Review #20: The Turn of Midnight

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

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Published on 4th October 2018

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The year is 1349. The people of Develish have been living in quarantine under Lady Anne’s orders and have miraculously survived the plague that has been wiping the whole of England clean. However, while closing the town off permitted them to save their lives, it is now causing its own set of problems. Food supplies are running low, and unless someone is willing to venture into the outside world in search of food, the people of Develish now risk succumbing to starvation.

I will start off by saying that this is the second book in Minette Walters’ The Black Death series (the first one being called The Last Hours) and I obviously only realised that after starting to read this one (somehow, I have a knack for doing that). However there is an extensive description of the characters and their back stories at the beginning of the book which helped me get the gist of what was going on. So, it can be read as a stand-alone book, but I still feel like I would have enjoyed it more, had I read the first one beforehand.

This story for me was quite different to the historical fiction that I am used to read and it is, in part, because of Lady Anne’s character. Her husband Richard, Lord of Develish, succumbed to the pestilence so she took it upon herself to protect the rest of their people and quarantined the town in order to prevent the spreading of the disease. Lady Anne is a well educated and very compassionate woman. She is also a figure of authority and has earned her people’s respect and devotion after saving them from the plague.

The character of Thaddeus Thurkell is just as interesting. He was born a serf but gained his Lady’s admiration after proving his value to her (namely by venturing into the outside world with a group of young lads in search for food and news from neighbouring towns). He is a strong-willed, vigorous and kind character and the boys that surround him have naturally fallen under his authority. As a repayment for all he achieved for Develish, Lady Anne comes up with a plan of pretending that he is a distant relative to her and making him Lord of Athelstan, therefore raising him to the status of noble man. While the people of Develish are happy to accept this since they love and respect Thaddeus as much as they do Lady Anne, people from different towns will try and make Thaddeus out to be an impostor, mainly because he is “dark-skinned” (as described in the book) and they cannot accept that someone who isn’t white could be anything but a serf.

I’ve read some people say that Lady Anne’s beliefs and behaviours are too modern for a story set in 1349. I don’t agree with that. After all, it might be historical but it’s also a work of fiction so anything goes. I like Lady Anne, she has a lot of feminist qualities and it’s refreshing to see that portrayed in a Middle Ages society. Also, I’m sure that there were women with similar beliefs and behaviours in those days too, it’s just that they’ll have been squashed from the history books.

While I found a lot of criticism about Lady Anne in other people’s reviews, not many have mentionned Thaddeus Thurkell’s “dark skin”. It is clear from the book that Thaddeus isn’t white (though it isn’t clear what race he actually is) and that’s one of the main reason why people are so ready to accuse him of being a fraud. By raising him to the status of Lord, Lady Anne is being progressive for her time (once again, some people might argue that this is too modern to be realistic but I think it’s a nice touch, to me Minette Walters is giving representation to people of colour, who didn’t have any back in those days and it’s a breath of fresh air compared to the usual rigidness of historical fiction.)

Religion also constitutes a big part of the book as people wonder whether the plague was sent by God to punish them for their sins, and whether only sinners died from the pestilence. Differences of opinions between priests start to emerge and people can’t decide who to listen to anymore. While the people of Develish managed to survive the plague by maintaining standards of hygiene and steering clear from infected people; people from different towns believe that their fate is in God’s hands. Their devotion to God is so that they cannot fathom any other method of surviving and they will therefore label Lady Anne and her people as a bunch of heretics for daring to think differently.

When you think about it, all about this book is progressive for the time period that it is set in: the place of women and people of colour in society and the turning away from God as being the be all and end all of everything; and that’s what makes it so interesting. As I said before, historical fiction can be quite rigid as it tries to mimick the customs of the time period it reflects, but this one offers different perspectives while still remaining believable.

I would give this book a four stars out of five, only because it was harder to follow without having read the first one, but otherwise this is a very impressive piece of work by Minette Walters!

Review #19: One Day in December

One Day in December by Josie Silver

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Publication date: 16 October 2018

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

One day in December, as Laurie is on the bus home, she spots a young man sat at the bus stop. Their eyes meet and she is instantly convinced that this is the man of her dreams. Except that she will never see him again, or at least not until a year later when her best friend Sarah introduces Jack, her new boyfriend, to her. Laurie recognises him straight away but he seems to have forgotten all about that day at the bus stop. One Day in December is a tale of love, friendship and heartbreak. It spans over a few years and we follow Laurie and Jack as they try to build a friendship and fall in love with different people.

