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.

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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.

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.

Have a Malteser: A review of Just Ask for Diamond by Anthony Horowitz

There’s a corner of Charing Cross, just behind the station, that comes straight out of the nineteenth century. As the road slopes down towards the river, you leave the traffic and the bright lights behind you and suddenly the night seems to creep up on you and grab you by the collar. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the Thames water gurgling in the distance and as you squint into the shadows you’ll see figures shuffling slowly past like zombies. For this is down-and-out territory. Old tramps and winos wander down and pass out underneath the arches at the bottom, wrapped in filthy raincoats and the day’s headlines. 

This fabulous book is one I read years ago, picked up in the school library. Just Ask for Diamond or The Falcon’s Malteser – as it was originally called before it was made into a film – is a comedic children’s book by the multi talented writer, Anthony Horowitz. It’s a spoof of The Maltese Falcon – a 1930s detective novel – and introduces us to the Diamond Brothers, Nick and Herbert Simple. It’s the first in a series of books featuring them, of which I have read the original three (but I believe there are more). The second is Public Enemy Number Two and the third is South By South East. 

I decided to reread it this month, a good twenty five years later. And, to my jumping-for-joy-delight, I rediscovered and re-lived an absolutely wonderful reading adventure. Horowitz’s writing is superb. So much YA and middle grade fiction is unsophisticated in its structure and language, but Horowitz shows his skills and expertise, bringing his unique and witty style to the forefront, resulting in a rip roaring read that is sure to delight children and adults alike.

I’d charge her for a taxi but I took the tube to Hampstead and then walked. Hampstead, in case you don’t know it, is in the north of London, in the green belt. For ‘green’ read ‘money’. You don’t have to be rich to live in Hampstead. You have to be loaded. It seemed to me that every other car I passed was a Rolls Royce and even the dustbins had burglar alarms. 

In the story, Herbert Simple changes his name to Tim Diamond when he decides to set himself up as a private eye, but as he is totally abysmal at it, his much younger brother, Nick, is forced to step in. Firmly set in late eighties London in the run up to Christmas Day, it contains lots of puns, pop culture references, and nods to hard boiled and noir fiction. Its sense of place and time is superb and one of its great attractions. Thatcher’s Britain is clearly painted throughout, and the descriptions of London nooks and crannies are a joy. The characters are extravagant and the plot is gripping and a tad gruesome – in fact, on reading it a second time, I was surprised at the high body count in a book aimed at children. If, like me, you are a fan of stories where characters find themselves in absurd and silly scenarios, be sure to pick up this book. I love capers and comedies of errors, and this was laugh out loud stuff for me both in the early nineties and now. The story was an absolute pleasure to revisit.  The film adaptation is close to my heart as well – it’s a much-watch at Christmas for me.

A hundred years ago, Lafone Street would have been bustling with noise and colour and life. Now it was dying on its feet. Twisted coke cans, broken slates and yards of multi-coloured cables spilled out of the deserted buildings like entrails. The street was pitted with puddles that seemed to be eating their way into the carcass. Another sign caught my eye, bright red letters on white: McAlpine. It was a death warrant in one word for Lafone Street. There’s nothing more destructive than a construction company. They’d gut the warehouses and build fancy apartments in the shell. Each one would have a river view, a quarry-tiled garage and a five-figure price tag. That’s the trouble with London. The rich have inherited its history.


Hyped About Harry: A review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

I’m not one for hype, and this is the reason why I have not delved into the Harry Potter books before now. I prefer to be passionate about my own thing in my own time, and turn to things admired only by a few. We all have to have something that makes us feel distinct, and my thing is not to follow the trend of the moment. However, the time had come for me to judge for myself if all the hoo-har about Harry and the pandemonium about Potter is justified. Having read only the first book, I’m still on that journey of discovery, yet something tells me it only gets better…

For, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is good – very good. A magical themed book for children is not a new thing, and there is a huge reason for this: it works. Children want magic and fantasy and worlds where anything is possible, because this is their world. Didn’t you believe in fairies when you were younger? Didn’t you believe in Father Christmas? Didn’t you believe your dolls came to life at night? I did. And it works for us adults too. We don’t have those beliefs anymore, but we certainly have the memory of those beliefs. And nostalgia is a great pull. We want to escape to memories of a more open, more innocent time for us; we want to escape to that magical world we once believed in; and we want to escape to all those possibilities that at one time, could have come true. 

The Philosopher’s Stone is appealing in all its magical-ness, but also all its truthfulness too. The bond of friendship is a strong theme, along with the reality of loss and loneliness. Harry, now eleven, has been raised in a family that do not want him. He is unloved and neglected. His aunt and uncle, along with his cousin, couldn’t care less for him, and actively make his life woeful. Harry is banished to the cupboard under the stairs, he is given the bare minimum of the bare minimum, he is left out of family celebrations and trips, and he is subjected to bullying and ridicule. However, things are destined to change, as, unbeknownst to Harry, he is a wizard, whose loving wizard parents were killed at the hands of an evil wizard lord. He is a very special boy who will rediscover the world he came from by attending the great wizard school of Hogwarts. And so begins a new life for Harry. A life of enchantment and adventure. 

J K Rowling writes with expertise and confidence, adding humour from the very first page. Humour within a story – almost any story – indicates to me that the author knows exactly what they are doing and is comfortable in their role as storyteller. In turn, the reader feels comfortable going on the journey with the storyteller. There is no danger of the reader giving up on the book, for they know they are with an author that has meticulously planned where they are taking us and what we will see on the way. This is what I ask from every book I read; I need to feel that I am in safe hands – safe and talented hands. The last thing I want is to finish a book and think ‘Well, I probably could have done better than that myself…’ Rowling does not let me down.

This is a story that is loved and treasured by my generation and by the children of my generation. It will, no doubt, go on this way as long as the story continues to be published. Forget the hype and the baggage and make it all about the books, for they are there to simply be enjoyed…alone on a park bench, at night before sleep, in a cupboard under the stairs, on a train to Hogwarts… Now is the time to read Harry Potter . 

Meet Ma Precious Ramotswe: A review of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first in a series of books of the same name. It was first published in 1998 to huge acclaim and is followed by a total of nineteen books to date. They feature Mma Precious Ramotswe, the 30-something proprietor of Botswana’s only woman led private detective agency. The series begins with Mma Ramotswe finding her feet as a sleuth. She sets up the business with money her shrewd and devoted father left her on his death. She takes inspiration from the great Agatha Christie, and, even though doubts about her choice of profession creep in now and again, she finds the work thrilling and suited to her abilities. 

The protagonist is lovingly created and crafted by Alexander McCall Smith, an African born British academic and author, now residing in Scotland. His picture of Mma Ramotswe is so vivid that one could question how he – a middle aged white man – could write a young African woman so well. It is very clear that he is an astonishingly talented writer and storyteller. It is such a beautifully written book, perfectly executed, and with humour abounds. The humour within these pages is magnificent, usually centering around the character of men and how useless they are to women. Damaging, in fact. Indeed, parts of the book touch on very sinister subjects, none more so than towards the end of the story. I was not expecting this, as, by all accounts, it is a cheerful read, but McCall Smith continues the story in his wonderfully loose, gentle, and optimistic style, rendering it fitting that these subjects should indeed be covered in this African narrative.

I am very excited to continue on Mma Ramotswe’s journey with her. It is such a lovely, engrossing and evocative series. Highly recommended to those that wish to be transported to the heat and happy heart of Africa, and uplifted by McCall Smith’s wonderful and mischievous prose.

A beautiful, heart warming read