Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Liverpool, 1939. Bella Rogers thought her life was just starting; she can’t wait to get married to her childhood sweetheart, Bobby. But when war is declared and Bobby is called up, his letters stop, leaving Bella heartbroken and alone. Then her family is torn apart by tragedy when her angelic five-year-old sister dies from a terrible illness. They can barely afford a funeral, but the church is packed with the entire community, devastated for their loss.
Grieving for her sister and lost love, Bella finds a job at the Bryant and May factory, making matches. As bombs begin to fall, Bella gets the workers singing, keeping spirits high amidst the fear. When she meets a handsome American airman, Earl Franklin Jr, Bella’s heart finally starts to mend. Earl encourages her passion and soon she and her friends are offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to travel the country’s army bases, entertaining the troops and singing for victory. They name themselves The Bryant Sisters.
Just as her life is getting back on track, Bella finds herself pregnant – and Earl reveals a shattering secret that changes everything about their future. Devastated, she flees home to Liverpool, but as an unmarried mother, will her family reject her? And, as she faces a terrible sacrifice, will she ever sing with The Bryant Sisters again?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Girls of Victory Street to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Girls of Victory Street is the first in a new series entitled The Byrant Sisters from Pam Howes. I’ve really enjoyed Pam’s books in the past. She writes such fantastic characters and over the course of well-developed series, she really takes you on a journey. This new book proved to be an enjoyable and quick read. It’s a family saga set during World War Two with just the right amount of drama, deceit, romance, family life and friendship to have the reader rapidly turning the pages to see what would happen next. The chapters are short which really gives it that just one more chapter kind of feeling and that’s what happened to me and before I knew it, I had sadly reached the end.
The book is set in Liverpool and opens in Feb 1939. We are introduced to Bella Rogers who is 15 and lives with her parents Harry, a tram driver, and Mary, a cleaner in a local hospital, and her two younger sisters Molly and Betty. The family make do with what they have and although they struggle at times financially, they are happy and content and the bonds of family shine through throughout this story in both the good and bad times. They are always there for each other as are Bella’s friends Fran and Edie. Initially, I did think how would it have worked having the main character be so young? Could she really carry the entire story at such an innocent and inexperienced age?
But I needn’t have had any worries as the author clearly had everything so well planned out as she effortlessly moves forward months and years keeping the pace of the book just perfect. If a chapter moved forward in time it was noted at the beginning of said chapter and not in any way did this feel disjointed or that the book was jumping around too much and that’s the sign of a very good author. You could have easily become confused, but this didn’t happen for me and instead the story felt natural and flowed extremely well. I don’t think having Bella remaining at age 15 throughout the entire book would have worked at all, I just wouldn’t have believed half of the things that she went on to experience.
Bella is soon to leave school to start working to earn some money to help the family out as was common for most girls her age to do. But before she left school she was afforded a great opportunity to sing with a group as was her close friend Bobby. It’s clear from the outset that these two had feelings for each other but as they come from different backgrounds and as the signs of war loom ever larger it’s evident their path to be together if at all will be a very rocky one. I was proven right on this and I am excited to see how the author will develop this aspect of the storyline in future books given all the obstacles and situations that are currently left in their path. The cliffhanger ending certainly eluded to this.
I loved how Bella as the years progress, and her life changes beyond all recognition, stayed true to her roots and that for her family and friends always came first. She works in the match factory alongside Fran and Edie and here is where the Byrant Sisters are born. Bella was a down to earth girl who never took anything for granted and appreciated all the wonderful opportunities that came her way. Yes, the family suffered tragedy with the loss of Betty at such a young age but they bore their sorrow stoically and were determined to whether whatever storms came their way.
As war is declared and Harry and many men including Bobby and his father enlist, the lives of the women left behind are changed forever. Time and time again when reading books set in this genre, I am reminded just how amazing these women and families were. I have the utmost admiration for every man and also the women who worked and fought on the war front but those that remained at home deserve just the same amount of respect and admiration. They had to cope with air raids and the introduction of bomb shelters and gas masks, rationing, food shortages and many young children including Molly were evacuated to the countryside as it was believed to be safer there. All these problems and so many more but they bore them all with grace and dedication because they knew it was all for the greater good of their country.
Bella was forced to really grow up when war was declared and even though she was only around 18 or so when this book ends I felt she was much older than that. That she had become wiser and confident in her own skin, I totally forgot that she was still so young. It was like I was reading of a different character from the young girl I had first met, and this is what I think really helped to make me feel as If I was on a journey with her. When Basil who works for E.N.S.A – Entertainments National Service Association sees herself, Edie and Fran performing as the Byrant Sisters, he knows he is onto a winner and soon they are travelling with other entertainers all around camps and bases throughout England. Singing is Bella’s passion and she thoroughly enjoys her time travelling with the girls but at the same time worries for her Dad’s safety away fighting and her mother still in Liverpool.
Taking the girls around England allowed for different characters to be introduced and Earl was one of them which in turn allowed for various other subplots to develop which led to many conundrums for Bella. But she dealt with things well and rationally even though her heart is torn in two. As mentioned up above it's clear Bobby is the one for her but Alicia a family friend who becomes something more really sets the cat amongst the pigeons and she was an awful character. She was full of jealousy, vindictive, spiteful and just truly horrible. I really wanted Bobby to grow up and be a man and confront his mother and Alicia but it’s like he was too weak to do this. If only he could things could have been so different for both himself and Bella. Instead events mean Bella’s life although happy singing with the girls takes some unexpected turns and it’s how she copes with these and the outstanding support from her family and close friends that makes this an interesting read which shows how you can get through the most difficult of times.
The Girls of Victory Street was a very good read and a promising start to what I presume will go on to be at least three books, well I’m hoping so anyway. Although I do think the blurb gives away far too much of the story, it could have been shorter and still the essence of the book would have been conveyed. My advice is don’t read the blurb before reading the book because you will be on the look out for certain things. I didn’t read the blurb because really I would read anything that Pam Howes publishes and therefore I was surprised at what unfolded rather than waiting for it to happen. The author has a natural storytelling ability and deeply understands how the war affected the lives of ordinary everyday people. This doesn’t tend to read like a history book as too often some books in this genre do. Instead a paragraph or two every so often filling in the reader as to what is happening worldwide with regard to the events of the war was slotted in as necessary. This meant the story could really focus on Bella and her friends.
I did think the ending came about rather abruptly almost like the author had reached the cut off point and had to stop. There was a cliffhanger of sorts because I know there is a lot more to come from Bella and we had only reached March 1943 by the end of this story. The rather sudden conclusion only served to make me want more from these set of characters especially Fran and Edie. I understand Bela is the focus but even a few chapters from either of the other two girls’ perspectives would be great.
The Girls of Victory Street is a very well written story that will have you really engrossed during the time you spend reading it and I am looking forward to the continuation of Bella’s story in the hopefully not too distant future.