Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

The Last HoursAbout the Book

June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.  In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people’s future – including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.  Lady Anne’s people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls? And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo…?

Format: eBook (560 pp.), hardcover (550 pp.)        Publisher: Allen & Unwin UK
Published: 2nd November 2017                                  Genre: Historical Fiction

Pre-order/Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

 

Find The Last Hours on Goodreads


My Review

Minette Walter’s first novel in a decade marks a significant change in direction in terms of genre. Click here to read Minette’s interview with The Guardian about her move from writing psychological thrillers to historical fiction.  This is the first book I’ve read by Minette Walters and I came to it with high expectations knowing her reputation as a storyteller and because the period setting and subject matter intrigued me.

The author does a good job of conveying the panic of the villagers as the plague takes hold and their ignorance of its source and method of transmission. Given the paucity of medical knowledge at the time, it’s easy to understand why many of them believe it to be a punishment sent by God. However Lady Anne’s religious beliefs and humanitarian instincts lead her to reject the idea of a merciless God raining down pain and suffering indiscriminately. Luckily for the villagers, she also possesses some quite modern notions of hygiene practices. That and her decision to have the villagers seek refuge behind the moat and walls of the manor house, cutting themselves off from the outside world, offer them the possibility of survival.

Eventually the need for food and news of the outside world means some of them must venture outside the safety of the manor house. Their experiences take up a large proportion of the second half of the book.

The book is clearly the product of extensive research and there were many things I found interesting. For instance, appreciating how little ordinary people travelled in those days and their lack of knowledge of what lay beyond even their own demesne. I hadn’t realised either that, at that time, cats were rare, unfamiliar creatures and forbidden by the Church as instruments of the Devil.

Most interestingly, the author explores the social impact of the plague. Not only that it was no respecter of position in society, targeting serf and noble alike, but that it created a situation where, in its aftermath, lords would be dependent on their serfs to restore the wealth of their lands.  If you like, the law of supply in demand would come into effect, with the few serfs left alive able to bargain with landowners for their freedom in return for their valuable labour. Furthermore, the needs of survival thrust ordinary people into positions of unaccustomed authority or forced them to take responsibility for decision-making and organisation where they would previously have been used to taking direction.

I found a lot to enjoy in this book and I know many reviewers have been fulsome in their praise. However, I have to say that I did find it over long and rather slow, especially the second half which dragged for me. I was also taken by surprise and felt slightly let down by the nature of the ending.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers Allen & Unwin UK in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Well-researched, detailed, dramatic

Try something similar…The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer (click here to read my review)


Minette WaltersAbout the Author

Minette Walters is a British mystery writer. After studying at Trevelyan College, University of Durham, she began writing in 1987 with The Ice House, which was published in 1992. She followed this with The Sculptress (1993), which received the 1994 Edgar Award for Best Novel. She has been published in 35 countries and won many awards. The Sculptress has been adapted for television in a BBC series starring Pauline Quirke. Her novels The Ice House, The Echo, The Dark Room, and The Scold’s Bridle have also been adapted by the BBC.

Connect with Minette

Website ǀ Goodreads

 

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My 5 Favourite October Reads

My 5 Favourite October Reads

Of the 14 books I read in October, here are my five favourite (in no particular order). It was a hard choice as this has been a month of super books. Click on the book title to read my review.

TheBookofForgottenAuthorsThe Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead. So begins Christopher Fowler’s foray into the back catalogues and back stories of 99 authors who, once hugely popular, have all but disappeared from shelves. We are fondly introduced to each potential rediscovery: from lost Victorian voices to the twentieth century writers who could well become the next John Williams, Hans Fallada or Lionel Davidson. Whether male or female, flash-in-the-pan or prolific, mega-seller or prize-winner – no author, it seems, can ever be fully immune from the fate of being forgotten. These 99 journeys are punctuated by 12 short essays about faded once-favourites: including the now-vanished novels Walt Disney brought to the screen, the contemporary rivals of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie who did not stand the test of time, and the women who introduced psychological suspense many decades before it conquered the world. This is a book about books and their authors. It is for book lovers, and is written by one who could not be a more enthusiastic, enlightening and entertaining guide.

