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REVIEW: Star Gazing by Linda Gillard

Dear Ms. Gillard,

Star Gazing by Linda GillardYour review request caught my eye because you described the heroine of your novel, Star Gazing as congenitally blind, and mentioned that this story takes place on the Isle of Skye. You also mentioned that the book was short listed for RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year award. I surfed over to Amazon and read some very enthusiastic reviews, and decided to take you up on your offer and review the book.

Unfortunately, what I’ve read of Star Gazing has failed to engage me and I was only able to read at a glacially slow pace. Even more than a hundred pages in, I remain emotionally detached, and so I’ve come to a point where, in order to write this post on a timely basis, I’ve given up on finishing the book.

Star Gazing does have some good qualities which I will describe after the following plot summary:

The novel begins when its heroine, the blind, forty-five year old Marianne Fraser, runs into a cyclist near the front door of the Edinburgh home she shares with her sister, Louisa. The bottle of burgundy Marianne is carrying shatters and the door keys slip from her hands. A stranger offers his help and as he assists her, their mutual love of opera comes up.

Later, while at the opera, during the intermission, they meet again. Louisa, Marianne’s sister, is away buying drinks when the man introduces himself as Keir Harvey. Keir’s last name is a shock for Marianne since it was her late husband’s first name.

Marianne’s late husband worked in the oil industry and was killed in an accident. Marianne was devastated not only by Harvey’s death, but also by the miscarriage she suffered shortly afterward. The experiences she had with men in the years that followed were unpleasant, so she is somewhat jaded about the opposite sex when she and Keir meet. And she is not sure what to think of Keir when she tries to introduce him to Louisa, only to realize he is no longer there.

Keir and Marianne encounter one another again at the botanic gardens, and she confides in him about the losses she has suffered. When Keir is away, he mails her a cassette tape of him talking. On his return, Marianne invites Keir to her house for dinner, but he does not show. Louisa suspects that Keir is a figment of Marianne’s imagination, but then he reappears. It turns out that Keir, whose job is to spot hazards and prevent accidents from happening, was in an accident on an oil rig, and has been in the hospital. When Marianne realizes he was injured, she not only forgives his absence, she also accepts an invitation from him, to come to his home at the Isle of Skye.

In Skye, Marianne and Keir sleep in separate rooms, but in a rather reticent way, they both acknowledge their attraction. Keir describes the surroundings to Marianne, and explains that he tries to protect the area’s natural habitat. It would be cliched to say that Keir becomes Marianne’s eyes, but he makes it possible for her to perceive things she can’t see.

Marianne is a rather different kind of romantic heroine, not only because she is blind, but because she carries a lot of bitterness. She is, as she herself says, “incandescently angry.” Although I understood why Marianne might have a chip on her shoulder, especially after her husband’s death, her miscarriage, and having other men attempt to take advantage of her blindness or put her in the helpless-woman-in-need-of-rescue role, I still didn’t feel much of an emotional connection to the character.

Keir, who is a few years younger than Marianne, yet clearly mature and responsible, was somewhat more appealing. But with him too, as with Marianne, I felt somewhat at arms’ length, in this case perhaps because most of the time, there wasn’t much insight into his thoughts and feelings.

Star Gazing is written in alternating third person and first person sections, both in present tense. The third person sections in the first hundred or so pages keep the characters at a distance from the reader, with a lot of dialogue but very few internal thoughts.

The first person sections I read provided Marianne and Louisa’s viewpoints. Louisa’s POV included some humor, and she was a colorful character, a 51 year old writer of vampire novels who struggles with her weight and has a friendship with a younger goth named Garth.

The best part of this book for me were the descriptions of how Marianne perceives the world:

I love the garden in all seasons. I especially love it when it rains. I like to shelter under the trees when they’re in full leaf and listen to the patter of rain as it forms a kind of sound-sculpture for me, defining the size and shape of a tree, giving me an aural sense of scale, of distance.

I also appreciated the way Keir used Marianne’s auditory sensitivity to translate images into sounds for her:

‘If you look east, one of the brightest stars you’ll see is Arcturus. It has a yellow-orange glow. Most stars look cold. Icy. They’d sound like…flutes. No, piccolos. Shrill. Arcturus looks warmer. A cello maybe… It looks like the stove feels when it gives off just a bit of heat. Arcturus glows, but it doesn’t burn or blaze like the sun. It’s like the feeling you might have for an old friend… or an ex-lover, one who still means something to you. Steady. Passionless. On second thoughts, make that a viola… How am I doing?”

Yet the emphasis on Marianne’s blindness became less interesting to me as the book went on. I would have preferred to see it treated as just another facet of her character, and less of a focal point.

