My Year in Five Books

At the end of last year, I set myself the difficult task of choosing five highlights from the mass of books I had managed to consume within the previous twelve months; and, throughout December, I am very much a traditionalist so have decided to do the same again. I have not counted the individual books which I have read this year, though I can say with confidence that the total will absolutely be lower than last year’s impressive forty six. Hey, it’s been a very busy year at work and with getting married in August I barely had the energy to hold a book upright never mind read one most days; though having said that, a nicer way of putting it might be to say that I went for quality over quantity in my reading material this year, which is clearly evidenced by the excellent selection of top-tier books mentioned below.

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

No, this list is not in any kind of ranking order, but ironically this one is called ‘The Five’. One of the few genres which is able to pique my enthusiasm as much as historical fiction is true crime, so when a colleague mentioned ‘The Five’ and how it covers the real life stories of each of the victims of Jack the Ripper in Victorian London, I was hooked from the synopsis alone. I’m not sure how much creative freedom Hallie Rubenhold was able to use within their stories; I would imagine a fair amount would be needed when trying to piece together accounts of the lives of relatively unknown women from records which were made over a century ago.

However, either way, it was clear throughout the book that the author had put a huge amount of effort into preserving what few historical records were available for these women, but was able to present them in a way that was as easy to read as any other fictional story, which is certainly no easy task. I was completely dumbstruck to learn that the majority of Ripper victims were not actually prostitutes, and most of them began life in an entirely different social context to that in which they died, and I am ashamed to admit that I had always believed the media hype that the Ripper was a killer of sex workers, which perpetuates the wider myth that this is all the victims’ lives were. From a feminist point of view, I felt a bit sheepish to have had that stereotype entirely disproven by walking in the victims’ shoes and experiencing the complex lives of these five interesting women from their own unique perspectives.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter – Hazel Gaynor

This one is probably a bit of a lazy or a cop-out point to include, since I did already give this book its own individual review earlier this year, however it is absolutely deserving of a second mention, and was quite possibly my favourite literary discovery of the past year. Having grown up spending the majority of my youth in Northumberland, I have always been well-versed in the legendary story of Grace Darling; but she is sadly a heroine who receives quite minimal attention outside of the geographical area within which she existed, and I’m certainly not aware of any other fictional novels about her life (though please do send me links via my home page if they do exist).

As with ‘The Five’, breathing new life into a story with which people may already be familiar through historical documentation is no easy feat, and very little is known about Ms Darling’s life since she was famously very private. However, Hazel Gaynor manages to humanise the legendary figure through the suggestion of a possible secret romance which, although history suggests is unlikely to have happened, is really thrilling to imagine and is communicated with such care and dignity so as not to undermine the factual accounts of her life that it was an absolute joy to read.

Courage of the Shipyard Girls – Nancy Revell

Again, it’s probably a cop-out answer to include things I’ve already reviewed this year, and an instalment of a saga which I have already reviewed to death on this blog (I will not apologise for this, and will continue to fill this page with more Shipyard Girls-related hype for as long as Nancy Revell continues to grace us with it); but when I really thought about this list, Courage of the Shipyard Girls is something which immediately jumps out to me as a book which I vividly remember enjoying this year, so it can stay.

Although I love the whole saga, this specific book continues to stand out to me as the highlight of the series, in terms of character development and the emotional impact of various climatic plot twists which genuinely left me in tears as the story concluded; and although I am always an advocate of any saga being read in the correct chronological order, Courage of the Shipyard Girls forms the exception to this rule, and I would say that if you are only able to read one book from this saga for some reason, then make it this one.

The Horsekeeper’s Daughter – Jane Gulliford Lowes 

Yet another cop-out answer, but really, if a book is so good that it makes my top five in an entire year, then it makes logical sense that I would have already enjoyed it enough to decide to give it its own post, yes? Quite similarly to ‘The Five’, this is an odd mix of fact and fiction, which follows the very real Sarah Marshall on her journey as a migrant to Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although it isn’t written through the voice of the main ‘character’, the author manages to achieve a delicate balance of allowing the protagonist’s voice to be heard through the personal touches she adds to existing concrete facts; so it reads very much like any other historical fiction book despite being very much a factual account of real events. I must admit that when this was first recommended to me, I was sceptical and thought ‘surely that can’t really work, it’s either fictional or it isn’t’. However, Jane Gulliford-Lowes’ writing talent expands far beyond my scepticism, and within ‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ she creatively masquerades a sequence of hisorical facts as a really enjoyable piece of prose – it’s like the literary equivalent of a Sunday afternoon blockbuster on TV, it just ticks every box for a relaxing yet intriguing read.

Our House – Louise Candlish

‘Finally!’ I hear you exclaim, something which I haven’t already bored you with by rambling on about it earlier in the year. I genuinely have no idea why I didn’t allow ‘Our House’ its own review; and I will confess that I just spent a good few minutes scrolling through my own content, having previously been convinced that I did. Evidently I did not, and I cannot explain why because I recommended this book to pretty much everyone I spoke to back in March. The mind boggles. Anyway, I picked this book up in the Waterstone’s ‘buy one get one half price’ bin when I was buying something else, and I must admit thrillers are not my usual choice (as clearly evidenced by the barrage of historical fiction I’ve just thrown at you in the last few paragraphs), but something about this book struck me, and once I started reading it I began to understand why.

The story begins with a woman returning home and discovering total strangers moving into her house, which has been emptied of all its contents and bought by someone else. Initially, I thought this was going to be a kind of ghost story because it seemed so improbable, but in a very ‘Gone Girl’-esque twist of a marriage turned sour and a husband and wife working against each other, I discovered that her husband had mysteriously disappeared and had had the house legally sold without her realising; which is communicated excellently through a totally unbelievable plot which holds more twists and turns than a back road through rural countryside.

