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!

Review – ‘Above Us, the Stars’

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Jane Gulliford Lowes, 2020

Blog Tour – The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour – A Christmas Wish for the Shipyard Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts After ‘Midnight Sun’

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

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

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

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

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.”

Blog Tour – Pearl of Pit Lane

Glenda Young is an author who I have really come to like, and who has quickly become one of the main names in saga/historical fiction genres, but unfortunately she seems to have an irritating habit of releasing books at times when my life is too busy to give them the attention they really deserve. How inconsiderate of her. I did find time to review her first novel, which I loved, the second was devoured in the midst of my wedding plans and so was overlooked on my blog, and the third clashed with a frantic Christmas. However, her third novel was recently released in paperback, so it seemed like the right time to finally give it the hype it deserves; and, as we all know, I’m never one to shy away from an opportunity to get excited about great books within a blog tour!

Even though I’ve just listed them choronologically, Glenda’s novels can be read in any order, and would no doubt be enjoyed just as much in any combination. Personally, I would suggest a binge-read if you haven’t tried any of them; and if the news is anything to go by at the moment it seems like the safest place to be is at home with some great books, so why not get the Kindle stocked up?
‘Pearl of Pit Lane’ follows orphaned Pearl Edwards, who has a tough life with her aunt Annie, who has to walk the ‘pit lane’ to keep a roof over their heads, but as times get harder Pearl finds herself faced with few other options than to follow in Annie’s footsteps. However, her strong will and fearless independence helps Pearl to find her own way in a difficult world, even learning more than she had bargained to about herself along the way.

“Put me to work on the pit lane, would you? Is that all you think I’m worth?”

Like its two predecessors, ‘Pearl of Pit Lane’ takes place in 1919, a time period which I find is generally quite overlooked within historical fiction. It’s understandable that it would be, I suppose, since it can reasonably be assumed that it was probably a ‘lull’ after the massive events which dominated the previous four years (like that weird week between Christmas and New Year when nobody knows what the hell is going on), but that’s what makes these stories all the more interesting. We all know a lot about what happened between 1914 and 1918, but what happened after that? I was naive enough to think that things probably went back to ‘business as usual’, after this, but as this story in particular informs us, that was certainly not the case. Set in the North East village of Ryhope, which is just next to where I grew up, I initially thought that ‘Pearl of Pit Lane’ would have a degree of familiarity for me, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover Glenda’s words breathing fresh life in to a familiar place, to the extent that I felt as though I was being transported into a totally different world. So, her novels are absolutely not just for the attention of those of us who are lucky enough to be able to relate to some of the landmarks which still stand today.

Even though I grew up close to where the novel is set and studied history for a good few years, I had absolutely no idea about the history of ‘pit lanes’; so it was really intriguing to learn about a darker side of the past. That’s one of the many wonderful things about Glenda Young’s writing; all of her novels take a fairly dark element of the time period in which they are set, but her fierce female protagonists always manage to take those struggles and turn them into inspiring and heartwarming triumphs which have the reader holding back tears by the end. It’s a difficult balance to get; managing the tipping points between the more gritty and unpleasant aspects of history with the warming romance which comes with this genre, but she always seems to achieve it perfectly, and with the added bonus of totally inspirational characters.

“Her clothes might be worn and shabby, but she had a heart the size of Ryhope itself.”

Although this post is specifically focused on ‘Pearl of Pit Lane’, I thoroughly recommend reading all of Glenda Young’s novels; I definitely enjoyed all three in equal measure and am looking forward to the next, and, if you keep the characters from each one fresh in your mind; you might find a few bonus surprises in the other stories. The only thing which I feel Glenda has left her readers without is a spin-off novel in which all of her formidable female leads join together to overcome some huge adversity, because that would be absolutely epic; like ‘The Avengers’, only actually enjoyable and inspiring.

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