Troubled waters: A review of The Doors of Riverdell by Marianne Rosen

She glanced past Moth to see Riverdell in the background, high-browed and proud in the vibrant grass embankments. Home was this place, this moment. The river running beneath her waiting feet, the meadow stretching away on the other side, the woods hovering above, the lawns like tempting velvet, the house watching it all. Every view was home.

The Doors of Riverdell is the first novel in a four book saga about the Threlfalls, a privileged and dysfunctional family residing in a rather grand old house in the historic English market town of Ludlow. But this is no Downton Abbey – it has a solid contemporary setting with short flashbacks no further in the past than the 1950s. It is author Marianne Rosen’s debut – and what a debut! At well over five hundred pages, it’s an epic and fitting introduction to a somewhat unhappy and unsatisfied family on the brink of change. 

At the start of the novel four girls meet at boarding school and seemingly form a lifelong friendship, bonding over absent parents and their unknown place in the world. Fast forward fifty odd years and we meet their children – all but one, the estranged Threlfall heir, who has been killed in a car accident along with his wife, And so begins the drama of Riverdell…

We follow Elsa: the Threlfall matriarch, trying her hand at a second wave of parenting; Isabelle: her thirty-something niece, freshly back from India; Kit: Isabelle’s pursuer – a lusty workaholic control freak; and Moth: Elsa’s newly orphaned teenage grandson – all knowing, moody, secretive, with a great big chip on his shoulder. The four points of view run through the book, nicely blended after the initial hurdle of getting used to the novel’s tone and pace and multiple timelines. 

For such a big book, The Doors of Riverdell speeds along, sweeping its reader off to the world between its pages – a world of family troubles, conflict, complications and passions. It’s sometimes difficult to relate to the characters as they seem so rich, privileged and spoilt. They can come across as distant, with the exception perhaps, of Kit and Kate, who have much more feistiness than the rest of the players. Moth is a troubled young man that frustrates in his overtly secretive manner, compelling the reader to want to give him a good shake. Isabelle is flaky, and her inconsistency and commitment phobia grates. Elsa is in the shadow of Kate, her ancient BBF, and we wonder what’s going on in the background with her. But, remember, this is a series and character development is ongoing. It’s a sign of a good book where the characters take you on their own personal journey, with its ups and downs, triggering dislike sometimes and admiration at other times. After all, life is like that; people are like that.

The overriding aspect of the novel that stands out for me – and much more than this, made me all warm and tingly when reading – is the sumptuous, the beautiful, the lovingly descriptive, prose. I used to read, read, read, not really knowing why I liked certain books and not others. I used to say it was all about the story – I was a story lover and it was that that did it for me. Yet, it’s only fairly recently that I realised it’s the writing that really ignites my spark – the detailed, descriptive prose. I want to know what the room looks like, I want to know what the weather is, I want to get inside the protagonist’s head, I want to be able to see what the characters see, and picture in my mind every scene. Descriptions are important to me. They enable me to feel an atmosphere unique to that particular book, and add to it my own imagination. Marianne provides this satisfaction for me in Riverdell. The detailed writing does its job of creating a sense of place, of time, of character, so well that I am taken down into its depths, lost in a good book, as they say.

Ludlow is the setting of Riverdell, and I relish a real place setting, especially if I’ve been there and especially if it’s not a widely known place. Who has been to Ludlow? I’m hoping that everyone has had the pleasure, but it’s a fairly small town in rural Shropshire, and if I didn’t have past family connections there, I probably would not have heard of it. Ludlow is magnificent in its historic prettiness and has a lovely feel to it. As I remember, it has bookshops galore, and so it is really worth a visit or two. Marianne’s admiration for the town comes wonderfully across in her narrative, painting a vivid picture of her hometown. It’s a gorgeous tribute to Ludlow.

At the reaches of her flawed vision, the hills were shimmering, trees cavorting shadows across their flanks. She picked out land points, that compressed golf ball of the radio station shining on the Clee, the Mynd a long frown on the northern horizon, the grasses rippling across the meadow flanks of Climbing Jack and tumbling into the deep creases of the valleys, The breeze was firm, blowing across the long valley of the Teme, wafting the country up to her. The richness of the fields, the unctuous fumes of the traffic, the dust from the development of the old petrol station, the teasing odours of bread, coffee, pie. She grabbed her bag, leaving the calm oasis and plunging into the town’s belly, the tune of the vagrant piper following her through the streets.

Old Ludlow postcard

As part of the launch team for The Doors of Riverdell, I loved reading the book with some bookster buddies. It is a great meaty novel for a read-along or with a book club, although as it’s a series, be warned that there are a few loose ends to be tied up in later books. However, don’t let this put you off as I am sure having read this one, you will want to continue with the saga of the Threlfalls and their associates at Riverdell.

