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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog The School for Good Mothers: A Novel by Jessamine Chan (@jessaminechan) (@HutchHeinemann) Not an easy read, but one that will make you think about families and social control #TheSchoolforGoodMothers #NetGalley

Hi all:

I am not a mother, but recently I have read two books that shine a pretty special light on motherhood. You might remember my review for Chouette, and this one, although totally different, I think will also stay with me for a long time. And it has a fantastic title as well.

The School for Good Mothers: A Novel by Jessamine Chan

An Instant New York Times Bestseller

A Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick

In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.

 https://www.amazon.com/School-Good-Mothers-Novel-ebook/dp/B093JHS53T/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/School-Good-Mothers-Handmaids-century-ebook/dp/B09FGD85XB/

https://www.amazon.es/School-Good-Mothers-Novel-English-ebook/dp/B093JHS53T/

Author Jessamine Chan

About the author:

Jessamine Chan’s short stories have appeared in Tin House and Epoch. A former reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Brown University. Her work has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Anderson Center, VCCA, and Ragdale. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.

https://www.amazon.com/Jessamine-Chan/e/B092BKD9NX/

My review:

I thank NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone, Hutchinson Heinemann for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

I heard a lot of comments about this novel, was intrigued by its subject, and I can honestly say this is a book that won’t leave anybody indifferent.

The author is well-known for her short stories, but this is her first novel, and as she explains in the author’s acknowledgments at the end of the book, she had been working on it for many years before it saw the light. It seems that it started as a short story, but at the recommendation of a writing mentor at a workshop, Chan felt encouraged to develop the concept. Readers who are interested in the writing process will enjoy reading the author’s note, as it gives a good sense of what inspired her, which writers influenced her, includes a bibliography for those interested in her sources, and it also gives an account of how many people play a part in the final product, from the author and her family to the institutions providing support of all kinds.

The description of the novel gives a reasonable overview of the plot, although I am not sure everybody who has read it would agree on the way the book is characterized in the last paragraph.

We have all heard stories of neglectful parents, and/or parents doing things that seem unthinkable, like kidnapping their children, harming them, or even killing them. I have often thought that in this day and age when one can hardly do anything without having “training” and holding “a certificate” (at least in most Western societies), it is amazing that one of the most difficult things to do, raising a child, requires no qualification and there is no supervision or education provided to ensure that young people of a certain age know, at least, the very basics. As if the author had read my mind, in this book, the authorities create a School for parents (yes, for the bad mothers of the title, but there is also an equivalent school for bad fathers, although with fewer students and much more lenient), and “dystopic” doesn’t quite make it justice. The action takes place in a world that sounds exactly like ours and in the present (or at least not in a particularly distant future) in the USA, and that increases its impact, because it is not that difficult to imagine something like this happening (although perhaps some of the details are a bit fanciful and stretch credibility slightly, but only slightly).

Frida, the main protagonist, does something that is definitely bad (I am not a mother, so I cannot speak with any inside knowledge, but I think it is understandable although I cannot imagine anybody would condone it), although not, by far, the worst thing we hear about in the novel, and she is not the most sympathetic of characters. And that is, perhaps, what makes it a particularly effective but tough book to read. Because it is very easy to feel sorry for a character who is tender-hearted, kind, and nice, and feel outraged for the way s/he is treated, but here, we not only meet Frida (whose story is narrated in the third person but from her limited point of view), but also some of her peers, and none of them are people most of us would want as friends in normal circumstances, especially once we learn about what landed them at the school. But Frida gets to care for them and we do as well, and we also feel their frustration, their pain, and their desperation. Those of you who are parents, imagine if everything you did when you were with your children (and even when you were not with them) was recorded: every word, every move, every gesture, every look… and all that evidence was judged in comparison to some perfect standard impossible to achieve (and most of the time, impossible to explain by the teachers and impossible to understand by the students).

