Shining on: A review of The Lights of Riverdell by Marianne Rosen

From the kitchen windows she heard a muffled crash and closed her eyes in despair. They never lasted, these brief moments of respite. Parenthood was an unravelling. A complete unpicking of life. A sprawling disarray of all the components of what had once made sense and been functional, into a never-ending interruption at her best efforts to remake it into something complete.

It seemed a long wait to finally dive into the third book of Marianne Rosen’s Riverdell family saga, but Wow! And I really mean wow – this book gave me so much pleasure. That’s not to say that it didn’t present uncomfortable reading at times, but I’ve always maintained that Marianne (along with the Threlfall family) knows how to give you a stinking big rollercoaster of a ride! 

The Lights of Riverdell is a fantastic continuation of Moth, Kit, and Isabelle’s stories, with the added perfect storm of Rose’s narrative – all characters first introduced in The Doors of Riverdell. With this saga you get exceptional character development, and it is certainly one of the many allures of the series. To start with, Moth has grown up and is more communicative and interactive with others. He’s settled – for want of a better word – in a Turkish refugee camp and living a life of both adventure and hardship, but doing his best to help others. He’s still rejecting all he’s known; his past and his family, but he’s doing something with passion now rather than just running away. I love Moth in this book; the refugee camp setting is depressing of course (and what does him staying there rather than returning to Riverdell say about his feelings towards his so-called home?), but it’s also a journey of exhilaration and discovery. It’s up and down for Moth, rather than just down, and his efforts to save two Syrian boys is compelling and moving.

I also love Isabelle‘s story. In becoming a mother she has found some peace and is enjoying her domestic bliss – something I can wholeheartedly relate to. She is revelling in simple pleasures and finding her place in the world, even though that place may not be exciting nor fulfilling the expectations of others. In motherhood she is becoming a stronger person – she has a direction – even though life still contains little niggles. 

I am addicted to Marianne’s narrative structure – long chapters and time hops, which, I admit, took a little getting used to in the first book, but is now taken as a strong feature of her storytelling – both wonderful and unique. Jumping storylines with Marianne is a lot of fun, and I liked how I was forever switching allegiance and favourite narrative. At first I enjoyed being with Isabelle and Kate at the Riverdell residence, sipping coffee and making soup…Then I’m really uncomfortable because a character is getting angry with another character…Yet, I’m dreading Moth’s storyline because it’s depressing…But then I’m with Moth again and I’m delighted because what’s now happening is heartwarming, showing the caring and sensitive side of life…And then events escalate into action packed thrills! What more could I ask for?!

Let’s not forget Kit, though! Kit is struggling somewhat, and if, on the outside, it may seem like he has the perfect life and everything he wants, his narrative leads us down the path of his dissatisfaction. What exactly does Kit want? What will it take to make him happy? While in the previous two books he was always the man with the plan and his confidence was seamless, demanding admiration, this third book highlights his insecurities and loneliness. Does Kit have it all? Is a gorgeous boyfriend and a highly lucrative and successful career enough for him? The Lights of Riverdell questions all that, and we are taken deeper into Kit’s psychology.

What a fantastic volume this is! It’s so great to be back with the Threlfalls. Once you begin a journey with a literary series like this you are absolutely invested in the characters and you want to follow it to its conclusion. Marianne has done this to me. She has captured me with her detailed and indulgent storytelling and her sublime, enticing prose. How can I fault this book? I don’t think I can. Marianne paints such a vivid picture in this domestic saga – there is such preciseness in her dialogues, and her characters are ones to have strong opinions about. It’s both so realistic and so entertaining –  a darn good melodrama. It’s LBTQ+ representation is refreshing and it has a thoroughly modern feel. It is a superb piece of fiction and wouldn’t be out of place in any library or book group. It is certainly one of the best books I will read this year.

