The Last Hours & The Turn of Midnight – Minette Walters

Now for a bit of unashamed historical fiction covering an era I am hugely interested in – the Black Death. Call me odd, but I’ve been interested in the history of disease for some time – Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating read – and one of my favourite books ever involves time travel to a plague-ridden village near Oxford in 1348. What I find most interesting is the way people cope during such an event – how they deal with the disease, how they explain its existence to themselves and, tellingly, who they blame for the outbreak.

35820576In The Last Hours, the first of Walters’ forays into historical fiction, the Black Death sweeps through the county of Dorset in the summer of 1348. The Lord of the manor of Develish is away at a neighbouring estate, arranging the marriage of his only daughter, and his wife, Lady Anne, takes the bold decision to isolate the community to prevent the disease spreading. This comes as a shock to Sir Richard when he returns, with only three of his retinue left, and to his steward, trapped within Develish’s moat, and enrages his daughter, a thoroughly spoilt  fourteen year old who idolises her father and seems to loathe her mother. The estate serfs and servants, however, love and admire Lady Anne who, since her arrival as a teen bride has worked to improve their lives. Her greatest admirers are Gyles, eventually the only survivor of Sir Richard’s trip, Thaddeus, the illegitimate son of one of the more feckless serfs and Isabelle, a young girl who acts as a maid to Eleanor, Sir Richard’s daughter: but it won’t be easy for a woman of Saxon heritage to lead her people during such a time of peril. Their seclusion doesn’t prevent them from pondering the cause of such devastating sickness (given the times the majority are willing to blame sinners and blasphemers) or from there being a murder within the village. Eventually dwindling supplies lead one brave man to lead a small group to search for food, other survivors and answers: but greater dangers seem to remain within the community as Eleanor continues to fight against her mother’s rule.

9781760632168We read the Last Hours for our Book Group in October and one comment we all had was that the ending was fairly abrupt. The version I read even said ‘to be continued…’ which was a little frustrating. Luckily the second volume was available – albeit just in hardback – so I dove straight in to discover what became of Lady Anne, Thaddeus, Gyles and the rest of the people of Develish. Thaddeus and the young men who left the estate in the first book report back on the terrible consequences of the plague – deserted villages, unburied dead and crops left to rot in the fields – and the whole community is aware of the bands of villans (ironically, mostly nobility rather than actual villeins, or peasants) who are travelling the countryside taking whatever they can find: food, gold and women. However, after surviving the worst of the sickness it seems that many of the serfs are now starting to contemplate what the future will bring – the work they were forced to do as virtual slaves of the nobility will have to be done by a much reduced workforce so could they now be in a position to demand a better life. Maybe even freedom. To do this they need to go back out into the wider world and to make things happen.

I enjoyed the glimpse of history Walters gives us in these books – with the added touches of gruesome detail of victims of both the Black Death and villany which you’d expect from the author of numerous crime thrillers – and I enjoyed the way that she has thought about the attitudes to gender, class and religion of the times. While the Black Death obviously didn’t do away with the power of the church or medieval attitudes to women and the labouring classes I find it easy to believe that some people began to question the status quo. My only quibble would be that I think the pacing of the two books was a bit uneven – lots of discussions of Church versus faith, whether women having any power is a sign of witchcraft or heresy etc mixed in with the more dramatic scenes – but I’m not sure I could identify which scenes could be cut. Maybe instead of a two book series it should have been spread out over three slightly less weighty tomes – but then, of course, I’d have to have waited longer for the satisfying conclusion to the story of Lady Anne and Thaddeus Thurkell, and the other inhabitants of Develish.

Jane

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Mystery of Three Quarters – Sophie Hannah