My Verdict: The perfect gift for bibliophiles – like browsing the shelves of the best secondhand bookshop in the world. You’ll be surprised by some of the names included and intrigued by others. All conveyed in the author’s witty and sometimes acerbic style.

TheCrowsofBearaThe Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson

When Annie Crowe travels from Seattle to a small Irish village to promote a new copper mine, her public relations career is hanging in the balance. Struggling to overcome her troubled past and a failing marriage, Annie is eager for a chance to rebuild her life. Yet when she arrives on the remote Beara Peninsula, Annie learns that the mine would encroach on the nesting ground of an endangered bird, the Red-billed Chough, and many in the community are fiercely protective of this wild place. Among them is Daniel Savage, a local artist battling demons of his own, who has been recruited to help block the mine. Despite their differences, Annie and Daniel find themselves drawn toward each other, and, inexplicably, they begin to hear the same voice–a strange, distant whisper of Gaelic, like sorrow blowing in the wind. Guided by ancient mythology and challenged by modern problems, Annie must confront the half-truths she has been sent to spread and the lies she has been telling herself. Most of all, she must open her heart to the healing power of this rugged land and its people.

My Verdict: This was a blog tour find thanks to Amy at HF Virtual Book Tours. I was really drawn into the story of Annie and Daniel, two damaged individuals seeking redemption and renewal.

WomanEntersLeftWoman Enters Left by Jessica Brockmole

In the 1950s, movie star Louise Wilde is caught between an unfulfilling acting career and a shaky marriage when she receives an out-of-the-blue phone call: She has inherited the estate of Florence “Florrie” Daniels, a Hollywood screenwriter she barely recalls meeting. Among Florrie’s possessions are several unproduced screenplays, personal journals, and—inexplicably—old photographs of Louise’s mother, Ethel. On an impulse, Louise leaves a film shoot in Las Vegas and sets off for her father’s house on the East Coast, hoping for answers about the curious inheritance and, perhaps, about her own troubled marriage.

Nearly thirty years earlier, Florrie takes off on an adventure of her own, driving her Model T westward from New Jersey in pursuit of broader horizons. She has the promise of a Hollywood job and, in the passenger seat, Ethel, her best friend since childhood. Florrie will do anything for Ethel, who is desperate to reach Nevada in time to reconcile with her husband and reunite with her daughter. Ethel fears the loss of her marriage; Florrie, with long-held secrets confided only in her journal, fears its survival.

In parallel tales, the three women—Louise, Florrie, Ethel—discover that not all journeys follow a map. As they rediscover their carefree selves on the road, they learn that sometimes the paths we follow are shaped more by our traveling companions than by our destinations.

My Verdict: I sometimes have a problem with dual time narratives, often finding the story set in the past more engaging than the one set in the present. No problem here, because both story lines are set in the past, they’re equally compelling and there’s a touch of Hollywood glamour running through the whole thing. A really entertaining read (and another HF Virtual Book Tours find).

HomeisNearby1Home Is Nearby by Magdalena McGuire

1980: The beginning of the polish crisis. Brought up in a small village, country-girl Ania arrives in the university city of Wroclaw to pursue her career as a sculptor. Here she falls in love with Dominik, an enigmatic write at the center of a group of bohemians and avant-garde artists who throw wild parties. When martial law is declared, their lives change overnight: military tanks appear on the street, curfews are introduced and the artists are driven underground. Together, Ania and Dominik fight back, pushing against the boundaries imposed by the authoritarian communist government. But at what cost?

My Verdict: A fantastic debut novel that explores the role of art in responding to political events, features a great cast of believable characters and provides an insight into Polish culture and customs.

Mr Dickens and His CarolMr Dickens and His Carol by Samatha Silva

Charles Dickens should be looking forward to Christmas. But when his latest book, Martin Chuzzlewit, is a flop, his publishers give him an ultimatum. Either he writes a Christmas book in a month or they will call in his debts and he could lose everything. Dickens has no choice but to grudgingly accept…

My Verdict: Another assured debut novel that I described as a love letter to Charles Dickens’ most well-known and best loved book, A Christmas Carol. Utterly charming.

 

What were your favourite reads last month?

Blog Tour/Q&A: The Note by Zoë Folbigg

I’m delighted to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for The Note by Zoë Folbigg, a delightful story about how a little note can change your life forever. I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with Zoë in which she talks about her book, love at first sight and juggling writing and family life.

