Category Archives: Romance

Hell and High Water

This is Carnegie medalist Tanya Landman’s new book, out next week, and it does what it says on the cover. There is a hell, and there is high water. There is plenty of other exciting stuff as well. It’s very clear why she was awarded such a prestigious award.

Tanya Landman, Hell and High Water

Set in Devon – albeit a Devon Tanya has altered to suit her needs – in the mid eighteenth century, it’s the story about Caleb, who is black, and his father Joseph, who is white. They walk from town to town with their Punch and Judy puppets, just managing to earn a living. One day disaster strikes and Joseph is accused of stealing, and is swiftly sent off to the colonies, leaving his teenage son alone.

Caleb finds his way to a hitherto unknown aunt, who lives in a fishing village with her young daughter and an older stepdaughter, Letty. They are poor, and they live in constant fear of being turned out of their simple home by the cruel landlord.

Tanya is not someone who writes about dark tragedy, only to let it end all sunny and happy. Here you want the bad things that happen to be turned around and for Caleb’s life to be all right. But the bad things don’t un-happen just because we want them to, and more bad things will join them.

Things are not right, but with Letty’s help Caleb tries to prove his father has been wronged and that someone is breaking the law. First there is hell, and later there is high water, and still things don’t change for the better.

But you have to believe that something positive will happen. This is a seriously riveting story, that will have you reading until you get to the end. You just have to find out if anything good at all will come of this.

Liberty’s Fire

Lydia Syson’s Liberty’s Fire is set during a most interesting historical period. My ignorance showed itself again, but I’d like to think I’ve picked up a few facts about the French Third Republic now.

They had a lot of empires and republics in France back then, and in the history classroom I recall feeling bewildered by them all, and they were hard to keep apart when all you might read is a few paragraphs before you move on to the next Napoleon, or whatever.

Lydia Syson, Liberty's Fire

Liberty’s Fire takes place mainly in 1871 during the brief Paris Commune. Young Zéphyrine is poor and doesn’t even know how to pay for her grandmother’s funeral. She meets violinist Anatole, and they fall in love. Zéphyrine gets involved with the communards and she shows Anatole how things might be. He, in turn, educates her a little in cultural matters, and introduces her to his photographer flatmate Jules, and to Marie, who sings at the theatre.

War and revolution are the main characters in this book. The hopes people have for the commune and the hate and violence from its enemies are striking. There is much bloodshed and cruelty, but also friendships and solidarity, the latter reminding me of the early 1970s.

There is also a tender love story nestling in this book, although not the obvious one between Anatole and Zéphyrine.

This is an excellent history lesson, mixed with romance.

Saint Anything

Sarah Dessen and summer belong together. You sort of need to read one of Sarah’s books during your summer holidays. Saint Anything is less summer centred than some of her books, but still a perfect summer read.

Sarah Dessen, Saint Anything

This one is about crime and going to jail (Sydney’s brother Peyton), and about being invisible to your parents, and sometimes the rest of the world (Sydney). Always the – seemingly – favourite child, Peyton can do no wrong in the eyes of his mother, even when his drunken driving seriously injures a teenager.

It’s not only Peyton’s life and that of his victim that changes. Sydney’s does too. She is ‘guilty’ by association, while not benefitting from the attention of her parents. Sydney chooses to move to a public school, both to save on school fees, as well as to get a change of scene, somewhere no one knows her or Peyton.

She meets the Chatham family, who are everything her own is not. They are not perfect or without problems, but deal differently with life. Sydney makes new friends, meets a wonderful boy, and ultimately faces the difficulties life throws at her.

As always this is very American, and very fascinating. I could practically taste the pizza, but have some way until I can imagine the root beer YumYums.

Romantically educated

If you don’t know it, it doesn’t exist. Or so it seems. I was intrigued to read a travel article in the Guardian about the islands along the North Carolina coastline, where its author Douglas Rogers had not been aware that this state has lovely beaches. That it’s not just Cape Cod or Florida that matter on the east coast.

I’ve never been, so in a way I’m clearly more ignorant than he was. But, I had one thing going for me; I used to read – far too many – romantic novels. And I mean the Mills & Boon/Harlequin type. The American ones I found to be not only fresher than the UK old style romances, but really most educational too. No, not in that way.

Geography, lifestyle, idioms, food. That sort of thing. Even if a romantic novel is likely to idealise life and love, I assume that what people eat, and the region in which they live, will still be relatively authentic.

So, I knew, and liked, islands like Hatteras and Ocracoke a long time ago. I felt I’d like to visit, if it weren’t for the fact that to begin with it’s the other side of the Atlantic, and then NC is some way away, and the islands even more so. The description the Outer Banks, makes me feel agoraphobic just thinking about the journey there.

