Category Archives: Romance

The two Marys travel back in time

The two Marys, Hoffman and Hooper, have unravelled some more history for me in their new books for Barrington Stoke. Mary Hoffman writes about the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in 1571, and Mary Hooper visits plague-ridden London in 1665.

Both historical events are ones I ‘know’ of, especially the plague. But that doesn’t mean I know all that much, so I’m grateful for some fiction to help me learn.

Mary Hoffman, Angel of Venice

Angel of Venice features Luca who dreams of running off to war. But he’s in love, so can’t quite make his mind up, until it’s forcibly made up for him. And war is not at all as you tend to imagine, but hell on earth and he soon wishes he hadn’t gone.

Lovely romance and history lesson all in one. The Ottoman Empire is no longer as hazy to me as it was, and Venice with Mary is always good.

Mary Hooper, Ring of Roses

Ring of Roses is pretty scary. You imagine that ‘your’ character will be all right because it’s fiction and you can’t kill off the main character, can you?

Abby has come to London to look after a rich woman’s baby, and she stays well while the rest of London succumbs to the illness. Mary describes graphically what happens to the people in houses where someone dies of the plague and it’s not good.

Very realistic, and very informative.

The Marys do this so well, and I’m pleased they have written these dyslexia friendly books. They are much needed.

Incidentally

You know how it is. You decide to be a little more sociable, and what better time and place than in Edinburgh? Before getting on that train to Edinburgh on Monday, I made plans to see a few people. So I’ve got a couple of meetings arranged for later.

I knew Philip Caveney would be up here. Again. (A witch moves away from Stockport, and Stockport follows her here.) I asked if we might meet up. He’d be busy Monday, he said, but later in the week perhaps?

On Facebook I’d seen a photo from the Charlotte Square children’s bookshop, of Philip, standing next to his books. Secretly I thought the photo was a bit orange, so when I came across the same books myself, I took a picture to show how it’s done.

Philip Caveney books at EIBF

Actually, orange seems to be the way. Something to do with the light.

Oh well.

And then I found out why he was ‘busy’ that day. There’s no need to get married just to escape a meeting with the witch. Really. But it’s lovely news that Lady Caveney has made an honest man of Philip.

Ghostly Tales

Eleanor Hawken, Curtis Jobling and Cathy MacPhail

But I didn’t. Back out, I mean. I entered with some determination, because I was there for ghosts with Cathy MacPhail and Eleanor Hawken and Curtis Jobling, which is no small thing. I had only read Eleanor’s Grey Girl, but am happy to take the word of others as to the ghostliness of Cathy and Curtis. Their books. Not them.

Cathy’s most recent title is Scarred to Death, which is a great play on words. Haunt, Dead Scared by Curtis is about a dead boy whose trainers are either intact or quite ruined, depending on whether you are dead or alive.

Eleanor Hawken

For all three the fondness for ghostly things began at an early age. Eleanor consumed two Point Horror books a day before going to a boarding school with a resident ghost at 13. Cathy liked ghosts ‘ever since she was a wee girl’ and then she came up with the idea of seeing your dead teacher in the queue at Tesco. Curtis has loved ghost stories ‘since he was a little girl as well’ – the remains of hurricane Bertha flapped the tent at this point, if it was Bertha – and has a past which includes flour and string, and a father who liked to scare his children.

Andrew Jamieson, who chaired the event, sensibly let the audience ask questions early on. It was a pretty ghostly minded audience – apart from the lovely baby who chewed on a green guest lanyard to avoid crying – and the answer to whether novels tend always to be autobiographical is yes.

Cathy MacPhail

Eleanor dreamed Grey Girl and Cathy also made a sleep related comment. She started work in the mill at 15, being too poor to stay on at school, and then began writing when her children were small, in the belief that one short story ought to be enough, and then discovering she was addicted. Mills & Boon found her attempts too humorous.

