Take A Peek Book Review: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

“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)

When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away?

Inspired by a true incident, this saga conjures the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel as her views on race and family are transformed. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how that generation–and the next–began to see their world anew.


My Thoughts:

While the premise sounded intriguing to me, the execution didn’t quite work so well.

Told through letters and miscellaneous documents, The Second Mrs. Hockaday has a scattered feel to it that makes investing in the story difficult. We first meet Placidia as she’s under arrest and awaiting trial, writing a letter to a beloved cousin. Her letters take us back to the beginning of her marriage, but then jump around in time, and later, the book includes journal pages she wrote during her husband’s absence as well as correspondence between members of the next generation in the family. Because of the jumping chronology, it’s hard to get a sense of which events are linked to which — which is unfortunate, as the kernel of the story is good.

Placidia’s impetuous marriage to the recently widowed Major takes place the day after she meets him, and they only have two days together as man and wife before he leaves to rejoin his troops, leaving Placidia in charge of both his plantation and his motherless child. Her struggle to keep the farm going, to nurture the young boy, and to protect a future with the man she barely knows is moving, and I couldn’t help admiring Placidia’s bravery.

However — the big reveal toward the end of the book when we discover the truth about Placidia’s supposed crime is absolutely obvious from the very beginning. Even though some smaller details offer surprises, the fact that the big secret is so easily guessed takes away some of the punch when awful events actually transpire. A more minor complaint is the lack of any narration (via letters) of anything from later in Placidia’s life. While we learn more from other people, it feels abrupt to lose her voice in telling her own story, as if only those earlier years contained the events she felt the need to document.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday is a touching look at a young bride struggling to create a marriage during the awful war years. Unfortunately, it just lacked some of the power I’d expected.

[A reader note: While I don’t typically think it’s fair to bring up ARC formatting problems in a review, since presumably those will be corrected by the time of publication, I feel that the horrible formatting of this particular ARC absolutely impacted my reading experience for the worse. It’s not fair to criticize the book for these errors, but at the same time, the difficulty I had in sorting out section breaks and all of the missing dates in the text definitely made this a less than stellar read. If I’d read a finished copy, it’s possible that I might have felt the story had a better flow.]


The details:

Title: The Second Mrs. Hockaday
Author: Susan Rivers
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #30: Blue Asylum

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!


My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Blue AsylumTitle: Blue Asylum
Author: Kathy Hepinstall
Published: 2012
Length: 288 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty, and property. On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents–some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. Which of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris. The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded “water treatment.” She must escape, but she has found new hope and love with Ambrose. Can she take him with her? If they make it out, will the war have left anything for them to make a life from, back home? Blue Asylum is a vibrant, beautifully-imagined, absorbing story of the lines we all cross between sanity and madness. It is also the tale of a spirited woman, a wounded soldier, their impossible love, and the undeniable call of freedom.

How I got it:

I picked it up at the library’s big sale last year.

When I got it:

I think it was at the fall sale, so it’s been sitting on my shelf for about six months now.

Why I want to read it:

The cover blurb describes this as a “Southern gothic”, which really appeals to me. Throw in the Civil War era, a woman fighting against powers keeping her down, and “impossible love”, and it sounds like something I need to read! (And hey, can’t help it that the cover caught my eye… )


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

Take A Peek Book Review: The Mapmaker’s Children

“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.

Mapmaker's Children


(via Goodreads)

When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril.

Eden, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance.

Ingeniously plotted to a riveting end, Sarah and Eden’s woven lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.

My Thoughts:

The two timelines in this split-narrative story are united by place, centered on a single home in New Charleston, West Virginia.

In the contemporary storyline, we follow Eden, a woman whose marriage is on the rocks after years of failed fertility treatments. In a last-ditch effort to both conceive a child and repair their relationship, Eden and husband Jack have left city life behind to settle in a small town. Here, Eden gets to know the cute neighbor kid and then the other townspeople, finding in this little place a welcoming community and a home.

Meanwhile, in the historical chapters, we meet Sarah Brown, daughter of radical abolitionist John Brown. The books opens right around the time of the failed Harper’s Ferry uprising, closely followed by John Brown’s hanging. Sarah vows to carry on her father’s work with the Underground Railroad (the UGRR), using her artistic talents to create pictographs that escaping slaves can use as maps as they find their way to freedom.

Sadly, neither storyline drew me in. Sarah’s story should have been interesting, yet there were big gaps that kept me from connecting with her. Perhaps it was the choppy approach to the narrative, jumping forward months at a time and with the alternating timeline constantly breaking up any momentum in her story. In any case, Sarah’s art and her work for the UGRR are not adequately explained or developed, and I never got a strong sense of the impact of her artwork or felt that her personal story had a true dramatic arc.

Meanwhile, Eden’s part of the story is all fairly trite. A small town full of quirky townspeople, a whimsical bookstore, a cute girl and adorable puppy, a corporate career woman embracing a slower yet more meaningful way of life — none of it seems particularly new or engaging.

The connection between the two halves of the tale is a porcelain doll’s head that Eden finds in a hidden cubby in her house. The doll’s head prompts Eden to try to get the house listed as an historical site — and of course, this head can be traced back to Sarah and the UGRR.

I fully expected to love this story, based on the description. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d usually enjoy. Something about the execution, though, made the book feel really bland to me. The characters felt flat and lifeless. Sarah seemed very cookie-cutter to me, lacking true agency, and Eden could have been anyone.

I was interested to note, via the author’s note at the end, that all of the places and dates in Sarah’s story were real. Knowing nothing about John Brown’s family previously, I had no real sense in reading the story as to which bits were based on history and which were purely fictional. I wish I’d read the notes ahead of time — perhaps that might have helped me feel more engaged.

The history itself is interesting — the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry, the secret network that kept the UGRR alive in the South, and the impact of the Civil War on the townspeople, both during and after the war. The novel itself, though, lacks a sense of energy and movement. Ultimately, I had to force myself to keep reading and came close to abandoning the book several times. In fact, even close to the end, I didn’t really care very much, and had to actually remind myself that there was still more to read.

Those interested in Civil War history may find this an interesting perspective on the role of women in the abolitionist movement. However, I suspect that reading historical non-fiction about the Browns might prove more enlightening and engaging than this novel.


The details:

Title: The Mapmaker’s Children
Author: Sarah McCoy
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: May 5, 2015
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher