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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Chick Lit or not to Chick Lit?: A review of Poppy’s Recipe for Life by Heidi Swain

I have a confession: I struggle with chick lit. The phrase, “chick lit” grates on me in the first instance, but I’m not sure how to explain my exact feelings about the whole genre. I am drawn to the pretty, cheerful covers with their suggestion of a happy, cosy life in the country – or by the sea – or in a Georgian townhouse, etcetera. And the surety of a happy ending is comforting: with all loose ends tied up and all characters getting what they deserve. Yet, while I seek out feel good stories in films and on T.V., this is not necessarily true with novels. What I find most alluring about a book is the anticipation and materialisation of an adventure, a mystery, a surprise. I like parallel stories, multiple timelines, and a clever twist that I didn’t see coming but totally understand now I know. And while I adore a great love story, it is usually not the reason I pick up a book and start reading. Hence, a chick lit novel  is certainly not my go-to read. I fully admit that I haven’t read many books of this genre, but I have noticed that the description of “lighthearted read” often covers the form as well as the content, and what you get is not only a book with an easy subject matter, but also a book with easy prose – a simple and plain narrative style that leaves readers like me (whatever we are) feel underwhelmed.

I have read absolute stinkers of books, both chick lit and not, so if I sound totally critical of this genre, please forgive me as this is not my intention. My intention is always to take books as they come and read them with fresh eyes and an open mind, and not get bogged down by their genre or label. Most of all, my intention is to enjoy the book. I really want to relish the reading journey of every book I pick up and feel that I have gained something by the time I have turned the last page. Sometimes there is success, sometimes failure, but the will to love every book I have chosen to read is always there.

This brings me onto my actual review of Poppy’s Recipe for Life. I wanted to read one of Heidi Swain’s novels because of their deliciously scrumptious covers coupled with their thumbs up reviews, all pointing to the probability of a positive, life affirming, warm and snuggly reading experience. While I was under the impression this was her first venture out into the world as a novelist, this is in fact Heidi’s eighth book, published this year. As the product of an experienced, published author who knows her fans and audience, Poppy’s Recipe for Life is a great success. It is written with bounds of confidence and expertise. This writer has got the art of her specialism, it seems, down to a tee. 

It’s Heidi and her readers’ second visit to Nightingale Square, a fictional residential part of an unnamed Norfolk town. Twenty-something Poppy of the title, has just realised her long standing dream of moving into the Square and becoming an active part of the tight knit community. Her excitement about moving to Nightingale Square and it’s communal garden, is matched only by her passion for making chutney. She wants and lives a blissfully simple life, delighting in everyday pleasures such as frequenting her local with her friends after work, helping to organise community events, and mucking in with gardening duties. It seems the only unpleasantness in her life is her selfish, uncaring mother, whom she avoids and whom she would gladly have absolutely nothing to do with if it wasn’t for her sixteen year old brother, Ryan. Cue, the dramatic event of the story: the arrival and stay of Ryan at Poppy’s beloved home. Ryan must be the sweetest teenager in fiction, yet Poppy doubts him frequently, which is somewhat annoying. Poppy herself comes across as very pleasant: gentle, kind hearted and quirky. In fact all the characters (with the exception of Poppy and Ryan’s mother) are depicted with positivity, even the grumpy neighbour, Jacob, who eventually gets sucked into the neighbourliness of Nightingale. They are all genuinely nice, easy-going, friendly people. And this is the great pull of Heidi Swain’s book – it’s unwavering positivity: it’s loveliness of place and people. I may have smirked at Poppy’s obsession with creating chutney recipes and dreams of compiling a recipe book with them, but isn’t that want we all want? An obsession and a dream? A simple but fulfilling purpose? A warm and welcoming little space in the world that we can call home? Poppy’s Recipe for Life is like ITV’s Midsomer Murders without the murder: community spirit with a good dose of gossip, seasonable celebrations, summer fetes, garden barbecues with homegrown produce, friendly local independent shops, cute pets and bunting. It’s not out of place on a lazy Sunday evening in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a slice of fruit loaf. 

Heidi Swain has created a comforting little world for her characters and readers. A little haven to escape to that’s a little bit simpler, a little bit sunnier, a little bit friendlier – and a lot more blissful than your own! It’s definitely a cosy read with much humour and a believable sweet and sexy love story.  And, although it may not be my usual recipe for a good book, this is certainly another thumbs up review for Poppy’s Recipe for Life. 


Giovanna and Me: A review of Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

Well, I really wanted this to work out. I wanted to love Giovanna Fletcher’s storytelling and go on to read her other books. I wanted our relationship to blossom and mature. Sadly, it is probably all over for us. Looking back, I should have known we weren’t compatible. There were quite obvious signs. The genre, for one. The ‘chick lit’ label leaves me dismayed – the name is derogatory and it is more than patronising in its implication that there is only one kind of literature that would appeal to women. Yet, the books in this particular group don’t seem to be that *good* – making me think Is that what chick lit means? Not very good? Which makes me quite agitated in all respects.

