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Livin’ the Blues and Riding With The Queen
By Jennie Shortridge
ISBN: 0451210271

Review by: Rebecca Basham

  1/1/04

Riding With The Queen by Jennie Shortridge is a definite page-turner. From the moment you break the spine, you’re caught up in the life of Tallie Beck, a down on her luck blues singer who is about to slide even further down into the abyss of dire reality. Well, sort of. On her way to the bottom, she’s haunted by Big Gal Sal touted as the “Queen of the Delta blues” in the forties. In fact, Big Gal Sal has been Tallie’s on and off again companion since her childhood.

Tallie left her home and family in Denver the moment she turned eighteen, but at the beginning of this first novel by Shortridge, Tallie has exhausted every friend, every band, every gig and has been sent back to Denver by her agent for a job at a piano bar near her mother’s condo. We meet Tallie 432 miles before Denver, chain-smoking and with her skimpy outfits, big hair, and lots of makeup and Aqua Net hairspray not to mention the blues in tow. When she gets to Denver her life, not very good at the moment, gets even worse. Her sister, Jane, and her niece, Emma, take her in grudgingly, but make her more than feel their reluctance. The job’s not a job; it’s an audition. Her mother, always labeled as a drunk or simply a crazy woman, has been diagnosed as having Bipolar disorder and is now on medication and considered “normal.” You might think the latter was completely wonderful, but when the mother starts refusing her medication and still demanding a relationship with the prodigal daughter, you quickly catch the downside. Add in the fact that after Tallie’s supremely talented voice earns her the piano bar job, she learns that the owner is her mother’s girlfriend; she falls in love with a homeless man, Perry; she has recurring bouts of alcoholism and dumps Perry when she gets drunk and sleeps with her ex husband, Jett, a one hit wonder eighties icon. Oh, by the way, Jett never really wanted her back nor had real work for her. Imagine. Her predictable sister, Jane, has an affair, and divorces her husband with emotional crescendos. Emma, the niece, fights then cleaves to Tallie. The loved and hated mother has a heart attack on Thanksgiving. And all the while, Big Gal Sal is in the rearview mirror or on the side of the bed dishing out practical, down home advice.

Tallie’s life is a mess. Her life is a blues song just waiting to happen. Hell, it might even make an opera, but that’s why readers will keep turning pages. Anyone can identify with the proliferation of drama in Tallie’s life. While the plot may seem far-fetched, Shortridge is able to make it a realistic read about the decline of a woman who has seen it all, heard it all and pretty much lived it all. Realistic, that is, until the finale. By the end of the novel, Tallie’s mother is taking her medication, and they’re mending their relationship. There’s a hint that she and Perry, who now has his own apartment and a job, might actually try to work out their problems. Tallie and her sister, Jane, have bonded and are appreciating their differences. Her niece, Emma, thinks aunt Tallie’s great. And oh, Tallie’s been slipping in her original songs to the scripted list of crowd pleasers at the piano bar, and of course, a producer winds up in the audience from a major record label. So, it’s a little too easy for Tallie to make a come-back, and that’s where Shortridge departs from the reality that keeps the plot moving, but the blues are a chronicle of life’s ups and downs, and if you’ve got a character haunted by the Queen of the Delta blues, you might as well make those peaks and valleys extreme.

 




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