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.

Review – Kaerou: Time to Go Home by B. Jeanne Shibahara

I consider my literary taste to be very diverse, I literally do not judge a book by its cover and will give anything a try. However, when the lovely B. Jeanne Shibahara sent me a copy of Time to Go Home I must admit I was intrigued, finding something which is so unique is quite rare for someone who reads as extensively as I do. It sounds ridiculous to say but I would struggle to put this story into a particular ‘genre’ as it crosses over historical fiction, romance, mystery, humour and even military history at times – it seems to have a bit of everything which is unusual and it can’t be an easy task to add so many genres into a mix and make it work – but, like sweet and salty popcorn, sometimes mixing things up can be a great thing.

Time to Go Home follows Meryl, a Vietnam War widow whose grown son has moved to Japan and is struggling to find her place after her father remarries. For one reason or another, a Japanese flag from WW2 ends up in her possession, and she begins the task of trying to reunite it with the soldier’s family, leading her to embark on a journey through various locations in Japan, meeting an eclectic mix of characters along the way. The thing which struck me most within this story was the rich history behind each character, at first I was a bit confused as to why secondary and less important characters had such intense back stories, but it added so much depth to the overall plot and placed all the historical events in a much more relatable context for the reader, allowing for a more emotive response to the story.

World War Two has a tendency to be “over-done” within historical fiction, but the Japanese involvement is sadly something which is, at least in Britain, completely overlooked. The same applies for the Vietnam War, after each chapter I found myself Googling various things to understand when they took place and what the conflict was actually about. It was really refreshing to read historical fiction about something other than The Tudors and The Blitz, and if Shibahara hadn’t taken the time to give some historical back stories to the characters, the emotional impact of the time periods described would have been lost on me. It is one thing to understand the facts of what happened, but another experience entirely to read about it from a person’s own point of view and lived experience, even if parts of it are fictional. All of these emotional stories built up to the climactic finale of Meryl reuniting the flag with the sister of the soldier to whom it had belonged, and the similarities between their experiences of loss, despite being on opposite sides of the conflict and yet somehow connected, was very moving.

“In Japan…everywhere…red strings tie all people we meet together. Some strings are weak. Some have tangles. Some strong.”

Whilst exploring Japan, Meryl meets friends of her son’s who guide her through the new culture. It was refreshing again to read about a culture with which I’m completely unfamiliar, I felt like I was Meryl at times – exploring a new land with new friends. Fiona and Jo were my personal favourites, they provide a comedic relief from the seriousness of the rest of the plot, which is necessary for the reader but also very enjoyable in itself. They reminded me a bit of Fiona from Four Weddings and a Funeral with their dry humour and sass towards each other; which was a nice break at times from the more dominant themes of loss and moving on from difficult experiences. However, Fiona still shows her softer side towards the end which was an interesting twist which showed her in a very different light than I had expected to see but nevertheless enjoyed.

“Their cultures, personalities and generations were each as different as any two extremes could be, but the women had grown fond of one another…the labels society had stuck on them had fallen off”

As always, I don’t like to spoil books too much in my reviews, as it defeats the object of persuading someone else to read it. However, one of the final scenes between Meryl and the Professor in the cemetery once she returns from Japan was very moving and probably my favourite scene in the book. Also, the very end provides such a twist that I never saw coming but loved – it’s ironic that Meryl’s son Byron is a focal character from the first pages but isn’t revealed until the very end, but the twist is definitely worth waiting for.

 

 

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…

Review – The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

It’s almost embarrassing that I’ve had this blog for about six months now and have yet to make a specific mention of my love for Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, but the most recent instalment was released at the beginning of February so it seemed the perfect time to profess said love. I first came across this series back in 2017 when I picked up The Woman in Blue by chance at my local Waterstone’s and was completely hooked, so I did what any rational person would do and consumed the previous seven books in the space of a couple of weeks. Although I loved the entire series, I do wish I’d realised at the first instance that the book I’d picked up was part of an existing series and had read them in chronological order because I ruined some quite major plot twists for myself by starting on book eight.

