Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Last Hours – Minette Walters

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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…?

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I loved this book.    The Last Hours  has great storytelling, an easy, flowing style and some strong characters which meant I soon got so engrossed that nothing much was done around the house until I got to the end.

It’s a change of direction for Minette Walters – from crime fiction to a historical novel set in the time of the Black Death – but the writing is very good and it is a very good read. I got quite caught up in the lives of her characters. There is plenty of detail which makes it easy to imagine the place and the people. Some are good, some bad, some corrupt and some completely evil.

The story is set in Dorset 1348 and opens just as Sir Richard of Develish is leaving with his men to travel to another estate to arrange a marriage for his 14 year old daughter, leaving behind his wife Lady Anne, his daughter Eleanor and the new steward, the sly Hugh de Courtesmain together with 200 or so bonded serfs.

While Sir Richard is away, a messenger arrives from the Bishop with news of a terrible sickness; that the rapidly spreading plague is a punishment from God and all should pray and atone for their sins as there is no cure and few will be spared. Lady Anne questions the church’s message that it’s a punishment from God. She’s s strong lady who can read and write having been educated by nuns and knows something of how disease spreads. She takes charge and orders that no one is to leave the estate and no one is to enter it. She brought every serf to live inside the moat and organised living and sleeping arrangements and the storage of food and medicines and then ordered the bridge over the moat destroyed to cut them off from the outside world in an attempt to keep them all safe from the plague.

Hugh de Courtesmain is shocked that Lady Anne knows the serfs by name and talks to them and that there are serfs on the estate who can read and write. Even more shocking is that Lady Anne appointed one of the serfs, Thaddeus Thurkell, to be her steward. There is a bit of mystery to Thaddeus. He looks and acts different to the other serfs and Lady Anne has encouraged his learning and his hopes of a future away from the Develish estate. He becomes one of the main characters in the story and there are some interesting interactions between other characters and Thaddeus. The daughter, Lady Eleanor, would appear to go out of her way to cause trouble for him.

The problem is that when a group of people cut themselves off from the outside world, how will they know what is happening on the outside. Their supplies will eventually start to run out but will it be safe to leave?

Following an incident where a young man is left dead, a group of young males steal away during the night to avoid trouble and also see what is happening on the outside and to replenish supplies.

I found it a really engrossing tale of life and relationships both inside and outwith the estate.

There is also a thread running through the book giving excerpts from Lady Anne’s journal and revealing some shocking truths.

I felt the ending was a bit ‘open’.  I was left wanting to know more ……. and then I realised there is a sequel due to be published in 2018. I can’t wait!

[My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for providing an advance copy]

The Last Hours was published in the UK on 2 November 2017.

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Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

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When twenty-two-year-old Olivia is coerced into marriage by the cruel Alistair Sheldon she leaves England for Egypt, his home and the land of her own childhood. Reluctant as she is to go with Alistair, it’s in her new home that she finds happiness in surprising places: she is reunited with her long-estranged sister, Clara, and falls – impossibly and illicitly – in love with her husband’s boarder, Captain Edward Bertram.

Then Clara is abducted from one of the busiest streets in the city. Olivia is told it’s thieves after ransom money, but she’s convinced there’s more to it. As she sets out to discover what’s happened to the sister she’s only just begun to know, she falls deeper into the shadowy underworld of Alexandria, putting her own life, and her chance at a future with Edward, the only man she’s ever loved, at risk. Because, determined as Olivia is to find Clara, there are others who will stop at nothing to conceal what’s become of her . . .

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I enjoy a good thriller and I also like well-written romantic fiction especially historical so Beneath a Burning Sky ticks all the boxes for me. There is mystery, intrigue, illicit romance, abduction, lies, betrayal, murder. The story takes place in 1890s Alexandria when Egypt was still under British occupation and begins with an abduction then takes us back to a few months earlier.

22 year old Olivia has been brought to Alexandria by her husband Alistair who, you find out very quickly, is a thoroughly nasty, controlling, cruel character. Olivia is very unhappy but is unable to tell anyone. So, I thought to myself, it’s a bit of a melodrama; maybe a bit of a cliché.

I’m happy to say I was wrong. It’s better than that and I really enjoyed the story.

Years earlier, Olivia and her sister Clara had been forced to leave their childhood home of Cairo after the death of their parents and return to England to their grandmother. However their grandmother, a bitter, nasty woman, had kept them apart and had allowed no communication between the sisters. The grandmother also had a hand in leaving Olivia no choice but to marry Alistair, colluding with him to virtually blackmail Olivia into marriage. On a happier note, it turns out her older sister Clara is married to Alistair’s business partner and has been living in Alexandria with her husband and children.

The story is quite complex, there are several threads and quite a lot of characters, and yet I didn’t find it too complicated. It is well written with a good balance of description, dialogue and background information so it’s not difficult to read. The romantic parts are not overly mushy but they are part of the story. I didn’t try too hard to work out the connections between some of the characters; I just let myself enjoy the story and the plot twists and wait for the connections to be revealed in time.

You hope there will be a happy ending but you can’t be entirely sure given the way the story unfolds. You just have to read it and find out for yourself!

Beneath a Burning Sky is Jenny Ashcroft’s debut novel in the UK. It was published in paperback on 29 June 2017 by Sphere. It is also available for Kindle.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Sphere for providing a digital copy]

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Before The Rains – Dinah Jefferies

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1930, Rajputana, India. Since her husband’s death, 28-year-old photojournalist Eliza’s only companion has been her camera. When the British Government send her to an Indian princely state to photograph the royal family, she’s determined to make a name for herself.

But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome, brooding brother. While Eliza awakens Jay to the poverty of his people, he awakens her to the injustices of British rule. Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think. But their families – and society – think otherwise. Eventually they will have to make a choice between doing what’s expected, or following their hearts. . .

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I’ve really enjoyed Dinah Jefferies’ previous novels.  Before The Rains is her fourth one and they just seem to get better and better.  I just like her style of writing.

I loved this story of Eliza, a young widow trying to make a name for herself as a photojournalist, in 1930s India, and who has just been given a commission to spend a year living in the palace of Prince Anish, photographing the royal family and life in the princely state of Juraipore for a new archive.

Not everyone in the castle welcomes her presence. She was sent there by the British government, and some think she may be spying for the British, but she does seem to get along with the younger son, Jayant.

Right from the start you get a real sense of the contrasts: the heat and dust and poverty Eliza sees surrounding the castle, and the scents, colour and opulence of the interior.  This is something I find the author does very well – her wonderful descriptions seem almost effortless but you get a great sense of time and place.  It’s easy to imagine you are there as the story unfolds although you couldn’t possibly have been there (in my case I’m too young – I wasn’t born until the 1950s!)  Dinah is an excellent storyteller.  I suppose you could say it is historical romantic fiction (historical in the sense of recent history) but it has depth.  It is a time of growing political unrest, the Indian population is governed by the British.  Eliza is an interesting character who doesn’t really fit the mould of a young English woman in India.    The plot moves at a good pace and the various threads of the story are woven expertly.

It’s a story of love, friendship, secrets, deceit, sacrifice, betrayal. There are a couple of twists although they weren’t entirely unexpected. Overall, a very satisfying read.

Author’s website:  here

Before The Rains was published by Penguin on 23 February 2017.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Penguin for an ARC]

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