I’m most likely not going, but I do reckon they sound just my kind of place. I can’t remember a thing about any of the actual romances set there, but the islands themselves remain strongly in my memory. Which just goes to prove that reading broadens the mind, [almost] whatever the book it is.

This is Not a Love Story

Now I want to move to Amsterdam, and I speak as someone who has long been slightly anti-Amsterdam, without ever having got closer to it than the airport.

Keren David, This is Not a Love Story

This romantic – while not a love story – novel by Keren David is rather nice. A bit like Amsterdam, if Keren can be trusted, and I’m sure she can, since she lived there for quite a few years and knows what she’s writing about. Add to that a lively and likeable heroine, Kitty, and the two boys she ‘quite likes.’

As well as the romance and life in Amsterdam, Keren has written the most Jewish teen novel I’ve ever come across. It’s only as you read it that you realise how unusual this is. Both Kitty and Theo are recently displaced Londoners. Kitty is ‘a bit Jewish’ while Theo’s parents are very strongly traditional and Jewish. That causes problems, while also being a bit of a safety net at the same time.

Ethan, on the other hand, is only half Jewish, and not religious at all. Not that this would have saved him in the war, though.

All three have backgrounds that they don’t speak openly about, and all of them seem to feel freer for being in Amsterdam. Kitty goes so far as to come up with a new persona for her new home city. That’s something I think we all dream of; moving somewhere new where we can be wonderfully new and different and better and exciting. As if…

For a while I wondered if the reference to Love Story was significant, but won’t say more about that here. Suffice to say that this is a slightly different story on that old theme of love and friendship. You might think you know where it is going, but you’d probably be wrong.

Meanwhile I’ll be moving to Amsterdam.

Silver Skin

The first thing I had to do after finishing Joan Lennon’s Silver Skin, was to look up Skara Brae. Like her character Rab, I learned a bit about it at school, even though it is Scottish history. Like Rab, I listened and didn’t understand and never bothered to stop and think, or to try and learn more. Now I am wondering how I can fit in a trip to Orkney, and if I can possibly avoid being seasick.

The difference between me and Rab is that he comes from a long time in the future. Earth is crowded and no one has much space, but they do have technology. And Rab and his built-in Com decide to travel to Orkney in the past – they already sort of live on Orkney, but in a tower stack high above the ground – to 1850 to be precise.

Naturally something goes wrong, and what was meant to be two hours in 1850 becomes a very long time in Stone Age Skara Brae, with Rab’s travelling silver skin and his Com being damaged on impact, when he falls out of the sky.

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin

Now, I apologise for my historical shortcomings, but I read this book not quite sure when the Stone Age was, apart from quite a long time ago. It was only as I looked up Skara Brae that I realised it was that long ago. 4000 years, give or take. Slightly different from 1850.

Rab is injured and taken into the home of Cait, who herself is an outsider, having been rescued and brought up by Old Woman Voy. Once he has healed, all Rab can think of is returning home, but only after he has collected as much information about this odd place as possible, so he can show off.

But you know, silver skins are hard to repair, and he falls in love with Cait, and…

We learn much about how life back then could have been. It’s so very interesting, while in no way making this novel anything but a fabulous read. I raced through it; both wanting to know what everyday Skara Brae was like, and what would happen to Rab and Cait.

Many thanks to Joan for educating an ignorant witch.

Middle grade, YA or New Adult?

Can we make our minds up, please? What is a YA book? In my post on 22nd March, which was based on an excellent list of YA novels, someone left a comment saying that despite being of almost YA age, she doesn’t read many YA books because they are all the same and mainly romances.

I’m thinking she’s only found the Twilight brigade. Even the publicity emails I get from publishers, trying to interest me in yet another one, tend to be a little same-y. But mostly those books have moved on and turned into New Adult books. Or I think they have. Basically they are today’s Mills & Boon but cooler. And M&B were (are?) read by young people as well as elderly ladies.

And then you could go the other way, and complain that YA books are far too childish. In that case you’ve been sold another middle grade book. Which is a shame, as the words middle grade describes a certain kind of age group very well, even if it sounds a little American to some of us.

But whatever you think, you’re – probably – not going to want sexy vampires if you are ten years old, and whereas you never grow too old for a really good middle grade story, some readers will not find enough action or ‘sex’ in a book by Eva Ibbotson or Rebecca Stead, say.

Publicists are there to sell books, so will to some extent say what they need to sell a book, whether or not it is true. But I feel they are doing the books a disservice by giving them the wrong label. Calling everything YA, when it isn’t, will turn readers off.

The Ibbotson fan may grow up to like dystopian romances a few years later, but the 20+ reader who is already too old for those, will assume YA is not for them, when there is a whole host of ‘ageless’ YA books out there.

YA is not the only attractive term for a good book. At least it shouldn’t be. I feel it’s a shame that readers miss out because of labelling.