The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

The Secrets of MidwivesThe Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really loved this book, which tells the story of three distinct women-grandmother Floss, mother Grace, and daughter Neva-who are all midwives, who all love each other deeply, and who all sometimes drive each other crazy.
What I love about it:
Author Sally Hepworth writes with respect, awe, and warmth for women who are pregnant, giving birth, and supporting other women.
Hepworth clearly has done a lot of research about the state of present-day midwifery in the United States, as well as how it has been regulated and practiced during the past 50 years.
The Secrets of Midwives goes back and forth in time between Floss beginning her practice in England in the 1950’s, and Neva and Grace practicing in Rhode Island, in the present day.
If, like me, you were fascinated by the novel Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, (and in particular, by the complex dynamics of being a midwife in a time and place in which modern western medicine often promotes hospital births as THE RIGHT way for a woman to give birth) you will also find much to chew on in Hepworth’s novel.

Neva is a midwife who works in a birthing center, where there are pediatricians and ob-gyns present, whereas her mom, Grace, a certified midwife, mostly assists in home births (unless a complicated birth necessitates hospital intervention.)
However, even if you’re not fascinated by this stuff, you’ll still find a lot to enjoy in The Secrets of Midwives.
For one thing, Hepworth writes a rollicking good tale. In Floss, Grace, and Neva, she has created three women who I cared about (though I will admit to feeling frustrated with all of them at times).
I also loved the settings…rural England, present day coastal Rhode Island…this was great summer escapism.
The Secrets of Midwives is by no means as intense or dark (for the MOST part) as Bohjalian’s Midwives. It reminded me tonally  of the novels of Kate Morton mixed with those of Julie Cohen. The Secrets of Midwives was a book I was pretty sure would end happily, even though it contained tragedy.
There were a couple of things which I didn’t love about this book. First, it was, at times, disappointingly superficial/gender oppressive. For example, the men that Neva falls for obviously have to be gorgeous, obviously, Neva is gorgeous, (in ways that are in alignment with all our cultural expectations for today!) Not a big surprise, but it would have made me happier, if this book, with so much going for it, could have challenged those norms.
I also felt bad for Floss’s lover Lil, who was long-suffering, quiet, and mostly ignored by the three main characters. It really ticked me off, to be honest, the way she was treated, and how it seemed that everyone just assumed that she had no story of her own, other than as a support to them.
That said, I ENJOYED The Secrets of Midwives. When Sally Hepworth writes another tale, I will be right there reading it.

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Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense (August 11, 2015) by Julia Heaberlin

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of SuspenseBlack-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, by Julia Heaberlin, is a book which was both more, and less, than I had anticipated.
This thriller is compared (as is everything else these days, insomuch as the comparison now seems almost meaningless) to the novels of Gillian Flynn. It is also compared to the novels of Laura Lippman.
I’m a fan of both Flynn and Lippman, but I think they write very different kinds of novels.
In this case, I think that both comparisons were apt, and it is in part because Black-Eyed Susans does have similarities to the work of two dissimilar authors that it is not entirely successful.
Black-Eyed Susans has a wonderful sense of place; it is set in Texas, which author Heaberlin clearly knows intimately and loves. In this way, Black-Eyed Susans reminded me of the southern-gothic atmosphere that Flynn crafts so well.
However, Black-Eyed Susans is much less dark in tone than Flynn’s novels. Instead, it feels wholesome in the same way that Lippman’s mysteries do. In the end, Black-Eyed Susans felt like a psychological-thriller that chickened out when it came to going to any truly “dark places.”
In a nutshell, here are a few other things that really stood out to me about Black-Eyed Susans:
I loved how Heaberlin included facts and idiosyncrasies about the Texas justice system. Her depiction of the death penalty in Texas was both enlightening and disturbing, an intimate look at what the town of Huntsville, with its “death house,” is really like.
Heaberlin’s description is based on research and interviews with experts (police, forensics experts, defense attorneys, advocates) and the novel never seems voyeuristic. Instead, in Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin gives insight into a powerful, disturbing reality that most of us know little about.
What I didn’t like as much was the way Heaberlin worked out the part of the plot which centered around our unreliable narrator Tessa’s buried memories.
The story flips between Tessa as an adult, counting down the days to her convicted “monster’s” execution, and her memories from childhood, as she first recovered from being assaulted by a serial killer. In the end, I found the explanation of what really happened to Tessa to be a bit of a letdown. The resolution detracted from the power of some earlier scenes in the novel.
Also, I was disappointed that the “fairytale” element of the story was never fully developed.
Ultimately, I think Heaberlin had two or three separate (and very intriguing) ideas for the type of story she wanted to tell. I hope as she continues writing, she develops more tonal clarity and confidence.
I highly recommend Black-Eyed Susans, especially for the fascinating peek into forensics, DNA, and the criminal justice system today. And I think many readers, will, like I did, really enjoy some of the wonderful and complex main characters, like Tessa, her daughter Charlie, their eccentric neighbor Effie, and the team of advocates who made them, and me as a reader, see the world in a new way.
Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for my arc of Black-Eyed Susans: a Novel of Suspense. This review also appears on Goodreads and Facebook.

