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BOOK REVIEW: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Friday, January 05, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


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 cites God as the cause, and religious fear grips the people as they come to believe that the plague is a punishment for wickedness.

But Lady Anne of Develish has her own ideas. Educated by nuns, Anne is a rarity among women, being both literate and knowledgeable. With her brutal husband absent from Develish when news of this pestilence reaches her, she takes the decision to look for more sensible ways to protect her people than daily confessions of sin. Well-versed in the importance of isolating the sick from the well, she withdraws her people inside the moat that surrounds her manor house and refuses entry even to her husband.

She makes an enemy of her daughter and her husband's steward 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 continued confinement and 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.


My Thoughts:

Minette Walters is best known for her contemporary psychological thrillers (which I must read again!) However, it has been ten years since her last book and now she has released a doorstopper of a novel set during the time of the Black Death in England.

The accepted wisdom is that a writer must continue to churn out books as much like their previous books as possible, but I think this leads to a steady decline in the quality of the writing. A creative artist must be constantly challenging themselves, trying new things, following new interests. And I love writers to break rules and subvert expectations. So the news that Minette Walters had written a historical novel filled me with joy. I ordered it straightaway, and plunged into it with delight.

Set in Dorset in 1348, the book begins when news begins to spread of a terrible new disease that strikes down quickly and spreads just as fast. Widowed by the death of her husband, Lady Anne tries to save her people by isolating them. However, she cannot banish lust, jealousy, and hatred, all of which lead to a tragic death within the walls of her castle.

The story swings along with great aplomb, filled with suspense, drama, murder and surprise. I particularly loved the character of Lady Anne, who is plain but intelligent and kind-hearted, and who has her own secrets. Although it's a massive book at 550 pages, the pace never flags …. At least not until the very last scene, in which Minette Walters’ control over her story falters. It turns out that there is to be a sequel, where the story shall be continued, and so the book ends on a cliffhanger. I would have so much rather have had a good strong resolution, with just a hint that there was still drama and darkness to come, but it’s just one quibble in a book which I enjoyed immensely. And I’ll be buying the sequel when it comes out, never fear!

Another great book about the plague, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, made my 2013 list of Favourite Australian Authors.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwaller

Saturday, March 18, 2017




The Anchoress – Robyn Cadwaller

BLURB (from GoodReads):

England, 1255. What could drive a girl on the cusp of womanhood to lock herself away from the world forever?

Sarah is just seventeen when she chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a cell that measures only seven by nine paces, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing a much-loved sister in childbirth as well as pressure to marry the local lord's son, she decides to renounce the world--with all its dangers, desires, and temptations--and commit herself to a life of prayer.

But it soon becomes clear that the thick, unforgiving walls of Sarah's cell cannot protect her as well as she had thought. With the outside world clamoring to get in and the intensity of her isolation driving her toward drastic actions, even madness, her body and soul are still in grave danger. When she starts hearing the voice of the previous anchoress whispering to her from the walls, Sarah finds herself questioning what she thought she knew about the anchorhold, and about the village itself.

With the lyricism of Nicola Griffith's Hild and the vivid historical setting of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Robyn Cadwallader's powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear, and the very human need for connection and touch. Compelling, evocative, and haunting, The Anchoress is both quietly heartbreaking and thrillingly unpredictable.



MY THOUGHTS:


I was on a panel with Robyn Cadwaller at the Perth Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and bought her book on the day as it just sounded so fascinating. An anchoress was a young woman who was walled up in a tiny cell in medieval times, living the rest of her life within that tiny space, praying, fasting and advising the women of the village. I have long been interested in stories of imprisoned women, and so I had read about anchoresses before. I was really intrigued to see how Robyn Cadwaller would bring to life a story of a young woman who voluntarily allows herself to be locked away from the world. 

Set in England in 1255, the story begins with 17-year old Sarah being enclosed within her cell. Her door is literally nailed shut. The cell is only seven by nine paces, with a small window to the outside world through which food and water is passed to her, and a narrow aperture (intriguingly called ‘a squint’) into the church. The only man she is permitted to speak to is her priest and confessor. She has two maids who serve her and guard her, who Sarah is meant to guide in a spiritual life.

Yet the world is not so easy to lock away. Sarah sees and hears glimpses of the life of the village, and is threatened by desire, grief, doubt and fear just as much as any other woman. 

She is haunted by the lives and deaths of the two women who were enclosed in this cell before her. One died, and one begged to be set free, much to the embarrassment of the church. Sarah wants to be good … but it is much harder than she could ever have imagined.

A beautiful, slow and thoughtful book with some really lovely pieces of lyrical writing, The Anchoress is a rare glimpse into a sliver of the almost forgotten past.

Love books by Australian women writers? Lots of recommendations here!

PLEASE LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

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