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ALC Review: The Curse of Penryth Hall by Jess Armstrong


Release date: 5 December 2023

Rating: 2/5

Narrator: Emma Love

Synopsis: After the Great War, American heiress Ruby Vaughn made a life for herself running a rare bookstore alongside her octogenarian employer and house mate in Exeter. She’s always avoided dwelling on the past, even before the war, but it always has a way of finding her. When Ruby is forced to deliver a box of books to a folk healer living deep in the Cornish countryside, she is brought back to the one place she swore she’d never return. A more sensible soul would have delivered the package and left without rehashing old wounds. But no one has ever accused Ruby of being sensible. Thus begins her visit to Penryth Hall.

A foreboding fortress, Penryth Hall is home to Ruby’s once dearest friend, Tamsyn, and her husband, Sir Edward Chenowyth. It’s an unsettling place, and after a more unsettling evening, Ruby is eager to depart. But her plans change when Penryth’s bells ring for the first time in thirty years. Edward is dead; he met a gruesome end in the orchard, and with his death brings whispers of a returned curse. It also brings Ruan Kivell, the person whose books brought her to Cornwall, the one the locals call a Pellar, the man they believe can break the curse. Ruby doesn’t believe in curses—or Pellars—but this is Cornwall and to these villagers the curse is anything but lore, and they believe it will soon claim its next victim: Tamsyn.


To protect her friend, Ruby must work alongside the Pellar to find out what really happened in the orchard that night.

 

Review


The synopsis for The Curse of Penryth Hall drew me to it immediately. Combine the great synopsis with the beautiful cover, and my assumption that this book would fit right in with my reading preferences seemed solid and based on empirical reading data. What a flop. I was ready to ditch the book about 25% of the way in but went ahead and continued with it because it is pretty short and I listen at warp speed, so 4 hours of my time while cleaning out my attic didn’t seem like too much of a waste, especially since I was multitasking. My primary problem with the book lies in the fact that it doesn’t really tell a story outright. The narrator makes lots of political digs, negative stereotypes, and whines a LOT. There’s no art to these things, either. No narrative device in this book uses these faults to somehow teach the character anything. It’s just the default setting for the whole novel, and it really took a great synopsis and turned it into a poorly presented story.


Ruby Vaughn hides out in England after The Great War, during which she was an ambulance driver who took the fighters to and from the front lines in the trenches. Naturally, this can cause some PTSD, but we don’t see a woman suffering from shock after a terrible war; we see a disowned heiress, still uppity and snobbish, looking down her nose at all those she feels deserve it. She works with an old man in his bookshop and makes a delivery of a box of books, which she has been instructed not to open and look at, to Cornwall. She’s reluctant do this, however, because she must interact with a former friend, which she has some history with and holds a grudge against for reasons that are supposed to come across as mysterious but really smack of whinery.


Our “meet cute,” or whatever the historical, gothic fiction equivalent calls itself, between Ruby and our other main character, Ruan, happens in a very Ian McEwan-esque fashion. Ruan is a Pellar, or the Cornish equivalent of a wizard or sorcerer, a seventh son of a seventh son. He’s the first one in 300 years, and the books Ruby brings are for him. He’s also the one called when Ruby’s friend’s husband, a nobleman, is gruesomely murdered and the constabulary presence wants to verify whether the death is the result of a curse.


All this plot summary comes to a point. What’s going on here? A great mystery should keep the reader curious. This one kept me at a distance. Ruby is a hard pill to swallow. She’s arrogant, opinionated to the point of moral superiority and downright prejudice, which begs the question. Is her demeanor a purposeful commentary on Americans? Or is it a commentary on the superstitious Cornish people? Either way, it’s not done well; and it’s quite a chore to get through the book with a first person narrator like this one.

I spent most of the time listening to this book checking how much was left of it. It’s not a long book—336 pages or 11 hours (5.5 if you listen as fast as I do). It felt like 10 times that long. I feel it would have done better as a novella or a part of an anthology and gotten to the point faster.


On a positive note, the narration done by Emma Love made the book a bit more bearable. 4/5 stars. I could tell the characters apart and didn’t want to go to sleep so much.


Overall, I have to give the book a 2/5. It felt like a waste of time and didn’t live up to the expectations put forward from the synopses. And too much whining. Shut up already, Ruby.


My thanks to Libro FM and Dreamscape Media for the ALC, for which I willingly give my own, honest opinion.


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