Still Life With Breadcrumbs, Anna Quindlen

What I heard about Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs last year made me suspect that I would like it—and I was correct!

Still Life With Bread Crumbs is what I call a “quiet read,”—stories that focus more on a character’s inner life than on the externalities of that life. The external circumstances are still important but the emphasis is more on the character’s inner landscape, and how that changes as a result of the outside influences. Moreover, these influences tend to be more the slice-of-life variety than something exceptional. It’s almost like the author is parting the curtain on the character’s life for the period of the story.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs follows the life of Rebecca Winter in her 60th year. Quindlen’s revelations of Rebecca’s past (a New Yorker by birth), especially Rebecca’s marriage with a supercilious professor (a British academician), evokes the image of a very specific type of woman, a woman whose experience of life falls within a clearly circumscribed circle even though she happens to be an artist.

Broke, alone and feeling distinctly washed-up Rebecca is a photographer past her heyday—or as her son jokes, “the artist formerly known as Rebecca Winter.” Quindlen is really good at including little details that solidify this image of Rebecca as a certain type of woman in the reader’s mind. Only, as you continue to read, you come to realize, as does Rebecca herself, that “[h]er biography had all the trappings of sophistication but no actual sophistication at all.”

Am I making it sound too dry? Or too cerebral? It isn’t. Rebecca’s coming into her own as an artist and as a woman is heartfelt.

She had shot to fame with a series of photographs that in the eyes of the world “turned the impedimenta and the minutiae of women’s lives into unforgettable images.” For Rebecca however, her art is more “accidental” than the premeditated artistry that such a felicitation would seem to suggest:

Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she’d never felt that way. Over the years she’d made up a lot of reasons because people didn’t seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality. They also didn’t believe that she’d simply photographed what was already there—a bottle lying on its side with a puddle of olive oil shimmering along its curved lip, a handful of greasy forks glistening in the overhead lights, and of course what was later still called Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wineglasses, stacked plates, the torn ends of two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove.

(I have no clue about art but I think I would very much like a piece like Quindlen describes here. There’s something inherently appealing about it.)

Rebecca’s (and Quindlen’s) insistence that art is as much about being in the right place at the right time as about anything else really resonates with me.

As she begins taking photographs of a series of crosses that she keeps coming across, Rebecca vocalizes that:

She had not labored over them, or transformed them with the gift of her eye, at least not so she could tell. She just felt them.

This. . . feeling, this recognition of the ordinary being suffused with the luminous, reminded me of a line from a Marilynne Robinson interview that really struck me:

Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

Interwoven through Rebecca’s rekindling as an artist is the story of her unexpected romance with Jim Bates. Jim is decent, kind, and “the first man [Rebecca had] ever been with who had calluses.”

My favourite scene between the two is probably when Jim kisses Rebecca to her utter surprise:

“This is ridiculous. How old are you?”

“I was 44 last month,” he finally said, putting his glass down emphatically.

“Oh my God.” . . . “I am 60 years old.”

“Right. So what? You look great.” . . .

“That was not why I told you how old I was. It was so you would understand how ridiculous it would be to— ”





“Ludicrous. Hell, that’s even worse than ridiculous,” he said, and . . . walked back out into the snow. . . .

For most of her life she had not been what anyone would call an emotional person, but at odd, quiet, unexpected times . . . sentiment got the better of her.

“Oh my goodness,” she said and burst into tears, and sobbed loudly. . . .

Then the dog stepped back, sat down at attention, and let out one sharp bark. In a moment she heard the sound he’d heard. . . .

“This is ludicrous,” Jim said, and without moving removing his parka he put his arms around her and kissed her and kissed her, wet and cold and covered with snow as he was.

That use of ludicrous makes me chuckle, not in a laugh-out-loud way but in a quiet, life-can-be-unexpectedly-funny way. In fact there’s a thread of of wry humor running throughout the story.

I very much enjoyed how Quindlen conveys that love is love, no matter the age. The scenes between Jim and Rebecca are infused with that “new love” feel with all its attendant hopes, and anxieties. Let me be clear that romance is not the main focus of the story—Rebecca is. But that’s what makes the romance more interesting, embedded as it is in the larger context of Rebecca’s life:

One day she had been out walking and she had wondered whether she’d become a different person in the last year . . . Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she’d been.