Curtis Jobling

Curtis reckons you should work hard at your hobbies, and you might find your hobby turns to work (yes, but we can’t all draw Bob the Builder!). He drew us a Were-Bob on the strategically placed flipchart next to him.

On what they like to read, Eleanor fell in love with Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials as a teenager. Cathy reads anything from Stephen King to Young Women, but not romance. (I suspect the M&B problem has just been explained.) All seem to be fans of Let the Right One In, which doesn’t reassure me one bit. Bite.

And do they believe in ghosts? Eleanor does. Curtis doesn’t. He said it was just the wind, since we’re in Scotland now. Cathy, well, maybe. She’s not scared, but… Have they seen a ghost? Eleanor has (the advantages of having attended the right school), while Curtis explained that he wakes his wife if he hears a noise in the night. Poor Mrs J.

If anyone is still not scared enough, Andrew mentioned that he quite likes Chris Priestley’s short stories.

Asked if they have plans for what they will do next; yes, they do.

Eleanor Hawken, Curtis Jobling, Cathy MacPhail, next to David Roberts and Alan MacDonald

At this point we’d run over in time, and as we were ‘thrown out’ I glanced at the bookshop’s signing area and decided they’d have their work cut out to fit three more authors in, next to the two who were still there. And that while they did, I’d have time for a super fast comfort stop.

As I re-emerged, I found that Curtis had had the same idea, so we walked back to the bookshop together, where there was just space for him between the ladies. There were queues everywhere, and people wanted all kinds of things signed. Curtis even got to ‘deface’ someone’s notebook.

Wish I’d thought of that!

The #10 profile – Janet Quin-Harkin

Janet Quin-Harkin is a woman who impressed me so much when she moderated an event at CrimeFest back in 2008, that I have remained a silent fan ever since. So I was pretty pleased to find she has a past as a writer for teens, and now her 1989 HeartBreak Café novel No Experience Required is being republished. Which I think is good news.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out more about Janet, so here she is:

Janet Quin-Harkin

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

Not many. I think I sold on my first or second try, but then I had a long dry period before I sold again.

Best place for inspiration?

Driving around in the car or doing laundry.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I wrote my children’s and YA books under my married name. I use a pseudonym for my mystery novels so that I was not judged as a children’s book writer.

What would you never write about?

Anything too horrible; torture, hurting children or animals, demonic possession.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

The most unexpected person I’ve met in my books? Probably Houdini. And the most unexpected place I’ve ended up – a freak show on Coney Island.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

I’d like to be my current heroine, Lady Georgie. In spite of having no money, she does seem to lead a fun life – and she has the gorgeous Darcy O’Mara pursuing her.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

It’s happening right now. A movie’s being made by Matador Pictures of Her Royal Spyness. I’ll have to wait until I see it before I decide if it’s a good or bad thing. It might be nice to have the Heartbreak Café books made into a series or film.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

Are writer Victoria Thompson and I really the same person? ( We both write historical novels set in New York.)

Do you have any unexpected skills?

Many – I can open champagne bottles, play the harp, sing opera, tell jokes.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Oh Narnia, definitely, although I grew up on the Famous Five.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Abba, all of them.

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

I’m not that organized. One lot of shelves for my work reference. Several for fiction. One for good looking, leather bound books.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

Harry Potter. He’d be hooked for life.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

Writing. I can’t live without it.

This time you had to read the Q&As before I could let on about Janet’s pseudonym. But she is – of course – Rhys Bowen. And she has very sensible advice for eight-year-old boys. I must admit I’m looking forward to the Her Royal Spyness film. It should be really good. (As would a film about Molly Murphy, I reckon.) In the meantime you could do worse than read Janet/Rhys’s books. Enjoy!