My main problem with the first hundred pages of this book was not this, though, but rather that the writing felt subdued. The emotions were somber and understated to a point where the writing felt dry to me, and I felt detached from the characters and from their story, despite the fact that the prose was above average.

The pacing also felt slow to me, but that may have been due to my lack of engagement. If there is such a thing as a book that is too grounded in reality for me, this book was an example of that, since Marianne and Keir lacked a kind of romantic glamour that I look for, and I think what I read of their story could have benefitted from more dramatic turns.

I wish I had been able to get more caught up in Star Gazing, and I expect there are readers to whom it might appeal more. But I have not been able to overcome my emotional detachment from the story, and rather than force myself to finish it, I’ve decided to stop reading. Therefore for me, this one is a DNF.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

28 Comments

  1. Katie
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 17:42:53

    As a Scot, I am so pleased to see a Scottish author with a book set in Scotland that does not involve kilts or shortbread. I will be buying it just to support the local talent.

  2. Janine
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 17:52:32

    LOL, Katie. Yes, it does not involve kilts or shortbread! I was glad that it was refreshingly free of Scottish stereotypes as well. Occasionally the hero said “Aye” but that was the closest he got to brogue.

    I hope you enjoy the book! As mentioned in my review, it has gotten some accolades so I think it will appeal to some.

  3. Linda Gillard
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 18:02:11

    Thanks, Janine, for your thoughtful review. I’m sorry STAR GAZING didn’t take off for you.

    Your readers might be interested to know STAR GAZING was also short-listed for the UK’s first environmental book award, as well as Romantic Novel of the Year.

  4. Mara
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 18:07:17

    For a book you couldn’t get into, you make it sound rather interesting.:) I’m glad you reviewed it, despite the DNF.

  5. Janine
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 18:10:54

    @Linda Gillard: You’re welcome.

    @Mara: The book did have a lot of aspects that would normally have interested me, but I think the characters being so everyday (I can’t think of a better word here) was the biggest barrier to my involvement.

  6. rhapsodyinbooks
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 18:18:25

    Janine,
    I loved this book! But I will also say I’m not much of a fan of “romantic glamour.” I find such passages and the books that contain them to be superficial and unrealistic, but I can see how fans of that genre would feel the opposite! This book, I think, is perhaps more appropriately characterized as “literary fiction” than as “romance.” It has, in my opinion, soaring passages of lyrical prose that one commonly doesn’t see among those books specializing in “romantic glamour.”

    Even so, for me it seemed romantic as well (although again, not in the sense of what one might call erotic fiction). And I loved that the protagonist was not only older but handicapped. So many books in the romance genre only feature stereotypical protagonists that bear no resemblance to real people.

    I fully understand how fans of romantic glamour may find this book a little lacking in the erotic department, but I hope readers who want to branch out to literary fiction give this book a chance!

  7. Janine
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 18:35:14

    @rhapsodyinbooks: I hear what you are saying. Believe me, it is very rare for me to complain that a book is too grounded in reality — usually my complaint is the reverse.

    I look for a mixture of realism and romanticism, the everyday and the glamorous (or perhaps “heightened” is a better word than “glamorous.”). When a book is totally based in fantasy, with every emotion being heightened, it can certainly seem unrealistic, melodramatic, and yes, sometimes superficial as well. I do like for even genre fiction to have some grounding in reality, and qualities like complexity and even grittiness.

    However, if a book has very little in the way of flights of fancy, it is harder for it to engage me as well. My personal taste often falls in between genres. There has definitely been literary fiction I have enjoyed but my preference is for literary fiction with genre elements just as it is for genre fiction with literary elements. That’s not a hard and fast rule — I’ve been known to enjoy books that fall outside that description, but it doesn’t happen as often.

    With Star Gazing, I was attracted to some of the same things that attracted you, and thought the romantic elements and the good prose would be enough to hook me, but they were not. I hope I’ve done an adequate job of explaining why — it was something that was hard for me to put my finger on myself.

    In any case, I am glad you enjoyed the book!

  8. mobj
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 19:08:37

    It’s funny but your DNF review actually makes me want to read this. It sounds intriguing. Sometimes I really like quieter romance novels. They’re a welcome relief after some of the more ridiculous ones out there. I think I’ll pick this one up.

  9. Janine
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 19:11:49

    @mobj: I hope you enjoy the book. I would welcome hearing back from you, Katie, Mara, or anyone else with an opinion to share.

  10. Deb Kinnard
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 20:22:18

    Kudos to Ms. Gillard for a classy response to the review.

    The book intrigues me, too. Does every story out there have to be high tension on every page? Maybe a quieter sort of love story is exactly what I need. Weekend coming…book budget, get ready!

  11. Janine
    Feb 25, 2010 @ 20:49:33

    @Deb Kinnard: I agree Ms. Gillard’s response was classy.

