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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.” 

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.

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?