Blog Tour – Triumph of the Shipyard Girls

“It has been, and probably always will be, a constant battle for us women – having to prove our worth just because we’re female – and made so much worse by the knowledge that we’re actually so much better than the men.”

Becoming emotionally invested in a series, regardless of its format, is a risky game. There is always a feeling of inner conflict between a sense of loyalty to the characters and their stories, which you become so emotionally invested in, and the (sometimes questionable) choices of the writers; not unlike the whole Rachel and Joey getting together debacle on ‘Friends’, which seemed to have been clumsily thrown into the mix just to pass the time until the final series. Thankfully, I’m starting to feel quite certain that Nancy Revell is never going to put her loyal ‘Shipyard Girls’ fans through such trauma; since each instalment seems to be even better than the last. On that note, now that this series has a fairly established following, what are we calling ourselves? If Taylor Swift has ‘Swifties’, does that make us ‘Revellers’, perhaps? We’ll find it.

So, here we are in book eight and with the story lines still feeling as fresh as ever (phew). I believe ‘Triumph’ is book eight of twelve, but I could also be making that up – Nancy please feel free to shout at me if I just accidentally either sold you short or added to your workload. I’ve said it before, and will no doubt continue saying it every time a new ‘Shipyard Girls’ book drops, but it must be a really difficult task managing to keep a set of familiar characters and story lines feeling new and exciting for loyal readers over so many instalments; I don’t know how Nancy Revell manages this, but whatever she is doing is working perfectly. I’m a classic binger of everything; books, T.V. programmes, Haribo fizzy cola bottles – my patience (or lack of) never allows me to savour anything, so if this were my series, the story would definitely have been rushed through in a maximum of two fairly low quality installments. Infuriating as it was to finish ‘Triumph’ and still not have some of the answers I wanted, this frustration has now been channeled into unrelenting excitement for the next book.

The great thing about having a longer series is of course that it gives the author plenty of scope to play around with character development. I’m not entirely sure how this happened, it seems to have emerged as mysteriously as the lower pack pain which emerges as one approaches thirty, but I’m somehow now firmly pro-Helen. The biggest step towards this was of course within ‘Courage of the Shipyard Girls‘ and the dramatic final scenes in that book, but the drip-drip effect has continued and for some reason all of my earlier bitterness towards her has gone. Like when Geri re-joined the Spice Girls, it just…works. All the nastiness seems to have been forgotten, or just doesn’t feel important any more. Kudos to Nancy Revell, because that cannot have been an easy manoeuvre to orchestrate, sort of like trying to parallel park uphill.

“She had a habit of plunging into life – and more so, love – head first, only to resurface and find herself surrounded by chaos.”

Although I have a soft spot for all of our girls in this series (obviously except you, Miriam), Polly and Rosie have always been my two favourites; and both of them taking more of a central role within ‘Triumph’ suited me perfectly. Like most readers of this series, I’d always had my theories about Rosie’s past so it was nice to have that curious itch scratched within this instalment; and to see some continuation of positive things happening to our lovely Polly, finally! Of course Nancy Revell has once again served her readers a hefty dose of drama with a side of increased blood pressure whilst it unfolds before your eyes, but I feel like ‘Triumph’ may have been the most positive book in the series yet. By ‘positive’ I don’t mean that the others are all rubbish, far from it, but it felt like having a nice catch up with old friends and was lovely to hear that things are, generally speaking, going well for all of my girls at the moment. With all the other horrible things which have gone on, both within the lives of our Shipyard Girls and in the scary real world at the moment, it was nice to have a little pocket of positivity to enjoy within all the hideousness, and very much needed.

Triumph of the Shipyard Girls Blog Tour Banner

Why not have a look at the rest of the blog tour for more ‘Shipyard Girls’ hype?

My Year in Five Books

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

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

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

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

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter – Hazel Gaynor

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

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

Courage of the Shipyard Girls – Nancy Revell

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

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

The Horsekeeper’s Daughter – Jane Gulliford Lowes 

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

Our House – Louise Candlish

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

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

 

 

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?

Unpopular Opinion: Literary Edition

I don’t know where the recent obsession with ‘unpopular opinions’ came from, but it seems to be the new ‘no offence’ – phrases which, although overused, seem to make it perfectly justifiable to say something controversial and/or offensive if your comment is preceeded by those two little words. However, as irritating as I find the Radio 1 segment of ‘unpopular opinion’ (that theme tune is the Playdays theme, how on Earth did they get that through copyright, and how dare they ruin a cherished childhood TV show); a feature which seems to be code for ‘let’s just all have a rant about minor inconveniences in our lives’, I am both a feminist and a chatty Northerner and therefore a big believer in expressing one’s opinion, however ‘unpopular’ it may be. Literary opinions, I find, are often even more divisive, so I have bravely decided to challenge the status quo around the written word; and am hoping to boldly shake things up by causing even more of a stir than ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

Harry Potter is not good. 

