Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

I probably wouldn’t have picked up a novel set around the Bubonic Plague of 1348 if I hadn’t embarked on a reading challenge. You had to read a book about a pandemic and dodging dystopian themes I plumped for this historical novel – its tagline: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

Venturing into The Last Hours, I found myself thoroughly swept away into Middle Ages Dorseteshire. Of course I remember all those creepy, atmospheric crime novels of Walters I’d enjoyed years ago so knew she could spin a yarn.

Here we’ve got a dysfunctional family – at its head, lord of the manor, Sir Richard Develish. Bawdy, cruel and lacking any subtlety of thought, he believes he keeps his serfs productive by the threat of violence. But it’s his clever wife, Lady Anne, who works with the serfs to ensure productivity is high for the area, all the while keeping her husband’s potential to harm in check. It helps that she can read and he can’t.

Unfortunately, their daughter, Lady Eleanor, takes after her father in stupidity and general nastiness. At fourteen she has beauty and a small dowry. The plan is to marry her off to a local lord’s son in the hope that the union will win Sir Richard preferment, but the lad is said to be sickly. The story begins with Sir Richard setting out to visit his future son-in-law to see for himself. He is accompanied by his steward Gyles Startout and a small team of armed men to guard the dowry but when they arrive, it is soon obvious that people are falling sick.

Gyles, who acts as eyes and ears for his master and mistress, quickly spots there are good reasons to leave hastily, and the party take flight. But by the time they reach home, everyone is ill or left to die, except Gyles. Bringing news of her husband’s death, Gyles nurses the remaining soldiers and stays on the far side of the Develish moat, quarantining himself. Meanwhile Lady Anne decides to bring in all the serfs from their village to keep them safe. It’s effectively a lock-down.

Lady Anne is pretty smart, and maybe just a little before her time. She learnt to keep the sick separate from the healthy when she was growing up at a convent so keeping the world at bay and shoring up the moat are sensible moves. As well as good practices in hygiene, Lady Anne has taught many of the serfs to read, including tall, dark and handsome Thaddeus Thurkell. Growing up a serf and a bastard, young Thaddeus was maltreated by his adopted father, but fortunately rescued by Lady Anne. Now he’s her right-hand-man. As well as Gyles, it’s Thaddeus Lady Anne turns to for advice about protecting her people, and what to do when supplies run low.

The Last Hours is a rip-roaring read, full of danger and acts of valour, intrigue and secrets. You also get a good picture of social conditions of the time. The role of women as chattels of their landowning husbands. The place of serfs, often at the mercy of harsh laws and crueller masters and their priests who reinforce the status quo. Memories of the Norman conquest of barely three hundred years before still fester with those of French descent having the upper hand and often reviled for it. But times are a-changing and maybe all that is needed is a plague to sort out the sheep from the goats, the survivors from the doomed and to auger a new way of doing things.

I suppose I’ll find out in the sequel, The Turn of Midnight, now on my to-read list. The Last Hours is a tale of endurance and human ingenuity with characters you want to cheer for and all the suspense you need to keep you whipping through its 550-odd pages. A surprisingly quick read and an easy four out of five from me.

Book Review: Jerningham by Cristina Sanders

Cristina Sanders has done an immense amount of research to recreate the first years of colonial settlement in Wellington with her debut novel, Jerningham. Starting off in 1839, the story follows newly arrived Arthur Lugg, an imaginary character, through whose eyes we meet a bunch of the key players in the colony, particularly Colonial William Wakefield and his loose cannon of a nephew, Jerningham Wakefield. They’re the down-under representatives of the New Zealand Company, which sold land that wasn’t exactly theirs to sell. So it’s up to the colonel and his nephew to make it happen.

There are a number of story threads here which help to build a picture of what it was like for the early settlers arriving in a promising new colony, expecting a plot of land on which to start their new life. We all know the story: how Maori were given items ranging from nails to guns to blankets for land – but was the land to be shared or bought outright? And then the ships came, bringing wave upon wave of hopeful new settlers ready to roll up their sleeves and rebuild England’s green and pleasant land.

The story follows the difficult relationship between the Wakefields and Governor Hobson who was pushing through the Treaty of Waitangi, to events building up to the Wairau Affray several years later. Arthur Lugg, first working for Colonel Wakefield as a procurement officer, is a witness to it all as well as a friend and minder to Jerningham who it seems can charm Lugg into anything.

