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review 2017-11-10 21:37
Society, freedom, the Black Death, and secrets
The Last Hours - Minette Walters

Thanks to Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Although Minette Walters is a familiar name, I have not read any of her crime fiction, so I can’t really compare this historical novel to her previous work, but after reading this I’ll check them out for sure.

I was intrigued by this novel, partly because of the author, but also because I had recently read a novel set during the period of the Black Death and was curious to read more on the subject.

The author sets the novel in Develish, an estate in Dorsetshire (there is not such a village in present-day Dorset, although there is one called Dewlish that I wonder if it might have been the inspiration for the one in the book), on the brink of the arrival of the plague to England. Sir Richard is away from the estate, trying to arrange the marriage of his daughter, Lady Eleanor, and although he tries to return home when he realises people are dying, it is too late for him. His wife, Lady Anne, who was educated in a convent and knows about healing, herbs, and letters, takes control (she already was managing the estate, although always unofficially, as her husband did not know how to read or write and thought that flogging or whipping his serfs was all that was required) and isolates the estate, moving all the farmers and serfs inside the walls of Sir William’s manor house —set apart from the village houses and the fields by a moat— and ensuring that her sanitation and hygiene rules are followed. Nobody really knows how the disease spread but her measures seem to work, although not everything is well in Develish.

The story is fascinating because of the complexity of the characters, the power struggles (there are clear differences between the Norman lords and the Saxon population, with the Normans being shown as abusive stuck-up individuals whilst the Saxons do all the work, and there is much discussion about taxation, indentured conditions, education…), the social order of the era, and the added difficulties of trying to confine two hundred people in a small space, ensuring the peace is maintained, and keeping their spirits up.

Lady Anne keeps records, with the intention of leaving a written account of what happened in case they all perish, so others might learn from their experiences, but she also keeps a more personal account, and at times it is clear that what she writes is an edited version of the truth, although always for good reasons. Her sensibilities seem very modern. She does not treat people according to their birth but to their actions, her religious ideas are out of keeping with the period (she has no respect for priests and dismisses any attempts of blaming the illness on people’s lack of faith or sinful behaviour) and she does show a great deal of understanding and hindsight of how the spread of the plague will revolutionise the social situation, bringing new opportunities to the skilled workers who survive (as there won’t be enough people to do all the jobs and that scarcity will allow them to negotiate better conditions). She is one of the most interesting and important characters of the novel, together with Thaddeus Thurkell, a young man (only eight years younger than her, as she was married at fourteen) of unknown parentage whom she has taught and protected from childhood and who seems as out of place as she is. At some point in the novel, due to the murder of his half-brother, he leaves the demesne with five young boys and we follow their adventures too, learning about the fate of other estates and villages, and getting more insight into the character of Thaddeus and his young assistants.

Sir William dies early in the story, although he is much talked about through the rest of the novel. He is an evil character with no redeeming features, although we don’t realise quite how bad he really was until close to the end of the novel (but we probably suspected it). Personally, I prefer my baddies greyer rather than all black. Lady Eleanor is another one of the characters that I found problematic. She is her father’s daughter, spoilt and cruel, dismissive of serfs and with a sense of entitlement not based on any personal qualities. Again, there are no redeeming features apparent in the girl, although her behaviour made me consider some psychiatric diagnoses (borderline personality disorder seems likely) and towards the end, I felt sorry for both, her and Lady Anne, as they are boxed into a corner with no easy or satisfactory way out. There are many other secondary characters, although very few of them are given enough individual space for us to get to know them (apart from the priest, Isabella, and Giles) but the author manages to create a realistic sense of a community growing and evolving thanks to an enlightened leader, united by their faith in Lady Anne, and facing together the challenges of their difficult situation.

The story is told in the third person but each chapter or fragment of the story is told from one of the characters’ point of view. This is not confusing and serves the story well, helping give the readers a sense of control (and also increasing the tension, as at times we believe we know the truth because we know more than some of the characters, but we do not realise we are missing important pieces of information). The book recreates the historical period without being too heavy on descriptions. We learn more about how society worked than about every little detail of clothing and food (but there should be enough information for fans of historical fiction to enjoy it, although I am not an expert in the era and not all reviewers agree).There are some funny moments (like when they see a cat for the first time and believe it is a monster), some battles, fights, scary moments, secrets galore, and plenty of intrigues, but it is not a fast page-turner and there is a fair amount of time dedicated to the politics and social mores of the era (that, for me, was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story). I felt the novel progressed at a good pace, but I would not recommend it to readers looking for a story full of action and adventures.

