BLOG TOUR! How to Write a Love Story by Katy Cannon

how to write a love story I’m a hopeless romantic so clearly when I heard about this book I wanted to read it!  How to Write a Love Story by young adult author Katy Cannon, tells the story of Tilly Frost, who has grown up reading her grandmother’s bestselling romance novels. When her grandmother is taken ill, Tilly has to finish her latest work and so begins a brand new chapter in her life, that will bring new meaning to the words ‘love story’.  Written with warmth, humour and a great deal of insight into teenage heartaches, How to Write a Love Story is bound to delight its readers.

I’m delighted to be hosting this stop on the blog tour to celebrate the publication of How to Write a Love Story and to welcome Katy Cannon to the blog. Katy has written several successful YA novels including Love, Lies and Lemon Pies which has been published in eight languages.

Today Katy has written a very special guest post for me to share.  What would you say to your sixteen year old self?  The benefit of hindsight can be hugely revealing and I’m very honoured to share this personal letter written by Katy to her sixteen year old self.

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New reviews: five great reads!

I’ve read some fantastic books over the last few weeks.  Here are my highlights of brilliant middle grade and YA reads which are available now, written by brilliant authors who know just how to get children and young people reading whether through fascinating facts, humour and adventure, teen romance or important issues.

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The Secret Diary of Thomas Snoop Tudor Boy Spy by Philip Ardagh and illustrated by Jamie Littler

Thomas Snoop is in training to become a spy. Entrusted with a top secret mission by the mysterious Lord Severn, right-hand man to the Tudor king, Thomas must travel to the magnificent Goldenhilt Hall – in the guise of a servant – in order to uncover traitors plotting against the crown. It will take all Thomas’s wits and cunning to uncover the traitors lurking at Goldenhilt Hall – and he must do so without being discovered himself…

I’ve read and enjoyed the previous books in this series and this new book doesn’t disappoint. With Philip Ardagh’s trademark wit and hilarity, we discover all about Tudor times through the eyes of Thomas Snoop and his diary entries. Mystery abounds as Thomas attempts to complete his mission and uncover the dastardly treacherous villains who threaten to destroy English freedom! I love Jamie Littler’s illustrating style, complimenting the narrative with humorous takes on the larger than life characters.  Historical facts appear throughout the story, making Tudor Boy Spy informative and fun! This great series introduces history in an accessible way, encouraging young readers to think what life might have been like growing up in a different time period – with the added bonus of being really funny!

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Children’s Book Award BLOG TOUR: I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

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I am hugely excited to be participating in the Children’s Book Award official blog tour in the books for older readers category.  It’s the only national book award to be voted for entirely by children from start to finish, so I can imagine how wonderful it must feel as an author to be nominated by the readers. Today I am sharing I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson, a London based author who says:Penny Joelson “I was delighted when I heard that ‘I Have No Secrets’ had made the top ten for this award – one of three books in the older children category. It is particularly special as I know it is an award where the voting is entirely by children and young people themselves. I enjoyed writing this book so much and it is wonderful to think about so many young people reading it now.  I can only say – I am utterly thrilled!”

I Have No Secrets, published by Electric Monkey features fourteen year old Jemma, who has severe cerebral palsy. Unable to communicate or move, she relies on her family and carer for everything. She has a sharp brain and inquisitive nature, and knows all sorts of things about everyone. But when she is confronted with a terrible secret, she is utterly powerless to do anything. Though that might be about to change…

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New review: Sleeper by J D Fennell

This novel had been sat on my to be read pile for some time so I’m glad I finally read it. It’s definitely one to recommend; an edge-of-your seat thriller set in wartime London with plenty of plot twists to keep you guessing.

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Sleeper by J D Fennell

Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is pulled from the sea with no memory of his past. In his blazer is a strange notebook with a bullet lodged inside it: a bullet meant for him. As London prepares for the Blitz, Will soon finds himself pursued by vicious agents and a ruthless killer known as the Pastor. All of them want Will’s notebook and will do anything to get it.

Sleeper is a fantastic gripping read set in World War 2 and featuring a brave hero, Will, who has lost his memory.  The reader is shown the precursor to this memory loss and then follows Will on his journey desperately trying to rediscover who he really is.  Fraught with danger and deception and villains at every corner,  Sleeper is a roller-coaster ride through the streets of wartime London. At every turn Will loses those who want to help him to ruthless killers – in particular the evil Pastor; a quite horrible character! Will follows the only clue he has and ends up at a school for young Mi5 agents in training.

But even then he is not safe and only as he escapes yet another attack does Will find a true ally in the shape of Anna. With her help he begins to understand who he really is and the mission he must complete in order to save, not just himself and Anna, but the whole of London from the Nazis. I enjoyed the wide cast of characters and never knowing quite who was on Will’s side. Weaving history with magical realism and a spy thriller narrative, the story has plenty of fantastic action sequences.  Sleeper has deservedly been nominated for the Amazing Book Awards and I wish the author every success with this fantastic debut novel.

Sleeper is published by the Dome Press. With thanks to The Dome Press for sending me this book to review.

Author Interview: Sarah Matthias

A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is definitely one of my favourite reads so far this year so I’m delighted to welcome Sarah to the blog today! The story is rich in historical detail and features characters who are so believable you can hear their voices. Read on to find out Sarah’s inspiration for writing the book, the creative process behind it and some truly wonderful insight into the work of an author writing historical fiction.

berlin-love-song_3A Berlin Love Song has romance and love at its heart; was this what you always intended when you started writing the book? When I first started researching the Porrajmos, as the Romanies call the genocide of their people during WW2, The Great Devouring, I had no preconceived idea about what sort of novel I was going to write. I knew I wanted to shine a light on this ‘forgotten holocaust’ but the idea of a romance between a Romani trapeze artist and a member of the Hitler Youth came to me gradually as I went about my research. I always read widely around a subject before I begin to write. As my knowledge of the period and the people caught up in the events of WW2 grew, ideas for a plot started to form in my mind. Other writers might disagree, but for me, I can’t have an idea for a historical novel and then try to squeeze my plot into the historical events. The real events form the skeleton, and any plot must fit into this reality. I believe that this approach means that my plot will be more likely to feel realistic. As I researched the historical background to the period I began to imagine a situation where two very different cultures could feasibly collide and it was then that the idea of a romance was born!  So by the time I started writing the book, A Berlin Love Song was definitely going to be a love story – although I didn’t know at the beginning how it would end!

The story you have created is so real as are the characters you portray.  How did the idea for Max and Lili come about?   Were they based on real people?  Max: I have always been interested in the Hitler Youth movement. When I was a child my father had a German Pastor friend, Pastor Knott. He’d been a Chaplain to the German prisoners of war in a northern town during the war and he and my father were involved together in a reconciliation project after the war was over. Pastor Knott was a frequent visitor to our home. He’d been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He came from a devout Lutheran family of anti-Nazis in Darmstadt, Germany. His parents had been opposed to him joining the movement but he had been forced into it in 1939 when membership finally became compulsory. Consequently, I had heard a great deal about what it was like to be a member of HY and the way in which many German children had been troubled about where their loyalties should lie. He told me stories of being bullied by National Socialist teachers at school for not conforming and joining the movement. When creating Max, I was able to think back to those conversations with Pastor Knott about how it really felt to grow up in Nazi Germany with all those conflicting pressures. In addition to this, I listened to hours of recordings of ex members of Hitler Youth from archive material I discovered in the Imperial War Museum – old men looking back and explaining what it was like to be a member of Hitler Youth and how they’d been attracted and repelled at the same time. They also talked about how they felt after the war when they discovered the consequences of what they had believed in so fervently. I think this background research helped me to create the character of Max with an authentic voice.

Lili: I first had the idea for the character of Lili when I visited Auschwitz. There is a very moving museum on the site of the main Auschwitz camp, Auschwitz I, where you can see lots of photographs and artefacts from the time – the piles of hair, shoes, suitcases etc. confiscated by the SS guards from the prisoners on their arrival at the concentration camp; the uniforms that were worn etc. It was here that I first saw the portrait of a Romani girl in a blue headscarf who came in my mind to be Lili Petalo. There were a series of paintings on display in this museum by a Czech artist who was a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. She’d been an art student in Prague before being sent to the Terezin ghetto and thence to Auschwitz, and when the infamous Dr Mengele found out that she could paint, he employed her to paint portraits of the Roma in Auschwitz for a book he was writing on genetic research. I bought a book about this called Roma in Auschwitz on the day that I visited the museum. I read all about the artist and her Lilli petaloencounters with Romani prisoners and in particular her encounter with the girl in the blue headscarf.  I learned from this book that many of the prisoners in the Gypsy Family Camp in Auschwitz had been entertainers and musicians and that there was always music in the camp. It was this discovery that led me to research the Romanies as entertainers and to create the whole Petalo family and their circus. There is no record of the name of the unknown girl in the blue headscarf – but for me, her name was Lili.

