The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and for once, I have managed to read it and post my review by the deadline, which is today!

I have had mixed results with Robert Louis Stevenson in the past: I loved The Master of Ballantrae, liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, couldn’t finish Kidnapped and can hardly remember Treasure Island, which I read as a child. I hoped The Black Arrow would be another good one; it sounded as though it should be fun, at least, and the setting – 15th century England, during the Wars of the Roses – appealed to me. Originally published as a serial in 1883, then as a novel in 1888, it is often labelled a ‘children’s novel’, but apart from the fact that the hero and heroine are in their teens, I think it’s a book that could be equally enjoyed by older and younger readers. It’s probably too old fashioned for a lot of children today, but any who do like reading classic adventure stories should find this one entertaining.

The Black Arrow tells the story of seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton, an orphan who comes to believe that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, was responsible for the murder of his father. Setting out to discover the truth and obtain justice for his father, Dick joins a company of outlaws known as the fellowship of The Black Arrow who also have reasons for wanting to take revenge on Sir Daniel. Meanwhile Dick falls in love with Joanna Sedley, a young heiress kidnapped by Sir Daniel so that he can arrange a marriage for her to his own advantage. And while all of this is taking place, the Wars of the Roses plays out in the background and Dick must decide whether his loyalties lie with York or Lancaster.

The novel is written in a sort of pseudo-medieval style, with archaic words and phrases like ‘ye’, ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’, ‘cometh’ and ‘goeth’ – common in older historical fiction, but not usually used today, so could take a while to get used to if you don’t read a lot of books like this. In many ways it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, particularly once the band of Robin Hood-like outlaws appeared, and I think readers who enjoy one book will probably enjoy the other.

Despite the historical setting, you won’t really learn a lot of accurate history from this book. Throughout the first half, at least, the focus is on Dick’s mission to avenge his father’s death and rescue Joanna from Sir Daniel’s clutches. We hear of battles taking place but don’t see much of the action until the second half of the novel when Dick is drawn into the fictitious Battle of Shoreby and meets Richard ‘Crookback’, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. As the events of the novel are taking place in 1460-61, Richard would actually have been about eight years old at that time (not the adult man we see in the story) and not yet Duke of Gloucester, but Stevenson does admit to this in a footnote!

I can’t really say that I loved this book – although I was entertained at first by the spying and intrigue, the disguises and daring escapes, the shipwrecks and secret passages, I felt that the story and the characters lacked depth and eventually it all started to become slightly tedious. Apparently Stevenson himself didn’t rate The Black Arrow very highly and described it as “a whole tale of tushery” (tushery referring to the archaic language). I still think it was worth reading and I preferred it to Kidnapped – although, to be fair, I should probably try Kidnapped again as I didn’t get very far with it. For now, I’m just pleased to have finally read another book from my Classics Club list as I’ve been making very little progress with it this year!

This is book 18/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Catching up…three historical reads

I usually try to write about each book I read as soon as possible after finishing it, but sometimes that doesn’t happen and I find myself with a backlog of reviews to write for books read earlier in the year. Here are three historical novels that I read a few months ago and haven’t got around to writing about until now.

I was drawn to The Minion (1930) both because I’ve loved some of the other Rafael Sabatini books I’ve read and because it is a fictional account of the Thomas Overbury Scandal, a 17th century murder case I’ve previously read about in The Poison Bed by EC Fremantle and The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen. Set during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland, the novel follows the story of Robert Carr, a young man who becomes a favourite of the king. The ambitious Earl of Northampton sees a chance to get closer to the throne by encouraging his great-niece, Frances Howard, to begin an affair with Carr, but the romance is opposed by Carr’s friend, Thomas Overbury. When Overbury is found dead in the Tower of London, suspicion falls on Carr and Frances.

As a fan of Sabatini, I have to confess I didn’t really like this particular book very much. Unlike the other novels of his I’ve read that have mainly fictional characters and storylines, this one is based very closely on real history and I think maybe he felt too constrained by historical fact to be able to create a compelling, entertaining story like his others. The characters seemed quite lifeless and the writing felt a bit dry – not really his usual style at all. Having said that, the history on which it is based is fascinating and Sabatini makes no secret of how he feels about the petty rivalries of the Jacobean court. It’s still an interesting read, if not a great example of Sabatini’s work.

