall suspense. I was almost late for an appointment during the baby stealing fiasco, and I pride myself on working out plot twists really easily but I will hold my hands up and admit that after the ‘bad woman’ was foreshadowed, I was blown away when it became apparent who that was going to be. As I’ve said before of my beloved Shipyard Girls, Meg has been added to the list of book characters that I wish I was friends with. She is so fiercely independent and driven but at the same time kind, loving and a bit vulnerable that I had to stop myself from fist pumping every time she triumphed.

And what is a women’s fiction novel without a dreamy man to fantasize over? Sorry Feminism, I am still very much in your club and firmly believe that Meg took care of her own damn self – triumphing at the end because of her own pure resilience and determination – but Adam is an absolute hunk. I loved Adam from the first time he’s introduced to us, despite the presence of the smelly netty during this otherwise very romantic meet cute, and had my fingers crossed through every page turn that Meg would come to her senses and just bloody well kiss him. Don’t get me wrong however, this isn’t some ridiculous Wuthering Heights damsel in distress being saved by the man rubbish – Adam is only rewarded with hubby status once Meg has won all her personal battles and it is made abundantly clear that she does. not. need. him. As annoyed as I was that she rejected his first marriage proposal, once I finished the book I realised what Glenda Young was doing – Meg does not need to be rescued and that is why she is a fantastic protagonist that you root for from page one. Historical fiction with fierce feminist undertones that make me want to yell YESSSS QUEEN from Ryhope cliffs is the only kind of historical fiction worth reading, in my humble opinion.

In case it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, I absolutely loved Belle of the Back Streets and will certainly be pre-ordering Glenda Young’s next masterpiece. Every plot point is tied up and concluded perfectly, the characters have so much depth that you get completely sucked into their individual worlds and it is an emotional rollercoaster which takes you through fear, anger, anticipation, laughter, pure joy and everything in between. Plus, there are animals in there too and what’s not to love about canine and equine side kicks? There was a brief moment where I really thought she had sent Stella to the knacker’s yard though, and if you had let that happen Ms Young, well there’s a small chance I would have been outside your house with a pitchfork. Kidding. A little bit. Hashtag ‘Justice For Stella’.

I definitely didn’t cry at the end though, I just had a bit of Dorito crumb in my eye…

Review – Into The Water

I’ll start this one off by making something clear – I enjoyed this book and I think Paula Hawkins is very talented. But, having said that, I do feel a bit sorry for her as an author. I imagine she feels like Hugh Grant’s dad in About a Boy, who wrote that really successful song and spent the rest of his life trying to top its success with a better one. It’s like when Nirvana stopped playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, but some of us like Smells Like Teen Spirit and unfortunately, it’s the general consensus that it is their best song.

Personally, I thought Girl on the Train was amazing. I know a few clever cloggs managed to figure out the twist before the end but sorry, I wasn’t one of you. I liked Girl on the Train so much that I wish I hadn’t already read it, just so I can have that experience of reading it for the first time all over again.  This, I think, is the sole reason that I finished Into the Water by feeling a little bit…flat.

Into the Water follows quite a similar formula to Girl on the Train, in that it is told by different people’s perspectives and the reader has to piece all of this together to follow the story – and I do think this is a great way of building the suspense and keeping the reader’s interest. However, Into the Water it told by about six different perspectives, and that of some additional quite minor characters, so I must admit I spent the first two thirds of the book referring back to the ‘who’s who’ guide which sits before the prologue. Sorry, but if your reader is still doing this two thirds in, there are simply too many main characters to keep track of. Each character, no matter how minor, had a rich history to them, which in itself is absolutely not a bad thing (quite the opposite), but when you have so many main characters there just is not room for such depth to each one and it starts to weigh quite heavily on the reader’s head. The plot had more complexities than Girl on the Train as well, because it includes flashbacks to completely different eras as well as different characters’ past experiences, so it was just a bit too much to follow.

