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

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.

thumbnail_Pearl of Pit Lane blog tour card

My Year in Five Books

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

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

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

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

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter – Hazel Gaynor

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

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

Courage of the Shipyard Girls – Nancy Revell

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

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

The Horsekeeper’s Daughter – Jane Gulliford Lowes 

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

Our House – Louise Candlish

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

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

 

 

Review – Christmas with the Shipyard Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reads

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Piece of My Heart – Paige Toon

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

The Vast Fields of Ordinary – Nick Burd

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

Ingo – Helen Dunmore

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

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

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

 

 

Review – If You Could Go Anywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – I Heart Hawaii

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

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

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

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

 

Review – The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wannabe’ – Sunderland Has Been Spiced Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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