Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGuys, go out and read Go Set A Watchman.

Twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird) arrives back in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from New York City to take care of her aging father Atticus. Amidst civil rights tensions and political turmoil, Jean Louise must question her values and assumptions as she reconciles uncomfortable truths to her childhood experiences.

As I mentioned, it was our August book club pick, but I had pre-ordered it months before and intended to read it anyway. To Kill A Mockingbird, which I read in eighth grade, is one of my favorites and a book that I regularly re-read. Although billed as a sequel, and chronologically so, in some ways Go Set A Watchmen exists as a prequel since it was written first, never to be published because it was revamped to become Mockingbird.

Besides the controversy regarding the author’s intentions about publication, the other major point of conflict for readers was its portrayal of Atticus. All the reviews I read beforehand divulged Atticus’ racism, (rudely) with no spoiler warning I may add. But upon reading the book, I discovered they were making a mountain out of a molehill. Yes, Atticus does join Maycomb’s community council, which I gather is more-talk/less-action version of the KKK, and yes, he does espouse some backward racial beliefs. However, his misguided paternalistic notions are largely a product of his experience and nowhere does he demonstrate an unwillingness to be dissuaded from them by logic.

Unfortunately Scout is unable to be reasonable in this situation. Like many of the readers, she built up Atticus as a God in her head, when he is just a man with a man’s failings. Having been presented with her biased perspective in To Kill A Mockingbird, many of us experience the same loss of innocence and are catapulted into adulthood in parallel with her in Go Set A Watchmen. The primary difference is the former is very black and white, no pun intended, whereas the latter enters into morally grey territory – Scout grows up color blind but can be narrow-minded in other ways.

As her uncle Dr. Finch mentions, the only way to hash out the differences between her understanding and that of the friends and family she loves is to stay, using her conscience to guide them to the morally correct way.  In this climate of racial tension in America, I think its a great book to exemplify how we should be holding our conversations. Even if you disagree with someone, anger and irrationality isn’t going to solve anything anymore than running away is. With humor and wisdom, Lee is brilliantly able to divulge the many facets of a complex situation- she presents a more nuanced portrayal of our racial history than what we get in textbooks or on the news.

Lee’s writing is deeply evocative of the time and place the book was set in as well as the experiences that shaped Scout’s growth. The pacing was slightly off, with the beginning being far too slow and the last hundred pages being crammed with the major plot points, but I think that was partially because it wasn’t intended as a sequel. She had to set up her story without knowing of the reader’s foreknowledge.  Certain passages were repetitive or contradictory from To Kill A Mockingbird, but I forgave that because of the powerfulness of the climax and conclusion – honestly, the last few pages were among the most moving and apt that I’ve ever read.

While perhaps not as classic as the original Lee masterpiece, you won’t regret reading this book. I highly encourage lovers of To Kill A Mockingbird to put aside doubt and experience it, and those who haven’t read Mockingbird to read both now in juxtaposition. Both books are individually vital to the American canon and essential companions in defining an historically-significant era of transition.

5 Stars

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

The Uninvited Guests1912 – The kitchens of Sterne, a crumbling English manor, are bustling to create a splendid supper for Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. The guests invited include Emerald’s fading femme fatale mother Charlotte, broody brother Clovis, impish but neglected little sister Smudge, childhood friends Patience and Ernest, and eligible bachelor John Buchanan. However, when a horrific railway accident occurs nearby, Sterne is forced to play host to the survivors, a miserable band of lower-class sufferers who throw all plans into chaos and among whom lurks a gentleman whose upper-class appearance belies his malevolent spirit.

(Spoilers ahead)

Well, a Gothic mystery tinged with the supernatural and set in the historical – sounds right up my alley! The gorgeous cover fits Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests extraordinary well, mirroring a scene in which Charlie (the lurking “gentleman”) spies on Emerald attempting to call the railway for answers while also sufficiently adding to the creepy atmosphere.

I did like most of the characters, despite their upper-crust snobbery, but the shortness of the novel caused most of them to lack depth. Since I didn’t understand them fully, I wasn’t particularly attached to any of them so when a certain scene (i.e. the hounds game) exposed the horrific cruelty of their inner human nature, I wasn’t even upset. But I appreciated that they all bucked up in the end – on the whole, the cruelty was balanced by the concluding kindnesses.

The darkly comic tone and flowery Edwardian writing style fit the story well, but the plot was as crumbling as the manor itself. I can’t say the twist is particularly shocking, with the “survivors” actually having not survived the crash. But frustratingly their exact nature (ghosts? zombies?) was left unexplained as was the source of Charlie’s mysterious power.

It was not a very spine-tingling read and probably too bizarre for many readers, but if you can cheerfully throw reason out the door, it proves to be a suitable tale for a dark and stormy summer night that’s a little more literary than your average horror story.

3 Stars

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Almost Famous Women: StoriesMegan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women has been highly lauded since it came out earlier this year. I thought to myself, well I like historical fiction, I’m a proud feminist woman, this may be an ideal book for me to get over my dislike of short stories! Plus, I adored the cover art and expected a fun, uplifting read because of it.

Only, it didn’t quite work out that way. See, as I’ve referenced before with Queen’s Gambit and Six WivesI also have serious problems reading historical fiction based on real people because I then feel the need to creep on their lives i.e. read a biography or memoir as a follow-up. In this case, since the women were “almost famous,” I resorted to Wikipedia after every story to gain a better understanding of who I was reading about. I probably recognized a third of the names, and knew barely more than that about only one individual. Which was frustrating  – the stories would’ve been more enjoyable if each started or ended with a brief bio of the woman/women involved.

The stories themselves weren’t bad, they just didn’t stay with me, with the exception of the first, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton past their prime performing time. It had a tragic American Horror Story vibe, though less bloodshed and no clowns. Also moving was “The Internees,” a brief look at the women interned at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 as their retrieve their feminine identity through liberation and lipstick, while the most imaginative was a dystopian homage to Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery, Redux.”

A few stories are interestingly interconnected, with characters like Dolly, wild neice of Oscar Wilde, and lesbian heiress Joe Carstairs referencing each other. Others, such as “Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death” and “Hell-Diving Women,” seem abrupt and a little misplaced. Overall, I was less inspired and intrigued than I’d hoped by many of these characters – though real, they came across as caricatures at points.

While I admire the idea and the writing style, I think the execution of the content was flawed. There wasn’t enough time to connect with these women. Like the snapshots at the beginning of each chapter, we only see fragments of them in time, and I would’ve appreciated learning more about the complexities of their lives and why the author chose to tell their tales.

3 Stars

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's GambitElizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, the first in her Tudor Trilogy, tells the tale of Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s wives and the one that outlived him (albeit barely). I hadn’t known as much about her compared to the more famous Catherine of Aragon or the more infamous Anne Boleyn, so I was intrigued.

Newly widowed for the second time in her life, Katherine Parr falls deeply in love with dashing courtier Thomas Seymour. But her return to court has sparked the affections of a more dangerous suitor, King Henry VIII, whose marriage proposal she has no choice but to accept. Determined not to fall victim to the same fates as his previous wives, Katherine struggles to keep her feelings for Thomas and her sympathies towards the Protestant Reformation hidden in a treacherous environment where rivals watch her every move, as the king’s health ails and the Catholic faction regains their power over crown and country. 

Fremantle’s language evokes the atmosphere of the Tudor court beautifully. The dialogue seems apt for the time and the characters are mostly well-drawn. The exception to that is strangely Katherine herself, who comes across as aloof even from the reader. Fremantle portrays Katherine’s struggle over her emotions realistically. I sympathized with Katherine’s basically forced marriage to Henry and feared for her as it seemed to go sour, though I was frustrated as a reader by my inability to understand Thomas’ appeal for her and her blindness to his faults.

I didn’t discover this until digging afterwards but Fremantle’s novel is fairly historically accurate. Katherine was indeed dazzled by Thomas, whom she eventually wed hastily soon after Henry’s death. The most salacious detail of their romance was that he apparently seduced her stepdaughter and ward, the future Queen Elizabeth, under Katherine’s own roof as she was pregnant with their child. His indiscretions likely led to her failing health, culminating in her death in childbirth. Tragically, the fate of her infant remains lost to history, so her only legacy is her survival in the Tudor court.

