Riding With The Queen
by Jennie Shortridge, contemporary (2003)
NAL, $12.95, ISBN 0-451-21027-1

Jennie Shortridge's debut novel Riding With The Queen at first seems like another southern Americana story about a down-on-her-luck daughter returning home to Momma after she has nowhere else to go. In this case, thirty-four year old Tallulah Jean Beck ran away from home when she was sixteen with ambitions to be a country star. You can guess how far that dream went. Broke, dumped, and with nothing else to lose, she packs for home where she will play the piano at the local bar. It's not easy for Tallie, however, to face the ghosts of her past.

There's her mother that suffers from bipolar disorder and Tallie's inability to cope with her mother was one of the reasons she left LoDo at sixteen. Now, her mother seems to be undergoing some calmer phase in her life, and no doubt that is partly due to her lesbian relationship with Tallie's employer. Tallie's sister Jane is resentful of Tallie for running away and leaving Jane to cope by her own. Tallie's niece is fascinated with Tallie, much to our heroine's bemusement and dismay. After all, as Tallie would explain, she's not exactly the best role model for disenfranchised kiddies. Guiding Tallie to self-discovery is her (imaginary) personal guardian angel Big Gal Sal (Sal fulfilling the role of the Wise Person of Color here) and a chance at a happily ever after with a Mr Right after so many lousy Mr Wrongs that took the country music thing way too seriously.

There is very little in the premise and plot of this book that hasn't been featured in so many stories of this ilk before. Ms Shortridge, however, gives Tallie a truly amazing first-person voice. By the end of the book, I'm totally won over by her. Ms Shortridge doesn't shy away from providing an optimistic happy ending in this story, but along the way, it's a roller-coaster ride of emotions as Tallie's story unfolds from past to present. Tallie feels like a real character - her relationship with her family is often painful in just how real the more tumultuous moments can be. Along the way, Ms Shortridge painstakingly develops Tallie's character without resorting to too much overly sweet sentiments. The result is a heroine that has me laughing and crying with her all the way to the last page.

The only thing I'm not too sure about is Perry, the man that plays a big part in Tallie's growth and soul searching - this man is literally too good to be real. He's a Samaritan, he's sensitive, and his conversations with Tallie often come off like didactic preaching.

Still, this book works very well because Tallie is such a wonderfully real and sympathetic character that engages all my emotions. She's not perfect: she's an alcoholic and she wears the bruises on her heart and soul on the sleeve on her tattered blouse. Still, she's strong enough to embrace change and growth when the opportunity arises, and the result is inspiring soul-searching that I find comforting to read. There is plenty of heart and soul in Tallie, and for that, I'm glad I read Riding With The Queen. Fans of this type of Americana stories really ought to give this book a look.

Rating: 94

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