If that sounds too expository for your tastes, well, this might not be the book for you. This is, after-all, a parting of the curtain on Rebecca Winter’s 60th year of life.

Mini Review: Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting

Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting is definitely gothic in tone, and very atmospheric. It features a looming chateau (sorry castles, you went out of fashion somewhere in the beginning of the 20th century), a villain who’s also known as the Demon King and who oozes villainy through his very pores, a down-on-luck heroine, a rather aloof hero, and you get my drift.

The thing is that while I enjoyed starting the story, and getting to know our heroine (the story’s a first person narrative, told from her POV), and seeing how she goes about making friends with the nine-year old Philippe whom she’s been employed to governess at the start of the story, and being appropriately frightened by Philippe’s uncle Leon who didn’t need a neon sign on his forehead to announce his evil intentions of appropriating Philippe’s inheritance for himself, and lapping up all the description about the glorious countryside (which is set up as a rather nice antidote to the distressing atmosphere of the chateau), before long I started getting bored.

I think it was all that sunny countryside which somewhere along the way started becoming soporific. Which is quite weird considering how much I enjoy reading “nature writing” otherwise.

Then there was our heroine, who despite a prosaic name like Linda Martin, and being very plucky when it’s called for (duh!) is a little silly for my tastes. Silly in a way that irritates me rather than amuses me. And since the whole story IS told from her perspective I guess I was bound to start twitching a little and just wanting the stupid story to end up already, right? I have to say that her meet-cute, or should I call it the meet-RAWR!, with the hero Raoul is just. . . so over-the-top. She’s lost in her thoughts wandering the woods late at night (I kid you not, our girl likes wandering the woods that surround the isolated chateau in the middle of the night to shake off the blues) when she’s almost run-over by our hero. Umm. . . what?

You know what I’m tempted to do now? Read Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn to see if it’s me. By which I mean that perhaps I maybe constitutionally unsuited for the over-the-top? (My husband, if he could look over my shoulder right now, would very definitely shake his head from side to side).

So anyway, that’s all about my run-in with Mary Stewart. I did so have high hopes for her. Perhaps I should try another Mary Stewart with a slightly different tone than this one? You guys have any recommendations?

Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor & Those Pricey Thakur Girls Or Chick-Lit, The Indian Way

Ok, it’s official. I’m jumping onto the Anuja Chauhan bandwagon!

I’ve yet to read an author who captures modern middle-class India in as colourful, vibrant and typically Indian way as Miss Chauhan does. I have yet to see an author who celebrates Indian English the way she does! Our girl uses Hinglish (Hindi words sprinkled liberally with the English) unapologetically. Her characters’ obvious and literal translation of Hindi-thoughts into English-words, with nary a concern for grammar or the awkwardness produced by its lack of, is delightful.

As are the names of her characters: Rinku Chachi, Zahid Pathan, Jagpal Lohia, Pushkarni, Binni, Mamta Thakur. Chauhan’s evocation of entire personalities through clever naming of her characters is devious. Just reading the names, the characters spring up fully-formed in my head. Some of them are obvious spin-offs of famous personalities while others could have walked straight out of any Indian family. the zoya factor

Then there’s the way Miss Chauhan seems to have an ear for the way English is spoken in India (probably because of her long and illustrious career in advertising). Her prose in general, and her dialogues in specific, are really, really funny. Add to this her tongue-in-cheek and spot-on portrayal of things that make India and Indians tick (again, I suspect due to her long innings in advertising), and what you get is engrossingly laugh-out-loud funny reads.

And yes, she’s good enough at the niche she’s carved out for herself that I don’t particularly care about the lack of layered characterization in her stories. Or the absence of any incisive commentary on the subjects against which her stories unfold.