The plot itself was great, a lot of things happened early on that made me think ‘no way is this going to be made relevant at the end, there’s no chance that all of these pieces are going to come together’, but they did. Paula Hawkins would not get seven years of bad luck if she dropped a mirror because she’d piece that glass back together perfectly in less than an hour – I have no doubt about that. I do however feel that there wasn’t a need for some of the sub plots, for example I don’t think Helen needed so much of a role in the story, and the whole conflict between Nell and Jude didn’t feel that relevant to the overall mystery. It felt to me like their conflict was there to justify Robbie’s place in the story, and he seemed to exist only as a means of throwing the reader off the scent of the actual killer – much like the therapist in Girl on the Train. But, having read Girl on the Train first, I was too familiar with Paula Hawkins’ mind games. So, even though on paper Robbie seemed like the obvious culprit, I knew that the obvious one would turn out to be totally irrelevant in the end, and he only seemed to feature a couple of times in the story. My logic was that if he was in any way important to the ending, he would be featured in it far more than he actually is, so when Jules went to the garage to challenge him over his involvement, the tension just wasn’t there for me.

On the whole I did enjoy Into the Water, but it followed the typical plot of this genre so personally I found the twist very easy to guess and the mystery very easy to solve. But, the success of Girl on the Train must have created immense pressure for the author, and it definitely wouldn’t put me off reading anything she publishes in the future. Even though you know what’s coming, Hawkins’ ability to draw the reader in and make you see, smell, hear and feel the surroundings that the character does means I will still be spending many a Sunday afternoon getting lost in her characters’ worlds, as long as she keeps creating them.

Review – My Mum Tracy Beaker

Like all Millennials, particularly those like me who didn’t tend to get out much, I grew up reading Jacqueline Wilson’s eclectic oeuvre of tragically depressing yet addictive stories about kids on the fringes of society. Maybe this is why our generation grew up to love Corbyn so much? That is definitely something that needs to be explored. But I digress. So yes, here I was, twenty four and way too old to be reading books with illustrations, but the announcement that there was going to be a new Tracy Beaker story immediately reverted me back to being ten years old and immersing myself in a great book for hours on end without the guilt of ‘I really should hoover today’ or ‘I should probably use this time to go to the gym’. Ah, youth.

As is the case with many sequels, this excitement also came with a degree of apprehension. ‘The Story of Tracy Beaker’, ‘The Dare Game’ and ‘Starring Tracy Beaker’ were all released in a moderately paced succession, but it’s been twelve years since we last checked in with Tracy and Cam and, frankly, I was a bit worried that this one was going to feel forced and ruin the magic of the first three; but for the first time in recorded history – I was wrong.

We first  meet grown-up Tracy through the eyes of her daughter Jess Beaker, who has all of Tracy’s well-hidden good qualities – she’s thoughtful and puts everyone else’s needs before her own, which I think Tracy does deep down but it’s usually masked by her harsh outer shell. Jess is how I imagine the love child of Tracy and Peter Ingham would be, and given how this installment ends, that may well become a reality if there is a further book…

Tracy thankfully hasn’t lost her feisty streak – even as a mother she still hates authority, shouts at teachers and flies completely off the handle whenever she sees red. Having said that, she is fiercely protective of her daughter and very aware of how Carly treated her so she steers vigorously away from that cycle for Jess which adds so much depth to Tracy’s character and reminds you that her vulnerability is still there beneath the angst.

Tracy then falls head over heels for a boy (I know, ick!), and is convinced this is her ticket to the life she always dreamed her mum would give her with fame, fortune and even the pink Cadillac she’s dreamed of since book one. Nice touch there, Ms Wilson! I had reservations about the idea of Tracy being all loved up with a boyfriend, it just didn’t seem realistic to me and I went into this book with great cynicism towards that. However, trying not to reveal too many spoilers here, the boyfriend she has is actually a character we’ve met before – one I always thought there was something a little bit ‘off’ about when we first met him in ‘The Dare Game’. Throughout their relationship, Tracy’s guard is gradually let down and it was so endearing to see that side of her in such a big dose. It seemed like as she’s become an adult Tracy started to lose that sixth sense she always seemed to have about people’s character and her ability to spot a potential baddie within seconds, but thankfully, this is a quality she passed on to Jess – who is not so easily fooled.

Although this book would still be a great read as a standalone, it’s far more special for readers who are familiar with Tracy’s journey as all the previous significant characters make a return either directly or by reference from Tracy or another principal character. And the return of the Mickey Mouse alarm clock was just a nostalgia overdose for me, along with the several other subtle nods to Tracy’s formative yeas.