 

 

Review – Christmas with the Shipyard Girls

“Sometimes in life, love has to be sacrificed for a greater love.”

Yes, that time of year seems to be upon us once again. No, not just me getting prematurely excited about Christmas before the clocks have even changed, but me getting excited about a new installment of my favourite saga which features the best girl-power tribe since the Spice Girls. Although, The Shipyard Girls is set fifty years before Girl Power stormed into our lives one platform shoe at a time, so maybe our squad of welders were actually the original? The timeline boundaries between fictional and non-fictional feminist heroes are not entirely clear.

As usual, I digress. Christmas with the Shipyard Girls is, maybe second only to the Gavin and Stacey reboot, the Christmas special we have all been waiting for. I love Christmas, and as you’re all well aware by now, I love this saga; so I felt an odd mix of excitement and apprehension ahead of reading it, with my main thought being “please, please don’t mess this up, Nancy.” Needless to say, of course Nancy Revell has once again, smashed it. I love a Christmas spin-off of an existing saga – like a TV special, it’s always exciting to see your favourite characters against a festive backdrop, but a common mistake with Christmas editions is to have a short novella which, although usually festive enough that you can practically smell the roasting chestnuts diffusing from the pages, don’t actually have much of a ‘point’. Christmas with the Shipyard Girls however, I was pleased to discover, is actually a full-length novel with a good, meaty plot which happens to take place around the festive season; i.e. not one of those mistletoe-infused, pointless novellas which are clearly just marketing ploys to boost royalties (she says like she doesn’t also buy those whenever they come out).

Ironically for a Christmas story, I think this is possibly the darkest intstalment in this saga so far. Not in a depressing way, but we’re now almost half way through the war and that is clearly starting to take a significant toll on our characters. We’ve had some really impactful, emotional moments in previous stories (still not over the air raid at the end of ‘Victory’), but this was the first time I’ve read a Shipyard Girls book, or anything for that matter, and felt consistently emotional throughout – I found myself reading the entire thing with tears prickling in the back of my eyes. Having said that, I think it’s definitely important to include the darker or more challenging sides of the characters’ journeys, it would’ve been really easy for Nancy Revell to turn this into a Bing Crosby-esque yuletide scene of all our principal characters enjoying the festivities by a warm fire as if they were drawn on a Christmas card. Unfortunately, although they certainly made the festive season as magical as possible, the sad fact remains that this is a group of people who are existing in one of, if not the most, tumultuous and challenging periods of modern history.

The relationship between Polly and Tommy is very much in the foreground at this point in the saga, and although I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t finished yet, I initially found myself firmly cemented on ‘team Polly’. It reminded me of an ongoing discussion within my friendship group, in which most of us are in agreement of ‘I could never have a boyfriend who was in the army, imagine that lifestyle and periods of not knowing where he was, why would you do that to yourself?’. Thankfully, we are all lucky enough to live in a period where we have that choice, but unfortunately for Polly, and most other women of her time, sometimes that choice was taken away from them, and the context in which she is living intensifies every emotion like petrol on a bonfire which, as always, Nancy Revell evokes perfectly for the reader.

“Polly and Tommy’s love had become another casualty of this damned war.”

Despite the darker elements of the story, as always Nancy Revell has graced us with yet another gripping plot, which is also peppered with little pockets of emotion which remind us of the intense bond shared by these characters. My favourite part was when Martha and her parents receive the gift basket in true ‘A Christmas Carol’ style. Although this made little, if any, difference to the overall plot, it was the most genuinely touching moment – and Martha going to bed on Christmas Eve with her hot chocolate and biscuits gave me an image of her as Tiny Tim which, for any existing Shipyard Girls reader, is just heartwarmingly hilarious.

Although Christmas with the Shipyard Girls isn’t explicitly ‘Christmassy’ throughout every chapter; the generosity, selflessness and love between all the characters flows through every page, showing the ‘true’ meaning of the season of good will, before building up to the festive finale which is sure to ignite that warm, festive feeling in even the most ‘humbug’ of grinches.

Why not have a look at the rest of the blog tour?

Summer Reads

I feel like I keep starting every blog post with an apology for the lack of recent posting, but by skipping July entirely I’ve set a new record for myself. However, instead of boring you with yet more excuses about how busy my day job is and how stressful it is organising a wedding (which will all be over and done with in four weeks – eek!), I’m just going to glaze right over that and skip ahead to the actual post.

So, apparently it’s summer. Despite the constant rain storms and the fact that I sadly no longer get six weeks of freedom to mark the occasion, according to my calendar it is in fact summer. I’ve never quite understood the logic around ‘summer’ book promotions – as anyone who has visited this blog before will be well aware, I read anything and everything and the time of year doesn’t really come into the decision making process. Having said that, book shops and women’s magazines seem to become inundated with ‘holiday reading’ recommendations faster than chemists can promote this year’s must have ‘chub rub’ hack (still haven’t been able to find that liquid talc, god dammit, Asda). So, I decided to compile a quick list of my personal favourite summer reads.

In the same way Christmas seems to exist on a foundation of do-gooding and pigging out, I’ve always thought that Summer is constructed around an obsession with self reinvention and the pursuit of new adventures, yet also at the same time built on a premise of revisiting one’s past and reveling in how far you’ve come (think Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama). On that basis, I decided to include books with plots or general feelings along those lines, rather than a stereotypical romance by the pool with the cabana boy type rubbish which usually hog the limelight in Summer promotions.

The Single Girl’s To-Do List – Lindsey Kelk

It’s very difficult to review a book which you read seven years ago, BUT, the fact that I read it so long ago and still think of it as a good summer read surely counts for something, yes? I read this in my first ‘grown up’ summer, after finishing my A Levels and trying to figure out the next step in my life, and although I genuinely can’t remember specific parts of the plot or even the characters’ names without Googling it – what sticks with me is that feeling of freedom, that anything is possible and that a Summer lived to the max has some inane power to turn you from the proverbial caterpillar into the butterfly you always knew you could be.