Two things I have problems with: authors writing sequels/homages to famous authors and turning them into something which their original author would have hated and feeling obliged to read the whole of a series. Let’s deal with the second one first – in terms of tv and films I’m definitely a commitment-phobe. I don’t do box sets and while I will happily settle in on an otherwise unoccupied Sunday evening with an episode of Poldark I’m not bothered if I miss one or two. I’m pretty much the same with books – if you have to read all of the books in a series to ‘get it’ then it has to be special. Certainly since my reading habit got quite so bad (or possibly good…) I’ve found very few that I’ve stuck with. Harry Potter. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. The odd trilogy (Wool, for example) but generally I stop at the first book in a series. Nothing wrong with the writing, storytelling or world-building but my motto is ‘so many books, so little time’. I do need something really special in an author before I’ll read anything they write – and I will do it, believe me. I currently have custody of the entire collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romances which Mum and I have amassed over the years. My second problem – tone-deaf sequels – is something else which has made me wary over the years. Talking of Regency romance my Mum does tell of a terrible one where a young lady settles down for tea at White’s – we both hate rubbish historical research – but my personal worst sin is trying to put gratuitous sex into Jane Austen sequels. Unless you are writing for a themed erotica collection, just no.

Sophie Hannah has managed to avoid adding any historical wrongness (that I can see – I don’t claim any expertise on the middle years of the Twentieth century) to her Hercule Poirot novels but, more than that, she continues to create interesting and compelling adventures for Christie’s Belgian detective. Because they are not a series I find myself able to dip in and out without feeling like I’ve made a commitment: because they are so good I have read all three books produced so far!

40114576In The Mystery of Three Quarters Poirot finds himself confronted by the rather formidable Sylvia Rule for sending her a letter accusing her of murder. The problem is that he didn’t send the letter. Or the ones making the same accusation towards three others – John McCrodden, son of a judge who is a firm supporter of the death penalty, Hugo Dockerill, a teacher at a boy’s school, and Miss Annabel Treadway, who is the grand-daughter of the deceased man. Of course the little grey cells are propelled into action and we soon begin to learn of a web of connections between the four. It begins to appear that the dead man, Barnabas Pandy, did have connections to a number of them and that all four are, if only tangentially, linked. Was Pandy murdered? Was one of the accused guilty of his death? Why did the letter-writer want to involve Poirot? These questions all need to be answered and Poirot attempts to find the answers with the help of Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool, the friends and family of all the accused and a small slice of cake…

Another excellent outing for Poirot – deftly plotted, a blend of humour and bloodshed which Christie would have been proud of, and believable characters. The Belgian continues to have a future in Sophie Hannah’s capable hands.

Jane

Rules of Seeing – Joe Heap

I love it when I find a new author – somebody’s first novel (or first published novel) – and especially if I get an advanced reading copy. I know smugness isn’t attractive but getting to read books early is one of the best perks of my job. When it is a new writer it’s even better – I’m one of small group of people who know that something good is about to hit the shelves. As you can see, I’m a person of simple pleasures. And recently a book turned up which fits these criteria and, as a bonus, is by a Bradford author (even if he now lives in That London…). If the far-reaching promotion does the trick then soon Joe Heap will be being talked about well beyond this corner of West Yorkshire.

40383557Rules of Seeing focusses on Nova (a shortening of Safinova, her surname). She is an interpreter for the Metropolitan Police, a live wire, a force of nature. I mean, she’s blind, and has been from birth, but she has never let that hold her back – she speaks five languages and convinced her local deli to name a sandwich after her (pepperoni, pickles and peach slices, mmmm). Her story begins as her brother convinces her to undergo pioneering surgery which gives her the ability to see. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, however, because so much of our vision is in the brain not the eyes – Nova has to learn how to deal with the images she sees, with depth of vision, colour, interpreting movement and facial expressions. She meets Kate, an architect and the wife of a police officer, at a hospital and a friendship develops between the two women. The relationship changes, deepens, as Kate tries to escape from her controlling and sometimes violent partner until things come to a dramatic conclusion (in a hotel room in Bradford!)

I really enjoyed this debut novel. Nova is a great character – vivid, bold and yet vulnerable – and I was fascinated by her journey into the world of the seeing. I used to work at Bradford University bookshop selling books on optometry and know people who specialise in the psychology of vision but I still feel I learned a lot from Nova’s ‘rules of seeing’ which are dotted through the book. Although I’m not sure if I could face a Safinova Surprise sandwich…

Jane

Elefant – Martin Suter

It is a fact universally acknowledged that, in fiction terms, I am a fan of the quirky.  I’ve delved into various Scandinavian, French and Canadian authors to feed this habit (with other corners of the world covered too) and now I have ended up in Switzerland. Yes. I know. I didn’t expect quirkiness from the Swiss either – land of fondue and sensible economics – but then I remembered cuckoo clocks and yodeling and it all made sense…