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The NoteAbout the Book

One very ordinary day, Maya Flowers sees a new commuter board her train to London, and suddenly the day isn’t ordinary at all. Maya knows immediately and irrevocably, that he is The One. But the beautiful man on the train always has his head in a book and never seems to notice Maya sitting just down the carriage from him every day. Eventually, though, inspired by a very wise friend, Maya plucks up the courage to give the stranger a note asking him out for a drink. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? And so begins a story of sliding doors, missed opportunities and finding happiness where you least expect it. The Note is an uplifting, life-affirming reminder that taking a chance can change everything…

Format: eBook (293 pp.), paperback (304 pp.)                             Publisher: Aria Fiction
Published: 21st Sep 2017 (eBook), 2nd Nov 2017 (paperback)   Genre: Romance

Pre-order/Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Kobo ǀ iTunes ǀ Google Play
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

 

Find The Note on Goodreads


Interview: Zoë Folbigg, author of The Note

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about The Note?

The Note is a story about following your heart, taking a chance to make something happen. It’s about a woman called Maya, who’s 28 and works for a fashion retailer, who falls in love with a stranger from afar on her daily commute into London. The novel follows how she manages to pluck up the courage to give the handsome stranger a note – and the consequences when she finally does. It also follows her on the rollercoaster at work with crazy colleagues and the ups and downs of her friend’s relationships as a parallel to hers. It’s about being brave, it’s about love, and it’s about friendship.

So you obviously believe in love at first sight?

Yes I do! I was once a bystander in a crowded bar in a Mexican backwater with my English friend by my side when she locked eyes with a handsome Mexican across the room; he couldn’t take his eyes off her. They’ve been married almost twenty years. Then it happened to me with Train Man, although it took him a little longer to fall for me…

James, Maya’s ‘beautiful man on the train’, always has his head in a book. Why does being a keen reader add to a person’s attractiveness, do you think?

Well if you’re a book lover you’re more likely to find a book lover attractive. And I wanted to give the sense of what a quiet romantic James was, so it was helpful to do this through the books he reads on the train.

Who would be top of your wish list to play James and Maya in a film of The Note?

Ooh that’s a tricky question! Well if they were British it would have to be Tom Hughes for James – tall, dark, quiet and broodingly handsome. And I guess Jenna Coleman for Maya as their chemistry in Victoria is so charming. My dream Hollywood stars would have to be Ryan Gosling and… I think still Jenna Coleman. She has the spark that I intended for Maya.

You’ve had a very successful career in journalism but did you always want to write a novel?

Yes I did. I used to get home from school and write short stories for my best friends – usually involving them getting together with whichever pop star they most fancied at the time. Then when I was working on women’s magazines I saw many of my contemporaries (Katy Regan, Ali Harris, Erin Kelly, Dorothy Koomson…) release brilliant novels and I thought ‘Maybe I can do that!’

What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing The Note?

Only having short windows in which to write because I have two young boys. So I had to fit writing into naptimes at first or three-hour windows when they were at nursery. It’s got a bit easier now I have a school day to write in, but still, it’s hard to turn on the creativity and write on demand because I know I won’t be able to write after 3pm.

Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?

Well, now both my boys are at school I have a ritual of dropping them off, going for a run or doing a workout, then using that exercise time to think through my structure/plot/whatever stumbling block I might be facing. Then I go home, shower and write, write, write until school pickup, refuelling with Green & Black’s throughout the day!

Which other writers do you admire?

I love Isabel Allende for her epic stories, romantic heroes, strong women and magical realism. And Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel, Octavio Paz. Of my peers I love Katy Regan and Ali Harris, whose books are warm and witty and charming and uplifting. At the moment I mostly read children’s books – Andy Stanton is a current favourite. He has me and my sons in fits of giggles every evening with his Mr Gum books.

What’s your favourite type of book for a long train journey?

Well, I haven’t had a long train journey alone in almost eight years, as I’m always entertaining my children, so I have lots to catch up on: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, and of course Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, which I still haven’t read.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing my second novel, which is also about star-crossed lovers, falling in love in peculiar circumstances – although my second book doesn’t feature railways at all!

Thank you, Zoë, for those fascinating insights into the life of a writer. I’m sure the many fans of The Note are eagerly awaiting your next book.