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Daughter by Jane Shemilt

DaughterDaughter by Jane Shemilt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. It’s rare that I would describe a novel as gentle and brutal, delicate, and devastating, but Jane Shemilt’s debut Daughter manages to be all these things and more, making it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Daughter is a slow burn of a tale which will appeal to fans of Broadchurch and the works of Tana French. The story is told in chapters alternating between the past (mostly set in Bristol) and the present (mostly in Dorset).
Our first person narrator is Jenny, a wife, family-practice doctor, and mother of three teenaged children. Jenny’s husband Ted is a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in Bristol, Jenny’s daughter Naomi is a bright and lovely 15-year-old with a starring role in the school play, and Jenny’s twin sons Theo and Ed are each their own unique, apparently functional, people.
The kids are showing what Jenny assumes to be normal signs of teenage rebellion, but Jenny knows that she loves them, tries to communicate with them in the times when she is home, and more or less assumes that all is well.
However, when Naomi disappears after her performance as Maria in West Side Story, Jenny’s seemingly reasonable ideas about her family begin to fall apart.
As if she is peeling an onion, and with results which bring real tears, Jenny begins to look carefully for the first time beneath the surface of her daily life. As she searches for answers to her daughter’s disappearance, she uncovers truths about her husband, sons, daughter, and ultimately, about herself, which irrevocably change her world.
In this way, although Daughter has a catastrophic event as its starting place, Naomi’s disappearance is really just the opening that author Jane Shemilt needs to begin to deftly explore the dynamics of family, motherhood, and growing up.
Shemilt is a gifted writer. She is herself a family-practice doctor with children and a husband who is a neurosurgeon. Thus, her descriptions of balancing family and a career, as well as her insight into doctor/patient dynamics are intelligent and thought-provoking.
Shemilt also has a talent for evoking a sense of place. Both Bristol and Dorset are described with affection, familiarity, and an artist’s attention to detail.
Daughter becomes more and more powerful as it progresses, until, in the final pages, I literally could not put it down. It left me feeling emotional, amazed, sad, but also, deeply satisfied. I think that the story will continue to resonate with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers for the arc of Daughter, by Jane Shemilt.

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A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Sudden LiA Sudden Lightght, by Garth Stein, is a book that I find difficult to rate or categorize, because it was both more, and less, than I expected. On the one hand, it was an enjoyable and easy read, one which included many tantalizing elements.

For example, A Sudden Light includes:
1. a haunted house
2. ghosts
3. a mystery
4. dual-time narratives
5. hidden staircases
6. hidden journals
7. secrets, secrets, and more secrets

On top of this, the setting, an area of beautiful, untamed woods just outside of Seattle, Washington, and the historical fiction element relating to John Muir and a love of nature, were a fascinating touch.

However, part of what didn’t work for me was that the author tried to fit SO MUCH into the story that I had a hard time figuring out what it was really about.
Furthermore, I’ve seen A Sudden Light categorized as both a young adult and an adult novel, and I can understand why this is. I felt like the story’s tone, as well as the way in which issues such as homosexuality, domestic violence, and possible incest were presented, left me feeling like the book hovered in a gray area between young adult and adult fiction.
To me, A Sudden Light clearly read as a coming-of-age story, in that it is a story told by an adult narrator about his 14-year-old self. However, the narrative voice didn’t quite work for me as a convincing 14-year-old point of view, or as an adult whose values and understanding I felt completely comfortable accepting.
I assume that the writer meant for the novel to be positive in tone towards some of the main characters, who were dealing with homophobia. However, some of the statements made by the narrator came across as possibly judgmental to this reader.
On top of this, I felt uncomfortable with the way an incident of domestic violence was never addressed, as well as how some incestuous attitudes were, to my mind, glossed over.
I also felt that the author (thinly disguised as the adult narrator, thinly disguised as a 14-year-old boy who claimed he was a genius) used A Sudden Light to lecture about issues such as conservation, good and evil, and Original Sin. I found the 14-year-old’s metaphors about the Garden of Eden, separation, and John Muir to be somewhat muddled and unconvincing.
Finally, I felt that A Sudden Light succumbed to the pitfall of substituting generic descriptions to create a “gothic” feel, rather than using specific details to create an authentic atmosphere. Stein’s writing reminded me of the generic descriptions in the lightly enjoyable stories of writers such as Simone St. James or Wendy Webb. On the other hand, writers who I admire for their ability to create authentic atmosphere include Sarah Waters, Michael Cox, and Jane Harris.
So in the end, A Sudden Light did a lot of things passably, but nothing brilliantly. I think it could have been a more powerful story if the author had clarified his focus.
I received an arc of A Sudden Light from the publishers through NetGalley.