Life is a rollercoaster: A review of The Halls of Riverdell by Marianne Rosen

He kissed her on the cheek and walked past. His scent, that clean fresh scent that could reorder the universe, lingering with her. She closed her eyes against the urge to run after him, heard his steps clattering down the stone stairs, away, out of the villa. The car roaring to life and leaving, gravel falling back into the silence behind. Rearranged in a new constellation.”

I was delighted to read the second book in the Riverdell series by Marianne Rosen. I must declare that Marianne gifted me the paperback, but it was the kindle format I actually read, which I bought myself. I wasn’t obliged to review this book and the buddy read of it was independent of Marianne. My review is totally honest.

Well! What a rollercoaster ride this was. I read The Halls of Riverdell as a read-along with some of the original launch team of the first book, and it seems most of us are of the same opinion that this was one hell of a journey! 

Riverdell is a family saga about a dysfunctional, wealthy family, in modern day Britain. The Threlfalls seemingly have it all: money, property, land, freedom – and yet no one is as happy as they should be. Why? That’s the beauty of a saga – you gradually find out the whys and wherefores as you read on. 

If book one introduced us to the characters and gave us a solid establishing shot of the story, book two shook us up, swept us away, and granted us a whale of a time. It was a delight returning to Riverdell and meeting up with the players; entering their world, and getting tangled up in their weird and wonderful minds. Indeed, one of the marvellous things about Riverdell is the multi-perspective narrative. We slither into four different heads, each with their joys and troubles (mostly troubles), painting, a sometimes colourful, a sometimes grey, picture of what it is to be a Threlfall. 

The Halls of Riverdell is contemporary, passionate, and melodramatic. It doesn’t shy away from tough subjects or graphic sex scenes. It’s openness and originality is a breath of fresh air. It’s like a beautiful literary soap opera that often leaves you gripped, shocked, and hanging on a cliff edge. It’s a unwavering piece of entertainment, gorgeously plotted and constructed, and wonderfully presented to us with bounds of confidence and sophistication. Read it and weep. A definite five stars.

Smiling on the Scythe: A review of All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison 

The autumn of that year was the most beautiful I can remember. For weeks after harvest-tide the weather stayed fine, and only slowly that year did summer’s warmth leave the earth. In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes.

All Among the Barley is the second book by Melissa Harrison I have read this year; and the first, At Hawthorn Time, readily prepared me for what was between its pages. I knew I wasn’t going to be reading a happy, uplifting book, but I also knew I was going to be treated to a slice of our natural world – a love and celebration of it, and beautiful detailed descriptions of nature and the changing seasons. It was, for me, a fair trade-off.

Fourteen year old Edith (Edie) finds friendship with journalist Constance FitzAllen when she becomes a regular visitor at the girl’s family farm. She has been commissioned to write a series of articles about upholding the old rural traditions for a magazine. Edie is captivated by her easy and confident personality and impressed by her charm and winning ways with people. But Constance is not all she seems and Edie has her own mounting troubles.

This is a novel with an undertone of disaster and some very dark themes. The personal is political here. Folklore, poverty, debt, mental breakdown, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse, intertwine with both traditional and progressive ideas, industrial change and modernisation, class division, patriarchy, nationalism and emerging fascism.

The depiction of British rural life between the World Wars is captured like I’ve never encountered before in a novel, and its sense of realism communicated through it’s vivid detail of how life was lived, would not be out of place in a non-fiction book written at the time. The characters for me seem secondary to the big themes that are going on. But each character is perfectly placed to convey an idea or ideas essential to the storytelling of an exact time and place. At first, everything seems subtle and everyday, but then the realisation hits you that it is exactly this that leads on to the bigger things in life: the change, the fortune, the tragedy, the make or break.

All Among the Barley was an education for me. I learnt the names of plants, birds, words and phrases that I previously wasn’t familiar with, and happily looked them up. I now know what a landrail looks like and what a barley-rick is. I loved this aspect of it. Although not an entirely enjoyable novel, simply because of its subject matters, it has much beauty and depth.  I wholly recommend it’s talented author with her absolutely gorgeous nature writing and hypnotic prose.