Apart from motherhood (parenthood), issues such as identity, legacy, family expectations (grandparents, relatives…), cultural differences, prejudice, desire, temptation, mental illness, privacy, mono-parental households, single mothers, the difficult (almost impossible at times) balance between profession and personal life/ work and family life, and big questions like who gets to decide what is the best for a child, and how far can laws and society go to regulate certain aspects of our lives… This is a book of big ideas, and I am sure book clubs would find plenty to discuss here, although I suspect some readers will not feel comfortable reading it and might abandon it before the end.

I enjoyed the writing style, even though I am not a fan of the use of present tense (we follow Frida’s story, chronologically, for over a year, and this is narrated in the present, although there are memories and thoughts about the past or a possible future that also make an appearance), but it suited the tempo of the story, which follows the seasons and the school programme, and it progresses at a slow pace. (I am not sure “page-turner” is a good definition, at least not if it makes us think of non-stop action and a quick pace). One of the strong points of the novel is the way it describes the thoughts of the main protagonist, her doubts, her guilt, her second-guessing herself and others, and also the way it explores her feelings, her efforts to control herself, to be seen to be doing the right thing, however hard it might be (and still failing sometimes). Although the story is poignant and very hard, there are some lighter and witty (even bitchy) comments and moments that make us smile. Yes, I’m not ashamed to confess I cheered when Harriet, Frida’s daughter, bit the horrible social worker, and although I don’t think any fragment can do justice to the novel (and if you want to get a better idea of how well the book would fit your reading taste, I recommend checking a sample of it), I thought I’d share a few brief quotes:

Here, Frida is talking about Susanna, her husband’s new girlfriend:

The girl is on a mission to nice her to death. A war of attrition.

 Perhaps, instead of being monitored, a bad mother should be thrown into a ravine.

 Harriet is wearing a gray blouse and brown leggings, like a child of the apocalypse.

 What little she knows about the lives of saints comes back to her now and she thinks, this year, she might become holy.

 “A mother is a shark,” Ms. Russo says. “You’re always moving. Always learning. Always trying to better yourself.” (You’ve probably guessed that’s one of the members of staff at the school).

 The ending… I am not sure I’d say I liked it, but I think it fits the novel perfectly, and I cannot imagine any other ending that would work better. Readers seem very divided by it, and some felt it ruined the novel for them, while others loved it. It is open to interpretation, but I like to imagine that it shows Frida has learned a lot about herself and about being a mother in the school, but not perhaps the kind of lessons they had hoped to teach her.

 In sum, I enjoyed (although it is not the right descriptor, you know what I mean) this novel, and I am sure I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. I don’t think this is the kind of book to recommend to a young mother, or to somebody struggling with motherhood or thinking about it, but anybody interested in the subject of government control, education, parenthood, and keen on dystopic narrations should check it out. And I will be keeping an eye on the author’s career. I’d love to know what she writes next.

Thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for this book, thanks to all of you for your continued support, and remember to keep on reading, smiling, and safe (as safe as we can all be these days, at least). 

 Check what the publishers did in London to celebrate the publication of the book:

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog NO MORE MULBERRIES by Mary Smith (@marysmithwriter) An immersive trip into rural Afghanistan #Afghanistan

Hi all:

Many of you probably know and follow the blog of the author whose first novel I’m reviewing today. I hope she is feeling better.

No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

Scottish-born midwife, Miriam loves her work at a health clinic in rural Afghanistan and the warmth and humour of her women friends in the village, but she can no longer ignore the cracks appearing in her marriage. Her doctor husband has changed from the loving, easy-going man she married and she fears he regrets taking on a widow with a young son, who seems determined to remain distant from his stepfather.
When Miriam acts as translator at a medical teaching camp she hopes time apart might help her understand the cause of their problems. Instead, she must focus on helping women desperate for medical care and has little time to think about her failing marriage. When an old friend appears, urging her to visit the village where she and her first husband had been so happy. Miriam finds herself travelling on a journey into her past, searching for answers to why her marriage is going so horribly wrong.
Her husband, too, has a past of his own – from being shunned as a child to the loss of his first love.
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B005RRDZ12/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005RRDZ12/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B005RRDZ12/

Author Mary Smith

About the author:
Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all.