However, she was a fascinating figure, extremely well-educated and the first Queen of England to be a published author. Despite never experiencing motherhood with her own child, she served as a guardian and adored parental figure for all three Tudor royal children, bringing them together in a way that briefly transcended their quarrels. As queen-centric historical fictions go, I preferred The Queen’s Vow about Isabella of Castile, but Katherine bore admirable similarities to the parts of Isabella’s character that impressed me. Overall, this was still a solid read that would be enjoyed by fans of Philippa Gregory.

3 Stars

Butterfly Palace by Colleen Coble

Butterfly PalaceAustin, 1904 – Newly orphaned and impoverished Lily Donaldson arrives at the famed Butterfly Mansion in search of a position. As soon as she arrives, she’s tested out by serving at the Marshall’s dinner party, where she recognizes one distinguished guest as her former fiancee Andrew, now hiding under a new identity and wooing Lily’s new mistress Belle. As Lily frets over his reappearance in her life after all these years, she also fears becoming the target of the Servant Girl Killer, who is leaving young women’s bodies all over Austin. After saving one of the killer’s victims, she becomes embroiled in the investigation and its potential connections to an assassination attempt, a counterfeiting ring, and the mysterious incident of arson that killed her father.

I didn’t realize Colleen Coble’s Butterfly Palace was in the romantic Christian lit genre until I popped by Goodreads to add this review. For those of you, who like me, aren’t fans, I would still give this a shot because it’s not overly proselytizing or swoonworthy outside of a few instances where the main characters, Lily and Drew, scold themselves for almost giving in to carnal temptation or become jealous of the other’s flirtations. The book does, however, provide a unique setting for a historical mystery that touches on the social issues of its time.

However, for a book that highlights class differences in the early 2oth-century, Lily’s character unbelievably straddles the barrier between the help and friend of the household. As a modern woman, I enjoyed her, but she behaves unrealistically for a woman in her position, especially in relation to her employer Belle whom she openly defies. Belle, who at first is selfish and vain, has a fabulously feminist growth arc that makes her the heroine of the tale in my eyes.

While the plot showed promise at the beginning, it dragged on for far too long with the addition of superfluous characters and ridiculous red herrings. The mystery’s unraveling was especially poorly executed, rushed and illogical, though I suppose the plot threads were mostly wrapped up. Overall, it was a light read that was mildly enjoyable, but not very thrilling in either the romantical or criminal sense.

3 Stars

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of SarajevoMy current “thing” (i.e. whatever random topic snags my interest and sparks obsessiveness) is the Balkans. I’ve been poring over pictures of gorgeous scenery from Bulgaria to Serbia, jealously listening to colleague’s tales of travel to Croatia, and dragging my roommate to brunch at a popular local Balkan restaurant. Needless to say, when I was scouring the e-library for books to take on a recent trip, Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo was the first one I downloaded.

During the Siege of Sarajevo, a cellist watches from his window as 22 of his friends and neighbors, waiting in line for bread, are killed by a mortar attack in the blink of an eye. In defiance and grief, he decides to commemorate them by playing at the spot for 22 days. Meanwhile, a young man (Kenan) leaves home to get clean water for his family and must weigh the cost of kindness versus survival. Elsewhere, an elderly baker (Dragan) runs into an old friend and contemplates his past and his future. As the men prepare to cross paths with the cellist, a female sniper (self-christened Arrow) holds his life in her hands. As she guards him against the enemy, her own army challenges her moral boundaries. All four must confront the changes that war has wrought on their identity, and try to salvage their humanity in the face of devastation. 

I don’t know much about the region, nor enough about the Bosnian War and this (like most historical fiction) is not the place to learn all that complex history. Yet, from his first words, Galloway makes you feel the mingled terror and love for Sarajevo its residents feel during the siege. Told over a single “average” day, all of these individuals encounter hardship that they’ve sadly become used to. They’re all terrified, but manage to soldier on.

