Category Archives: Romance

Did the Young Adult Genre Exist in the Eighties?

It’s been almost seven years. Some of you might recall Janet Quin-Harkin‘s Heartbreak Café, which was then reissued after 25 years. Janet was a pioneer in YA books, and she did it so well. I was pleased to be surprised by the turn of events for the heroine and her exploits when having to find a job after her family’s finances collapsed.

The whole series of books are now published in time for Valentines Day, and below Janet muses about YA and her role in it:

“I was very proud, a couple of years ago, to be given an achievement award by RT Magazine for being a pioneer in the YA genre. When I was asked to write my first YA novel I went to the bookstore and there were only four or five YA books. They were rather dark and angst-ridden—most with a male hero.

So I was at the forefront of a revolution. My early teen romance books were ground-breaking. Until then books for young people were selected by adults—librarians, well-meaning aunts. With the advent of cheap paperbacks teens could choose their own books, even afford to buy one a week. So they became incredibly popular.

Some of my books sold through a printing of 100,000 in a week or two. I got hundreds of fan letters (real letters in those days that all had to be answered with pen and paper). This worked so well until the market became flooded with inferior writing and teens tired of reading the same thing over and over.

One thing readers have always liked about my books is that they are unconventional. I don’t write the regular boy meets girl romances. Instead there are quirky characters, strange mishaps, embarrassing moments—much more like real life, in fact. I was lucky that I had teenage girls at the time and I confess to shamelessly using some of their more embarrassing moments and weird conversations.

It’s a shame that YA fiction has become dark and violent again, maybe spurred by the success of things like the Hunger Games. Also teens have so many more options to entertain them: Xbox, streaming movies, TikTok. If it weren’t for Harry Potter I think books might have gone the way of the Dodo.”

The Morning Gift

I 95% adored this adult novel by Eva Ibbotson. It came highly recommended by several people whose taste I respect, and my knowledge of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books backed this up.

To begin with I sat back and basked in the way Eva put her words together, how she described the background to what happens in The Morning Gift. The plot is good and the characters loveable and interesting and the setting in prewar Austria/Vienna was enough to make me want to go back there.

We meet the family of the heroine, Ruth, who is 20 when the real action begins in 1938. Prior to that we’ve learned how her parents met and how the well off Viennese intelligentsia lived. We also meet the British hero, Quin, who is everything you want from the romantic, but also kind, intelligent, rich man in your life.

When the Germans take over in Austria, the family flees to England, but due to a technical mishap Ruth does not manage to leave. Enter Quin, who obviously wants to help, and in the end this help has to take the form of a marriage of convenience.

If you’ve read romantic fiction before, you will know what to expect, except here you can expect it in a wittier and more intelligent shape than average. This is Eva Ibbotson we’re talking about.

You know it will end well, even though we are just coming up to the beginning of the war. You know that London in 1938/39 will lead to six years of a very bad time, and these are Jewish refugees we’re talking about. Added to which is the lack of acceptance by white English people who are not too keen on foreigners.

So the war is perhaps 2% of my ‘negative rating.’ The other few percent, well, this is set – fairly realistically, I would say – in the 1930s, and the book was published in 1993, written by someone who had experience of prewar London. Had I read it back then, I’d not have seen much of a problem when Ruth and Quin finally ‘get together’ properly. But now, in 2021, this is #metoo territory. And, well, I felt uncomfortable.

It quickly returns to most of its charm again, and all is well. Only, the degree Ruth worked so hard to get, is no longer needed once there is a happy ending. Not even in this modern version of a time when that would have been the norm (or so I imagine).

On the other hand, how can you not love a heroine who knows herself; ‘Would you like me to stop talking? Because I can. I have to concentrate, but it’s possible.’ So is reciting poetry – in German – to a sheep.

The Silent Stars Go By

This new book by Sally Nicholls is everything you’d want it to be. It tells the story of 16-year-old Margot who becomes pregnant just as her fiancé Harry goes off to fight in WWI in 1916. Harry doesn’t know, and when he’s reported missing in action, Margot eventually has to tell her parents about the baby. Her father is a vicar, and it’s not welcome news.