    I like the occasional quiet book too. It’s not that I think every book has to be high tension on every page, but rather that there needs to be something to reel me in. Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s romances are examples of quieter books that I still find totally absorbing, but I think that’s because her characters have so many layers to them. With Marianne and Keir in Star Gazing, I didn’t get that layered feeling, although it’s possible I would have had I kept reading. Anyway, I hope Star Gazing works for you.

  12. Julie
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 00:55:40

    I read this book last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. I adored Gillard’s perception and her wonderfully nuanced characterization. I also enjoyed the way Marianne managed to be strong, tough yet also vulnerable, whilst never being a victim or somebody who used her blindness for pity or symphathy.

    Janine’s point about romantic glamour made me wonder about the differences between US and UK romances. Whereas in contemporary US romances, the focus is always on the couple’s relationship, in the UK, many of the books labelled romantic fiction are in fact more akin to women’s fiction, with the focus being more on the heroine’s journey to autonomy and her growth than the relationship with the hero. This book, I think, managed to be both a story about the heroine’s journey, whilst also being a tender, passionate and believable romance.

  13. Linda Gillard
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 02:04:52

    I’m finding these comments both fascinating & illuminating. (I do hope it’s ok for the author to join in!) Julie, your point about the differences between UK and US romances is a good one. I didn’t write STAR GAZING as a romance. I wrote it as contemporary women’s fiction but my publisher (Piatkus) marketed it as romance. I see it as primarily a book about “ways of seeing”. It’s also about the Isle of Skye where I lived for 6 years. It is a love story, but Marianne falls in love with a place (Skye) just as much as she falls in love with Keir. (There’s more about why I wrote the book on my website http://www.lindagillard.co.uk )

    My novels are influenced by the classics, particularly the Brontes. STAR GAZING owes something (I say this with due humility) to Charlotte Bronte’s VILLETTE. That book’s intense, repressed heroine is called Lucy Snowe. A very important (and dramatic!) scene in STAR GAZING describes how blind Marianne gets lost in the snow and almost dies of hypothermia.

  14. Janine
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 02:45:57

    @Julie: Yeah, that is an interesting point about the difference between US and UK romances. I haven’t read many UK romances so I can’t make such a statement myself, but I recently saw another poster on a different website making a similar point to yours, that UK romances are somewhat different than American ones.

    @Linda Gillard: It’s also interesting that you wrote it as contemporary women’s fiction rather than romance, but your publisher marketed the book as romance. I can see elements of both genres in it.

  15. RStewie
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 08:53:42

    @Linda Gillard: I, for one, and I’m sure I’m not alone, appreciate your comments on this discussion board. It’s interesting to see the sort of “behind the scenes” to the book, as well as the review and other various reader’s comments.

    It makes the book more interesting to me, where I might not have picked it up before, now I am more likely to buy it if I see it at the bookstore.

  16. RachelT
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 09:13:11

    I’m afraid I didn’t do as well as you, Janine, I only got a couple of chapters in, and just failed to pick the book up again, rather than make a definite decision to stop reading.

    I think of US romances as having ‘edge’ to them. On consideration, I think that probably is what others are calling tension. There are fewer sub-genres in UK writing. Historical and historical crime are in abundance, but I don’t come across romantic suspense. I wonder if that reflects the difference in our societies and in our police and security organisations.

    I now read very few UK romances – Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell and Christina Jones being among the few authors that I look out for. I do like the gentle, rural approach to romance that one finds – but they are all written at that pace. When I looked down this year’s shortlist for the RNA, I haven’t read any of the books competing for the main award, and only one from other categories, despite reading romance more or less exclusively. The lack of of publicity is a key reason I don’t get drawn to UK titles. We don’t have websites like this which review and promote books, and book reviews in newspapers concentrate on literary fiction with a smattering of crime.

    Sorry – that last paragraph is somewhat outside the previous discussion, but is something I have thought about a number of times. Does anybody else in the UK find this?

  17. Linda Gillard
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 10:11:33

    @RachelT: Can I just make it clear to readers that I haven’t written a gentle rural romance. The heroine nearly dies and so does the hero! (But not in the first 2 chapters.)

    STAR GAZING is nothing like the excellent novels of Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell and Christina Jones, not least because my heroine is 45 (as well as blind). All my heroines are middle-aged – one of the reasons it’s been difficult to get publicity for my novels. (If you’re interested in the ageism of UK publishing read my guest blog Forty-something Feisty Females at SingleTitles.com http://tinyurl.com/ydt4ujq )
    @RStewie: Glad to hear you’re interested in the inside story. :-)

  18. Rose
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 10:50:13

    It’s a shame you didn’t finish, Janine – it looks like you might have stopped just short of some big revelations that kept me up til 4am! I loved Star Gazing and certainly wouldn’t describe the twists in the second half as “quiet”. My friends and I took it in turns to read it on holiday and it had us in tears at what happens to Keir towards the end. (Fellow fans will know the bit I mean!) We completely fell in love with him and are still talking about him months later.