This is a book to be savoured and enjoyed over long reading sessions with plenty of hot drinks and sweet treats. It is gorgeous inside as well as out, beautifully constructed and sumptuously written. Marianne Rosen has presented us with a magnificent debut showcasing her wonderful talent for interweaving storytelling and silky rich prose.

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Perfection in Provence: A review of The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

As the great range of hills slumbered in evening shades of rust and indigo, we listened to soupy jazz on the CD player. We’d cook together, drinking rosé and talking in companionable murmurs. Sometimes we’d light the sconce on the wall outside the kitchen. It is a sinister creation: a disembodied arm emerges from a wrought-iron picture frame, extending a candle. It was left by a previous occupant; we would almost certainly not have bought such a grotesque artefact; yet we left it hanging there, and often lit it. Inside and out, pools of light burned from hurricane lamps, candelabras, chandeliers, tea lights, and the rusty lantern we found in the courtyard and used on the dining table on the terrace.

This is the book that led me back. Back to the beauty of the half and half: a dual narrative  with a contemporary story and a historical story; a firm formulaic favourite of mine. It’s just my cup of tea: a lush and sophisticated novel full of sumptuously descriptive language: prose that will totally transport me to its geographical setting and fully immerse me in its emotional atmosphere. This is my ideal read whatever the weather. This is the type of book that deepened my love for sitting alone and delving into the pages of a story.

The Lantern is told in first person by Eve, a twenty-something commercial translator who is swept off her feet by Dom, an entrepreneur turned composer. Dom has a passion to move to the French countryside, so when they find the perfect crumbling farmhouse in Provence, they set up their dream home. However, what begins as a wonderful whirlwind romance quickly turns into an uneasy and increasingly sinister union. Dom has secrets, and his distance from Eve disturbs the whole equilibrium of their perfect life.

It has loud echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: a naive protagonist cast under the spell of a mysterious older man with skeletons in his closet, and a house filled with ghostly memories of the past desperately trying to escape. Eve is not even our leading lady’s real name as her narrative conveys, drawing explicit parallels with Rebecca’s young narrator. She is overcome with thoughts of Dom’s ex-wife and what happened to her; and her sinister suspicions, along with Dom’s refusal to talk, drive a dangerous wedge between the two. The tension is rife and we are sucked into Eve’s lonely world of unease, trepidation and doubt. Our other leading lady in the historical thread of the narrative is Benedicte, an equally, if not more so, haunted figure. Alone in her memories – if not for her frightening visions and visitations – Benedicte tells the story of her family and her life in the house. At one time it was blissful but gradually she reveals hardships and heartbreak. Benedicte and Eve are connected by location, but they are also drawn together by  mysteries and unresolved rifts in their lives. However, while Eve strives for answers, Benedicte is much more placid and accepting of her situation, making an interesting and curious parallel. 

The Lantern is a spooky story that will appeal to the lover of mystery, ghosts, and old houses. It will pull you in if you love rich, lavish and heavenly descriptions of location and experience. For the greatest joy of The Lantern is it’s sense of place: seeing it, feeling it, smelling it. There are a thousand things I could say about the descriptions in this book, but I’ll leave it at this: I’ve been to Provence and I loved it. Thank you Deborah Lawrenson. 

When I smelled that perfume, I was drawn back helplessly into a sunlit world of Maman’s flaky almond biscuits with a hint of bitter apricot kernel, earth-like cocoa powder clinging to her bare legs, light, warm winds sifting sugared scents from the kitchen where orange mirabelles were being bottled; and on, far beyond the aromatic, to the distant sound of the goat bells, and the whispering of the trees, the butterflies on meadow flowers and the scrubby spikiness of the land underfoot as we chased them, the taste of dried cherries sucked from their pits and of the honeyed nut wine; the soft,  guttered candles waiting on the table in the courtyard where we dined at night, cool at last, a floury embrace before bedtime: all the fragrances in one, of the four months of the year when we all lived outside in the immense wide open valley, a season of warmth and enchantment…

I saw your a Face in a Dying Fish: A review of We Are Animals by Tim Ewins

From its title, you may think this book is a retelling of Noah’s Ark, or it may even conjure up images from a certain song by Bloodhound Gang, making you wonder if there’s a naughty  theme in there somewhere – but it’s neither of these. Not really anyway. It’s a love story – a love story of love stories. It has alcohol and sunsets, exotic places and simple pleasures. It’s the best kind of love story – one of friendship and strong bonds.