Three years later, Harry – who is not dead – returns home, and wants to see Margot, who is back for Christmas, and she has to decide what to do, what to tell him.

Set at a time when unmarried mothers were much more frowned upon than today, and also at a time when prospective future husbands were far fewer than some years earlier, this is not an easy problem to solve. Added to which is the fact that Margot’s parents adopted her son, so she can’t very well ‘take him back’.

Margot is lovely, and so is Harry. The whole village is pretty lovely. But there is still a problem to be solved. And there was a fact about adoptions I didn’t know before reading Sally’s book.

As the reader, you want everything to work out perfectly, but you can’t see how it can be done. Or which part of almost perfect it will end up having to be.

But take it from me, Sally Nicholls just gets better and better.

Madam, won’t talk

In case you missed it, and it’s a wonder I didn’t, since I never listen to the radio: Radio 4, Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? part one today, second part next Sunday.

It was bliss, even at the halfway mark. I’m never sure I will be able to tell the characters’ voices apart on radio, but this worked fine. And their David is perfect. As is Mr Byron/Coleridge/Shelley/Wordsworth.

Over eleven years since I reviewed the new edition of Mary Stewart’s best book, and many many years since I first read it. Obviously. That review revealed that I now know lots of fans of this gorgeous romantic thriller, but I note that we still haven’t gone on that group trip to Stewart settings.

The Enchanted April

April 2020 might not feel all that enchanted, but it still seemed appropriate to read Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April right now, seeing as it was available. It features the beauty of Italy in April, but I have to say that my part of Scotland has managed to look enchanting in its own way.

Having known nothing about the author, except recognising her name, I discovered this novel in the Guardian Review a while ago, and felt the recommendation was strong enough that I would actually order the book. And read it.

Set in 1922, four women – strangers to each other – take up the offer to spend April in a castle in Italy after seeing an ad in The Times. We meet them as the first two, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, slowly come to the realisation that by sharing the let, and allowing themselves to use their nest eggs, this could be a dream come true. They advertise for two more women to share the cost.

So it’s a sort of strangers in an airbnb.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot leave behind Mr Wilkins and Mr Arbuthnot in lowly Hampstead, whereas the elderly Mrs Fisher is a widow and the young and gorgeous Lady Caroline just wants to be left alone. (Too many admirers.)

Lotty (Mrs Wilkins) and Rose (Mrs Arbuthnot) enjoy the freedom of not having to always put their husbands first. Mrs Fisher is a bit bossy, and Lady Caroline, aka Scrap, complains all the time but does it so nicely that everyone is charmed.

It’s clear that Lotty is somewhat of a witch, in that she ‘sees’ things. And her seeings do have a tendency to come true, however annoying Mrs Fisher finds her.

The castle truly is enchanted, or how else do you explain the changes in the four women? And the effect it ends up having on several other people. It’s not only the quiet, beige, Lotty who flourishes. There is magic for everyone.

It’s not quite what I had expected, but such fun and so lovely. We could all do with enchantment and wisteria, whether in Italy in April, or by some other means. Even if it’s not going to happen this year.

Turning an ebook into pasta

From Good Friday you can buy a new ebook by Claire McFall, Making Turquoise, a post-industrial retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

For the next three months all proceeds will go towards food banks supported by The Trussell Trust. By buying the right kind of pasta one book will pay for more than one pack.

Go on, it’s cheap enough! You can order it now, and like an Easter egg, it will pop up on your Kindle on Friday. Or so I hope anyway. You know what I am like with ebook buying…

(Thinking about it, I doubt that very many Easter eggs will be popping in any e-readers at all. It’s not the way of eggs.)

I’m guessing it will be a good, if short, read. There is a warning that it contains ‘strong language and elements of drug taking, teenage pregnancy, abortion and abuse.’ But you’re fine with that.

Jane Eyre

It was good to revisit Jane Eyre after all these years. Barrington Stoke have just published a dyslexia friendly, short, retelling of the famous Charlotte Brontë novel. Tanya Landman has written a more than creditable short version, and one that I enjoyed a lot.

I wasn’t sure how hard it would be to make such a long novel into a short one; one that actually works. I’m certain it was neither quick nor easy, but the result is a perfect literary summary of an old classic.