Billy and Me, whatever it’s labelled, is a mediocre book at best. The subject matter – a ‘plain’, unassuming young woman that meets and falls in love with a famous film star – is cliched and, admittedly, didn’t appeal to me very much at first glance.  The book is far too long for its flat writing style. It lacks description, it lacks meatiness, and it lacks the multi-diamentional characters a book deserves. 

Sophie, the protagonist, is nice enough, but not very unique, nor very interesting, nor very anything, except perhaps annoying in her self deprecation, and even more annoying in her self righteousness. There is one bizzare passage featuring a sex scene that Billy (of the title and Sophie’s famous boyfriend) has to act out with a fellow thespian and ex-girlfriend. It left me questioning Sophie’s – and Giovanna’s – judgement. Such a conservative and prudish attitude seems so outdated now, but more than this, Sophie’s unreasonableness is out of character for her level headedness up to that point. Even more strangely, the narrative doesn’t really question her perspective. Indeed, the whole stance of the book seems stuffy when it comes to sex. The narrative doesn’t refer to Sophie and Billy’s sex life at all, leading me to question Are they really doing it?  This is a silly question because of course they are, but there is no passion in the narration of their relationship, there is no sensuousness in the author’s words, there is no flirtation between the characters, and consequently no flirtation or chemistry with the reader. The tenderness of love is there, yes, but the salaciousness of a physical relationship is not. Is this novel aimed at the young romantic teen? It certainly feels this way in its demure demeanor and uncluttered, unflowery writing style.

Billy and Me disappoints mainly because the picture it paints is not rich or distinct enough. I love a book that makes me disappear into its unique world. I need to be wooed with enchanting and poetic prose. I need to be shown something I have never experienced before, and told something I have never heard before. I need those sweet whispers of promise that the journey I am taking holds excitement or adventure or surprise. Billy may have whisked Sophie away, but Giovanna has left me standing – alone and apathetic, and ready to move on.

Loving Life in Orvieto: A review of The Lady in the Palazzo by Marlena de Blasi

Have you heard of Marlena de Blasi? She is an American chef who upsticked and moved to Italy following a holiday romance. The Lady in the Palazzo is the first book of hers I have read, but the third book in her memoir series. In her first, A Thousand Days in Venice, she tells how she met her husband, Fernando (a Peter Sellers lookalike), her second recounts her life in Tuscany, and then in this volume she describes moving to Orvieto in Umbria, where she finds the perfect home. 

This is such a lovely, cosy travel read; it makes you ache to visit the place it features. Who wouldn’t want to go to Italy? But more that that, who wouldn’t want to go to Orvieto after reading this book? We travelled to Umbria not long after I had read it, making sure we had a day out in Orvieto. It was a long, steep, bendy drive to the city, and it was totally worth it. I recall turning the corner at the end of a little narrow street, and seeing the striped cathedral looming before me. It was a ‘bang’ moment – it took my breath away. I could see why Marlena had fallen in love with this place. 

She has a great voice and a great writing style. Her books also include her regional recipes, a wonderful addition to her words. I did once attempt one of them – it sounded so simple and delicious when she described making and serving it at a dinner party, but my version was just as foul as it was offensive. Mind you, it did include parsnips and vodka and not much else, so in hindsight it probably wasn’t just me (!)

Give her a go if you’re a fan of a bit of artistic licence and all things Italian.

Join Marlene de Blasi as she sets up home in Umbria

Leaving Me Here On My Own: A review of The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall

When Beth receives a letter telling of her mother, Marika’s, death, she also acquires a scrapbook of photos recording the seven glorious Hungarian summers of her childhood. The time has come to confront her past and the last summer that signalled the end of her relationship with Marika.

” ‘Oh, Erzsi,’ she said in a rush, ‘I don’t know what to say.’

And she didn’t need to say anything, because then she fell on me, kissing me until my cheeks stung, pulling me so that my arms bent at awkward angles. My knee pushed the gear stick and Marika’s elbow sounded the horn. I felt sure that with so much life inside it the car would power up of its own accord and blast wildly into the traffic, killing us both. I shut my eyes tight and surrendered to her grip. For this was love, of the desperate, thieving, glorious kind. Not only the suggestion of it, like the gently pecked kisses of my father, or the feel of his palm lightly on the crown of my head, but an avalanche of blinding, unstoppable, actual love. I let Marika sweep me up and carry me with her for as long as she wanted. “

This passage suggests the hope of a cheerful book. However, the upcoming doom of the story is known from the beginning. Despite the implied happiness of the summers of the title, the author never lets you forget the promise of the inevitable miserable conclusion. 

I read a review saying that the book lacks any kind of humour. This very accurate description means that there is no relief from the knowledge of the sad events to come, making it quite an unjoyous read. While not all books need to be joyous to be classed as a great reading experience, I found that the author could have made this so much more than it was by simply allowing us to be swayed from the protagonist’s self absorbed sense of woefulness now and then. 

There is no doubt that the book is well – even beautifully – written, and I am sure that many people would find it very satisfying. However, for me, it is just too woeful, and I need something more from a story. Although – I am pleased to say that there is one positive thing I got from it, and that is it made me want to travel to Hungary, the place of those notorious summers.

The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall : not as cheerful as you’d expect

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.