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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Shelf Control #73: Blood Red, Snow White

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: Blood Red, Snow White
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Published: 2007
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

When writer Arthur Ransome leaves his home in England and moves to Russia to work as a journalist, it is with little idea of the violent revolution about to erupt. Unwittingly, he finds himself at its center, tapped by the British to report back on the Bolsheviks even as he becomes dangerously romantically entangled with revolutionary leader Trotsky’s personal secretary. Both sides seek to use Arthur for their own purposes…and, as he struggles to find autonomy, both sides grow to suspect him of being a double agent. Arthur wants only to elope far from the conflict with his beloved. But when he attempts to extract himself and Evgenia from the complicated politics and politicians that he fears will lead them both to their deaths, the decisions he faces are the most dangerous and difficult of his life.

How I got it:

I ordered a used copy online.

When I got it:

About three years ago.

Why I want to read it:

After falling under the spell of Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood (review), I tracked down several more of his books. This is one of 3 or 4 sitting on my shelves, waiting to be read. I think the tag line on the cover captures exactly why I felt drawn to this book: Fairy tale, spy thriller, love story in the Russian Revolution. Any one or two of those elements on their own would be enough to catch my attention, but put them all together? Yes, please. I’m going to really try to make a point of reading Blood Red, Snow White this year.

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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 in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #72: City of Thieves

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

city-of-thievesTitle: City of Thieves
Author: David Benioff
Published: 2008
Length: 258 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.

How I got it:

I don’t even remember. I picked it up used, somehow, somewhere.

When I got it:

At least 5 or 6 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This book made it onto my “must check out sometime” list as soon as I read the very positive reviews when the book was first released. I always intented to get around to it… eventually. Realizing later on that the author is the same David Benioff as the Game of Thrones David Benioff gives me even higher hopes that I’ll end up really enjoying this book.

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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 in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Thursday Quotables: Dreamers of the Day

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Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!
Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
(published 2008)

I was feeling a little uninspired regarding this week’s Thursday Quotables post, not because I’m not reading good books, but just because no particular quotes or passages have really jumped out at me in the last few days.

So pardon my break from the usual, but for this week, I thought I’d revisit an old favorite. Mary Doria Russell writes incredibly beautiful and thought-provoking books, whether the subject matter is Jesuits in space (I kid you not) or the larger-than-life historical figures of the Old West. Dreamers of the Day was published in 2008, but I didn’t read it until 2013. It’s a wonderful book set in Egypt after World War I, featuring a lonely midwestern spinster who ends up rubbing shoulders with the political luminaries of the time, including T. E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill.

The book is full of amazing insights, but for some reason, as I was skimming through my newsfeed this week, this book came particularly to mind. There are so many wonderful snippets, but I think I’ll just share this simple closing sentiment, so relevant today (and always):

When it comes down to it, I don’t have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is:

Read to children.

Vote.

And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.

I really can’t say enough wonderful things about this book. Check out my review from 2013 here, if you want to know more. (And really, read the book!)

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Shelf Control #71: The Secrets of Midwives

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

secrets-of-midwivesTitle: The Secrets of Midwives
Author: Sally Hepworth
Published: 2015
Length: 320 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A novel about three generations of midwives (a woman, her mother, and her grandmother) and the secrets they keep that push them apart and ultimately bind them together

THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES tells the story of three generations of women devoted to delivering new life into the world—and the secrets they keep that threaten to change their own lives forever. Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is determined to keep the details surrounding her own pregnancy—including the identity of the baby’s father— hidden from her family and co-workers for as long as possible. Her mother, Grace, finds it impossible to let this secret rest. For Floss, Neva’s grandmother and a retired midwife, Neva’s situation thrusts her back 60 years in time to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s—a secret which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all. Will these women reveal their secrets and deal with the inevitable consequences? Or are some secrets best kept hidden?

How I got it:

I received an ARC via NetGalley when the book was released… and then never got around to reading it. Shame on me.

When I got it:

2015.

Why I want to read it:

I’m currently about 60% of the way through Sally Hepworth’s newest release, The Mother’s Promise, and I’m loving it. Last year, I read (and loved) The Things We Keep (review). So since I think so highly of this author’s second and third novels, it seems like a good bet that I’ll enjoy her debut novel, The Secrets of Midwives, as well. Plus, check out that synopsis! It has so many elements I love — multiple generations of women, family ties, historical settings, and strong female characters at the center of it all. This is one I really need to take off my e-shelf, and soon!

