Book Review: The Secret Scripture

When she was a young woman, Roseanne McNulty was one of the most beautiful and beguiling girls in County Sligo, Ireland. Now, she is a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, and nearing her hundredth year. As the story of Roseanne’s life unfolds, so does the life of her caregiver, Dr. Grene, who has been asked to evaluate the patients to decide if they can return to society when the hospital closes down. But as Dr. Grene researches her case, he discovers a document that tells a very different version of Roseanne’s life from what she can recall.

Yet another book I might never have picked up were it not for my book group!

The Secret Scripture is a book of secrets and sorrow, told through the journals of 100-year-old Roseanne McNulty, a mental hospital resident, and Dr. Grene, the psychiatrist evaluating her as the institution is about to close. Although he’s treated her for decades, it’s only as the hospital reaches its end that the doctor begins to dig further into Roseanne’s shadowy past.

Roseanne has spent upwards of 60 years in institutions, and the question is not only whether she’s sane now, but whether she was ever truly insane. As Roseanne’s story comes to light, she unveils memories of her early childhood in Sligo during the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s. Roseanne tells a story of a loving father who raises his young daughter with compassion and curiosity — yet the doctor’s research reveals reports of political entanglements that Roseanne apparently knew nothing about.

A key tragedy during these years sets Roseanne up for a hard and lonely life, until she meets the man she falls in love with. But her life with Tom runs into its own set of tragedies, the upshot of which is Roseanne’s lifelong institutionalization.

I won’t say too much more about the plot details, as they’re best discovered as they unfold. The book has a somewhat slow start, but as the pieces come together, the mysteries and the clues gain a greater sense of urgency. The secrets that come out are truly shocking, simply because they convey the horror of simple cruelty and the easy way in which some people can dismantle others’ lives.

I would have if not happily, at least gladly, open-heartedly, fiercely, finely murdered him.

The doctor’s pieces of the narration are a bit frustrating at times. There are segments about his own life and his marriage that seem disconnected from the rest of the story, although taken as a whole, they do make more sense in the greater scheme of things.

The twin narratives show the unreliability of memory, but also the inherent biases of written documentation. After all, even eye-witness reports depend on the objectivity of the one making the report in the first place. Should we trust Roseanne’s memories of her earlier life, or rely more heavily on the documents that the doctor manages to unearth? Or does the truth lie in some middle ground, with bits of each making up the real course of events?

I did find myself a bit confused at times by the historical references from the war, as I’m not terribly familiar with the details of the conflict and had a hard time figuring out who was on which side. Still, the author manages to evoke the time period quite well, with small details of dress and music to add flavor and bring the scenes to life.

Roseanne is a tragic figure, yet one who ultimately endures whatever life throws at her during her long lifetime. While I was horrified by so much of her story and ached for what she experienced, I was left with a hopeful feeling by the end.

What can I tell you further? I once lived among humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels.

The Secret Scripture is quite a lovely book with an unusual story to tell. The writing and pacing take a bit of patience, especially for about the first third, but if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded by the building tension and dramatic revelations toward the end. I’m glad my book group picked this one to discuss! It’s always great to encounter a book that I might otherwise have missed completely.

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The details:

Title: The Secret Scripture
Author: Sebastian Barry
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: April 2, 2008
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies—boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs. Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love.

 

My Thoughts:

What a lovely book! With beautiful, often sharp, but never mean descriptions, author Elizabeth Taylor presents regal Mrs. Palfrey, a sturdy elderly woman who finds herself alone in the world. Her daughter is rather disinterested, and her lone grandson, whom she’d counted on for regular visits now that she’s moved to London, can’t be bothered. When a sidewalk slip lands her in front of Ludo’s basement apartment, he comes to her rescue and ends up as her stand-in grandson, providing a spark of life in an otherways dreary existence.

The characters are both quirky and sad. Each of the hotel residents has a life they remember fondly as they pass each slow day by sitting in the parlor, waiting for the dinner menu to be posted, and silently criticizing each others’ foibles. I should point out that the synopsis, above and on the back cover, is a little misleading when it describes Mrs. Palfrey as falling in love. That’s not how it struck me at all; the relationship is full of love, but of a different sort. Meanwhile, we see the ups and downs of these people’s lives, trapped together but also quite alone.

While the subject matter strikes a little too close for comfort for me, in relation to recent events with family members, there’s no denying the craft with which the author has created a representation of loneliness and the fear of aging. These characters, hungry for contact with the outside world and desperate for anything new to interrupt the sameness of their days, feel very much true to life and deserving of compassion, even at their most ornery or ridiculous.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a sweet, touching, short novel, and I look forward to exploring more by this author.

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The details:

Title: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
Author: Elizabeth Taylor
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: 1971
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

 

About the author:

Elizabeth Taylor (née Coles) was a popular English novelist and short story writer. Elizabeth Coles was born in Reading, Berkshire in 1912. She was educated at The Abbey School, Reading, and worked as a governess, as a tutor and as a librarian.

