Books for my Desert Island

Some weeks ago, a reader asked me which books remain old favourites; the ones I come back to time and again.  This, I found, isn’t as easy as it sounds – but I thought I’d give it a go and so here they are with apologies for the places I just couldn’t decide!

Top of the list – and deservedly so – is The Way To The Lantern.  I first read this when I was seventeen and it has remained a firm favourite ever since.  Set largely against the French Revolution, this is the tale of Actor Roberts, “a virile, jaunty, cocksure yet anti-heroic figure.”  It is funny and sad, clever and risque – and, even for today’s market, wholly original in concept.  Sadly, it has been out of print for a very long time but used copies are available cheaply on the internet.  I can’t praise this book too highly.  Even my husband – who rarely reads novels (other than mine) has read it three times and that’s praise indeed!

Actor Roberts narrates the story and, when the book opens, he is a hairsbreadth away from execution by two different Revolutionary committees – one of which thinks he’s an English spy while the other is convinced he’s a French aristocrat. Neither, of course, are correct.  But before life takes this unfortunate turn, our not-quite-a-hero  learns how (and how not) to play a role on stage.

‘The Fashionable Lover’ started off very well. Our Lord Abberville would have done better to earn his living off the land but he wasn’t as bad as the maidservant who led him on. She dried up on her opening line. The wind made a helpful entrance at this point and all four candelabra blew out, followed loyally by the floats. The maid lost her head. Apparently Lord Abberville stumbled in the darkness and struck an unfortunate part of her. She yelled out, ‘Leave me alone, you filthy brute!’
I thought myself resourceful when I held up the two prompt candles. There was a delighted squeal from the audience. It was certainly a most effective piece of lighting. The maid had tripped over a stool and pulled her dress right off her shoulders. She was lying across Lord Abberville’s lap with two of the largest breasts exposed that I had ever seen. Lord Abberville also lost his head. He shouted at her, ‘If you think I’m after that glass-blower’s paradise you’ve made a mistake, my girl!’
We were astonished by our notices. One of our severest critics wrote, ‘The Little Apollo re-opened last night on a bawdy romp which, while effective, over-did the lighting tricks.’

I was introduced to Georgette Heyer by an elderly lady when I was sixteen.  She lent me Arabella, then The Grand Sophy – and after that I was hooked!   I read all her books and amassed a complete paperback collection, most of which, sadly, I no longer have.  And though I haven’t returned to her work for many years – not, in fact, since I started writing – I’m sure I’ll go back to it one day.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to choose just one favourite.  I love These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub – and I can’t not mention The Spanish Bride.

But after a great deal of thought, I’ve chosen The Talisman Ring because it’s a light, beautifully written comedy and it never fails to make me laugh. I love the way upright, perfectly proper Sir Tristram drifts deeper and deeper into Ludovic and Eustacie’s mad schemes; and Justice of the Peace, Sir Hugh’s attitude towards the contraband in the cellar is priceless.

I’m an enormous fan of Terry Pratchett and have read rougly 90% of his immense output, most of which are still on my shelf.  The whole Discworld thing and the way Pratchett uses it is not just a lot of fun but also exceptionally clever.

Like Heyer, choosing a favourite is a near-hopeless task but I’ve opted for Guards! Guards! and its sequel, Men At Arms.  Sam Vimes, Carrot, Nobby and Colon are all old friends … and then there’s Gaspode.

In the cemetery the solitary gravedigger filled in the hole that was the last resting place of d’Eath senior. He became aware of what seemed to be thoughts in his head. They went something like this:
Any chance of a bone? No, no, sorry, bad taste there – forget I mentioned it. You’ve got beef sandwiches in your wossname, lunchbox thingy, though. Why not give one to the nice little doggy over there?
The man leaned on his shovel and looked around. The grey mongrel was watching him intently.
It said, ‘Woof?’

I read all of Anya Seton’s books in my late teens and enjoyed them all. But for me, Green Darkness is the one that really stands out and the only one to keep its place on my bookshelf.

In Tudor England, Celia de Bohun falls in love with a Catholic priest … a forbidden passion which makes them the victims of the times in which they live. And centuries later, their tragedy threatens the life of another Celia who can only be saved by ‘piercing the green darkness of the past and revealing its mysterious truth’.

I find reincarnation fascinating and this is, without doubt, the best novel of its type that I’ve ever read.

I love this whole series by Margaret Irwin.

The Stranger Prince is the story of Rupert of the Rhine; The Proud Servant is the Marquis of Montrose; The Bride tells the doomed love of Montrose for Rupert’s sister, Louise; and Royal Flush features Charles the Second’s little sister, Henriette.
My copies are ancient and rather tatty – in fact, all but one was bought second-hand.  But they’re beautifully-written stories about people I care for – so they’ve more than earned their spaces on the shelf.

