Blog Tour – The Shipyard Girls on the Home Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour – The Paper Mill Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour – ‘A Christmas Wedding’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour – The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour – A Christmas Wish for the Shipyard Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts After ‘Midnight Sun’

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

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

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

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

Clap for Our Authors

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Library Part Two – The Flatshare

No, I haven’t left my husband and gone into a flat share, even though the sound of him shouting and swearing at his friends/the game they are playing/the other players/goodness only knows what else from his ‘man cave’ upstairs continues to assualt my ears on a daily basis. I shared flats for three years whilst I was a student, and hated two of those years with a vehement passion; I’m definitely too territorial to live with more than one other person (and even that is a struggle sometimes, especially in lockdown). Where was I? Oh yes, ‘The Flatshare’. This book was recommended to me by a friend with the single promotional line of “it’s totally Georgia-level chick lit!” (for clarity, my friend’s name is Georgia, this isn’t a separate sub-genre of women’s fiction, that I know of). I must confess that I was a bit apprehensive; whilst I fiercely disagree with the notion that ‘chick lit’ entails bad or sub-par writing, Georgia’s taste in chick lit is a little bit more…fluffy…than mine. I like a bit of romance as much as the next person, but I also have a cynical side which just needs a bit more substance to a story to balance out all the unneccessary mushiness (*cough* ‘Fifty Shades’ *cough*). That said, being stuck in the house with literally nothing else to do seemed like the perfect time to roll the dice on a new book – what did I have to lose? But thankfully, Beth O’Leary’s intriguing characters and twisting plot did not leave me disappointed.

“I explicitly told you that the first rule of flatsharing is that you don’t sleep with your flatmate.”

As a northerner, the struggle which London based twenty-somethings have to endure to keep a roof over their heads is somewhat alien to me. However, the overpowering desire to not have to move back in with one’s parents following a difficult break up is a truth which I think is universally acknowledged. So, Tiffy’s decision to accept the unorthodox arrangement of sharing a flat, and even a bed, with a complete stranger to avoid such peril is certainly understandable. And after all, her elusive flatmate Leon works nights and spends every weekend at his girlfriend’s house, so although they sleep in the same bed, they don’t actually sleep together; thus the first and foremost rule of flatsharing remains unbroken, right?

“Come on! You can’t share a bed and not share anything else, if you know what I’m saying.”

Although I started ‘The Flatshare’ thinking that it was going to be a fairly standard romantic story of two people initially failing to realise that their true love was right in front of them all along, this prediction was quickly forgotten as the complex plot began to unravel. The story is told from both Tiffy and Leon’s points of view, which are distinguished through completely different writing styles; to the point where it’s almost difficult to believe that the entire book was written by one person. This cannot have been an easy process for Beth O’Leary to maintain, but it really made me believe that I was inside the minds of both principal characters, and was almost like reading two different books. Both of its lead characters are also perfectly flawed in their own ways, which added masses of depth to their stories as individuals, and even more so to the overall plot as their own stories begin to overlap.

The main thing which really stood out for me in this book is how well Beth O’Leary nailed the telling of Tiffy’s recovery from her previous abusive relationship. It would have been an easy trap to fall into to write Leon as the perfect man who storms into Tiffy’s life in shining armour to pick up the pieces, but she manages to perfectly navigate away from the ‘hero’ and ‘broken damsel’ dichotomy and sensitively represents the frightening and confusing process of healing from emotional abuse which, although can be eased significantly through support from one’s friends, is a journey which ultimately involves the traveller having to fly solo and empower themselves from within.

Sprinkling romance on top of this would have been challenge enough for most authors, but Beth O’Leary went even further and added rich complexities to Leon’s past (and indeed his present), as well as a sub-plot in which he helps a terminally ill World War Two veteran to reunite with his long lost love before he dies, which, I must confess, was the ‘real’ romantic take-home-message of the story for me. Of course the actual romantic ending was lovely as well, but I am a sucker for an understated romantic story which spans across the decades. By the end, there are so many elements to this overall story that it becomes the literary equivalent of baking a carrot cake; tricky to balance all the ingredients in perfect harmony and something which I have never been able to achieve without having to cut a large portion of still-soggy mixture away from the finished result, but I was very pleased to discover that ‘The Flatshare’s complex plot is harmonised to perfection and leaves no loose ends or sogginess (except maybe some moisture in the eyes).