Naturally Cam is still here as the port of sensibleness in Tracy’s chaotic life, and her relationship with Jess is absolutely perfect and so touching to read. Cam actually has a more significant role in this installment, and becomes more of a character in herself rather than being formed through Tracy’s eyes from the pedestal on which she placed Cam after their first meeting; and her role is a really important consistency for the readers who have followed Tracy’s story from the start. Having Tracy transition into an adult without anyone from her younger years staying in her life wouldn’t really have worked, and also it would be difficult for fans of the series to believe that Cam wouldn’t have remained a part of Tracy’s story. There are some interesting developments with Cam’s character as well, and one pretty big one which is quite amusing as it is discovered through Jess’ observations, but Jess is a bit too naive to understand quite what this storyline implies. This part actually made me really want to go back and re-read the first three, in case this was implied earlier and I just didn’t pick up on it because I, too, was naive when I first read them.

As with all the classic Jacqueline Wilson books, the darker themes like poverty, bullying and to an extent domestic violence were still very prominent, but are narrated through Jess’ innocent perspective so it is somewhat softened and doesn’t feel like a really depressing, gloomy story. And, as ever, you’re still always rooting for Tracy to come out on top even when she is making some monumental mistakes. But of course, as she always does, Tracy comes out on top in the end despite all the struggles, and I love her even more for it. As much as I would love this series to go on and on because Tracy Beaker feels like an old friend with whom I grew up, the ending of this book is so fitting and satisfying that I don’t know where another one could feasibly go – thought I’m sure if anyone can manage it it’s Jacqueline Wilson. Tracy’s reunion with Peter really signified to me that she has come full circle and done the growing up that she needed to in order to appreciate him for the friend he always tried to be for her; and, wherever that relationship goes, it remains a perfect end point for Tracy and Jess’ journey. Plus, it is always nice to leave the door open for readers to make up their own mind about what Tracy might do next.

 

Finding My Other Mothership

If you’ve already read my last post, you’ll be aware that a trip to Barter Books was probably not the most exciting thing I did last Saturday, but it definitely came a close second. I’ve loved Barter Books since I was little, and I’m old enough to remember when there was also a branch in Seahouses (yes, that was a thing, my parents actually know the people who used to run it so that is a verifiable fact), so it wasn’t a new or particularly novel – no pun intended – experience going there last week, but that absolutely didn’t make it any less enjoyable.

I’ve written before about using libraries, and how being able to roam freely to lose yourself in new characters and adventures with no cost incurred is just so incredible for a bookworm like myself, and definitely something that people generally don’t take enough advantage of; and the same applies for Barter Books, or secondhand bookshops generally. It’s so thrilling to be able to rake through the shelves with no idea what you might find, it’s like going treasure hunting without running the risk of accidentally touching a worm.

No disrespect to Waterstone’s, I’m still a loyal member of their rewards club, but you know what you’re going to find when you go in there; even if you leave it a few months or even a year between visits, the same authors tend to feature on the ‘buy one get one half price’ stands, and the same genres are in the featured positions on the shelves. With a second hand bookshop, that’s different no matter how often you go in because they get a constant churn of new, pre-loved stock. The sad thing about high street bookshops is that, unless a novel is a ‘classic’ or the author recently published something new and they’re trying to re-promote their previous work, books have a very limited shelf life. After a few months, sometimes even weeks, they get demoted to the general A-Z fiction section, where they go to die. I know that if there’s something you particularly want there’s always a keen, helpful bookseller at hand to order it for you and make other recommendations, but personally I don’t always know what I like until I see it in front of me. If I want something entirely new and undiscovered to read then I need to rake, and if the next ‘right’ book for me to immerse myself in is over a year old then, sorry, but I’m unlikely to find it on the high street.

I tweeted recently about how to spot a great library book, as I’d just checked out a book where the date label was almost totally covered in date stamps – a sign that it had been loved more times than Stormy Daniels (I am absolutely not one to condone slut shaming, but you get the point I’m making). A similar technique applies when in a second hand bookshop, the more battered the cover, the more creases in the spine, the more likely it is to pique my interest. No, we should not judge a book by its cover inherently, but if said cover implies that the book has been read and re-read multiple times, then it’s definitely worth a look over the blurb at least. And if that hasn’t persuaded you already, just think of the savings. Last week I got four fairly recent paperbacks for less than £10, rather than the usual £7.99 each, just because someone else has cracked the spine first. I can’t speak for other secondhand bookshops, but Barter Books has a system where you get credit for bringing used books in, which you can spend on new ones, so if you’re a book junkie like me this is a much safer way to enjoy your habit and soften the guilt of parting with your old books – I’m fairly sure my parents have never actually used cash in that shop. And if nothing else, they have free tea and coffee, a warm fire and a range of other customers’ dogs to pet.

