Farewell, Shipyard Girls!

We all have certain stories, certain characters or worlds which stay with us long after we’ve turned the final page. ‘The Shipyard Girls’ may appear to the objective observer as a typical saga series (a very well-written and addictive one at that), but for me this series marked the start of my first ‘proper’ writing experience; the first time someone other than my immediate family or friends (i.e. someone not morally obliged to) told me that I wasn’t terrible at it. I was a little bit late to the SYG party, but a couple of months after binge reading the first three books on holiday, I found myself between jobs and a bit unsure of the next steps. With a decent stretch of spare time on my hands for the first time in years, I decided to start writing. On the advice of a friend who had had some success, I began by writing about things I enjoyed and so, this saga series which I couldn’t put down seemed a logical place to start. When I received an email from Nancy herself to say she really enjoyed one of my reviews and asked if I’d like to be part of the next blog tour, I couldn’t believe it – a proper, successful author liked something I’d scribbled together on my ancient laptop one rainy afternoon.

I had no idea where my writing journey was going to go, and as evidenced by my completely sporadic and random postings on this blog, I still don’t. But the main constant since I started this page has been regularly scheduled hype about the latest SYG instalments and gentle background encouragement from Nancy. Since joining the club of SYG bloggers and having the privilege of getting to know Nancy, I’ve had three more career changes (I never was able to focus on one thing for too long) and become a parent; none of which has even slightly resembled the life plan I had in mind at the time I started blogging. Which, is what made it especially poignant to be alongside the girls as they all ended this chapter of their journey in preparation for embarking upon their next unique and exciting steps.

“Life, she had learnt, was lacking in certainty, and sometimes it ended up sending you down a different route to the one you had intended or wanted to take. Sometimes…those unexpected turns in life led to something rather special.”

I’ll admit I was nervous to start ‘Three Cheers for The Shipyard Girls’, partly because, as with all of the readers who have loved this series, I didn’t want it to end but also because I was really apprehensive of a potentially rubbish ending spoiling the rest of the series. It’s strange to think that we (as readers) have these particular series and characters that we really love, which are a result of a particular author’s imagination, and yet we seem to have no faith whatsoever in their ability to take the stories where they need to go. I genuinely felt under pressure as I started to read Three Cheers, and was quite fraught about whether Nancy was going to do our girls justice; so I can only imagine the anxiety which the prospect of ending such a well loved series caused her! Of course, as always, she absolutely nailed it.

My prediction for ‘Three Cheers’ had been a final epilogue with a flash forward to the girls with their granddaughters at the 2020 VE day anniversary celebrations (obviously in a perfect universe where coronavirus didn’t exist), mainly so that I would get to find out where life took all of them but actually, the ending Nancy gave us far surpassed this. Really, the ending of ‘Three Cheers’ felt like a beginning, with all of the girls parting ways to embark on the next stage of their lives and all being exactly where they should be; their collective journey having been completed and now fragmenting into individual, enthtalling stories just waiting to be written. The imagination of the reader as to where our girls might end up after they’ve taken these next steps takes their journeys so much further than any author (even Nancy) could. Even as an avid SYG reader myself, I can’t specifically whittle down where I want each of the girls to go in life; so the possibilities being conjured up by the individual readers’ minds are boundless. Just imagine the fan fiction spin-offs we could end up with!

As sad as it is to know that I won’t have any more exciting anticipation of new SYG books, I will certainly be re-reading the previous ones from time to time to catch up with my old friends and reminisce of our adventures; and I don’t mind admitting I’m glad to have finally shed the anxiety of Helen and Dr Parker’s infuriatingly inconsistent ‘will they, won’t they?’ drama. And, it’s comforting to know that we’ve left each of our girls at the exact right place for them to embark on the next passage in their lives (including Miriam – if you know, you know) but, if the day ever does come for an on-screen dramatization then Nancy, you know where to find me. As a Mackem lass who grew up within spitting distance of Tatham Street, I can think of nobody more befitting of a cameo…

Blog Tour – The Miner’s Lass

“Polly’s words about her never accounting to anything made her blood boil. She didn’t know how, not yet, but she vowed to herself that one day she would prove the woman wrong.”

Having my annual trip to Glenda Young’s dramatic yet enchanting world of Ryhope Village in 1919, I wondered what most saga fans do when they come across another story from the same context…how much further can she really go with this? What can she give us that we haven’t already seen? Well, once again, my ponderings became immediately redundant.