In The Zoya Factor the cricket crazy country of India begins to believe that Zoya, our heroine, is a lucky charm for the Indian cricket team. With the Cricket World Cup on the horizon no one is going to leave Zoya alone. And so our hapless heroine is catapulted from being a lowly advertising personnel to hobnobbing with the demi-gods of the Indian subcontinent: the Indian cricket team. Enter the captain of the team. Young, smoldering, and the face of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, he has no patience for Zoya, or the superstitious bollywaggle that is left in her wake (yeah, I just made that up).

Then there’s the crafty IBCC (Indian Board of Cricket Council) president Jogpal Lohia whose motives for “hiring” Zoya are not as selfless as would appear. This mad concoction of superstitions, cricket, cola (who did you think was paying for all that advertising?) and romance can give any Hindi film a run for its money (in fact I am surprised that Bollywood hasn’t jumped at the chance to turn this into a movie). Also appearing is a five-year old whose favourite verse goes something like this:

Joy to the world!
The teacher’s dead
We scissored off her head!
What happened to her body
We flushed it down the po-tty
And round and round it goes . . . and round it goes . . .
And round and round and round it goes . . .

-sung to the tune of Joy to the World of course.

The second Anuja Chauhan that I read is Those Pricey Thakur Girls (she’s published four books in total with the latest, The House That BJ Built, being out just a couple of weeks ago. Also, can I just say how much I love Inter-Library Loan? I was able to get my hands on both these books thanks to ILLs)!

those pricey thakur girlsThose Pricey Thakur Girls is a tale about mostly two of the five sisters who are named alphabetically, and who live in a sprawling bungalow on Delhi’s posh Hailey Road. Set in the 1980s, this one uses the Sikh riots as a backdrop for a budding romance between Debjani (or Dabbu as she is known) who’s a news reader, and Dylan Singh Shekawat, a zealous journalist who also happens to be a Christian-Rajput. There’s a slightly more measured feel to this book than The Zoya Factor but it is in no way any less of a romp.

I have to say that I found myself liking Dylan Singh Shekawat much more than I liked the Indian captain of The Zoya Factor. (Take his name: such a solid, reliable, fantasies-inducing, swoon-worthy name it is, doncha agree?) Then again it might be that I liked him more because we get scenes from the his POV in Those Pricey Thakur Girls while the captain in The Zoya Factor remains broodingly aloof. Those Pricey Girls’ heroine, Debjani, is also thankfully, less of a twit than Zoya (sorry Zoya, much as I enjoyed your distinctive voice in The Zoya Factor there were times when I found myself wondering if you had any brains left inside that pretty head of yours).

My favourite characters however, from the motley crew that makes up Those Pricey Thakur Girls, have to be Eshwari, the youngest of the Thakur sisters, and Satish. These two are classmates in 12th standard at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, and are good friends. The scenes between them are funny, heart-rending and capture the reality of what being 16 & 17 feels like. Satish’s attempts at wooing Eshwari are bumbling in a way that only a teenager’s wooing can be. A friends to potential lovers story I can’t wait to read more about them in the next book, The House That BJ Built.

I’ll end with a bit that captures Anuja Chauhan at her best. It’s from The Zoya Factor:

I obsess a little about being ‘cool,’ because, hello, when people ask me where I stay I have to look them in the eye, smile brightly and say ‘Karol Bagh’ with casual unconcern. Which is agony in advertising because when all the snooty ad people think Karol-Bagh type, they imagine a pushy wannabe in a chamkeela salwar-kameez with everything matching-matching. Someone who says ‘anyways’ instead of anyway, ‘grands’ instead of grand and ‘butts’ instead of butt. (As in she has no butts, earns 20 grands a month and lives in Karol Bagh. Who does she think she is, anyways?)

Of course they don’t know anything. They have no clue that the fancy south Delhi movie halls where they all throng to see the latest Hollywood films are owned by an enterprising Karol Bagh boy who lives down my road, still, even though he now owns houses all over Delhi, including one in Golf Links, the poshest quarter in the capital.

Because Karol Bagh has Soul.

It may be a loud, expansive, dhik-chik dhik-chik music-loving soul that died and became a soul because its arteries clogged with too much high-cloestrol, ghee-laden Punjabi food, but it’s a soul nonetheless.

P.S. My husband would like me to add that I LOLed so much during the reading of these two books that he was enticed into reading Those Pricey Thakur Girls. He quite enjoyed it.

Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses and Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife

I’ve been dithering and dathering (why isn’t that a word?) about two historical romances that I read a while back and that I liked quite a lot. So instead of not writing anything about either I decided to do a short burst of my thoughts on both, together!

Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife is a charming read while Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses is one of the more thoughtful romances that I’ve read in a while.

TruePretenses_220Both the stories feature unusual heroes who helped me enjoy the books more than I otherwise would have. Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses features a hero who isn’t rich or titled. In fact he’s the polar opposite: a swindler, who makes his living by thieving. In Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife the hero is neither titled nor particularly handsome or sophisticated. What then is the reason for the sway that these heroes come to hold over the heroine, and also over me? Wherein lies their power?

For TWTaW, it’s Mr. Brundy’s absolute confidence in himself. He is a self-made man who is “Beau Brumell’s worst nightmare,” and is held in contempt by his wife. He’s aware of the considerable difficulties he faces in winning his wife’s heart and yet his sense of humour remains unflappable. He seems impervious to the insults directed his way, amusement being his most frequent reaction to words that are intended to elicit embarrassment or hurt. In this he reminded of perhaps my favourite hero in the romance cannon: Hugh Daracott.

In True Pretenses Ash’s love for his younger brother is a defining characteristic of who he is. This love, far from being expressed as manly gruffness, is poignant, and heart-breaking at times. Add to this the fact that Ash is someone who makes his living by swindling with all its inherent risks and uncertainties and moral hazards and for the first time that I remember, I find myself reading about a hero who is truly vulnerable with no safety net in sight. Here’s a bit that made me fall in love with him some more:

[He’s talking to a boy who’s about to lose his job] It’s not enough to smile, he wanted to tell the boy. You have to find a way to feel cheerful.

Ash KNOWS that it isn’t enough to pretend. The pretending has to feel real, has to feel true in order to convince the person in front of you. (Can I just say that this exploration of lies, truths, and how the two intersect is one of my favourite things about True Pretenses?)

sheri cobb southBoth the stories (more so True Pretenses) have quotidian, minutiae of life details, which appeals to me. In True Pretenses this takes the form of the workings of a small village in the middle of nowhere with its lively community and markets and everyone-knowing-everyone-else’s business. In TWTaW one of my favourite scenes is the one in which the hero’s character is revealed in startling clarity to the heroine as she visits his place of work, which happens to be a factory.

I will leave you with bits from both the books that I particularly like.

From The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South:

Any one of Manchester’s dozens of cotton mills could produce calico and gingham, but this one had produced a man. He had been tempered in the fires of poverty and hard labor, forged into a man unlike any Town beau she had ever known. He was the gentlest of men, yet he had held his ground against the Duke of Reddington’s towering rage. He was an astute businessman, yet he treated his workers with consideration and fairness. He debated labor reform with members of Parliament, yet he took the trouble to buy peppermints for a child in his employ. In their three weeks of marriage, he had never responded in kind to her verbal barbs, but had shown her more kindness, perhaps, than she deserved.

And from Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses whose next story features a butler for a hero that I can’t wait to read about!

“I like winter,” she said. “I like. . . you can feel the world waiting, and not minding the wait. People say things die in winter, but it isn’t true, mostly. They just gather their strength.”

P.S. Why do contemporary romances have such boring covers? I found the cover of TWTaW sans bare bosoms and naked chests more attractive in comparison!

Rachel Hartman–Seraphina

Like so many other 16 year olds Seraphina, the eponymous heroine of Seraphina, struggles to fit into her world. Her mother died at childbirth and her relationship with her father is strained at best. She thinks she’s ugly and feels torn between two worlds.

Unlike other 16 year olds however, Seraphina also happens to be half-dragon. Rachel Hartman’s debut Seraphina is as enjoyable on a re-read as it was the first time I read it two years ago. (I re-read in preparation for Shadow Scales, the sequel).

Rachel Hartman’s world is one where an uneasy peace exists between humans and dragons. The story opens with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty looming on the horizon. To commemorate the event, dragon commander Comonot and his entourage are travelling to the human kingdom of Goredd.

While there is no outward conflict between dragons and humans, distrust runs rampant, with the two species viewing each other as alien beings with no common ground between them. To compound the matter, as the story begins, the human king Prince Rufus has just been murdered—in a fashion that is reminiscent of dragon killings.

seraphina-198x300At this point I want to talk about Hartman’s dragons. Dragons in Rachel Hartman’s world are not the fiery creatures of passion and emotion that one normally encounters. Quite the opposite in fact. Cool logic is their purview and they disdain emotional quagmires, looking at human beings as interesting cockroaches, as Seraphina puts it.

Seraphina’s character and the tension fraught world of Goredd reminded me of the world we live in. I love how the framework of a fantasy world makes the issues that are explored in the story feel non-threatening. The distance that the fantasy aspect provides makes it easier for me to approach the subjects that are being dealt with, and to think about them from a broader perspective than I would have been able to if those very same issues had been couched in a non-fantasy story. (And in fact this is one of the reasons why I think I love fantasy as a genre).

Seraphina is thrust right in the middle of all the intrigue. A gifted musician and the assistant to the court composer she comes to be in a unique position, one from which she can see clearly both into the human and the dragon heart. In her quest to understand the going-ons around her, she has to reach a measure of peace with herself, and has to stop viewing herself as one of the “grotesques.” As she comes to realize:

We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.

Are you intrigued yet?

The world that Hartman builds is very atmospheric:

The road, not wide to begin with, narrowed even further above us; the upper stories cantilevered over the street, as if the houses were leaning together to gossip. A woman on one side might have borrowed a lump of butter from her neighbor on the other without leaving home. The looming buildings squeezed the sky down to a rapidly darkening ribbon.

Or the vividness of the details that makes this bit come alive:

I did not just see it: I smelled fish and market spices, felt the ocean’s salty breath upon my incorporeal face. I soared through the pristine blue sky like a lark, circled over white domes and spires, and glided above the bustling dockyards. A lush temple garden, full of chuckling fountains and blossoming lemon trees, drew me in.

As you can make out from the above, the writing is lovely (and remains so through and through):

The music flew from me like a dove released into the vastness of the nave; the cathedral itself lent it new richness and gave something back, as if this glorious edifice, too, were my instrument.

I took one last look around this peculiar, smelly slice of interspecies coexistence, the treaty’s mad dream come to raucous life.

Seraphina is exactly the sort of fantasy that I enjoy the most—layered characters, evocative settings and thought-provoking writing. It doesn’t hurt that the plot sucks you in too.

There’s just one last thing that I want to remark upon before I go off to enjoy Shadow Scales. Though there’s just a whiff of romance in the story, I very much love the way that the sort-of-love-triangle that exists between Seraphina and two other characters, Princess Glisselda and Kiggs, is handled. Far from portraying one of the girls as an evil other-woman, Hartman makes the reader fall in love with both Seraphina and Glisselda. They complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses and share a friendship that has nothing to do with Kiggs. I just love that so much!

Anyway! Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:

The ocean was still there, but my music was a bridge, a ship, a beacon. It bound me to everyone here, held us all in its hands, carried us together to a better place. It modulated (ripples on the sea) and modulated again (a flight of gulls) and landed squarely on a mode I loved (a chalky cliff, a windswept lighthouse). I could make out a different tune, one of my mother’s, just below the surface; I played a coy melody, an enigmatic variation, referencing her tune without bringing it up explicitly. I made a pass at her song, circled, touched it lightly before swooping past once more. It would draw me back into its orbit again and again until I gave it its due. I played her melody out in full, and I sang my father’s lyrics, and for a shining moment we were all three together.

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Cluny Brown’s saving grace was not the eponymous heroine but the other characters whose frequent appearances in alternating chapters rather reminded me of an episodic story, and of a play more than a novel.

It’s 1938, England, and Cluny Brown, who took tea at the Ritz one afternoon (because she wanted to and could), is constantly told by one and sundry to not aim for more than she should and to remember “her place” in life. Her uncle is a plumber, “respectable, respectful, and self-respecting,” and in a last ditch effort to make Cluny understand her place he sends her off to be a parlor-maid at a big house in Devonshire, Friars Carmel.

That the world around her wants Cluny Brown’s actions, indeed her very being, to reflect the class into which she is born is made obvious, over and again. Thankfully, our heroine has a joie de vivre that refuses to be stamped out. (Mostly because of her tendency to be so lost in her own head that the purported import of her behavior, as others would want her to think about it anyway, is frequently lost on her).

Despite all of this Cluny Brown’s story is sort of non-interesting. I was glad to see that she “felt more like herself, as though she had at last stopped acting a difficult part,” in the end but I’m not sure why an entire book, in fact this exact story had to be told for that to happen. The ending with respect to her love life is quite abrupt but I frankly didn’t care much about the abruptness because I couldn’t dredge up enough enthusiasm for our heroine in the first place.

Cluny BrownOn the other hand, there’s the lady of the manor, Lady Carmel, her son and heir, Andrew, and Andrew’s stunningly beautiful friend Betty whose beauty renders men and women speechless. All three of them turned out to not be quite what I thought they would be and it is this sharpening of their characters, this revelation of their multi-dimensionality that made their story so much more interesting than the straightforward unfolding of Cluny Brown’s tale who remains exactly what she was at the beginning of the story. (not that that’s a crime, just that her story couldn’t manage to engage me the way the other characters’ did).

Neither Lady Carmel nor Betty are the fluffy brained females that they seem to be in the beginning. Indeed I found both Lady Carmel’s and Betty’s “fluffiness” as well as their sensitivity (which the reader is made privy to through the course of the story) to be peculiarly English in its portrayal. Then there’s Andrew who belongs to a new restless generation and yet who cannot be rid of the “Lord-of-the-Manor” feeling that he’s assailed with whenever he’s home.

Lady Carmel finds fulfillment in arranging flowers for the manifold rooms of the manor while Betty has a vague sense of disquiet at her advancing age. (I couldn’t help feeling incredulous at both Betty’s and Cluny’s realization that they are past the first blush of youth. Betty’s 22 and Cluny’s 20. Of course I’m reading a book more than 60 years after it was written, but still! They’re 20! And 22! Babies, practically! Well, not babies but you know what I mean).

All these disparate bits come together to give a glimpse into the life of the landed gentry of mid-20th-century England. It was this drawing back of the curtain on the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” that prevented the book from being a DNF for me. The housekeeper’s reactions in particular served to accentuate the feeling of peeping into another world, starting with her reaction at Cluny Brown’s walking the neighboring Colonel’s dog on her afternoons off:

But Mrs. Maile remained uneasy . . . She remembered some of Mr. Andrew’s sayings . . . cracks in civilization, the breaking-up of society, world revolution, the decay of the West; and for the first time, their meaning struck home.

The setting of Friars Carmel too is very much a character in its own right, an “oyster . . . [that could] smooth and overlay” whatever forayed into its precincts and transform it into something “like a pearl;” a treatment that was of course not necessarily applied to parlour-maids.

This sense of the English landscape being a part of the quintessential Englishness is captured perfectly in a dialogue by the foreigner in the story:

I have so often thought how in all English art the place of women is taken by landscape. Your poetry is full of it, you are a nation of landscape painters. In other countries a man spends his fortune on a mistress; here you marry a fortune to save your estates. . . .  [the industrial revolution] was real life, that was business. But when a businessman has made money, what does he do? He buys a place in the country. That is what you all want. You cannot escape it. Your green grass is as strong as the creepers of a jungle, with the additional advantage that you are able to play games on it. Or lie in it.

While it was not a complete meh, I think I might have enjoyed this story more as a movie or a play!

The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley

I’ve been away.

But now I’m back!

In the between-while I have been reading romances. A glut of romances. Nothing else but romances! So many romances that I’ve started reading We, The Drowned to cleanse my reading palate.

Let me begin with Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah McLean which was a really nice time-filler of a book. It’s really. . . nice? With a big reveal. However—you knew there was going to be a however didn’t you—I can’t say that it’s a book which makes me squee or makes me want to particularly think about it.

With that out of the way let me talk about my new favourite author, Stella Riley. I discovered her through Dear Author (which has had its own very big kerfuffle just a couple of days ago btw if you’re interested). So anyway, I read Riley’s The Parfit Knight and The Mésalliance and while I enjoyed the latter I loved the former!

Here’s a description of The Parfit Knight from the author’s site:

The Marquis of Amberley is rich, assured and thirty-four years old, with the reputation of being a law unto himself and a degree of charm which even his friends consider disastrous.

When his coach is waylaid by highwaymen and his coachman shot, he is forced to take shelter at the first house he finds and is subsequently trapped there for a week by a severe snow storm.

Oakleigh Manor is the home of beautiful, twenty-two year-old Rosalind Vernon who lives alone but for her devoted servants and an ill-natured parrot, cut off from the outside world by the tragic result of a childhood accident. But Rosalind is brave and bright and totally devoid of self-pity – and it is these qualities which, as the days pass and the snow continues to fall, cause Amberley to fall in love.

On his return to London, the Marquis persuades Rosalind’s brother, Philip, to bring her to town for a taste of society – a move which, despite her handicap, Rosalind handles brilliantly.

But the course of Amberley’s courtship is far from smooth for, due to a misapprehension, Philip Vernon actively dislikes him and Rosalind appears to be falling under the spell of the suavely elegant Duke of Rockliffe. Worse still, Amberley is haunted by a dark and terrible secret that, if revealed, may cause him to lose Rosalind forever.

Miss Riley’s forte seems to be characterization. Oh, she’s good with the rest of the bits too—her language for one was quite lovely but also quite unobtrusive if you know what I mean. . . used in service of the story rather than as a standout feature all on its own, an aspect that I found myself appreciating—but I think the reason she’s my new favourite author is because she’s really really good at filling out her story with just the right characters.

Take Amberley and Rockliffe, the hero of The Mésalliance for instance. Amberley and Rockliffe are both very hero-like (handsome, commanding, and the other usual staples of a romance book hero) but are also quite different from each other. It struck me that one of the reasons why I’m not particularly moved to look up other books by an author I enjoyed, at least in genre romance, is because I could take the hero out of one book and put him in another by the same author without it making much difference to the story. On the other hand, a substitution would not work for Amberley’s and Rockliffe’s stories precisely because of the people they are—their romance unfolds the way it does because of who they are. I’ll concede that I’m coming to some rather hefty conclusions from a reading of just two books but I have a feeling that this is going to be true for all of Miss Riley’s works (hopefully!).

Amberley’s romancing of Rosalind is a delight to read. The tenderness that develops between our hero and heroine, to which they in time-honored tradition of the romance novel are quite oblivious (at least initially), is rather sweet. And yet perfect as they are I don’t think I would have sighed over The Parfit Knight the way I did if it was not also for the cast of its secondary characters without whom the story would not have been what it is.

And so there’s the villainous reprobate who is tiresome and selfish and remains faithful to villainy all the way till the end, causing havoc for our hero and heroine in the process (and yes, I couldn’t wait for him to receive his comeuppance!). Then there’s the supporting actress/faithful friend character who starts out as being an unknown quantity but proves her mettle rather quickly. The mutton-headed brother of the heroine, who’s also our supporting actress/friend’s love interest, is the obstructionist in the path of true love. Rockliffe stars as Amberley’s know-it-all best friend who has frighteningly omniscient powers and a prodigious love for snuff boxes. Our hero’s mother is poised, perfect and French. A rascally parrot with a penchant for curses and vilifications rounds up our motley crew.

Each character fits the bill perfectly. I can almost imagine Miss Riley having back stories for each of them which the reader is not privy to but which affects how he or she is portrayed in the story one is reading. The same holds true for The Mésalliance which has its own list of secondary characters and romances.

Unlike other authors, with Miss Riley, I find myself eager to read her other stories and see for myself what she does there. I’ll report how that excursion into her back list goes. Till then, I’d recommend you try out The Parfit Knight yourself!