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan.

Mary loves interacting with her readers and her website is www.marysmith.co.uk

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000934032543

Twitter: https://twitter.com/marysmithwriter

Blogs: http://novelpointsofview.blogspot.co.uk

http://marysmith57.wordpress.com/2014/07

My review:

I know I can go on with my reviews, and although I’ll try not to test your patience, I thought I’d offer you a capsule summary of my opinion. Do yourself a favour and read it. This is one of those novels one can’t help thinking about and talking about to anybody they meet. To begin with, I loved the clinical cases and the little stories embedded in it (all those events and lives that touch the protagonist’s life) although I wasn’t so convinced about the main characters. As the novel evolved, I came to appreciate and gain a better insight into the characters as well and came to accept them and like them too.

I was familiar with the author’s blog and had read some of her posts about her life in Afghanistan, so I knew she had plenty of local first-hand knowledge, a wealth of anecdotes, and could tell a story. She does have a sense of humour as well, although that isn’t too evident in the novel (the circumstances the characters are living through are very difficult, so it’s not surprising). I had had her books on my list for a while, and I decided it was time to read her first novel. Having read it, I’m eager to explore her writing further.

The description offers readers a good idea of what to expect. Miriam (born Margaret. She became a Muslim and adopted a new name when she married her first husband, Jawad), a Scottish midwife, and a widow who lost her first husband in tragic circumstances (although she doesn’t know the full details of her first husband’s death at the time we meet her) is back in Afghanistan with her second husband, Iqbal, a doctor who has set up a clinic in the little village where he was born. They have been married for five years, have a daughter together, and also live with Miriam’s son from her first husband, a quiet child who works hard but isn’t too close to his stepfather. Miriam can’t help but compare her two husbands and has put her dead husband on a pedestal nobody can reach. Iqbal resents this, and finds it difficult to cope with being back in his village, where he can’t escape expectations, tradition, and prejudice, regardless of how much he has achieved since his childhood. They are both unhappy and unable to talk about it, trying to do what they think the other expects of them. When Miriam ends up spending a few weeks away at a training medical camp, she gets confronted with her unhappiness and has to face some hard truths about the past and about herself. It’s make or break for her relationship and her life in Afghanistan.

There are elements of romance in the story (a romance where cultural differences take centre stage); grief and how different people deal with it is an important theme, as are also: the role of family; tradition and expectations; life in rural Afghanistan; international organisations providing education and health aid; and how far and deep you need to go sometimes to find your true self.

I have mentioned before that I didn’t connect with the characters straightaway. Although the story is narrated in the third person, it is mostly told from Miriam’s point of view, and she has a keen eye for observing and zooming on little details, gestures, and things, that makes the book quite cinematic in many ways. She can observe a movement, a dirty finger, she can marvel at an oven, or a night sky, but she is also at times quite blind to her own behaviour and the way she might be making matters worse for herself and others, and I was quite impatient with her attitude at times. That is not to say that her husband’s actions help matters, although there is a point in the novel when we get to read about his traumatic childhood from his own point of view (also in the third person) and that makes him more sympathetic. The author cleverly shares the main characters’ flashbacks/memories (Miriam’s most of all) that slowly, layer by layer, help unfold the events that got her to Afghanistan. We read about her love story with her first husband, we hear about their life together, and this is contrasted with her experiences with Iqbal. Events that take place later on, and the advice offered by some of Miriam’s friends help us understand that her memories are not always accurate, and there is more to the story and the characters than meets the eye. Miriam is an unreliable narrator, not only for the readers, but also for her own self.