In 1936, she married John William Kendall Taylor , a businessman. She lived in Penn, Buckinghamshire, for almost all her married life.

Her first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, was published in 1945 and was followed by eleven more. Her short stories were published in various magazines and collected in four volumes. She also wrote a children’s book.

Taylor’s work is mainly concerned with the nuances of “everyday” life and situations, which she writes about with dexterity. Her shrewd but affectionate portrayals of middle class and upper middle class English life won her an audience of discriminating readers, as well as loyal friends in the world of letters.

Book Review: Silence Fallen

In the #1 New York Times bestselling Mercy Thompson novels, the coyote shapeshifter has found her voice in the werewolf pack. But when Mercy’s bond with the pack and her mate is broken, she’ll learn what it truly means to be alone…

Attacked and abducted in her home territory, Mercy finds herself in the clutches of the most powerful vampire in the world, taken as a weapon to use against alpha werewolf Adam and the ruler of the Tri-Cities vampires. In coyote form, Mercy escapes only to find herself without money, without clothing, and alone in the heart of Europe…

Unable to contact Adam and the rest of the pack, Mercy has allies to find and enemies to fight, and she needs to figure out which is which. Ancient powers stir, and Mercy must be her agile best to avoid causing a war between vampires and werewolves, and between werewolves and werewolves. And in the heart of the ancient city of Prague, old ghosts rise…

It’s Mercy! It’s Adam! Need I say more?

I’m not sure why I even attempt to write reviews for the books in this series. Because really, all I basically want to say is:

I LOVE THIS SERIES! I LOVE THESE CHARACTERS! IT’S 100% CERTAIN THAT I WILL LOVE EVERY BOOK IN THIS SERIES.

What more do you need to know?

Okay, trying to calm myself now…

Silence Fallen is the 10th book in the amazing, wonderful, and highly addictive Mercy Thompson series, written by the incredibly talented (and fortunately for us, very prolific) Patricia Briggs.

Each book in the series builds upon those that came earlier. Over the course of the series, we’ve seen Mercy find her place in the werewolf pack, assert her own standing among the not-entirely-welcoming wolves, and discover more and more about her own powers and talents. Through it all, we’ve seen her relationship with Alpha werewolf Adam develop from irritating acquaintance to flirtatious ally to a deep and abiding love.

I love Mercy, by the way. In case that wasn’t clear. She’s strong, she’s a fighter, she speaks up for herself, she defends those who need protection, she’s a good and loyal friend… and yet she’s also a vulnerable woman who has had to deal with some majorly awful blows throughout her life.

In Silence Fallen, Mercy and Adam become separated early on due to a vicious kidnapping — and not only are they physically separated, but their psychic bond as mates seems to be broken too. THIS SUCKS. If you’ve read these books, you know about the power of the mating bond and the pack bonds. The idea of these being damaged is terrifying!

Patricia Briggs plays some interesting games with the story in this book. As the couple are apart for most of the story, their chapters are distinct as well — some from Mercy’s point of view, some from Adam’s. In addition, the timeline twists a little bit, with the chapters not necessarily describing events in the proper order. (Don’t worry, it all makes sense once you read it.)

Meanwhile, the settings include Milan and Prague, and Mercy and the gang end up dealing with a whole range of foes and allies, including nasty vampires, varied werewolf packs, witches, goblins, and a very old mystical being that I won’t say more about. (Read the book. You’ll see.)

My only teeny little complaint about Silence Fallen is that Mercy and Adam spend about 90% of it apart, and therefore we don’t get to see their amazing chemisty. Also as a result of the separation, we don’t get much of Mercy’s interactions with the pack — always entertaining — or the internal pack dynamics that add to the fantastic world-building of the series.

Listen, if you’re a Mercy fan, then you’re going to read Silence Fallen. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mercy yet, I strongly suggest dropping everything else and starting the series from the beginning.

One more thing about Silence Fallen, and I only mention this because I’ve already seen it hinted at in most other reviews I’ve seen so far: This book has an amazing (and pretty adorable) twist in it that just absolutely delighted me. I’m not saying anything else about it. But just know that it’s super fun and awesome and — if you’re a fan — you’ll love this little surprise.

Convinced yet? Go read some Mercy!!!

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The details:

Title: Silence Fallen
Author: Patricia Briggs
Publisher: Ace Books
Publication date: March 7, 2017
Length: 371 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The River At Night

A high-stakes drama set against the harsh beauty of the Maine wilderness, charting the journey of four friends as they fight to survive the aftermath of a white water rafting accident, The River at Night is a nonstop and unforgettable thriller by a stunning new voice in fiction.

Winifred Allen needs a vacation.

Stifled by a soul-crushing job, devastated by the death of her beloved brother, and lonely after the end of a fifteen-year marriage, Wini is feeling vulnerable. So when her three best friends insist on a high-octane getaway for their annual girls’ trip, she signs on, despite her misgivings.

