Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters #OutsideComfortZone

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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 proclaims it a punishment from God but Lady Anne of Develish has different ideas. With her brutal husband absent, she decides on more sensible ways to protect her people than the daily confessions of sin recommended by the Bishop. Anne gathers her serfs within the gates of Develish and refuses entry to outsiders, even to her husband. She makes an enemy of her daughter 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 their 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.

So I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time. To read something different, something which I wouldn’t have chosen a year ago. To read something outside my comfort zone. And when I stumbled upon The Last Hours on Netgalley, I saw the opportunity and requested the book. It was definitely not my usual kind of read: a hist-fic novel but set in the Middle Ages. However, it still piqued my interest.

I’m going to be completely honest here. Despite my issue with its length, I think The Last Hours is a really good book. I expected it would take me longer to enjoy it, but I was hooked from the very first pages. The writing was good and Lady Anne was undoubtedly a fascinating character. She was a woman living in the 1300s and she was smart, fierce, educated and I deeply admired her determination, as she surely had a lot of people against her. There were some characters like Thaddeus Thurkell and Gyles who were also great and multi-layered and others that you couldn’t help but hate with a passion (I’m looking at you, Eleanor).

The best part of reading this book was that it allowed me to learn about an era that I honestly knew nothing about. It was almost educational. I learned that religion was basically their only reason to live and they did everything in life in order to avoid going to hell. When the pestilence came, most people thought it was God’s punishment and they didn’t think Lady Anne was being helpful at all when she ordered to keep the sick separated from the healthy. Oh, and people not getting sick meant that they had experienced a miracle, not that they were simply stronger than others. I found it fascinating.

What prevented me from enjoying The Last Hours more was simply its length. I think I would’ve loved it if the book had been 200 pages shorter. Unfortunately, I had to skip some chapters because I really wanted to finish it and there were some boring parts where I felt it dragged. I was sad because of my initial enthusiasm and I just wished that feeling had lasted forever.

Still, I recommend this book because I truly believe there’s a great story here. If you’re not like me and you usually read longer novels, you shouldn’t have a problem. And I’m sure you’ll find Lady Anne a fascinating character to read about.

Netgalley, Allen & Unwin, 2017

 

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#ThrowbackThursday Necessary Lies by @D_Chamberlain

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Renee @It’sBookTalk began this Throwback Thursday meme as a way to share some of our old favorites as well as sharing books that we’re FINALLY getting around to reading that were published over a year ago. I’ve wanted to join this meme for a long time and I thought it would be a great idea because it forces me to read books from the TBR and not only new releases. And, of course, I can also include some old favorites!

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After losing her parents, fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart is left to care for her grandmother, older sister and nephew as tenants on a small tobacco farm. As she struggles with her grandmother’s aging, her sister’s mental illness and her own epilepsy, she realizes they might need more than she can give. When Jane Forrester takes a position as Grace County’s newest social worker, she doesn’t realize just how much her help is needed. She quickly becomes emotionally invested in her clients’ lives, causing tension with her boss and her new husband. But as Jane is drawn in by the Hart women, she begins to discover the secrets of the small farm—secrets much darker than she would have guessed. Soon, she must decide whether to take drastic action to help them, or risk losing the battle against everything she believes is wrong.

I’ve already talked about this book before but I hadn’t posted an actual review. I read this novel after reading The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes. I had loved that one, but I loved Necessary Lies even more. It was one of those books that had me completely addicted to its pages, and there wasn’t even any action or a “proper” mystery. It was simply great storytelling.

I think what I liked the most about this book was that it made me think. Many days and weeks after finishing it, I still thought about this story and its characters. I told my friends and my family about the themes that were discussed here and I couldn’t believe that some of this stuff was considered normal back then. I fell in love with some of the characters and grew disappointed in others.

Diane Chamberlain’s writing made me feel like I was living in the 60s and I both loved and hated that era with a passion. Overall, this is a thought-provoking and emotional novel that I highly recommend to everyone.

Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by @Amy_Stewart @HMHCo

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Deputy sheriff Constance Kopp is outraged to see young women brought into the Hackensack jail over dubious charges of waywardness, incorrigibility, and moral depravity. The strong-willed, patriotic Edna Heustis, who left home to work in a munitions factory, certainly doesn’t belong behind bars. And sixteen-year-old runaway Minnie Davis, with few prospects and fewer friends, shouldn’t be publicly shamed and packed off to a state-run reformatory. But such were the laws—and morals—of 1916. Constance uses her authority as deputy sheriff, and occasionally exceeds it, to investigate and defend these women when no one else will. But it’s her sister Fleurette who puts Constance’s beliefs to the test and forces her to reckon with her own ideas of how a young woman should and shouldn’t behave.

I’ve had the Kopp Sisters series on my radar for years, but I hadn’t yet found the time to start reading it. When I was sent the third novel by the wonderful girls at Houghton Mifflin, I decided it was time to try something different. And after finishing Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, I immediately added the two previous books to my Wishlist. I REALLY liked this book.

This was such a unique and fresh novel, nothing like I’ve ever read before. This is the story of three sisters (although the main character is deputy sheriff Constance Kopp) living in 1914’s New Jersey and dealing with lots of trouble and injustices. This particular book is focused on Constance’s fight to help local women who are being imprisoned because of dubious charges. She’s fierce, independent and always tries to help those who need her the most. And she has a great sense of humor, too.

As you can imagine, this is a book about strong women and people who don’t really fit in. Women who refuse to resign themselves to their supposedly “established” path. It is both empowering and fun and if I had a daughter this is the kind of book I’d want her to read. I thought it was witty and smart and the great thing is that it’s based on real facts! I was really curious about the real story and I’m so glad the author talked about it too. I can’t wait to keep reading about Constance, Norma, and Fleurette!

My biggest fear when picking this up was that this book would be slow-paced or too literary for my taste, but what surprised me the most is that Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions was actually one of the fastest-paced books I’ve read this year. It’s thrilling, filled with dialogue and action and never gets boring. It’s funny at times, poignant at others and it was such a nice surprise that I can’t help but recommend it to anyone who wants to read something different and fresh.

ARC, Houghton Mifflin , 2017

Review: Hum If You Don’t Know The Words by @BiancaM_author @PutnamBooks

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Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a ten-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband’s death. Both lives have been built upon the division of race, and their meeting should never have occurred . . . until the Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, and shatters their worlds when Robin’s parents are left dead and Beauty’s daughter goes missing. After Robin is sent to live with her loving but irresponsible aunt, Beauty is hired to care for Robin while continuing the search for her daughter. In Beauty, Robin finds the security and family that she craves, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty finds her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Her quest to make amends and find redemption is a journey of self-discovery in which she learns the harsh truths of the society that once promised her protection.

It’s already October but I’ve found another favorite. Hum If You Don’t Know The Words will definitely make my Best Of 2017 list and it’s already one of those books I know I will keep recommending to everyone. I devoured this beautiful novel in less than two days and I highlighted many quotes and dialogues, which is always a great sign. I haven’t felt this way since I read The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, which, incidentally, has a similar main character, which must be part of the reason why I love them both.

I was recommended this book by two of my favorite bloggers, Renee and Susie. Like them, I was attracted to this story because of the comparisons to two of my favorites: The Help & The Secret Life of Bees. And yes, I can see the resemblance, especially when it comes to female friendship and racism (although the stories are obviously really different). I’m happy to say that Hum If You Don’t Know The Words deeply moved me and left a lasting impression too. I won’t forget about this novel.