The Last Piece of My Heart – Paige Toon

Disclaimer: every Paige Toon book is a perfect summer read, but TLPOMH is the one that really sticks out for me. I grew up in a family that loved staycations – i.e. staying in the U.K. for holidays (usually in a caravan), so for me, being in a campervan in Cornwall signifies everything that is British Summer. Falling in love whilst staying on an actual British caravan site by the sea brought back endless memories of a misspent youth for me, do with that information what you will. As with all of Paige Toon’s work, the reader becomes completely and utterly immersed in the setting, and you fall in love with yet another fictional character which sadly only exists inside Paige Toon’s mind. But, again as with all Paige Toon books, you end it with your heart feeling full and an overwhelming desire to sack off your day job and take off in a Campervan looking for hot widowers to pursue romance with.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary – Nick Burd

Simply one of, if not my actual, favourite books of all time. This is a young adult fiction book which was gifted to me by my mum years ago, though I managed to misplace it and then find it again as an adult; but the writing still had exactly the same impact. I’m a big advocate of adult readers exploring young adult fiction – there’s something about the YA genre which makes writers push the boundaries a bit more and let their creative freak flags fly (I’m looking at you, Twilight, I mean what on Earth was that actually?). Like The Breakfast Club, this is one of those wonderfully plot-less yet still gripping stories. It takes place over the summer holidays and follows the teenage protagonist as he tries to navigate through his first love, which is relatable to absolutely everyone young or old, but the story also runs in parallel to a local child mysteriously disappearing. I’m not aware of anything else Nick Burd has written (please send links my way if he has), but the writing is just extraordinary. Also, the love triangle which is the central focus of the plot involves three gay male teenagers, which is a really refreshing change from all the hetero-normative girl-meets-boy teen romance which seems to dominate the shelves (again, sorry Twilight, I secretly love you really).

Ingo – Helen Dunmore

Another young adult fiction book which I was gifted by my English-teacher mother, I’m sensing a theme here. I read, actually no it’s more accurate to say I devoured, the Ingo series when I was in my early teens. Again, I love an English seaside town in the Summer as the backdrop for an adventure, and anything involving a mermaid will always have me on board. Even when I have re-read these books as an adult, I’m still always sucked into the magic and excitement of Sapphire discovering the magical underwater world of Ingo, and her long lost father. What starts as every little girl’s dream, finding a secret mermaid colony right on her doorstep, develops into quite an intense saga which spans multiple installments, throughout which Sapphire is conflicted between the life she’s always known and the complicated, sometimes dark, world of Ingo where her familial roots lie; which at times physically pulls her in.

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

Unpopular literary opinion alert – I don’t really get the hype of To Kill a Mockingbird, though this is at least 99% due to the fact that I studied it for English Literature GCSE within a school that thought watching the film and learning four or five quotes was an acceptable substitute for actually teaching literature for two years. Rant over. I did re-visit To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult, and have to admit I enjoyed it far more when I wasn’t under pressure to remember specific quotes about a rabid dog and walking around in someone else’s shoes which I would then later have to regurgitate onto an AQA workbook in a smelly, sweaty school hall in mid-June. Mockingbird, although it reads a bit weirdly and more like columns than a novel, is a classic Summer story in my humble opinion – for me it’s tyre swings, lakes and running freely with your friends whilst relishing in the fact that school is out (try reading that last bit without getting Alice Cooper stuck in your head – impossible). Scout Finch will always be one of my main literary heroes; I want to call my future daughter Scout but sadly my husband to be does not appreciate good feminist heroes. Watchman is again a Summer story of the American countryside: tyre swings, lakes and catching up with friends, but experienced through the adult Scout who returns to Macomb with a fresh pair of eyes from her new life in New York. Although the plot is a little darker than Mockingbird (yes that apparently is possible), it still left me with a warm heart and a nostalgic smile on my face from revisiting summers gone by and seeing how Scout graduated into the adult, yet still just as feisty, Jean-Louise Finch.

 

 

Review – If You Could Go Anywhere

It’s mildly ridiculous that I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year and have yet to review any Paige Toon books. I had always been aware of her writing but never got around to reading any of her books until I met her at a signing last year, and since reading ‘Five Years from Now’ have become hooked and got through her entire back catalogue with rapid speed. I think a lot of readers are put off her books because, if you line them all up together, they do look like a stereotypical, mushy ‘chick-lit’ series which is one dimensional and lacks any real substance. I don’t know why so many people hate on ‘chick lit’ (I wrote a specific rant about this previously) – if a book is good it’s good, I don’t think genre particularly matters and, why is it so ridiculous that someone might want to read books which make them all warm and fuzzy inside? Rom-com films largely follow the same formula as ‘chick-lit’ and they aren’t frowned upon in the slightest. I’ll never understand literary snobs, but I digress as always.

“Angie has always wanted to travel, but at twenty-seven she has barely stepped outside the small mining town where she was born. Instead, she discovers the world through stories told to her by passing travellers, dreaming that one day she’ll see it all for herself.

When her grandmother passes away, leaving Angie with no remaining family, she is ready to start her own adventures. Then she finds a letter revealing the address of the father she never knew, and realises instantly where her journey must begin: Italy.”

The thing which really makes Paige Toon’s books stand out from others in this genre is that there is always a massive amount of significance given to the location in which the characters’ stories unfold. With every story of hers I have read, I’ve always felt completely immersed in the characters’ worlds and she always takes her readers on a journey through these places, essentially like Google maps; and ‘If You Could Go Anywhere’ is no exception. I was completely transported to the streets of Rome and it was like I was stood behind Angie the whole time, taking in what she was discovering. The locations in the book, as with all of Paige Toon’s work, act as benchmarks through which the characters’ stories progress, rather than through linear dates or significant life events, which allows the story to run much deeper and properly submerges the reader in the characters’ thoughts and feelings, rather than being focused around pacing and where the story is ‘going’.

I think this is what always keeps Paige Toon’s work so original, although the plots are always great and the character development is amazing, new and different locations allow for great characters to blossom within different cultures and keep their stories fresh. Again, I have absolutely no issues with ‘chick-lit’, I think it’s as valuable a genre as any other and if a formula works then why change it? But, the magic formula of a girl meeting a boy who helps her get over some past issues and she discovers who she really is along the way, can start to feel a little bit tired when you read as much as I do. It’s no reflection on the genre or skills of the author, but when you read a lot it does start to feel a bit tedious reading about yet another single twenty-something with a HR job in London who is struggling with the loss of a parent or sibling and trying to progress her career.

On the topic of the ‘magic formula’ of chic-lit and classic ‘girl meets boy’ novels, of which there is nothing inherently wrong, ‘If You Could Go Anywhere’ completely turned this on its head. Without revealing too many spoilers, on completion of this book I would definitely say that it’s actually a story of the girl saving the boy – Angie is definitely the strong pair of arms shielding him from his inner demons, which is really refreshing and very 2019 – feminism, yay! It would have been very easy for Paige Toon to take shy, sheltered Angie on a journey across Italy with a daring, carefree, ‘tumbleweed blowing in the wind’ Jack Dawson type who shows her how to really live, and that would have been a perfectly lovely plot, but Paige never does a plot by halves. Angie is a very tempting character to place in the role of a damsel in distress and I think if the author had fallen into this trap, the overall plot and character development wouldn’t have had half the impact – Angie becomes so headstrong and independent by the end of the story that it is really inspiring, and not only does she become her own hero but she becomes someone else’s too, which is an absolute 180 turn from the Angie at the beginning – though as with all Paige Toon books, I’m too busy enjoying the amazing setting to notice how much the character has developed through subtle changes until it hits you in the face during the climactic finale.

So, if you have been living under a rock and are not familiar with Paige Toon, or if you’ve been reluctant to try her work because it looks too ‘chick-lit’, I would absolutely suggest picking up literally any of her novels as a starting point because you will inevitably end up reading them all. Hopefully ‘If You Could Go Anywhere’ is followed by yet more additions to the long list of Paige Toon’s totally inspiring and feel-good reads. Besides, surely she can’t retire until she’s written about at least every country? Certainly doable if you ask me…

Review – I Heart Hawaii

I don’t watch ‘Game of Thrones’, but I have social media and speak to other members of the human race, so I am very aware that a good ending to a franchise is important and how people do get a little bit upset if an ending isn’t seen to do the story justice. I binge read all of the other ‘I Heart’ books last year, and although I do like Lindsey Kelk’s writing generally, I did find myself getting a bit bored by the time I got to I Heart Forever, and was wondering whether another book would be overkill. The characters were getting to a point of needing their happy endings tying up so they could walk off into the sunset, and Angela’s chaotic lifestyle of jetting around the globe spending silly amounts of money with her OTT friend and generally ignoring her adult responsibilities was, although very fun to read, getting a bit unrealistic. This sounds like a scathing review, but I would like it noted on record that I do generally enjoy this series, and was hooked on the first two to three installments, but some ‘I Heart’ books were better than others, which is always going to be the case in any series. Season five of friends is extremely forgettable, but doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to watch.

I Heart Hawaii is probably my favourite book of the series in terms of overall enjoyment. I’d tie it with I Heart New York (the first installment) for content and storyline, but I Heart Hawaii has the advantage of containing characters which the reader has already come to know and love, which makes the ending that bit more special. I felt that in this one we saw a different side to most of the characters too, which made it feel really fresh and that is hard to achieve after so many installments. Jenny has grated on me as a character since book one, I know she’s important for driving Angela’s character development and is integral for the overall plot, but I’ve always found her to be selfish, ego-centric and totally dominating towards Angela – she is just generally someone I wouldn’t personally like to be friends with. However, without revealing spoilers, in I Heart Hawaii Jenny’s vulnerable side comes out, which made me appreciate her character so much more and was maneuvered very eloquently by Lindsey Kelk, because vulnerability and Jenny Lopez don’t naturally go together, but it felt very genuine and believable, without taking away from her overall characteristics.

I Heart Hawaii showed the biggest change in Angela too, she started off as a kind of poor woman’s Carrie Bradshaw but a version who actually values her friends and doesn’t have appalling taste in male partners, with the genuine balls to take leaps and pursue her dreams which is what captivated the readers, though she went off track a bit and became a sort of celebrity hanger-on in the middle of the series, so it was nice for her to come back down to earth and become a real ‘grown-up’. Seeing Angela’s genuine insecurity too was refreshing, because she seemed to quickly become really confident with her new life in New York without issue or self-doubt, which for someone with anxiety, I found a bit hard to comprehend, but seeing her trying to navigate motherhood and a new career while feeling like she isn’t getting it right most of the time is something that resonates so strongly with everyone. It felt a bit like after the readers had gone on all the wild ‘I Heart’ adventures with Angela and her famous friends, we came back to Earth in the final book to touch base with our friends and our first love, New York City.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who is yet to read this book, or who hasn’t made it this far into the series, but I can say with confidence that everyone gets their storybook ending, some of which I would never have seen coming in book one but as the characters developed over their journeys I definitely feel they’ve been rounded off properly. And it was really nice to have a book which took place mainly in New York; while it has been fun exploring new cities with Angela, it was New York which captured her and all of our hearts so it felt only right for her story to come full circle in the place we all ‘heart’.

 

Review – The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

“They call me a heroine, but I am not deserving of such accolades. I am just an ordinary young woman who did her duty.”

If there are two things in which I firmly believe, it is that real stories from history about strong women must be told, and the assertion that the Northumberland coast is the best place in the world. Having grown up spending most weekends and every school holiday in Beadnell, it was only natural that this part of the country would occupy a very special place in my heart and, since there are a finite number of tourist sites within the surrounding radius, it also follows that I know more than your average North East person about Grace Darling.

Grace Darling is an extremely undervalued heroine, her picture was recently added to the ‘North East Heroes’ display in the Metro Centre’s Platinum Mall in Gateshead but beyond that I’ve never really heard her name mentioned outside of Bamburgh. As a child I spent many a happy hour combing Seahouses beach for sea glass and occasionally experiencing the thrill of coming across some specific green and white patterned china – real remnants of the Forfarshire wreck from which Grace and her father rescued nine survivors in treacherous conditions. I remember the Grace Darling museum when it was contained within a tiny house on Bamburgh’s main street opposite St Aidan’s church, which has since been renovated into a modern, interactive museum which is absolutely worth a visit. Every time I’m in that region I make a trip to Grace’s iconic memorial in the churchyard, but I’m always infuriated by the amount of people who live in the North East and have no idea about this important piece of history.

The author’s note indicates that Ms Gaynor came across a book about Grace Darling when she was in Alnwick’s iconic Barter Books, which inspired her to write the story. This stretch of Northumberland is a breathtaking place with so much depth and history, of which The Farne Islands is a particularly unique area and is almost a character in Grace’s life, so I have no trouble believing that it would inspire anyone to write about it. I’ll admit I don’t know much about Hazel Gaynor herself, or her other work, but it was clear from how passionately she writes about the events, the location and the rich detail flowing through each of her characters that she was inspired by the legendary story and the wild, untamable North East coast on which it was set; and she was able to completely do justice to both, which, for someone who is fiercely defensive of this part of the country and views it as her home with pride, is a real compliment.

“I don’t belong in bustling towns with their crowded streets and noisy industry, I belong here, with the birds and the sea, with the wild winter winds and unpredictable summers.”

The problem with the legend of Grace Darling is that her courage and heroism is matched only by her secrecy and mystery. She was famously private and closed off, deterring the attention resulting from her heroic rescue with every fibre of her body. So, sadly, very little is known about her personal life and recreations or media adaptations are exceptionally difficult to create. However, this did not stop Hazel Gaynor.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter follows Grace’s life following the Forfarshire rescue and how it was changed forever; not just through the reluctant fame which followed, but a resulting friendship with the only female survivor, Sarah Dawson, which ultimately leads Grace to possibly finding love. Grace was known for being fiercely independent and dedicated to her duties within Longstone Lighthouse, so history tells us that she never married, and Hazel Gaynor’s interpretation of Grace is just that, but it was still thrilling to imagine another side to her character and a possible paramour. History also tells us that an unknown man from Durham attended Grace’s funeral in full mourning, so there must be a chapter of her story which she managed to keep secret from everyone.

“Although only slight in build, she is possessed of a great strength of mind; a strength which needs no bolstering by the affections of a man.”

Within The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Grace’s story is intertwined with that of Sarah Dawson’s descendant Matilda who, in 1938, finds herself shipped off to America from Ireland after an unfortunate twist in her life following her meeting a dashing young soldier. On arrival in America, she lives with her mysterious cousin Harriet who is also a lighthouse keeper and, like Grace, uses the lighthouse as a kind of fort within which to enclose all her secrets. Matilda finds some letters in the Rhode Island lighthouse which, although tens of thousands of miles away from Longstone Lighthouse, could contain the answer to the question of the identity of this mysterious man from Durham, and who he was to Grace Darling.

I was gripped by Matilda’s story as well as Grace Darling’s from the first page, and although Grace’s is more “real” in terms of historical accuracy and factual events, both stories were equally powerful and inspiring to read. Although set almost a hundred years apart, both stories are about women who had to overcome physical challenges and rebelled against the conventions of the society within which they existed, and mysterious cousin Harriet’s story, which becomes more prominent towards the end, is much the same.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is an inspirational, genuinely heartwarming tale of hardship, loss, love and friendship for both principal female characters who, although they never meet, are intertwined. It was made more special for me by my existing love for The Farne Islands and its surrounding area, however, anyone who was to read this I would defy to not become curious about this wonderful place and to not immediately want to book the next boat trip out there to walk in Grace Darling’s footsteps.

‘Wannabe’ – Sunderland Has Been Spiced Up

Much like bangers and mash, Ant ‘n’ Dec and complaining about the weather, The Spice Girls are a timeless British classic; like a port in a storm they provide reassurance and fond memories of a better time. The late ’90’s was a far simpler, more joyous era (perhaps because I was an innocent child at that point), but I do think if Britpop made a return, the world would be a much calmer place; as it brings everyone together like the shared sense of annoyance within any delayed train carriage in any location within the British Isles.

So, like the mature, professional adult I am, I spent my Saturday night at the theatre. Everything is cultural and high brow if it takes place in a theatre, right? I’ve spent countless happy evenings in the Sunderland Empire, from the annual ballet with my mum and sister to family pantomimes at Christmas, countless musicals and even performing on that very stage myself, I’m always just as impressed by its beautiful Victorian interiors, the grandeur of the bars and the exquisite ceilings. And last night I was able to appreciate that for approximately four minutes; prior to the audience erupting out of their seats as the classic hit ‘Wannabe’ began blaring from the speakers following the curtain raise.

‘Wannabe’ the show is an odd mix between a Spice Girls tribute act and a musical. There isn’t a story per se, but it follows the career of the Spice Girls as both a group and solo artists (who knew Victoria Beckham had a solo single? I must’ve been washing my hair the day that came out), peppered with numerous nostalgic 90’s references: tamagotchis; Nokia 3310 phones; Pepsi cans – it was like opening a time capsule and re-living so many wonderful memories of a well-spent youth. Well, if it wasn’t for the eleven year old child in front of me incessantly asking her mum what all those references meant. When did I get so old?

