Category Archives: Romance

An Austen-free upbringing

After wondering why I didn’t read the books by Jane Austen or the Brontës in my early teens, I suddenly realised why, and who I could blame for this regrettable shortcoming. (Always important, because it certainly wasn’t my fault.)

My Swedish teacher when I was 15, is who. The last year of secondary school we had free reading once a week. I am – with my mature adult hindsight – guessing it was a way to get the non-readers to read. Anything. At. All.

We were allowed to read whatever we wanted, and could bring our own books or use the school library. I generally sat down with an Alistair MacLean, or similar. Generally in English (which is odd for a Swedish lesson, but never mind). Naturally the teacher would have preferred me not to.

So she suggested books I might try. The only one I remember is Pella. I am sure the Pella books were fantastic, and the teacher had most likely loved them when she was young. But I was 15, and I was reading MacLean. Pella would – possibly – have been right for me about three years earlier.

All these years I’ve remembered the teacher’s badly chosen suggested books and I have understood what she was hoping for. I just haven’t thought of what she ought to have pointed me in the direction of instead, because she was quite right in wanting me to better myself with something other than MacLean.

I already loved all manner of romances; the kind where a young governess meets her new employer who is a brooding and somewhat strange man, and where they eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The Jane Eyre copycats. Reader, I had no idea there existed the real thing and that it would have been much more satisfying. (Not better than MacLean, obviously, but as good…)

We knew of Pride and Prejudice because it had been on television. At that point I was of an age where understanding there’d be a book as well was too much to expect. We knew about Vanity Fair, because that too had been on television. Also, Heathcliff ran around the moors on television, and I knew there was a book, but it didn’t tempt me at all.

I knew about Dickens because we had children’s abridged versions. And yes, he’d been on television.

Mother-of-witch was many things, and for someone of her background she had an astounding number of proper books and books in English. But she had not been brought up on the classic governesses, and so she could not point me in their direction. Which is fine.

But my well educated mother tongue teacher could have. And should have.

Icefall

It’s… it’s… well, I don’t know. Compulsive! That could be it. I raced through Gillian Philip’s Icefall, the last of the Rebel Angels. In fact, remember the rebel angels. They are relevant. But you’ll have forgotten by the time you get there because it’s all too exciting.

It isn’t for the faint-hearted. You need to cope with cut-off bits of bodies. Lots of them; both the bits and the bodies. There is sex. More explicit than your average YA novel, so it is perhaps wise that it now describes itself as Adult/Young Adult & Fantasy. When wondering how Gillian could get away with some of her, erm, descriptions, I came to the conclusion that being a smaller indie publisher, Strident might feel more able to leave in what other publishers would undoubtedly have cleaned up a little.

Gillian Philip, Icefall

So, there I was, racing through. The one thing that slows old witches down is characters and their names. There are lots of them, and each character has a couple of names, at least. There is a very handy list of them, but I have to admit I could have done with the full blown family tree. You know, ‘who were her parents again?’ Each of the four books have centred round a young person. Sort of young, because the Sithe faeries grow very old, unless they die in battle first.

There were more mortals in this one, and it was ‘nice’ that the more ordinary end of humans were given a bit more of the action. Remember Lauren? Can you tell Sheena and Shania apart?

My favourite person this time was someone who has been there from the start, but not always very prominently. I was hoping he’d last until the end, even when things looked dicey.

Divided into two parts, first in our world and then in theirs, the war between Kate NicNiven and Seth MacGregor continues. Kate is evil, so it looks inevitable that she will win, or take everyone with her if she were to fail.

I can’t tell you more. Daren’t. They fight. They cut bits off each other. They love each other. And hate the others. People die. Obviously.

And, happily, it appears that Gillian isn’t totally ruling out more books about this world.

Penguin in Love

I’m a sucker for cute penguins and their loveable little adventures. Here, in Salina Yoon’s Penguin in Love, there is a lot of knitting going on. Unrealistically much, and fast, knitting. But knitting is cute, too.

Salina Yoon, Penguin in Love

Penguin looks for love, but all he finds are people to knit for, to keep them warm. Because he has a big warm heart and he cares.

That’s why, when he has found and then lost his love, they help him find her again.

There is a lot more knitting happening while the search is going on. So in the end everyone is warm, and loved, and happy.

Stuffed

I’m thinking it’s been too long, this wait for the third instalment of Miriam Halahmy’s Hayling Island cycle. But here it is at last; Stuffed.