Beautiful descriptions of rural England in the 1930s

Life on the Moon: A review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“She should not have been doing the cooking,” said Mrs. Wright strongly. 

“Well, of course, there is the root of our trouble. Certainly she should not have been doing the cooking if her intention was to destroy all of us with poison; we would have been blindly unselfish to encourage her to cook under such circumstances. But she was acquitted. Not only of the deed, but of the intention.”

“What was wrong with Mrs. Blackwood doing her own cooking?”

“Please.” Uncle Julian’s voice had a little shudder in it, and I knew the gesture he was using with it even though he was out of my sight. He would have raised one hand, fingers spread, and he would be smiling at her over his fingers; it was a gallant, Uncle Julian, gesture; I had seen him use it with Constance. “I personally preferred to chance the arsenic,” Uncle Julian said. 

For a little book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes a powerful impression.  I expected something like I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and I suppose it is in a way, with the teenage female protagonist and the place of residence. But of course, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is much darker in its subject matter, yet still humorous and light hearted all the same. 

Merricat is our narrator and she lives with her older sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Six years earlier, Constance had stood trial for her parents’, brother’s and aunt’s murder, but was exonerated. Now, the three remaining family members live in isolation, if not ‘exile’, in their grand aristocratic summerhouse-come-all-year-round-home, the ‘castle’. Merricat is one hell of a character and she owns the book, telling her story exactly how she wants to. We quickly realise how unreliable she is, yet it doesn’t matter because this is her tale, and her voice is the only voice we hear – we need no other. She is enchanting, imaginative, twisted, and mischievous. She is idle yet dominant, optimistic yet psychotic. 

This is a fantastic story with a gothic feel. Despite having murder at its heart, it isn’t as sinister as you’d expect and the creep factor is replaced by humour and fun and love and laughter between two sisters.

I loved the book and am delighted my copy was enriched by a wonderful afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, giving her own perspective on the story. It is widely considered to be Shirley Jackson’s greatest work, and as it is the only one I have read, I can’t argue with that. It’s strange and addictive, and cosy and charming, with delicious descriptions of food to boot. A lovely read for Halloween. It is the kind of book, as most good books are, that encourages different readers to get different things from it. It is a multi-layered masterpiece. 

A Life of Death: A review of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

How vast London was. How great the extent of its housing and commerce and population. There was not a living soul in the city, not so far as the eye could see, who would not at some point have need of the goods and services provided by Bellman & Black. He looked out, turning slowly, in all directions. Birds were sweeping and diving in the darkening sky and beneath them, streets of houses stretched in all directions, grand and modest and impoverished. In one of those houses, in Richmond say, a fellow would be sneezing, right at this very moment. Just as in Mayfair someone was shivering. In Spitalfields, a tainted oyster was slipping down someone’s throat, and in Bloomsbury someone was pouring the glass that would prove one glass too many and…oh, it was endless. They would come all right. Sick today, dead tomorrow and on Thursday Bellman & Black would open its doors to the bereaved. It was an enterprise that could not fail.

This is the tale of William Bellman. William Bellman is a man of prospect. He works hard to achieve the best he can in everything he does. He is a man of business. A high flyer and a workaholic, utterly dedicated to his job; a job that is much more to him than a means to an end – it is an opportunity to reach perfection. He’s a brilliant problem solver, transforming everything he touches to gold. He’s a series of success stories. Yet, it is not a happy tale. Yes, indeed, William Bellman has it all, but life is such that, in a blink of an eye, all can change. Not everything can be weaved to your own will, not everything can be mapped out or predicted. Some things can’t be solved.

Diane Setterfield’s second book, after the much loved The Thirteenth Tale, is a story about death. There’s no escaping it – death permeates every line, every page. It’s almost oppressive and certainly gets under your skin. Like The Thirteenth Tale, it is beautifully told with the same richness of prose, but also the same hint of woefulness and distance. There’s no happy-go-lucky here, and even from the onset, when events are to be celebrated, there’s an underlying distress. An impartiality in the storytelling adds to this creation of distance; the protagonist is rarely referred to as just William – it’s always William Bellman, or Mr Bellman or simply Bellman. We are willed to feel separation, yet it’s this separation that piles on the sadness we feel. It’s a piece of dark Victorian Gothic, and we are wholly immersed into a powerfully haunting story of grief, a desperately sad story of a man on a downward spiral into nothingness.

