The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (2009)

I cannot think of a book better suited to read in October than The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Although it does not take place during Halloween, it is the perfect story for reading in the lead up to the holiday: interwoven stories of a witch on trial in Salem in 1692 and a modern-day historian who studies colonial America and the witch trials. These two women’s stories are joined into a haunting tale that is filled with secrets and  magic.

Harvard PhD candidate and colonial historian Connie Goodwin has just completed a grueling semester of schoolwork when her estranged mother asks her to move to Marblehead, Massachusetts to their family’s ancestral home for the summer. Connie has been tasked with clearing out nearly three-hundred years of heirlooms (long neglected) and preparing the house for sale.

Almost immediately Connie feels a deep and unsettling connection to the house, despite the fact that her mother — rebelling against her parents as a young hippie — had never allowed her to visit. As a historian, Connie is thrilled at the antiques, out of print books, and centuries-old contents of the house. “The silent interior felt so timeless, so untouched by the outside world as to seem unreal.” 42

When she is being honest with herself, Connie is simultaneously thrilled and saddened to get a glimpse of the family her mother has worked so hard to shield her from. “Connie became aware of a displaced, intrusive ache in her stomach, a creeping sorrow that she had never seen this hidden realm. Her grandmother had made this garden. But she would never know her. The finality of this realization felt leaden and inescapable.” 39

Soon Connie begins to suspect that the house is affecting her in unusual and highly improbable ways. While staying their, she seems to be highly in touch with the house’s past inhabitants and their secrets; and these “experiences” are unsettling for a woman who deeply prides herself on her practicality and levelheadedness. Her grandmother, who seemed so remote and unknowable upon her arrival at the house, seemed to come into sharper focus each day and with those glimpses, Connie began to feel a connection between them that is still intact.

While exploring the house Connie finds an ancient bible, and in it a key with the name “Deliverance Dane” wrapped around it in parchment. From that moment, Connie’s life begins to change. Deliverance Dane becomes her personal obsession — and possibly her dissertation topic — and the hope of learning more about her sends Connie on a historical scavenger hunt throughout Marblehead, Salem, and Boston; tracing Deliverance’s long-forgotten footsteps.

Sorting through archives and libraries for traces of Deliverance, Connie begins to believe that the woman was hung as a witch during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials and learns that the woman had left a book to her daughter that might be a collection of recipes — but might also be an actual witch’s spell-book. That knowledge propels Connie ever onward, hoping now not just to learn who Deliverance Dane was, but to see if the “physick book” still exists…and just what secrets it contains.

 

 

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The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn (2017)

“History consisted of big events and larger-than-life characters, like Jane Austen. The rest of us contributed to history in our little ways, as drops of water make up the ocean: collectively powerful, meaningless alone.” 174

A science-fiction novel about time-travel and a fictional account of a year in the life of Jane Austen: on the surface the two seem incompatible stories but Kathleen Flynn manages to blend the two in The Jane Austen Project and with good results, perhaps best appreciated by true Jane Austen fans.

In the distant future, scientists have created a time-travel machine that is still in its testing stage. Teams of experts are being sent to various eras in the past to attempt small changes so that the effect these actions have on the future can be studied, with the hopes that larger changes (stopping war and preventing the devastating effects of global warming) can be attempted.

Dr. Rachel Katzman and actor and scholar Liam Finucane have been selected to travel back in time to recover an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen. After years of study and preparation — horse-back riding, clothing making, etiquette classes — the two are finally ready to be sent to Regency London; posing as brother and sister West-Indies plantation owners who have decided they wish to live a “more civilized” life in England. Their mission is to befriend first Henry Austen, Jane’s closest brother, and then Jane herself with the hopes of recovering her unpublished novel The Watson’s and any other works they can procur. They are also under strict orders from the physicists overseeing the project to disrupt the past as little as possible while there.

Although they have studied relentlessly for their roles, they are beset by challenges almost immediately. The intricate behaviors they must adopt to “pass” as wealthy, the elaborate manners they must observe, and the patience required to be introduced to the right people; are all more complex then they seemed while studying. For Rachel, the requirement that, as a woman, she spend her time on only a handful of appropriate pursuits and appear unintelligent and subservient to men are especially heavy burdens.

Slowly, they meet the right people and soon find themselves close friends of the Austen family. However, the continue to make decisions — both large and small — that have the potential to change the course of history…something they will not know until they return to the future.

Months pass and both Liam and Rachel are pulled more and more into their roles and the future — and the consequences of their actions — seems more distant with each passing day. As they get closer to their goal of obtaining the manuscript, they also grow closer and closer to Jane. Rachel, in particular, finds herself star-struck by Jane’s brilliance and heart-broken as the author grows weaker and weaker from the illness that, both time-travelers know, will soon kill her. As a doctor, Rachel has the potential to diagnose and cure the author but to do so would be a direct violation of her mission’s rules.

What will they choose to do before they must return to the future? Save a new friend and change the world in dramatic, possibly catastrophic ways, or watch her — and the chance for new novels — die?

