Category Archives: Romance

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.)

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.)