I’ve actually been writing more than reading lately, but here are the books I’ve finished and my thoughts on each.

Rachel’s Legacy by Julie Thomas. This is the sequel to The Keeper of Secrets, which I reviewed here. Rachel’s Legacy is an equally good story, continuing the saga of the Horowitz family and their WWII experiences. I did find the second half of the book dragged somewhat (focusing on the biological daughter of Rachel and her mother, Sabine). The ending was unexpected and poignant.

I don’t like adverbs in writing and there were some annoying ones throughout this novel. I also find it irritating when writers feel they have to tell you that a character is angry or intrigued, following a line of dialogue (e.g. “he was intrigued). The dialogue alone should convey how the character is reacting or feeling. Thomas was guilty of this occasionally but, aside from this, it was a good book and I look forward to her next novel.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild. This sweeping 400+ page debut novel is about love and a famous lost (but fictional) painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau. We get a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of the art dealing world. Rothschild is a descendant of the wealthy banking family and is the first female chair of the National Gallery in London. Art knowledge is a strength for Rothschild and it adds texture to her novel.

Rothschild does a great job – a confident plot and she managed a huge cast of characters extremely well. I was initially put off that the painting by Watteau actually speaks and is a character in its own right, but you get used to it. In fact, it adds to the originality of the book. The painting speaks in pre-revolutionary French and is, therefore, susceptible to pompous and flowery language. Here’s an example: “I was painted to celebrate the wild cascades of love. The rollicking, bucking, breaking and transformative passion that inevitably gave way to miserable, constricting, overbearing disappointment.

You learn the history of the painting through the painting itself, which I found entertaining. I had an advance reading copy so, hopefully, editing resolved the description of the eye colour of Jesse, the male main character – variously described as “tawny-colored eyes”; “deep-set green eyes”; and “summer-blue eyes with dark edging.”

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies. I really enjoyed her first two novels – The Separation and The Tea Planter’s Wife. This third novel? Not so much. I wonder if she is churning them out too fast. In the first 12 pages, Jefferies dumped any description of the garden or interior of the house she could get in. There was a lot of glancing about by the main character, Nicole, which afforded Jefferies the opportunity for descriptive writing.

The story is set in 1950’s colonial Vietnam and I found it all rather formulaic – young half-French, half-Vietnamese girl, not knowing who she really is, falls in love with handsome and mysterious American. It was amazing how the American, Mark, just appeared out of nowhere, to save Nicole when she was in trouble. I didn’t find the tension between Nicole and her sister, Sylvie (who doesn’t look Vietnamese) believable. I also found some paragraphs suddenly swapped to another topic, so at times it all seemed a bit rushed and the sex/romance scenes were a bit bodice-ripping type stuff.

Good research and Jefferies recreated the early 1950s when the French were losing control of their colonial world. Not really a fan of this novel though. I read that her next book will be set in India and I hope she returns to the style of her first two books.

All Under Heaven (1973) by Pearl S. Buck. When I was a teenager, my mother always had a Buck novel in her hands. I wasn’t interested but, when I was in Wellington recently, I went to a second-hand bookshop and what did I see? A slim book entitled All Under Heaven by Pearl S. Buck.

I was intrigued after all these years – why did my mother so like her writing? I couldn’t find the novel for which Buck is really well-known for – The Good Earth – and which also won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 as well. So we’re in serious writing territory.

Buck lived in China from the late 1890s until around the 1930s, both as a child of missionaries and as a missionary herself. So her knowledge of China during this time period, particularly of women in a Chinese household, is detailed and colourful. After leaving China in the 1930s, Buck became a humanitarian.

I don’t know what I was expecting but wow….this is very fluid prose. Effortless writing.

It’s the story of an American diplomat returning home from China after 25 years’ service. He brings with him his Russian wife and their two children. Basically, it’s the story of integration into American society and how our identities are shaped by our cultural roots and surroundings. The diplomat (Mr. McNeil) is American-born but feels a stranger in a strange land, after a quarter of a century in China.

No doubt based on Buck’s personal experience, the novel gives us a glimpse of America as a rather closed society, not so much the melting pot it is today. Because the wife (Mrs. McNeil) is Russian, we hear about Communism and its anti-intellectual stance. It did get a bit preachy towards the end of the book.

