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?