So, the lack of a solid storyline is completely made up for by the experience of being able to hear classic, amazing songs performed by artists who, unlike the actual Spice Girls, can sing and dance with real competency. ‘Wannabe’ coming to Sunderland a month prior to the real girls’ performance at the Stadium of Light is a blatant marketing tool, for which I was always going to be sucked into buying tickets, but this technique may have actually backfired because the quality of performance in the show far surpasses anything I’ve seen from the Spice Girls, even when they were 20 years younger. I’ve always been a great lover of theatre productions because musical theatre performers are always so unbelievably energised and talented that stories and songs come alive before the audience’s eyes; and being able to experience classic, fun pop songs performed with a level of enthusiasm and talent that actually does them justice has completely upped the ante – the actual Spice Girls should feel nervous to follow that if I’m honest.

The set list was of course an array of Spice Girls classics, but also intertwined with some other classic covers. Having been born in the 90’s I am of course a firm believer in Girl Power, but a vocally competent version of the Spice Girls covering ‘Sisters are Doing it for Themselves’ was like a feminism bomb going off inside the theatre, there was not one bum which remained on their seat. An audience consisting entirely of drunk women and gay men is always going to be somewhat energised, but I was not at all prepared for the level of enthusiasm which this show aroused from its audience. The group rendition of Geri Halliwell’s classic cover of ‘It’s Raining Men’ complete with extremely buff male dancers ripping their shirts off at appropriate moments naturally caused absolute carnage in an audience of hen parties, cocktail-infused women in platform trainers and men who can high kick better than Louie Spence, but, because it’s in an ornate Victorian theatre the experience was, of course, classy and sophisticated at all times.

My only regret about attending ‘Wannabe’ was not dressing up. My friend and I joked about dressing up as Geri and Posh but stupidly, I dressed appropriately for an evening of dinner and the theatre with my friend, so by the interval I was sweating buckets and my feet were blistered beyond belief. The interval offers no relief either, consisting of a 90’s karaoke singalong to classics from the likes of Steps and Hanson; suffice to say I went home with no voice and aches in places I didn’t know could ache. A word of advice to anyone intending to cosplay their favourite Spice Girl – pick Sporty. Because when you’re cutting shapes in the aisles with topless male dancers to ‘Spice Up Your Life’, the last thing you want is to have a nip slip in Ginger’s Union Jack dress or to fall and break your neck in Posh’s stilettos. Any Spice Girls themed event is one of the few occasions where it’s appropriate to wear tracksuit bottoms and trainers in public, so I’m quite annoyed I didn’t allow myself that luxury.

But anyway, I’m off to catch up on my sleep, before digging out my old Union Jack dress and collapsing on the sofa in front of Spiceworld the Movie while planning how to re-design the interiors of my house to resemble the Spice bus.

Review – The Horsekeeper’s Daughter

‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ has been sat in my reading pile for well over six months at this point. I seem to start every book review with this disclosure, perhaps I should ask my employer for reading breaks in lieu of smoking breaks so I can actually finish all the reading I want to? That probably wouldn’t go down well. But anyway, I digress as usual. My dad actually recommended this book to me so, naturally, I nodded politely and feigned enthusiasm while putting it in the ‘never going to actually pursue reading that’ part of my brain and forgot all about it. I came across the author much later on Twitter and from a few things she posted about the book, my curiosity gradually got the better of me and I gave it a chance. Now, I’m mostly just irritated that my dad was right about something. There’s a first time for everything, yes?

‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ is very difficult to explain, because it is non-fiction, but reads like a fictional novel. I know, confusing. If I’m honest it’s the non-fiction aspect which initially put me off as I (wrongly) assumed it would read like an academic paper and I just don’t enjoy those at all. The ‘story’ is centred around the author, Jane Gulliford Lowes, discovering her family history through a box of old photos and treasures she inherited from an aunt. Her curiosity about the story behind these photos leads her on a journey of discovery through Victorian Seaham to, ultimately, present day Queensland.

My father’s side of the family are from Seaham (big up the Clyde family who do in fact get a shout-out), and it’s a very difficult place to explain if you don’t know it. To an outsider, Seaham is a bog-standard, North-East ex pit village (think Billy Elliott), which it is in a nutshell but like many places, there is so much more to it and it only takes a slight scratch of the surface to discover a rich history. I won’t go into what a lot of the rest of the North East think about Seaham folk because it’s neither accurate nor appropriate, but it is fair to say that it’s a unique place with quite a niche culture and history; one which even I never truly appreciated or understood, despite having familial roots there.

Although the story is generally about the author discovering her family’s history, the focal ‘character’ of the book is Sarah Marshall, who leaves her family behind and ventures, alone, to Australia on the single female migrant scheme. Absolute power to that woman is all I will say – a single woman leaving everything behind and gambling on the prospect of a better life, especially in 1886, is almost too ridiculous to be true but I LOVE it. It makes me want to say cheesy things like ‘you go girlfriend’, which I would never actually say in real life, but seriously, you go Sarah. I found myself forgetting for the majority of the book that Sarah was actually a real person and this wasn’t some fearless, feminist, fantastic creation by the author for the purpose of a good story. She serves as an important reminder that fact can sometimes be even stranger and more exciting than fiction.

That’s not to downplay the author’s role in the storytelling, however. Sarah’s story is captivating yes, but it’s the writing which brings her to life. The same applies for the locations in which Sarah’s journey takes place; Seaham and Queensland are almost secondary characters in the story and show how environments can be a product of the inhabitants who shape them, as well as the other way around – especially during such turbulent periods of history. The descriptions are completely captivating, which again is so incredible for a non-fiction writer. I still live near Seaham now, so I’m familiar with the layout and a lot of the history, but as I followed Sarah and her family’s movements through the village I was almost seeing a different place; Victorian Seaham was coming to life in my head without my existing impression of present-day Seaham distorting it. I felt like I was discovering a new place entirely which is a difficult thing to achieve, and was really special for me as both a reader and a local.

“Occasionally something happens which completely changes our perspective of that which we know and love. It can be something as simple as discovering a new footpath across familiar fields which affords us a fresh view of our homes in the distance. Sometimes it is the discovery of a secret about a dear friend or relative which can deepen or extinguish the bonds between us. Perhaps it is an event or circumstance or coincidence that casts the familiar in an unfamiliar light, the places we have known and loved for a lifetime seen through a different lens.”

It’s hard to summarise the ‘plot’ with it being a non-fiction story, but I laughed and cried throughout, and enjoyed it every bit as much I would a fictional novel, if not more. The path of Sarah’s family and their lives both in Seaham and Queensland does not run smoothly, but such is the case with real life stories; and I must admit I did quite like that. Sometimes the predictability of a fictional character’s inevitable satisfying end where all the sub plots and challenges are tied up nicely can get a little bit tedious. Jane Gulliford Lowes’ passion for history, especially that of the focal locations in the book, is apparent within every word and is what breathes life into the more factual aspects of the narrative, but the wonderful writing which underpins Sarah’s inspiring story really brings the whole thing together and provides the foreground needed to explore the two unique (yet in many ways similar) locations. The Horesekeeper’s Daughter is a perfect example of how some stories, no matter how humble, simply need to be told.

“No matter how carefully we plot our desired future course, no matter how methodically we map out our hopes and dreams, so often fate intervenes. This intervention can take a myriad of forms.”

Seaham – definitely not just a bog standard pit village.

Review – Kaerou: Time to Go Home by B. Jeanne Shibahara

I consider my literary taste to be very diverse, I literally do not judge a book by its cover and will give anything a try. However, when the lovely B. Jeanne Shibahara sent me a copy of Time to Go Home I must admit I was intrigued, finding something which is so unique is quite rare for someone who reads as extensively as I do. It sounds ridiculous to say but I would struggle to put this story into a particular ‘genre’ as it crosses over historical fiction, romance, mystery, humour and even military history at times – it seems to have a bit of everything which is unusual and it can’t be an easy task to add so many genres into a mix and make it work – but, like sweet and salty popcorn, sometimes mixing things up can be a great thing.

Time to Go Home follows Meryl, a Vietnam War widow whose grown son has moved to Japan and is struggling to find her place after her father remarries. For one reason or another, a Japanese flag from WW2 ends up in her possession, and she begins the task of trying to reunite it with the soldier’s family, leading her to embark on a journey through various locations in Japan, meeting an eclectic mix of characters along the way. The thing which struck me most within this story was the rich history behind each character, at first I was a bit confused as to why secondary and less important characters had such intense back stories, but it added so much depth to the overall plot and placed all the historical events in a much more relatable context for the reader, allowing for a more emotive response to the story.

World War Two has a tendency to be “over-done” within historical fiction, but the Japanese involvement is sadly something which is, at least in Britain, completely overlooked. The same applies for the Vietnam War, after each chapter I found myself Googling various things to understand when they took place and what the conflict was actually about. It was really refreshing to read historical fiction about something other than The Tudors and The Blitz, and if Shibahara hadn’t taken the time to give some historical back stories to the characters, the emotional impact of the time periods described would have been lost on me. It is one thing to understand the facts of what happened, but another experience entirely to read about it from a person’s own point of view and lived experience, even if parts of it are fictional. All of these emotional stories built up to the climactic finale of Meryl reuniting the flag with the sister of the soldier to whom it had belonged, and the similarities between their experiences of loss, despite being on opposite sides of the conflict and yet somehow connected, was very moving.

“In Japan…everywhere…red strings tie all people we meet together. Some strings are weak. Some have tangles. Some strong.”

Whilst exploring Japan, Meryl meets friends of her son’s who guide her through the new culture. It was refreshing again to read about a culture with which I’m completely unfamiliar, I felt like I was Meryl at times – exploring a new land with new friends. Fiona and Jo were my personal favourites, they provide a comedic relief from the seriousness of the rest of the plot, which is necessary for the reader but also very enjoyable in itself. They reminded me a bit of Fiona from Four Weddings and a Funeral with their dry humour and sass towards each other; which was a nice break at times from the more dominant themes of loss and moving on from difficult experiences. However, Fiona still shows her softer side towards the end which was an interesting twist which showed her in a very different light than I had expected to see but nevertheless enjoyed.

“Their cultures, personalities and generations were each as different as any two extremes could be, but the women had grown fond of one another…the labels society had stuck on them had fallen off”

As always, I don’t like to spoil books too much in my reviews, as it defeats the object of persuading someone else to read it. However, one of the final scenes between Meryl and the Professor in the cemetery once she returns from Japan was very moving and probably my favourite scene in the book. Also, the very end provides such a twist that I never saw coming but loved – it’s ironic that Meryl’s son Byron is a focal character from the first pages but isn’t revealed until the very end, but the twist is definitely worth waiting for.

 

 

Review: Courage of the Shipyard Girls

If you’ve read any of this blog so far, you’ll have picked up a slight hint that I like The Shipyard Girls. I plan my reading year around The Shipyard Girls. I stopped reading another book so that I could read this one. I have put aside a new book for which I have waited a year to be released, so that I could read Courage of the Shipyard Girls. As usual, I’ll try my best to keep this spoiler-free since Courage has only just been released and I know not everyone reads like me (i.e. consuming books like an anaconda desperately devouring its prey). For anyone who is totally new to The Shipyard Girls saga however, I would suggest you read my earlier post first to get a general idea of what the saga is and why it’s so brilliant (shameless self promotion there).

In the words of the great Julie Andrews, the beginning is a very good place to start. Like anyone who read Victory for the Shipyard Girls, I went into Courage of the Shipyard Girls with an overwhelming anxiety over what had happened to Tommy. I was so cheesed off about this at the end of Victory that, when I went to the signing for it, I said probably no more than five words to Nancy Revell. This was in part due to my anxiety at meeting a hero, but more to do with a desire to retain self-control and not flip tables while screaming in poor Nancy’s face ’IF YOU’VE KILLED TOMMY OFF I WILL COME AFTER YOU’, and being publicly blacklisted from my local Waterstone’s. Again, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t finished yet, but all I will say is that I will be going to my local signing for Courage, and there is no risk whatsoever of me flipping tables.

Then the other big development from Victory was Helen’s pregnancy which, I must admit, I was really excited for because I just wanted to see that little snake get what was coming to her. However I am going to hold my hands up and admit something I never thought I would say – I now feel sorry for Helen and sort of like her. Anyone who hasn’t finished Courage yet has probably just made the decision to stop reading this post, but I’m telling you once you’ve finished this one your opinion will be different. The relationship between Helen and Gloria was really sweet, as Gloria has somehow managed to melt the ‘ice queen’ side of Helen and draw out her kinder side that nobody knew was there (except Gloria and Nancy Revell). Also, at the end of Courage Helen is initiated into the Women Welders’ squad, which is something I never saw coming but am now looking forward to seeing pan out more. I have said before that there are no Kellys or Michelles in Thompson’s Shipyard, and while all of the main squad retain their fierce Beyoncé status, I have to say that although I like Helen being part of the crew, I don’t fully trust her yet and she remains at Kelly or Michelle level. This will be reviewed after book #7 however, because it’s become very clear how much Nancy Revell loves a plot twist and changing the reader’s opinion of the main characters – which is one of the many reasons why this saga consistently feels fresh and doesn’t feel close to being done.

Seeing another side of Polly was another thing that really stood out for me in this one. Having a saga with so many principal characters (and even more supporting characters) must be so difficult to write – I have images of Nancy Revell spinning plates like a circus performer trying to keep all the storylines going. Polly was my favourite Shipyard Girl in the beginning but she seemed to fade out in favour of some bigger plots in the last couple of instalments. It was great to see more of Polly again but even more intriguing to see her more vulnerable side. We all know our Women Welders are made of strong stuff, so seeing one of them hurting was a breath of fresh air, in an odd way. And for existing fans of the saga like myself, I found the juxtaposition of Polly and Bel’s relationship really interesting as it reminded me of the first Shipyard Girls book when Polly found Bel on the bedroom floor following the news of Teddy’s death, and was quite reminiscent of Polly taking Bel home when they were children. I always had the image in my head of Polly being the sturdy one who looks after Bel and it was interesting to see this go the opposite way.

“Rosie didn’t question whether Polly was up to work because she knew that she wasn’t up to not working. Building ships might not mend her broken heart, but it would help her survive”

The whole air raid sequence was the high point of this book for me, and I can’t fathom anyone disagreeing with me on that point. Given the time period in which this saga is set, there have been tense moments of a similar nature before, but never quite on this level and this was the first time a Shipyard Girls chapter genuinely drew tears out of me. Perhaps it’s because by this point in the series the readers are now extremely invested in the characters, I certainly feel like I know these girls as friends, so having them placed in such an intensely dangerous situation was very difficult to read. It was the first time in this saga I properly felt the emotional impact of the period in which the girls were living and I know this must be absolutely nothing compared to the real life experience of not knowing whether loved ones were safe after air raids; but for people like myself with no real connection to this time period I think this is as close as we can get to feeling that, which is no easy feat for an author so once again, hats off to Nancy Revell for making these stories come alive for the reader.

I know everyone says this about new books, but I would hand on heart say this was my favourite in the whole Shipyard Girls series. I loved all the previous books equally as they all tell different tales and have different themes, but taking characters I thought I knew and showing me different sides of them, combined with the air raid sequence absolutely blew the other instalments out of the park. The air raid sequence was the high point of the whole series for me, it was like a film’s climactic battle scene where every character had her bravery and strength put to the ultimate test.

“Blimey, the whole squad was here…Rosie looked like Boadicea going into battle with her cohorts behind her”

The timing of the release of this book is also very apt, in my humble opinion, because Sunderland is getting a bit of bad press at the moment. If you ask Netflix, we’re all hooligans with no other purpose than to watch football and brawl in the streets; if you ask the national news, we’re all racists who voted for Brexit like turkeys voting for Christmas; and if you ask the Crime and Investigation Network, this is a shell of a formerly great city with murder rates and drug problems rising in equal measure following the closure of the pits and the yards. To a degree, Sunderland is some of these things, but we are also the city that inspired Alice in Wonderland, that brought the world The Futureheads and Vaux beer, where Joseph Swan was inspired to invent the lightbulb and two of our lads are currently on the England football squad. This is a city of hard workers who would give their neighbour their last stottie if they needed it more, and would do so with a smile. As the Sunderland-born daughter of a former shipyard worker I can categorically verify that Mackems are hard working, friendly people who make strong ships and even stronger women, and if Nancy Revell hadn’t allowed the voices of our former Shipyard Girls to be heard, this may well have been forgotten. So on a personal level, I would just like to take the opportunity to say thank you to her.

“From the moment the klaxon sounded out the start of the day’s shift, every man and woman at Thompson’s shipyard worked flat out, as did every other worker in every other shipyard, engine works, factory, ropery and colliery on both sides of the river.
Their actions spoke louder than their words. They would not be beaten”

Took my copy on a little walk around Sunderland…