At a certain point of drunkenness William understood a good many things that had evaded him previously. The world, the universe, God too, if there was one, were raged against mankind. From this newly unveiled vantage point he saw that his good fortune was a cruel joke: encourage a man to think he is lucky all the better to bring him down afterwards. He realised his essential smallness, the vanity of his efforts to control his fate. He, William Bellman, master of the mill, was nothing.

Throughout the novel, we are told, in detail, about the ever present rooks: the rooks that seep into the background of William Bellman’s life, and from which he recoils, ever since he killed one with a catapult as a boy of eleven. It leads us to question the connection between the rooks and Bellman’s luck/bad luck. The explicit implication is yes, there’s an obvious connection; but it’s a clever enough book to dare us to conclude no, there is not. And here lies the poignancy of the narrative: it’s so entrenched in death and the impact of it on one man that you can’t help but think about your own mortality. There are no thrills in this story of grief and loneliness, although the few lovingly constructed tender moments are dazzling.  

From the coins, any number of other scenes might come to mind, all as bright and as vivid as the day they had happened. One day and another and another, days and days of living there had been, and she remembered everyone with such freshness and vigour that it was scarcely less true and real than life itself. Her eye lingered on faces and expressions, she received again her mother’s loving looks, she made her brothers laugh, she sniffed the sweet and musty baby smell of her sister.

Bellman & Black is no ghost story as described by some critics, yet it weeps darkness. It is understandable why it was a shock to the system for some Setterfield fans. It largely feels like a one trick novel, completely and utterly about a single subject and about a single character. It certainly is capable of evoking mixed feelings in the reader. In conclusion, it appears to me that Bellman & Black could be read as a complete tragedy, or it could be read as one in millions of stories of life cycles, focusing on the real and persistent fear of death that many of us know well.

Love and Loss in Ceylon: A review of The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

Just married Gwendolyn Hooper is only nineteen when she travels across the seas to join her husband, Laurence, and start a new life on his vast tea plantation in Ceylon. Full of excitement and optimism at first, she is then disappointed to find her husband somewhat changed from the light hearted and easy man she married in London. His broodiness unsettles her, his lack of affection depresses her, and it is clear his mind is occupied elsewhere. While Gwen has no idea what is going on, she is soon consumed with her own troubles and what follows is a heartbreaking story of secrets, suspicion, betrayal and guilt.

Dinah Jefferies tells Gwen’s story with empathy and beauty, describing both her protagonist’s emotions and the story’s setting with vivacity and accuracy. We are carried away to the lush landscape of 1920s and 30s Ceylon, with its mountains and lakes and it’s tropical heat. We almost experience for ourselves its fierce monsoons and oppressive humidity. Jefferies enables us to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the country in all their exotic brilliance. The colours of the flowers, the sounds of the birds and insects, the smell of the lemons, the cinnamon, the tea. It’s all richly described to us within a heartfelt, compelling, and often, tense narrative.

Ceylon achieved political independence in 1948, not long after the time period of the novel. The novel reflects the country’s tensions just as it’s on the brink of change. Resentment of the many intricacies of colonialism is rapidly increasing and showing itself in violent outbursts. Moreover, agitation is rife among the plantation workers: conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil workers is bubbling, aggravated by their unequal treatment; and resistance to progressive change in favour of the old, familiar ways is causing trouble at the top. This backdrop to the main thread of the story adds another layer, throwing more tension into the mix. It’s an essential part of the narrative because it shows Gwen and Laurence’s stance and feelings in relation to the country’s situation, and it connects their personal story to the country’s story.

The theme of motherhood is central to the novel – in fact it is very telling that the author dedicated the book to the memory of her son. Maternal love weaves its way through every part of the novel. And if you mix loss into that love you get a great labyrinth of heightened emotions. Heartbreaking is the most accurate word to describe this story; from the tangled web of misunderstandings and misjudgements, to the colossal grief of losing a child, to the even bigger picture of racial intolerance, prejudice and hatred. For if you question why something ugly is happening in this book, are you not always led back to the horrific happenings and attitudes during British colonialism? Nothing in this story is easy to take. If you have a strong sense of justice you will be appalled, if you are a mother you will be lost. The story cuts through your heart and lingers long after you have turned the last page and walked away.

With its beautiful prose and roller-coaster story, The Tea Planter’s Wife will both delight and depress you. It is a magnificent read.

She took a step towards him and her efforts at keeping calm fell apart.

‘Actually, Mr McGregor, I do not think I did anything wrong in helping that little girl. Only a person with a heart of stone could think otherwise. It was not I who caused this, but you. The days of flogging a man over a trifle are over, and if they are not, well, shame on you.’

‘Have you finished?’

‘Not quite. You will be very fortunate if the Ceylon Labour Union do not pick this up. You are a mean-minded man who sees nothing but the bad in people. I believe in treating people kindly and fairly, whatever the colour of their skin.’

His face spasmed. ‘This has nothing to do with colour.’

‘Of course it’s to do with colour. Everything in this country is to do with colour. Well, mark my words, Mr McGregor, all this will come back to bite you one day, and on that day none of us will be safe in our beds.’

Are you sitting comfortably?: A review of Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

He was well enough connected to have secured a living in one of the prettiest villages in England, complete with a vicarage about which anyone might be moved to write poetry. Verdant lawns, bushes, shrubs, climbers; light-filled rooms with elegant lines, and old, good furniture. Wonderful views from its hilltop site, across three counties which today all lay under a shifting blanket of snow.

Do you like a cosy yet gripping whodunit? Is an English country village murder mystery your thing? Yes…? I bring to you Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown. Light the fire, make a hot drink and snuggle up in your favourite chair for it’s Christmas Eve and snow is falling heavily on the village of Byford when Chief Inspector Lloyd is called to attend a violent death at the vicarage. It soon emerges that the victim is the vicar’s son in law, estranged from his young wife. While it seems the suspects are few, the case proves to be more puzzling than straightforward for both the detectives and the reader. 

First published in 1988 under the title Redemption, this is Jill McGown’s second book featuring Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill. There’s a lovely relationship  between the two detectives, both personally and professionally, and this is a great perk of the book. They are a very good sleuthing team and there’s some fine dialogue from them. McGown creates a strong double act, a duo that between them has the intellect, shrewdness, directness and dedication to solve murky, misleading and baffling mysteries. But it is their love affair which also had me hooked. It seems very genuine despite its complications and it is the catalyst for some truly touching moments.

He watched as Judy worked her way through her copious notes, in which every little puzzle had of course been entered, and he found himself thinking how soft and shining her hair looked, how pleasing the line of her jaw. Unprofessional. He had never admired Sandwell’s hair or Jack Woodford’s jaw-line, fine specimens, though they doubtless were.

Billed as a homage to Agatha Christie, this is indeed a traditional crime story in the sense that it is told sequentially; there are no flashbacks here. The golden age of detective fiction is also emanated by the whole point of the story (though it may sound obvious) being the unraveling of the mystery, and the elements of said mystery being clearly presented at an early stage. Our curiosity is then aroused throughout, with clues offered within the narrative leading to our gratification at the end and the great unveiling. It’s setting also follows the cosy whodunit format, in all its  picturesque snow-covered village glory, with an old isolated vicarage as the crime scene. There’s a non believing vicar with a wandering eye, his dutiful and dedicated wife, their seemingly hapless daughter, and the organ-playing harlot from the church playgroup. Except she’s no harlot, she’s just a woman that the vicar falls for, and this is just one example of how stereotypes are less stereotypical than in the golden age of crime genre. The balance of traditional and modern is just right. There’s no obvious classism which I find rife in Agatha Christie’s work, but there’s also no cringeworthy cop speak that I find abounds in contemporary crime fiction.