Like the middle book Illegal, it’s about the bad girl, or perhaps more accurately, about the scary and rich and not always so likeable girl, Jess. It’s a very clever move, writing about less ‘worthy’ characters. It’s given me an opportunity of getting to know someone completely different to myself (obviously…) and finding it’s possible to like them too.

Miriam Halahmy, Stuffed

Jess’s family have had lots of money and have not been shy about flaunting it or spending it. And all of a sudden there is a change.

She has just met Ryan, who is a very nice boy. He tinkers with his van and dreams of going to Africa. But he too has a big problem in his life.

This is good stuff. Not only does Miriam need to untangle Jess’s and Ryan’s relationship, but also their individual big worries, while throwing in a few more things like sibling rivalry and the rest of the world.

Despite being a fan already, I began reading rather cautiously, but it didn’t take long for me to get totally caught up, and I didn’t cringe once, the way you sometimes do over books about teen romance and teen problems.

You could easily read this on its own, but why not read all three books? They throw a new light on contemporary teen life, and they are anything but the same as ‘all those other books.’

Little orphaned Ondine

I must be careful. Very careful. If I’m not, you’ll find Ebony McKenna has taken over as chief Bookwitch. Which would at least mean you’d be well entertained. As you may have noticed in yesterday’s review of her third Ondine book, it is an ebook. Below is her background story as to why.

‘I hate orphans. Not actual orphans (poor loves) but the trope of orphans in fiction.

They started in fairytales and never went away, did they? The loner who has to face the world – alone – with no parental figures to offer sanctuary; the plucky victim of circumstance who wins the prize based on their sheer goodness/magical abilities/discovery of the elixir. Orphans may have reflected the times they were originally from – mothers who died in childbirth, parents who died in battle or from the pox – but they’re an anachronism today.

Which is why I made sure Ondine wasn’t an orphan. When her story first crashed into my brain she was an orphan. Because I picked that low-hanging fruit. But as her character became flesh and blood she grew a family. Two older sisters and parents who treated her like a baby, plus a batty great auntie slash mentor. Love and conflict all rolled up together. Plus, she worked in a pub, surrounded by people. Family, magic mayhem and a talking ferret. I’d captured lightning in a bottle.

Ondine and her sequel found generous parents at Egmont in the UK, who doted on her, educated her and gave her the prettiest clothes. They sent her off to the ball bookshop, in hope of finding true love with readers.

Many readers did love Ondine. Laika films showed interest in adapting the story for animation. Alas there were more books that were prettier, had wealthier suitors, were more glittering . . . and I’m clubbing this fairytale analogy to death.

Ondine had two big adventures in the bookstores in the UK and Commonwealth, but all the love and care in the world wasn’t enough to guarantee a third outing (let alone a planned fourth). Around this time, bookstores were closing and the GFC was kneecapping everything. Times were bad, especially for authors.

My anti-orphan series became an orphan.

If my life were a book, this would be ‘the black moment’, where all is lost and love is not enough.

After gobbling chocolate through a funnel, it was time to look at options. The first step was to take advantage of ‘the rest of the world’ rights I’d retained, so I could self-publish the first two Ondine novels as ebooks into the USA, Russia, China, Japan and Moldova (which has eerie similarities with Brugel, where Ondine is set. For starters, neither has won Eurovision).

Ebony McKenna, The Winter of Magic

The thing about self-publishing is you have to do it all yourself. Which means hiring everyone to do the things an author can’t do.

Fate had not completely given me the middle finger; I found an editor who used to work with Egmont, who was now living in my home country, Australia. Naturally I hired her to edit the next two novels in the series. I hired a cover designer to give the series a stunning new look. I hired a formatting company to crunch the pixels into shape so the novels would be available everywhere good downloads were sold. All the while I kept writing, because that’s what had gotten me into this fix in the first place, and it would be what got me out of it.

Now the Ondine ‘trequel’ is available worldwide. The Winter of Magic has me brimming with tears of joy. Relief is in there too. Terror gets a mention – it’s always scary putting a book out there into the world, however it’s published.

There is also pride. Not a boastful pride, but a quiet, satisfied sense of a job well done; a wellspring of hope as my orphaned Ondine gets to dance at the ball once again.’

Thank you, Ebony! And don’t worry too much about Eurovision. One day Brugel will win. (Also, please keep writing.)

The Winter of Magic

I get it now. Ebony McKenna is working her way through the seasons. We did autumn three springs ago (she’s from Australia. She’s bound to get things like that ‘wrong’), and now it’s Christmas (with the before and after, so almost right) and it’s cold in Brugel. Very cold. Especially with the electricity cuts.

