The Last Hours by Minette Walters

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Author: Minette Walters

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 27th September 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 568

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

When the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in Dorseteshire in June 1348, no one knows what manner of sickness it is or how it spreads and kills so quickly.

The Church proclaims it a punishment from God but Lady Anne of Develish has different ideas. With her brutal husband absent, she decides on more sensible ways to protect her people than the daily confessions of sin recommended by the Bishop. Anne gathers her serfs within the gates of Develish and refuses entry to outsiders, even to her husband.

She makes an enemy of her daughter by doing so, but her resolve is strengthened by the support of her leading serfs … until food stocks run low and the nerves of all are tested by their ignorance of what is happening in the world outside. The people of Develish are alive. But for how long? And what will they discover when the time comes for them to cross the moat?

Compelling and suspenseful, The Last Hours is a riveting tale of human ingenuity and endurance against the worst pandemic known to history. In Lady Anne of Develish – leader, saviour, heretic – Walters has created her most memorable heroine to date.

From the press release: 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. A culture of terror and superstition quickly sweeps across the land as news of the Black Death travels far and wide.

In the demesne 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 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 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 safety of the demesne? And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo…?

~*~

It’s 1348 and The Black Death, known in the fourteenth century, has arrived in Dorsetshire, England. It has come upon them quietly, with the arrival of Lady Anne’s husband back from a quest to find daughter Eleanor a husband. Aged just fourteen, Eleanor will quickly learn some harsh truths about her life, and the world around her. In an effort to prevent the pestilence from entering the demesne, Develish, Lady Anne instructs the serfs to be brought inside, and will not allow anybody across the moat, or inside – including her husband. Whilst the Church is driving the message home that the pestilence is a punishment from God, Lady Anne protects her people without daily confession. Labelled a heretic for turning away from the Church at this time, and finding new ways to keep the pestilence at bay, Lady Anne is supported wholly by loyal, leading serfs, but makes an enemy out of her daughter. With food stores running low, will Develish continue to be the haven that Lady Anne has tried to create? Or will everyone, including Lady Anne and Eleanor, begin to fray at the edges and turn on each other?

The Black Death and the Middle Ages is not a period of time I have encountered often in literature – it is a period of time that was as significant in history as Culloden, Mary Queen of Scots and the First and Second World Wars – and I seem to have encountered more stories that use these other events and people or aspects of these events and people as a basis for the story. The Last Hours looks to be the first of at least two books, maybe more, as there is a preview for the follow-up out next year, and given the ending, I came away in search of more answers, but still enjoyed the story.

Placing a female hero at the centre of the story in a time when a woman’s position in society was determined by the men around her, and having everyone see her as the authority was executed wonderfully – as there were still reminders from Eleanor and Father Anselm that Lady Anne’s authority would be cut short when another Lord from another demesne arrived and took control of Develish. With the turning tide of the pestilence, Lady Anne’s daughter feels the strain of what is going on and what is to come, and begins to take her anger out on those around her – though little do they know what she is hiding from them, something that she herself is perhaps unaware of at first – and which I felt shaped her character. She was hard to like, whereas her mother was a likeable character, and Minette has done well at showing the breadth of personalities amongst the serfs and the others at Develish.

minetteEach of these characters have flaws and strengths that reflect the fragility of humanity and religion, revealing these flaws for what they are and showing that they do not make someone a whole person. The flaws in religion are revealed through the doctrine of absolving sins to make the pestilence go away, but still seeing those that undertake this act dying within days or weeks of contracting it. And so, Lady Anne posits a different view – that piety or lack thereof, is not the cause, and a faithful serf and six others set out, across the moat and into the unknown to find out what is happening beyond Develish and to bring back supplies. But will they work out the source of the pestilence on their journey?

The Last Hours is a gripping novel of intrigue and explores an historical event that devastated so many during the fourteenth century, and coupled with a terrible event that threatens to rock the status quo of Develish, these two events will certainly bring devastation in more ways than one to the demesne, and shake the foundations to the core. And is Lady Anne a saviour, or a heretic? Either way, she is a memorable heroine, and I hope to see more of her soon. Those who enjoy historical fiction with a hint of subversiveness and mystery will enjoy this book.

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Love, Lies and Linguine

 

 

love lies linguine.jpgTitle: Love, Lies and Linguine

Author: Hilary Spiers

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: February 2017/25 January 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 448

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: When two widowed sisters embark on a holiday to Italy, they have no idea that the trip will upend their comfortable lives forever. From the author of Hester and Harriet.

‘This is a great read. The sisters are wonderful characters filled with life, and the story has lots of quirky village characters. Hester and Harriet would be a perfect addition to your summer reading list.’ Good Reading, 4-star review of Hester & Harriet

Hester and Harriet lead comfortable lives in a pretty cottage in an English village. Having opened their minds, home and hearts to Daria, a mysterious migrant, and her baby son Milo, the widowed sisters decide to further expand their own horizons by venturing forth to Italy for their annual holiday.