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The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

The BarterThe Barter by Siobhan Adcock

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Barter is a deceptively easy read with an ambitious scope. This debut novel follows two women, living 100 years apart, in Texas. Rebecca is a German immigrant who has led a life of (relative) luxury in town with her father and elderly aunt. She marries her childhood friend John, a farmer, and they begin the stark, demanding task of living off the land.
The second woman is Bridget, a young mother living in the same location in the present day. Bridget has recently given up her high-powered career as a lawyer to stay at home with her baby daughter, Julie.
Our story begins as Bridget sees the ghost of a woman in her house. As the plot unfolds, the narrative alternates between chapters detailing Bridget’s increasingly terrifying encounters, and Rebecca’s tragic life, the catalyst for present horror.
The two women mirror each other, for while living in different centuries, they both struggle with similar issues of identity, sacrifice, and what it means to be a “successful” wife, mother, and woman.
Siobhan Adcock is an intelligent author, and one who is clearly trying to write a story with a message that she feels passionately about. I applaud her intentions, but have mixed feelings about the results.
First the good:
The Barter contains two interesting, and very different stories. Bridget’s narrative is written in the style of contemporary domestic noir, and calls to mind thrillers such as The Memory Child by Steena Holmes, and Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant. Bridget goes to yoga, gets coffee at Starbucks, runs out of gas, and wonders how well she really knows her own husband.
On the other hand, Rebecca’s story is a fascinating look into the world of German immigrants living in Texas at the turn of the century. Siobhan Adcock has clearly researched this time period, and I found it fascinating to learn more about a culture that I really knew nothing about. Adcock has the talent of writing historical fiction in which every detail adds to the sense of place. Her inclusion of German fairy tales also created a sense of magic and enchantment.
Now, the not so good:
Adcock’s writing style feels sort of like gorgeous paint spilling all over the place. There is a potential for art there, but Adcock doesn’t have full control of it.
Her writing is lyrical, sometimes beautiful even, but it has a sort of untethered, running-away-with-it feel, which felt sloppy. In addition to this, many of the sentences are long and wordy, and the action in the story (ie, instances of Bridget seeing, and running away from, the ghost) seem repetitive.
On top of this, I found the conclusion of The Barter to be confusing and unsatisfying. It seemed very clear that Adcock was trying to convey a message about women, and sacrifice, and identity. But the metaphor she was using to explain it, and the decisions that Bridget and Rebecca made, didn’t make sense to me. It was disappointing to feel like I had missed the entire point of the story. I did not understand the implications of how Bridget finally dealt with the ghost, or of “the barter.”
And I wanted to understand. Adcock is talking about important stuff…To the Lighthouse, The Awakening, women searching for purpose and meaning kind of stuff. But in the case of The Barter, I was left with the feeling of potential not fully realized. I applaud Adcock for her debut, and hope that in future, her novels will keep the liveliness she brings to history, while including just a bit more structure and clarity.

I would like to thank Dutton Publishers for my advance review copy of The Barter.

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The Winter People (11 February 2014) by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter PeopleThe Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon creates a deliciously compelling tale, a dual-time ghost story filled with murder, revenge, hidden caves, secret diaries, and portals to the other world. McMahon’s fans, as well as readers new to her work, will be quickly enchanted by this story, a novel which may be her best yet.
And those readers, who like me, felt that some of her earlier novels were not entirely successful in weaving the disparate genres of horror, fairytale, and family drama together, will be pleasantly surprised with how well the author succeeds in creating a coherent and gripping story this time around.
It is hard to share too much of the plot of The Winter People without giving away spoilers, but in a nutshell, it is the story of a group of characters in the small town of West Hall, Vermont, who are affected by the fallout from a town legend describing a way to reawaken the dead.
McMahon’s work is unique in that it has a joyful tone; her characters are mainly motivated by love for their children and families. And the author clearly loves Vermont; her descriptions of the snowy forests and old farmhouses are the perfect thing to read on a cold winter’s night. But at the same time, The Winter People is truly a thriller and a grown-up fairytale, which explores how love and loss can become perverted into hatred and madness. Ultimately, although The Winter People is a story with multiple narrators, and a complex weaving of the past and present, it manages to be a clear, enjoyable, easy-to-follow read.
In my opinion, Jennifer McMahon is getting better and better as a writer, and I would recommend The Winter People to her fans, as well as anyone who enjoys an atmospheric ghost story. I received The Winter People from the publisher through NetGalley.

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