The Winter of Magic, the third book about Ondine and her beautiful Hamish, who is only occasionally a ferret, is out as an ebook, which means you can do amusing things with the lovely footnotes. Ebony said to tap the screen, but no amount of tapping the Resident IT Consultant’s Kindle did me any good. Was she pulling my leg, or is my equipment no good? Not to worry, the footnotes come at the end of each chapter, and if you have a good memory, you will even remember what they refer to, by the time you get to them.

If you’re waiting for Hamish, you can’t wait too long. Three years is obviously far too long a gap, but you will do it for Hamish. I mean Ondine – of course – because she is the main character here. A witch. Luckily for her, most of her witchery must be done by kissing Hamish. Such hard graft

They are back with Ondine’s family, working hard in the pub. Her sister is getting married, and her great aunt is poking her nose into everything. The Duchess is trying to make herself popular, while town is filling up with witches (it’s time for the CovenCon), one of whom is a very bad witch.

This is such fun. Again. I recommend this book against the dark depressing times we have to suffer through before it’s summer, or at least spring, again.

The seasonally obsessed Ebony seems to plan to end the series (which personally I thought was a trilogy) with a spring themed fourth book. She had better be kind to Hamish!

(Review of first book here. To buy The Winter of Magic.)

Love those houses

Still in Valentine mode, I could mention houses to fall in love with. No, I lie, I’m not into Valentine at all, but you need to be ‘topical.’

We saw some nice houses yesterday. It could have been love. Who knows?

And I’m reminded of the rather well preserved 1930s house the Resident IT Consultant and I visited at the beginning of time, or soon afterwards. It belonged to his former English teacher, and right now I’d be very happy to buy it, were it for sale. That was the occasion when I was given a lovely old copy of that wonderful teen romance, Daddy-Long-Legs.

Speaking of history, it’s what the Resident IT Consultant served up in one of the houses we looked at. It happened to be right behind the house he grew up in. Mere yards – I mean metres – from the corner of their garden, where he slept in a box in a caravan, while the house was being built. I’m not up to primitive stuff like that. And at least he didn’t claim to have walked barefoot to school. Even if he did.

We’ll look at some more houses today, but I’m sure they can’t beat yesterday’s. Although, I suppose it’d be good if they did. It would mean there’s plenty of good prospective Bookwitch Towers out there.

I have to own up to having built custom made bookcases (in my mind) in every house we viewed. Some were better than others. Could I fall for a house that doesn’t have good walls for books?

I’ll keep you posted.

Soul Mates and an Old Dog

That’s not the title of a book, btw. I was simply thinking how great it is that I have two Barrington Stoke books here; one for girls and one for boys. I know, I shouldn’t be quite so categorical, but in this instance it does seem to me that Lee Weatherly’s Soul Mates is pretty satisfyingly girly, while Bali Rai has written an inspirational story for teenage boys in Old Dog New Tricks. What’s more, it covers the ‘immigrant’ angle too, even though Harvey is no immigrant. He just happens to look like one.

Bali Rai, Old Dog New Tricks

Harvey and his family are sikhs, and when they move into the house next door to old Mick, they soon find out how unpleasant their new neighbour can be. But they are friendly and persistent people, so try really hard to make contact with the lonely old man.

The story provides a good mix of ordinary life for people in Britain, whether sikh or white or black. As Harvey says, if Mick were to close his eyes, he wouldn’t be able to hear that Harvey is a foreigner. Because he isn’t.

I learned something new, too, that if I’m hungry or lonely, I can pop round to my nearest gurdwara for food and company. That sounds most civilised, and I hope Bali hasn’t set an avalanche rolling by introducing this sikh tradition in his book.

L A Weatherly, Soul Mates

Lee’s Soul Mates is about precisely that. Two teenagers who for years have dreamed about each other, despite never having met. They just know the other is their soul mate.

And when Iris and Nate do meet, they realise they have come face to face with their dream person. But not just their soul mate, unfortunately. Their dreams have also had a certain scary aspect to them, and they immediately feel this evil danger closing in on them.

They have to work out who or what it is, and whether they and their love can survive this threat. As I said, very nicely girly and romantic.

Barrington Stoke are on the right track, commissioning stories like these. Everybody deserves to read good stuff.

The Scottish novelists

Lists will rarely be complete. But some are more complete than others.

On Monday Herald Scotland published a list of Scottish children’s authors.* What prompted this seems to have been Julia Donaldson’s decision to leave Scotland and move back to England. It felt like an ‘oh god who do we have left in Scotland if Julia Donaldson moves away?’ kind of list.

Don’t worry, J K Rowling is one of their ten ‘best.’ So are others that I know and admire, along with a few names I have never heard of. Which is fine, because I don’t know everything, and I’m sure they are great writers. I don’t even know who counts as Scottish for this purpose.

Although, with J K topping the list, I’m guessing they allow English writers living in Scotland. That makes my own list rather longer. Harry Potter isn’t particularly Scottish as a book, even if Hogwarts is in Scotland. Do Scottish authors living in England, or god forbid, even further afield qualify? (I’m not so good at keeping track of such people, so I’ll leave them out for the time being.)

As I said, I have no problem with who is on the Herald’s list. But along with quite a few Scottish authors, I gasped when I realised who weren’t on it. Catherine MacPhail and Gillian Philip, to mention two very Scottish ladies. Linda Strachan, Julie Bertagna and Theresa Breslin, who are also pretty well known and very Scottish indeed.

Keith Charters and Keith Gray. Damien M Love and Kirkland Ciccone. John Fardell. Lari Don, Lyn McNicol, Joan Lingard and Elizabeth Laird. Cathy Forde. Dare I mention the Barrowman siblings, Carole and John? Alexander McCall Smith writes for children, too. Roy Gill, Jackie Kay. Cat Clarke. And how could I forget Joan Lennon?

I’m guessing former Kelpies Prize shortlistees Tracy Traynor, Rebecca Smith and Debbie Richardson belong. (There is one lady whose name is eluding me completely right now, but who appears at the book festival every year and seems very popular…) Have also been reminded of Margaret Ryan and Pamela Butchart. (Keep them coming!)

Most of the above have lovely Scottish accents and reasonably impeccable Scottish credentials. But what about the foreigners? We have the very English, but still Scottish residents, Vivian French, Helen Grant and Nicola Morgan. Americans Jane Yolen and Elizabeth Wein. Ex-Aussie Helen FitzGerald.

And I really don’t know about English Cathy Cassidy, who used to live in Scotland but has more recently returned to England. I think she counts, too, along with all those writers whose names simply escape me right now, but who will wake me up in the night reminding me of their existence.

I’m hoping to get to know all of you much better once this wretched move is over and done with. Unless you see me coming and make a swift exit, following Julia Donaldson south. Or anywhere else. I think Scotland has a great bunch of writers for children. (And also those lovely people who write adult crime, and who are not allowed on this list, even by me.)

Sorry for just listing names, but there are so many authors! One day I will do much more. Cinnamon buns, for starters. With tea. Or coffee. Irn Bru if absolutely necessary.

Theresa Breslin's boot

*For anyone who can’t access the Herald’s list, here are the other nine names: Mairi Hedderwick, Barry Hutchison, Chae Strathie, Claire McFall, Daniela Sacerdoti, Debi Gliori, Caroline Clough, Janis MacKay and Diana Hendry.

Girl Defective

They’re refreshingly different in Australia. Simmone Howell’s third teen novel Girl Defective is quite possibly her best. So far. (Although that’s got nothing to do with its Aussie-ness.) At times I almost had to restrain myself from wanting a glossary, but not understanding some words adds a certain sense of exoticism.

So does permitting stuff that we rarely – if ever – get in British YA novels. They are freer with sex and booze, and that’s pretty refreshing.

Simmone Howell, Girl Defective

Girl Defective is actually a Christmas book, too, as long as you can get your head round hot summers and Christmas holidays. It is also a rather wonderful aspie novel, with 10-year-old Gully who wears a pig-snout at all times and who goes round acting as if he is a detective. His sister Sky and their father Bill, who is a bit of a dinosaur running a struggling shop selling second hand vinyl records and drinking too much beer, both work hard at keeping Gully calm and away from trouble.

Sky isn’t your average – almost – 16-year-old, either. She has only one friend, the older and rather promiscuous Nancy. Stuff is happening in St Kilda, where they live. A girl has been found dead, and there is a spate of minor crime which affects them, and that Gully tries to solve.

This is a book about finding yourself, about finding love and making friends. Real friends. People you can trust.

There is something about the way Simmone writes. You feel that you’re in good hands. You’re safe, while she is doing ‘a Nancy,’ introducing you to new and worrying concepts in order to find out who you really are.

It’s a fantastic book, and I would like to see it published in more places. Now. I wish every English language novel could just go anywhere once it’s out. After all, I think I worked out what an op shop is, and I don’t absolutely have to understand all the Aussie-isms. They add local colour.