There are some wonderfully evocative scenes as the two travel to Wanganui (as it was spelt then); the river, the bush and the friendly local Maori are all described in detail. Jerningham has his own mini empire, trading with whalers and Maori alike. There’s lots of wine, women and song wherever Jerningham (still barely 20) holes up.

I enjoyed meeting Charles Heaphy – I’ve always loved his stylised watercolours of the country he explored – who becomes a particular friend of Lugg’s. Meanwhile Arthur has his own personal trials, disappointment in love, losing his thumb and almost his life, a struggle with his own personal demons. Somewhat naïve, he fails to see how much he is manipulated by Jerningham.

And behind the scenes the machinations of the New Zealand Company, the governor and the treaty – much of it on morally and legally shaky ground. We get our fair share of earthquakes too.

At the heart of the story is Jerningham, the charmer; a young man of immense talent, if only he could use it wisely. He’s a wild boy but also has the knack for seeing the country as it is, falling into easy friendships with Maori, even daring to sit down to korero (talk) with the powerful chief Te Rauparaha.

Cristina Sanders tells it with plenty of factual detail and colour – what it’s like living in a raupo whare, the basic food (lots of pork and potatoes), a storm at sea, encountering Maori and their way of life for the first time. The workings of the men with power, the greed and the determination. It all makes for a fascinating read for anyone interested in the early years of New Zealand, colonisation or issues of empire. It reminds me why I love historical fiction so much – you can learn a lot about a period and place all wrapped up in a darn good story. It’s an impressive debut and well recommended – a four star read from me.

Book Review: A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland

Is there a word – possibly in German, although I’m not ruling out other languages – for the exquisite misery to be experienced from reading a very sad story? The feeling seems to occur when you have a strong empathy for the character/s, so that their heartbreak becomes your heartbreak. You take comfort that it isn’t you or someone close to you that is suffering, but still you wallow.

One such exquisitely sad book is Marguerite Poland’s 2020 Walter Scott Award nominee, A Sin of Omission. Set during the late 1800s in the Eastern Cape area of South Africa, it follows the life of a young Anglican deacon, Rev. Stephen (Malusie) Mzamane. Rescued as a child on the brink of starvation when his Ngqika people are driven from their land, he is looked after by English missionaries. Given an English name, he becomes a good student, chosen for further schooling in Grahamstown, and eventually sent to Missionary College at Canterbury in England.

Here Stephen is again rescued, this time by fellow student, Albert Newnham, who helps him navigate the tricky waters of living in English society. Stephen teaches Albert Xhosa in exchange for Latin and Greek and the two become the best of friends. Stephen is entertained to tea and made to feel special, but on his return to Grahamstown he is reminded of the racial inequality between the governing white colonists and the indigenous population, even among supposed Christians. So while Stephen can speak like an Englishman, and has a fine intellect and a powerful Christian faith, his colour prevents him the usual privileges accorded to newly-trained missionaries.

Stephen is sent to an outpost at some distance with a tiny parish, a meagre stipend no support. The locals are poor, the church and his cottage are made of mud brick. As yet to qualify as a vicar, he craves the books and teaching he might have had if he’d gone to Grahamstown as hoped, and where Albert eventually arrives with his wife and baby. Their friendship is also put on hold by the demands Albert faces from his fussy young wife.

In the background, political instability creates further tension, rebels are mustering and divisions among the different tribes highlighted. Stephen’s brother Mzamo (he has refused the Christian name of Saul that was given him by the missionaries), a rebellious and charismatic man, gets into trouble more than once and so does Stephen by association. Poland creates some brilliant minor characters too – the understanding, no-nonsense and larger than life Rev. Turvey particularly stands out.

It all comes together to create a well-researched and brilliantly told story about this particular corner of colonial history from various points of view. But most particularly it is the story of a young man of great principal and courage who is not allowed to be true to his family, or his tribal heritage, yet neither is he allowed any kind of standing in the English missionary culture that has adopted him. It is a tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and according to the author’s note at the back, a story based on the life of a real person.

A Sin of Omission had me in thrall for about a week I was still thinking about it days later (and I imagine it will still be lurking in my thoughts months later). I cannot recommend it highly enough and will be looking out more books by this author. A rare five out of five from me.

Book Review: Motherland by William Nicholson

Does anyone write about the human condition with as much heart as William Nicholson? Reading his novels always gives me the impression that he loves his characters as if they were family. He brings us their stories, but also their frailties and dreams, as if he’s been through exactly what they’re going through himself. Often set against an interesting background of political or social upheaval.

