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The Book of Secrets

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Member Reviews

Wow such a powerful read that portrays the injustices of women perfectly. Set in 17th century Rome we follow Stefano a new investigator trying to uncover what's causing men to die yet still look rosy and fresh. Girolama a woman who helps women with child birth as well as finding solution to the male figures in their lives who choose violence and pain towards the ones they are supposed to protect . We also follow a perspective of Anna a expectant mother who is out of ideas when it comes to her abusive husband. This is a tale of misjustice and a system that only looks out for those of a high class, throughout the book we see how the man in charge doesn't care how he gets the truth and he doesn't care if the women are the truth he just wants the solution to be found quietly whilst secrets are doing there best to be hidden

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As Rome recovers from the plague outbreak in the mid-17th Century there are still men dying. However, these men don't show the normal symptoms and their bodies don't decay as they should. Young prosecutor Stefano is tasked to investigate and, keen to make his name, he makes enquiries. These lead him to the 'aqua', a colourless, tasteless poison which originated in Sicily and to a group of women determined to escape from the cruelty of their menfolk.
I really got engrossed in this novel as the writing is really spare and hypnotic. There are aspects of the supernatural of which I am not a fan but not enough to make me dislike the story. Reading the endnotes I was surprised to see that it is based on a true case with only a few minor alterations for plot enhancement and I have to praise Mazzola for weaving such an excellent story.

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The Book of Secrets by Anna Mazzola
Having read The Clockwork Girl by this author I was looking forward to reading this novel. It is set in Rome in 1659 and is loosely based on a real case which occurred at this time. It paints a vivid portrait of the terrible situation in which many women at the time found themselves. Their husbands had the right and were almost encouraged to chastise their wives in any way they felt appropriate. Women, whatever their social status, had no power and the law failed repeatedly to protect them.
So some of the women found desperate means to try and save themselves from their torment. At the beginning of the novel Stefano Bracchi, is tasked by the Governor of Rome to find out the cause of death in some men who have displayed some unusual features and whose bodies have not decayed in the usual way. He was a sickly child and his older brothers mock him for his weakness. The story is told through the eyes of Stefano, Anna who is pregnant and trapped in an abusive marriage to a French painter and Girolama a Sicilian woman with a knowledge of herbs and potions.
Stefano is keen to prove himself capable and so he pursues these women, but does he understand the true horrors to which they have been subjected? The characters are well drawn and the descriptions of their lives are powerfully moving. I will definitely be recommending this book to others at my various book groups. Many thanks for the author, the publishers and Net Galley for the opportunity to read the book in return for an honest review.

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The Book of Secrets alternates between three points of view: Stefano Bracchi, judge turned inquisitor, keen to prove he is not the weak character his father believes him to be; Anna, wife of a failed artist whose disappointments are expressed in violence; and Girolama, a Sicilian woman skilled in midwifery and the creation of herbal remedies. One particular ‘remedy’ of hers has become sought after, a recipe handed down and recorded in the ‘book of secrets’ of the title and distributed via a network of female associates to women in need of escape.

Although Stefano knows only that he has been asked to investigate a series of suspicious deaths amongst men of Rome, all of which exhibit unusual features, the reader knows from pretty early on what Girolama and her assistants are doing and why. It becomes less a mystery more an interesting moral question about whether the women’s actions are justified, but no less absorbing for that. It’s a question that even Girolama begins to ask herself, especially once many of her assistants are rounded up as part of the investigation. And can she be sure that in every case, the action was justified, that every man who died was an abuser or merely an obstacle standing in the way of financial gain? She’s strong but can her associates exhibit similar strength?

Stefano also faces a dilemma as he is forced by his superiors to use more and more severe methods – many of which are harrowing to read about – to try to extract confessions from Girolama and her associates. Is the suffering he is inflicting on the women justified merely in order to further his career? He finds himself wondering what kind of man has he become and wishing he had listened to his sister, Lucia, who warned him about the dark place his investigation might take him, and that it was a poisoned chalice.

Although inspired by real events, the author freely admits in the Historical Note that she has allowed herself a degree of artistic licence in places. That didn’t bother me at all as the book immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of 17th century Rome. It’s a male-dominated society, though, one ‘preoccupied with honour, status and vendetta’. Women have few, if any, rights meaning they must find their own way to fight back. And it’s a society in which if you have power and influence you need not fear being brought to justice. I found it a compelling story and, even though it involves an investigation and a trial, more nuanced than a straightforward historical mystery.