What starts out as an invigorating hiking and rafting excursion in the remote Allagash Wilderness soon becomes an all-too-real nightmare: A freak accident leaves the women stranded, separating them from their raft and everything they need to survive. When night descends, a fire on the mountainside lures them to a ramshackle camp that appears to be their lifeline. But as Wini and her friends grasp the true intent of their supposed saviors, long buried secrets emerge and lifelong allegiances are put to the test. To survive, Wini must reach beyond the world she knows to harness an inner strength she never knew she possessed.

With intimately observed characters, visceral prose, and pacing as ruthless as the river itself, The River at Night is a dark exploration of creatures—both friend and foe—that you won’t soon forget.

You know when you go to a horror movie, and the main character does really stupid things, and you just want to shout at her (because, let’s face it, horror movies love to make it about a her)… NO! TURN BACK! DON’T OPEN THE DOOR! DON’T GO DOWN THAT CREEPY CORRIDOR!

Well, in the case of The River At Night, it’s more like NO! DO NOT GO OFF INTO THE WOODS TOTALLY UNPREPARED! DO NOT GO INTO A RURAL AREA WHERE THE ONLY PEOPLE AROUND FOR 30 MILES ARE CREEPY, SEXIST HUNTERS! DO NOT PLACE YOUR LIVES IN THE HANDS OF A 20-YEAR-OLD WITH NO BACKUP!

Okay, on the one hand we have a very readable, action-packed story that keeps the adrenaline pumping. On the other hand… STOP MAKING STUPID DECISIONS!

In The River At Night, four women in their mid-thirties decide to follow ringleader Pia’s crazy push to embark on a white-water rafting adventure for their annual get-together, rather than basking on a beach or basically anything at all sane or safe. Instead, they drive nine hours into the Maine wilderness to go rafting on a pristine river with a tour company — really just a father and son — who don’t even have a website, as Wini points out.

I mean really. Who doesn’t have a website?

Anyhoo… the four friends have been getting together for years for their annual escape from their real lives, their meaningless corporate jobs, their unhappy marriages, their stressful obligations. Wini, as our main character, is particularly in need of escape this year after the implosion of her marriage and the suicide of her mentally ill brother.

Pia is the wild one, always in the lead, always pushing the others to take chances and live on the edge — so when she decides they need this life-affirming adventure, the other three fall in line, with some doubts, but ultimately following along. Off they all go to REI to buy their shiny new gear, and then it’s off to the wilds, where they encounter creepy people in a remote general store before arriving at the wilderness lodge from which they’ll start their river adventure.

Their guide is young, sexy, and perhaps has a shady past. No one is 100% comfortable, although Pia insists that everything is fantastic. And then, of course, they hit the river, and pretty quickly all hell breaks loose. Before long, the four women find themselves without a guide, without their gear, completely cut off from the outside world with no means of communication, and with no clue what to do.

And then they encounter the crazy hill folk.

Yikes.

While the book held my attention and kept me turning the pages, certain things just drove me nuts.

First of all, I can’t stand when people place themselves in peril as a growth opportunity. Nope, I’ve never rafted before, so it makes total sense for me to do so on a dangerous river with an unknown guide and no support systems! Slow your roll, sisters.

Second, there are about a thousand warning signs that any rational person might have considered. The roads are creepy. They’re miles past any sign of civilization. Their cell phones don’t work. All the buildings they see along the way are falling apart. The few people they encounter are weird and menacing.

Third, loose ends and/or unexplained bits. If these women are the first to hit this pristine river, then what are all the other people doing at the lodge? Where are they all off to? Did our group of supposedly smart women ask any questions at all about emergency procedures or insurance or any other of about a thousand what ifs? What was up with that kitchen worker at the lodge who seems like she has an agenda with guide Rory but then disappears from the story? What about Rory’s dad? If they had to hike to get to the launching spot because there aren’t passable roads, how did their raft and gear get there? On and on and on.

What really made me bonkers was how these women see themselves and each other. There are repeated references to them being middle-aged. Hello? Middle-aged at age 35? Um, no. Or take this brief description — Wini’s view of one of her friends:

It occurred to me that here was a woman who might not age well, especially in the face. Too many of her emotions already lived there in ever-deepening lines around her eyes and mouth — even at age thirty-seven. But I loved her scrappy toughness; in fact, we all made fun of her for injecting her own Botox […]

I mean, really. Who talks about her friends this way?

Finally, though, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the crazy hill folk. If this had just been about a group of women, ill-advised and ill-prepared as they were, having to survive alone in the wilderness, it might have worked for me a lot better. I mean, there are even some good passages that convey the fear of all that they face:

Full on darkness, and all its terrors. I suddenly understood cultures that believed in demons and chimeras, werewolves and gollums. With no walls around us, no light or source of warmth, what besides the monstrous makes sense? Every sound was a beast.

So if it were just about surviving a rafting accident, maybe what happens might have sustained an air of believability. Because no matter how dumb the whole enterprise was, it’s conceivable to think that Pia’s strong personality might have been able to convince everyone else to play along against their better judgment. And given that, it could be really exciting or inspiring to see them working together, overcoming obstacles, outsmarting their own circumstances.