During their single week on Palolem they visited a spice farm, learnt to ride motorcycles and tried yoga for the first time. One day they climbed over the rocks at the end of the beach and found another beach with rocks at both ends. Over those rocks they’d found yet another beach which they walked down for about an hour, and then, at the other end of this beach, they’d found more rocks. It was a magical week.

The central story is between two Jans, a boy and a girl, who become world travellers, both together and apart. But it is their togetherness that the book yearns for, and which one of the Jans (Manjan) is hoping to encounter again. For, at the opening of the book he is standing on a beach in Goa, waiting for a sighting of the girl (Ladyjan) who stole his heart and his passport in 1970, and whom he now hasn’t seen in thirty-eight years.  As the sixty-four year old Manjan sits, sipping his red wine, a young traveller named Shakey approaches, inviting him to a silent disco, and what follows is a somewhat reluctant recounting of the significant bits of Manjan’s life to a somewhat distracted listener.

We Are Animals is a homage to both the enthusiastic and the weary traveller. It’s about escaping, and searching for something you think you want,  but discovering something else. It’s about finding what you didn’t know you wanted and then losing the only thing that mattered. It’s about holding on and letting go. These themes repeat throughout the book and it’s quite cathartic. It has a certain and poignant truth to it that I found it very life affirming.

The tale of Manjan and Ladyjan is humorously told by its author, Tim Ewins, a part time comedian. You have to be funny to be a comedian and Tim is exactly that. The prose is flawless in its wittiness. Gentle sarcasm, observational humour, and much attention to detail make his debut novel a joy to read. The main story is interspersed with tales – the joys and woes – of different animals along the way. They are all hugely lovable and their individual narratives are quite emotional. It’s such a touching portrait of life – of the ordinary person and the ordinary animal – caressing your feelings of empathy and compassion, while also tickling your insides with merriment. I’m a huge fan of humorous writing and here I’ve found a king. We Are Animals is a book that will break your heart a little, warm your cockles a lot, and have you giggling into your beverage of choice. Five stars.

‘I think I’m glad I’m home,’ Jan said to his mother as he threw his stick-and-bed-sheet bag onto the kitchen table, ‘I wanted to come home when I saw your face in a dying fish.’ Jan’s mother sat down, feeling both offended and loved at the same time.

To Chick Lit or not to Chick Lit?: A review of Poppy’s Recipe for Life by Heidi Swain

I have a confession: I struggle with chick lit. The phrase, “chick lit” grates on me in the first instance, but I’m not sure how to explain my exact feelings about the whole genre. I am drawn to the pretty, cheerful covers with their suggestion of a happy, cosy life in the country – or by the sea – or in a Georgian townhouse, etcetera. And the surety of a happy ending is comforting: with all loose ends tied up and all characters getting what they deserve. Yet, while I seek out feel good stories in films and on T.V., this is not necessarily true with novels. What I find most alluring about a book is the anticipation and materialisation of an adventure, a mystery, a surprise. I like parallel stories, multiple timelines, and a clever twist that I didn’t see coming but totally understand now I know. And while I adore a great love story, it is usually not the reason I pick up a book and start reading. Hence, a chick lit novel  is certainly not my go-to read. I fully admit that I haven’t read many books of this genre, but I have noticed that the description of “lighthearted read” often covers the form as well as the content, and what you get is not only a book with an easy subject matter, but also a book with easy prose – a simple and plain narrative style that leaves readers like me (whatever we are) feel underwhelmed.

I have read absolute stinkers of books, both chick lit and not, so if I sound totally critical of this genre, please forgive me as this is not my intention. My intention is always to take books as they come and read them with fresh eyes and an open mind, and not get bogged down by their genre or label. Most of all, my intention is to enjoy the book. I really want to relish the reading journey of every book I pick up and feel that I have gained something by the time I have turned the last page. Sometimes there is success, sometimes failure, but the will to love every book I have chosen to read is always there.

This brings me onto my actual review of Poppy’s Recipe for Life. I wanted to read one of Heidi Swain’s novels because of their deliciously scrumptious covers coupled with their thumbs up reviews, all pointing to the probability of a positive, life affirming, warm and snuggly reading experience. While I was under the impression this was her first venture out into the world as a novelist, this is in fact Heidi’s eighth book, published this year. As the product of an experienced, published author who knows her fans and audience, Poppy’s Recipe for Life is a great success. It is written with bounds of confidence and expertise. This writer has got the art of her specialism, it seems, down to a tee. 

It’s Heidi and her readers’ second visit to Nightingale Square, a fictional residential part of an unnamed Norfolk town. Twenty-something Poppy of the title, has just realised her long standing dream of moving into the Square and becoming an active part of the tight knit community. Her excitement about moving to Nightingale Square and it’s communal garden, is matched only by her passion for making chutney. She wants and lives a blissfully simple life, delighting in everyday pleasures such as frequenting her local with her friends after work, helping to organise community events, and mucking in with gardening duties. It seems the only unpleasantness in her life is her selfish, uncaring mother, whom she avoids and whom she would gladly have absolutely nothing to do with if it wasn’t for her sixteen year old brother, Ryan. Cue, the dramatic event of the story: the arrival and stay of Ryan at Poppy’s beloved home. Ryan must be the sweetest teenager in fiction, yet Poppy doubts him frequently, which is somewhat annoying. Poppy herself comes across as very pleasant: gentle, kind hearted and quirky. In fact all the characters (with the exception of Poppy and Ryan’s mother) are depicted with positivity, even the grumpy neighbour, Jacob, who eventually gets sucked into the neighbourliness of Nightingale. They are all genuinely nice, easy-going, friendly people. And this is the great pull of Heidi Swain’s book – it’s unwavering positivity: it’s loveliness of place and people. I may have smirked at Poppy’s obsession with creating chutney recipes and dreams of compiling a recipe book with them, but isn’t that want we all want? An obsession and a dream? A simple but fulfilling purpose? A warm and welcoming little space in the world that we can call home? Poppy’s Recipe for Life is like ITV’s Midsomer Murders without the murder: community spirit with a good dose of gossip, seasonable celebrations, summer fetes, garden barbecues with homegrown produce, friendly local independent shops, cute pets and bunting. It’s not out of place on a lazy Sunday evening in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a slice of fruit loaf. 

Heidi Swain has created a comforting little world for her characters and readers. A little haven to escape to that’s a little bit simpler, a little bit sunnier, a little bit friendlier – and a lot more blissful than your own! It’s definitely a cosy read with much humour and a believable sweet and sexy love story.  And, although it may not be my usual recipe for a good book, this is certainly another thumbs up review for Poppy’s Recipe for Life. 


Giovanna and Me: A review of Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

Well, I really wanted this to work out. I wanted to love Giovanna Fletcher’s storytelling and go on to read her other books. I wanted our relationship to blossom and mature. Sadly, it is probably all over for us. Looking back, I should have known we weren’t compatible. There were quite obvious signs. The genre, for one. The ‘chick lit’ label leaves me dismayed – the name is derogatory and it is more than patronising in its implication that there is only one kind of literature that would appeal to women. Yet, the books in this particular group don’t seem to be that *good* – making me think Is that what chick lit means? Not very good? Which makes me quite agitated in all respects.

Billy and Me, whatever it’s labelled, is a mediocre book at best. The subject matter – a ‘plain’, unassuming young woman that meets and falls in love with a famous film star – is cliched and, admittedly, didn’t appeal to me very much at first glance.  The book is far too long for its flat writing style. It lacks description, it lacks meatiness, and it lacks the multi-diamentional characters a book deserves. 

Sophie, the protagonist, is nice enough, but not very unique, nor very interesting, nor very anything, except perhaps annoying in her self deprecation, and even more annoying in her self righteousness. There is one bizzare passage featuring a sex scene that Billy (of the title and Sophie’s famous boyfriend) has to act out with a fellow thespian and ex-girlfriend. It left me questioning Sophie’s – and Giovanna’s – judgement. Such a conservative and prudish attitude seems so outdated now, but more than this, Sophie’s unreasonableness is out of character for her level headedness up to that point. Even more strangely, the narrative doesn’t really question her perspective. Indeed, the whole stance of the book seems stuffy when it comes to sex. The narrative doesn’t refer to Sophie and Billy’s sex life at all, leading me to question Are they really doing it?  This is a silly question because of course they are, but there is no passion in the narration of their relationship, there is no sensuousness in the author’s words, there is no flirtation between the characters, and consequently no flirtation or chemistry with the reader. The tenderness of love is there, yes, but the salaciousness of a physical relationship is not. Is this novel aimed at the young romantic teen? It certainly feels this way in its demure demeanor and uncluttered, unflowery writing style.

Billy and Me disappoints mainly because the picture it paints is not rich or distinct enough. I love a book that makes me disappear into its unique world. I need to be wooed with enchanting and poetic prose. I need to be shown something I have never experienced before, and told something I have never heard before. I need those sweet whispers of promise that the journey I am taking holds excitement or adventure or surprise. Billy may have whisked Sophie away, but Giovanna has left me standing – alone and apathetic, and ready to move on.