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Acceptance, forbearance, resignation. That is the fate of the women of Rome. Men seem to be dying from unexplained pestilence, whilst their bodies remain intact instead of decomposing in death. Stefano Bracci the youngest son of an impatient and disinterested father, is sent to the Governor to head up an investigation, so he must do a good job of solving the mystery in order to secure his career, but mostly to persuade his father that he is not an sickly weakling.

Meanwhile women all over Rome are seen as uncivilised creatures of sin, their abuse bidden by law and the will of the church. Girolama and her band of female co-workers are rebalancing this condition with their recipes for whatsoever shall ail women. These handed down secrets are sacred and belong in the libra di segreti. One recipe in particular, the one for Aqua, is the one Girolama will not share with the others in her group. This recipe helps women in danger of being crushed. And they are in this danger because the Malleus Malificarum concluded that women are more predisposed to doing the Devil’s work than men. If that doesn’t want to make you read a story about a circle of women who rise up against men then I don’t know what would!

Stefano’s investigation takes him to places both physically – the Tor di Nona prison, and mentally – how far he is willing to go to extract the “truth”, that he never thought he would go. Can he live with this? There is a turning point. When Marcello the Doctor assigned to support the investigation, abandons him, Stefano has a choice to make.

What I liked about this book:

It’s full of phrases like “pulled on her chicken skin gloves”.

It’s history with a creative flair.

The story focuses on the subjugated lives of women who group together to empower themselves.

The characters are revealed for all their insecurities, flaws and beliefs before they start to intertwine.

Themes include but are not limited to beliefs, traditions, women’s roles, women’s rights, early modern Christianity, Rome, physical abuse, mental abuse, family relationships, expectations, death, superstition, curses, magic and secrets.

In her words the author Anna tells us… For a detailed account of the real prosecution, Craig Monson’s Black Widows of the Eternal City provides a fascinating read.

I highly recommend The Book of Secrets by Anna Mazzola.

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I’ll be honest and say I DNF’d this book at 40%. I liked the concept and in particular, the chapters from Anna’s perspective. However it seemed far too slow paced. I felt like had been reading for a long time, but hadn’t gotten very far.
I am in the minority, not being enthralled with the book. It’s probably a case of right book, wrong time. Thank you to the author, publisher and NetGalley for the chance to read an advanced copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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Intriguing story set in 17th century Rome of poisoning, witchcraft & the consequences.
Rich description & a plot that keeps you page turning!

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4.5 stars
This is a fascinating story of strong women and their fight in such a patriarchal world. The lives of Girolama and the women were so tough - it was clear from the very beginning how necessary the Book of Secrets was for their survival. I really enjoyed seeing how they rallied for eachother - the support provided so necessary.
The heritage of the healing women from mother to daughter, from country to country was really interesting and I loved learning about Girolama’s history through the use of the herbs and plants shown to her by the strong women in her family.
I thought the character of Stefano was really well written - his anguish at understanding what had driven these women to do the things they’d done was evident, but he was so keen to prove himself.

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I adore Anna Mazzola’s writing and the Book of Secrets is another cracker, possibly her best yet!

Set in Rome in 1659 and told from multiple points of view, it is the story of how Stefano Bracchi, the youngest son of a merchant and a hard working though as yet junior lawyer takes on a commission from the Governor of Rome. It is a commission that he knows could make or break him and it is the biggest challenge of his career. It is also his chance to show his disdainful father that he is equal to the task.

But the road to success is paved with a lot of fault lines. A man has been found dead and the whispers are that his body did not decay as others have done and that his complexion remained ruddy for days after death. For a city that is just recovering from the plague, this suggests a threat of another kind may be on the horizon and the authorities are keen to understand what is going on before the whispers send the citizens into fear with the threat of another epidemic.

As Stefano begins his investigation we learn quite a lot about the role and place of women in Rome at the time. Anna is no more than her husband’s chattel. He can, under the law, beat her and abuse her as he pleases. The fact that she is heavily pregnant makes no difference. Her job is to cook, clean and obey her husband in all things and if his temper leads to a number of very bad beatings, then that’s simply to be borne. Anna tries to speak to her priest about this, because she fears she will lose her baby, but he sends her home with a flea in her ear.

Girolama is a healer, a midwife and a fortune teller. She tailors her money making activities according to the wealth of her clients, who are exclusively female. Well versed in the science of herbal healing, she makes potions, face creams and healing brews, the recipes for which she keeps in a locked book, the eponymous ‘Book of Secrets’. Many women have good reason to be grateful to her and the knowledge of her business is whispered by and among women seeking discreet help for their ills.

