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.

She Captures the Castle: A review of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.

Written in 1922, The Enchanted April, not only takes you back in time but it takes you across the seas to a little medieval castle high in the hills of northern Italy. And what more could you want? Not much! But there is a lot more to delight and enthral. For, this novel is completely and absolutely wonderful. It’s a brilliant bit of escapism amidst our times and troubles of viruses, social distancing, self isolation and lockdowns. This will take you far away from all of that, sweeping you along in its romance, in its sunshine and sweet scent of spring. This is a story that is sure of itself; it knows exactly where it is going and it is confident that you’ll be travelling along for the ride too. From the very first page we are introduced to the promise of “Wisteria and Sunshine” on the “shores of the Mediterranean”…

Lotty (Mrs Wilkins) and Rose (Mrs Arbuthnot) are drawn to an advertisement in The Times offering a chance to rent the Italian castle for the entire month of April. Both have unhappy marriages and are captivated by the idea of blissful escape. They recruit a young aristocrat, Lady Caroline and a rich elderly ex socialite, Mrs Fisher, to share the lease with them. And so, what begins as an awkward union full of assumptions and judgements, rapidly and delightfully turns into a euphoric experience for all. 

Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish. Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.

This is an entirely delectable story of the bewitching power of beautiful surroundings and heavenly liberation from the dreary everyday. There is so much to be gained from this novel if you are a dreamy romantic and believe a little bit of romance can uplift you whatever your circumstance. Lotty and Rose are both desperate in their own ways; desperate for something more that their present lives offer them. Ruts are hard things to get out of and getting stuck is easy and almost expected when your world seems unchanging and your relationships seem mundane. Disappointment makes itself comfortable in your daily tasks, in your work, in your leisure time, in your home life. But disappointment, even subtle disappointment, takes it toll – and what do you do then? …You go to a little castle in Italy, of course!

The Enchanted April is more than a little bit mischievous, inviting you to join in the fun of observing the guests’ inner thoughts, conversations and, more poignantly, their battles. The characters spend a lot of the time on their own: reflecting and contemplating, considering their positions and their relationships to others. Elizabeth Von Arnim really captures each woman; their desires, their sorrows, their plights, their regrets. It’s very penetrating and touching, but also gorgeously and incredibly witty. I was so charmed at the wisdom the author seemed to have for life. The book gives us a great insight into Elizabeth Von Arnim. She possesses a lovely imagination, yes, but much much more than this. She seems confident and all knowing in the ways of love. Indeed, if you read even a little bit about her life, it becomes clear what a steadfast, strong and determined woman she was. She had two husbands and five children. She lived in several countries and moved house an astonishing amount of times. She had huge literary success in her lifetime and was desired and in demand at parties, sparkling wherever she went. She wrote The Enchanted April while on holiday in Italy, and staying in, wait for it, a small castle. Her books do seem to reflect a lot about herself and her life, but they say you should write about what you know, so perhaps this is partly why she was such a hit. She knew about people, specifically her class of people, and so she wrote engrossing stories about them.

The place she had found was a hidden corner where the sun-naked stones were padded with thyme, and nobody was likely to come. It was out of sight and sound of the house, it was off any path; it was near the end of the promontory. She sat so quiet that presently lizards darted over her feet, and some tiny birds like finches, frightened away at first, came back again and flittered among the bushes round her just as if she hadn’t been there. How beautiful it was. And what was the good of it with no one there, no one who loved being with one, who belonged to one, to whom one could say, ‘Look.’ And wouldn’t one say, ‘Look – dearest?’ Yes, one would say dearest; and the sweet word, just to say it to somebody who loved one, would make one happy.

This magnificent little novel will undoubtedly be in my top favourite reads of the year. It is a perfect book for me; it has so much charm and romance – romance in the best sense of the word, romance of the beauty of life. It is whimsy and dreamy but also all knowing and truthful. It is for the old romantic, the starry eyed, and the idealistic dreamer. It is that old cliche, life affirming. It is adorable.

This was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.” 

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.

Sweet Summer’s End: A review of The Legacy by Katherine Webb

I remember exactly when I started reading The Legacy. It was my birthday and I was sitting in the car in the car park of our local Lidl in Wembley, waiting for my husband who was probably getting booze. I had no idea that in a few days I would’ve turned the last page and exclaimed a silent wow to myself. It was read at perfectly the right time – summer’s end, with the days still long and warm.

One of the things I love about reading books is that some are very season specific, and you can get much more from a book if it is read at the right time of year. For example, you should only read A Christmas Carol at Christmas (obviously), and there are clearly books that should only be read lying against a big ancient oak in a summer meadow (like, um, Larkrise To Candleford). You get my drift. But more than this; books can improve your enjoyment of a season, as in winter when you curl up with a good book (coal fire optional). It’s a thing you do in winter to make the season cosier. And then, in summer, you take a book to be read on the beach for some relaxing holiday me-time. You choose your book to suit the season, and if you haven’t already done this, I highly recommend trying it.

Anyway, The Legacy, for me, falls into the category of a great summer read. However, if you do happen to pick it up in the colder months, do not save it – devour it at once – as the modern strand of the book is set in winter, making it a superb read all year round.

I have read three novels by Katherine Webb so far and they have all had the same narrative structure – two stories told parallel to each other, one set in the past and one in the present, with a connection. In the case of The Legacy, that connection is slowly revealed in the course of the book. There is a mystery (or two) to be solved, and the two stories coming together is the key to its conclusion.

Both stories are told beautifully. I loved them equally, and that’s unusual. More often than not, one is preferred over the other. Yet, it is a testament to the author that both were able to capture my attention and keep me hooked and reading on. The Legacy is a near perfect read. My only issue with it, as with many great books I have read, is that it wasn’t lengthier, simply for me to enjoy it longer.