Apart from the protagonist couple, we have many other characters, like their children, both lovely, Western characters (with their own prejudices and good points), neighbours and friends (wise, peculiar, amicable, gossiping, warm-hearted, mean…), all distinct and familiar, no matter how different their circumstances and way of life might be. They all feel like real people and are recognisable as such, even in the cases where we might not fully understand the motivations behind their actions and/or might dislike what they do, and there are many I’d love to have as friends.

Despite the changes in time-frame brought in by the flashbacks and memories, I felt the book flowed reasonably well, and I didn’t find it confusing. The author uses unfamiliar words to describe objects, clothing, places, characters, and actions, and although the meaning of most can be worked out from the context, I’ve noticed that some reviewers asked about a possible glossary. In some cases I felt an image would be better, for instance when describing clothing. The descriptions don’t overwhelm the book or slow its pace, and the author manages to give us a real sense of life in rural Afghanistan, and makes us not only see, but also feel, taste, and smell all aspects of it. She also makes us pay attention to the unspoken gestures and to the silences of the characters, to the importance of the things that go unsaid, and that is a difficult thing to achieve using only the written form.

I leave you a couple of examples of the writing, so you can judge by yourself.

On moonless nights the Milky Way was a magical white path through stars that didn’t twinkle —they blazed. Constellations her father had taught her to recognise when she was a child —Orion, the Plough, the Seven Sisters —demonstrated proudly that here, they possessed far more jewel-bright stars than she had ever seen in Scotland.

Although they had no decent sized pockets, waistcoats took the place of handbags. Safety pins and sewing needles were embedded in the fabric, matches stowed away in a small side pocket while, pinned to the inside were the keys to unlock the tin trunks in which were stored sugar and sweets and other household valuables.

I won’t talk too much about the ending, but yes, I liked it. I found it perfectly fitting.

So, as I started this review by recommending everybody to read this book, I can only repeat it. If you’re interested in stories about Afghanistan, in stories with protagonists that make difficult choices and are not always wise or likeable, in stories where people try to find themselves and to find a place to fit in, appreciate good writing and have always wondered how it would be like to share your life with somebody from a totally different culture, you should try this book. Oh, and check the author’s blog. I must go and catch up on more of the author’s books.

Thanks to Mary (and hope she is feeling better soon), thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, visit Mary’s blog, and stay safe.

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog HUMANKIND: A HOPEFUL HISTORY by Rutger Bregman (@BloomsburyBooks) #RutgerBregman #NetGalley A bright and well-argued book full of hopeful content

Hi all:

I’m sharing the review of a book that I found perfect for these uncertain times.

Humankind. A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

‘If you only read one book this year, make it this one’ CATHY RENTZENBRINK

‘This book must be read by as many people as possible – only when people change their view of human nature will they begin to believe in the possibility of building a better world’ GRACE BLAKELEY

‘It’d be no surprise if it proved to be the Sapiens of 2020′ GUARDIAN

It’s a belief that unites the left and right, psychologists and philosophers, writers and historians. It drives the headlines that surround us and the laws that touch our lives. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Dawkins, the roots of this belief have sunk deep into Western thought. Human beings, we’re taught, are by nature selfish and governed by self-interest.

Humankind makes a new argument: that it is realistic, as well as revolutionary, to assume that people are good. The instinct to cooperate rather than compete, trust rather than distrust, has an evolutionary basis going right back to the beginning of Homo sapiens. By thinking the worst of others, we bring out the worst in our politics and economics too.

In this major book, internationally bestselling author Rutger Bregman takes some of the world’s most famous studies and events and reframes them, providing a new perspective on the last 200,000 years of human history. From the real-life Lord of the Flies to the Blitz, a Siberian fox farm to an infamous New York murder, Stanley Milgram’s Yale shock machine to the Stanford prison experiment, Bregman shows how believing in human kindness and altruism can be a new way to think – and act as the foundation for achieving true change in our society.