This is the story of two women: Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl, and Beauty Mbali, a black woman searching for her daughter. These two characters have apparently nothing in common, but their lives will connect in a wonderful way. Most of the reviews I read praised Beauty’s narration and I agree that hers was a heartbreaking and engaging story. I admired her courage and determination. But I also fell in love with Robin’s perspective (and I admit I totally didn’t see that first “twist” coming). I get that she acted too mature for her age, but I’ve realized I don’t mind that when reading fiction, as long as it helps with the story. And yes, I’m fully aware that the last part of the story wasn’t realistic at all, but I was enjoying the book so much that it didn’t even bother me. I deeply enjoyed reading about Robin’s relationship with Cat, her aunt Edith (whom, despite her flaws, I really liked!), and, of course, Beauty and her Jewish neighbour.

What I liked the most about Hum If You Don’t Know The Words was that both women showed us two different perspectives of the same world. By following Beauty’s journey, we learn about students protests and racial conflicts and we also get a glimpse of how the world used to treat black women. Beauty’s difficult relationship with her daughter Nomsa was also key in understanding how everything worked back then. How could she possibly come to terms with her daughter’s decisions? On the other hand, Robin’s story was more focused on grief, innocence and it shed light on a different kind of prejudice as well: homosexuality in the 70s South Africa.

One thing that I found extremely interesting was the portrayal of Robin’s parents. They were clearly racists but the author didn’t try to turn them into “villains”; in fact, they were really good with Robin -especially her father-. Like with Lightning Men, I find it so shocking that people could behave that way and discrimination wasn’t even unusual. Even Edith, who clearly prides herself on being modern and tolerant, has a very disturbing scene that made me feel quite ashamed.

As you can see, I could talk about this book for ages, but I don’t want to spoil the experience for you. Hum If You Don’t Know The Words is a wonderful exploration of grief, loss, tolerance, friendship and family and it helped me learn a lot about the Apartheid and South Africa. I wish all books I read made me feel this way.

P.S; Not that it’s important, but this is probably also my favorite book title of the year.

P.S 2: I was so happy when Rodriguez was mentioned! I love him and the fact that he was so popular in South Africa.

Netgalley, G. P. Putnam’s Sons , 2017

Review: The Stolen Marriage by @D_Chamberlain @panmacmillan

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In 1944, twenty-three-year-old Tess DeMello abruptly moves to Hickory, North Carolina, a small town struggling with racial tension and the hardships imposed by World War II. Tess’s new husband, Henry Kraft, is a secretive man who often stays out all night, hides money from his new wife, and shows no interest in making love. Tess quickly realizes she’s trapped in a strange and loveless marriage with no way out…

I read a couple of books by Diane Chamberlain in the past and thoroughly enjoyed them. I was eagerly anticipating The Stolen Marriage and found myself completely hooked from the first page. I adore when that happens. I couldn’t wait to keep on reading! The truth is, I love Diane Chamberlain’s writing and the way she creates such cinematic stories. While reading her books, you can picture everything in your head and easily imagine the story as a film. Her stories are always engaging and filled with “action” in the sense that you never ever get bored. There’s plenty of drama and twists and you care about the characters and what will happen to them.

The Stolen Marriage tells the story of a young woman called Tess DeMello who suddenly sees her life change completely after a weekend in Washington DC. I don’t want to say too much and I’ve already changed the blurb because I felt like it practically told you the whole story. Basically, Tess’s life does not go exactly the way she had planned it and she needs to come to terms with her new future: marriage, family, and friends.

This is a historical novel because it’s set in the 1940s, but it reads like contemporary fiction and I believe you don’t need to be into hist-fic in order to enjoy it. It is such an easy and delightful read, perfect for a cozy evening with a cup of hot chocolate and the sound of rain as your soundtrack. And admit it, all of us need one of those books every once in a while!

Even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as, for example, Necessary Lies, I’ll definitely read many more books by this author (I’m already planning on starting another one really soon). As for the secret, in my humble opinion, it was kind of a disappointment, and not because I guessed it -I actually shared the same suspicions as Hank’s mom- but because I didn’t really care about that part of the story.

Still, I loved Tess’s and really enjoyed reading about her journey, especially when she fought for what she wanted professionally. I wanted her to be happy, but did she achieve that? I guess you’ll have to read to find out…

ARC, Pan Macmillan , 2017