This is your typical romantic comedy book and if that’s one of your preferred genres then you will definitely love this one. To be honest, after trying to make sense of The Clockmaker’s Daughter (and failing miserably) this book came as a breath of fresh air since it is so easy to follow.

It was en enjoyable read and I did like the fact that it spans over a few years, which very few books do, as we can see the characters lives evolve and their interests and emotions change as they grow older. It reminded me of Romeo and Juliet‘s star-crossed lovers story, as Laurie and Jack seem to always fall out of sync. But since it’s a modern day romance, it’s not quite as dramatic as Shakespeare. I’m sure a lot of people will be able to relate to the characters in one way or another. Who has never fallen in love with someone they couldn’t have, ha?

The characters are very lovable, especially Laurie and Sarah, but none of them are picture perfect, they all have their flaws and shortcomings which make them all the more relatable.

However, while it was an enjoyable read, I did feel like there was something missing (as I usually do when reading romances, which is hardly ever). It’s nothing to do with the story itself, it is well-written and complete, but I just couldn’t help but get bored after a while and I’ll be happy to move onto something a bit more complex for my next read. Nothing wrong with this book, I just have high expectations as a reader which romance novels never quite satisfy.

Review #18: The Clockmaker’s Daughter

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

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Published on 20th September 2018

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

At work, Elodie Winslow stumbles upon a mysterious satchel containing a notebook and a photo from the 19th century. As an archivist, it is Elodie’s job to unravel where the satchel came from, who the notebook belonged to and who is the young woman on the picture. In addition to Elodie’s research, we hear from a young woman’s spirit (the mysterious woman in the photograph whose real name no one remembers) as she sheds light on her past life as a painter’s muse.

Ok, this is going to be a first on this blog (and it hasn’t happened many times before in my life) but I couldn’t finish this book. I didn’t even get halfway through and I had to stop. It’s a complex book, told from different characters’ perspectives and unlike the last few good books that I’ve read, I couldn’t follow this story. The characters are all very similar and I lost track of who was talking and when, it even took me a while to figure out that one of the narrators is the mysterious woman’s spirit reminiscing about her past; I thought we had jumped timelines, but no.

I can’t quite figure out what it is about this book that made me give up. God knows I like a complex book but this one is just confusing. It’s not badly written at all and I’m sure the author has put a lot of work into it, but it didn’t hook me in at all. I had a little sneak on Goodreads and was pleased to see that a few people felt the same as me. I’m usually the kind of person that will force herself to see a book through to the end, but someone on Goodreads said something along the lines of ‘Life’s too short to waste on a book you’re not enjoying’ and that resonated with me.

I’ve never read anything else by Kate Morton so I can’t judge the rest of her work, but I would definitely give this one a miss.

Review #17: The Corset

The Corset by Laura Purcell

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Publication date: 20 September 2018

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Dorothea is a young noble lady who spends most of her days studying phrenology (a study focused on measuring the human skull, that believes that certain areas of the skull have specific functions). She dreams of being able to prove that the shape of someone’s skull can determine whether a person is good or evil. To assist in those studies, she often visits women prisoners who will share their stories with her and agree to have their head measured. That’s where she will meet Ruth Butterham, a young girl of 16 who was imprisoned for murdering her mistress. Ruth insists that she can curse people through sewing and that she had already killed people accidentally before setting on murdering her mistress. By spending time with Ruth, Dorothea will have to figure out whether Ruth truly has supernatural powers or whether she’s making it all up.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the similarities to Atwood’s Alias Grace. In Alias Grace, a doctor visits Grace, a young lady awaiting trial for the murder of her master, and the story is told by Grace so as the book goes on both the doctor and the reader are taken through her memories of the events. The Corset is very similar on this point, as Ruth tells the story from her own point of view and we are taken through her memories too. Both books comprise very dark secrets being revealed. I was a bit put off at first by how similar the book was to Atwood’s (especially since Atwood is one of my all time favourite authors and there is no rivalling her) but then I let myself be transported by the story and I dare say it took me places I didn’t see coming.