Ruth is one of my many, many literary heroes. Living alone in a cosy yet creepy cottage on the edge of Norfolk’s saltmarsh which I always imagine as Kate Winslet’s cottage in The Holiday but surrounded by an eerie fog, is basically the dream. She’s independent, intelligent and fiercely feminist which I love, and her day job is as an archaeology lecturer but somehow seems to get called in by Norfolk Police to examine murder victims’ bones at regular intervals. The only real plot hole in this saga is that people continue living in this area despite there seeming to be a new murder case approximately every six months.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Elly Griffiths’ fictional version of Norfolk Police force, this brings me to DCI Harry Nelson. Ah Nelson, how you confuse my emotions. I hated Nelson at the start of this series – he’s a narcissistic, indecisive pig who just loves to have his cake and eat it too. However, he’s also incredibly charming and clearly cares very deeply about both Ruth and his wife – we’re twelve books in now and I still go back and forth over whether I want him and Ruth to ride off into the sunset together and spend their remaining years solving crimes and doting on Kate, or stay as far away from each other as humanly possible because in many respects they are simply not compatible. To maintain any good saga, characters have to continually develop and this is something that Elly Griffiths absolutely nails. Keeping a story fresh after twelve books about the same set of characters is no easy feat, but I still feel like I’m seeing new sides of everyone every time I pick up the next book.

The Stone Circle probably wasn’t my favourite of all the Ruth Galloway series; I’d struggle to say which one was because I read them in such quick succession but A Dying Fall definitely stood out for me – the undertones of Pendle Witches made it extra creepy, though all Ruth books hvea given me a few creepy chills. However, that’s not to say I didn’t love The Stone Circle. The pinnacle of a good saga is that when a new book comes out, you feel like you’re catching up with old friends and this was no exception. Having a lot of principal characters, all of whom have intertwining plots and secondary characters around them, keeps the story fresh all the time and Elly Griffiths achieves that perfect balance for the reader where we can dive back in and know the characters inside out, but still be excited about fresh plots and new journeys on which they’re embarking.

Like every book in the Ruth Galloway series, I was immensely frustrated by The Stone Circle not answering the big question of what the future holds for Ruth and Nelson, and I’m still conflicted as to whether I want them to be together because Elly Griffiths does not like making things simple. The Stone Circle followed Ruth’s usual mysterious pattern of there being a really obvious culprit for whom it makes logical sense to have committed the crime, but you just know there’ll be a twist and the murderer will end up being someone you completely disregarded after the first few pages. Twelve times Elly Griffiths has fooled me with that. Twelve. The introduction of new characters created yet another layer to Ruth’s complicated story, and I’m quite interested to see if Star returns in book Thirteen and I would also like to keep seeing more of Michelle’s point of view. It would be great if Frank is explored more next too, because as much as I love Nelson I do also love Frank – which is precisely Ruth’s dilemma at this point in her journey.

Although it feels at this point like I’ve under-sold The Stone Circle, I do highly recommend the overall Ruth Galloway series. Each time I pick up an RG book I get completely sucked into her eerie world of lonely countryside and suspicious dark strangers appearing in the dead of night, which always makes me feel like I need to put the fire on and dim the lights – even if it’s the height of summer.

Review – The Stranger Diaries

Ah, the Waterstone’s January sale, how I love thee. Said sale was so good this year that I actually bought hardbacks! I never buy hardbacks; they hurt to hold, they look ugly on the shelf and the dust jacketsalways slide off – it’s a no from me. However, I’d had my eye on this Elly Griffiths gem for a while so was beyond thrilled to have found it half price. I went into The Stranger Diaries (TSD) with mixed feelings; I am a huge (probably too much so) fan of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, but I tried her Stephens and Mephisto series and just could not get into it. So, I assumed this standalone novel would be like either one of the above, a literary Marmite, if you will. And I’m pleased to say that, much like actual Marmite, I loved it.