Back in England, Daria and Milo are celebrating – they’ve received official refugee status with papers to confirm they can make England their home. Meanwhile nephew Ben, who knows only too well how much he owes his aunts, is hurtling towards a different sort of celebration – one he’s trying to backpedal out of as fast as he possibly can.

With a huge secret hanging between the sisters, an unlikely new love on the landscape for Hester and new beginnings also beckoning for Harriet, Italy provides more opportunities for adventure than either of them could ever have imagined. But which ones will Hester and Harriet choose?

As Hester and Harriet throw all their cards on the table in Italy, and potential catastrophe threatens Ben in England, it’s anyone’s guess how chaos will be kept at bay.

~*~

Love, Lies and Linguine picks up from 2015’s Hester and Harriet, where we left off with Daria, her son Milo, and brother Artem applying for refugee status in Britain from Belarus, and Hester and Harriet’s nephew, Ben, finding out what he wanted to do after school. In this lovely, and amusing follow up to the 2015 novel, Hester and Harriet take a holiday to Italy for a birthday – Harriet takes part in an art class, whilst Hester enjoys a cooking class with a well-known chef, and the company of Lionel Parchment, an elderly gentleman also there that week.

While they’re away, their nephew, Ben, is convinced by some school acquaintances, to throw a party at the empty house his aunts live in, The Laurels. Ben’s defiant no is ignored, and he is soon embroiled in a world of secrecy, trying to hide the party from his parents. However, Ben is not the only one with secrets to keep from people, especially post-party. Harriet is faced with something she thought she’d never have to face, and Hester’s secret about her and Lionel will almost rip the usually close sisters apart.

I first stumbled across Hester and Harriet about a year ago, and found the different style intriguing. Using phrases such as Hester says, or Harriet finds Ben made the story interesting and inviting – it allowed the reader to see into their lives, and it worked when the story had to change perspective between the sisters, or Ben – in both novels. In Love, Lies and Linguine, the story goes between England – Ben, and Italy – Hester or Harriet – over the course of a week. Each section is a day of the week – structuring it in a way that shows and tells with a balance that I rarely find – and it works to tell the story. Every event or conversation – big or small – has an impact on the outcome of the story, Harriet faces her past, Ben faces up to his mistakes, and finds a way to fix things for his aunts before they find out, and Hester faces a new love.

Full of laughs throughout, and a sense of mystery about a few plot points that fit the plot nicely, Love, Lies and Linguine is a wonderful summer read, or any time read. I particularly enjoyed the very last lines, having a little chuckle to myself. It is a charming read, about normal people and the extraordinary things that happen to them at times, but also about life, and confronting things you don’t necessarily want to confront. They tied in nicely with the rest of the plot, and the characters of Hester and Harriet.

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The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell

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Title: The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence

Author: Jennifer Bell

Genre: Fantasy/Fiction

Publisher: Corgi

Published: August 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $17.99

Synopsis: An uncommonly good and magical tale of Ivy’s adventures in Lundinor, a spellbinding city underneath London where ordinary objects have amazing powers. Welcome to a world where nothing is quite as it seems . . .

Dive head first into the world of Lundinor in this magical adventure story for anyone with a Hogwarts-shaped hole in their life.

When their grandmother Sylvie is rushed to hospital, Ivy Sparrow and her annoying big brother Seb cannot imagine what adventure lies in store. Returning to Sylvie’s house, they find it has been ransacked by unknown intruders – before a mysterious feather scratches an ominous message onto the kitchen wall. A very strange policeman turns up on the scene, determined to apprehend them . . . with a toilet brush. Ivy and Seb make their escape – only to find themselves in a completely uncommon world, where ordinary objects have amazing powers. The forces of evil are closing in fast, and Ivy and Seb must get to the bottom of a family secret . . . before it’s too late.

 

~*~

The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence draws the reader in from the first page. With their parents away at work, Ivy and Seb Sparrow are staying with their Granma Sylvie. When an accident lands her in hospital, Ivy and Seb are drawn into a world that lies below London, an uncommon world where common objects do extraordinary things. They are intrigued and scared, and accompanied by Ethel Dread, and Valian Kaye, are thrown into the chaos of a group of uncommoners in search of something that is claimed to be linked to their family – and Granma Sylvie. Soon, Ivy, Seb and Valian have lots of people chasing them, from those who wish to see justice done and find out what really happened on the Twelfth Night 1969, when Granma Sylvie disappeared, to those who wish to harm their family. They only have a few days to fix things and save their family, so Ivy and Seb are up against the clock – an uncommon clock, that is.