Do I Heart Lindsey Kelk?

I have had the first three I Heart books on my shelf for god knows how long. I read The Single Girl’s To Do List about six years ago and loved it, but just never got round to reading any more of Lindsey Kelk’s work. After seeing her at a signing a couple of months ago, I was reminded of how much I’d enjoyed that book, so I started on the I Heart series and finished them all in a fairly quick succession. So, I’m going to do my best to de-tangle them in my head (much like after a particularly vigorous spin cycle on the washing machine) to give my verdict on each, and on the series overall.

I Heart New York is the first instalment in the series, where we meet Angela as a broken hearted mess who spontaneously gets on a plane to JFK with a carry on case and the clothes on her back. This one felt very much like a rom com, with spontaneity that completely defied logic – how did she get on a plane to New York with no visa? How did she really afford all that expensive make up and designer clothes? Why was she not at all bothered about getting her share of the house she bought with Mark? Surely that could’ve solved her financial problems, but logic seems to have no place in Angela’s mind. However, like a good rom-com, I found myself overlooking the technicalities and just enjoying the overall story – and who wants to read a book that’s too much like real life anyway? If I wanted to read about credit card debt and career disasters I would start a diary of my own life.

Next comes I Heart Hollywood which, to be brutally honest, doesn’t need to be in the series. I really don’t like to be negative about books because I know someone spent a long time pouring their heart into it and it feels petty and unnecessary to ruin that, but this one was a bit forgettable if I’m totally honest. I Heart New York could very easily have been a standalone book, so the sequel was always going to be difficult to get just right, but I really didn’t get the whole idea of James Jacobs. He was being a complete twat to Angela the entire time, and as much as I’m sure it wasn’t meant like this, the issue of his sexuality and him covering it up with all these ‘beards’ came across as a bit stereotypical and erring on the edge of homophobic. It was all intended as part of an intriguing plot twist, which it was, but for me James’ controlling manager wanting to cover everything up and the George Michael-ing in the toilets did come across as a little bit cliché – as if gay men automatically have to be massive sluts. Again, Lindsey Kelk is a lovely person who I’m sure did not intend for that to be implied, but my interpretation of this book is that it was a bit plotless and slightly insensitive.

I Heart Paris is where it started to really feel like a series to me, as regular characters were starting to become more familiar and given deeper back stories so I became quite invested by this point and was actively wanting to finish the whole series and find out what journeys the characters embarked on. There was very little of Jenny in this book which is possibly why I enjoyed it so much, but it probably had more to do with Angela and Alex’s relationship starting to get quite serious and I became quite invested in that. It was important at this stage to start seeing Alex as an entity in himself and not as Angela’s boyfriend, otherwise the series probably couldn’t last as long, so it was a good palette cleanser learning about his back story and getting to know his personality and more about his life outside of being with Angela.

I Heart Vegas would probably be ranked just above I Heart Hollywood for being a bit of a filler book. Parts of it felt a bit irrelevant, for example all of Angela’s partying with James Jacobs and Jenny’s model friends really made me start to dislike her and it seemed to me like she stopped caring about her career or her relationship with Alex as much, and wanted to have a little ‘woe is me’ pity party. However, as I will elaborate on later, it is good to have a flawed main character that you start to root for to do better. If I was Angela’s friend, I would certainly have been sitting her down with a cup of tea at this stage and talking to her about her poor decisions. Alex certainly puts up with a lot from her overall, but especially so in this one. Having said that though, the proposal at the end is unbelievably cute and one hundred percent hashtag goals.

I heart London is definitely in the runnings for my favourite in the I Heart series. The main thought I’d had until this point about Angela was that I didn’t quite understand how she could just drop everything and move abroad and abandon her friends and family with no real explanation as to why. I had assumed from the first book when Angela’s mum stayed in her room after Louboutin-gate that they had a close relationship, and I never really understood her relationship with Louisa and her never telling Angela about Mark and his mistress. It was necessary at this point in the series to delve into who Angela was before she came to New York, and definitely put all her thoughts and feelings into proper context for me as a reader. Similarly, seeing Jenny so vulnerable throughout this book (and her being put in her place by Louisa which was a personal highlight), definitely made me appreciate her character much more than I had I previous instalments. Yes, I still don’t like her overall as a person, but after I Heart London I started to understand why she has certain flaws and how she can come across as quite harsh and controlling but that this is more of a front to protect herself.