For existing Ruth Galloway fans, it was very Galloway-esque (is that a word?) so of course I was completely invested by chapter two. Clare Cassidy is very much a less likeable Ruth Galloway, she’s very middle class and somewhat of a loner when she isn’t teaching but you do find yourself wondering why something seems slightly ‘off’ about her. Of course, with this being an Elly Griffiths, I trusted nobody until the very last page. The thing I really love about Griffiths’ work, which was absolutely the case with TSD, is that every character, no matter how insignificant, has a rich history. Not only does this make you care about what happens to the characters and their individual journeys, but it always completely throws me off the scent of who the killer is; I constantly wonder to myself “well why is she going into this much detail if that person doesn’t have some sort of significant link to the mystery?”, and the answer is – because she’s a bloody brilliant writer. Most mystery novels have a really obvious suspect who you know isn’t going to be the killer by nature of it being so obvious and convenient, so it then turns out to be the quiet, goody-two-shoes sidekick of the protagonist whom nobody suspected at all, and that’s why I generally don’t like this genre – it usually follows this set formula.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for people wo haven’t read it, but I was completely unable to narrow down who I thought the killer was. The actual killer was on my list of possible theories so I did figure it out in a sense, but it was a case of me knowing it without knowing I knew it. If that makes any sense at all (probably not).
As with the Galloway series, TSD is set in a sleepy village which is a fifty-fifty split for the reader between envy at the characters living in such a picturesque, country village, and a sense of ‘I would never relax if I lived there and would be constantly looking over my shoulder whilst making plans to move to any other town, so long as it has a Starbucks and a population of more than ten thousand. Again, as with other Griffiths stories, there is an alarmingly and statistically fairly improbable amount of murders occurring within a few mile radius, but that can absolutely be overlooked because it is all in the name of creating a perfect, eerie ambiance – something which should be encouraged at all costs.
So, in the usual Clyde review style of not actually saying anything about the plot and focusing more on my various obsessions with the characters’ lives/generally wanting to be certain characters, The Stranger Diaries is an excellent standalone mystery read. As it is set around Halloween and has a lot to do with witches and the supernatural (as well as good old-fashioned murder), it would be the perfect read for a dark, October evening snuggled up by the fire with a hot drink. And there is also a cute dog, so if that doesn’t sway you then I don’t know what will.

Best enjoyed by a warm fire on a cold evening.

My Year in Five Books

Somehow, despite seemingly never having time to do anything but go to work and plan a wedding, I have managed to read 45 books this year. 46 if I manage to finish the one I just started by midnight, which is entirely likely (I know how to party hard on NYE). So, when I thought about writing a summary of all the books I’ve read this year, on reflection it seems like that would be impossible to do without losing the reader’s interest. Instead, I’ve decided to pick out a few highlights from my year’s reads. Not all of them were released in 2018, some were just books which I happened to discover this year, but loved nonetheless. Here goes.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

Obviously this is not a 2018 release. If that is new information, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Like most women, I read Jane Eyre in my late teens and absolutely loved it, but somehow managed to leave my Bronte interest there for a while. In May of this year, me and the other half took a romantic trip to Oxenhope, near Haworth. Yes, there was a bit of fantasy on my part of pretending to be Jane and Mr Rochester and a lot of time spent wishing I was wearing a bonnet, but I digress. After visiting the Parsonage (excellent day trip by the way, completely worth the travel if you’re a literature enthusiast), I picked up copies of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. The latter is neither here nor there for me, but that’s a post for another day. Anne is probably the least well known of the Bronte sisters, but I would go as far as saying that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is even better than Jane Eyre. I’m fairly sure Anne Bronte had a time machine because this level of just pure feminist protest at the status of women in Victorian marriages is completely unheard of within this era. And even though its intention was to make a statement about the position of Victorian women, most of it is still very much applicable for today and the issues surrounding domestic violence and coercive control. I absolutely couldn’t put it down, and the role reversal of the desperate man chasing after the woman instead of the other way around is so refreshing, especially for books of this era.

My Mum Tracy Beaker – Jacqueline Wilson

I’ll not say too much on this one as it does already have its own post. However, stepping back into Tracy’s world was like going back to my childhood home and everything being in place as it was when I was ten years old – so comforting and nostalgic. Having said that, it is also a fantastic read in itself and being able to see how one of your favourite children’s literary heroes grew up is such a rare treat.

The Shipyard Girls series – Nancy Revell

Again, I won’t dwell on this one too much because the latest instalment has its own post already. It wasn’t until this year that I discovered this series, so I binge-read the first few back in April and became completely transfixed. Strong, independent women finding their way in times of complete adversity and turmoil, and charging through a male dominated environment with no fear – it’s just completely inspiring and, for me anyway, humbling to read about the amazing women who paved the way for the rest of us, especially in the North East which is an area usually not given any publicity unless it’s negative *cough* ‘Brexit’ *cough* ‘Sunderland Til I Die’.