Heartbreak Café – No Experience Required

It’s hard getting used to thinking of 1989 as being a retro year. But sooner or later most things turn retro, and here is an old favourite being reissued. Maybe you read Janet Quin-Harkin’s Heartbreak Café series 25 years ago, and would like to visit again. I didn’t, so for me it was a pleasant return to old values in a new-to-me book.

In a way this is no different from a Sarah Dessen. No mobile phones or computers, and fashion has changed a little, but other than that we have the same American teenagers driving around in their nice cars, going to school and planning for college, working part time, and falling in love. Dealing with parents and some kind of problem, but mostly hanging out with their friends in that very American way people in the rest of the world are so fascinated by.

Janet Quin-Harkin, HeartBreak Cafe 1 No Experience Required

Debbie is 16 and has to find a job when her parents divorce and money suddenly becomes an issue. Instead of going for the safe kind of job you could seemingly expect back then, she finds a job waitressing and cooking burgers at a beach café. The young and handsome boy who runs it reckons she won’t last, so obviously Debbie has to prove him wrong.

The hardship we are all mostly used to today is missing. Or maybe it is still an American idea that if you work hard you will have to succeed. I’d like to think this book will appeal to teenagers today. Whether it will seem hopelessly dated, or just charmingly retro is not for me to say. I was old even in 1989.

But this is fun and a bit romantic and so very American. And to Janet’s credit, she didn’t end the book the way I’d been expecting.

The Demons of Ghent

You know that feeling you have when you’re climbing about on the rooftops of Ghent, with Death right behind you? That’s The Demons of Ghent, the second of Helen Grant’s Flemish trilogy. It’s that strange thing, the perfect book, both extremely soothing and calm (I suspect it’s the Flemish aspect), and heart-stoppingly scary.

Climbing to the top of buildings and walking across whole city blocks is frightening enough on its own, without adding a stalking monster who kills people. Someone you might encounter as you run along some vertigo-inducing parapet or other narrow strip of roof. Add rain or darkness, and it’s almost heaven. (If you’ve been good. If not, it will be the other place.)

Helen Grant, Demons of Ghent

Veerle has had to move from the small village that she loved and knew so well, and is forced to live with her father and his new – pregnant – wife, who resents her presence. Not happy at school, Veerle bunks off, and meets Bram, another desirable young man (Kris seems to have dropped out of sight, to begin with), who is into rooftops.

People are dying, though. ‘Suicides’ jumping off houses. And Ghent natives are seeing ‘demons’ on the rooftops at night. As an outsider Veerle finds this rather odd.

Until the day she comes across someone whom she thought was dead and it all goes horribly wrong. It’s tough being wanted by two handsome young men all at once, as well as having Death turn up wherever you go.

I’m wondering if we will ever have an explanation, or if Veerle will keep putting herself in danger until it’s too late? Are the odd things that happen to her connected, or is she just prone to meeting new monsters at every new turn?

Helen writes so naturally that you can’t really see how she pulls it off. And although the reader screams at Veerle not to do whatever she has in mind to try next, it makes for surprisingly comfortable reading. Yes, Death and vertigo are both scary, but there is an intrinsic calm to this Flemish life.

Comfy horror. I love it!

Revisiting Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart died last week. I’m sure you knew that. It’s sad that she’s gone, but I’m grateful we had her for as long as we did, and that she wrote all those wonderful books. That’s cause for celebration.

I’ll just post the links to my reviews from a few years ago, when her books were last re-issued. You can’t have too much Mary Stewart. That’s why I even looked for her settings on my holidays.

Mary Stewart, Madam, Will You Talk?

Madam, Will You Talk? began my trip down memory lane, in May 2011. It was followed by Wildfire at Midnight, and after that The Moonspinners and This Rough Magic. And last but not least, My Brother Michael.

I even tried asking for an interview, simply because I was so happy Mary was still alive, and I would have loved meeting a long time favourite author. The publishers – very sensibly – said no. Mary felt she was too old for interviews. (You can’t be too old for Bookwitches, but I knew what they meant.)