The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips

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The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Laura Bailey
Reviewed by Laura Bailey
Summary: A young academic trying to make a name for herself comes across a coded diary which has been lost in the depths of the Cambridge university library. This book was a decent read, the characters were compelling, but there are better books in this genre out there.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Pocket Books
ISBN: 978-1847393487

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It is 1672 and Hannah Devlin, a young widow with a skill for (illegally) practicing medicine finds herself being all but kidnapped by King Charles II's advisors and forced to use her skills to treat his mistress, Louise de Keroualle.

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Claire Donovan and Andrew Kent. A pair of Cambridge academics who find Hannah's coded diary and use it to solve a centuries old crime while Hannah works on a mystery of her own – the murder of her father. The pressure to solve the mystery is increased when Claire becomes implicated in the death of one of their peers which seems to be linked somehow to the diary.

About half of the characters in the novel are based on real historical figures and the author provides an interesting guide to which people and events are genuine at the end of the book. The faux old fashioned writing put me off a little at first, although I did get into it after the first few chapters. There are some words that feel outdated even in the modern part of the book, people do 'harrumph' a lot in this novel and after a while I started to laugh whenever the word was used. The author also has (a trap a lot of historical writers seem to fall into) a tendency of adding details that she has obviously come across in research that aren't strictly necessary to the plot and can pull the reader out of the story. What kept me reading were the characters. Phillips creates characters that really do come to life, the 1672 characters perhaps more so than the modern ones, but I did feel for all of them.

The author has chosen to write the 1672 part of the novel in present tense and the modern day part in past tense. This was a bit confusing at first, however I have to admit that part way through the novel it did begin to make sense. What I didn't understand, although I can see the advantages of an omniscient narrator, was why the 1672 section was written in third person and the author did not just let us read Hannah's diary, as the main characters in the modern story were. I felt this would have made the two stories seem more closely connected, and the book would have felt more rounded somehow.

The story also seemed to move slowly, this book is quite long and it was a couple of hundred pages in before the mystery itself really came into play. The historical side of the story was the most exciting. To be honest not a lot seemed to happen to the other characters. The modern day section of the novel consisted of the two characters going to local libraries, avoiding talking about their feelings and discussing Anglo-American relationships. I wanted a few more exciting things to happen to them.

This book is a one read kind of book. There are not really any extras that would compel you to re-read it. This is the main reason that it is a book that I would borrow but not buy. The story does carry you away, but when you've read it once and you know the ending there is no reason to read it again.

The biggest problem I found with this book was that revelation at the end was simply not as exciting as I wanted it to be. Whenever I put the book down I found myself trying to work out who the culprit could be, however, when it was finally revealed I didn't think 'of course,' like I wanted to, I just thought 'oh.'

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If you like The Devlin Diary then you will probably like A S Byatt's Possession, or alternatively for an easier read in a similar vein, have a look at anything by Scott Mariani.

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