Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Emma's Review: Girls on the Home Front by Annie Clarke

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

August 1941: As war sweeps across Britain and millions of men enlist to serve their country, it’s up to the women to fight the battle on the home front.

Fran always thought she would marry her childhood sweetheart and lead a simple life in Massingham, the beloved pit village she has always called home.

But with war taking so many men to the front line, the opening of a new factory in the north-east of England presents an opportunity for Fran to forge a new path.

Against her father’s wishes and with best friends Sarah and Beth by her side, Fran signs up to join the ranks of women at the factory. It’s dangerous work but as the three friends risk life and limb for their country, they will discover that their lives are only just beginning…

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Many thanks to Arrow Books for my copy of Girls on the Home Front to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Girls on the Home Front is the first is a new series from Annie Clarke and it follows the ups and downs of a group of young women and their families during the war years. The women live in the village of Massingham, the focal point of which is the pit which sustains many a family although with this job it brings plenty of danger and worry on a daily basis. Now that war has broken out the women step into new roles they would never have thought possible pre-war. Fran, Sarah and Betty begin secret war work at a factory they are taken to by bus each day. But the results of this work are clear for all their families and the villagers to see so it is not so secret even though if anyone speaks of it there will be grave consequences.

The story follows the group as they become accustomed to this new way of life working long shifts in the factory. We also get a very detailed insight into the lives of the men who work in the pit. In many of the previous war time family saga books that I have read the men only ever briefly feature as they are away fighting so it was different and refreshing to see that they played a more prominent role in this book. The war, although ever present in the hearts and minds of the villagers as it has an impact on their daily lives, didn't have a prominent role to play more so the focus was on how the women coped in the factory and the men in the mines.

Fran had been a typist in an office but with her family situation at home changing and women needed to work in the factory she steps out of her comfort zone and into the fire alongside her friends Betty and Sarah. I thought all three of the girls alongside the numerous friends they make at the factory were very brave and deserved nothing but admiration. With the coming of war the roles of women had to change and it was evident they had to step out of their comfort zone. Of course they were nervous at the work they were undertaking but I thought the bonds they formed and the support they showed each other would hopefully be enough to see them weather any storms that came their way. They knew the work they were doing was all part of the process to help the many soldiers fighting to survive and to crush the enemy. 

The majority of the characters had known each other since childhood and were well accustomed to the men leaving for work each day and the worry that ensued in case an accident occurred in the mines but they always drew strength from each other and this shone through at every available opportunity throughout the book. Fran's relationship with Davey, who is obsessed with crosswords and setting them and who is also the brother of Sarah, felt very real and genuine but it is the son of the pit owner Ralph who tries to put a spanner in the works between the pair.

Ralph was a character I just abhorred. He came from the upper echelons of society and viewed himself as above everyone else especially those common folk who worked in the pits. So god knows why he felt the need to join the men underground. If he saw it as presenting himself in a different light well he was wrong as a leopard never changes his spots. Ralph was cruel and devious and there was always an underlying tension when he was around. He loved to throw his weight around and his intentions never appeared to be genuine, I always felt there are ulterior motives at work here. I just hoped the rest of the gang both male and female would be able to see through his wicked ways and expose him for the cad and the fraud he so clearly was. I hated observing what was going on overall and even more so that Fran and co couldn't see it or weren't fully clued up to all the goings on. There was a fine line to thread but I did hope it would go in the direction I so desperately wished it too.

There was lots of nice observations of the daily lives of everyone and after awhile I could see connections emerging between certain characters and I could see what direction story lines were going to go much further down the line but for the a good part of the book I felt there was a lack of excitement that could have propelled the book to a higher level and made it truly memorable.The various little subplots were enjoyable enough to read of but none truly caught my imagination and had me gripped. Truthfully it took me quite some time to get into this story and that was for several reasons. I found the language spoken by the characters took some getting used to. I understand the author wanted to make the book authentic and stick to the roots of the mining villages but I found the dialect difficult to understand at times. I thought it slowed down my pace of reading and engagement with the story as I found myself having to reread sentences more than once in order to comprehend everything and to make sure I wasn't missing out on any key information.

There was no question that detailed and extensive research was undertaken prior to writing this book but perhaps there was just too much terminology surrounding the mines and the work the men did and the various sections within the mine and the equipment used. I would have loved to have had a glossary of terms associated with mining and the extraction of coal to refer back and forth to. It would have deepened my understanding and perhaps my understanding of the conversations would have occurred more quickly and I may have found the flow of the story easier. I wouldn't have had to stop reading and go and look things up. I just felt at times the story slightly strayed into a history text book when it came to mining and it lost track of the message and themes it was trying to convey.

Reeling things back a little bit with regard to this aspect would have helped, yet saying that I didn't feel the same way when it came to describing the dangerous work undertaken by the girls as it was brief and to the point and the reader could easily see how important what they were doing was. The book only picked up for me around the three quarter mark as until then I found the pace to be very slow. As it is the first book in a planned series I realise there was a lot of introductions to be made, setting the scene and establishing various story-lines but it just dragged a bit too much before I finally began to see things coming together and then plenty of things were left hanging to ensure the reader would return for book two.

Girls on the Home Front was a different take on the war time family saga books that I have become accustomed to. Despite the slow start, the readers patience will be rewarded as you do become invested in the goings on of each of the characters as their lives prove to be interesting and definitely testing both because of the war and the work they are engaging in. But also as there seems to be goings on outside of their control as they can't pin anything on anybody. I'm interested to see what will unfold in the next book Heroes on the Home Front which will be published in September this year. There are certainly plenty of cliffhangers that need resolution and I'd say a few more skeletons to emerge from the closet too. Overall, this was an average read to begin with but as the story and characters developed it became much better and I am glad I preserved with it.

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