‘Dark Angel’ – Why it’s ‘sometimes’ Understandable to Kill Your Husband

Dead and rotten though she may be, Mary Ann Cotton remains a fundamental figure in North East history. I live within the parish where she was christened, used to live in a flat which stood on the site of her former workplace and have had the privilege of entering the archives of Beamish Museum to see what is alleged to be the infamous teapot. Whilst I cannot ever condone poisoning one’s husband(s) and children, or poisoning anyone for that matter, I recently re-watched ‘Dark Angel’ on ITV (an excellent dramatisation and possibly the best true crime series ever created), which does always leave me feeling sorry for her and wondering whether, when all things are considered, she really had much of a choice.

It is apt that I watched this series (for the third time, seriously cannot get enough of it), on the same day where I had had a conversation with a work colleague about how infuriatingly useless men can be, and the frustration she was feeling at her partner failing to understand how difficult it is for her to juggle full time work, childcare, housework, cooking, laundry, paying bills and something of a social life whilst he works away. Of course, this is not the case for everyone – even in the North East which still has clearly marked working men’s clubs in which women are not welcome; contains women such as my mother in law who refer to hoovering as ‘women’s work’ and judge people on how strongly their house smells of Zooflora; I’m sure there are many stay at home dads, single dads and combinations of parents consisting of all genders and sexualities who don’t conform to the North East ‘ideal’ of the male coal miner and his loving wife who has his slippers on the fire and tea on the table every evening. And, I’m sure there are many heterosexual, ‘typical’, nuclear families who have a perfectly even division of household labour, but it did get me thinking about how much things have actually changed for women.

In a news week where a woman finally had her conviction quashed for killing an abusive husband in self defense and police have suggested replacing knives with blunt blades is a viable solution to protect domestic violence victims, taking place well over a hundred years after Mary Ann Cotton’s era, this did heighten my curiosity about the kind of life she lived. No, we aren’t giving birth in coal dust, gathering water from a pump at the end of the street and catching smallpox at regular intervals any more, but the majority of women I know who are in long term, heterosexual relationships spend a lot of time feeling bloody stressed out, especially when children are thrown into the mix. And this is in a time of free healthcare, accessible contraception, maternity leave and child benefit – so living a life of being perpetually pregnant, existing in absolute poverty, having no understanding of mental health issues and living in a time where domestic violence and rape perpetrated by your husband was perfectly legal, must have been absolutely horrendous.

Again, I feel a need to disclaim that serial murder is never justifiable, but it is my personal belief that people are a product of their surroundings, and nurture is far more important than nature when it comes to understanding people; this is a woman whose own father’s dead body was brought to her house in a bag marked ‘property of Hetton colliery’ when she was barely out if nappies, it was bloody tough going in the 1800’s! I have seen in my academic and professional background that you can never really know how someone will react to being pushed to their absolute limits of survival until they are tested and what pure desperation can do to even the most level-headed of people. I do think Mary Ann’s story is a testament to just how extreme the situation was for working class women at the time, and although it’s generally accepted by Criminologists and Historians that she became motivated by pure greed and lust by the end of her criminal career, when you consider the perfect storm of depression, constant bereavement, living in squalor, not knowing where your or your children’s next meals are coming from, being unable to afford basic healthcare and being totally dependent on a husband to pay to have your basic needs met, although not excusable, it isn’t surprising to see how quickly things escalated. Wanting love and stability is probably a fundamental desire for the majority of people, especially women, and when faced with such limited options, specifically, the possibility of going to the workhouse or dying of starvation in a filthy alleyway because your husband is unable to work, I can see what she was trying to achieve, despite disagreeing with her choice of method on every level.

“I wanted more. More than coal dust, childbirth and men who think saying ‘I love you’ is enough” 

Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton, ‘Dark Angel’ (ITV, 2016)

It is worth noting at this point that despite Mary Ann Cotton being widely accepted as the UK’s first serial killer, and the first serious female offender, she was actually only ever convicted of one murder, which she steadfastly denied into the grave. I love a grizzly true crime story and a local history legend – I’ve had the ‘privilege’ of seeing up close what was Durham Gaol inside the prison and can confirm it is every bit as haunting and creepy as it probably was for Mary Ann Cotton when she walked her final steps to face the noose, so it’s no surprise really that I find her story fascinating. However, if you’re not familiar with it I strongly recommend watching ‘Dark Angel’ or reading the book by Professor David Wilson on which it is based, and inevitably forming your own theory – was she a desperate pauper doing what she could to survive, or the greedy black widow the nursery rhyme portrays?

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.

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.

Christmas Reads

Somehow, December is upon us. I know, I can’t believe it either (and I have confirmed this shock with every shop assistant, colleague, friend and stranger with whom I have come into contact in the last 48 hours – ah, Britain). So between the general festivities, a very busy job and planning a wedding, both reading and blogging have taken quite a hard hit for me over the last few weeks. December is a bit effing stressful generally though, and finding that selfish time to lose yourself in a book seems to get moved further and further down the priority list. But, the beautiful thing about most Christmas books is that they’re shorter than the typical paperback (ah, those tight deadlines to get it on the shelves by October – must be a total nightmare for the authors but such a win for the reader), so even in the Christmas craziness there is still plenty of time to get through at least a couple. Plus, Christmas books are actually the only books I will actually read more than once, so if that doesn’t convince you to partake then I don’t know what will. But anyway, here’s a list of some of my favourites, in no particular order (cue dramatic X factor music).

Christmas With Billy and Me – Giovanna Fletcher
This was the first Christmas novella I came across which related to an existing book, and it was beyond thrilling being able to re visit characters I already knew and loved and see how they spent Christmas. Although it does work as a standalone book in that you can follow the story without knowing the background, I would say that you don’t get the full effect of the plot if you don’t have the back story. But, it’s the perfect length for a quick festive indulgence when you get a spare moment, and like all of Giovanna Fletcher’s characters you feel like you’ve known them for years after only a few pages. And who doesn’t love a heartwarming love story set in a rustic countryside cake shop, Christmas or not?

Dream a Little Christmas Dream – Giovanna Fletcher
Just like the former, it’s the literary equivalent of a beloved rom-com you find yourself re-watching each year – think Love Actually but not several hours long and without all the unpleasantness -throws a quick glance in Alan Rickman’s general direction-. Again, I loved this particularly because it’s a spin-off featuring characters I was already invested in, but it still hits the spot for a little injection of Christmas romance for unfamiliar readers.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
Honestly, if you don’t know the plot of this one then why are you even here? Obviously I knew what I was getting  myself in for when I first read this a few years ago, I was raised on the Patrick Stewart film adaptation every Christmas Eve on the BBC (but the Muppet version still takes the prize in my humble opinion). But, that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. I love Dickens and it’s a constant source of embarrassment that I haven’t read more of his work (reading leave from employment needs to be a thing, my to-read list just keeps growing), but everything of his that I have read I’ve become completely immersed in. When I read this for the first time I wasn’t picturing Richard E Grant trying to stand up to Patrick Stewart, or Miss Piggy scoffing the chestnuts before dinner was ready, I was visualising entirely different people because his descriptions just make your imagination go wild, but the magic of the story is retained nonetheless. I have only one problem with this story though, and I say it every year, but WHY DOES MARLEY’S GHOST TELL SCROOGE HE’LL HAVE A GHOST VISIT HIM EACH NIGHT AND THEN ALL THE GHOSTS COME AT ONCE? IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE TO THE STORY SO WHY IS IT WRITTEN IN THERE?
Seriously, if someone knows the answer to that then PLEASE tell me and put my out of this annual misery.

Ruth’s First Christmas Tree – Elly Griffiths
I want to be Ruth Galloway, I’ll just get that out of the way first. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t given this series its own post yet, but that will definitely come with time. This installment is quite lesser known even by existing fans, I’m pretty sure it’s only available as an e-book, but it’s very unique in that while it does work as a standalone story, at the same time it doesn’t drastically move the overall series’ plot forward to make things tricky for readers who missed this one. That’s a difficult task to master when there are already so many established characters and sub plots in the saga so far, so well done to Elly Griffiths on that one. If you ask me, all established sagas need a short Christmas story somewhere in there because there is something magical about revisiting your old friends (fictional characters who I see as my friends) at Christmas time. And what’s not to love about Ruth’s cosy cottage on the breathtaking Norfolk coastline in the winter? Honestly, the image I have in my head of her house since this book has been of Kate Winslet’s house in The Holiday, and if that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

A Family For Christmas – Helen Scott Taylor
I came across this as an e-book a few years ago when I was looking specifically for a festive book to enjoy over the Christmas period, and I was not disappointed. I must confess I haven’t read anything else by this author, I have no idea whether she’s even written anything else, which is really shameful considering how much I love this book. It ticks all the boxes for the perfect festive story: a career woman who wasn’t looking for love until she found it, a widower not realising he’s ready to love again, a cute child, a quintessentially English country cottage in the snow, some sheep, you get the idea. In a nutshell, it’s heartwarming without being corny, but for some reason is not very well known – which is a bit of an injustice if you ask me.

One Perfect Christmas (and other short stories) – Paige Toon
Confession time – I bought this book three days ago and haven’t had a chance to read it yet. However, I love Paige Toon and have never not been totally overtaken by the story when reading one of her books so I have no doubt that this collection of short stories will be anything shy of their full length counterparts. Again, I just love the idea of being able to revisit your already beloved characters and see how they’re doing at Christmas. It’s like the literary equivalent of the Friends Christmas specials.

If you haven’t guessed already by this point, I LOVE a Christmas novella from an existing saga. When I rise to power, all sagas will have Christmas editions at regular intervals. Even the ones that have no real influence within the overall plot are so special, and they must be so fun to write by just having free reign to let your characters enjoy Christmas without worrying where the plot is going or whether you’ve tied up all the loose ends. Well, if anyone wants to hire me as a freelance Christmas spin-off writer for their existing sagas then please let me know. That is definitely my dream job right there.