Five Years from Now – Paige Toon

I had heard of Paige Toon years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that I actually sat down and read some of her work. This was the first one I tried, back in August, and I’ve only got two or three left now before I’ve read her entire back catalogue. So if that doesn’t say something about how good a writer she is, I don’t know what will. Five Years from Now is definitely my favourite Paige Toon book, which follows two people in five-year intervals who had a connection as children but end up being separated for a variety of reasons. As with all of her books, I laughed and cried in equal measure. Yes, actually cried. I shed proper tears over this book which dripped down my face – this wasn’t just a lump in the throat, oh no. The emotional attachment she made me have towards Nel and Vian was unlike any I’ve felt for any other characters, and given how much I read, that is quite an achievement. Again, as with the rest of her work, no loose end is left untied and the story comes full circle to a perfect ending which incorporates all the characters you meet throughout, leaving your heart full and your tissue box empty.

How to Be Famous – Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran is one of many authors my mam introduced me to when I was a teenager, and I would read her stance on anything. Seriously, she could produce a manual for NASA on rocket science, and it would still be hilarious. I loved its predecessor ‘How to Build a Girl’, so it was amazing to re visit Dolly Wilde (the person I really wanted to be, and sort of thought I was, as a teenager) and her crazy life in London following rock stars around. I particularly loved her corresponding column in defense of teenage groupies. As a former boy-obsessed wannabe teenage groupie, they are not given enough credit. How many rock bands would actually get off the ground if they didn’t have hoards of screaming, horny teenage girls chasing them around and trying to get onto the tour bus? Essentially, none. And the world would be deprived of good rock music, so really they provide a great public service and deserve this recognition, which has come in the form of our collective hero and representative – Dolly Wilde.

Review – Belle of the Back Streets

This week I found myself with three days off work (bliss) so, what did I do in that time? Get ahead with wedding planning? Finally redecorate the living room? Work out? Well, I sent one email to a photographer and repainted one wall of the living room, which in itself made me get a sweat on so *technically* I did do all three, but obviously not before binge reading a great new book.

Belle of the Back Streets is Glenda Young’s debut novel which only just came out I believe last week, but don’t cite me as a reliable source there. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Glenda Young or read any of her work until I saw some buzz about this novel on Twitter, buzz which came from Nancy Revell and anyone who has read my previous post will know that I pretty much live and breathe for her Shipyard Girls saga. Slight exaggeration, but it is really good, so obviously this was an endorsement I felt I could trust.

So, I went into Belle of the Back Streets with admittedly very high expectations, and I was certainly not disappointed. The story takes place in Sunderland in 1919, an era which doesn’t get a lot of coverage I think (usually it’s one of the World Wars or the Tudors when it comes to historical fiction), so my interest was piqued immediately, along with the fact that Meg ends up working as a rag and bone man (or girl, I suppose) – something which I knew very little about, but is basically the 20th Century version of Houghton’s scrap men.

But, of course, none of us are reading fiction books for a history lesson. Even if you come for the historical learning curve, Glenda Young makes sure you stay for the character development and overall suspense. I was almost late for an appointment during the baby stealing fiasco, and I pride myself on working out plot twists really easily but I will hold my hands up and admit that after the ‘bad woman’ was foreshadowed, I was blown away when it became apparent who that was going to be. As I’ve said before of my beloved Shipyard Girls, Meg has been added to the list of book characters that I wish I was friends with. She is so fiercely independent and driven but at the same time kind, loving and a bit vulnerable that I had to stop myself from fist pumping every time she triumphed.

And what is a women’s fiction novel without a dreamy man to fantasize over? Sorry Feminism, I am still very much in your club and firmly believe that Meg took care of her own damn self – triumphing at the end because of her own pure resilience and determination – but Adam is an absolute hunk. I loved Adam from the first time he’s introduced to us, despite the presence of the smelly netty during this otherwise very romantic meet cute, and had my fingers crossed through every page turn that Meg would come to her senses and just bloody well kiss him. Don’t get me wrong however, this isn’t some ridiculous Wuthering Heights damsel in distress being saved by the man rubbish – Adam is only rewarded with hubby status once Meg has won all her personal battles and it is made abundantly clear that she does. not. need. him. As annoyed as I was that she rejected his first marriage proposal, once I finished the book I realised what Glenda Young was doing – Meg does not need to be rescued and that is why she is a fantastic protagonist that you root for from page one. Historical fiction with fierce feminist undertones that make me want to yell YESSSS QUEEN from Ryhope cliffs is the only kind of historical fiction worth reading, in my humble opinion.