I suspect this is a book I’ll need to reread because Buck is using the novel to say a lot of important things –  the state of American society; suspicion of people from the Soviet Union; prejudice in general and the need for tolerance of different cultures and political world views.

I’m amazed at Buck’s ability to take something that isn’t much of a plot and produce a book that is engrossing. I’ve now managed to lay my hands on The Good Earth. Can’t wait to read it.

About Grace by Anthony Doerr. This is Doerr’s debut novel from 2004. His 2014 novel, All The Light We Cannot See, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is my favourite book. I reviewed it here. His writing is poetic and he has the ability to turn the most mundane weather into a vision of stunning beauty.

I loved About Grace simply for the richness and drama of his writing. But…..it’s too long at 402 pages. There are chapters or sections that could have been edited out and I wouldn’t have missed them. As much as I love descriptions of clouds and weather, there was a bit too much focus on snowflakes and water.

It’s the story of David Winkler, who is a hydrologist and prescient: he has dreams of future events, a fate he inherited from his long dead mother. He dreams of a catastrophic flood and the story takes off from here.

The plot is a bit obscure at times and even I found the constant references to snowflakes a bit tiresome. But heck, Doerr can turn out a perfectly-turned sentence, so I hung in there, despite the writing often being self-indulgent. Mind you, if I could write as brilliantly, then I too would be self-indulgent 🙂

Although Nature features a lot, I found the characters didn’t engage with it and roamed the novel as though they were separate. I couldn’t engage with Winkler. At times, I wanted to smack him around because he’s dreary and wallowing in misery. I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters actually; they were all a bit bizarre or flat.

Although Doerr is a dizzying talent, the book became laboured and I almost gave up when the plot (such as it is) reached a small hut in Alaska, set against bone-chilling weather. What went on there I just couldn’t believe.

The ending of the book was too fairy-tale for my liking, but I get it: the story is about achieving a state of grace. I stuck with it so I could enjoy Doerr’s stunning writing (“the million distant candles of the stars” or “All day . . . a sensitivity had been building within him: the slightest shift in light or air touched the backs of his eyes, reached membranes inside his nose. It was as if, like a human divining rod, he had been attuning to vapor as it gathered in the atmosphere, sensing it — water rising in the xylem of trees, leaching out of stones, even the last unfrozen volumes, gargling deep beneath the forest in tangled, rocky aquifers — all these waters rising through the air, accumulating in the clouds, stretching and binding, condensing and precipitating — falling.”) The latter excerpt is an example of how Doerr can get carried away but, at the same time, delight with rich imagery. I wonder though – if you’re THIS talented, could you be more confident about your writing and do away with some of the purple prose?

I’m a great fan of Doerr’s collection of eight short stories (his writing debut) – The Shell Collector (2002).  There are similar themes – clouds, stars, weather, sky. My view is that he is a better short story writer than a novelist but, whatever he decides to write, I’m reading it, studying it, envying it!

The Invitation by Lucy Foley. This is her second book and I very much enjoyed her debut novel, The Book of Lost and Found (reviewed here). I read the advance reading copy of The Invitation.

Set in the 1950s on the Italian Riviera, it is the story of an English journalist (Hal) living in Rome and his obsession with a married woman, who has her own secrets. In fact, obsession is the major theme of this novel.

It’s choppy to be honest. We go back and forth between Hal and the journal of a sea captain from an earlier time period, and his own obsession with a mysterious woman rescued from the sea. We never learn who this woman was and I don’t think the thread between the two narratives is convincing enough.

Foley writes with a confident pen and her writing is like watching a technicolour film of the early 1950s. I found the changing points of view in the book annoying at times. The ending was predictable and, I thought, a bit rushed. The first half of the book is not as powerful as the second half, but Foley manages a cast of characters extremely well and I thought the book was engrossing, despite its drawbacks.

There are shades of Victoria Hislop’s writing in The Invitation as both authors have an ability to paint film-like imagery.

So a mixed bag! I am currently re-reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and published in 1955. What are you reading at the moment?