Okay so I probably lost the majority of you at that point, but hear me out. Conceptually, Hogwarts is a great idea in itself – it is quite original if you discount baiscally every specific character and magical spell, all of which have largely been copied and pasted from a Wikipedia page on Greek Mythology, though I am a big fan of magical realism so these books definitely paved the way for more in this genre, and I am always in favour of women making careers for themselves – J.K. Rowling is a really great influential woman. BUT, her writing is not good. I’m sorry, but the sentence structure is terrible, her laptop clearly had no ‘synonyms’ function because every other word is the same, and they are just. too. long. for. children.

The ‘Twilight’ Saga really isn’t actually bad.

The odd couple of people who accepted the first point have probably now closed this window on their browser, but if you are still here, please hear me out. The films are absolutely terrible, we can all accept that and move on. That is a discussion for another day. But the ‘Twilight’ saga, is actually pretty damn good. I read all four books before any of the films came out, so I’m probably one of few people who were truly objective about it, and it really is a travesty when a terrible film ruins a truly good book *cough* Gone Girl *cough, cough*. The main things which irritate me about ‘Twilight’ critics is the unbridled hatred for Bella Swan. “She’s too quiet”, “she’s pathetic”, “she’s too plain” – I’m sorry, can anyone locate a teenage girl who is NOT quiet, shy, a bit plain looking and completely pathetic when it comes to a hot boy? We were ALL Bella Swan at some stage in our lives, and for me the release of this saga coincided with my awkward phase of admiring boys from a distance, wishing I had a decent pair of tits or a wardrobe with something other than plaid shirts and yearning for the universe to give me some self confidence – Bella Swan is the relatabale hero which we all need at some point in our lives. In a world of Hannah Montanas and Kendal Jenners, be a Bella Swan. Believe me, having a Bella Swan phase does wonders for developing resilience as an adult, not to mention an excellent grasp of self-depricating humour.

Stephanie Meyer is actually a good writer as well. So, even if you don’t like the overall concept of ‘Twilight’, it has the edge over sagas in that it is actually an engaging read. I do however accept that Breaking Dawn was entirely unnecessary and, if it absoutely had to be published, did not need to be so long and drawn out (I have a slight suspicion it was actually written by J.K. Rowling), but Twilight does not deserve the level of hate it gets, not one bit. But, if you really can’t damage your social status by being seen with a Twilight book, ‘Shiver’ by Maggie Stiefvater is definitely worth looking into; very similar concept but, you know, better in that you don’t have to picture Robert Pattinson’s slightly pained facial expressions when you read it.

Anne is the best Bronte sister

It goes without saying that the Bronte sisters are all a hugely important part of literary history and Feminism. All three were absolute trailblazers and I don’t dislike any of them. However, Wuthering Heights is absolutely and utterly terrible. That novel is the Twilight of the nineteenth century; Heathcliff brooding over his own misery and kind of being a d*ck to everyone because he isn’t with the girl he likes, which has only occurred through his own self loathing and punishment, and Cathy being unable to function without his weird, narcissistic and controlling persona – that is Bella and Edward at their worst. Cathy in her room refusing to eat? That is ‘New Moon’ Bella who is literally prepared to lie on the ground in a dark forest and then isolate herself for like a year because she is too pathetic to function without her aloof man. Maybe in a hundred years GCSE students will be studying ‘Twilight ‘and discussing if the wildness of the Forks forests is indicative of the wildness of Edward’s character like the Moors and Heathcliff, but honestly I do not understand the obsession with Wuthering Heights. It’s badly written, drones on a lot and is just utterly depressing.

Jane Eyre on the other hand? Hello, feminist empowerment. I have never seen a TV or film adaptation of Jane Eyre, and I don’t need to. That book is just perfect, although the ending is a bit questionable – I mean, she’s so fiercely independent that she is prepared to sleep in the field rather than rely on the weird, old, MARRIED, man she fancies; but then ends up with him in the end? What’s that about? Which brings me to, the absoulute MASTERPIECE that is ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. I know an English teacher who has not even read this book. Anne is such an overlooked Bronte sister and it deeply upsets me because that story would be divisive even today – romance from the point of view of a heterosexual man pursuing a woman? A woman who has fled an abusive relationship who isn’t damaged or in need of saving by the new man? Unheard of, yet incredibly refreshing and empowering. Anne, on behalf of the reading community globally, I would just like to take this opportunity to apologise for treating you like Michael Collins on Apollo 11. Go on, Google who that is, and you’ll get the joke.

Historical fiction can and should be enjoyed by young people.

Anyone who has looked at this blog will be well aware that I love a historical fiction saga. The Shipyard Girls gives me life, Rosie Goodwin and Glenda Young literally could not churn out a bad novel if they tried; basically I will read anything that takes place prior to 1960. But, for some reason, historical sagas like this are almost exclusively marketed at women over 60. The same applies for ‘teen’ and ‘young adult’ fiction. Apart from books which help children how to read and those which contain some distressing or inappropriate content, I do not understand how fiction can be marketed at particular ages, or even genders. I just don’t get it. You don’t go to the cinema and say “what’s new in the ages 14-16 section this week?” or “what’s being pushed on the twenty-something women via Heat Magazine this month?”. Everyone I have ever met enjoys an absolute array of film genres, so why do we restrict ourselves with books? I know people who will exclusively read crime, or exclusively read romance – why are you doing that to yourself? I enjoy Silence of the Lambs as much as Bridget Jones, and as much as Frozen; film choices depend what ‘mood’ you’re in, and it’s absolutely the same with books. Snobbery is what it is if I’m going to be quite frank, and I can’t chuffing stand it.

So, if you’ve made it this far without recoiling in disgust at my defence of Bella Swan and slating of J.K. Rowling – to the majority of the reading community that’s like saying the American version of The Inbetweeners was better than the original. But, I’m comfortable with who I am and absolutely believe we should all let our literary freak flags fly and read whatever the hell we want to without judgement because what’s the worst that could happen – you find a new series that you love?

Summer Reads

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Piece of My Heart – Paige Toon

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

The Vast Fields of Ordinary – Nick Burd

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

Ingo – Helen Dunmore

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

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

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

 

 

Review – If You Could Go Anywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – I Heart Hawaii

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

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

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

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

 

Review – The Horsekeeper’s Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seaham – definitely not just a bog standard pit village.

Re-reading

Here’s the thing. For someone who reads as much as I do, the one thing people are always shocked to hear is that I have never re-read a book in my adult life. When I was a kid I obviously had my favourites which were regurgitated every bedtime, but past about the age of thirteen I have never thought to re-visit an already completed story. My mum once said that her only fear of dying was that she would die before being able to read every book ever published which, although was meant as a joke, is a very valid point if you ask me. With new books constantly being churned out by publishers, and a whole abundance of already published material – why would you waste time repeating books when there are so many more to discover?

Recently, I’ve been off reading a bit. I know, just pick your jaw back up from the floor whenever you’re ready. I have already posted about losing my mojo generally, which inadvertently led to me putting down the books for a while. But, I think part of it as well was the fact that my chosen read at the time was a book I’ve wanted for quite a while, which sadly turned out to be a disappointment. I’m not going to name and shame, because the book isn’t bad in itself, perhaps it was just not to my writing style, but every time I sat down to read it; it felt like a case of ‘right I have half an hour let’s try and get this chapter finished’ as opposed to ‘let’s try and squeeze in as much reading as I can because I can’t wait to see where the story goes’. Reading is supposed to be fun, and that was not conducive to a good relationship between me and my favourite hobby, so it’s no wonder I lost motivation altogether. It was like coming home to a tedious relationship – which would be ludicrous to continue doing if it didn’t improve. So, as an experiment, I decided to re-read a book I loved as a teenager and see what happened.

Initially, it was a really odd experience. Because I loved this book so much as a teenager, the plot was well cemented in my memory and certain words and phrases triggered memories I hadn’t realised were still there. It was like when you’re really little and running so fast that your legs haven’t quite caught up with your body – I knew what was coming and my brain was working faster than my eyes were reading the words. However, although I thought I knew this book inside-out, at certain points I had wonderful moments of re-discovery, in the same way that smells can trigger memories from childhood which you’d forgotten entirely. Also, and this is possibly because I was re-reading this story as an adult rather than a teenager, I had a couple of ‘penny dropping’ moments with certain plot points which I’d completely missed previously. Again, it’s possibly because I’m now a grown-up who cries at everything and not a stone-cold teenager, but I was really surprised to find myself having a genuine emotional reaction to some tougher chapters. I think this is possibly because I already had that familiarity with the characters – the challenge for authors wanting to create an emotional reaction from the reader is to get the reader emotionally invested in the characters first. When you’ve read the story before, that’s already been achieved, so I was able to enjoy the story in a new way.

So, my experience of re-reading was pleasantly surprising. It’s apt that I’m writing this the day after watching a new film I’d been wanting to see, which turned out to be rubbish and I’m still annoyed that I wasted my Saturday night on it – when I could’ve re-watched Mamma Mia for the fiftieth time and had a great night. I’ve definitely learned that there is nothing wrong with revisiting already-loved stories, in the same way we all love coming home to a treasured favourite film; and, that forcing yourself to read something that you are simply not enjoying is not a good idea. I actually did that last year with a different book (*cough* Wuthering Heights, *cough* I know it’s a classic but it’s just not good), and it felt like wading through treacle to get to the end which was a complete waste of my free time which could have been spent genuinely enjoying something else.

Review: Courage of the Shipyard Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Took my copy on a little walk around Sunderland…