Zoe FolbiggAbout the Author

Zoë Folbigg is a magazine journalist and digital editor, starting at Cosmopolitan in 2001 and since freelancing for titles including Glamour, Fabulous, Daily Mail, Healthy, LOOK, Top Santé, Mother & Baby, ELLE, Sunday Times Style, and Style.com. In 2008 she had a weekly column in Fabulous magazine documenting her year-long round-the-world trip with ‘Train Man’ – a man she had met on her daily commute. She has since married Train Man and lives in Hertfordshire with him and their two young sons. This is her debut novel.

Connect with Zoë

Website ǀ Facebook ǀ Twitter ǀ Goodreads

THE NOTE blog tour

Book Review: Mr Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

Mr Dickens and His CarolAbout the Book

Charles Dickens should be looking forward to Christmas.

But when his latest book, Martin Chuzzlewit, is a flop, his publishers give him an ultimatum. Either he writes a Christmas book in a month or they will call in his debts and he could lose everything. Dickens has no choice but to grudgingly accept…

 

Format: eBook (244 pp.), Hardcover (320 pp.) Publisher: Allison & Busby
Published: 31st October 2017                               Genre: Historical Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com ǀ Barnes & Noble
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Mr Dickens and His Carol on Goodreads


My Review

For you, does Christmas not really start until you’ve read the words, ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’? Is for you the perfect wet, overcast Christmas afternoon spent watching your favourite adaptation of the ultimate feel good Christmas story (whether that’s starring Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, my own personal favourite Patrick Stewart …or even The Muppets)? Have you ever found yourself taking a second glance at a door knocker on a murky night because you fancy it has changed shape? Do the words, ‘I see a vacant seat…in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner’ reduce you to a helpless blubbering wreck? If you can answer yes to any of those questions, then Samantha Silva’s Mr Dickens and His Carol is the book for you. It’s a full-on love letter to one of Charles Dickens’ most famous and best-loved books: A Christmas Carol.

It’s 1843 and Charles Dickens finds himself in the peculiar situation of no longer experiencing the literary success to which he has been accustomed.   Furthermore, he’s in danger of being overshadowed in the literary firmament by authors such as Thackeray. On top of all that, he’s weighed down by the financial burden of supporting his growing family, well-appointed house, impecunious family members and all manner of social causes. What’s more, Christmas is approaching when his purse seems to have ever increasing demands upon it.

When his publishers insist that he write a Christmas book (and do it the space of a few weeks), Dickens is initially appalled at the idea that he should write in response to public demand. “Well! From now on I should simply ask my public what it is they’d like to read.” When Dickens does eventually resign himself to the commission, he finds himself suffering an extreme case of writer’s block. I’m sure many authors will empathise with his efforts to overcome it.

When morning rounded the bend for noon, and the tempest outside blustered on, Dickens had a clipped conversation with The Master’s Cat (who offered no useful ideas at all), took three stretching breaks, a light lunch and a cold bath to clear his head. By late afternoon he had one half-written paragraph that was illegible for all the scratching-out, and barely good enough for the bin.’

A chance encounter during one of Dickens’ customary night-time perambulations through London finally brings inspiration. However, when the muse finally strikes will it be the A Christmas Carol we are familiar with or will Dickens first need to go on his own journey into his past, present and future?

The author really captures the atmosphere of Dickens in the descriptions of London. ‘The clusters of tenements and rows of lodging-houses looked cramped and unhappy, with dwarf doors and squeezed windows, broken shutters, if shutters at all, and more paper and rags than glass in them. There was a barber in one front parlour, a herring vendor in another, a cobbler visible through an opening out back.  A few rickety balconies leant hard on thin wood columns, like crutches, and threatened to drop at any moment.’

I loved spotting the passing references to A Christmas Carol dotted throughout the book – names, phrases or snippets of dialogue. I laughed out loud when the author made Dickens utter the phrase ‘Humbugs? Bah!’ and again when Dickens was allowed to indulge in the ultimate literary revenge towards a hapless autograph hunter.

The Dickens who emerges in this book is a family man, a loving if at times somewhat neglectful husband, a supporter of social causes, loyal friend and generous host. Clearly, there were other sides to his character. For instance, he would later very publicly separate from Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years, after becoming enamoured with a young actress. If you would like to explore this further, consider my ‘try something similar’ recommendation below which, on this occasion, is not very similar at all.

However, if you love A Christmas Carol or even (whisper) if you don’t but know someone who does, then Mr Dickens and His Carol would make the perfect Christmas gift.   Being in the former category, I absolutely loved it and I couldn’t imagine anything nicer than unwrapping the book with its gorgeous cover on Christmas morning.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of publishers Allison & Busby in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Charming, funny, uplifting

Try something similar…Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle by Heera Datta (click here for my review)


Samantha SilvaAbout the Author

Samantha Silva is a writer and screenwriter based in Idaho. Mr Dickens and His Carol is her debut novel. Over her career she’s sold projects to Paramount, Universal, New Line Cinema, and TNT. A film adaptation of her short story, The Big Burn, won the 1 Potato Short Screenplay Competition at the 2017 Sun Valley Film Festival. Silva will direct, her first time at the helm. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, she’s lived in London, Bologna, and Rome, is an avid Italophile and a forever Dickens devotee

Connect with Samantha

Website ǀ Goodreads

MrDickensAndHisCarol

 

 

My Week in Books – 29th October ’17

MyWeekinBooks

New arrivals

BrotherBrother by David Chariandy (eARC, NetGalley)

Michael and Francis are the bright, ambitious sons of Trinidadian immigrants. Coming of age in The Park, a cluster of houses and towers in the disparaged outskirts of a sprawling city, the brothers battle against the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them on a daily basis. While Francis dreams of a future in music, Michael’s dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their school, whose eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere.

But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic event.

The Secret Life of Alfred NightingaleThe Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale by Rebecca Stonehill (ebook, review copy courtesy of the author)

1967 – Handsome but troubled, Jim is almost 18 and he lives and breathes girls, trad jazz, Eel Pie Island and his best friend, Charles. One night, he hears rumours of a community of young people living in caves in Matala, Crete. Determined to escape his odious, bully of a father and repressed mother, Jim hitchhikes through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.

The Tides BetweenThe Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett (ebook, review copy courtesy of the author)

In the year 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bridie’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her childhood, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father’s fairy tales to the far side of the world. When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark double meaning. As they inch towards their destination, Rhys’s past returns to haunt him. Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairy tales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.


On What Cathy Read Next last week

Blog posts

Monday – I shared my review of The Summer Springsteen’s Songs Saved Me by Barbara Quinn, a fun summer romance with each chapter linked to a Bruce Springsteen song.

WednesdayWWW Wednesday is the opportunity to share what I’ve just finished reading, what I’m reading now and what I’ll be reading next. I also published my review of Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, a dark atmospheric historical novel which sadly was her last book before her untimely death earlier this year.

Thursday – As part of the blog tour, I shared my review of A Sea of Sorrow by the H Team, a group of writers who have collaborated on fascinating stories based on characters mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey.

Friday – I took part in the blog tour for The Murderer’s Maid by Erika Mailman, a fictionalised account of the Lizzie Borden case.

Saturday – I ventured Down the TBR Hole with a view to pruning my To-Read shelf on Goodreads of books I no longer desire (or can’t remember ever desiring in the first place).

Challenge updates

  • Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge – 128 out of 156 books read, 3 more than last week
  • Classics Club Challenge – 5 out of 50 books reviewed, same as last week
  • NetGalley/Edelweiss Reading Challenge 2017 (Gold) – 52 ARCs reviewed out of 50, 1 more than last week
  • From Page to Screen 2016/7– 7 book/film comparisons out of 12 completed, same as last week
  • From Page to Screen 2017/18 – 1 out of 2 completed, same as last week

On What Cathy Read Next this week

Currently reading

Planned posts

  • Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters
  • Review: Mr Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva
  • Blog Tour/Q&A: The Note by Zoe Folbigg
  • Review: Fires by Tom Ward
  • Review: Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro
  • Blog Tour/Review: The Other Life of Charlotte Evans by Louisa George
  • Review: Cuz by Danielle Allen
  • Review: The Secret of Vesalius by Jordi Llobregat
  • Q&A: The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale by Rebecca Stonehill
  • Blog Tour/Review: Mystery Tour, CWA Anthology of Short Stories, ed. Martin Edwards