If you want to know more about the Thomas Overbury affair, try the Fremantle novel instead – and if you’re new to Sabatini, start with Scaramouche!

Joanna Hickson has previously written several novels set during the Wars of the Roses, one of my favourite periods of English history. Her latest book, The Lady of the Ravens (2020), opens just after the final major battle in that conflict – the Battle of Bosworth, which resulted in Henry Tudor taking the throne as King Henry VII. This novel looks at the events of the early part of Henry’s reign from the perspective of Joan Vaux, lady-in-waiting to Henry’s queen, Elizabeth of York. We see how precarious Henry’s grip on the throne is, with challenges from various Yorkist pretenders, and the steps he takes to deal with these threats, and we are given some glimpses of his children, including Prince Arthur, his eldest son who is betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, and the future Henry VIII, seen here as a charming, confident young child, already popular with his father’s subjects.

Joan herself has very little, if any, direct involvement in the political intrigues of the court, which perhaps makes the story less exciting than it could have been, but she does form a strong bond with Elizabeth, bringing her close to the lives of the royal family. Joan’s own family life is also explored; I don’t know how historically accurate the book is regarding her personal relationships, but the fictional Joan appears to have been quite fortunate in her marriage to Sir Richard Guildford. It might not exactly be love at first sight, but she and Richard soon learn to get along with each other and, for an arranged marriage in the 15th century, it’s not an unhappy one. As for the ‘ravens’ of the title, they are the birds that live at the Tower of London; as legend has it, if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall, so Joan, who has become fascinated by the birds, does her best to protect them from those who wish to do them harm.

I didn’t find this quite as interesting as Joanna Hickson’s previous book, The Tudor Crown, maybe because that one was about Henry Tudor and took us straight to the heart of the action, whereas the choice of Joan as narrator of this book, as I’ve said, means a slower pace and a more domestic story. Still, I enjoyed it and was pleased to see that there’s going to be a sequel.

Having enjoyed some of Margaret Irwin’s other books, particularly the first two of her Elizabeth I trilogy (I must read the third one soon), I had high hopes for this one, about Charles II’s younger sister Henrietta – known as Minette. Royal Flush (1932) is a straightforward fictional retelling of Minette’s life, beginning with her exile in France as a child during the period of her father, Charles II’s, beheading and the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Growing up at the French court, it is at first hoped that Minette will marry the young king of France, Louis XIV, but when another bride is chosen for Louis, Minette finds herself married off to his younger brother Philippe instead.

I won’t say any more about the plot as you will either already be familiar with Minette’s history or, if not, you won’t want me to spoil it for you. However, if you’re completely new to her story, be aware that the book is quite slow and detailed and possibly not the best starting point (although this is the first novel I’ve read specifically about Minette, I’ve come across her many times as a secondary character in books like Dumas’ Louise de la Vallière and Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Lady on the Coin and I found it very useful to have that little bit of prior knowledge about her). I do like Margaret Irwin’s writing and the old-fashioned charm of her novels, which have quite a different feel from most of the historical fiction being published today, but I think this is the weakest of her books that I’ve read so far.

~

Have you read any of these – or any other books by these authors?

V2 by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors, but I was slightly disappointed by last year’s The Second Sleep. The setting was atmospheric and the concept was fascinating but, like a lot of people, I thought the ending was abrupt and confusing. I’m pleased to say that I found his latest book, V2, much more enjoyable and the perfect distraction from the depressing national and world news and from the pressures of returning to work earlier this month after a long period on furlough.

V2 is set during World War II and follows the stories of two people on different sides of the conflict. Dr Rudi Graf is a German engineer who has played an important part in the development of the V2 rocket. Although his intention was originally to build rockets that could fly to the moon, the technology is now being used by Nazi Germany to carry out attacks on Allied cities, something Graf isn’t entirely comfortable with.

In London, meanwhile, Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, narrowly avoids being killed in one of these attacks when a V2 hits the building in which she is staying with her married lover. With her affair in danger of being exposed, Kay jumps at the opportunity to go to Belgium with a group of other WAAF officers on a mission to locate the V2 launch site and prevent the weapons from being used in any more strikes.