Anna Mazzola’s book is based on fact and I love the way that she blends fact and fiction together to bring the city and the people alive. This is a patriarchal and hierarchical society, ruled by noblemen and susceptible to stories of witchcraft and anything they don’t understand or can’t control.

When similar deaths come to light in Stefano’s investigations, each showing the same kind of post mortem traits, Stefano’s investigations lead him, via a tortuous route, to Girolama and her friends.

Stefano has no proof for what he thinks has happened, but the authorities want to make an example of these women, for could they not, in fact, be engaged in sorcery? And so they open up a prison which was previously closed down for being in too poor a condition for prisoners, and put the women in there. The conditions are dreadful. Dark, damp and riddled with rats they are kept in isolation and treated with violence, kept in need of food and clean water and essentially tortured for the truth.

This is not treatment with which Stefano is entirely comfortable, but he needs to succeed in his mission and intervening is not in his best interests if the truth is to come out. Though the descriptions of what these women undergo are not graphic, nor does Mazzola shield us from what happens to them and it does not stop the reader from becoming enraged with such inhumanity.

I could not help but admire Girolama’s courage and steadfastness in the face of such terrible treatment. Although I understood Stefano’s conflicted feelings, it was hard to forgive his complicity. Because Anna Mazzola has shown us the women’s backgrounds and personal stories, it is very hard not to understand what drove them to take action. This is a sisterhood which has come together to grant each other something that the men of Rome will not – some control over their lives.

You care about these women because they are so beautifully drawn and as the trial looms, the tension is palpable and my heart was thumping right up to the utterly gripping denouement.

Verdict: A story which brings both the people and 17th century Rome to life. A terrific blend of fact and fiction, Mazzola has struck a chord that resonates today. Dark, vivid, visceral and utterly compelling, I loved the story and adored the writing

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Anna Mazzola’s new novel – her fifth and the fourth that I’ve read – is set in Italy and takes as its inspiration the real life story of a group of women accused of selling poison in 17th century Rome.

It’s 1659 and Stefano Bracchi, a junior magistrate at the Papal Court, has been commissioned by the governor of Rome to investigate some unusual deaths that have taken place in the city. The plague that recently swept through Rome took many lives, but this is something different. These deaths are all men and for some unexplained reason, the bodies haven’t gone through the normal process of decay.

Meanwhile, Anna is trapped in an abusive marriage and searching for a way of escape. Her maid introduces her to a woman who says she can help, but the sort of help she provides is not quite what Anna was expecting! As Stefano begins to close in on the people responsible for the mysterious deaths, Anna finds herself caught in his net, but will he be able to prove that she has done anything wrong?

The Book of Secrets is written from the alternating perspectives of Stefano, Anna and a third character – Girolama, a Sicilian woman with a knowledge of herbs, potions and fortune telling, who is said to possess the ‘book of secrets’ of the title. Because we see the story unfold through all three of these characters, there’s very little mystery involved in the book; we know what Girolama and her friends are doing to help the women of Rome, we know how Anna deals with her violent husband and we know how Stefano’s investigation is progressing. However, what I found interesting about this book was not so much the plot as the characters and the way each of them reacts to the situation in which they find themselves.

Our sympathies are naturally with Anna, a desperate woman who takes the only way out she feels is open to her, while Girolama is a more morally ambiguous character – she has the best intentions and her work does a lot of good, but at the same time she seems largely unconcerned that her actions may occasionally cause harm to innocent people. The Rome of 1659 is a male-dominated society and many of the women in the book are victims of men, but Stefano Bracchi is another nuanced character; as he begins to round up Anna, Girolama and their associates for interrogation at the Tor di Nona prison, he becomes torn between compassion for their suffering and the desire to keep his superiors happy for the sake of his career.

Before starting this book, I knew nothing about Girolama Spana and the case this novel is based on. Although Anna Mazzola hasn’t stuck to the historical facts and has invented or expanded parts of the story, she does explain her choices in her author’s note at the end of the book. The Clockwork Girl is still my favourite of her novels, but this is another fascinating one.

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Set in seventeenth century Rome, the year 1659 home of the Catholic Church and Papacy. The city has just come through terrible times of pestilence and the plague. But now there have been whispers of men dying, their corpses upon viewing rosy ruddy cheeks and looking strangely preserved after death. The governor of Rome Baranzone has orders from the Pope to find out what is behind this, if anything?
Stefano Bracchi the youngest son of a merchant, keen to make his mark in the world, show what he is made of and can achieve is tasked to the Job, appointed inquisitor. A papal inquiry. Stefano accepts the challenge.