There is so much wonderful detail about the Romani people and the time period in general. Tell us about the research process for a novel like this. It must be lengthy! It took me several years to research the book. There were so many aspects to look at. Firstly I decided that the novel should span the entire war so I had to make sure that I had a sound knowledge of the progress of the war for the 6 years, almost, that it lasted. I’m really pernickety about my research as I am aware that a novel about a historical period might be the only thing someone will ever read. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone likes reading history books but it makes me feel that I have a responsibility to be as accurate as I can, always bearing in mind of course that history books are never entirely objective! After that I had to embark on detailed research in a number of areas – the Hitler Youth movement, air raids, clothes and food rationing, tank warfare, propaganda and films, the circus in Germany and Romani involvement in it, and of course the Romani community itself. There are a number of scholarly works written about the Romani Holocaust so I read all of those I could get my hands on. It was harder to find first-hand accounts written by Romanies about their wartime experiences and their suffering in the death camps. There is so much written from the Jewish perspective, largely because the Jews are such a literate and literary culture. The Romanies are less organised as a community, and theirs is not a written linguistic tradition. Their culture is hugely rich in oral tradition, music and folklore but not much is committed to writing. However, I did find a handful of first-hand accounts written by Romanies and those I found I read avidly, drinking in the atmosphere and the language they used to express their suffering. I wanted the novel to celebrate the Romani culture and to shine a light on the culture of a people who are still one of the most disliked and vilified minorities in Europe. I read collections of Romani folk tales and listened with delight and a certain obsession to their wonderful music. The Romani people are often celebrated for their musical heritage, which has influenced jazz, bolero and flamenco music as well as classical composers including Franz Liszt. I tried to incorporate as much Romani language, traditions and folklore in the novel as the plot would carry.

I can’t imagine some of the accounts you must have had to read in order to illustrate what the characters in the book went through in the prison camps. This must have been very difficult – how did you cope with this? It was very difficult. Sometimes I felt so sickened by what I read that I felt I couldn’t carry on with the research, especially when I came to the detailed research about Auschwitz. My research certainly kept me awake at night. I suppose the way I coped with it was always to try to find the good people amidst the despair and horror of it all – the Jewish prisoner doctors who worked tirelessly to help their fellow prisoners and the few SS who tried to help people get on the transports out of the camp. Alongside the many accounts of inhumanity and degradation that I read, there were so many stories of bravery and selflessness to counterbalance the despair that I sometimes felt. I tried to concentrate on the uplifting and nourishing stories of people who risked their lives to protect others. Many, many people collaborated with the Nazis, but there were also many in Germany who actively assisted victims by purchasing food for households to whom shops were closed, providing false identity papers for those at risk of arrest, and sheltering those who evaded capture. I hope that A Berlin Love Song ends with a message of hope.

The fate of the Romani people in WW2 has been called the ‘forgotten holocaust’. Why do you think it’s important that we don’t forget what happened to them? Many people have little or no knowledge that the Roma were targeted by the Nazi regime. The genocide of the Romani people is an under-taught and under-recognised topic. Despite Helmut Schmidt’s belated recognition in 1982 of the racial nature of the persecution of the Roma and Sinti, and the welcome opening of the beautiful memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten by Angela Merkel in 2012, today the Romani community remains one of the most disliked and least tolerated minorities in Europe. And alarmingly, anti-Romani hostility is on the increase, aggravated by growing far-right extremism. The Roma are still scapegoats, frequently victims of prejudice and racially motivated attacks, hate speech and hate crime, and facing marginalization and discrimination in nearly every country where they live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Roma avoid assimilation into the society of the host nation, a legacy, perhaps, of centuries of persecution. And yet because of their isolation, many Roma children don’t attend school. Families often lack access to stable jobs, affordable housing, social services and health care. As a result, poverty, disease, substance abuse and crime afflict many Roma communities.

I believe that now more than ever we must stand up against prejudice and hatred when we see them in our own communities. The Holocaust all happened a long time ago, and yet millions of men, women and children have been murdered since in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. In today’s world, racial abuse and hate crime is still very much in the news so it is more important than ever, as the people who witnessed the Holocaust during WW2 are growing older and dying, to keep the memory alive of what can happen when prejudice and hatred are left unchallenged.

