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.


The details:

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







Take A Peek Book Review: Devil’s Cub 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.



(via Goodreads)

Dominic Alistair, Marquis of Vidal is a bad lot, a rake and seducer, reckless, heedless, and possessed of a murderous temper. He is known by friend and foe alike as the “Devil’s Cub.” Yet as the handsome and wealthy heir to a Dukedom, he is considered a good prospect on the marriage market. Vidal currently has his eye on the young, lovely, and unintelligent Sophia Challoner, and Sophia’s greedy mother is more than happy to encourage his dubious attentions.

When lovely, saucy Mary Challoner had practiced her bold deception upon the hot-blooded, fiery-tempered young Marquis of Vidal–substituting herself for her young sister he had thought to carry off to France–she had little notion he would grimly hold her to her part of the bargain. Now he had left her, and she was alone, a stranger in a strange land, prey to the intrigues of glittering, heartless, 18th century Paris.

Only one person could rescue her–the Marquis himself. But how could she ever trust this man? How could she even hope to overcome the contempt in which he held her? And how could even the sudden flowering of her love ever bridge the terrible gap between them?

My Thoughts:

Until Devil’s Cub, I’d never read a Georgette Heyer novel before, despite knowing several readers (of excellent taste, in my humble opinion) who absolutely adore her work. Georgette Heyer was such a prolific writer that I had no idea where to even start, but fortunately, my book club decided to go with something on the “classic romantic” side for our February book of the month and came up with Devil’s Cub, so I was spared the dilemma of having to choose.

The description really says it all. There’s a Marquis — such a scoundrel! But devilishly handsome. A sweet, decent young woman. A flighty sister. Oodles of lovers’ quarrels and misunderstandings. Elopements and escapes by carriage. Reputations and ruining on the line!

Devil’s Cub is a galloping piece of entertainment with never a dull moment, as social niceties are observed and broken, all in the name of love and honor. The characters are quite endearing. Mary has a backbone and makes for a great heroine, and although the Marquis’s use of threats to get his way rubs my modern sensibilities the wrong way, he’s exactly the sort of decadent lord with a heart of gold that would have been popular in the romantic fiction of the time.

This was a very fun read, light and entertaining, and a diverting little showpiece of social norms and scandals during the Regency era. Devil’s Cub is actually a sequel of sorts to These Old Shades, but it works perfectly fine as a stand-alone (although I do want to read that one as well, as soon as the library has a copy available).

I’m not going out on a Georgette Heyer binge right this second, but I do want to read more of her books. Any suggestions? Any must-reads? Let me know!

Meanwhile, as always, I’m so thankful to be part of an amazing book club that gives me incentive to read books outside my usual reading habits.


The details:

Title: Devil’s Cub
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: Originally published 1932
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Library








Book Review: Orphan Train


The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

It’s astonishing to me that until I read this book, I knew nothing about this important piece of American history. Over a span of 75 years, approximately 200,000 children, mostly orphaned and homeless, were transported from New York and other East Coast cities to farmland in the Midwest, where they were offered up for adoption via town hall meetings at stops along the rail lines. Some children found loving adoptive families and permanent homes; it appears that many, however, were treated as little better than manual labor or indentured servants, wanted for their ability to work but not adequately fed, sheltered, or schooled, much less given the love and support they most strongly needed.

In Orphan Train, we meet 91-year-old Vivian, who emigrated to America from Ireland as a young girl. When a tragic tenement fire leaves her all alone, she’s soon shipped out on the orphan train, ending up in some horrific circumstances in Minnesota — first, as an underfed worker in what was essentially a seamstress sweatshop, and then, as a poorly treated resident of an impoverished family farm, where abuse lurks around every corner. Thanks to a kind school teacher, she does eventually find her way forward through education and through the support of a kind older couple who provide her with all they’d once hoped to provide to their own deceased child.

When we first meet the elderly Vivian, it’s through the eyes of contemporary foster child Molly, who is just one breath away from being locked up in juvie at age 17 for the shocking crime of stealing a copy of Jane Eyre from the public library. As Molly fulfills her mandated community service hours by helping Vivian clean her attic, it becomes clear that the two women, young and old, have more in common than they realize. With each box of mementos that Molly opens and reviews with Vivian, a piece of Vivian’s history is remembered and reexamined. Through their connection, each helps the other come to terms with their pasts and think about new ways of envisioning and creating a future.

