Girls on the Home Front by Annie Clarke #BookReview #BlogTour

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…

I'm absolutely delighted to be hosting the blog tour for Girls on the Home Front by Annie Clarke today. Many thanks to the author and Isabelle Ralphs from Cornerstone, Penguin Random House for inviting me and for sending me a copy of the novel.

Girls on the Home Front is the first book in Annie Clarke's new Factory Girls wartime saga series and I'm already hooked! From the very start, I was engrossed in the lives of Fran, Sarah, Beth and their families and as the book progressed I couldn't put this warm, authentic and compelling novel down.
The novel opens on the three friends' first day working in a new factory and before they start, they are warned of the vital safety procedures and informed that their war work is top secret, meaning they aren't allowed to tell anybody about what it is they do. When they meet one of their supervisors, Mrs Raydon and realise she lost her hand after a mishap with a detonator, they begin to comprehend just how dangerous their new job really is. It's eye-opening and rather humbling to realise that these young women are only nineteen and yet are entrusted with these arduous and deeply risky tasks at a time when they should have been their most carefree.
Girls on the Home Front is set in Massingham, a small pit village in the North East and alongside the dramas in the factory, it also features life in the mines and how much such an existence becomes integral to the very soul of the community sustained and shaped by it. Fran's father is angered by his daughter's decision to work in the factory, having hoped she'd find a job as a typist and at first, it does appear as if he is the archetypal short-tempered, patriarchal, head of the family. It soon becomes clear, however, that his harsh words are due to his fears for his beloved children and his hopes for something better - and safer - for them. This is wartime though, and his older children need to be able to hold their heads high and know that they are doing their bit too.
Although the action takes place during 1941 when the war was at full swing, its impact on the book is mostly concerned with how it affects the decisions of some of the key characters. Nevertheless, there are women in the factory who have already lost loved ones and one of the three friends, Beth is missing her husband, Bob who is away serving at sea. However, this first instalment of the saga is certainly not short of action and readers will be left in little doubt as to the risks in both the factory and down the mines. The ever-present danger of pit collapses or accidental detonations in the factory means that the men and women part before their shifts with the poignant words, "Be Safe" but the long-term daily toll on their bodies is also vividly described. The men's bodies are covered with the blue scars caused by coal dust finding its way into any little cuts inflicted on them, many bear the damage of previous collapses, including Fran's brother, Stan and her sweetheart (and Sarah's brother), Davey whose knees mean they are considered unfit for active duty at the Front and so risk their lives at home instead. Their biggest fear, however, is black lung with every pitman agreeing that a quick death below rocks is preferable to the long and drawn-out demise after being diagnosed with the dreaded occupational hazard.
Meanwhile, the women working at the factory turn yellow due to working with TNT, meaning that their supposedly secret work is obvious to everybody. They are also covered in painful, itchy rashes and the long, intense hours leave them exhausted to the point of collapse. Annie Clarke certainly leaves her readers in no doubt of just how difficult the work of these courageous, stoic men and women was. It's far from all doom and gloom though, and the camaraderie of the community and in particular the joy and strength the women gain from singing together ensures there are some lighter moments throughout to balance the daily worries and the times of greater anguish.
Girls on the Home Front is a fabulous series opener and does exactly what a first book should to leave readers desperate for more. In my opinion, the story this time belongs to Fran who is a wonderful character and I loved seeing how she responds to the challenges she faces here. Sarah, Beth, Stan and Davey also have their own moments under the spotlight and I'm looking forward to seeing how they continue to come to terms with the unexpected changes to their hopes, dreams and expectations. Not all the characters leave such a good impression though and this review wouldn't be complete without a word about Ralph, son of the pit owner, whose long-borne grudge makes him the scourge of the gang of friends. It's still not entirely clear just what his motives are but I fear the worst and even in this book, there are plenty of scenes which left me desperate for his comeuppance. Massingham, the pit and the factory are all brought evocatively to life and are as important to the fabric of the novel as the people whose stories are told here.
I know I'm invested in a series when it makes me experience a range of emotions and Girls on the Home Front did exactly that; I cheered, laughed, held my breath and wept alongside Fran, her family and friends. If you love sagas then I heartily recommend the Factory Girls and I can't wait to read the next book, Heroes on the Home Front to discover what lies in store for characters who I have already grown to care about.

Girls on the Home Front will be published by Arrow Books on 30th May 2019 and can be pre-ordered or published here.

About the Author
Annie Clarke’s roots are dug deep into the North East. She draws inspiration from her mother, who was born in a County Durham pit village during the First World War, and went on to became a military nurse during World War Two. Annie and her husband now live a stone’s throw from the pit village where her mother was born. She has written frequently about the North East in novels which she hopes reflect her love and respect for the region’s lost mining communities. Annie has four adult children and four granddaughters, who fill her and her husband’s days with laughter, endlessly leading these two elders astray.