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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 in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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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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Shelf Control #69: Dissolution

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

dissolutionTitle: Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)
Author: C. J. Sansom
Published: 2003
Length: 443 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers it has ever seen. And under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: dissolution.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.

Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes…

How I got it:

I bought it at a library sale.

When I got it:

Oh, a while ago. I feel like this book has been living on my shelf for years.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve heard such good things about the Shardlake books! The idea of a mystery series set in Tudor England sounds just brilliant.

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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 in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #68: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

My Shelf Control pick this week is:

17707514Title: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands
Author: Natasha Solomons
Published: 2013
Length: 339 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

London, 1958. It’s the eve of the sexual revolution, but in Juliet Montague’s conservative Jewish community where only men can divorce women, she ­finds herself a living widow, invisible. Ever since her husband disappeared seven years ago, Juliet has been a hardworking single mother of two and unnaturally practical. But on her thirtieth birthday, that’s all about to change. A wealthy young artist asks to paint her portrait, and Juliet, moved by the powerful desire to be seen, enters into the burgeoning art world of 1960s London, which will bring her fame, fortune, and a life-long love affair.

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

2 or 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I don’t know how I first heard about this book, but when I stumbled across it at a book sale, it seemed familiar. The Jewish theme really calls to me, as does the idea of a young woman who’s already been pushed aside by society even though so much of her life is ahead of her. Between the setting and the time period, it sounds like a must read!

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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 in the comments!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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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.

second-mrs-hockaday

Synopsis:

(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.]

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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

Take A Peek Book Review: The Secret Chord

“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.

secret-chord

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Peeling away the myth to bring the Old Testament’s King David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.

The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected.  We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthrall her many fans.

 

My Thoughts:

Sadly, The Secret Chord wasn’t nearly as engaging as it should have been.

Geraldine Brooks is an amazing writer, but good writing alone isn’t enough to elevate this book to a must-read. I think part of the problem is the perspective. The story of King David should be exciting and dramatic — but in The Secret Chord, we only rarely see first-hand drama. The book is narrated in the first-person voice of the prophet Natan, and a great deal of his narration consists of him relaying stories told to him by others. So, rather than seeing David’s early victories or the intrigues, we often get other characters telling Natan about these events. I always felt that I was seeing the story from a distance, rather than becoming immersed in it.

Additionally, the chronology of the novel is full of jumps and out of sequence bits and pieces. We start with David as an aging king, then jump back in time as we hear stories about his youth and Natan’s, then come back to the original time period, then angle off into stories of David’s earlier relationships, then pick back up again and move forward. It’s muddled — and I felt that the mixed-up timeline was yet another factor, on top of the distanced storytelling voice, that kept me from ever feeling that I truly got a picture of David, which is the entire point of the book.

As a side issue, I was frustrated while reading by a presumption of knowledge of places and names. The author chooses to use the Hebrew versions of the more commonly Anglicized Biblical names, so that Solomon is Shlomo, Saul is Shaul, the tribe of Benjamin is referred to as the Binyaminites, etc. This wasn’t a huge problem for me, but on top of this, the places are not easily connected with their modern day equivalents, so only someone familiar with Biblical geography would know that Yebus is the ancient version of modern-day Jerusalem, where Moab and Mitzrayim are, or be able to connect other unusual place-names with their 21st century locations.

[Note: I received an ARC of this book via a Goodreads giveaway. I just now looked up the book on Amazon, and I see that the finished book includes a glossary of characters and maps of ancient Israel — these would have been incredibly helpful to have while I was reading the book.]

Such a pity, overall. The story should be fascinating, and in truth, there are some moments of beauty and of horror that make for compelling reading. Unfortunately, though, there just aren’t enough of these.

I’m a huge fan of three of Geraldine Brooks’s books: Year of Wonders, March, and People of the Book. The Secret Chord isn’t boring, but it also doesn’t rise to the high level I’d expected.

As for the subject, King David, nothing will ever replace my fondness for the late Joseph Heller’s marvelous God Knows.

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The details:

Title: The Secret Chord
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: October 6, 2015
Length: 302 pages
Genre: Historical/Biblical fiction
Source: Won in a Goodreads giveaway!

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