My entire life has felt like chance. Random moments of loss and connection. This is the first one that feels, instead, like fate.

I really enjoyed Orphan Train, although perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t quite the right term. The stories of Molly and Vivian are both heartbreaking in their own ways. While Molly, as a foster child in 21st century Maine, isn’t handed over into servitude, she does go through a series of foster homes, largely finding herself with people who see her as a chore or a duty, or worse, a source of a paycheck from social services. She’s unloved and unwanted, and gets used to traveling light and protecting herself by driving others away before they can reject her. Molly’s pain is palpable and real, and I wanted so desperately for her to finally find a place to belong and someone to really cherish her for herself.

Likewise, with Vivian, the loss and sorrow she endures is unimaginable. At the time at which she becomes an orphan, children have no voice and no rights, and it’s shocking as a modern reader to see how casually the children are handed over to any stranger who comes along and picks them. The deprivation, physical and emotional, that Vivian suffers is quite hard to read, especially keeping in mind that she’s not yet even a teen when the worst parts of her experience take place.

The way the two story threads weave together to create a whole is fascinating and well thought-out. The dual time line approach is pretty common right now in historical fiction, but in the case of Orphan Train, I think it succeeds because each time line gives us a central character to really care for. Vivian’s story is perhaps a touch more compelling, but I think a big reason for that is the fact that it’s so unusual and, for me at least, mostly unknown prior to reading this story. With Molly, while her story is sad and moving, it doesn’t have the same sense of discovery of a chapter of history that Vivian’s story does. Still, both pieces shed light on shameful practices and conditions of foster and abandoned children, and the two story elements together complement each other quite well.

I had one quibble with the storyline of this book, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into specifics. Keeping things vague, I’ll just say that Vivian makes a huge decision in the latter part of the book, when she’s a young woman, that I didn’t find particularly believeable. Given the way her life is at the time in question, I do think she’d have had other choices and should have had enough support in her life to at least take the time to consider her options. It’s a huge turning point that affects the rest of Vivian’s life, and yet she makes it quickly and at a time of great vulnerability. I just didn’t buy it.

That aside, I loved reading Orphan Train. I found the history fascinating, and loved the two main characters, Molly and Vivian. It’s the kind of book that leaves you desperately hoping that the people you’ve come to know will go on to find happiness in their lives.

Orphan Train is a book that will stay with me. I’m so glad my book group decided to read it this month! I just know we’ll have plenty to talk about.


The details:

Title: Orphan Train
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Length: 278 pages
Genre: Contemporary and historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: The Kitchen House

“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.




(via Goodreads)

In this gripping New York Times bestseller, Kathleen Grissom brings to life a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War, where a dark secret threatens to expose the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate.

Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.

In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.

Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.


My Thoughts:

The Kitchen House has been on my radar for a while now, and I finally settled in and read it over the weekend in preparation for my book group discussion this coming week. Sometimes you need a little nudge to get to the good stuff, ya know?

Wow. This book has it all — terrific historical setting, a broad and varied cast of characters, and pains and sorrows that are instantly relatable.

Lavinia’s story is unique, as most pre-Civil War novels I’ve read with Southern settings focus strictly on the master/slave divide, broken along race lines. In The Kitchen House, Lavinia straddles the color line. As an orphaned indentured Irish girl, she’s settled — happily — with the black slaves on the plantation, where she finds love, comfort, and family. Yet based on the color of her skin, she’s easily accepted into the world of the big house as well, first as a companion for her master’s mentally ill wife, and eventually as a full-fledged member of the family.

Meanwhile, among the kitchen house slaves, the illegitimate children of the plantation owners are relegated to yet another generation of slavery, subject to the whims and demons of the twisted mind of their current owner.

Lavinia is the main narrator of the story, although we do get briefer chapters from Belle’s perspective, which help round out what Lavinia sees of plantation life and offer a sort of behind-the-scenes viewpoint that we’d otherwise miss.

The heartache and tragedy that plague Lavinia and her loved ones feel almost too much sometimes. It seems like every time there’s a chance for something terrible to happen, it does. The pain that all of the characters must endure makes the book tough to take, even while it’s impossible to look away.

The author seems to be drawing a parallel between the slaves’ captivity and Lavinia’s own powerlessness and lack of rights in a loveless marriage to a cruel, domineering, dangerous man. I can accept this up to a point: Despite her fine clothes and house, Lavinia is her husband’s property and is basically a prisoner, with no access to the outside world or to anyone who might provide help. Still, her situation isn’t nearly as helpless as that of the slaves, and her skin color and status offer her a protection that her beloved family does not have.

The Kitchen House is powerful and well-written, and I recommend it strongly for anyone with an interest in American history during that time period. The characters are unforgettable.

As far as I understand, The Kitchen House (published in 2010) was originally written as a stand-alone, but I was excited to learn that a follow-up novel (Glory Over Everything) has just been published. I can’t wait to spend more time with these characters… and just hope that at least some of them get the happy ending they so clearly deserve.


The details:

Title: The Kitchen House
Author: Kathleen Grissom
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: January 1, 2010
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library


Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread

Spool of Blue ThreadSynopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A freshly observed, joyful and wrenching, funny and true new novel from Anne Tyler

“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon.” This is how Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. from Red’s father and mother, newly-arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.

Brimming with all the insight, humour, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish.

My thoughts:

It’s been years since I’ve last read an Anne Tyler novel — and picking up A Spool of Blue Thread is like cozying up with a comfy old blanket and curling up in a favorite chair. It’s homey and warm and familiar, but the familiarity doesn’t take away at all from the sheer pleasure of spending time with it.

In A Spool of Blue Thread, we meet the Whitshanks, a big, sprawling family whose lives seem centered around their beautiful family home with the big front porch, the home that’s been in the family for three generations and was in fact built by the first of the Whitshanks to live in it. The first characters introduced are Abby and Red, a married couple in their seventies who’ve raised four children, have a good, well-worn marriage, and seem to enjoy their lives.

Their children and grandchildren are a source of non-stop discussion and worry, particularly Denny, the black sheep of the family who can always be depended upon to be undependable. Denny disappears for months or years at a time, only to show up or call with an odd or worrying or unexpected announcement that throws the family into a tizzy.

As Abby and Red age, their children become increasingly worried about their ability to live on their own in their big house, and so various children and their children move in to provide care, manage things, and try to sort out the little rivalries and resentments that have built up over the years.

As the story unfolds, early hints about family history are unpacked for the reader. The family may never know much about Junior and Linnie Mae, the original Whitshanks to live in the family home, but late in the book, we finally get their story, and it’s not what it seemed. Likewise, when we finally hear Abby’s version of how she and Red met, it’s surprising and touching all at once.

A Spool of Blue Thread is a quintessential character-driven book. There’s not much plot to speak of — no big drama or mystery or climax. Instead, it’s a study of family and individuals, their desires and frustrations and misunderstandings and dynamics. It’s lovely to see a family unfold to reveal its heart and soul. The Whitshanks have had their share of disappointments and tensions, but they’re still there, together, figuring things out. Beyond a profile of a family, it’s also a moving depiction of the worries of aging parents, from both the parents’ viewpoint as well as the adult children who have to balance their own lives with the complications required by figuring out how to help parents who may or may not be able to function on their own any longer.

As I mentioned, it’s been quite a while since I’ve read anything by this author, although there was a time when I read all of her new books as soon as they came out. I think I’d reached my saturation point somewhere along the line, and I might not have picked up A Spool of Blue Thread if it hadn’t been my book club’s pick for April.

So, yet another reason to proclaim that I love my book club! A Spool of Blue Thread is a perfect domestic novel that’s touching, funny, and beautifully written. I’m so glad to have read it — and it makes me want to go figure out what other Anne Tyler books I’ve missed over the years.


The details:

Title: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Bond Street Books
Publication date: February 20, 2015
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Library