For the rest, Pride and Prejudice obviously has a place along with a handful of other classics.

Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy – particularly The Crystal Cave – is a favourite, as is her Airs Above The Ground.
And then we come to more recently-written books, all of which I’ve read more than once but have yet to stand the test of time.  These, in no particular order, are :-
Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale
The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne
The Morrigan Cross trilogy by Nora Roberts (I’m a sucker for vampires!)
Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran
The Last Hellion by Loretta Chase

There are many others I could have listed but ‘sufficient to the day’ and all that.
If anyone would like to comment or perhaps share their own A List, please feel free.

I’d also be interested in readers’ views on their favourite hero and/or heroine amongst my own books.  The one I love best is always the one I’m living with at the time – which makes it impossible to choose.

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Author: Stella Riley


16 thoughts on “Books for my Desert Island”

  1. Interesting list, Anne-Marie. I completely agree with your assessment of The Black Moth. However, you should know that I got Tracy Belmanoir out of my system with my first novel, Lucifer’s Champion – the one I refuse to re-release – and so didn’t need to write that dissolute, unscrupulous character again.
    Enjoy the vampires!

  2. Hi Stella, I read very quickly so i need good long books for my Desert Island selection. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset would be my selection from her works. If you haven’t read it, beg borrow or steal a copy of The Rider on the White Horse. It’s the story of BlackTom Fairfax told through the eyes of bis wife.

    Ghy Gavriel Kay would be another must have and I am torn between Tigana, A Song For Arbonne and The Lions Of Al Rassan.

    I would probably take the one volume verion of The Lord of the Rings. And probably the one volume version of The Deed of Paksennarrion by Elizabeth Moon.

    I would need a couple of good crime novels so Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and a P D James… Probably Devices and Desires.

    Georgette Heyer would be essential. I was about fourteen and very ill with glandular fever… I was in bed for about five weeks. My dear mama got them out of the library for me but my favourite will always be my first The Black Moth. It is flawed, the villain is so much more interesting than the hero, Tracy Belmanoir turns up thinly disguised in These Old Shades. I’ve always detected more than a hint of him in Rockcliffe… so I would have to have The Mesalliance and of your other works probably The Black Madonna.

    And for the last… I get bored by fiction if I have nothing else to read so i would take Robert Massie’s biography of Peter the Great.

    Thanks for the heads up on the Nora Roberts Vampires. I love vampires… Off to rake on Amazon for them.

  3. Hi Stella, Desert island reading lists are so restrictive! Of course, if a generator was available, or a handy waterfall to rig up an electricity plant? THEN one could have a laptop or Kindle – problem solved! (I spent a fortnight as home help on a back-country station with a mountain and numerous waterfalls.) But reading the lists – I would recommend Guy Gavriel Kay – especially the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy – I believe he assisted with the editing of “The Silmarillion”? (1 of the Tolkien books anyway) – and like Elizabeth Peters, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series. This is where a Kindle/laptop comes in handy. “The Marigold Chain”, “The Player” and “The Black Madonna” (and can I add Richard to my favourites?) but really any of yours ( and I do include “Lucifer”); M M Kaye’s “Trade Wind”; “Gold for the Sultan” by Olga Stringfellow; “A Civil Campaign” and “Cordelia’s Honor” by Lois McMaster Bujold; and David Weber’s Bahzell series. Actually I think I’ll stay well away from desert islands. And at least one of Dave Freer’s – probably “A Mankind Witch”. Margo/Clare

  4. Another vote for Gabriel? More interesting still, despite all the requests for his story nobody has voted for him yet. At least I don’t recall it. It’s tricky looking through all the comments at the moment as I am on holiday and only have an i-pad which I rarely use.
    Thank you for putting some of my work on your list.

  5. I am so glad we will be meeting Gabriel again — please don’t make his visit too short.

    With regard to Desert Island books — I first read Heyer when I was about 12 (she was still writing then) and I have been re-reading some of her books every decade or so (I did the same with your Civil War books) and every decade or so I change my mind about my favourite. At age 12 The Devil’s Cub was the winner but in more recent times I think Venetia has my vote. The last time I re-read Friday’s Child which I had not been particularly fond of first time round shot much further up the list of favourites. I think it was the wonderful cant we got from the ‘tiger’. I really must listen to an audio version of this at some point.

    I think Garland of Straw would also be with me (and probably Black Madonna too). Rosemary Sutcliff’s Simon would also be a useful addition to the pile.

    Of course, Dunnett’s Ringed Castle and Checkmate are two of my re-readables both text and audio.

    I have always said that the Penguin Historical Atlas (two volumes) would be my Desert Island book. It is only A5 in size but contains so much information and so many maps. The only trouble now is my eyesight is not what it was and a magnifying glass is essential.