The story also reflects on what happened to normal German families at the time and the difficulties they faced. Was it important to include this perspective? Since A Berlin Love Song is set entirely in Germany and about Germans, I felt it was essential to make sure that the story was told exclusively from the German point of view. I was very careful not to read anything about the home front in England to make sure that my characters had an authentic German feel. There is so much written about the home front in England that it would have been very easy for me to rely on those sorts of books for things like how it felt to be bombed or how to manage with rationing, but I was very careful not to be tempted. It wasn’t too difficult as there are lots of diaries and memoirs written by Germans who lived through the war years and many of them are published in translation. I read every diary and memoir written by Germans living in Berlin that I could find and in that way I began to see that war through the eyes of ordinary Germans caught up in events – how they were bombarded with propaganda and how they were afraid to speak their minds for fear of being denounced and betrayed to the Gestapo, even by their own family. I have schoolgirl German but I was very relieved I could read them in English. I did have to tangle with a couple of books in German that I couldn’t find in translation and it was very time consuming! One of these books was the only book I could find, in the world it seems, about the Romani circus. I just had to read it or I couldn’t have found out what I needed to know. The dictionary was on fire!

A Berlin Love Song is full of colourful characters. When you were creating the wider cast of characters did this come naturally or were you quite specific in terms of who you included? I don’t really find it difficult to create characters. I’m a nosey ‘people-watcher’ by nature and I store up characters in my head and on paper for future use. My husband and I recently went on a small cruise around the Isle of Mull on a fishing vessel that could only accommodate 12. We were stuck on a boat for 6 days in terrible weather with ten people we had never met before – a rich source of characters!  I kept running back to my cabin to write things down – snatches of conversation and things people did. They probably thought I was pretty eccentric too! One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens. He’s brilliant at characterisation and I never tire of reading his novels. Maybe a tiny bit of his skill has rubbed off on me since I’ve read everything he has written. I have certainly learned a great deal from studying his writing, thinking about how he has created such a wealth of sparkling characters in just a few lines of prose. One of the things I do in my spare time is help run a community choir in Islington where I live.  I’m the Membership Secretary. Our choir chairman suggested that I should write a novel about our choir as it’s full of ‘interesting’ characters – but I told her that I didn’t want to end up in court!

You’ve written several historical novels – what would your advice be for anyone embarking on writing a historical novel? Gosh – that’s a hard one. I think the most important thing is to try to know your subject inside out. I think you can never know too much about a historical period when you’re writing. The more you know the more confident your narrative will seem. However, the drawback of doing the amount of historical research I did is that when you come to writing you are overwhelmed with the amount of material you’ve gathered. What to include and what to leave out? I have a pet hate which is historical novelists whose writing feels like they’ve ‘swallowed a history book’ and are determined to tell you everything they know about a subject. This can be very boring and destroy the flow of the story. But I fully understand the temptation. It’s so tempting to include everything you know, especially if the research has taken a long time and been very painstaking.  You have to ‘kill your darlings’ as they say and leave lots out. It’s as much about what you don’t include as what you do. The bottom line is that I see myself as primarily a storyteller, not a history teacher. So, although I am meticulous in my research, even down to the weather on a particular day of a particular year, I nonetheless feel that the historical research must be secondary to the story.

So my advice would be to read as much as you can about the era you are writing about, especially original sources and accounts of the past written by people who were actually there and try to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the time. Try to take your 21st century spectacles off and immerse yourself in what it would have been like to have been alive then. But beware of using all the details you know just because you know them. Only use what you need to tell your story and create the atmosphere.  Less is always more!

Thank you SO much for sharing such wonderful, personal insight and detail about your amazing novel.  Some incredible advice and inspiration for anyone writing a novel especially those involved in historical research. 

Read my review of A Berlin Love Song here. For more information about Sarah and her work visit www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

New review: Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

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Nikki Sheehan has written fantastic books for middle grade children including Swan Boy recently nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.  Her new novel, Goodnight, Boy, is her first for Young Adults and written in both prose and verse and is published by Rock the Boat.

Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

The kennel has been JC’s home ever since his new adoptive father locked him inside. For hours on end, JC sits and tells his dog Boy how he came to this country: his family, the orphanage and the Haitian earthquake that swept everything away.

When his adoptive mother Melanie rescues him, life starts to feel normal again. Until JC does something bad, something that upset his new father so much that he and Boy are banished to the kennel. But as his new father gets sicker, JC realizes they have to find a way out. And so begins a stunning story of a boy, a dog and their journey to freedom.

Told in a mixture of verse and prose, Goodnight, Boy describes a life that no child should ever have to live.  Rescued from the streets of Haiti by a Haitian-American Doctor, Melanie, and taken back to the US to start a new life, JC finds himself yet again being dealt the hand of injustice with no idea when he will escape.  Stuck in the kennel with his dog Boy, it is through ‘conversation’ with Boy that JC shares his life story and we hear of the traumas he has experienced. Stolen from his family at a young age, thrown in an orphanage to be sold, enduring disease and totally unwanted; it is more than most could ever survive.  How unfair that JC now finds himself stuck in a nightmare again and with his new ‘mother’ Melanie seemingly disappeared.  Kept a prisoner by his ‘adoptive’ father, it’s impossible to know how or when he’ll escape.  But his relationship with Boy, who provides companionship, keeps JC from being completely alone.

Goodnight, Boy is quite an incredible, poignant story. The strength of the writing is demonstrated by the empathy you feel whilst reading; it’s achingly real. With pacing that gives time for moments of reflection and to draw breath, and with the mix of verse and prose Goodnight, Boy is like nothing you’ve ever read before.  There are moments of humour and the relationship between JC and Boy is utterly endearing.  You can’t help but feel JC’s sharing is actually a kind of emotional healing for him – even if he is stuck in a dog kennel.  As he talks, he works his way through the horrors of his life but also reflects on those moments of hope that have given him courage.  JC’s stream-of-consciousness show the complex nature of love, family life and remind us of the turmoil of natural disasters and the extreme poverty many people live in. His resilience is a lesson to us all. How does one boy survive such terrible times?  If you come from nothing, then there’s everything to hope for. And with a little bit of hope, perhaps anything is possible. A fantastic YA novel.

For more information visit www.nikkisheehan.co.uk/

New review: A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Sometimes you read a book and when you reach the final page, you realise the story has found its way into your soul.  Heart-wrenching, beautiful and so well written A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is undoubtedly one of those stories and stays with you long after the final page.

It is the fourth book written by Sarah; a YA novel published by Troika Books. Her first job after leaving Oxford university was with the BBC where she was involved in a documentary called The Nazi Hunter, based on the life and work of Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who spent much of his life tracking down war criminals. A Berlin exhibition, Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime, further inspired her to research the wartime persecution of the Romani people, and to write A Berlin Love Song.

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A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Max is a German schoolboy, when he first meets Lili, a trapeze artist from a travelling circus that performs every year in Berlin.  Lili is a Romani and her life and customs are very different from those of Max and his family. Their friendship turns into love, but love between a German and a Romani is definitely forbidden. As Max is conscripted into the SS and war tears them apart, can their love survive?

The story starts in present day, where Max, now an old man, is finally writing down his precious memories from long ago.  We are drawn into a narrative telling the tale of how he, an ordinary German boy, and Lili, a beautiful Romani girl, fall in love.  Theirs is a love that is a meeting of souls; a love that cannot be ignored; “a kind of madness”.  Alongside this, we are shown the impending doom of the rise of the Nazis; the impact the looming war has on everyday life and ultimately how families are ripped apart. Max’s father refuses to conform to the Hitler regime; Lili’s father won’t acknowledge the threat posed by the Nazis to the Roma.  But with the persecution of many groups identified as “gypsy scum” along with the Jews, and with the terrible punishment for those Germans refusing to respond to Hitler’s call, both Max and Lili’s families have no choice but to face the unavoidable.  It is clear that Max and Lili will be unable to choose which ‘side’ they are on; their paths are inevitable.

A Berlin Love Song is a beautiful love story and a brilliant but terrible reflection of the ‘forgotten holocaust’ – the persecution of the Roma and Sinti people during World War 2. The thread of love that runs through the narrative keeps hope alive and whilst the inevitability of the war unfolds, we see that even the most physically broken of people survive in spirit. The stark realities of war are portrayed through the eyes of Max and Lili and through the very different experiences of their families.  It never ceases to fill me with horror the atrocities that took place in World War 2 and the characters are so real in this story, it feels like a true to life account.

Thankfully there are moments throughout that restore your faith in humanity.  The Roma people are beautifully brought to life – the colour, the freedom, the music and above all the spirit of the people leap off the page.  Added to this the wonderful descriptions of Lili’s home and livelihood, Circus Petalo, it is no wonder Max falls for her.  Set alongside the stifling household of his own family, Lili is a breath of fresh air.  Max’s household have very different opinions about Hitler and the Nazis; the claustrophobia and the fear of this situation are palpable and there is a sense Max finds an escape through his love for Lili. Meanwhile, the threats to Lili’s family grow ever closer and the sense of foreboding increases in intensity with every page.

A Berlin Love Song is well-paced and the juxtaposition of the romance alongside the complexities of war keep the reader captivated throughout.  Whilst desperately sad in places, the story holds the joy of love and the strength found in family at its heart. A very appropriate metaphor for our time.

Find out more at www.troikabooks.com or www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

Thanks to Troika Books for sending me this book to review.