Tanya’s version contains most of what I remembered, skipping over one or two sub-plots with just a few paragraphs (which is obviously how one does it) to get on with that which matters. The only major fact missing is Jane’s inheritance, but in the long run it’s not massively important.

She can still marry Mr Rochester and live happily ever after. (I hope this doesn’t count as a spoiler..?)

A classic has to be one of the hardest things to access if reading is difficult. I guess watching the film is the nearest, but won’t give so much flavour of the real deal. That’s what you get in something like this Jane Eyre.

I hope the book will be a happy discovery for many. Jane is still a most interesting heroine.

Return to Winter Solstice

Yes, as I said two weeks ago, Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice proved irresistible. It was gone in no time at all, but I reckon it was in a good cause. It made me feel better.

It was the same as almost twenty years ago. And it wasn’t. I saw things I didn’t notice then. I’m someone who has generally been able to ignore certain less pc aspects in a story, if the book is good.

The thing with Pilcher’s books was that they featured ‘better’ people. Not necessarily better off, but not you and me. Rather like most romances, where we don’t want to read about the most mundane and awful lives, because we have enough living them.

Oscar is lovely. He is also recently bereaved, which is the reason for the whole plot. He is polite and sweet mannered, and handsome, for a 67-year-old. But he is also quietly sexist, and is helped in this by our heroine, Elfrida.

Elfrida puts up with it, because that’s what a Pilcher girl does. She goes from only bothering with her own chores and her dog, to running a household for five, plus the dog. She does it uncomplainingly, while Oscar is allowed to ‘have outbursts.’

One can overlook this, and I did. The story is still a warm and lovely thing, leading up to Christmas. It’s about togetherness, and new beginnings. But it was kind of interesting to discover the inequalities.

Might reread it again, some December in a few years’ time, if we’re all still here.

Emma

‘Awesomely Austen.’ ‘Witty words by Katy Birchall.’ Those are book cover quotes to make my heart sink a little. Surely you can sell a shorter, rewritten version of one of Jane Austen’s novels more seriously?

Despite approving of Daughter’s long ago short Brontës, I wasn’t sure. I asked the Resident IT Consultant. Together we arrived at the conclusion that it’s fine. Anything that gets younger readers read a classic is fine.

So here you have Katy Birchall’s Austen Emma in 210 pages, with ‘delightful doodles’ by Églantine Ceulemans. It’s a pretty volume, and I’d say it covers what you need from Emma, when you’re eight or ten. After all, it’s a book about adults. It needs to be made more accessible.

I just hope the reader doesn’t then go on to consider themselves as having read Jane Austen. I hope that one day he or she will discover, much to their delight, that there is a longer version of Emma.

Along with this Emma, there is a new Pride and Prejudice and a Persuasion, by Katherine Woodfine and Narinder Dhami respectively, with the remaining three novels to follow.

Awesomely Austen

Buying a book for my sister

About to visit my eldest [half]-sister for the first time; and the second time we’d meet, I felt I needed to turn up bearing a gift. But what?

I ‘always’ give books. But I knew she’d left school early, so didn’t expect a children’s book in English to be any good. But after some more thinking I came up with Adèle Geras’s first adult novel – Facing the Light – which I knew had been translated into Swedish.

In the end I managed to source what appeared to be the last copy on earth of Ljus och skugga, from an online shop in Sweden. I had it sent to me in England. After that I contacted Adèle asking if she would sign it, and she very kindly invited me round to her house and we had a nice chat, mainly about wearing green, chocolate from Oxfam, and swimming in the sea, which caused a very cold May/June and no swimming in the sea. And she signed the book.

After which I carried the novel back to Sweden so I could hand it over.

Daughter and I had a lovely day with our new sister/aunt and it was gratifying to see how pleased she seemed to be given a personally signed book.

Adèle Geras, Ljus och skugga

We met a few more times after that, and I’m glad we did. Acquiring an older sister in one’s forties is perhaps slightly unusual, but why not? And we discovered we had a connection through School Friend, whose older brother was at school with my sister. Sweden really is a small world.

My sister died a few weeks ago. I’m grateful to have known her. And kind of pleased that they played Elvis at the funeral.