In case it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, I absolutely loved Belle of the Back Streets and will certainly be pre-ordering Glenda Young’s next masterpiece. Every plot point is tied up and concluded perfectly, the characters have so much depth that you get completely sucked into their individual worlds and it is an emotional rollercoaster which takes you through fear, anger, anticipation, laughter, pure joy and everything in between. Plus, there are animals in there too and what’s not to love about canine and equine side kicks? There was a brief moment where I really thought she had sent Stella to the knacker’s yard though, and if you had let that happen Ms Young, well there’s a small chance I would have been outside your house with a pitchfork. Kidding. A little bit. Hashtag ‘Justice For Stella’.

I definitely didn’t cry at the end though, I just had a bit of Dorito crumb in my eye…

Review – My Mum Tracy Beaker

Like all Millennials, particularly those like me who didn’t tend to get out much, I grew up reading Jacqueline Wilson’s eclectic oeuvre of tragically depressing yet addictive stories about kids on the fringes of society. Maybe this is why our generation grew up to love Corbyn so much? That is definitely something that needs to be explored. But I digress. So yes, here I was, twenty four and way too old to be reading books with illustrations, but the announcement that there was going to be a new Tracy Beaker story immediately reverted me back to being ten years old and immersing myself in a great book for hours on end without the guilt of ‘I really should hoover today’ or ‘I should probably use this time to go to the gym’. Ah, youth.

As is the case with many sequels, this excitement also came with a degree of apprehension. ‘The Story of Tracy Beaker’, ‘The Dare Game’ and ‘Starring Tracy Beaker’ were all released in a moderately paced succession, but it’s been twelve years since we last checked in with Tracy and Cam and, frankly, I was a bit worried that this one was going to feel forced and ruin the magic of the first three; but for the first time in recorded history – I was wrong.

We first  meet grown-up Tracy through the eyes of her daughter Jess Beaker, who has all of Tracy’s well-hidden good qualities – she’s thoughtful and puts everyone else’s needs before her own, which I think Tracy does deep down but it’s usually masked by her harsh outer shell. Jess is how I imagine the love child of Tracy and Peter Ingham would be, and given how this installment ends, that may well become a reality if there is a further book…

Tracy thankfully hasn’t lost her feisty streak – even as a mother she still hates authority, shouts at teachers and flies completely off the handle whenever she sees red. Having said that, she is fiercely protective of her daughter and very aware of how Carly treated her so she steers vigorously away from that cycle for Jess which adds so much depth to Tracy’s character and reminds you that her vulnerability is still there beneath the angst.

Tracy then falls head over heels for a boy (I know, ick!), and is convinced this is her ticket to the life she always dreamed her mum would give her with fame, fortune and even the pink Cadillac she’s dreamed of since book one. Nice touch there, Ms Wilson! I had reservations about the idea of Tracy being all loved up with a boyfriend, it just didn’t seem realistic to me and I went into this book with great cynicism towards that. However, trying not to reveal too many spoilers here, the boyfriend she has is actually a character we’ve met before – one I always thought there was something a little bit ‘off’ about when we first met him in ‘The Dare Game’. Throughout their relationship, Tracy’s guard is gradually let down and it was so endearing to see that side of her in such a big dose. It seemed like as she’s become an adult Tracy started to lose that sixth sense she always seemed to have about people’s character and her ability to spot a potential baddie within seconds, but thankfully, this is a quality she passed on to Jess – who is not so easily fooled.

Although this book would still be a great read as a standalone, it’s far more special for readers who are familiar with Tracy’s journey as all the previous significant characters make a return either directly or by reference from Tracy or another principal character. And the return of the Mickey Mouse alarm clock was just a nostalgia overdose for me, along with the several other subtle nods to Tracy’s formative yeas.

Naturally Cam is still here as the port of sensibleness in Tracy’s chaotic life, and her relationship with Jess is absolutely perfect and so touching to read. Cam actually has a more significant role in this installment, and becomes more of a character in herself rather than being formed through Tracy’s eyes from the pedestal on which she placed Cam after their first meeting; and her role is a really important consistency for the readers who have followed Tracy’s story from the start. Having Tracy transition into an adult without anyone from her younger years staying in her life wouldn’t really have worked, and also it would be difficult for fans of the series to believe that Cam wouldn’t have remained a part of Tracy’s story. There are some interesting developments with Cam’s character as well, and one pretty big one which is quite amusing as it is discovered through Jess’ observations, but Jess is a bit too naive to understand quite what this storyline implies. This part actually made me really want to go back and re-read the first three, in case this was implied earlier and I just didn’t pick up on it because I, too, was naive when I first read them.