But nope. The crazy hill folk, rather than the river and the wilderness, becomes the chief danger. At which point I got muscle strain from how hard I was rolling my eyes. I mean, our heroines end up fleeing the crazy lady with a gun by jumping on a wooden raft and going down a series of waterfalls without any oars… and somehow survive? None of what happens makes a lick of sense. And never mind the continuity bits, such as having a dinner of roasted varmints and then on the next page talking about incessant hunger. And why bother having a character warn about getting sick from drinking the river water if nobody ends up getting sick?

I don’t know. There are definitely exciting moments in this book, but ultimately, the profound personal growth these characters supposedly undergo because of their ordeal feels flat and false. Wini starts bland, and ends bland. I never quite got the friendship between these women, and that didn’t change by the end of the book.

And then there’s the fact that even in the next to last paragraph, as Wini is supposedly being positive, she’s still focusing on her “aging body” and “dull job”. Way to be upbeat, Wini!

So, once again, I find myself rambling on about a book I can’t really recommend. Sure, it’s a fast-paced read and it never lost my attention — but too many pieces make little sense, and the weird plot choices only make it worse. Besides which, for me, a book in which supposedly smart people make decision after decision that’s foolish or illogical — well, no. Clearly, that’s a situation that leaves me fuming, so this just probably wasn’t a good reading choice for me at all.

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The details:

Title: The River At Night
Author: Erica Ferencik
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Next Year, For Sure

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

next-year-for-sure

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In this moving and enormously entertaining debut novel, longtime romantic partners Kathryn and Chris experiment with an open relationship and reconsider everything they thought they knew about love.

After nine years together, Kathryn and Chris have the sort of relationship most would envy. They speak in the shorthand they have invented, complete one another’s sentences, and help each other through every daily and existential dilemma. But, as content as they are together, an enduring loneliness continues to haunt the dark corners of their relationship. When Chris tells Kathryn about his feelings for Emily, a vivacious young woman he sees often at the Laundromat, Kathryn encourages her boyfriend to pursue this other woman—certain that her bond with Chris is strong enough to weather a little side dalliance.

Next Year, For Sure tracks the tumultuous, revelatory, and often very funny year that follows. When Chris’s romance with Emily evolves beyond what anyone anticipated, both Chris and Kathryn are invited into Emily’s communal home, where Kathryn will discover new possibilities of her own. In the confusions, passions, and upheavals of their new lives, both Kathryn and Chris are forced to reconsider their past and what they thought they knew about love.

Offering a luminous portrait of a relationship from two perspectives, Zoey Leigh Peterson has written an empathic, beautiful, and tremendously honest novel about a great love pushed to the edge. Deeply poignant and hugely entertaining, Next Year, For Sure shows us what lies at the mysterious heart of relationships, and what true openness and transformation require.

My Thoughts:

Interesting. One of the blurbs for this book mentions polyamory, and I’m not sure I’d have described the relationships in this book using quite that term… but for lack of anything better, sure, why not? If anything, I’d say it’s about how relationships don’t have to follow the one-on-one traditional format, and how different people may need different things at different times in their lives.

Chris and Kathryn, at the outset, seem to have a perfect relationship, utterly secure and utterly devoted. And if they seem a little light on passion, well, it’s been nine years, and they have such a deep soul-to-soul connection that the sex part seems not such a big deal. There’s a loneliness in their lives, though — their best friends and next door neighbors have moved away, and Chris and Kathryn as a unit of two and only two seem a bit insular and cut off from the rest of the world.

They also share every single thought and feeling they have, including their random crushes on other people. This time, though, Kathryn encourages Chris to actually do something about it. Maybe she’s hoping that he will just work it out of his system, but instead, his connection with Emily deepens from a crush to love, and Kathryn has to figure out a response. (And we know this story will go down some unexpected paths when, for example, Emily invites Kathryn to come to dinner along with Chris and Emily on their first date).

The three navigate their unusual relationship, with plenty of ups and downs. For Kathryn, it’s an introduction into a life that includes more people, more challenges, more ways of interacting with the world. For Chris, it’s a constant tug-of-war between wanting a safe, stay-at-home life with the woman (or women) he loves, versus needing to be “on” in order to keep up with Emily’s boundless energy and even Kathryn’s newer need for interaction with others.

We alternate between Chris and Kathryn’s points of view over the course of the year when their lives and relationship changes for good. While it’s hard for me to relate to Kathryn’s attitudes at time, as she both encourages and resents Chris’s growing involvement with Emily, I did ultimately come to understand why their new lives made sense for these two people. (I was also surprisingly charmed by the love and friendship that develops between Emily and Kathryn.)

The writing in Next Year, For Sure is fresh, insightful, and often funny, and I zipped through this book in about a day and a half. It might be flashier to say that this is a book about polyamory, but what I really think is at the heart of it all is a story of lonely people finding connection and belonging. I didn’t always understand the characters’ actions and feelings, but I enjoyed reading about them and considering their motivations, experiences, and outcomes.

