Last week I posted a review of Rosie Thomas's Iris and Ruby, which won the UK's Romantic Novel of the Year Award. And I mentioned that I would also post some notes on the other five books which were shortlisted for the award (out of 200 submitted, remember). So here they are, in alphabetical order by author's surname. But first, a brief overall comment.
You and I know that there are lots of books which have fairly narrow and specialised audiences. Poetry, for instance. Much science fiction. Gay books. And so forth. Thus it will come as no surprise if I tell you that most of the five books described below will appeal mainly to women readers. Romantic fiction is, however, a very broad label indeed, and some of these books are aimed principally at small sections of that general readership.
For obvious reaons, I don't fall within the target readership of most of these books, but even so I found them all interesting and mostly enjoyable. For anyone interested in narrative technique, it is always intriguing to see how a skilled author goes about achieving the desired effects.
Matt Dunn: The Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook
It is interesting to try to identify the precise audience for this one. The readers who will enjoy it most will be young, I think. But blokes might get as much out of it as young women.
The basic story is that young man gets dumped by his girlfriend, after about ten years of cohabiting. 'You've let yourself go,' she tells him, 'so I'm letting you go too.'
Our hero feels mighty hurt about this, so having taken a hard look at himself he decides to effect a major makeover, with assistance from his super-slick TV presenter best friend. The book tells how he goes about it, and what happens at the end.
This is essentially a comic novel, and it will make you laugh. It's lighthearted, entertaining, and would be excellent for a plane journey. It is also, by the way, very well designed: 31 well spaced lines per page, and a decent font size.
More on Matt Dunn here.
Katie Flynn: Beyond the Blue Hills
Katie Flynn, my friends, is a complete professional. And I know no higher compliment.
She began writing yonks ago, at first under the name Judith Saxton, and has produced maybe fifty books. These books appeal mainly to working-class women who are, shall we say, advanced in years: people who remember, as someone put it, what it was like to go downstairs and borrow a couple of candles.
Such books are not, of course, going to get reviewed in the Times Lit Supp. Let us not forget, however, that there are enormous numbers of heavy readers out there of whom the TLS wots not. Last year, Katie was the 18th most frequently borrowed author from the UK public-library system, and I recently met a Woolworths manager who told me that, in the north-west of England, he can sell a big pile of her hardbacks as soon as they appear.
Beyond the Blue Hills is a family saga, telling the interweaving stories of two families in the 1930s and '40s. It is exactly what Katie Flynn's fans want, and if you're old enough to remember life in the north of England in those days, then this is for you. But if you're wearing Jimmy Choo shoes, don't bother.
Judith Lennox: A Step in the Dark
Judith Lennox, I would guess, was asked by her publisher to produce a big fat family saga, covering several decades and several countries. And she has done so, very skilfully.
Of course, years ago, a story like this would have been told in several volumes; and it would, in my opinion, have been the better for it. One thinks of Mazo de la Roche's famous Jalna series (11 million copies sold, if you please), or Cynthia Harrod Eagles's Morland Dynasty. But that's not the modern way, it seems.
Here the story begins in India in 1914, when the principal character, Bess, is 18, and carries on until she is in her 60s. Along the way she encounters a vast number of complications, setbacks, admirers, enemies, and so forth. As I say, skilfuly done, by an experienced hand, and will be enjoyed by those who like a long perspective on events.
Judith Lennox has been shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award with an earlier novel, so I would expect her to turn up on the list again.
Carole Matthews: Welcome to the Real World
Carole Matthews is an experienced producer of romantic comedy, aimed mainly, but not exclusively, at a younger readership; she has enjoyed considerable success in terms of sales.
The heroine of Welcome to the Real World is Fern, who has ambitions as a singer. She enters a TV talent show, takes a job as PA to a world-famous opera singer, and guess what.
This is lighthearted, lots of fun, told at a fast, crisp pace by an experienced professional. There is no gloom and doom here, particularly as, despite the title, it doesn't take place in the real world at all.
Elizabeth McGregor: Learning by Heart
Learning by Heart is a book which, like Iris and Ruby, moves backwards and forwards in time. It also moves in space, between England and Sicily. Set partly in the present, partly some forty years earlier, Learning by Heart reveals its secrets almost grudgingly.
At the centre of the book is one of those insane love affairs in which both man and woman know perfectly well that they should not be doing what they are doing, but somehow cannot help themselves. I must confess to a certain liking for this kind of book, because I wrote one myself, under a pseudonym.
Earlier in her career, Elizabeth McGregor wrote psychological thrillers, but here she shows herself to be in complete command of a love story, writing in a way which generates very powerful emotions with material which is at times of painful intensity.
The book is marketed in such a way that it is clearly labelled 'women's fiction', and it is probably the mostly wildly romantic of all the shortlisted books. But in fact any reasonably civilised man could read it with a great deal of interest and enjoyment.
Once again, it's worth noting that the author has been well served by the book designer. The font is 11 pt Sabon.