I Heart Christmas was a little bit disappointing. As a self-professed Christmas enthusiast I was really excited for this one, but it didn’t feel as Christmassy as I’d hoped it would. I thought it was more just that the story happened to take place at Christmas, like Die Hard, and not a Christmas book in itself, so that was a bit of false advertising if you ask me. This story was, although enjoyable overall, a bit of a filler book. It was great seeing Angela’s magazine taking off and her becoming a career woman, and tackling the issue of whether women can have a career and a family which is relevant for so many women still, Angela’s treatment of Alex over the issue of having children was horribly selfish and really put me off her for a while. I don’t think it’s right at all to call a woman selfish for wanting a career instead of a family, and I think all women should be able to have full control over that decision, but I do think she maybe should’ve cleared that up with Alex before rushing into marrying him, and she seemed generally incapable of having an adult conversation about it so I got a bit bored of her constant pouting. Also, she really needs to stop taking advice from Jenny because she’s even worse.

I Heart Forever is the latest, and as far as I’m aware not the final, instalment of the series and is tied with I Heart London for my favourite one. This one seemed to have a great balance between career drama, friendship drama and relationship drama so I didn’t feel like any of the plots were being dragged out further than they needed to be, which has been the case with some of the earlier books. Once again, we find Jenny being a selfish bitch, this time about getting engaged, but Angela does seem to grow a backbone at this point and challenges her a bit which I did enjoy. Seeing Angela trying to deal with various crises without Alex was an interesting change of pace as well, as I hadn’t seen Angela single since about chapter three of I Heart New York, so it definitely helped the reader appreciate her as the leading lady. I’m really liking Angela’s parents playing more of a role in the story now as well, as a nice reminder of where she came from and why she does and thinks certain things.

On balance, although this is generally a more negative review than I like to write and I feel really guilty about this, I did generally enjoy the series as a whole. I wouldn’t recommend reading them as standalones, apart from possibly the first one, because I don’t think the characters can be seen to their full potential in any of the books without the context of all the others. I am looking forward to the next part of the series and to see how Angela tackles motherhood, hopefully she matures a bit more but probably won’t if Jenny is still kicking about at this point.  I do think this series would make a very successful couple of films if the filler plots were cut out – if done correctly I think Angela Clark has the potential to be the millennials’ answer to Bridget Jones. Even though I rolled my eyes when Jenny went back to Craig for the umpteenth time, and tutted at Angela for being such a brat when she’s wedding planning at home in I Heart London, I understood why those two characters would behave like that within those situations. Too many authors create characters that are overly perfect and immediately get you on their side, so you can never really look at them objectively and unpick them. Until recently, it was a massive taboo to point out what a massive selfish bitch Carrie Bradshaw is, because we were all expected to want to be her and were too busy ogling over her sex life and wardrobe to step back and realise that she wasn’t living this perfect fantasy life; so it has to be said here that Lindsey Kelk does do character depth extremely well and even though you don’t always like them, you still enjoy reading about them. Overall, I’d give this series a 3/5; worth a read but I wouldn’t personally put myself out to make time to read it.

Review: Victory for the Shipyard Girls

Writing a book review without spoilers is very near impossible, but what’s the point of bigging something up and telling everyone why they should be reading it and then ruining the excitement of plot twists? So, I’m going to try my best to explain why I love this saga so much and persuade everyone to go out and buy it so I can have somebody to enthuse with; without revealing any major plot points. Sigh. Here goes.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, as The Shipyard Girls is currently my favourite book series (having binged them all earlier this year while I was on holiday), but the latest instalment: ‘Victory for the Shipyard Girls’ is published today so it felt like a more apt time to start some Shipyard Girls hype. I actually got my copy at the weekend because I’m so very special, or Waterstones are just extremely organised with their pre-orders being shipped (probably the latter), so I spent last Saturday curled up with my trusty squad of Women Welders and, as usual, I loved every page of it. It’s really difficult to review individual books when they’re part of a series, even more so when you’re me and tend to binge a whole saga in one go, so this review is going to be a more general review of the series and explanation as to why I love it so much. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, part of my current job entails overseeing a local library so I spend a large portion of my day talking about books (aka living the dream), and other staff have given me a bit of stick for going on about how much I love The Shipyard Girls, with one person coining the series as ‘one of those old lady books’. I know you’re only as old as you feel, but at twenty four I don’t generally class myself as an ‘old lady’, or indeed as a lady most of the time, so I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that these are not exclusively ‘old lady books’.

