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.