I enjoyed the novel, in particular the historical background, the psychological portrayal of the characters (the bad characters are just bad, while the good characters are fairly complex and not all good, and there is plenty of room for further development) although I did have doubts as to how in keeping with the historical period some of the attitudes and the ideas expressed were, but my main issue was the ending. As many people have commented on their reviews, it is never mentioned that this is book one and not a full-story and then the book ends up with a to be continued. After so many pages, the ending of the novel felt rushed, and although the story stops at an inflection point, there are many questions to be answered and I suspect most readers will feel disappointed.

 An interesting incursion into the historical fiction genre by the author, and one that will make readers wonder about what freedom really means, the nature of power, and how much (or how little) life has changed since.

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review 2017-09-07 16:16
Conclusion to this tale of the rise of Christianity in the frozen North
Black Road Volume 2: A Pagan Death - Bri... Black Road Volume 2: A Pagan Death - Brian Wood

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This comic collection deals with Magnus, a fierce warrior, out to defeat a renegade Bishop who plans to establish his own Christian rule in the North of Scandinavia. Alongside him is Kitta, a smith, and ahead of him is Jessica, a Jewess also possibly out to kill the bishop. Flashbacks, betrayal, battles, bloodshed and death of loved ones are all part of the plot.

 

Well-illustrated and interesting, this is worth a look. It all arrives at a satisfactory conclusion and it's recommended to lovers of tales about barbarians or history.

 

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review 2017-08-18 09:44
The Black Death, midwifery and it was hard to be a woman in XIV century France. Highly recommended
Blood Rose Angel (The Bone Angel Series Book 3) - Liza Perrat

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.

This is the third novel I have read in the series The Bone Angel and the fourth novel by Liza Perrat. (You can check my reviews of Spirit of Lost Angel here, Wolfsangel here and The Silent Kookaburra here.) You might have guessed by now that I enjoy her books. Having read The Silent Kookaburra first, for quite a while I thought that was my favourite of the author’s novels (and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the others) but now, I’m not so sure.

We are in Lucie-sur-Vionne, France, 1348. The whole series is set in the same location and follows the characters of the female line of a family who are linked by their midwifery skills (or wish to care for others) and by the passing of a talisman, the bone angel of the title. All the women of the series feel a strange connection to this angel (whose story/legend we hear, first- hand, in this book) and to each other, although this novel is, so far, the one set further back in the past, and at a very momentous time (like all the others). The Black Death decimated a large part of the world population and this novel offers us the perspective of the people who lived through it and survived to tell the tale.

The story is narrated, mostly in the first person, by midwife Héloïse, whose birth was problematic (her mother, Ava, a midwife herself, died before she was born and her aunt, Isa, extracted her from the womb) and due to the superstitions of the time, she was shunned and taunted as a child (she was not only a bastard, as her father was unknown, but she was also ‘unborn’). She always felt guilty for her mother’s death and resisted becoming a midwife due to that. But, eventually, she heeded her calling, learned from her aunt, and has become loved and appreciated by most people (apart from a few villagers who blame her for unlucky events). Unfortunately, as human nature dictates, when the epidemic reaches the village (at the same time as her husband, a stonemason who had been working in Florence) and people start dying, everybody looks for someone to blame, be it cats, the Jews, the lepers, or… There are a few chapters told from other characters’ point of view, only to complete the picture when Heloise is otherwise engaged (I’m trying not to give any spoilers here).

Héloïse is a strong-willed woman, who struggles between trying to fulfill her vocation (what she sees as her mission no matter how little recompense he gets for it) and being a dutiful wife who puts her husband and family above everything else. She is a compelling character and one that rings true and whose situation is ever relevant, especially to women who always have to try and find a balance between career and family life. She is a worthy heroine, who cares for people, who tries to do the right thing, even if it might cost her, who perseveres and remains faithful to her ideas, who doubts and questions acknowledged ‘truths’, and who is a natural leader. The rest of the characters, both, villagers and nobles, good and nasty, are all well-defined and recognisable, although perhaps the female characters are drawn in more detail than the males (although midwifery and birthing was women’s business at the time, so it is understandable), and I must say I felt like a member of her extended family by the end of the book.