38232605Schoch is a middle-aged man living on the street in Zürich and he’s getting by. He has a place to sleep, in a cave along the river banks near the allotments, he knows all the places to go to get adequate food and he could give up drinking any time he wanted to. Giving up drinking is easy – he’s done it lots of times – but when a terrier-sized, pink, glow-in-the-dark, elephant maybe it is time to quit for good. With a cast of alcoholics, circus-folk, evil scientists, vets and refugees this is a heartwarming book which looks at all kinds of issues around life, love and genetic modification. Partly because of the development of the character of Schoch as we unravel the life that led to him being on the streets, partly because of the warmth and humanity of Kuang, the Burmese oozie (or neck rider) and partly because of the elephant itself. Okay, maybe, more than just partly because of the elephant – what’s not to love about a glowing pachyderm small enough to sit on your lap? This is, in fact, the crux of the story – just because an elephant is only a foot high doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated like a proper elephant. And just because it is possible to create such a creature doesn’t mean we should. Add into this all that we learn about life on the streets, including how much the inhabitants care for their dogs, and elephant care and it is a very entertaining and interesting read. Although I now also know more about artificial insemination of elephants than I ever wanted to know…

Jane

A Grand Old Time – Judy Leigh

After my previous post’s musing on age it seemed appropriate that my next read was on a similar subject. Older protagonists have become the new ‘thing’ it seems – The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window started it, Harold Fry and then Hendrik Groen took up the baton – but, I’ve noticed that most of them seem to be men. Which is slightly odd given that, on the whole, women outlive men (try buying a 100th Birthday card – lots of florals, very few views of cricket/trains/sailing ships…). Since my older years are rapidly approaching (well, I hope they continue to approach but they can slow down if they like!) I was interested to read Judy Leigh’s book in an effort to even up the gender balance.

9780008269197Evie Gallagher is 75 and is quietly living out her days in a care home. Until she reminds herself that she is only 75 and, despite being very recently widowed, she isn’t dead yet. She walks out of the home and, helped by a big win on her very first visit to a bookmakers, into a new adventure. First she travels from her native Dublin to Liverpool and then on to France, ending up in a small village near Carcassonne. Along the way she meets a variety of people who help her to realise that she still has plenty of life left to live. By contrast her son Brendan, and his wife Maura, seem to be getting older by the minute: their marriage seems to be a matter of habit rather than love, neither of them is happy and they are, understandably, concerned about Evie herself when she disappears from the care home. They decide to follow her to France, with the intention of rescuing her – bringing her home to her old, safe life – only to find that she has other ideas. For Evie seems to have found the love and happiness that Brendan and Maura have lost. She has also been reminded (despite what some are still trying to tell her) that 75 isn’t old – it certainly isn’t too late to start living.

This is a feel-good book, but not without its moments of sadness. We all hope to live to a healthy and happy old age (although we won’t all manage this) but many will get too caught up in everyday pains and sorrows to achieve this. We can’t all escape to live in the South of France but I hope to keep Evie’s energy and joie de vivre in mind as the years creep up on me. She makes growing old disgracefully look so much fun!

Jane

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Everyone has their own view of what is normal. I normally have weetabix for breakfast (lots of milk, a little dash of sugar and a few raspberries, mmmm) but to some that would be quite peculiar. They may hate soggy, milky mush or just not be able to face eating until lunchtime. They may have dietary needs, either through health issues or training needs for some kind of sport, which mean they need to eat a high protein, low-carb meal to start the day: they have their own normal. Some people may baulk at the idea of eating the same thing every morning – they may thrive on creating a unique meal each day. Everybody’s normal is valid for them but, I wonder, do they ever stop to wonder where their view of ‘normal’ comes from? Or, maybe more importantly, where the normal of those they consider to be complete oddballs has its source.

9780008172145Eleanor Oliphant has what she considers to be a very sensible attitude to life. She wears the same clothes to work each day (selected from a choice of a couple of pairs of black trousers, a few white blouses and some sensible flat, black shoes), spends her lunch break eating a ‘meal deal’ from a local shop and doing a crossword (thereby avoiding waste – eating a whole pack of ham/cheese/tuna before it spoils is hard when you live alone – and keeping her mind active) and speaks to her mother every Wednesday (even if she’d rather not). So far she seems like someone I should be emulating – I could have an extra five minutes in bed if I didn’t have to decide what to wear each day and, on the weeks when Rob is away, I do sometimes have to either throw away food or eat the same thing every day for a week. And I should certainly ring my Mum more often… However, Eleanor also buys a couple of bottles of vodka each week – what has happened in her life that she needs to blot out her weekends? That is where you realise that, whatever she claims, Eleanor Oliphant is really not completely fine. It seems she is going to continue with her pattern of work, predictability and weekends of total oblivion indefinitely until two things happen: she sees a man who she believes is ‘the one’ and she, along with a colleague from work, helps an old man who has a fall in the street. These two things lead her to start changing her life – and she discovers that planning for her future leads her to start investigating the past she had managed to forget.

Eleanor is a wonderful character – so well-drawn and yet so deeply, deeply flawed. The more we learn (along with her) about her past the more we realise why she needs to drink a couple of bottles of vodka each weekend: anything to avoid remembering. The book is so well written that you feel with her – the plans to make herself into a more conventionally attractive woman, despite the physical as well as emotional scars she bears, the irritation with those who don’t manage to live in as organised a way as she does and the crippling horror of the memory of a blighted childhood. We may not all share Eleanor’s dark past but reading this book made me realise that we all have our own demons to deal with: her’s are just larger and scarier than mine…

Jane

Ill Will – Michael Stewart

We are often asked if we can get authors to do signings at our store. Partly because readers really want to meet their writing heroes and partly because they want to show off what a beautiful bookstore Bradford has. We get suggestions about authors both locally, nationally and internationally famous and we’ve had a few in. Last year saw visits from both Henry Blofeld and Jilly Cooper and local boy Dynamo had them queuing round the block a few years ago but some of our most popular events are with authors who both live in Yorkshire and set their fiction there. We’ve hosted increasingly crowded launch events for pharmacist turned Bradford Noir writer A.A.Dhand (watch out for book three this summer) but I think we’ll have to face the fact that Michael Stewart, former writer in residence at Theatre in the Mill at Bradford University, now owes some allegiance to Huddersfield where he is Head of Creative Writing. His newest book, however, has such strong links to the Bradford District that I’m sure he’ll be in the city to talk about it soon.

Ill Will is an attempt to answer one of the great questions raised by literature (and by one of the most interesting academics, John Sutherland) – is Heathcliff a murderer? More importantly it fills in those three years between Heathcliff running away, after hearing Catherine saying that it would ‘degrade’ her to marry him, and his return to Thrushcross Grange as a wealthy but heartless man. In the original novel we just have to accept the change but it was one of the things which I had a major problem with. The other one being how on earth I was meant to consider Heathcliff a romantic hero – easy enough when I was a teenager but as an adult I realised he was basically a wife-beater, and probably a rapist too. Which is a bit of a digression but, luckily, it is a question which also gets answered.

35720372When Heathcliff does run from Catherine he crosses the moors and falls in with a group of men working for a farmer on the far side of Todmorden – only a few miles but a world away in a time when travelling was unusual. He needs to run a second time when he rescues a young girl, Emily, from a beating. She seems to be able to commune with the dead, an ability met with equal shares of horror and fascination, and they begin to use this skill to pay their way over to Liverpool – where Heathcliff is in search of the truth about his origins. He plans to abandon Emily – he has no plan to saddle himself with the care of a young girl – but their lives are soon linked by lies, by guilt and by a need for each other. And she is no meek little girl – as foul-mouthed and devious as Heathcliff himself. It is what they discover in Liverpool, however, which eventually leads to both his change in fortune and the utter hardening of his personality. The boy that runs away is irreligious and angry, full of spite and profanity: the man who returns has been turned into a bitter and vindictive bully bearing all the trappings of a gentleman.

I really enjoyed this book as an explanation for Heathcliff’s missing years – the Heathcliff  who I recognised, as an adult, as a deeply violent and unromantic figure. He began as a coarse and embittered boy – money, power and the knowledge of how he came to fit into the life of the Earnshaws turn him into a black-hearted and dangerous man.

Jane