Next Year, For Sure is certainly an unusual book with an unusual view of relationships, but I quite enjoyed reading it.

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The details:

Title: Next Year, For Sure
Author: Zoey Leigh Peterson
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: March 7, 2017
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Smell of Other People’s Houses

smell-of-other-peoples-houses

Alaska: Growing up here isn’t like growing up anywhere else.

Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck suddenly comes her way. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This is a book about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.

This is a beautiful piece of writing, showcasing the lives of a handful of young people as they navigate their way through their triumphs and sorrows in 1970s Alaska. The novel is told through interlocking stories, giving us windows into the various characters’ lives, while offering constantly shifting perspectives on other characters as we see how they see one another. Some of the characters are best friends; others just know each other in a friend-of-a-friend or even more remote sort of way.

Along the way, they deal with missing or abusive parents, misunderstandings, birth families and found families, and the quiet support that can come from the most unexpected of sources.

The backdrop of life in Alaska lends the stories a unique flavor. What’s most important is the human relationships, but the scenes of life in a poor neighborhood in Fairbanks or on a fishing boat or along a remote highway give the plot developments a grounding in real life that’s gritty and evocative.

The language in this book is really lovely, and I thought the way the characters’ stories weave together was remarkably well done, with many surprises along the way.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses is a relatively thin book, but it’s got plenty to enjoy and savor. If you enjoy great, emotionally powerful writing, check it out. I believe this book has been marketed as young adult, but there’s no reason that adult readers wouldn’t love it.

Reading tip: I made the mistake of reading this book during a very busy, hectic week, so I was only able to read it in bits and pieces, and I think I lost a bit of the flow along the way. If you can, I’d suggest setting aside a cozy couple of hours and reading this one straight through.

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The details:

Title: The Smell of Other People’s Houses
Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication date: February 23, 2016
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

these-old-shades

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Under the reign of Louis XV, corruption and intrigue have been allowed to blossom in France, and Justin Alastair, the notorious Duke of Avon and proud of his soubriquet ‘Satanas’, flourishes as well. Then, from a dark Parisian back alley, he plucks Leon, a redheaded urchin with strangely familiar looks, just in time for his long over-due schemes of revenge on the Comte de St. Vire. Among the splendours of Versailles and the dignified mansions of England, Justin begins to unfold his sinister plans — until, that is, Leon becomes the ravishing beauty Leonie…

Unanswered questions.

Lovely, titian-haired Leonie, ward of the dashing Duke of Avon, had all Paris at her feet. Yet her true origins remained shrouded in mystery. And neither the glittering soirees nor the young aristocrats who so ardently courted her could still the question that plagued her young heart.

What was her mysterious parentage?

Just one man held the secret, the one she feared most in the world–the iron-willed Comte de Saint-Vire, deadly enemy of the Duke. He would give her the answer–for a price. But could she betray the man she secretly, helplessly loved? And could this proud young beauty bear to face the truth when it came?

My Thoughts:

I’m sold! Until this month, I had never read a Georgette Heyer book — until my book club selected Devil’s Cub for our February book of the month. I really enjoyed Devil’s Cub, and once I realized that it was a sequel (kind of) to These Old Shades, I simply had to read this one as well.

These Old Shades is even better than Devil’s Cub, in my humble opinion. The Duke of Avon is just everything you could want in a hero of a Regency romance — he’s of the nobility, has a terrible reputation, is incredibly self-assured and handsome… but turns out to have a smooshy heart just waiting for the right person to come along and melt it. Léonie is a delight — an unpolished young girl, masquerading as a boy, who falls head over heels for her rescuer, but never quite loses her independence, impudence, and saucy sense of humor.

The banter and social maneuverings in These Old Shades are delicious. The book is scrumptious fun, beginning to end.

More Georgette Heyer, please! If you’re a fan, let me know which book you think I should read next.

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The details:

Title: These Old Shades
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: Originally published 1926
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Mother’s Promise

mothers-promiseKeep your Kleenex handy before picking up The Mother’s Promise.

The Mother’s Promise is the story of an unusual yet tightly connected mother and daughter, and the two women who enter their inner circle.

Alice is a 40-year-old single mother who receives the dreaded news that she has ovarian cancer and requires immediate surgery. Zoe is her 15-year-old daughter, a smart girl who’s practically crippled by her overwhelming social anxiety disorder. There’s no one else in their lives — no close friends, no relatives apart from Alice’s alcoholic brother. Zoe’s father has never been in the picture, and Zoe knows nothing about him.

Kate is the oncology nurse looking after Alice. Kate is married to a wonderful man and has two too-good-to-be-true teen-aged stepchildren, but her happy marriage is now on the verge of crumbling under the stress of infertility treatments and multiple miscarriages.

(Do we see where this is going yet? In this case, unpredictability may be overrated. More on this later…)

The fourth character in this circle is Sonja, the social worker assigned to Alice’s case, who steps in to make sure that Alice gets the support she needs as well as to make sure that Zoe has a roof over her head and someone to care for her when Alice’s condition worsens. Sonja, of course, has her own set of hidden problems and pains.