The novel’s plot is fascinating and as good as any historical fiction I have read. History and fiction blend seamlessly to create a story that is gripping, emotionally satisfying, and informative. Even when we might guess some of the twists and turns, they are well-resolved, and the ending is satisfying. (I have read some reviews that mention it is a bit rushed. It is true that it all comes together at a faster pace than the rest of the novel, but my suspicion is that readers didn’t want the story to end. I know that was my case).  The life of the villagers is well observed, as is the relationship between the different classes, the politics of the era, the role of religion, the power held by nobles and the church, the hypocrisy, superstition, and prejudice, and the social mores and roles of the different genders. The descriptions of the houses, clothing, medical and midwifery procedures, and the everyday life are detailed enough to make us feel immersed in the era without slowing down the plot, that is a page turner in its own right. I particularly enjoyed the sense of community (strongly dominated by women) and the optimism that permeates the novel, showing the strength of the human spirit even in the hardest of circumstances. The author includes a glossary at the end that explains the words no longer in use that appear in the novel and also provides background information on the Black Death and the historical figures that grace its pages. Although it is evident that the book involved a great deal of research, this is flawlessly weaved into the story and add to the feeling of authenticity.

This novel, like the rest of the series, can be read as a stand-alone, although I doubt that anybody reading it will not want to read the rest.

Another great novel by Liza Perrat and one of my favourites. I will not forget it in a hurry and I hope to keep reading more novels by the author. I recommend it to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the era, the Black Death, and medical techniques of the time, readers of women’s fiction, and anybody looking for great characters and a writer to follow.

 

 

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review 2017-02-15 20:17
Death's Ink-Black Shadow
Death's Ink-Black Shadow - John Wiltshire

It has been nearly a week since I finished this one and to say that I may have had a meltdown during the first 30% of this book would be putting things rather mild.

 

 

I was destroyed.  And not so much about what did or did not happen but what it did to these men. I am tearing up just writing this...even now a week later.

 

The love between these two men is so strong and yet they fail to realize at times that they physically cannot live without the other.  So damage and destruction they attempt and when they fall apart...I fall apart.

 

...it was this last confession that undid him. As the words eased out on the exquisite delight of Nikolas once more pulling out and then opening him up and entering again, Ben’s throat seized up, a deep sob emerged, and before he could stop himself, he flung his arms across his face for privacy, and the pleasure was buried under a desolate confusion at who he was.

Nikolas faltered. Ben felt him withdraw, but then he took him in another way. Nikolas’s arms came around him, dragging him into a tight spoon, just holding him as the humiliating sobs wracked his body. He didn’t even know what he was crying for. Once he’d started, he was distraught for that—for the fact that he was so unlike himself, so unmanned by everything in his life that he didn’t know who he had become any more.

It was only when he heard an agonised whisper, “Please don’t, Ben, you’re killing me,” that he turned, forcing himself to calmness, to find Nikolas’s stressed and worn face creased with anguish.

 

***

 

Nikolas turned his gaze back from the darkness in the courtyard, which he’d been studying with such intense concentration, and Ben saw the tracks of tears on his cheeks.

It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Nikolas cry. But in over ten years, he could count the number of times on the fingers of one hand. He rose swiftly and embraced him, wrapping his arms around Nikolas’s battered head tightly, pressing it to his shirt. He pushed his own face into the greying blond hair, and with the familiar smell of vanilla and coconut, he came home.

 

Fucking hell.  Just kill me now.

 

 

Now having said all that, I will say this is likely one of my favorite in the series so far. Nik continues to puzzle me at times and it is hard to totally put your hands on what all makes up this man and ultimately I have decided that this is the point.  Because at times even Ben is puzzled as well.  And even with that said, no matter what...you love him.  Ben loves him and will continue to do whatever has to be done for his Nik.

 

“You are not alone, Nikolas. Never. I’m right here with you, if this is how it has to be. I will kill the whole fucking world for you, if that is what you need.” Ben shook him. “Do you understand me?”

 

And yes, I am officially in tears wrting this review.  

 

Life wasn’t sunlit uplands and glass houses, vast wealth and running around with your pretty boyfriend in the expensive toys he bought you.

Life was wearing armour too heavy to bear and carrying weapons too eager to be used.

Life was learning to swim hard and fast and keep your head above the shit.

Life was having someone alongside you in every single manoeuvre, every fall, every painful rise again, and knowing that, win or lose, the war was never fought alone.

 

Damn.

 

I guess being destroyed means I love this book and this couple. I eagerly await more.

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text 2017-02-09 22:25
Reading progress update: I've read 89%.
Death's Ink-Black Shadow - John Wiltshire

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