  6. Hi Stephanie
    Aside from M.M. Kaye and Winston Graham – and I completely agree with you about those – most of the authors on your list are ones I’ve never heard of but may look out for now.
    Gabriel thanks you for your vote and thinks you may wish to know he’ll be making a guest appearance in the next book.

  7. My favourite hero is Gabriel – IMHO the most balanced and well rounded of your characters. Plus, I love the name. Please don’t ever stop writing!!

    After much internal debate here is my list. I deliberately left out the more well-known ones (eg. Mary Stewart, etc.), because I love discovering unheralded authors, and maybe readers of your blog might too. My castaway desert island authors are so good I would be reluctant to signal for help (unless there was a new Stella Riley book on offer!):

    M.M. Kaye – famous for The Far Pavilions, but her 6 mysteries are great too!
    Rebecca Ryman (OOP) – 3 wonderful books set in India (not hard to see I like reading about the British Raj era)
    Jan Cox Speas (OOP) – Bride of the MacHugh; I will never part with my copy.
    Laura Black – Roger Longrigg wrote I think 6 books under this alias
    Madeleine Brent (OOP) – Peter O’Donnell 9 books under this alias
    Susanna Kearsley – have read everything, and always will
    Winston Graham – who can go past the wonderful world of Poldark
    Valerie Fitzgerald – Zemindar, now finally available on Kindle

    I have either hard or Kindle copies of every work of these authors and I re-read them often.

  8. Ah, the advantage of being a Yank — the only other person that name brings to mind for me is Denzel Washington, which is an *excellent* association!

    I’m so glad you are making your backlist available as e-books, and that doing so allows you make the changes you want! Back when I first discovered Parfit Knight, I was very sad to find that my library only had one other Juliet Blythe novel.

    1. Actually, Parfit Knight was the only book ever published under the name Juliet Blyth – and that was in error. As for the Denzel W. association, I entirely agree with you except that he spells it differently.

  9. Hi Margali,
    Thank you for your vote for Amberley and Rosalind – and I’m glad Adrian got a mention. I fell for him when he bought Mr Bailes a pie and gave him a job. This, I should say, was one of those places where a novel shoots off in a direction I hadn’t planned or even had any idea about.
    As for the Denzil/Dominic question … here in England and spelled the way I spell it, I’ve only ever come across the name Denzil twice. One is Denzil Holles, a 17th century Member of Parliament – which is where I got it from; and the other is Denzil the Dustman (garbage collector) in the TV sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Sadly, in the UK, it’s the second of these that comes to mind. And that’s why Denzil became Dominic. I’ve had some flack over this so thank you for just asking the question!

  10. The Parfit Knight was the first of your books that I ever read, and it remains my favorite, so the Marquis of Amberley and Rosalind take top place for me. The hero’s first name will forever remain Denzil to me, though, despite the change in the reissue. 🙂 (I’m curious, why did you decide to change the name of a main character?) Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, Earl of Sarre from The Player comes in a very close second. I love buttoned-up types who get unbuttoned by the heroines.

  11. Reading your list of favourites shows another reason why I love your books, so many are my favourites too.My first Georgette Heyer was Devil’s Cub which I read in my teens,another favourite is Rangoon by Christine Monson. Then I go for sci-fantasy, anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, his writing is also very romantic.

    I’m so pleased you are writing again and look forward to the final part of the Civil War series, with maybe a mention of Luciano and Kate who are my favourite hero/heroine.

    1. Hi Carol,
      Nice to hear from you and thank you for voting for Luciano and Kate. I haven’t come across the two writers you mention but, since we seem to share similar tastes, I’ll have a look for them. If you are into historical style fantasy you may enjoy the Thorns of Truth series by my friend Vivienne Maxwell. If you can bear to read old print copies with small type-face, I really would recommend The Way To The Lantern. It’s exceptional.

  12. Good evening

    The first book I read, written by you was the Marigold Chain. When I had finished reading the book, my then teenage daughters read it and we were fans. This is still my favourite book and Alex and Chloe my favourite characters. I must admit that I prefer the original version to the new e-book version but it is still treasured. I had two paperback copies, the girls now have them and they are well read. I am left with the e-book.

    I and my daughters, who are now in their early 40s were so excited when you started writing again. It is good to hear that you are writing Eden’s story and we look forward to reading it. Please keep writing.

    Regards Sharon

    Sharon Carter


    1. Hi Sharon,
      As I said to another reader a few weeks ago, The Marigold Chain provokes as much criticism as praise, so I appreciate hearing from someone who has continued to enjoy it. I am certainly surprised that your paperbacks have lasted this long – you and your daughters must have handled them very gently!

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