The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Having loved Minette Walters other books, I was so looking forward to reading The Last Hours, her first foray into historical fiction. Set in England in 1348, it tells the story of how one resilient and clever community, Develish in Dorseteshire, survived during the deadly outbreak of the Black Plague, a plague that wiped out nearly half the population.

Centred around two primary characters, Lady Anne Develish and a serf whom she has nurtured over many years, the maligned bastard, Thaddeus Thurkell, it also explores the complex network of familial and other relationships that make up the immediate village and manor house – from the simply villainous and narcissistic Lord of the manor, Sir Richard to his equally vile daughter, Eleanor, to the various bondmen and their families as well as the alcoholic priest. How they all respond to not only news of the spread of plague, but the various threats that are set to unravel the lives they’ve built, makes compelling reading.

The novel starts slowly, introducing the reader to these various players in what’s about to become a fight for survival against overwhelming odds – and not just the sickness kind. As the plague takes its toll and the folk of Develish retreat behind the walls and moat, it swiftly becomes clear that healthy humans, and those forced into close confinement can often pose a much greater hazard than a ravaging illness.

When a murder happens among the cloistered community, only quick and drastic action prevents a greater travesty occurring.

Left with no choice but to seek both news and vitals beyond Develish’s boundaries, and led by Thaddeus, an exiled group join the brutal, devastated wider world that’s been ravaged by the plague. In the meantime, those they’ve left behind who look to Lady Anne for leadership and so much more, are forced to deal with not only their own doubts and fears, but the murderous intentions of other survivors who see the plague as an opportunity for exploitation.

The premise of this story reminded me very much of Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent Year of Wonders (still one of my all-time favourite books), a tale based on the true story of the brave souls who voluntarily quarantined themselves in order to prevent the spread of plague in 1665. But there the comparison ends. The people of Develish don’t quarantine themselves for the sake of others, but to save their own skin – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Establishing the personalities, weaknesses and strengths of the various players early, I found myself mostly investing in them. Where I struggled was in the glaring anachronisms around Lady Anne’s approach to not only health and hygiene but religion and class structures. I’ve not doubt there were exceptions to the strict rules and governance of the day, only Lady Anne seemed to buck, resist and rise above every accepted religious, social and hygiene standard set by the culture and period. This meant that most of her approaches to people and household habits smacked of 21st Century mores and notions. Part of me quite enjoyed the justification for some of her “modern” motivations and rules, that made Develish such an exceptional place, but when set against the misogynistic attitudes of first her husband and, later, what would have been ingrained in so many people – men and women – she became a medieval superhero and the tolerance and understanding extended to her by those who looked to her for leadership, more than remarkable for the time. Again, it’s always beautifully rationalised, I just didn’t always swallow it, as much as I wanted to. Lady Anne was so good, and right and smart and bold, yet also marvellously strategic, she almost (almost) became two-dimensional – and it’s testimony to Walter’s writing that she didn’t.

Where this didn’t work quite so well was in the portrayal of Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard. Frankly, what an utter arse without any redeeming qualities whatsoever and who just becomes worse and worse as the novel progresses and his behaviours are uncovered. How anyone, even a Norman steward can show loyalty to such a buffoon when other options are available and commons sense dictates otherwise, is a stretch.

Likewise, the daughter, Eleanor. Once more, Walters is at pains to explain and justify her putrid behaviour. Problem is, she was so damn selfish and awful, she was more a caricature and device for showing other characters’ goodness and faults than a real person.

Still, I enjoyed many of the scenes with both these characters and learning how their utterly selfish motivations and unreasonable demands were subtly overturned.

My main beef with the book was how it ended. I wished I’d known this wasn’t a complete book in itself. No. It is part of a series. I found it fairly confusing towards the final pages, particularly those inserted to give you a taste of what’s to follow. I found they made little sense and made me cross rather than longing to learn more!

Overall, the period and the English countryside and rules and regulations governing English manors and lands and how fiefdoms were controlled is well-established and fascinating, as is the ghastly way in which the plague affected people and how its spread was managed. Religion is not treated kindly and nor are the upper classes who don’t seem to have one redeemable character among them – I struggled a bit with both of these depictions, particularly as religion was the world-view then and to dissent or hold alternate (and very contemporary views) was to be a heretic and risk the salvation of the soul. Atheism might have been around, as was alternate ways of thinking about God, but again, putting all these views and arguments in the mouth and mind of mainly one character – and one who grew up in a nunnery – was sometimes difficult to go along with.