In the case of Motherland we start off in the middle of World War II. It’s 1942, and three characters meet and fall in love. Unfortunately, both Larry and Ed fall for Kitty when they meet her in Sussex. She’s an ATS driver, a job she enjoys, while Ed’s a Royal Marine commando and Larry, who’d rather be painting, is a liaison officer with Combined Ops under Mountbatten. Ed and Larry both went to the same school and are each other’s oldest friends, which makes this love triangle even harder to navigate.

Kitty chooses Ed, who is dashing and exciting, but also has a darkness to his nature, probably a problem with depression. Meanwhile Mountbatten and his team are planning a raid on Dieppe, using the commandos and the Canadian Infantry stationed nearby. Larry begs to go, even though he doesn’t have to fight, and he and Ed are caught up in one of the worst military disasters of the war. Thousands of casualties, and while Ed is made a hero, an accolade he loathes, Larry has to come to terms with his lack of bravery in the heat of battle.

The effects of Dieppe on all three, but particularly Ed and Larry, resonate through the book, as each settles into life post-war. Ed struggles to find a vocation and Kitty has to give up work, expected to devote her life to husband and child. Larry tries to make a go of painting, at the risk of disappointing his father who wants him to join the family banana importing company, which had made their fortune.

Mostly the book seems to be Larry’s story. We are with him as he witnesses the effects of the partition of India in 1947 (he briefly joins Mountbatten’s lot again), and later, the exploitation of workers in Jamaican banana enterprises. We have a window into his heart and his abiding love for Kitty, but also onto some of the big events of the 1940s. There’s a collection of supporting characters who each are well-rounded and have their own issues: Kitty’s ATS friend Louise who has never had as much luck with men as Kitty and decides to marry the owner of the estate where the troops are stationed – ineffectual but kind-hearted George. There’re the women in Larry’s life who just aren’t Kitty. Each gives us a glimpse of the narrow roles men and women played in mid 20th century society, and the problems entailed in wanting something else.

Motherland has characters that appear in other books by Nicholson, such as Ed and Kitty’s daughter Pamela who is a protagonist in Reckless, set against a backdrop of 1960s London and the Profumo Affair, while news of the Cuban Missile Crisis has everyone on edge. Another great read and evidence that Williamson loves his characters enough to give them more books. I’m happy with that. Motherland is a three-and-a-half-out-of-five read from me.

Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

familiarsStacey Halls’s debut novel, The Familiars, concerns the Pendle witch trials which occurred in Lancashire in 1612. It’s a topic Hall has always been fascinated with, according to her author blurb, and it shows. The novel is well-researched and instead of taking the easy path and writing a story around her own made-up characters, virtually all the book’s personnel really existed.

First off there is Fleetwood Shuttleworth – a seventeen-year-old noblewoman, whose main role in life is to produce an heir. She’s had three miscarriages already, and just when she begins to feel she might be pregnant again, she finds a doctor’s letter to husband Richard to say that giving birth is likely to kill her.

Still pale and sickly from her last miscarriage, Fleetwood is helped by her unexpected friendship with midwife Alice Grey and gradually she begins to hope she may survive to be a mother. But when Alice is accused of witchcraft and murder, Fleetwood has to fight back if she wants to save both her friend and her own life. Continue reading “Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls”

Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

y648An author I’ve picked up fairly consistently over the years is Tracey Chevalier, who writes historical novels – you may remember The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie. Her books are usually a fairly light, engaging read, but she has a knack of digging out a very human story from an often overlooked corner of history.

Remarkable Creatures is a novel about two women who were instrumental in the discovery of fossilised remains of dinosaur-era animals at the coastal town of Lyme Regis. We are just after Waterloo, and the Origin of the Species has yet to be written so the Bible’s version of how God made the world holds sway. Continue reading “Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier”

Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

9781911215158I love it when I discover a new series at its very beginning and enjoy it so much I read each book that follows as soon as it comes out. So it is with Abir Mukherjee’s mysteries set in Calcutta in the early 1920s. Featuring ex-pat British policeman, Capt. Sam Wyndham, the author throws you right into Calcutta during the British Raj era. Wyndham is still recovering (or not!) from his time in the trenches of WW1, and the loss of his much-loved wife during the flu epidemic,  self-medicating with opium. It’s just as well he’s so smart, energetic and won’t let the rules get in the way of his investigations or he’d never catch the perpetrators.

In Smoke and Ashes, Wyndam investigates a brutal killing which he discovers quite by chance when he has to make a hasty retreat from an evening visit to an opium den. Continue reading “Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee”