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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Ludlow postcard

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

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

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. 

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.” 

Suffragette City: Strong writers, strong leads

Inspired by Bookstagram and the hashtag #whoruntheworld, the following eight books are ones that I have enjoyed, and recommend unreservedly. But much more than this, they are books by brilliant female writers, featuring strong female characters. All characters, I may add, that I loved when reading them, and that will stay with me, I hope, forever. 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee ‘only’ published two books in her lifetime, but the magnificence of To Kill a Mockingbird will endure forever. It is one of the very few novels I have read more than once. It’s female lead, six year old Scout, is just fantastic, and I sooo wanted to name my baby girl after her! She is a very clever child with a questioning and combative nature who has her faith in humanity tested when her lawyer father defends a black man wrongly accused of rape. The story is known for its great warmth, despite its harsh themes of racial injustice and the destruction of innocence.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

With its similar time and place setting to To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel is also told from the perspective of a young girl, and tells of racism in its pages. Cassie Logan is the feisty but naive protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the unimaginable ugliness of prejudice in her community. Mildred D. Taylor tells Cassie’s story with skilfulness and beauty, describing Cassie’s happy home life with scrumptious detail, while refusing to shy away from the realities of racial inequality.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 

Is Jane Eyre the ultimate feminist heroine? Of course, that is subjective, but she is certainly a very strong character who endures much hardship and heartache, and always fights to preserve her sense of self. Charlotte Brontë wrote a formidable story and created a celebrated and timeless character in Jane Eyre – one which I will always love.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain is the seventeen year old narrator of this wonderfully enchanting novel. Her observations of her life in a dilapidated castle with her family and eccentric father, are charming and witty. Dodie Smith – a playwright and novelist, famous for writing One Hundred and One Dalmatians – created a book that had me totally captivated, at times in stitches, and that whooshed me away with its thrilling love story. It has one of the most famous opening lines in novels: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Fabulous.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

I read this following the first couple of series of the television dramatisation by the same name. I fell in love with Vanessa Redgrave’s narration and wanted to discover the real Jenny. Jennifer Worth was a nurse who worked in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s, and recounted it all in a trilogy of memoirs of which Call the Midwife was the first. A harrowing read with great moments of elation, this book overflows with gorgeous prose and beautiful wisdom.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

My favourite of Maggie’s novels. Just one word needed: Motherhood.  Arguably the greatest challenge a woman faces, motherhood is the overriding theme of this book, and the reason why I am drawn to it so much. It’s a heartbreaking, touching novel by one of my most familiar writers. I saw myself again and again in this narrative and I will always recall the effect it had on me.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I loved this epic book. Donna Tartt is an amazing writer whose second novel – published a decade after her first – centres around Harriet, a twelve year old girl whose older brother was found hanged in their garden at the age of nine. The murderer has never been found and Harriet makes it her mission to solve the mystery of what happened and enact revenge on the killer. A fabulous read – enjoyed all the more because of its length – by a super talented American author. This is a novel to get your teeth well and truly stuck into.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery 

Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian classic, for both it’s heroine and it’s author. If you’re not familiar with Anne (with an e) one way or another, where have you been? I read this book as a young teenager after falling completely and utterly and wholeheartedly in love with the 1985/7 TV serialisation. After the depiction of Anne Shirley by the stunning Megan Follows, I must admit I found the literary Anne to be quite annoying! But this is where the Megan Follows character came from and I soon began to appreciate this fact. Anne, like Jane Eyre, is an orphan who clambers her way up, making the best of what she’s got at any given time, and forges the way to make the life for herself that she really wants. Lucy Maud Montgomery writes consistently with compelling beauty and wisdom, creating and shaping the character of Anne so lovingly that she has become one of the most well loved literary characters of all time.

I know there are many more books like this that I have yet to find and adore, but, Reader, I will, I will. Who are your favourite female writers? Who are your favourite female leads?