The story, once it really starts, is suspenseful and there are times I was flipping pages to find out what was happening. It’s some of the main and subsidiary characters that caused me problems in terms of completely suspending my disbelief (which I am very happy to do). They appeared to have been invented in our century and sent back in time to educate, elucidate and rescue those deemed worthy or smart enough to understand redemption comes in other forms.

The writing is, at all times, lovely and compelling and I will keep an eye out for the next instalment in this series – presumably, the hours after these last ones!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

23566896 Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta is quite simple a brilliant, moving and thought-provoking book that deals with so many familiar, contemporary and ideologically thorny and relevant issues in a sensitive and meaningful way.

The title is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, a king who was greatly misunderstood and is often cast by history and, indeed, his contemporaries, as a murderer of the worst kind. For his entire reign, he dealt with suspicion, distrust, gossip and attempts to assassinate his character and his actual person. It’s not surprising then that the novel also deals with someone, actually, a family, accused of murder most foul: terrorism and the brutal slaying of 23 people when a home-made bomb is detonated in a local supermarket, destroying lives, families and cultural relations. Just like Henry IV, the family and the community deal with the fallout, gossip, and everything and anything else the media and suspicious, racist minds can generate.

Fast forward 13 years, and the scene is set for another bomb to explode – this time in France on a bus containing British kids on tour. The novel then follows the inevitable fallout that occurs when it’s discovered that the daughter of one of the original terrorists, a young women named Violette, was a passenger on the destroyed bus. Worse, she’s disappeared and taken a young boy with her. Suspended DI, Bish Ortley, whose daughter, Bee, survives the carnage, commences an investigation into the tragedy. Crossing continents, counties, encountering co-operative parents, scared and hostile ones, cultural and racial conflict, as well as his own personal demons, Bish is determined to find Violette and the boy and protect them. But there are others, including a rapacious and unforgiving media who have other ideas.

Set across mainly two countries, England and France, it nevertheless draws other countries (including Australia), cultures and faiths and the people that represent these into its narrative. Avoiding stereotypes, Marchetta constructs real people who you engage with, believe in and champion with every breath, every word. The demonisation of Otherness, the way misunderstandings are formed, and cultural appropriation manipulated, is charted and exposed in all its callus cruelty as is the ease at which we’re prepared to accept the worst of people before the best; the way in which we allow fear to govern our responses even when our hearts and heads tell us differently. It’s also a story about families, about young people, trust, loyalty and the bonds that both tie and divide us.

A timely, superb book and beautifully and powerfully written, that will have you thinking well beyond the last page.

 

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Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

This long awaited sequel to the simply marvellous Restoration, picks up the story of the highly flawed and extremely personable, Robert Merivel, physician to King Charles II, only this time, it’s 25 years or thereabouts since we last met him.

18970894Well into his twilight years, Merivel, who in the first book enjoyed then lost the patronage of his king and went on a journey of self-discovery which saw him survive the Plague, the Great Fire and life in metal asylum run by a kind group of Quakers, is this time far more settled. His beloved daughter is now a woman; he has his well-managed estate to run and his ageing servants to consider and a life well-lived to reflect upon. Ever trying to find meaning in his life, Merivel, like the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, keeps a record of his daily activities, thoughts, mishaps, sexual encounters and triumphs, sparing the reader nothing. This is part of the joy of the man and the book.

Emulating the erratic syntax of the era, in that Tremain capitalises words mid-sentence, she also manages to plunge the reader into this wonderfully decadent and politically fraught time – stylistically, but also ideologically and emotionally. Whether it’s food, fashion, habits, religion, medical procedures or class structure, she recreates the late 1600s and the turmoil of monarchy and government as well as international relations and places masterfully.

Merivel may be older, but he doesn’t feel wiser. A sense that life is slipping him by pervades and so he makes the decision to travel to the court of Louis XIV, the King’s cousin, and see the great Versailles for himself. Always afraid of what he might be missing out on, Merivel embarks on a number of other adventures, and makes some rather interesting and, on reflection poor choices, in this book. In doing so, he learns his place in the greater world and the smaller one that is his estate and family. He discovers the real meaning of love and friendship and what’s important in life. The reader champions him on this erratic journey and our affection for this volatile but kind and very philosophical man deepens.

Including Merivel, a fictional character in real historical events and having him encounter actual personages of the time imbue the book with such immediacy and Merivel himself more relevance than he already has. He becomes our touchstone for both the macrocosmic historic events and the microcosmic ones we can all identify with.

As much as it evokes the period so beautifully, the novel is also contemporary in that the questions it poses about ageing and life are timeless.

Superbly written, with humour, pathos and such understanding, this is a gorgeous book and a fitting conclusion to Merivel’s marvellous life.

 

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