Book Review: The Secret of Isobel Key by Jen McConnel

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Title: The Secret of Isobel Key
Author: Jen McConnel
Publisher: Bloomsbury Spark
Publication date: December 19th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery, New Adult

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The Secret of Isobel KeyThe Secret of Isobel Key
Jen McConnel
Bloomsbury Spark, December 2013
ISBN 978-1-61963-464-0
Ebook

From the publisher—

Lou is in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. Fresh out of college, she’s unemployed and unsure of herself. But when she gets the chance to escape to Scotland with her best friend, it could be the answer to her quest for self-discovery. The trip is not at all what she expected, especially when her tour guide turns out to be the dreamy historian Brian, and together they embark on a hunt for information about Isobel Key, a woman accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century.

They set out to learn the truth of the condemned witch, but Lou isn’t prepared for the knowledge that awaits her. She must face her own demons if she has any hope of righting the wrongs of the past. Flashing between the seventeenth century and modern day Scotland, The Secret of Isobel Key is a mystery that will please readers of all ages.

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I like genre fiction and am very fond of the supernatural subgenre but witches have never been high on my list. There’s no particular reason for that other than perhaps witchcraft makes me a little uneasy. That slight discomfort is one reason I liked this book a lot. Through Isobel, we get a real sense of what people, especially women, went through during the witch hunts of the past when they were, in fact, innocent of the evils attributed to them. Through Lou, we get a feeling for today’s Wicca and how its true believers are not ill-intentioned.

Interweaving the stories of two women separated by 350 or so years can be difficult but it works very well in The Secret of Isobel Key because of the empathy that Lou, a modern girl floundering in search of her future, has for a woman who knew precisely who she was until the day she died a horrible death. Lou’s determination to shine a light on Isobel’s life leads to an understanding of a past that touches on Lou’s own life in unexpected ways.

I was a little puzzled—and bothered—by the relationship between Lou and Tammy. They’re supposedly very close friends and, yet, Lou doesn’t trust Tammy enough to share her feelings about faith and Tammy doesn’t know Lou well enough to understand that there’s something going on with her. Tammy also is bent on pushing Lou into the arms of a guy, any guy, and I think her intentions were good but it makes her seem very overbearing and insensitive. In turn, Lou doesn’t hesitate to stand Tammy up for dinner because she’s so besotted with Brian, their Scottish tour guide. I have to say, though, that it’s the author’s strong characterizations that allowed me to feel that I know these two girls and have a fairly good understanding of them both.

There are occasional lapses of logic, such as when the trio decide a certain letter could affect the history of multiple so-called witches while, in fact, it only clears the record of one. There is also a scene in which Lou claims to not know the rites of the church even though she was raised Catholic and supposedly was a believer until recently; it’s very unlikely she would not be familiar with the ceremonies of the church just because she has fallen away from that faith. Despite those small quibbles, I was completely engaged by both Isobel and Lou and their stories.

Bloomsbury Spark is one of a number of imprints that have cropped up in recent times to publish in ebook format only. This is a development all readers should welcome as it offers a “home” to some really good work that might otherwise go unpublished because of the sea of submissions publishers get these days. The Secret of Isobel Key is a fine example of what’s available and I will be looking for more from both Bloomsbury Spark and Jen McConnel.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2014.

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About the Author

Jen McConnelJen McConnel first began writing poetry as a child. A Michigander by birth, she now lives and writes in the beautiful state of North Carolina. When she isn’t crafting worlds of fiction, she teaches college writing composition and yoga. Once upon a time, she was a middle school teacher, a librarian, and a bookseller, but those are stories for another time.  She is the author of The Secret of Isobel Key (NA 2013) and Daughter of Chaos (YA 2014).  Visit http://www.jenmcconnel.com to learn more.

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