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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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

All that I have and all I have lost: A review of Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari

‘You come from war?’ The old woman reached out and patted Aisha on the knee, and this time she did not pull away or jump in fear. ‘Seeking refuge? That’s all right.’ She beckoned to Aisha. ‘Come and shelter in old Elder’s wood. Aisha stay here with my wartime spirits.’

I have read many beautiful books; some of them beautiful and powerful; some beautiful and wondrous. While thinking about what makes a beautiful book for me, I conclude, yes, the beauty of the words used, the words together, the types of words. But probably over and above this, it’s the reality of the words. The deep seated human connection it has with its reader, I think, is very important. It’s the core of it all. Anything can be said with pretty words, but it’s the meaning that makes it beautiful.

Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari shines for me. The truth in its pages is dazzling. Books like these reach out and touch the heart of the reader. There is something recognisable or familiar, either an experience or an opinion or a set of values – whatever it is, it clicks it all into place for you. This wonderful YA novel covers the themes of homelessness and seeking refuge after tragedy whether in your own country or another. It is an epic subject, a subject which is often swirling around somewhere among my thoughts. Because isn’t this the ultimate fear? Having something awful happen in your life that separates you from your family and your home and everything that you know? Losing your children, parents, or siblings? Losing all your security and being thrust into the darkness of life?

Aisha is one such child who had everything taken away from her after witnessing the most horrific acts. Everything including her childhood and peace was snatched from her and thrown away. Children should never see what she saw and experience what she had lived. Aisha’s world was destroyed. Coming to the U.K. and finding some sanctuary with her loving foster mother, Liliana, goes a long way in settling her into a stable happy life, but when she is faced with the prospect of having to leave another home and all that she has made familiar, Aisha makes the decision to run away. She finds herself hiding in the ancient city wood not far from her neighbourhood. There, she meets Zak, a boy struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce and Iona, a homeless girl, whose own family life was shattered long ago. Unexpectedly, they find solace in each other and their natural world surroundings, and together with Elder, an old, somewhat mystical, homeless woman, they each try to make sense of their pasts and find a way to make a brighter future for themselves.

This poetic story connects past and present with heartbreaking scenarios; the casualties of war, war orphaned children, parent-child separation, broken homes and homelessness. The loss of something – often everything – precious; and the continuous coping and building, and the searching for equilibrium, even happiness. It is harrowing yet uplifting in its themes and message. The essence of the human spirit, the resilience, the strength as life goes on, despite the horrors some people witness. It is very much a story told from a young person’s viewpoint, and in this way it is a tremendous book for children and teenagers as it seemingly effortlessly encourages compassion and tolerance. It highlights the inequality and discrimination of refugees, and inspires an empathetic response.   

Red Leaves is a book to be read as a youngster and as an adult. I cannot recommend it enough if you are touched by this subject. It is not just a book with a beautiful cover; it is a book with a beautiful spirit and a beautiful core. It encompasses so much of the bare bones of life; what we need and what we, sometimes unknowingly, have to have in order to feel human. It strips it all back. 

How could you have a past like Aisha’s and still want to sing?

An unquestionable 5 stars.

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.”

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.

Love is the Answer: A review of Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

On the next floor, Ephraim unlatched an old looking door.

‘This is where you’ll sleep,’ Ephraim said, pushing it open.

‘Gosh!’ I gasped. ‘I mean…wow!’

It was perhaps the nicest room I’d ever seen. For one thing, there was so much light. I counted at least six windows – little ones, arched at the top and set deep into the walls. Everything was painted white, even the floor. On either side of the room two beds hugged the curved lighthouse walls. Above each was a shelf of books from which hung beautiful, sea-blue lanterns.”

Firstly, I have to say that novels featuring lighthouses on the cover are irresistible to me. I love lighthouses, I love pictures of lighthouses and I love books about lighthouses. And Letters from the Lighthouse has an especially scrumptious one. I purchased this lovely little book purely based on…can you guess? – the lighthouse on the front. 

And now for the story…

The year is 1941 and young teenager Olive and her little brother Cliff know all about the devastation of war. They’ve already lost their dad, and now it looks like they’ve lost their sister Suki. Yet, Olive is convinced there is more to Suki’s disappearance than is believed. So when they are evacuated to the Devon coast, Olive makes it her mission to solve the mystery and find her sister.

I have a guilty enjoyment for Second World War stories in all formats – books, tv, films. It’s not the war that I am fond of, but the seemingly cosy era portrayed. Was it cosy? No of course not – there was a war on! – but people like to look back with nostalgia, and – I like to think – focus on moments of light in the dark. However, Letters from the Lighthouse doesn’t shy away from the grimness of the time, and a really strong theme of the book is the plight of refugees. I was surprised, but delighted, by this as I think it is an extremely important subject; one which is so close to my heart.  This is a book aimed at eight to twelve year olds, yet its message of empathy and acceptance is a great one for all ages (of course), and particularly appropriate in today’s abismal political climate. The young characters rally ‘round to ‘save the day’, and Olive, in particular, is a superb heroine for school-age readers. She is portrayed with innocence but also is shown to possess a strong sense of justice, and her strength and level-headedness gets her through some very tough times.

Emma Carroll writes simply but charmingly and with sophistication, creating a world you would want your children to share. So much thought has gone into the execution of this story and the message it sends. It is a joy to read and I will most definitely be reading more of her books in the near future. So, come on over and spend some time in her lighthouse.

‘That’s for what you’re doing to our boys.’ Mrs Wilcox spat at him. The other woman prodded him with her foot. The pilot pleaded, using words I didn’t know.  But he was sobbing – that I did understand. 

‘Don’t!’ I burst out. ‘He’s injured!’ 

Someone told me to be quiet.

Surprisingly, Mr Barrowman stuck up for me: ‘Olive’s right. We should do things properly and follow international law. Hand him over – ‘

‘Oh belt up, Mr Barrowman!’ snapped the fishermen who’d argued with Queenie yesterday. ‘The chap’s a German. When’ve they ever done anything properly, eh?’

Shouts of ‘Call the police!’ and ‘Give Jerry what for!’ rippled through the crowd. Yet still no one knew what to do. It infuriated me how Mr Spratt did nothing. He’d been so particular with Ephraim about the lighthouse, checking and double-checking the logbook,  yet now he very conveniently chose to look the other way.

I only hope that when Dad’s plane came down someone kind had found him, to hold his hand when he was hurting and tell him not to be scared. Better still if it’d been so quick he’d died before his plane hit the ground.

No, I wouldn’t keep quiet. I had a voice, and it was time to make some noise with it.

Luscious letters and luscious lighthouses

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 .