It is time for a new view of human nature.

https://www.amazon.com/Humankind-Hopeful-History-Rutger-Bregman-ebook/dp/B082SXZFC9/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Humankind-Hopeful-History-Rutger-Bregman-ebook/dp/B082SXZFC9/

https://www.amazon.es/Humankind-Hopeful-History-Rutger-Bregman-ebook/dp/B082SXZFC9/

Author Rutger Bregman

About the author:

Rutger Bregman is one of Europe’s most prominent young thinkers. The 27-year-old historian and author has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics. His History of Progress was awarded the Belgian Liberales prize for best nonfiction book of 2013. The Dutch edition of Utopia for Realists became a national bestseller and sparked a basic income movement that soon made international headlines. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his journalism work at The Correspondent. His work has been featured in The Washington Post and on the BBC.

https://www.amazon.com/Rutger-Bregman/e/B00ENFKSCI/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I know I write long reviews, so I wanted to give a heads up to those who prefer a brief one. I loved this book. Why? I picked up this book based on NetGalley’s recommendations as good read for these current times when things feel quite tough and most people feel quite negative. And they were right. It’s difficult to read this book and not feel more optimistic by the end of it, even if you might not be absolutely convinced by all of the author’s arguments. It is engaging, easy to read, compelling, it includes a large variety of studies from many disciplines (criminology, sociology, anthropology, history, economics, ethnology, biology, literature…), and I think most readers will be familiar and/or intrigued by many of the topics he touches on.  And it does look at all of those with new eyes. It also collects a large number of positive examples of human behaviour, so, if you need an injection of optimism, I recommend it. There is a detailed index, and plenty of notes, but as I said, it is a book written for the general public rather than for academicians or experts, and no specialist knowledge in any of the fields it touches on is necessary to enjoy it.

In the acknowledgements, the author explains how the book came to be. Dutch philosopher Rob Wijnberg told him he had a project. He wanted to launch a new kind of publication “with no news, no advertising and no cynicism”. That became De Correspondent and Bregman explains that the book is the result of working there for seven years, and of many of the conversations he had with readers over these years. This explains, perhaps, why the book is so varied. Anybody who has done research (academic, for work reasons, for a specific project, or out of personal interest) knows that once you start pursuing something, it’s easy to get side-tracked by bits of interesting information and go down the rabbit hole following those, because sometimes those discoveries feel more interesting than the original story, or simply because new things keep coming to light, and, well, you just need to know more.

This book is roughly divided into two main halves. One where the author, after explaining his thesis about the nature of human beings (I’ll only tell you he calls us ‘Homo Puppy’. I’ll let you read the rest yourselves), he explores a large number of studies and arguments proposing that human beings are naturally egotistical, violent, aggressive…  and challenges many of those. Bombings during the war, psychology experiments (the Stanford prison experiment by Zimbardo, the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority involving electroshocks …), friendly foxes, Neanderthals, educational experiments, studies of old civilizations and ancestral bones, Easter Island, William Goldwing’s Lord of the Flies, Hobbes and Rousseau’s philosophical ideas among other, all are discussed and analysed. I was familiar with many of the studies, and even with some of the criticisms, later reappraisals and evidence against them, but not with all, and I have learned plenty and been inspired to dig deeper into some of the stories.  Although he supports all of his claims and interpretations with notes, he does it in an engaging way, and the result is an accessible and clever page-turner.

In the second half, Bregman shares examples of people and communities who have done things differently with impressive results.  I was aware of some, like the way Norway runs its prisons, but others made me pause (in particular, the reference to Jos de Blok, who runs a home healthcare organisation without heavy top-down management and allows the groups of workers to organise and manage themselves), and  I particularly enjoyed part 5, ‘The Other Cheek’.  The author acknowledges that, of course, the instances he discusses are not perhaps as well-accepted and regarded as he thinks they deserve, and one example does not change everything, but he does maintain that an optimistic attitude can bring a positive change, and I hope he is right.