 

Lockdown Library Part One – The Bobby Girls

It’s all gone a bit horrible, really, hasn’t it? I vividly remember saying to a colleague before Christmas how I wished I could have just a few paid weeks off work to relax, joking that I would love maternity leave without the maternity element of it. With hindsight, the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ comes to mind. Being stuck in the house with nothing but time to kill is every writer’s (and reader’s) dream, but every time I’ve thought about putting pen to paper (or fingertips to laptop), I’ve never been too sure what to say. I don’t really know how I feel about it all; that seems to change on an hourly basis, and social media is littered with people being criticised for enjoying lockdown when other people are struggling, and others being criticised for being too negative and not appreciating what they have, so I’ve been too chicken to say anything at all on the subject. So, I cannot profess to be an expert on how best to deal with lockdown, because my strategy of binge watching ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘Tiger King’ (eclectic taste, I know) and baking endless sugar filled goodies has led only to weight gain and insomnia. The only thing I feel I can offer, is to continue reviewing books which are currently helping me to pass the time, so, in the spirit of ‘keep calm and carry on’, I reasoned that I should continue doing what I do best – getting excited about books.

We all know that I love a good saga, so when the Kindle store recommended ‘The Bobby Girls’ to me, I had high hopes. Hopes which Johanna Bell’s excellent writing and endearing characters definitely exceeded. Having worked closely with various police forces within many of my ‘day jobs’, female police officers are something which I, like most people today, take completely for granted. However, despite having an interest in women’s history, I’m ashamed to admit that I had a fairly limited understanding of how female police officers came to exist. I did an entire module on the history of policing at university, and I don’t think female officers got one mention; clearly I was too busy stacking shelves on the weekends to fund weeknight pub crawls across the college bars to take the time to question that.

So, ‘The Bobby Girls’ follows three women from vastly different backgrounds who all sign up to be part of the ‘Women Police Volunteers’ (WPV) during the First World War. I had never actually heard of this volunteer scheme before, so it was certainly interesting to learn about from a historical point of view, but mostly just exciting to tag along with three fiercely empowered women as they protect London’s streets from dangerous criminals and help their fellow sisters wherever they can, all out of the goodness of their hearts, despite constant discrimination from men and the prospect of them having the right to vote seeming even further away than the complete end of lockdown restrictions.

“‘How has the WPV changed you?’ She asked her instead. Irene looked thoughtful. ‘I’ve realised that people from all walks of life can be friends,’ she said. ‘And that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.'”

Although this saga follows four main recruits of the WPV, this instalment focused mainly on the slightly naive, upper class Maggie (or Posh Spice, as I think could be an appropriate alter ego), and her story of discovering her own strength, as well as learning more than she bargained for about a world which her parents had kept her sheltered from. Although she has quite the personal journey in this one, I finished the book with a niggling feeling that her story is really only just beginning; and am definitely looking forward to seeing where her newfound strength and confidence takes her, as well as learning more about her empowered comrades and where their WPV experience will take them. Maggie, Annie and Irene’s binding friendship and fearlessness had me wanting to stand up and belt out ‘Sisters are Doin’ it For Themselves’, but for the sake of my poor neighbours, I didn’t. Plus, I couldn’t put the book down for long enough to actually do that, for fear of missing out on their next exciting escapade. Although, the second instalment is out in May, so it is always nice to leave something for next time.

“‘As I’ve always said, if you want a job doing properly then you should ask a woman to do it,’ she added, her eyes twinkling mischievously.”

Is ‘the book version’ Always Better?

“If I ever get a book published and then allow someone to make a film out of it, please shoot me directly in the face” – me, consistently throughout my adult life.