The reader is treated to a truly flummoxing whodunit. Who *did* do it? That’s the question we all want the answer to, isn’t it? But we also want to be taken on a riveting and stimulating investigative ride. There is much toing and froing in this investigation and the reader is allowed to feel included in the discussion. Paying attention is vital though! This is part of enjoying a crime mystery – picking up on details and clues that will add to the satisfied feeling at both the case and story’s conclusion.

Does that seem likely to you? He arrives drunk, gets drunker, beats her up, and it all ends happily ever after? Or would have done, if the invisible man hadn’t popped in and murdered him?

So what are you waiting for? Is the kettle on the boil? Is the fire lit? I hear that armchair calling! It’s time to lose yourself in a marvellous murder mystery.

This Could Get Ugly: A review of Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I run hot and I always have. I am not going to sit around sweating my ass off just so men can feel more comfortable. It’s not my responsibility to not turn them on. It’s their responsibility to not be an asshole.

I finally picked up Daisy Jones and The Six thanks to my buddy read partner over at Bookstagram. There’s a lot of fanfare surrounding this book (as with a lot of books you choose initially because of its visibility on social media platforms) and it’s difficult to cut through that. However, this is my attempt to put that aside and give it my honest overview. 

Daisy Jones and The Six is a fictional seventies rock band from L.A. The book covers their story in an interview style format, with band members and other significant people looking back, and talking in more recent times. This style serves the subject of the novel well, and makes it a quick and easy read, while adding perfectly and appropriately to the storytelling of a once world famous, but short lived, ego filled, drug fuelled, rock group. The style is a welcome diversion from the usual novel format and offers a different reading experience that, if embraced, provides enjoyment in its own right. It doesn’t seem strange or out of place that it should be written this way, it feels right to me. However, there are, of course, limitations to this narrative style, and it may not be to everyone’s taste. Yet, for me, there is sufficient sense of place and time, character development, drama, conflict, and narrative progression, to call it a success.

When you’re in a situation like that, when you have a man looming over you, it’s as if every decision you made to lead to that moment – alone with a man you don’t trust flashes – before your eyes. Something tells me men don’t do the same thing. When they are standing there, threatening a woman, I doubt they count every wrong step they made to become the asshole they are. But they should.

The spin of the book is that the details of the band’s history differ depending on who is recalling them, and this serves to be more of a character development tool, rather than revealing anything, either subtle or earth shattering, that will affect the narrative. In this way it’s a bit misleading, although it can be forgiven depending on your expectations. The author succeeds in creating quite unreliable characters, whether this be because of their fervent drug taking at the time or because of their huge egos still presenting themselves, and in my opinion, quite unlikable characters too. Daisy, of the title, is a privileged, rich, white girl who seemingly falls into the limelight without much effort beyond frolicking with musicians and celebrities. Her talent seems unquestionable by her peers and critics, but I found myself totally questioning it. Was this intended by the author? I hope so. Leaving a lot unsaid and allowing your readers to read between the lines and create a slightly different narrative to work alongside your own, is a great skill and a clever way to tell a story. Billy, the lead singer with Daisy, is at least equally repellent. Repellent isn’t quite the word, but there’s something about him that’s not endearing despite obvious qualities such as strength of character. It may well be his silent narcissism. In fact, I struggle to pinpoint a band member or other supporting character that I can genuinely say I cared for. And maybe this is because of the world they inhabited – a world of huge egos, huge money, huge excess, and little self control. 

Taylor Jenkins Reid portrays the ugly side of being in a band – the jealousy, the conflict, the addictions, the drugs, and the clash of personalities and big egos. Of course, these are people looking back on their lives: there will be guilt, remorse, regret. But I felt little of the joy they must have experienced as part of making music, performing live, doing what they had always dreamed of. I wanted to feel their joy, their buzz. I missed this. It felt more negative than positive and that was somewhat disappointing. 

