Girls or football? Otis Redding’s ghost can help you decide

Phil Earle, author of Northern Soul
Phil Earle, author of Northern Soul - Lucy Cartwright

There was a time when the first romantic novel that children were encouraged to read was RD Blackmore’s Laura Doone. Books about school love-affairs – most famously, Forever by the American writer Judy Blume – were considered too risky for the school library. But today’s child has more options, with dozens of new titles such as Heartstopper (Alice Oseman) and Love Frankie (Jacqueline Wilson) chronicling the amorous adventures of characters barely out of adolescence.

Northern Soul is a fine example. Phil Earle’s new novel, written for 11+ readers, is narrated by Marv, a 14-year-old boy who lives with his single father and enjoys playing football with his best friend Jimmy: “Girls existed. Of course they did. I just didn’t notice them… Life was simple. Happy.” But everything changes when he becomes besotted by a new girl at school: “Carly arrived and… well, bang. That was it. Game over.”

As football loses its charm, the love-struck Marv finds solace in the lyrics of Otis Redding, the American singer who died in an aviation accident in 1967: “I’m not religious, but I swear I saw the light. Otis wasn’t a king. He was a god. It was like he was reading my mind, chorus after chorus, song after song.” Finally, when hope seems lost, the singer’s ghost appears in Marv’s bedroom, offering his services as a love genie. “‘I sort of hang around, listening out for folk who are sad, or a bit clueless, or, you know… daft… when it comes to love.’” So: can the Prince of Soul persuade the sophisticated Carly to love the hapless Marv?

Earle has written more than 20 books, including his Second World War adventure When the Sky Falls (2021), which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal; and titles such as Being Billy (2011) and Saving Daisy (2012), inspired by his time working as a drama therapist in a residential children’s home. While this novel is more jokey than some of his previous stories, Earle is brilliant at capturing the excruciating realities of a teenage crush, down to a kiss in which one party’s mouth gets ensnared in the other’s braces: “She let out a muffled scream… Her mouth was stuck to mine. Not in a ‘true-love’ way, but in an ‘oh-my-god-her-top-lip-has-caught-in-my-braces’ kind of way.”

Earle’s prose might, at first glance, seem tailored to a surprisingly young reader. But this novel is published by Barrington Stoke, which has had great success in printing short books, using a dyslexic-friendly font, designed to appeal to a wide range of reading abilities. So, despite appearances, Northern Soul is one for the young teenager – rather than the pre-adolescent who’s still more interested in football than love.

Northern Soul is published by Barrington Stoke at £7.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books