  19. Janine
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 13:05:49

    @RStewie: Glad you are enjoying the discussion, and hope you like the book as well if you do pick it up. Please feel welcome to post your opinion on the book once you’ve read it.

    @RachelT: Sorry the book didn’t work for you either. Again, very interesting to read about the differences between US and UK romances, although I haven’t read enough UK romance to have a sense of this for myself.

    It’s too bad there aren’t any review sites or review publications for UK romances. I might try more of them myself if there were.

    @Linda Gillard: Interesting blog post. I’m shuddering at “hag lit.” Not just ageism but sexism too, IMO, since a man in his forties would never be viewed as the male equivalent of a hag.

    @Rose: Thanks for giving a picture of some of what happens later in the book. Perhaps my short attention span was also a factor in my inability to get caught up in the story. I’m not sure even big twists would have engaged me at the 100+ page point, though, because I felt at an emotional remove from the characters. In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed the book so much.

  20. RachelT
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 15:13:51

    Linda (how does one do that @ thing?) – sorry, I was taking off on a tack triggered by somebody else’s remark, rather than commenting directly on your book. In fact I picked up Star Gazing because of the heroine’s blindness – I found that an interesting topic and one close to home. In the light of this discussion, I’ve just retrieved the book out of my bookcase and will have another read.

  21. Ros
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 15:23:56

    @Linda Gillard: Some of Katie Fforde’s earlier heroines and some of Mansell’s heroines are also well into middle-age – I can think of several with teenage and adult children, for instance. But I wouldn’t say that either of them write romance, exactly. I’ve always thought of Fforde as women’s fiction and Mansell as chick lit (though admittedly, Fforde’s later books, which aren’t nearly as good) are more chick litty too.

    I haven’t read Star Gazing, though it’s been on my shelf for months. I’m waiting until I’m ready to start reading more angsty books again. And I’m curious after this discussion to see what I make of it – I’ve certainly seen other excellent reviews of it.

  22. Janine
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 15:24:06

    @RachelT:

    (how does one do that @ thing?)

    If you roll your cursor near the right side and bottom of each post (just under the text) you will see an arrow followed by the word “Reply” pop up. If you click on that, the @ thing will appear in the dialogue box where you write your comment.

  23. Janine
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 15:30:46

    @Ros: The question of genre is interesting. I would have put the book somewhere between women’s fiction and romance myself, but rhapsodyinbooks in comment #6 considers it literary fiction. I think it may be harder to classify the genre for those of us who read mostly American books since I have the sense that genre boundaries here in the US are somewhat different from those in the UK.

    Please feel welcome to come back and comment on the book. Rachel and I seem to be the only ones here who had difficulty getting into it so hopefully you will enjoy it.

  24. RachelT
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 15:58:09

    @Janine: Thanks Janine!

  25. Janine
    Feb 26, 2010 @ 16:00:02

    @RachelT: You’re welcome!

  26. Lyn
    Mar 10, 2010 @ 01:51:13

    What a fascinating discussion! I loved Star Gazing. I read it in one big gulp. I loved the fact that Marianne was older, cranky & not worried about what anyone thought of her. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction but I do enjoy authors like Trisha Ashley & Katie Fforde as well as Linda. Contemporary fiction with a plot, a heroine I can enjoy spending time with & a hero to fall slightly in love with.

  27. Sheila Belshaw
    Nov 13, 2010 @ 11:52:23

    For those of you who didn’t finish reading this fine novel, I think you have deprived yourselves of one of the most sensitive, beautifully written, heart-breaking, tense love stories of the twenty-first century. I couldn’t put it down, but at the same time I read it slowly – every word – because I hated the thought that I would soon finish it, and despite the fact that I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to this unique couple. I cried for both the blind Marianne and the perfectly wonderful Keir. Linda Gillard deserved to win the RNA best romantic novel competition, but she also deserves to win an award for the most beautiful novel.
    If I may dare to make a comment about how I would have liked the novel to end, I would have liked the outcome of Keir’s accident to have been different.
    Bravo Linda Gillard! When is your next book coming out?

  28. Janet Gillard
    Mar 05, 2013 @ 16:04:13

    I was interested to find your name on our reading groups list and delighted when I actually
    read ” Star Gazing.”I have always had a horror of blindness but was engrossed with the way you wove the two characters together . I like to paint and wish I could “see” the way she was able to .I look forward to reading my next Linda Gillard. Janet.

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