 

 

 

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2017)

magpie murders

After reading several “must- read summer books” lists that included this murder mystery by Anthony Horowitz, I picked up a copy at the library excited to read. Horowitz’s YA books are a staple in my house and I had liked his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk. However, this book was a vague disappointment and felt throughout that the author was making only a partial effort to tell a story that was engaging.

The premise of the book was quite clever. The first half of the book is a 1950’s cozy mystery — the full text of Magpie Murders, the final book of a fictional mystery series featuring PI Atticus Pund is included, minus its final “whodunit” chapter — once the Atticus Pund mystery has ended, a second modern story begins.

In the second half, we return to present-day London where Susan Ryeland is reading the Atticus Pund book along with us. Our new protagonist is the book editor to a wildly popular author of the Pund books, named Alan Conway. Susan is shocked to find the final chapter of the Magpie Murders is missing, but even more shocked when she learns that Alan Conway has died.

So begins the second mystery story in the book: Susan must work to determine whether or not the author had finished the book; if so, where is the missing chapter? As she delves deeper, it becomes clear that Conway’s death is very suspicious and soon a whole cast of characters emerge who may have wanted the author dead… possibly because the Magpie Murders exposes details of a real murder.

The author did a great job in part one of the book, creating a wonderful character in Atticus Pund and a great Agatha Christie-esque mystery with Magpie Murders. However, part two falls flat with the slightly unlikable Susan Ryeland and a new mystery that should be compelling but simply is not. While the overall effect is passable, it would have been a much stronger book with a more energetic second half.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (2017)

the stars are fire

In this somber novel, Anita Shreve paints a picture of one woman’s life of limitations and unmet needs that result from outdated and, at times, punishing social mores forced upon women in late 1940’s Maine. Our main character Grace is a women in her early twenties from a small fishing town on the coast of Maine, who — at the start of the novel — is a mother of two young children and the wife of a man named Gene. While Grace does all she is expected to for her husband, both in the home, for the family, and in the bedroom, her husband remains a cold and controlling man. Gene limits Grace’s activities, controls all of the family finances, and offers her nothing in the way of emotional connection.

This Grace realizes, is what a wife’s life is like, and she accepts — with some jealousy — that she will not have the passion or love some other young women seem to find with their husbands. She tries not to pine for a life with another purpose either; Gene would forbid her to work or spend much time outside of the house in any manner, and does not much care for Grace to read or listen to music. Grace tries not to panic at the thought of decades locked in this cold marriage, tries not to long for something more meaningful.

Then, wildfires race across Maine on hot and drought-plagued summer and everything changes. Gene leaves to fight the fires and Grace is left to make decisions about keeping her young family safe. When the fire consumes their town, Graces level-headed reactions save the lives of her and her neighbors. But they escape only with their lives, and absolutely nothing else. The house and its contents burned, all of the families papers gone, and Grace learns that her husband has never revealed even one hint as to their banking, insurance, or other information to her. Furthermore, as a woman her word is doubted by bankers and businessmen, and without proof of her marriage to Gene nor the fact that she is the mother to his children, their is nothing she can do to retrieve those funds.

After weeks pass with no sign that Gene survived, and sick of living like refugees, Grace takes her life into her own hands. What follows is not a easy path for her and her children, but one it which Grace is free to make decisions for herself and plot her own future, without having to consider her husband and his rules. Soon she is working, driving, and building a happy life for her family; something that seemed unachievable just a few months before she was widowed. What’s more, Grace is suddenly open to the idea that she might find the love and passion she so desperately longed for, now that her life is her own.

Shreve’s writing style is restrained and very solemn, and the characters in the story always feel on the edge of desperation; leaving the novel to feel rather heavy and intense. However, the struggles faced and the daunting circumstances are overcome, giving readers some sense of hope as the book concludes.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

in this grave hour

In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (2012)

the girl you left behind

I spent a lovely rainy day re-reading the wonderful book The Girl You Left Behind, for an upcoming book club meeting. I am a fan of Jojo Moyes books (you can click on the “Jojo Moyes” tag on the right-side of this page for a list of all of her books that I have reviewed) and always enjoy her novels, some I have read several times, since she always tells a compelling story that has a happy ending…and sometimes you need a happy ending.

The Girl You Left Behind is two stories intertwined into one novel — the first story is a historical fiction tale about a French woman living through the German occupation of her small town in rural France during WWI; the second story about a young widow struggling to hang on to her memories of her late husband, while simultaneously trying to move her life forward.  The two tales are connected by the most unlikely of reasons…that they both have been the owners of the same painting, only one hundred years apart.

The books opening chapters find our first heroine, Sophie Lefevre, cold, starving, exhausted, and fearful. She, her sister, brother, niece and nephew has been imprisoned in their small town, living under the cruel and terrifying rule of the occupying German army. With her husband and her brother-in-law off fighting in the trenches, Sophie and her sister Helene are trying their best to keep their family safe and healthy despite the horrific conditions the Germans have imposed on their village. Sophie is a pillar of her community, constantly risking her life with acts of resistance against her German oppressors: sharing food, passing news, hiding family heirlooms, saving lives of allied soldiers, and more…all acts that could get her and her family killed or interned in a work camp.