The titular cellist goes unnamed, recognized only by his stirring music. He is revered, but not as relatable. In contrast, Kenan and Dragan represent the ordinary everyman. Their simple journeys, to get water or bread respectively, are wrought with traps as even crossing the street could mean stepping into a sniper’s line of vision. In spite of their fear, they both manage to take small acts of courage that demonstrate generosity can exist alongside inhumanity. Arrow was the hardest character for me to connect with. Despite engaging in sniping as a method of self-protection, I found her actions a little dubious, and even she questions her own morality; however, the end of her story definitely struck a chord within me as she fights to hold onto the remnants of her identity as she feels it slipping away by her actions.

Short but poignant, this book is a wonderfully written tribute to the victims of a poorly-remembered war. It doesn’t offer solutions or neatly-tied endings since it is a truly human story, one that incredibly is based on the real story of cellist Vedran Smailovic. The only reason it didn’t rate higher for me was that it didn’t haunt me afterwards – truly great and beloved books tend to fully stay in my mind years later, whereas certain points of this one were a strain to recall after a few short weeks.

4 Stars

The Spiritglass Charade (Stoker & Holmes #2) by Colleen Gleason

The Spiritglass Charade (Stoker & Holmes, #2)Colleen Gleason’s The Spiritglass Charade is the second book in her steampunk mystery series featuring Evaline Stoker (Bram’s sister) and Mina Holmes (Sherlock’s neice/Mycroft’s daughter), and it has benefited from the groundwork laid in the first book, The Clockwork Scarab*.

(Spoilers ahead for both books)

Despite the disastrous ending of the Affair of the Clockwork Scarab in which they let the arch-villain The Ankh escape, Evaline and Mina are eager to begin their next case. When Princess Alix herself requests their aid in exposing a fraud, they vow to do better this time. Alix’s friend Willa Aston has been obsessing over spiritual mediums, convinced they can help her speak with her deceased mother or missing brother. But Evaline and Mina soon discover that someone is using her misguided belief in the power of a spiritglass to make her appear to be a lunatic. With the addition of unexpected murders and the return of vampires to town, Evaline and Mina must figure out the connection between all these events, especially if it leads back to the mysterious and still-at large Ankh.

While the book alternates chapters between Evaline and Mina, I must confess to an affinity towards one protagonist more than the other. Despite my sympathy towards Mina’s  general geek awkwardness, I find her too smug and judgmental. Evaline, on the other hand, may act rashly but at least has an empathetic and warm nature. Both of them (sadly) showed little growth from the previous text, often working  independently instead of jointly and wasting more time with pointless swooning than actual detecting.

Relatedly to the amorous entanglements, the worst part of the series is definitely the time-traveling subplot. I find Dylan to be useless, with little role to play besides being one of Mina’s romantic interests (nevermind the fact that she has the perfectly adorable Scotland Yard Inspector Grayling as a potential beau). Dylan’s modern electronics and scientific/historical information from the future didn’t bring much to their investigations or jive with the technological innovations of the setting, even though he eventually uses his medical knowledge of blood transfusions to save lives in this book.  At least Evaline’s potential partner Pix, while overly secretive and sketchy, has a useful deeper connection to the seedy characters of the London underground.

The mystery itself was smarter than I expected, including a few unpredictable turns and a particularly thrilling scene set in the fantastic-sounding Vauxhall Gardens. Plus it features a part-cyborg beagle, deliciously decadent-sounding creme mandarins, and the opportunity to mock Twilight! It ends with an intriguing twist that will strongly impact Evaline’s and Mina’s relationship and responsibilities in the next book, and I’m eager to see how it unfolds.

Teen steampunk enthusiasts will enjoy having two intelligent female protagonists and the intersection of mystery with some unusual sci-fi/fantasy elements. I recommend this to fans of Gail Carringer’s Parasol Protectorate or Patricia Wrede/Caroline Stevermer’s Cecilia & Kate (The Enchanted Chocolate Pot) series.

3 Stars

*Forgive me for not having reviewed The Clockwork Scarab on this blog as I read it before the times. By my Goodreads, I attested it was “fun and light with two flawed, but engaging heroines. Plenty of ludicrous plots, but more amusing than frustrating.” So there you have it, though I will admit to liking the sequel more.