I did not anticipate how dark and gruesome the story would get and I have to say that it sent chills down my spine and left me gasping a couple of times. If it wasn’t for this dark turn of events I probably would have gotten bored quite early on, so I believe this was what kept me entertained.

On the whole I would say that it was an enjoyable read. I didn’t feel particularly strongly about it but it was nicely written and entertaining.

I had heard good things about Laura Purcell after her bestseller The Silent Companions came out (which I own but am yet to read) and I also heard people say that The Corset wasn’t quite as good. I try not to let that put me off reading The Corset, as everyone’s tastes are different, but it does make me look forward to reading The Silent Companions.

The Corset is a perfect read for anyone who likes historical fiction, murder mysteries and horrors. I don’t think it classifies as a horror book but it definitely has some gruesome bits to it!

Have you read it? Or did you read The Silent Companions? What did you think?

Review #16: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

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Publication date: 18 September 2018

I received a complimentary copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Imagine you wake up one morning in the middle of a forest, with no recollection of what happened the night before, or even who you are… and when you find your way back to safety in an immense country house called Blackheath, everyone there seems to know you but you have no idea who they are. Imagine that shortly after that, you encounter a mysterious messenger who explains to you that someone is going to die tonight, and that the only way you can escape this place is by solving their murder… what would you do? Run away or start investigating?

Aiden Bishop is trapped in Blackheath where, inevitably, Evelyn Hardcastle will meet her death each night at 11pm, unless he can solve her murder and break the cycle. To do so, Aiden is given eight days and eight “hosts” (guests to inhabit for one day). If he cannot solve the murder in the time given, his memories will be wiped and the cycle will begin again. But Aiden isn’t the only person trapped in Blackheath. Among the guests are two other persons, just like him, investigating to save their lives. But only one of them can escape…

Blimey, this book was insane! If I had to define it I would say it’s a crossover between Groundhog Day and Agatha Christie or even a mix between Pride and Prejudice and Criminal Minds. Blackheath is a huge estate owned by the Hardcastle family and on the 19th anniversary of their son’s death, the lady of the house decided to throw a party, inviting the very same people that were present 19 years ago when her son died. It reminded me of Agatha Christie in the way that the action is set in one place and all the characters are the same throughout the book. It’s also set in a time where maids and servants were still a thing hence the Pride and Prejudice vibes. It also reminded me of Groundhog Day because Aiden repeats the same day again and again until solving the murder, and of Criminal Minds because the story gets dark really quickly and Aiden will have to observe the guests’ personalities and habits to help in his investigation.

The story is incredibly complex, there are endless characters, each with their own quirks and background stories and we go through so many clues trying to solve Evelyn’s murder that it is impossible to keep track of them all (but in a good way, like where they stay somewhere in your brain and start to make more sense as the story advances). This is a book that made me guess, page after page, what was going on as it took me through Aiden’s investigation and I tried to decipher the clues. I had a few different theories at some point, but the book outsmarted me every time and this is my favourite kind of book, where it makes me think really hard until I eventually have to give up and admit that the only way I’ll make sense of it is to just read on.

It’s a pretty long book (over 500 pages) and reading it in a week was a challenge but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The story is so complex that it needs the pages to unfold itself, and every single chapter is a cliffhanger. Once again, I am very surprised that this is a debut novel, as it is astonishingly brilliant. So much work (and post-it notes!) must have gone into it!

The only criticism I have about this is that I could have done with a floorplan of the country house since it is huge and it’s sometimes hard to picture it all in your own mind, but after snooping around on Amazon I realised that the book actually does have a floorplan, it’s only my advanced copy that didn’t, so I guess I can’t even fault it on a single thing.

If you’re into your murder mysteries, do get your hand on it, you won’t be disappointed!

So, what was your favourite book this summer? For me, it’s a toss up between this one and The Psychology of Time Travel that I read the other week.

Review #15: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

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Published on 30 August 2018

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

For those of you wondering why I am posting on a Monday rather than my usual Tuesdays, I just happen to be travelling for the next couple of weeks and Mondays will be a bit easier for me to post, but from mid-september I will be back to my old schedule!

So, here I am back again with another non-fiction book! (and if it’s not your style I promise you it is the last one for a good while so make sure to come back next week!)

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also everything that I aspire to be but am too weak-willed to achieve: an incredibly researched individual who practises meditation for two hours every day, is vegan and stays away from social media (I mean, he doesn’t even own a smartphone anymore).

21 Lessons for the 21st Century takes a deep look at the current world and where it’s headed. Whereas in his previous works (namely Sapiens and Homo Deus) Harari mainly focused on the past and future of humankind, this new book is rather geared towards the present. It explores various domains: the advance of technology, the pros and cons of different political regimes, the rises of terrorism and immigration, and even topics such as religions and science-fiction. The extent of his knowledge on all these various topics is mind-blowing and it all makes so much sense when someone takes the time to explain! He is obviously very knowledgeable in matters of history, science and politics, but also social sciences: how humans work both inwardly and with each other.

This book made me feel very clever at times (when I could relate to a topic) or very stupid (when reading about things I don’t know much about) and just generally woke. It’s also made me feel a balance of emotions: from despair (questioning the point of carrying on when the world is headed towards some dark places) to hope and feeling inspired that humans can find their peace and adapt to the changes to come and just try and have an enjoyable ride while they’re here.

It is an essential read for everyone but mainly for the younger generations, the ones facing an uncertain future, at least to act as a forewarning that maybe we should start thinking about the world differently and be ready to adapt to whatever comes. However I will admit that the book is a lot to take in so it might be worth taking your time reading it (and not cramming it into your brain in under a week, like I tend to do) in order to better absorb all of the information. Or just read it a few times.

It is an unconventional read and very far from my comfort zone, even in terms of non-fiction, but as someone who takes interest in the direction of the world and how to make it a better place, I really enjoyed it.

Review #14: Severance

Severance by Ling Ma

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Published on 14th August 2018

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley in exchance for an honest review.

Candace Chen is a young woman who emigrated from China to the USA with her parents when she was six. Many years later, in 2011, as Candace has grown into an adult and settled in a relationship and a job in Bible publishing, a case of Shen fever erupts all over the world. As more and more people get affected by the fever, the world comes to a standstill. But Candace is lucky enough not to have come in contact with the virus and on escaping New York she finds and joins a group of survivors who are planning on rebuilding the world by themselves.

I did like this novel. The writing is simple and delicate and a pleasure to read. It differs from most apocalyptic stories in the way that the world becomes so quiet and calm and deserted as more and more people die. Candace ends up joining this group of survivors because she has nowhere else to go. At the head of the group is Bob, an extraordinarily ordinary man who took it upon himself to lead this group of people and get them to safety. Bob has no business managing the group but somehow, they’ve all accepted him as their default leader. Candace will have to learn to abide by Bob’s rules and live in a collectivity.

Severance is above all a tale of routine and a critique of capitalism. Candace has settled into a routine of going to work, doing the same job day in day out, then going back to her boyfriend’s in the evening to watch a film; sleep and repeat. She has no ambition to pursue her passions and is mainly motivated by money which is why she ends up being the last one to leave her office, long after everyone has either fled the city or died, because she was promised a big sum of money if she could work her contract until the end. The apocalypse that is wiping the world clean is also very routinely. Indeed, when affected, people start doing the same tasks over and over again until they pass out from exhaustion. The fevered are completely non-violent, they just end up doing the same chores mindlessly for days, forgetting to eat and clean themselves. And even when Candace does end up fleeing New York, she still ends up in a routine. The group of survivors she joins repeats the same patterns everyday: driving, camping and looting, day after day.

There is also a slight critique of capitalism in the book. For example, the company that Candace works for get their products manufactured in Asian countries because it is cheaper, and even when people start dying from the fever in China, the company still tries to get the most they can out of the surviving workers. They don’t care about the health issues afflicting the workers so long as they can get the products they need.

The parts of this novel I liked best are where Candace is reminiscing about her childhood in China. I found them to be really vivid and I almost felt like I was being transported there. The parts where Candace ends up being one of the only people left in New York also reminded me of the film I am Legend; especially the way New York becomes a ghost town and you don’t meet anyone for miles apart from the odd fevered person.

Overall, I liked the book. I didn’t think the world of it but I do like the idea behind it, and the simple and poetical style in which it is written. If you like science-fiction, and post-apocalyptic stories, then check this one out.