He also includes, with some reluctance, ten rules to live by at the end of the book, and I cannot fault them, although they are not easy to implement. I have already mentioned the acknowledgments section, the notes, and the index, that occupy around 19% of the e-book.

In sum, I enjoyed the book enormously, and I think most readers will get something positive out of it. I know not all reviewers are convinced by the author’s arguments, and that is to be expected, but I think no matter what conclusion you reach by the end of it, it offers plenty of food for thought. I definitely will be looking into some of the initiatives he talks about in more detail, and I will follow Bregman’s career with interest from now on. If you need a bright and well-argued book, full of hopeful content, don’t hesitate. Go for it.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, the author and the excellent translators, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and to stay safe and keep smiling!

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview THE LAST HOURS by Minette Walters (@AllenAndUnwinUK) Society, freedom, the Black Death, and secrets

Hi all:

Today I bring you a novel by a very popular and well-known author who is trying a different genre. Now I’m very intrigued about her crime fiction.

The Last Hours by Minette Walters
The Last Hours by Minette Walters

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

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.

In the estate 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 the 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 in the world 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 security of the walls?

And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?

https://www.amazon.com/Last-Hours-Minette-Walters-ebook/dp/B0713ZBDDP/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Hours-Minette-Walters-ebook/dp/B0713ZBDDP/

Editorial Reviews

Review

“This compact, well-told and extraordinarily atmospheric story packs more punch than many much longer books.” (The Guardian)

“Sly pacing and a detached narrative voice give this horror story exceptional punch.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“Reads like a particularly grim Grimm’s Fairy Tale, with an all-too-credible contemporary setting. . . . Gratifyingly menacing.” (Daily Mail (UK))

“Contemporary crime writing at its absolute peak.” (Val McDermid)

“A compulsive (and gruesome) read.” (Independent (UK))

Author Minette Walters
Author Minette Walters

About the author:

Minette Walters is an internationally bestselling author with more than 25 million copies of her books sold worldwide. She is the author of twelve novels, winning the CWA John Creasey Award for The Ice House, the Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Sculptress and two CWA Gold Daggers for The Scold’s Bridle and Fox Evil. She lives in Dorset with her husband. After a break of 10 years, she is bursting on to the literary scene with her first stunning historical novel, The Last Hours.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Minette-Walters/e/B000APC1QQ/

My review:

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 (you can read my review of Liza Perrat’s Blood Rose Angel here) 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.

Thanks to the author, the publisher and NetGalley, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

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Miscellaneous

University of the People (@UoPeople) A great project I’m happy to be a part of #education

Hi all:

You know I have been sharing reviews as if there was no tomorrow, but apart from reading (well, it includes reading too), I’ve been up to other things.

Quite a while back (I think it was eighteen months ago or so) I read an article about courses and education one could access on-line with little investment. While checking the links, I came across The University of the People. This project, the brainchild of Shai Reshef (@ShaiReshef) who had a vision. Making education available to as many people as possible and removing the obstacles to its access. I was fascinated by the idea and decided to apply to become an instructor. I was sent a questionnaire last year but nothing came out of it. 

Recently, I was contacted again, a bit out of the blue. I sent another questionnaire and a day later we arranged for an interview (Skype is a great thing). They were interested and after completing some training, I’ve just started as an instructor of the English Composition 1 Undergraduate course. (Good luck, mostly to the students).

The University of the People is tuition free for students (they only pay the exam fees) and instructors and staff are not paid a salary (only a stipend). There are many institutions funding the project, and also many individuals collaborating with their time.

Here Shai Reshef explains better than I can:

 

I thought you might be interested in the project and you might know people who might be able to collaborate or benefit from it. I also wanted to ensure you knew what I was up to, as I suspect I might be quite busy, especially until I get used to the rhythm of things.
I hope to keep you posted on how it goes and I might share some interesting stuff with you.

Thanks to the University of the People for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment and of course, let anybody who might be interested know. 

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