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 Deadly Hours anthology

I was drawn to this ARC because one of the stories is by Susanna Kearsley, and I’ve really enjoyed a couple of her novels. While I struggled a bit to engage with this collection, I ended up loving the last story by C.S. Harris, an author I’ve never read before, the most.

What it’s about

From the (somewhat vague) Goodreads description:

A stellar line-up of historical mystery novelists weaves the tale of a priceless and cursed gold watch as it passes through time wreaking havoc from one owner to another. The characters are irrevocably linked by fate, each playing a key role in breaking the curse and destroying the watch once and for all.

From 1733 Italy to Edinburgh in 1831 to a series of chilling murders in 1870 London, and a lethal game of revenge decades later, the watch touches lives with misfortune, until it comes into the reach of one young woman who might be able to stop it for good.

I will get a bit more into the individual stories in my reviews. I do think this collection is largely fan service for readers who follow these authors and their series, but it’s such a clever idea to have the cursed watch link all of the stories together over 300 years.

My thoughts

I find it hard to review collections of stories like this overall, especially when different authors contribute, so I’m going to review each story individually first.

Weapon of Choice by Susanna Kearsley

In the first story, it’s 1733 and we meet Jacobite Hugh MacPherson and his wife, Mary, as they travel by sea to Italy to meet and protect the Duke of Ormonde while escorting him to Scottish King James’ court in exile. A storm forces them to dock at Portofino, where they stay at an inn with an assassin and a pirate who carries with him ‘La Siréne,’ an elegantly engraved watch that is said to be cursed. Political intrigue, mystery and murder ensue before the travelers and the watch part company.

Hugh and Mary, as well as some other characters that meet at the inn, appear in some of Kearsley’s full-length novels I have yet to read. I’m sure I would have appreciated their presence here more if I had read those novels, but they were still well-developed characters. The writing is good, and the groundwork of the legend of the watch is laid nicely, but I had trouble engaging with the story until it was nearly over. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

In a Fevered Hour by Anna Lee Huber

La Siréne next appears in 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the watch’s curse is blamed for a sickness sweeping parts of the city. Lady Kiera Darby is a rather unusual detective who gets involved in tracking down the watch while trying to solve the mysterious deaths.

I’ve not read any of the Lady Darby mysteries (a google search tells me there are several of them), but I enjoyed the gothic feel, Kiera’s unconventional investigation style, and her relationship with her partner/husband. This story flowed along nicely, but I again felt I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the background novels first. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

A Pocketful of Death by Christine Trent

La Siréne surfaces again in 1870, when English undertaker Violet Harper quite literally digs it up while exhuming a grave in Edinburgh. The watch travels with her back to London, where it becomes linked to a string of murders in a wealthy Victorian neighborhood. Violet apparently does some mystery-solving when she’s not undertaking, and she becomes involved in solving the crimes.

Again, I’ve not read any of Trent’s Lady of Ashes series, so Violet was new to me. I enjoyed this fun mystery and the quirky characters, and really liked how the watch was a central character as well, and I was only mildly perplexed by some of the backstories that probably would have made more sense if I was reader of the series. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Siren’s Call by C.S. Harris

The cursed pocket watch next pops up in 1944 in a war-torn seaside village in Kent. Someone who appears to be aware of the legend of La Siréne is murdering villagers in this small community, and museum curator Rachel Townsend-Smythe begins looking for the watch as well. At the same time, two MI5 agents, Jude Lowe and Remus Stokes, are in town trying to track down a German spy, and as it becomes apparent the spy and the murders are linked, Rachel finds herself working closely with Jude.

This last story was my favorite of the anthology, which I wasn’t expecting as I think I may have burned myself out on WWII historical fiction a few years ago. I really loved the WWII storyline, and Rachel and Jude were such great characters—they are also original characters for this story, and I think that helped me not feel like I was missing something. I especially love how this final story wraps up the journey (we hope?) of La Siréne and it’s curse. I’ve never read anything by C.S. Harris before, but I definitely plan to now, as I love her writing style here. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Overall, I am impressed with the collaboration between these four authors to bring La Siréne through time in such a cohesive and fascinating way. This collection is probably best suited for readers who are already fans of the characters in the first three stories, but as they are all written to stand alone, that’s not required. Good historical fiction mysteries with four distinct voices. Anthology rating; ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2