The novel shows these four women coming together, all with their own inner turmoil and emotional trauma, and finding healing and support through each others’ helping hands. The story unfolds via chapters told from all four points of view, so we get insights into what it feels like to be in their shoes.

In Zoe’s case, this is particularly affecting. Zoe’s situation is pure, utter agony. She’s so debilitated by her social anxiety that she can never speak in class, feels ashamed every time she walks down the school hallway, and agonizes over other kids’ opinions to such an extent that , for example, she never allows herself to eat in public for fear that she’ll do something embarrassing and everyone will stare or laugh at her. Being in Zoe’s mind is exhausting and sad, but also fascinating. Here’s a girl with so much to offer, and she just can’t do the things that will help her fit in, no matter how hard she tries. Her mother really and truly is all she has, and it’s terrifying for both of them to realize that her entire life is dependent on Alice being there.

For Alice, the diagnosis comes completely out of the blue (as is so often the case with ovarian cancer). In a particularly moving scene, Alice hears the doctor and nurse pouring information out at her about the tests and the results and the treatment, and yet can’t even recognize the word “cancer” as applied to herself until about the 3rd or 4th time it’s said in her presence. Alice is committed to being positive, but her positivity crosses into denial over the seriousness of her condition and her poor prognosis.

Kate and Sonja’s storylines, while part of the novel, get less time than Alice and Zoe’s, but they each still emerge as individuals with their own lives, worries, and needs.

So what did I think of The Mother’s Promise? Hold on, let me wipe that last tear and then I’ll let you know…

Obviously, this is a heart-wrenching, gut-punching book. That should be clear from the start. It’s about a single mother with ovarian cancer — let’s not kid ourselves about this having a happy ending.

As I mentioned from the start, the resolution of the story is easy to see coming from very early on — but that in no way diminishes the impact. The importance thing in The Mother’s Promise is the journey, not the destination. Zoe in particular is the one to watch — there’s no instant cure for her social anxiety disorder, but she makes small steps toward breaking out of her old ways, and even manages to push past a truly awful moment of humiliation that any teen, even without anxiety issues, would have an extremely hard time getting over. It’s lovely to see Zoe’s determination to try, and enlightening to be inside her head and to learn what it feels like to be such a wounded, vulnerable soul.

Kate is lovely. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s a woman who loses all of the dreams of the kind of future she wants, and yet finds a way to be open and caring and nurturing. It’s a beautiful story arc, and I wish we got to spend more time with her. Maybe a sequel??

I have mixed feelings about Alice. Obviously, she’s worthy of sympathy and compassion, and her ordeal is horrible. I just wish the storytelling around Alice was a bit more consistent. The chapters told from her perspective are quite moving, of course, yet we cut away to other people’s perspectives at times when I wanted to know how Alice was feeling, phyically and emotionally, such as during her initial hospitalization and recovery from surgery.

As for Sonja — her story weaves in some themes that are important and worthy of attention, but at the same time, she feels extraneous to the story. Again, I don’t want to give too much away here, so I’ll be vague. It’s not that Sonja’s sections aren’t interesting. I just felt that you could remove her pieces from the novel, and the core of the story would not lose anything. Perhaps this is just trying to fit one too many story threads into one novel. It’s a good thread, but unnecessary.

I started The Mother’s Promise knowing I’d probably dissolve at some point while reading it, and that’s a pretty accurate picture of what happened. Mothers and daughters? Cancer? Helplessly watching a parent suffer? Children with no one to care for them? Oh, this book knew exactly how to push my buttons! Waterworks galore.

But still — The Mother’s Promise is a beautiful book despite all the heartache. The relationships are complex and feel real, with fragile people strengthened by their unbreakable emotional bonds. Some tearjerker books feel too deliberate, as if the author sat down and said, “Hmm. How can I make my readers cry?”. Not The Mother’s Promise. Yes, there will be tears, but they’re genuine and feel earned.

Definitely read The Mother’s Promise. It’s powerful and well-written, and will make you look at your loved ones with new, appreciate eyes. And, definitely worth mentioning, the book does an admirable job of showing the power of women caregivers, nurses, and nurterers — people who change lives on a daily basis. Kudos to the author for such a sensitive and fine portrayal of roles that are often overlooked.

For more by this author, check out her amazing (and equally heart-wrenching) previous novel, The Things We Keep (review).

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The details:

Title: The Mother’s Promise
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Month of Maisie Readalong: Birds of A Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

birds-of-a-feather

Welcome to the Month of Maisie Readalong Blog Tour, celebrating the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I’m delighted to be participating in this blog tour, which features each book in the Maisie Dobbs series, leading up to the newest release, In This Grave Hour (release date March 14th – book #13 in the series).

For my stop along the blog tour, I’m focusing on the 2nd book in the series, Birds of a Feather.

Note: See the bottom of this post for the schedule of the rest of the tour. The Month of Maisie Readalong is sponsored by TLC Book Tours.

Synopsis:

An eventful year has passed for Maisie Dobbs. Since starting a one-woman private investigation agency in 1929 London, she now has a professional office in Fitzroy Square and an assistant, the happy-go-lucky Billy Beale. She has proven herself as a psychologist and investigator, and has even won over Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad—an admirable achievement for a woman who worked her way from servant to scholar to sleuth, and who also served as a battlefield nurse in the Great War.

It’s now the early Spring of 1930. Stratton is investigating a murder case in Coulsden, while Maisie has been summoned to Dulwich to find a runaway heiress. The woman is the daughter of Joseph Waite, a wealthy self-made man who has lavished her with privilege but kept her in a gilded cage. His domineering ways have driven her off before, and now she’s bolted again.

My thoughts:

I read the first Maisie Dobbs novel two years ago (review), and was instantly intrigued by the fascinating main character. Maisie is a strong, independent, but damaged woman. A nurse who lost her beloved to his incurable war injury, Maise returns from the battefields of the Great War a changed woman. With the patronage of the wealthy woman who once employed her as a housemaid and the tutelage of a respected professor and psychologist, Maisie develops her intuitive skills and applies them to the pursuit of investigations. Maisie dedicates herself not just to solving cases, but to understanding the deeper issues leading to the individuals’ pain and suffering, and works to help her clients achieve not just closure, but also healing.

In Birds of a Feather, set in 1930, the war may be long over, but its lasting devastation is not. As Maisie investigates a missing-persons case, she unearths the terrible damage wrought by guilt and blame. While the people involved all bear some burden of wrong-doing and bad decisions, it’s clear that the war itself is the villain here, leaving lasting wounds and ripping huge holes into families, villages, and communities.

Maisie herself is a wonderful lead character. She’s not a typical woman of her time. Maisie clearly considers herself a committed loner, as she still makes weekly visits to the man she loved, even though he can’t recognize or remember her, and she mourns the life she never got to have with him. But as we see in Birds of a Feather, Maisie finally starts to open herself to the thought of what the rest of her life might look like. Meanwhile, she’s doing very well professionally, incorporating her unique blend of mindfulness and physical empathy into her investigative approach.

I enjoyed Birds of a Feather, although I was a bit less caught up in the story than I was in the first book. Maisie Dobbs has all the details of Maisie’s sad backstory, and as such, really lets us into her life and mind. The 2nd book is much more focused on the case than on Maisie herself, and I missed the focus on the personal.

That said, the case itself ends up being entwined with a murder case under investigation by Scotland Yard, and Maisie is at her best when she’s in hot pursuit of the truth, even after being cautioned to stay out of the way by her police contacts. As the case becomes more complicated, it’s fascinating to see Maisie’s determination and resourcefulness in tracking down the pieces that connect and putting together a solution that only she could find, with her holistic approach to sleuthing.

I highly recommend the Maisie Dobbs series for readers who love historical fiction, great detective stories, or both!

Links:

Goodreads:

Purchase links:

Amazon  **  Barnes & Noble

About the Author:

jacqueline-winspearJacqueline Winspear is the author of the New York Times bestselling Maisie Dobbs series, which includes In This Grave Hour, Journey to Munich, A Dangerous Place, Leaving Everything Most Loved, Elegy for Eddie, and eight other novels. Her standalone novel, The Care and Management of Lies, was also a New York Times bestseller and a Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist. Originally from the United Kingdom, she now lives in California.

Find out more about Jacqueline at her website, www.jacquelinewinspear.com, and find her on Facebook.

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The details:

Title: Birds of a Feather
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 2005
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

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Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Maisie tour!

Monday, February 20th: Life By Kristen – Maisie Dobbs
Tuesday, February 21st: Bookshelf Fantasies – Birds of a Feather
Wednesday, February 22nd: Reading Reality – Pardonable Lies
Thursday, February 23rd: A Bookish Way of Life – Messenger of Truth
Monday, February 27th: Back Porchervations – An Incomplete Revenge
Tuesday, February 28th: Mel’s Shelves – Among the Mad
Wednesday, March 1st: History from a Woman’s PerspectiveThe Mapping of Love and Death
Thursday, March 2nd: Book by Book – A Lesson in Secrets
Monday, March 6th: Bookish Realm Reviews – Elegy for Eddie
Tuesday, March 7th: My Military Savings – Leaving Everything Most Loved
Tuesday, March 7th: Barbara Khan on Goodreads – Leaving Everything Most Loved
Wednesday, March 8th: Lit and Life – A Dangerous Place
Thursday, March 9th: #redhead.with.book – Journey to Munich
Tuesday, March 14th: Reading Reality – In This Grave Hour
Wednesday, March 15th: M. Denise Costello – In This Grave Hour
Thursday, March 16th: Mel’s Shelves – In This Grave Hour
Friday, March 17th: A Bookish Way of Life – In This Grave Hour
Monday, March 20th: Helen’s Book Blog – In This Grave Hour
Tuesday, March 21st: Book by Book – In This Grave Hour
Wednesday, March 22nd: Jathan & Heather – In This Grave Hour
Thursday, March 23rd: #redhead.with.book – In This Grave Hour
Friday, March 24th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom – In This Grave Hour
Monday, March 27th: History from a Woman’s Perspective – In This Grave Hour
Tuesday, March 28th: What Will She Read Next – In This Grave Hour
Wednesday, March 29th: Bookish Realm Reviews – In This Grave Hour

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Book Review: The Girl Before

girl-before

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.