As with its predecessors, of course there were many aspects of ‘The Miner’s Lass’ which continue to set Glenda Young’s stories apart from others of this genre, but the element which really jumped out for me, more so than anything else, was the sensitive, poignant and yet contextually appropriate depiction of mental health issues. Coal mining is such a fundamental part of the North East heritage that it is often romanticised in novels of this kind, but Glenda wasn’t afraid to shy away from this by depicting the harsh reality which accompanied this profession for probably the majority of those who experienced it. The account of Michael’s first day down the pit, and the subsequent impact which it continued to have on him, was so moving that I wanted to jump right into the pages to give him a huge hug and tell him that everything would be alright. Similarly, Mary’s experience of depression was framed through the context of 1919 Ryhope, wherein the collective understanding of such issues was of course very narrow and the prospect of appropriate treatment for a working class woman was essentially non-existent, but it was written so sensitively that it could easily have been lifted from a contemporary story, or even real life in 2021. Balancing the ignorance and misconceptions of this time period with a need to portray these issues in an empathetic way cannot have been an easy task, but Glenda Young managed it seamlessly with her unique and heartfelt ability to make a reader really ‘feel’ the characters’ journeys.

“Maybe a little bit of madness runs in us all. The trick is not to let it overwhelm us.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Glenda Young saga novel without our headstrong heroine having hurdles metaphorically thrown at her every few chapters, but, (without spoiling any twists for anyone who hasn’t read this book yet), I was really struck by the potential conflict and betrayal between Ruby and one of her closest friends. The feminist overtones of Glenda’s previous saga novels (and indeed this one) have always been so fierce that it was an intriguing change to come across conflict between some of our hardy, independent Ryhope lasses. Again, one of the things I love so much about Glenda Young’s sagas is that, although the attention to historical detail is so meticulous that you can almost smell the coal dust emanating from the pages, the plot elements are always so universally human that the reader feels as though the characters are people from our own lives.

“Whatever happens, we’ll get through it. We’re Dinsdale women, we’re strong.”

It was also an interesting change of pace to have a romantic lead who, quite frankly, made my skin crawl; and also that of the majority of the other characters except our protagonist. Again, I never like to spoil plot twists for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but fear not, our latest heroine isn’t fooled for long – Glenda’s team of fearless females never are ones to be fooled twice, they’re far too intuitive and headstrong for that. Although that scene with the bath tub will live rent-free in my mind for a while; I heard inklings about that particular moment a while ago from Glenda’s twitter and all I will say is that it did not disappoint! Fear not, confused reader, you will know when you get to it!

So, we’re six stories deep into Glenda Young’s Ryhope saga novels, but rest assured, things are far from getting boring. In fact, it seems as though every time she graces us with another exciting installment, I find myself feeling less satisfied and only hungrier for more drama and heartache; so once again I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next. And I’m still waiting for her to announce a spin-off wherein all of her strong Ryhope heroines unite like ‘The Avengers’ in some epic finale to this enthralling collection of novels.

Blog Tour – The Shipyard Girls on the Home Front

“The next few months would decide the fate of the war – and thereby, the fate of humanity.”

The feeling of being at the tipping point of a totally unprecedented moment in history, where the efforts made not just by those on the front lines but by all of us at home too, could essentially make or break whether the hardship will end successfully or continue for goodness only knows how long; is something which will resonate with anyone who reads the tenth installment of ‘The Shipyard Girls’ in real time of its release. Life often has a funny way of imitating art, and although I would like to think our world leaders are all ‘Shipyard Girls’ enthusiasts too, it’s probably more likely that this is a happy coincidence; or Nancy Revell has a crystal ball. Every book in this series has a multitude of themes and sub-plots, but the overarching theme within ‘On The Home Front’ is sacrifice, which, reading whilst I’m sat at home, having not seen family or friends in months, wearing a mask just to step outside of my front door and wondering if my hair will ever be a normal length again; felt quite poignant. Surely if our old friends from Thompson’s Shipyard are still putting the graft in, day in day out and in all weather conditions to do their bit in the fight against global fascism, often without any hope or assurance that it will end successfully, if at all, then we can do our bit on our ‘home front’ against the pandemic; by staying snuggled up indoors with a good book. As inspiring as our Shipyard Girls are, I know which ‘home front’ I’d rather be on – so thanks for giving us another great story to make that a bit easier, Nancy.