Perhaps that statement may be a bit strong, yes, but any book lover can relate to the internal anxiety of “the film version” of a treasured book being released. It is just truly horrible, but I don’t think anyone has ever managed to comprehensively explain why. For me, I honestly find it invasive and as if someone has stolen thoughts and memories from my own brain and re-interpreted them without my permission. Oh, the endless arguments of “but they missed out the best part!” with my literary challenged friends as we leave the cinema. However, after the absolute insanity that was BBC One’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol was on TV this week; I found myself in a position I don’t often find myself in – having logic used by someone else to disprove something I’ve said. Specifically I was mid-rant (as I often seem to find myself), having played the “they didn’t use ANY of the original text” card, to which a friend said “but it’s an interpretation; if you want the original text go and re-read the book.” Valid points were made.

Before I go any further on this, I feel like I need to name and shame some worst offenders here, purely as a means of cleansing my soul like an exorcism.

“Me Before You” – book by Jojo Moyes. Where to even begin? The main issues I had with this ‘interpretation’ are twofold: primarily, the relationship between Will and Louisa was never about romance and never had that element to it, at least not in the version in my head. Secondly, Will’s dad feeling trapped in a loveless marriage because of a need to care for him was a significant factor in the decision to end his life, which made sense, yet was completely omitted which just made Will seem a bit selfish for wanting to die with no real legitimate reason, especially when, in film land, he has his lovey-dovey, doting girlfriend to live for now. Just, why?

“The Golden Compass” – adapted from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I was actually so offended by this very concept that I haven’t seen any more than the trailer. Why would you take a concept from a book, base a film on it, and then have the AUDACITY to re-name said concept. A “golden compass” is not even a thing. It’s an alethiometer, and your film idea is stupid.

“The Girl on the Train” – book by Paula Hawkins. Confession time, I actually don’t dislike this film. It’s so Autumnal that I do quite like to watch it in October, just as the dark nights are starting. However, the film and the book are essentially different stories which just happen to share a name because they are such polarised interpretations of the same characters. Also, why hire a British actress to play a British character, and then randomly set it in America? Not knowing the answer to that question is probably the reason I sometimes can’t fall asleep at night.

Moving back to my original point, perhaps the issue here is that I need to un-learn the use of the phrase “film version” and change it to “interpretation”. Much like the endless “Edward or Jacob” debate which spanned from ‘Twilight’ years before it was immortalised in tween culture by Kristen Stewart (although not really a debate because the obvious and only correct answer is Jacob); books are subject to a huge range of interpretations based on text alone, and that can be even before they get “turned into” films, if they are ever at all. I had a similar debate with a friend who also loved “Elizabeth is Missing” by Emma Healey (tremendous read if you haven’t yet come across it); after we both watched the TV film version and had entirely different reactions. I was appalled at the notion that it had turned the story into an overly emotional, upsetting personification of the harsh reality that is Alzheimer’s and strayed away from being a great mystery novel which happened to be portrayed through the main character having Alzheimer’s. At this point, my friend looked me square in the face and said “did we read the same book?”.

Whilst I can confirm that we did, in fact, read the exact same book (even the same physical copy as I lent it to her), unfortunately we both have different brains and personalities, so we interpreted it differently and, to my shock and horror, it would seem that ‘my’ understanding is not necessarily the correct one. I know, I’m still coming down from the surprise of this myself. So, with my newfound acceptance of film adaptations of treasured books as being ‘one person’s interpretation’ of a story and not a personal attack on my love of particular books, I went to see the new Little Women this week and I actually really enjoyed seeing beloved characters come to life on screen. In fact, I would go as far as saying I liked this version of Little Women better than the book, because I seem to be the only person who read that book and didn’t want Jo and Laurie to get together. I personally thought Laurie and Amy made a much better match because Jo is a free spirit who cannot be tamed and Laurie is kind of pathetic, like Amy, which is the angle Greta Gerwig seems to have taken and it absolutely worked. Perhaps like the urban legend about the woman who bought a snake which then began measuring her each night in preparation for eventually eating her, all stories are eventually told in various versions and, although we all have our favourites, that might not necessarily make others wrong?