As with all the classic Jacqueline Wilson books, the darker themes like poverty, bullying and to an extent domestic violence were still very prominent, but are narrated through Jess’ innocent perspective so it is somewhat softened and doesn’t feel like a really depressing, gloomy story. And, as ever, you’re still always rooting for Tracy to come out on top even when she is making some monumental mistakes. But of course, as she always does, Tracy comes out on top in the end despite all the struggles, and I love her even more for it. As much as I would love this series to go on and on because Tracy Beaker feels like an old friend with whom I grew up, the ending of this book is so fitting and satisfying that I don’t know where another one could feasibly go – thought I’m sure if anyone can manage it it’s Jacqueline Wilson. Tracy’s reunion with Peter really signified to me that she has come full circle and done the growing up that she needed to in order to appreciate him for the friend he always tried to be for her; and, wherever that relationship goes, it remains a perfect end point for Tracy and Jess’ journey. Plus, it is always nice to leave the door open for readers to make up their own mind about what Tracy might do next.

 

Do I Heart Lindsey Kelk?

I have had the first three I Heart books on my shelf for god knows how long. I read The Single Girl’s To Do List about six years ago and loved it, but just never got round to reading any more of Lindsey Kelk’s work. After seeing her at a signing a couple of months ago, I was reminded of how much I’d enjoyed that book, so I started on the I Heart series and finished them all in a fairly quick succession. So, I’m going to do my best to de-tangle them in my head (much like after a particularly vigorous spin cycle on the washing machine) to give my verdict on each, and on the series overall.

I Heart New York is the first instalment in the series, where we meet Angela as a broken hearted mess who spontaneously gets on a plane to JFK with a carry on case and the clothes on her back. This one felt very much like a rom com, with spontaneity that completely defied logic – how did she get on a plane to New York with no visa? How did she really afford all that expensive make up and designer clothes? Why was she not at all bothered about getting her share of the house she bought with Mark? Surely that could’ve solved her financial problems, but logic seems to have no place in Angela’s mind. However, like a good rom-com, I found myself overlooking the technicalities and just enjoying the overall story – and who wants to read a book that’s too much like real life anyway? If I wanted to read about credit card debt and career disasters I would start a diary of my own life.

Next comes I Heart Hollywood which, to be brutally honest, doesn’t need to be in the series. I really don’t like to be negative about books because I know someone spent a long time pouring their heart into it and it feels petty and unnecessary to ruin that, but this one was a bit forgettable if I’m totally honest. I Heart New York could very easily have been a standalone book, so the sequel was always going to be difficult to get just right, but I really didn’t get the whole idea of James Jacobs. He was being a complete twat to Angela the entire time, and as much as I’m sure it wasn’t meant like this, the issue of his sexuality and him covering it up with all these ‘beards’ came across as a bit stereotypical and erring on the edge of homophobic. It was all intended as part of an intriguing plot twist, which it was, but for me James’ controlling manager wanting to cover everything up and the George Michael-ing in the toilets did come across as a little bit cliché – as if gay men automatically have to be massive sluts. Again, Lindsey Kelk is a lovely person who I’m sure did not intend for that to be implied, but my interpretation of this book is that it was a bit plotless and slightly insensitive.

I Heart Paris is where it started to really feel like a series to me, as regular characters were starting to become more familiar and given deeper back stories so I became quite invested by this point and was actively wanting to finish the whole series and find out what journeys the characters embarked on. There was very little of Jenny in this book which is possibly why I enjoyed it so much, but it probably had more to do with Angela and Alex’s relationship starting to get quite serious and I became quite invested in that. It was important at this stage to start seeing Alex as an entity in himself and not as Angela’s boyfriend, otherwise the series probably couldn’t last as long, so it was a good palette cleanser learning about his back story and getting to know his personality and more about his life outside of being with Angela.

I Heart Vegas would probably be ranked just above I Heart Hollywood for being a bit of a filler book. Parts of it felt a bit irrelevant, for example all of Angela’s partying with James Jacobs and Jenny’s model friends really made me start to dislike her and it seemed to me like she stopped caring about her career or her relationship with Alex as much, and wanted to have a little ‘woe is me’ pity party. However, as I will elaborate on later, it is good to have a flawed main character that you start to root for to do better. If I was Angela’s friend, I would certainly have been sitting her down with a cup of tea at this stage and talking to her about her poor decisions. Alex certainly puts up with a lot from her overall, but especially so in this one. Having said that though, the proposal at the end is unbelievably cute and one hundred percent hashtag goals.

I heart London is definitely in the runnings for my favourite in the I Heart series. The main thought I’d had until this point about Angela was that I didn’t quite understand how she could just drop everything and move abroad and abandon her friends and family with no real explanation as to why. I had assumed from the first book when Angela’s mum stayed in her room after Louboutin-gate that they had a close relationship, and I never really understood her relationship with Louisa and her never telling Angela about Mark and his mistress. It was necessary at this point in the series to delve into who Angela was before she came to New York, and definitely put all her thoughts and feelings into proper context for me as a reader. Similarly, seeing Jenny so vulnerable throughout this book (and her being put in her place by Louisa which was a personal highlight), definitely made me appreciate her character much more than I had I previous instalments. Yes, I still don’t like her overall as a person, but after I Heart London I started to understand why she has certain flaws and how she can come across as quite harsh and controlling but that this is more of a front to protect herself.

I Heart Christmas was a little bit disappointing. As a self-professed Christmas enthusiast I was really excited for this one, but it didn’t feel as Christmassy as I’d hoped it would. I thought it was more just that the story happened to take place at Christmas, like Die Hard, and not a Christmas book in itself, so that was a bit of false advertising if you ask me. This story was, although enjoyable overall, a bit of a filler book. It was great seeing Angela’s magazine taking off and her becoming a career woman, and tackling the issue of whether women can have a career and a family which is relevant for so many women still, Angela’s treatment of Alex over the issue of having children was horribly selfish and really put me off her for a while. I don’t think it’s right at all to call a woman selfish for wanting a career instead of a family, and I think all women should be able to have full control over that decision, but I do think she maybe should’ve cleared that up with Alex before rushing into marrying him, and she seemed generally incapable of having an adult conversation about it so I got a bit bored of her constant pouting. Also, she really needs to stop taking advice from Jenny because she’s even worse.

I Heart Forever is the latest, and as far as I’m aware not the final, instalment of the series and is tied with I Heart London for my favourite one. This one seemed to have a great balance between career drama, friendship drama and relationship drama so I didn’t feel like any of the plots were being dragged out further than they needed to be, which has been the case with some of the earlier books. Once again, we find Jenny being a selfish bitch, this time about getting engaged, but Angela does seem to grow a backbone at this point and challenges her a bit which I did enjoy. Seeing Angela trying to deal with various crises without Alex was an interesting change of pace as well, as I hadn’t seen Angela single since about chapter three of I Heart New York, so it definitely helped the reader appreciate her as the leading lady. I’m really liking Angela’s parents playing more of a role in the story now as well, as a nice reminder of where she came from and why she does and thinks certain things.

On balance, although this is generally a more negative review than I like to write and I feel really guilty about this, I did generally enjoy the series as a whole. I wouldn’t recommend reading them as standalones, apart from possibly the first one, because I don’t think the characters can be seen to their full potential in any of the books without the context of all the others. I am looking forward to the next part of the series and to see how Angela tackles motherhood, hopefully she matures a bit more but probably won’t if Jenny is still kicking about at this point.  I do think this series would make a very successful couple of films if the filler plots were cut out – if done correctly I think Angela Clark has the potential to be the millennials’ answer to Bridget Jones. Even though I rolled my eyes when Jenny went back to Craig for the umpteenth time, and tutted at Angela for being such a brat when she’s wedding planning at home in I Heart London, I understood why those two characters would behave like that within those situations. Too many authors create characters that are overly perfect and immediately get you on their side, so you can never really look at them objectively and unpick them. Until recently, it was a massive taboo to point out what a massive selfish bitch Carrie Bradshaw is, because we were all expected to want to be her and were too busy ogling over her sex life and wardrobe to step back and realise that she wasn’t living this perfect fantasy life; so it has to be said here that Lindsey Kelk does do character depth extremely well and even though you don’t always like them, you still enjoy reading about them. Overall, I’d give this series a 3/5; worth a read but I wouldn’t personally put myself out to make time to read it.