So, we’re ten books in and are still getting to know new characters; which must be quite the juggling act for Nancy Revell. I often imagine she must have an entire wall in her house covered in photos of all the different characters, with string and notes pinned in between which join and inter-connect their stories; like the briefing room on a really good police drama. Having said that, to anyone who is new to this saga, don’t let that put you off starting it. I’m a stickler for reading sagas in the correct order, but the characters in this series are created and written with so much love and detail that I do firmly believe a reader could pick up any ‘Shipyard Girls’ book and become fully immersed in the story straight away. Their rich back stories and carefully orchestrated interactions with one other allow the characters to tell more of their story in a few short lines than any summary or spoiler ever could; so even though Bobby is somewhat of a fresh face (aside from being referenced third hand by other characters previously), as always it only took a couple of pages for him to become part of the furniture.

I must admit, I wasn’t initially sure whether I really liked Bobby, but as Nancy Revell drip fed me more and more of his feelings and perceptions around significant events which us familiar ‘Shipyard Girls’ readers already knew inside out, it definitely made me look at Gloria’s long since buried back-story from another angle. Despite being a bit frustrating for the reader who has become a bit spoiled by happy endings in this saga, Bobby’s reaction to Gloria’s story was told very bravely and sensitively. Within my day job I work with a lot of people who have had similar experiences to Gloria and her boys, and as lovely as it would have been to have a rosy family reunion where all past evils are forgotten and made right by the promise of a better future, in reality the process of moving past something like that is usually quite messy and fraught with even more conflict and resentment. It would have been easy for the author to put a wholesome glow over this whole sub-plot, but she bravely gave a more ‘warts and all’ interpretation, which I’m sure will resonate with many people who may read it.

“‘Love!’ Dorothy put both hands on her chest. ‘There is to be a lot of love this year! I can feel it in my bones.'”

Of course, this being a ‘Shipyard Girls’ book, the path to true love, in whichever form that takes, continues to be anything but straightforward. We may now only be two more books away from the finale, but that evidently doesn’t mean the drama is going to slow down. I am usually a binge-reader of this series, but ‘On The Home Front’ was the first instalment I’ve read which I had to put down for my own well being. Granted, I am significantly more hormonal than usual these days, but the rollercoaster of emotions within the whole D-Day chapter did get a bit too much, especially after Rosie and Gloria’s brief interaction at the bar where they simply admitted to not being alright; which served as a moving reminder that the joyous success of D-Day, and the war itself, didn’t come without sacrifice. The statistics of fatalities throughout the War are something which can never really resonate for those who read them; numbers on a page are just that, but it’s the thoughtful re-telling of these personal stories, despite being fictional, which preserve the personal struggles felt by so many people throughout those tremendously difficult years.

Speaking of binge-reading, I did also commit a cardinal reading sin when I was about two thirds of the way through ‘On The Home Front’. My baffled husband looked out of the corner of his eye to me frantically thumbing through the pages ahead with a determined look and asked what on Earth I was doing; to which my response was something like “I need to know if he’s alright after this, I need to know what I’m getting into before I continue!” To which he said “can’t you just read it?”. Of course I could have simply read the book at a normal rate, but I felt the need to emotionally prepare. Once I found the reassurance I needed, I snuggled back down into the duvet and continued happily. Until the next evening. Being a ‘Shipyard Girls’ book, of course there are still plot twists at every turn; and so the smugness I felt at having spoiled some perfectly good tension building for myself by skipping ahead for reassurance, was quickly wiped away when Nancy Revell threw another unexpected twist at me. I certainly deserved it, but I was furious. I don’t mean to speak (or write) in riddles, but I don’t like to spoil these things for anyone who hasn’t already read this, however if I simply mention the foreshadowing of the aeroplane having done this journey umpteen times without issue, anyone who has read it will know what I mean. It was with the same smugness that they said the Titanic was unsinkable; so I really should’ve seen that one coming.

Still, if we’re ten books in and I’m still finding the plots to be unpredictable, then this is absolutely not a bad thing. Just, maddeningly frustrating at times – but I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m sure all you other ‘Shipyard Girls’ enthusiasts would agree!

Blog Tour – The Paper Mill Girl

“If she wanted to protect her family, she had to make an impossible choice.”

A young girl living in an already difficult situation is faced with an even bigger challenge and must find strength she didn’t know she had to overcome said challenge; then ultimately comes out on top and with her dream man in tow? Saga readers like myself do like to think we have it all worked out, don’t we? But, as with its equally exciting predecessors, Glenda Young has once again blown all of those pre-conceived assumptions out of our minds like a gale swirling around the pier of Hendon Beach with her latest novel ‘The Paper Mill Girl’, and its fiercely independent heroine Ruth Hardy.

That said, Ruth’s mission to navigate almost Dickensian conditions which just seem to get periodically harder as more and more obstacles present themselves, with no real hope or guarantee of when things will get better made for an incredibly humbling read. Of course I don’t mean to say that ‘The Paper Mill Girl’ is depressing and will leave you feeling like this poor girl could never catch a break in life, but her inspiring story just became that bit more thought provoking through reading it in a time when we really don’t know when we’ll be coming out of the horrible situation that we’ve all found ourselves in for the past year; and yet all we seem to do is complain and dwell on the awful sides of it, whilst the Ruth Hardys of the world are simply putting on their tattered old boots, lifting their skirts and putting one foot in front of the other with no solid hope or reassurance that things will get better. In a nutshell – I felt a bit crap reading about her incredible and inspiring story on a Saturday afternoon in my warm house whilst feeling bitter about how long it’s been since I could go shopping and get an overpriced latte from a coffee chain.

“You’re an angel, Ruth Hardy. You know that? You care for everyone else and take nothing for yourself. I don’t know how you do it.”

Obviously Ruth’s story is fictional, but no doubt inspired by the real tales of so many women from a time period which is largely overlooked by the history books, and as with all of Glenda Young’s stories, was so well researched that it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it turned out there really had been a real life woman who had this, or an extremely similar story to tell. I actually grew up near the old Hendon Paper Mill, and went to school just around the corner from where it stood, but am embarrassed to admit that I had to have a little google of where it actually stood and how long it had been in operation. I was aware of it to an extent, but unlike Sunderland’s more dominant industries like the mines and shipyards, the paper mill has largely been lost to the history books like a battered old toy forgotten at the back of a cupboard. That is, until Glenda Young obviously came along, realised the potential for so many amazing stories which have been sitting in the back of a metaphorical cupboard and breathed new life into this largely forgotten part of our Mackem history. (Google that phrase if you’re not from the North East).

Of course it wouldn’t be a saga novel without some romance weaved in between Ruth’s overarching endeavours, but once again Glenda Young has left the ‘know it all’ saga readers such as myself perplexed, intrigued and sometimes a bit angry through the twists and turns in Ruth’s relationship with the charming but, at times somewhat disappointing, Mick Carson. I really try not to spoil the plot for anyone in these reviews, but I must say I was bloomin’ furious when he started being a bit of a, well, a bit of a bloke really! Fictional leading men aren’t supposed to be useless – we have real life men to provide us with disappointment and we read books to escape and dream about men who don’t sometimes say the wrong thing or get intimidated by our fearlessness and let us down.

“Love seemed to have a nasty way of making itself felt in hurt and despair.”

But, I’ve said before how I love Glenda Young’s stories in particular because they don’t follow the typical reassuring plot themes of some other historical saga novels; and the relationship between Ruth and Mick definitely kept me on my toes as I turned the pages and had genuinely no idea as to how it was going to pan out. Again, as with all of Glenda Young’s wonderful novels however, it was apparent throughout ‘The Paper Mill Girl’ that she really knew Ruth inside out, and so graced her readership with the ending that she and the other characters deserved, without falling into the trap of being a sickeningly perfect romantic reconciliation which we all saw coming from chapter one. I have no doubt that it would’ve been easier to write a consistently perfect romantic hero, but as many of us know that’s very rarely how it goes in real life. The perfectly imperfect, human nature of Glenda Young’s characters are what keeps her readership hooked, and we come back time and time again as we know she will always take us on a journey through unexpected twists and turns which challenge both our beloved characters and our assumptions; always leading to a surprising yet perfectly fitting and thought provoking ending. After all, the path to true love never did run smooth did it?

Blog Tour – A Christmas Wish for the Shipyard Girls

It’s a testament to Nancy Revell’s wonderful writing that I am sitting in my garden having just finished her latest triumph, sweating in twenty-plus degree heat, with sunglasses on and sipping a pink lemonade (partying hard); yet all I want to do is put on a cosy jumper, dig out the Christmas DVD’s, and am convinced that I can smell pine needles and cinnamon. Plus, I can’t get ‘Good King Wenceslas’ out of my head. Disclaimer – sorry to ruin the magic, but I generally write ‘blog tour’ posts ahead of time, so by the time this is uploaded it’s highly likely that sunny afternoons in the garden will be a distant memory. Sincere apologies if this bursts any kind of bubble for anyone. Anyway, back to the festive celebrations with the feisty females from my favourite saga.

“Secrets could be buried, but it was inevitable that they would be dug up. It was always just a matter of time. And when they were, she wondered how forgiving the women would be.”

The intricate back-stories beneath every character within the SYG saga is something I’ve definitely touched on before, and is one of the many things which sets this series apart from others of its genre. I had always naively thought that this was simply a by-product of Nancy Revell’s captivating storytelling ability, and a means of drawing the reader further into each character’s personal story. However, ‘A Christmas Wish’ is the bridge which we loyal SYG readers had no idea we were waiting for; after eight instalments of really enjoying getting to know our characters and their personal stories, book nine has just smacked us in the face with realisation. It was all connected! Who knew? I was too busy getting a bit too emotionally involved in the overall story-line and character development to really consider where all of these back-stories and sub-plots were going. Move over, ‘Love Actually’, there’s a new feel-good, festive story with plot twists and character overlaps popping up at every page turn.

The great thing about a longer saga, aside from the intertwining plots, is that the writer has free reign to really develop the characters. I’ve said before how I couldn’t quite believe I was reaching a point where I was beginning to not quite hate Helen’s character, but at this stage I’m now actively rooting for her. I’ve always thought she gives off a bit of a Regina George vibe – vindictive and ruthless whilst at the same time beautiful and fabulous, but I’m relieved to see she is now using her powers for good; and watching her take down Mr Royce in an ongoing battle of wits in this instalment absolutely radiated the “yesssss queen!” feminist mood which the SYG saga is all about. Every time she asks Bel to get into her fabulous car, I’m half expecting her to say ‘get in loser, we’re smashing the patriarchy’. Side note – if you don’t understand ‘Mean Girls’ references, I can only assume this is your first time using the internet ever, in which case, thank you for using it to read my blog.

“‘The thing is,’ Helen said, ‘he would never have said that to my father – or my grandfather, or any other yard manager, for that matter. So why should we be any different? Just because we’re women?”

Speaking of Bel, I also thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her a bit more in this instalment. Again, the benefit of having a longer saga allows the author to give sufficient time and attention to each of the principal characters. My favourite ‘shipyard girl’ changes with each book I read, depending on who is in the spotlight at a given moment; so it was nice to spend a bit more time with Bel this time (she says, as if these women are her real-life friends). Bel’s heartache as she patiently waits to have her wish granted is addressed so sensitively, but at the same time isn’t glossed over, pussyfooted around or minimised which I really loved; this will resonate so much with a lot of women, and was a brave topic to address. The conversation between her and Helen, where Helen struggles to find the ‘right’ thing to say about it is so spot on in capturing the awkwardness of maneuvering ‘that’ question and is something which can be related to by women, and indeed men, from all eras and walks of life. That particular interaction drew me to tears, and on a personal level, I wanted to scan it and frame it to keep as a point of reference for when ‘those’ conversations arise in my own life.

As always, there are so many more things I could list which I loved about this instalment, but we really would be here all day and I don’t want to spoil it too much for those who are yet to read it. All I will say is that the usual warm fuzzy feeling of having caught up with my old, familiar friends was made all the more warmer and fuzzier by it being a festive edition. The chapter where everyone is singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ in the snow with the Salvation Army band had the smell of chestnuts and Christmas trees wafting from the pages. Inevitably, this being a ‘Shipyard Girls’ story and all, Nancy Revell has once again cruelly finished the story on another unbearable cliffhanger which has me counting down the days until book ten reaches the shelves and can hopefully provide some relief. But until then, I’m off to binge-watch some TV Christmas specials and bulk buy cinnamon scented candles…

First on the blog tour – eek! Follow @arevellwalton and @arrowpublishing on Twitter to stay tuned for some less ridiculous takes on this wonderful book!