When a new German Kommandant — a cultured man — comes to town, he becomes taken with Sophie, fascinated with both her fiery protection of her townspeople, but also with her pre-war life as the wife of a famous artist, Edouard Lefevre. In fact, it is a portrait of Sophie painted by her husband, one of her few remaining possessions not requisitioned by the army, that seems to most captivate the Kommandant.

His fascination with Sophie leads the Kommandant to create more and more ways for their paths to cross. While this makes Sophie family a target of rumors and anger; it also means that for the first time in years there is extra food for the children, firewood in the winter, and more protection from the unruly soldiers in town. Sophie and the Kommandant enter a delicate truce, his affection makes her life easier, and her presence brings him comfort. Sophie leads her family down a dangerous road, where their safety becomes more precarious than ever.

Fast-forward to London, circa 2012, where the portrait of Sophie, titled The Girl You Left Behind, hangs on the wall of Liv Halston’s home. The painting is a beloved souvenir from Liv’s honeymoon with her husband David, who died just four years after their wedding.  Liv is struggling to move past her grief and — one night — takes a risk on a man, Paul. The two begin a love affair that is stopped in his tracks when Paul, an recovery agent for art stolen by Nazis — sees The Girl You Left Behind and recognizes it as stolen.

Soon Paul and Liv are on opposite sides of a legal battle for the painting, Paul argues it must be returned to Sophie Lefevre’s ancestors and Liv arguing it was purchased in a legitimate sale and is rightfully hers. Soon both of them are delving deep into Sophie’s story to find out what happened to her and The Girl You Left Behind. The more she learns about the woman in the painting, the more Liv becomes determined that she must hold on to the painting, both as a reminder of David and to protect the legacy of a brave woman who lost everything in the act of trying to save her family.

The book is an excellent, if emotional, journey into the realities women face during wartime, and the risks that women sometimes must take to protect the people and things they love.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman (2012)

CAVEAT: If you have suffered from a miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of a child, I would strongly suggest that you not read this book. While well-written and deeply insightful, the descriptions of these issues is very frank, detailed, and emotionally fraught.

Janus Rock Austrailia

Janus Rock Lighthouse, Western Austrailia

NOTE: This post may have some spoilers, and although I have tried my best to limit my plot details that are revealed early on in the novel or on the book jacket, if you prefer to be completely surprised, you might not want to read on.

After serving in the trenches of Europe during World War I, surrounded by bloodshed and misery for years, Tom returns home to Australia hoping to live a quiet life far from the muddy battlefields and memories of the men he watched die. He takes a position as a lighthouse keeper and finds the simple life a great source of contentment. When he is offered a position at one of Australia’s most remote and dangerous islands, he accepts without hesitation. On Janus Rock, Tom finds that the space, solitude, and connection to the the rhythms of nature quiet his mind and bring him peace.

When he returns to the mainland for a break, he meets and falls for Isabel. Isabel is young, gorgeous, and vivacious and Tom feels like he has come back to life when he is with her. The two marry within the year and Isabel comes to live on Janus Rock. Just as Tom did before her, Isabel falls in love with the island and the freedom it offers the newlyweds.

Isabel’s dreams of becoming a mother look like they have come true when she gets pregnant, but a terrible miscarriage claims that baby early on. A second pregnancy ends the same. Terrified, Isabel finds she is pregnant a third time and she and Tom slowly, slowly begin to trust that their dreams of family will finally come true. Each day the couple grows more and more excited to welcome their baby.

Isabel’s heartaches have just begun. The third baby is born stillborn and Isabel’s  succumbs to a dangerous depression. Isabel’s anguish and Tom’s helplessness over her heartache are so acute, Tom is ready to radio the shore for a boat to take Isabel home to her parents. He is preempted by the arrival of a boat, washed ashore after a storm containing a dead man and an infant baby girl. Although it seems inevitable to readers, Tom is shocked when Isabel tells him the baby was sent to her by God and she intends to keep the baby and raise her as her own.

The author’s portrayal of Tom and Isabel’s love is tender, deeply romantic, and almost magical; and the excitement they feel about becoming parents rings so true that readers cannot help but swept up in the story.  And so, it follows that the gut-wrenching pain they feel at the loss of all three babies is also rings absolutely true for readers, especially their stillborn son.

What follows is a beautifully written story of how Tom and Isabel move through the next five years of their lives. The author chronicles the lies they tell themselves and the world, the secrets they keep, and the rift is causes in their marriage; but also, the intense joy and happiness as their “daughter” Lucy becomes the center of their lives and heals Isabel.

As the years pass, Isabel is convinced of their secret will go undiscovered forever. Tom, however, feels the pressure of their lies and soon things begin to unravel. Told from Isabel and Tom’s point of view for the early chapters; as the story widens we begin to hear from Isabel’s parents, Lucy’s birth mother, and other members of the community and soon we see that Isabel’s and Tom’s decision ripples outward and impacts so, so many lives.