Blog Tour – ‘A Christmas Wedding’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour – The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clap for Our Authors

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Library Part Two – The Flatshare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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