The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Emma
Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

Jane
After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

For a book that consumed my attention nonstop for an entire day, I sure was left feeling unsatisfied.

The premise sounds delicious. A beautiful home, stark and pristine and worth far more than the rental price. Okay, so fine, there are rules — about 200 different items that tenants must agree to in order to live there. And then there’s the fact that only a select few are considered worthy: A lengthy, intrusively intimate questionnaire only possibly gets you in the door for an interview with the property’s architect and owner, and even then, you’re likely to get turned down..

But still, in a tight housing market where even exceeding your budget gets you little better than a dump, this place is a true find.

(Okay, not for me. Once the “no books” clause comes into play, I’m out. But I digress…)

The Girl Before is told in alternating chapters, of “Then: Emma” and “Now: Jane”. As their stories unwind, there’s no doubt that these two women, both vulnerable and bearing emotional scars, are just the sort of easily manipulated prey that might appeal to someone who needs total control. As we get to know each woman, we learn why the house at One Folgate Street appeals to them, and why they’re so eager to upend their lives that they’re willing to accept the terms and conditions that come with the home.

Warning signs abound. There are the odd little facts about the history of the house’s origins, the architect, Edward, and his personal life. There’s Edward himself, who’s quite overly involved for a rental landlord. Emma moves in after a terrifying crime, and Jane after a personal loss, but both are desperate for a fresh start — desperate enough to overlook the little clues (oh, like a house that’s programmed to only turn on the shower after you do a regular assessment of your moods) that they may be in over their heads.

The Girl Before is a thriller that pushes all of a reader’s buttons, with plenty of clues and alarms and suspicious behavior. I could not put it down… but that doesn’t mean that, in the aftermath, I actually enjoyed reading it.

Here’s the deal:

This book certainly makes for compulsive reading — but by about the 2/3 mark, the narrative and the personalities started to change. We find out more about each of the characters, and certain stories and statements get turned on their heads. Emma’s storyline in particular gets completely turned inside out, and I found myself filled with disgust for her actions and their fall-out. (Trying to be non-spoilerish here…)

In fact, certain characters are so not at all what they seem that the revelations and the book’s climax seem to come completely out of the blue. And yes, that’s what thrillers try to do — throw the reader off the scent, come up with a scenario that hasn’t been done before, one we never see coming. But it has to make sense, and I’m not sure that the climax and denouement of the story actually do.

I also, I will admit, am predisposed to dislike “girl in peril” stories, and setting up these two characters as victims and people easily controlled, for different reasons, kind of set my teeth on edge. By the end, although Emma’s circumstances should make her an object of pity and sorrow, it’s hard to feel any compassion for her, the more we get to know her. And Jane is all over the place too, although at least she ultimately displays some backbone and agency.

In the end, while I couldn’t stop reading, I wound up feeling rather cheated. Plot points that were practically lit up in neon ended up being red herrings. Characters’ actions in the big reveal seemed totally divorced from what we’d known of them up to that point. And again, I found it pretty much impossible to care at all about Emma once a particularly unforgivable action of hers is revealed.

So, do I recommend The Girl Before? Not so much. It’s a thriller, to be sure, and it was a good diversion on a rainy day (which is why I spent all day indoors today reading it, instead of going out where it’s wet and chilly). But I don’t like the portrayal of the women characters’ actions or motivations, and didn’t feel like their inner lives made a whole lot of sense or did credit to them as people.

Also, a minor complaint: Why is this book published under a pseudonym? Is that the trendy thing to do now? The author bio on the back flap says that J. P. Delaney is a pseudonym for “a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names”. Hmm. I looked it up, and the identity of J. P. Delaney isn’t hard to find. From an article in the New York Times, it sounds like the author chose to use a non-gender-specific pseudonym to keep readers guessing. (Spoiler: He’s a man.)

Are we supposed to be impressed by his ability to get inside the women characters’ heads? For me, at least, it didn’t work. Maybe that partially explains my feelings about the characters. Not that a male author can never write from a female perspective, but it takes a great deal of talent and empathy to do so convincingly. The Girl Before misses the mark.

I’ll end this rambling review with a not-too-surprising insight: Writing reviews is pretty cathartic. As I sat down to right, I was still feeling overall kind of positive about The Girl Before. But now that I’ve been actually putting my thoughts together, I’m left with a pretty deafening UGH. The last third or so of this book made me feel used and manipulated, and that’s not a good thing.

Can I get my rainy day back for a do-over?

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The details:

Title: The Girl Before
Author: J. P Delaney
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: January 24, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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