I started the series with fairly low expectations – they’re always promoted in my local Waterstones and I was after a new book for my 24 hour round trip to America, so it seemed to fit the bill, but I was absolutely hooked before the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign had gone off. The story takes place in Sunderland which is possibly why it appealed to me – there are few things more exciting than media references to your entirely unremarkable home town and I still get a little thrill when I read about these characters exploring the streets and landmarks around which I grew up. Having said that, I wouldn’t go as far as saying this series is a favourite because it’s directly relatable to me – since it takes place during the Second World War. I am somewhat of a history nerd, but again I wouldn’t say that is the main appeal of this series, because ultimately I think Nancy Revell could write this group of girls into any time period – from the Stone Age to a post-apocalyptic world after Trump inevitably destroys us all, and you would still immediately feel like they’re friends you’ve known for years after three or four pages.

Strong characters and a good plot are the foundation of any decent read, and it certainly seems like Nancy Revell knows how to do both to the nth degree. The character development is so striking but at the same time so well paced that you don’t notice it happening until it hits you in the face (in the best way). Having had a break between finishing the first four books and waiting for the fifth to be published, I now want to go back to April Me and say ‘guess what happens with Helen?’ or ‘You’ll never guess how things pan out with Gloria and Jack!’ and April Me would be absolutely blown away. And it’s not just the depth of detail within the characters that makes the reader get so invested, but their qualities; I am rooting for every single one of these women (except Miriam, bitch), even Helen and Pearl who I absolutely hated at the start. Each of them has such a rich and complex back story that you can’t help but love them, and they’re all so ferociously strong, overcoming ridiculous traumas and obstacles while trying to make space for themselves in a male dominated world that I just want to blast Christina Aguilera’s ‘Fighter’ and shout “yessssss, queens!” from the Wearmouth Bridge. Don’t get me wrong, relatable book characters are fine, hell, Bridget Jones would make the list for my fantasy dinner party, but what makes a story better than fine are characters who are not just relatable to the reader but those who also have a real strength and endurance to them that makes you think ‘wow, she is bad ass and I wish I was that fierce’.

As a self affirmed lover of ‘chick lit’ (I embrace that term, see earlier blog post, I don’t see any level of shame or guilt in it), this series is a really great palette cleanser as it has all the crucial elements of chick lit – initial heartache but eventually winning the man, strong friendships, tears, male leads that make all our boyfriends seem inadequate; but it’s all happening in a totally different context. It’s chick lit but without the lead female being a journalist in London or a shy waitress in a village tearoom – these girls are discussing their relationship issues over live welds while literally bending metal to put ships together that ultimately defeat Hitler. That’s a little bit different to your average Paige Toon or Jill Mansell (not that I don’t still love those two authors all the same!). Plus, this story isn’t centered around one girl and her secondary character friends; there is no Kelly or Michelle in Thompson’s shipyard – everyone is Beyonce in the Women Welders squad. All the characters are central, which allows for so many intertwined stories, and is ultimately what I think makes this story last over so many books without coming close to feeling tired or done, and it could easily continue over at least another few.

Well, if you aren’t convinced at this point that this series is worth trying out then I give up. Who doesn’t love some heartache and bitchy backstabbing drama peppered with strong friendships and Feminist overtones throughout? I am actually so obsessed with this series that I really wish it would be made into a TV drama; and I have never said that about any book ever – usually nothing upsets me more than a beloved book being made into a film or TV series because they’re always sub-par (I’m looking at you, Girl on the Train) – but The Shipyard Girls is so intensely great that even a half-arsed TV version would still be amazing – though I don’t think Nancy Revell would allow such an injustice. And neither would I, unless I wasn’t cast to play Rosie…

The Shipyard Girls is best enjoyed with coffee and cake in a big comfy chair.