I found this book a fascinating read, I was immediately drawn into it and its mixed characters. Some you like, others utterly awful.
The Governor Baranzone is an unlikeable character, he knows exactly how to prod Stefano’s weaknesses and insecurities.
The women Stefano rounds up are sent to the rank Tor Di Nona to be questioned.
The book highlights the plight of women during that era in time. Absolutely ruled by their husbands and if they found themselves in an abusive relationship they had nowhere to go, no one to help.
Women inferior to men, inferior to middle and higher class women. One rule for one, another rule for another.
The book is fictitious, but it was interesting to know that there were women mentioned in the book who did exist, and this book is a fictional twist of that story from the authors perspective. I found myself researching said characters after reading the book and acknowledgments.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Publisher for an advanced e-book copy. Opinions about the book are entirely my own.

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A gripping historical novel that offers a unique glimpse into the struggles faced by women in the 17th century society which is dominated by men and women are viewed as possessions. While there is an element of mystery involved it is very much a side story. The descriptions of the time and place are vivid and compelling and very well researched. It is a dark topic that is not as well known as some other similar era's in history as it is based on a true story. I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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I started reading The Book of Secrets one morning in a busy hotel breakfast room. I was fully prepared for the general commotion to be to intrusive for reading, but I was eating alone and therefore prepared to give it ago. I needn't have worried though, Anna's writing instantly absorbed me and as I travelled back to 17th century Rome, the noise around me faded away.

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres and I read quite a bit of it, but there is something about Anna's books that sets them apart from others in the genre. The Book of Secrets looks at historical feminist activism through a unique lense that shows women have been working together, looking after each other, in the name of the sisterhood for centuries.

Having read the author note at the end of the book, I can only admire how Anna has taken the only known parts of a story and stitched them together into something that is not only believable, but also compelling.

An intense and atmospheric story of female solidarity!

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An outstanding book! It is fast-paced, intriguing and the story is very compelling. What stayed with me the most is the hard and heartbreaking life that the women had and that they were treated as possessions of their husbands, permitted by law and society. I really felt for them.

Thank you to Netgalley and Orion Publishing Group for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review

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Set in the mysterious gothic world of 17th century Italy
Inspired by the prosecution of a real group of women living in Rome.
It’s a story of sorcery and survival with a devastating conclusion.
Very atmospheric and mystical, meticulously researched, transporting you to another place and time
Thanks @annamazzolawriter, @orionpublishing & @netgalley for the atmospheric read

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Why does one man’s life count for more than a cartload of women’s?”
This is a key theme of the story that transfixed and absorbed me while reading this novel. This was an absolutely fabulous historical mystery set in Rome, where similarly to Britain, suspicion of witchcraft and female wiles were rampant. A very thought provoking read based on a real case. many thanks to Netgalley for an arc of this book.

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In mid 17th century Rome corpses are arousing interest because they don’t seem to have decomposed enough and the authorities need to find out why. Could it be some sort of poisoning or witchcraft ?
Young lawyer Stefano Bracchi is given his first job as an inquisitor and is told to find out the truth quickly.
At the same time, a young pregnant woman lives in fear every day that her brutal husband may finally kill her and her unborn child and so she decides to take matters into her own hands. Here begins a vivid tale which shows how low-born women of that time were subjugated by certain men and the inequalities these women experienced in the eyes of the law.
Based on true historical events, Mazzola has written historical fiction which celebrates strong women whilst showing that sadly the power of some men over women in the 1600s is still reflected and relevant in today’s society. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Thank you to the publisher for the ARC

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This book. I don’t know where to start. It’s an amazing read about a difficult subject, and so very skillfully handled. This is my first read by this writer, but it certainly won’t be my last.

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I love Anna Mazzola's writing and it shines so brightly in this new historical mystery. An engaging and captivating read.

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Set in 17th-century Rome, The Book of Secrets is a gripping historical crime novel based on a true story.

Despite the fact there are very few mysteries for the reader to unravel (the use of multiple perspectives means we know more than any one character), I found the storytelling fast-paced and compelling. The prose is fluid and easy to read, and the charactesr are vivid and well-imagined. Through three different perspectives, Mazzola explores themes of crime and conscience, and what justice really means in a fundamentally unjust society.

Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, The Book of Secrets is a compulsive and thought-provoking read.

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