Sunday, 10 January 2016

Emma's Review: The Canary Girls by Rosie Archer

Reviewed by Emma Crowley 

1944, Hampshire.

Her face still bearing the scars from the explosion at the factory, Rita Brown is nonetheless back on her feet. She's caught the eye of local wide boy Blackie Bristow, who's sweeping her around the country in a life of shady glamour.

But there's a war on, and life is not all fun and games. Some of the local men are taking advantage of the topsy-turvy world to break more than just hearts, and standing up to them comes with its own costs.

Rita keeps calm and carries on with a little help from her friends at the factory. But then she discovers someone there has been leaking secrets to the Germans. With D-Day on the horizon, Rita must work out who she can rely on - and fast.

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The Canary Girls is the second book from Rosie Archer – a sequel to The Munitions Girls, I haven't read the first book and normally wouldn't bother reading the second if this was the case but I'll shamefully admit it was the cover which drew me to this book. It's bright, inviting and shows a lovely carefree attitude from the three girls despite the very troubled era they live in. On further reading of the blurb this book sounded really interesting with a hint of mystery and maybe it would prove to be just that little bit different from all the numerous wartime saga books which are regularly published. This book follows a group of women who do their best to continue on with life as war rages on all around them and men suffer unimaginable horrors on the battlefields. But when I finished this book it proved to have been a delightfully different read and one I was glad I had been given the chance to discover.

Set in 1944 in the town of Gosport in Hampshire the girls do shift work in a munitions factory and are known as The Canary Girls due to the chemicals used which turn their hair and skin yellow. I did think the main focus of this book would be Rita Brown - scarred on her face from an explosion she caused in the factory but that proved not to be the case. Rita along with her friends Lizzie, Em and Gladys do extremely dangerous albeit necessary work putting TNT into shells, essential war work that they know will all help in the battle against Hitler. The work is fraught with danger and anxiety at every turn and one small step could spell disaster. Combined with that there is still ongoing bombing raids by the Germans and the women do their best to live a normal life outside of work but the constant threat of bombs is never far from their minds. Rita is going out with Blackie Bristow - who was unable to enlist in the army. He sells black market goods and provides Rita with numerous gifts and luxuries for herself and landlady Gladys which they take with open arms. Although Rita does feel there is more to Blackie than meets the eye but yet her heart is telling her go with it for the moment. I liked Blackie as a character he wasn't perfect by any means but he was written as a most hateful, despicable person that the reader was meant to loathe. I accept further on in the book people may view him differently for his actions but on first meeting this character he seemed to have a genuinely kind heart and wanted to care for Rita. All the little extras he supplied to her were thoughtful and appreciated. I was firmly hoping he would do nothing to break Rita's heart. As for Rita she was a fantastic character who wanted to do well at work to earn money to help her through the hard times the war was creating. She was kind, caring and compassionate and always wanted to support her friends in good times and bad. Her own storyline was heartbreaking at the sacrifice she made but I could see why she did it. Honestly though I felt her ending was a little bit rushed but maybe it just left more room for exploration in the future.

As for the other women featured their story lines were all really strong and engrossing. Em the overseer at the factory is suffering at the hands of her husband who returned early from the war having being badly wounded. Her heart is somewhere else but at the same time she feels a duty to the man she married. How much longer can she cope with what waits behind her door after she returns from every shift? Can Rita convince her friend there is a better life out there? Lizzie is Em's daughter and to me she seemed to have her head in the clouds and was totally caught up in remembering the father she had before war began not the one she lived with now. Also as she worked in the office of the factory she gave the impression she was above the other women and just wanted some fun and good times with whatever man came her way. Yes what happened to her was atrocious but I didn't like the person she became after this event and I still didn't like her towards the end. Perhaps my favourite character alongside that of Rita was Pixie, engaged to market stall trader Bob and with a new baby on the way life should be a bed of roses despite worldwide events. Bob loves Pixie's daughter Sadie as if she was his own. The couple seemed to be genuinely happy to have found each other and are looking forward to a bright future. But life doesn't always go the way we expect it to and a curve ball is about to be thrown her way. How will she handle it? Will a marriage even happen? I was very intrigued as to what would happen here. Lastly I will mention Marlene, to me the female character most on the periphery I could see where her storyline was going and really didn't want it to reach that place. She was the character I didn't really connect with and it wouldn't have mattered to me whether she featured at all.

I thought we would follow Rita as she builds herself up again after eventually leaving hospital which was alluded as to have happened in book one. Instead there were lots of other women to become familiar with and truthfully I think this is what the book so enjoyable and surprisingly absorbing. If the book had continuously focused on Rita and her story I think I would have become bored and not really cared what happened to her. The author gives us plenty of plot lines and characters to get to know and care about and all the chapters move from these people and different settings. All the storylines came together very well and Rosie did keep you guessing right until that heart stopping ending. I found myself lost in the story and could visualise the time and place really well. The attention to detail is fantastic and instead of writing about say women who were left at home with all of their men away, these women didn’t have any one away fighting so more time and focus was given on their day to day lives and the work they did in the factory. It showed a side to the war that is not often focused on in these kind of books and it set this book apart from everything out there and made for a great read.

Initially I did feel there were quite a few characters to get to know and I had to try and keep it straight in my head as to who was who. But after a few chapters I began to feel more familiar with our female protagonists and actually felt like I was reconnecting with old friends. That is despite having never read of these characters before. Being slightly apprehensive as to not knowing the background story I was worried I wouldn't be able to follow the overall plot of the book but Rosie Archer seamlessly slips in background information on all of the characters and I could clearly peace together what had happened to most of the girls in book one. So in no way did I feel like I had missed out on anything instead I was brought bang up to date with where the girls are now as they headed towards the final year or so of war. One thing I did question though was were there any new characters introduced in this book? I would have liked to have known was the cast the exact same or had Rosie created some new additions. 

This book was realistic and didn't in any way glamorise the women's trouble, loves, disappointments and hardships, they took their happiness where they could in the simplest of things. Life was tough and never ran smoothly and made for a compelling read. I really did love this book and hadn't expected to believing it would be another run of the mill heart-warming war time saga. I got a lot more than I bargained for (in a good way) and having discovered there is more to come in July of this year I am delighted, The Girls from the Bomb Factory has just gone on my wish-list.

Many thanks to Alianna at Quercus for sending me this book to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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