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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 2017-05-05 14:27
A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons by Geoffrey Hindley
A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons: The Beginnings of the English Nation - Geoffrey Hindley

A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons covers the Anglo-Saxon history from A.D. 400 (around the time of their invasion of England) through to the 1100s (the ‘Aftermath' of the Norman invasion).  Geoffrey Hindley not only includes the Anglo-Saxon influence on the British Isles but also how they influenced mainland Europe.  Despite being a "brief" history, this book covers a wealth of information, including culture, religion, and literature as well as military aspects.  Geoffrey Hindley has a scholarly writing style that none the less manages to convey the history of the Anglo-Saxons in an interesting and informative manner.  Maps, photographs and genealogical tables are included in this book.

I much preferred this book by Geoffrey Hindley in comparison to The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall, which has a more informal writing style, but leaves out mainland Europe completely and ignores the Anglo-Saxon cultural history in favour of a simplified military history.  

 

 

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review 2017-03-07 17:32
The Darkling Plain
The Darkling Plain - Douglas R. Mason

The north-west of England,

13th Century

 

There was a patter of bare feet on the beaten earth floor and Aelfgyth, late but willing, was among the company nervously smoothing down a stained yellow robe from where it had been hitched up in a plaited thong belt. There was already a sweet smell of decay about the shabby room, but from the fresh stink she carried with her, it was likely she had been busy with the pigs when the summons came. She said, 'Here, Master. What do you lack?' and stopped with her head hanging down under the stares of Alain's men-at-arms.

The host put a hand flat on her chest and shoved her away. 'When will I teach you not to push yourself forward? This gentleman was speaking to me. Away. Bring a new loaf and cook a pan of eggs. And broach the barrel I fetched up yesterday. Lively now, or you'll feel the weight of my hand.'

She was off again at a run, hair flying in a dark brown pennant, and he was ready to wink and nod at Alain and draw him aside as far as space allowed.

[...]

The muttered conference with the host was finished and the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he waddled across the floor to the seated figure. He never knew how close he came to having his head swiped off its stalk. But at the first words, Edward knew that the moment of truth was not yet.

The innkeeper said, 'Here's a stroke of luck for you now. Here's a gentleman looking to employ you. He'll give you a fair price and set you on your way …'

[…]

Edward relaxed, stood up slowly and nodded down at the innkeeper.

On his feet, he was seen to be a massive figure. His straw blond head was only an inch from the cross beams. The thick folds of his cloak could not conceal his breadth of shoulder and the bearing of a man trained in arms.

 

Set in what seems to be a straightforward late twelfth or early thirteenth century English provincial world in which there is still a clear distinction between Norman, Saxon and (encroaching) Welshman, this is a short book (less than 150 pages) and can easily be read in one night (I did). It is also a deceptively simple book: a younger son denied his birthright by his elder brother; a daughter deprived of her inheritance (following the death of her brother) by a wicked uncle; a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is killed when local people who are in debt to him set fire to his house; a wandering scribe and scholar who turns out to be a great nobleman and – more to the point – fearsome warrior.

 

Yet it is thoughtful, too. We see the world as it was, but also hear sensitive people questioning the mores of that world. And we realise once again that there are good – and awful! – people in every world and at every level of society. A great nobleman may have far more in common with the serving wench in a sleazy tavern than with his own brother.

 

An excellent story set in an unusual part of the country (Wallasey – opposite Liverpool – on the Wirral Peninsula), well worth reading, and suitable for teenagers, too.

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review 2015-08-09 09:16
Oswald: Return of the King
Oswald: Return of the King - Edoardo Albert

by Edoardo Albert

 

The book begins with lists of difficult names I'll never remember, but clarifies pronunciation and historic context. It also explains the importance of names to Anglo-Saxons and why no two will have exactly the same name, although descendants might get an adaptation of an ancestor's name.

 

After the cast of characters, we get an overview of what happened in the previous book, Edwin. This is very useful for people like myself who haven't read the first one, and also starts to give us the feel for the historic period.

 

Then we get to the story for this book. I want to describe it as good, but it doesn't have the flow of really great writing. Too many sentences starting with ing verbs can put me off easily. It works in moderation but the beginning overdid it somewhat.

 

Once I got past that, I was able to get into the story more and appreciate the historic period and events as well as getting to know the characters. Oswald is a reasonably likeable character who would actually like to be a monk, but duty requires that he take up kingship. The pace was a little slow, but ultimately it did take me to the Historical period and the characters were well defined. I felt sympathy for Oswald's changing fortunes and the expectations put upon him just for being born in a line of kings.

 

One of the strong themes in the story is the changing face of religion, as Christianity begins to take hold in a country with Pagan roots. Different factions even within the same families might worship the old gods or embrace the new faith. The latter tend to be very forceful with their opinions, rather like some modern factions.

 

I would recommend this story for anyone who wants to get a strong feel for Anglo-Saxon history. It is atmospheric and realistic about some of the nasty things that happen in battles without becoming overwhelmingly gory.

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review 2015-06-28 00:00
Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland
Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland - Bryan Sykes Enlightening both from a scientific perspective and from a social perspective. I enjoyed the detours away from the technical scientific aspects, though I was only marginally aware of the uses that DNA can provide in illuminating the lineage of people and a nation.
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