Review: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

I had no idea there was another book coming for Robinson’s stellar Gilead series until shortly before this book released, but I was thrilled to get an ARC of Jack.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads blurb:

Jack tells the story of John Ames Boughton, the beloved, erratic, and grieved-over prodigal son of a Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa. In segregated St. Louis sometime after World War II, Jack falls in love with Della Miles, an African American high school teacher who is also the daughter of a preacher―discerning, generous, and independent. Their fraught, beautiful romance is one of Robinson’s greatest achievements.

The Gilead novels are about the dilemmas and promise of American history―about the ongoing legacy of the Civil War and the enduring impact of both racial inequality and deep-rooted religious belief. They touch the deepest chords in our national character and resonate with our deepest feelings.

While the original three novels of the Gilead series can probably be read as standalones, I always recommend reading them in order for the beautiful way that Robinson developed the various characters through each book. While one could read this book without having read any other novels in the series, I’m really not sure if I would have appreciated Jack nearly as much if I hadn’t already read Home.

My thoughts:

Marilynne Robinson is a gifted writer. Her prose is fantastic and quiet, and her books have evoked so many feelings for me. Jack is, as expected, a beautifully told, simple story. Jack Boughton, who we got to know well in Home, is a complex character who frustrates the hell out of me while also charming my socks off (I, for one, understand the appeal for Della) and making my heart hurt. The story is told in third person, but Robinson still manages to take us deep inside Jack’s troubled mind. I don’t understand him any more than I did after reading Home, but I still feel like I know him better. Della is more of a mystery to the reader, but she’s so smart and determined, it’s impossible not to admire her.

The book is set before the events of Home, sometime shortly after WWII in segregated St. Louis, where Jack is living on the fringes of ‘normal’ society – a self-described bum, alcoholic, and sometimes-criminal – when he meets and falls for Della, a brilliant, independent teacher. Their love story develops slowly, and the odds are stacked completely against them, even if Jack himself wasn’t a mess. Their interracial relationship in a time when such was literally illegal gives the reader a glimpse at the hardships and discrimination faced by people in that time that, sadly, still resonates today.

Like the other books in the Gilead series, Jack is an introspective, melancholy read. It deals with complicated moral and spiritual themes, and it’s packed with emotion. I listened to an interview with Marilynn Robinson recently where she said this: “Nothing is minor… there is no meaningless human experience, there is no small life.  Meaning is situated differently in different experiences.” This truth resonates throughout the Gilead novels, and has made for truly memorable reading experiences for me. Nothing much actually happens plot-wise, and when it does, it’s slow to develop, but I’m just so engrossed in the lives of these characters, I don’t even notice.

Thank you to NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for my ARC copy in exchange for this honest review. I’m ordering a copy for my shelves to complete my Gilead collection.


Review: The Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike

I loved The Lost Queen so very much, and was very happy to receive an ARC of The Forgotten Kingdom. If I had any concerns that book two of this trilogy would disappoint, those concerns were promptly vanquished.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads blurb:

AD 573. Imprisoned in her chamber, Languoreth awaits news in torment. Her husband and son have ridden off to wage war against her brother, Lailoken. She doesn’t yet know that her young daughter, Angharad, who was training with Lailoken to become a Wisdom Keeper, has been lost in the chaos. As one of the bloodiest battles of early medieval Scottish history scatters its survivors to the wind, Lailoken and his men must flee to exile in the mountains of the Lowlands, while nine-year-old Angharad must summon all Lailoken has taught her and follow her own destiny through the mysterious, mystical land of the Picts.

In the aftermath of the battle, old political alliances unravel, opening the way for the ambitious adherents of the new religion: Christianity. Lailoken is half-mad with battle sickness, and Languoreth must hide her allegiance to the Old Way to survive her marriage to the next Christian king of Strathclyde. Worst yet, the new King of the Angles is bent on expanding his kingdom at any cost. Now the exiled Lailoken, with the help of a young warrior named Artur, may be the only man who can bring the Christians and the pagans together to defeat the encroaching Angles. But to do so, he must claim the role that will forever transform him. He must become the man known to history as “Myrddin.”

Bitter rivalries are ignited, lost loves are found, new loves are born, and old enemies come face-to-face with their reckoning in this compellingly fresh look at one of the most enduring legends of all time.

If all of that sounds epic as all hell, that’s because it is. Gloriously, fantastically epic.

My thoughts:

There are so many things I absolutely love about this book (and really, this series so far).

First, the writing: clearly, Signe Pike has done her research, and done it well. The various cultural and religious groups in the area of Scotland in this time period come to life in these pages. Then, Pike takes care to add the Arthurian legend into the actual historical events and elevates this story to a whole other level. The prose is gorgeous, the descriptions are breathtaking, and I was completely immersed in this world. This is historical fiction done well—believable and entertaining.

Next, the characters: in The Lost Queen, we first met twins Langoureth and Lailoken as children, and we’ve now followed them well into adulthood. I adore both of these characters and can’t get enough of their narratives. In this book, we have the added perspective of Langoureth’s daughter, Angharad, and her journey takes us in a different direction altogether, adding even more mystical elements and drama. The complicated love stories and the family bonds for these characters are so well done.

The setting: Scotland in the late 6th century AD is such a fascinating time and place. The descriptions of the land and the people, especially the Picts, are fascinating. The struggles between the Celtic Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Picts in the time when Christianity was spreading are perfect material for an exciting storyline and some epic battles.

The fantasy elements: I love, love, LOVE how magic and Druidism are weaved into this story. Truly beautiful natural magic and mysticism blend together to set the stage for the Arthurian legend.

Early in the book, I almost felt like I needed a map and a character guide (and maybe the hardcover will have those items—remember I’m working with a galley), but once I got back into the story, I had no trouble keeping everyone straight. Like in the first book, this volume encompasses several years, so be prepared for the time jumps periodically.

I highly recommend this book to those loved The Lost Queen, and to fantasy/historical fiction lovers who are new to Pike’s epic series. Definitely start with The Lost Queen, though… these books won’t make much sense as standalone.

Thank you to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for my copy in exchange for this honest review. I am very much looking forward to the last book in the trilogy!