Pseudonymous winner – Julia Golding (aka Joss Stirling) whose novel Struck has won this year’s romantic novel of the year award. Photograph: Frank May
For the past three years I’ve helped judge the romantic novel of the year award, selecting books such as Veronica Henry’s elegant Night on the Orient Express or Jenny Colgan’s delicious Welcome to Rosie Hopkin’s Sweetshop of Dreams – books that could not only be gobbled down in a matter of hours, but also really swept us off our feet.
This year’s winner had the intriguing countenance of some handsome stranger. Despite strong contenders from the adult side – including Lucy Dillon’s A Hundred Pieces of Me, and Lucy-Anne Holmes’s Just a Girl, Standing in Front of a Boy – Julia Golding triumphed with her young adult novel Struck, written under the pen name Joss Stirling.
Now, I am by no means a YA snob – I loved Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – but these days most of my YA reading is revisiting Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce or Alan Garner. There are quite enough books written for grown ups for me to get my head around.
But Struck – I just loved it. Set in a posh boarding school, it stars the phenomenally named Raven Stone, a mixed-race teenager who finds herself inexplicably ostracised and bullied by her fellow students, even her former best friend – and all seemingly with the teachers’ approval. The only people who’ll talk to her are the new boys, Joe Masters and Kieran Storm – what names! We soon learn they’re spies, part of the Young Detective Agency, out to discover why the high-powered parents of a number of children at the school appear to be making a series of dangerous decisions, and why kids keep disappearing and coming back with entirely different personalities.
Kieran is socially inept but brilliant. “So you are, what? Sherlock Holmes’s love child?” asks Raven. Raven is funny and tough and vulnerable. An orphan, she wears clothes from Oxfam, and has a lovely grandfather who’s the school caretaker (another reason she’s ostracised). The whole book is bursting with energy – it’s fun and fresh and exuberant and, yes, romantic, as this unlikely pair fall for each other.
So I was thoroughly swept away by it – but it did surprise me that when we went looking for the most romantic novel of the year, we found it in YA.
Golding points to a swing away from the “explicit erotica that is also holding sway over a large part of the market”, citing the more refined appeal of classics such as Pride and Prejudice.
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