The Uncommoners evokes the tradition of hidden fantasy worlds that sometimes mirror our own, or that can be hidden in plain sight such as Narnia, or the wizarding world of Harry Potter, or even Neil Gaiman’s London Below, yet Lundinor still has a charm of it’s own that is separate from each of these other worlds, a place where magic enhances the every day and where you never know what kind of race of the dead you will meet – will they be good or bad, or somewhere in between? Ivy and Seb must navigate this world after being thrust into it, much like the Pevensie children in Narnia or Harry Potter in the wizarding world when he first finds out he is a wizard. I feel like this is just the beginning of a series of books that will hopefully become as well loved as Harry Potter or Narnia – any books that invite children into a magical world are lovely and this is no exception. Whilst it may be in good company with Harry Potter and Narnia, it has distinct differences and the world of Lundinor has a Victorian England feel to it, evoking nursery rhymes, and the old markets and streets that populate the world of Charles Dickens. It is a world that I enjoyed visiting and that I hope to return to soon if this is indeed a series, as it ended with that sort of feeling.

An ideal read for anyone aged nine and older who enjoys fantasy and new worlds and magic, Ivy and Seb are awesome characters and I liked their growth over the novel and the way they cared about each other.

Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock

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Title: Murder in Midwinter

Author: Fleur Hitchcock

Genre: Fiction/Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Nosy Crow

Published: 23rd November, 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 254

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: When Maya takes a photo from the top of a bus, she has no idea of the trouble it will bring. The bright shop window is gorgeous but the couple arguing in front of it look as though they want to kill each other. And when the flash goes off, they look as though they want to kill her too…

Then a body turns up. The police suggest Maya should go away for a while – somewhere remote, somewhere safe. Her aunt’s farm in the Welsh mountains is a perfect place to hide, and soon it’s snowing hard enough to cut them off completely. No one can get in and n one can get out. But does that mean there’s nothing to fear? 

~*~

A murder mystery for children ages nine and up, Murder in Midwinter introduces future fans of crime fiction and the possible future authors within this genre to a world of solving crimes. As it is aimed at children aged nine and older, there is no blood and gore, thus it fits into the cozy crime genre, like the works of Agatha Christie, Vaseem Khan, Alexander McCall-Smith and the recent Anthony Horowitz novel, Magpie Murders. Through Maya’s eyes, the reader experiences the crime, and the fear of having criminals after them, and not knowing what to do. Using their own initiative though, Maya and her cousin will find a way to get through the next few days and a way to help the police solve the crime.

Maya’ world is turned upside down when she sees the body pulled from the Thames and her sister doesn’t show up for a school concert. With the identifying streak of white in her black hair, Maya is going to be easy to find. She is sent away after her sister is found, but the fear is still there. Hours, and a long distance away from her family, Maya feels isolated in Wales, and having to deal with a cousin who hates her, and a sense of isolation from being trapped inside. When the huge snowstorms come and block people in the village and farm, and block anyone form using the roads, Maya feels a false sense of security, and hopes that this means that everything will be over soon and she can go back home.

A delightful and quick read, Maya’s adventure in crime solving for children is a great way to introduce eager readers to the genre. In the midst of a charming winter and Christmas setting, the reader and characters are thrown into a fast paced plot that takes exciting twists and turns to reach the resolution and revelations at the end of the novel. It is also a journey of finding new friends an family coming together. A story where Maya stands alone when she can abut receives help when she needs to – a wonderful heroine for young girls to identify with. Written from her point of view, it is much more accessible for the age group than other crime novels, depending on the individual reading level.

On The Blue Train by Kristel Thornell

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Title: On The Blue Train

Author: Kristel Thornell

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: October 2016

Format: paperback

Pages: 348

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: What really did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? An entrancing novel of creativity and grief.

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it’s wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie of London became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha’s lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until, Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.

In this entrancing novel of creativity and grief, Kristel Thornell writes of Agatha Christie’s retreat from a life that had become too difficult. With verve and sensitivity, Thornell writes when Christie could not.

~*~

During a writer’s block in 1926, renowned crime writer, Agatha Christie disappears for just under two weeks, and assumes the name Theresa Neele during her stay at the Harrogate Hydro in Kristel Thornell’s fictionalisation of these events. The story is told from the point of view of Agatha Christie’s alternative persona, Theresa Neele, possibly brought on by trauma of the car accident she had had en route. In the eleven days she spends as Theresa Neele, she is another person, not a famous author, not a wife, and not a mother. Thornell’s story speaks for someone through the character she created for herself where perhaps Agatha Christie could not. This mix of fact and fantasy, a case where the true details may never really be known, or the full story not told, the mystery of the disappearance of the Queen of Crime is as intriguing as her characters Poirot and Miss Marple, and the genre of cozy crime that they contributed to that has brought about detectives such as Mma Precious Ramotswe, Inspector Ashwin Chopra and Thursday Next, in a variety of stories and cases that are still enjoyed today.

After reading it, questions still remain. What really made Christie disappear? Was she confused and disoriented? Or was she fed up with her husband and his philandering? Or was she just at her wits end with the novel she was working on at the time and needed a break? Thornell tries to answer these questions through the creative fantasy world that the facts and history have informed. It is a great read for fans of mystery, fans of Agatha Christie or a great introduction to the world that informed Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple. It is well written, and has a feeling of being written ninety years ago, as opposed to 2016. It is a sensitive treatment of a great mystery that was brought on by the very disappearance of one of the best known mystery writers in the world.

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