Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Honestly, I wish this hadn’t been published. It’s surrounded by controversy but that is not so much the problem. The problem for me is that it demolishes a hero – Atticus Finch. Some accounts say that this book was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and that it was discarded. I feel it reads like a draft and is in need of some serious editing. I didn’t like the pace of this book and I thought the dialogue (more like speeches) would often go on and on. Rambling. Written in the mid-1950s, Scout is now called Jean Louise and is 26 years old. She returns to Maycomb from living in New York and discovers her father is now old and crotchety. Worse: he is a racist and a segregationist.
Set 20 years after Mockingbird, I found it very difficult not to read it as a sequel. You could say that Mockingbird is a book of hope (and one that white people feel comfortable with) and Watchman is the reality of race relations in a small Southern town. You could also say that Watchman shows us that our childhood heroes often fall from grace. Did Harper Lee really want it to be published? I doubt it.
Tyringham Park by Rosemary McLoughlin. A sweeping family saga set in Ireland. Centres on the psychological life of Charlotte Blackshaw, whose father is Lord at Tyringham Park, a grand country estate in WWI Ireland. She can never escape Tyringham Park and, frankly, you’d like to throttle Charlotte half the time. It’s a rather depressing story of egos and psychological abuse. Borders on the melodramatic with often wooden characterisation. I really wanted to like this book but I found some of the characters cliched (e.g. evil Nurse Dixon) or some scenes just unbelievable (such as a 10 year old being shoved onto a huge horse and participating in a frenzied hunting event).
The ending was abrupt and I’m not sure the author managed to capture the social mores and life of a big Edwardian country estate. Meh!
The Umbrian Supper Club by Marlena de Blasi. Got half way through and couldn’t finish. Too wordy; too clunky; too purple prose. A story that seemed to be going nowhere for me. The book revolves around food and a group of people telling their stories during shared dinners but this became tiresome. I did learn something about olive oil (olives from different groves are often mixed up and sent to some central location and passed off as extra virgin). The author’s love of Italy, food and traditional ways is very apparent and did lend the book an element of passion. Certainly, there were mouthwatering descriptions of food. It’s a story about womanhood and the female characters are aged between 52 and 80-something. There are recipes at the back of the book, which is a bonus.
The Heat of Betrayal by Douglas Kennedy. I’m a great fan of Douglas Kennedy and this is suspense at its best. Slowish start but it then picks up dramatically. Robin accompanies her husband, Paul, to Morocco where he vanishes and Robin sets off on a desperate hunt to find him. Kennedy excels at the fast-paced plot and his descriptions of Morocco and the cast of sub-characters is well-crafted. Kindness and brutality are themes in this book. I continue to be amazed at Kennedy’s ability to tell a narrative from the female perspective.
Palace of Tears by Julian Leatherdale. Set in a place I know very well – the Hydro Majestic hotel in Medlow Bath (Blue Mountains, Australia). In this book, the hotel is called the Palace and the narrative is clearly based on the life and history of Mark Foy, who opened the Hydro Majestic in the early 1900s.
This is a sweeping family saga that really captures the more genteel times of early 20th Century social mores and fashion. It is well-written and well-paced. I enjoyed the very accurate descriptions of the Blue Mountains landscape at is most unforgiving. An interesting aspect to this novel was the internment of Australian-born citizens of German ancestry during WWII and eventual deportation to Germany – this is a dark underbelly of Australian history. Enjoyable historical fiction.
Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase. A well-written book about a dysfunctional family. Set in Cornwall in a dusty, old rambling house, the narrative alternates between the 1960s and now. Lorna sets her heart on Black Rabbit Hall as a wedding venue but discovers secrets and betrayals aplenty. There are shades of Daphne Du Maurier in this book and, ultimately, it’s a story of the survival of a family. Enjoyed it – the only aspect I didn’t like was the stereotypical evil step-mother character.
Disclaimer by Renee Knight. Powerhouse debut novel! A woman starts reading a novel and realises it’s about her. The action gets going from this point and doesn’t relent. A tight plot and well-paced. There are shades of Gone Girl with a husband and wife who keep secrets from each other. I was irritated by the purple prose at times though e.g. “Death. Always leaving its predatory stench, like a lusty tomcat long after it has left the scene.”
A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman. Gave up on this book after about 80 pages. Couldn’t warm to the character of a 90-year old woman who bathes naked in a Cornish lake and lives in a Gypsy-style caravan in 1947. Slow start and I just couldn’t get into the writing style, although I admit the prose was often beautiful. Seemed to be about an unlikely friendship that formed between Drake, a troubled soldier, and Marvellous. Also a book that combined the literal and the metaphorical. An awful lot of memories are contained in dialogue but it was sometimes hard to tell what was dialogue as there was an annoying lack of speech marks. Maybe I missed the point of this book……
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries. I really enjoyed Jeffries’ debut novel, The Separation, and reviewed it here. I didn’t found The Tea Planter’s Wife as good and often found it a tad melodramatic and meandering. However, Jeffries excels at capturing the ambiance of colonial times, in this case Ceylon. The novel explores colonial prejudice very well through the eyes of Gwen, who has been thrust into a new life on a tea plantation with an older husband, Lawrence. Jeffries explores the tensions building in colonial Ceylon whilst offering a very tender characterisation of a young woman forced to choose between her duty as a wife and her instinct as a mother. A good read.
The Lost Swimmer by Ann Turner. Debut novel by an Australian author and I read an advanced reading copy. Rebecca Wilding is an archaeology professor at Coastal University in Australia, which seems to be a hotbed of backstabbing bitches. Accused of fraud, she heads off on holiday to Greece and Italy with her economist husband, Stephen. He disappears on the Amalfi Coast. Rebecca freaks out and imagines him having an affair with someone back at the University.
I’m not a great lover of this book to be honest. It took way too long to get into the action – it was well over half way through the novel before Stephen vanished. Often meandering with a bizarre scene between Rebecca; a kangaroo and its joey; and Rebecca’s dog.
There was a loooooong build-up to Stephen’s disappearance, then….there’s a rushed ending and we’re left wondering what happened to Stephen (although the title gives it away I guess). Stephen is kind of shoved under the carpet after the novel has spent a huge amount of effort setting him up as some kind of duplicitous scoundrel. Massive let down really. I often found descriptive scenes very purple prose and I spent the first part of the novel wondering what the point is. There were heavy, over-worked descriptions of University disputes and mediation in the first part of the book – nearly turned me off!