A great aspect of the book, however, is the description of the songs. It makes you want to whip on that remastered CD! But, of course, you can’t, as it’s not a real band, it’s not a real album, it’s not real music. Yet, you still want to hear it: is it really as good as everyone says? Is Daisy really amazing? Are the collaborations and performances by Daisy and Billy spellbinding? This book makes you want to know.

In conclusion I think Daisy Jones and The Six has a lot to offer. It’s an addictive read that succeeds in transporting you to late seventies California, to the hot, indulgent days and nights of living an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I think it’s very American – beautiful weather and beautiful people. Yet, for me, it also highlighted the undesirable side to fame and ‘success’.

“I wish someone had told me that love isn’t torture. Because I thought love was this thing that was supposed to tear you in two and leave you heartbroken and make your heart race in the worst way. I thought love was bombs and tears and blood. I did not know that it was supposed to make you lighter, not heavier.”

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. 


For the Love of Tess: A review of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

After wearing and wasting her palpitating heart with every engine of regret that lonely experience could devise, common sense had illuminated her. She felt that she would do well to be useful again – to taste anew sweet independence at any price. The past was the past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand. Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten. Meanwhile, the trees were just as green as before; the birds sang and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain.

I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for a reading challenge I did a couple of years ago. It was the book I selected that ‘intimidates you’. But, who wants to read a book that intimidates them? I thought. Not me. It probably means that the book is very long and written in old fashioned language; it’s hard work, a slog, tedious, boring. I read to enjoy, not to tear my face off. So, this was the part of the reading challenge that I was least looking forward to. I was undecided at which ‘boring’ book to read, and kept going from title to title. I settled on Tess because I genuinely wanted to attempt it, unlike some of the others on my radar. It fulfilled my criteria of being very long and old fashioned: in short, a ‘classic’. I am not really a classics reader, but I suppose the more you read them the more accustomed you become to them, and in turn, the more enjoyment you get from them. Well, that’s something for me to think about.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the most woeful book I have ever read. It got to the point where I was dreading turning the page because I knew things were just going to get worse and worse for Tess. Life does not treat this girl well. Hardy’s heroine is dignified and self effacing, and above all she is innocent – although the world doesn’t treat her that way. Her life consists of a series of injustices, and consequently it does not end well for her. Reading it made me feel very tense. There is little delight to get from the story, and I felt every one of Tess’s disappointments and knocks. For example, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and outraged when Angel, the man Tess is in love with (and he with her), lets her down spectacularly. What a hypocritical knob. Yet, it gives me a little kick to know that the author knew this, and treats him accordingly.

However, based solely on this book, I am a fan of Thomas Hardy. Why? First of all, Tess is a fantastic character and, despite what happens to her, it is very clear that Hardy was fond of his creation. The point of the story is to show that Tess was sinned against from all directions. She does suffer great oppression and wrongdoing, and she is the victim not the perpetrator. Is this a feminist novel? It seems to me it is, and this has my vote. Secondly, Hardy is a Victorian realist – depicting familiar, everyday things, activities and people. His angle is a critical one, highlighting, in his writing, the injustices he sees in his society. He is indeed, a bit of a Victorian Ken Loach, and I am all for the Ken Loaches of this world. Thirdly, his prose is lush. It’s not only what he has to say, but how is says it. His prose is infused with his tenderness, his sympathies, his wise and gentle criticism, and his affection for nature and the countryside. He knits words together beautifully to create a gorgeous flow of sagacity. Hardy does not yell or sensationalise. He knows what he’s talking about, and his story is filled with knowledge, experience and compassion.

I certainly recommend Tess to those that want to dip their toe in the classics waters. It is one of the more accessible classics, a trait much appreciated by a non-classics reader. However, the subject matter ensures that misogyny and injustice are rife, with tragedy and sadness following our heroine at every step. It resonates strongly with the present day: if a woman is raped, she is not blameless. Prepare to be depressed. Prepare to be angered.