The whole novel takes place during just five days in November 1944, with Graf’s narrative alternating with Kay’s until eventually their stories begin to come together. I found both of them equally interesting to read about, but I was particularly impressed with the way Harris makes Graf such a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he is at least partly responsible for the death and destruction caused by the V2. His gradual disillusionment with his work is plain to see and he ends up being confronted with some moral dilemmas as a result. Kay’s work is rather different – she is trying to save lives rather than destroy them – but she also finds herself facing some difficult decisions when she begins to question who can and cannot be trusted.

The thriller element of the novel is very well done, with the tension rising chapter by chapter as each rocket is launched and Kay and her fellow WAAF officers race against the clock to stop them. The women are equipped with logarithm tables, slide rules and an ability to make quick and accurate calculations, but still feel under an immense amount of pressure, knowing that lives depend on their mathematical skills. The story does get quite technical at times, but don’t worry if you’re not a scientist or mathematician – the plot is easy enough to follow even if you don’t fully understand every aspect of Kay’s or Graf’s work.

The novel is equally successful as a portrayal of life in various parts of wartime Europe, from Mechelen, the city in Belgium where Kay is stationed, newly liberated from the Germans but still feeling the effects, to the forests of the Occupied Netherlands where Graf and his team are launching the V2 rockets. Although the V2 is an imprecise and expensive weapon and ultimately seen as a waste of German resources, it is still capable of causing enormous destruction and loss of life. It is in the sections of the book set in London that we see the evidence of this, such as when 168 people are killed in one strike on a branch of Woolworths, which is packed with shoppers who have heard that a new consignment of saucepans has just been delivered.

V2 has not become an absolute favourite Harris novel – I don’t think it really compares with An Officer and a Spy or the Cicero trilogy – but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have had Munich, an earlier book by Harris, on my TBR for a few years, so I’m hoping to find time to read that one soon too.

Thanks to Random House UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick

The Forgotten Sister is the fourth book I’ve read by Nicola Cornick and, like the others (The Phantom Tree, House of Shadows and The Woman in the Lake), it is a dual time period novel with hints of the supernatural.

In the modern day, we meet Lizzie Kingdom, a television presenter and former child star. Having grown up in the public eye, Lizzie has always known how to manage her image and avoid bad publicity, but all of that is about to change with the death of Amelia Robsart. Amelia is the wife of Lizzie’s best friend, Dudley Lester, an ex-boyband member, and when she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs, Lizzie is drawn into the scandal that follows.

If you know your Elizabethan history, you may have already seen parallels here, so it’s no surprise that the historical thread of the novel is set in the 16th century and tells the story of Amy Robsart, trapped in an unhappy and loveless marriage to the courtier Robert Dudley. Everyone knows that the woman Robert really loves is Elizabeth I and he spends more and more of his time at court while Amy stays hidden away in the countryside. History tells us that in September 1560, Amy will be found dead, believed to have broken her neck falling down the stairs. Rumours immediately begin to circulate because, of course, Amy’s death leaves Robert free to marry the queen.

The fate of Amy Robsart remains an unsolved mystery to this day. Was her husband responsible for her death? Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Whatever the answer, we know that Robert Dudley never did marry Elizabeth I. As soon as those rumours began to spread, it became important for her to distance herself from them – which is exactly what Lizzie Kingdom does in the present day timeline of the novel when people begin to wonder whether she and Dudley Lester had something to do with Amelia’s death.

Whenever I read a book set in two time periods, I usually find that one of them appeals to me more than the other. With this book, it was the storyline set in the past. I enjoyed reading about Amy Robsart; I had a lot of sympathy for her as she gradually loses her youthful enthusiasm for life and her hopes for a loving, affectionate marriage and becomes aware that her husband wants very little to do with her. The mystery of Amy’s death is handled in an interesting way and if Nicola Cornick had just concentrated on telling this story and not the one set in the modern day, I would probably have been able to give this book a much more positive review.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the present day story at all. The characters didn’t quite feel real to me and I think a large part of that was due to their names and relationships seeming so contrived and unnatural. Not only do we have Lizzie Kingdom (corresponding to Elizabeth I), Amelia Robsart (Amy Robsart) and Dudley Lester (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), almost all of the other characters have similar names to their historical counterparts too. When even the Elizabethan noblewoman Lettice Knollys appeared in modern form as Letty Knollys, the wife of one of Dudley Lester’s bandmates, I started to find it all very distracting and I think the whole thing would have worked better for me if the parallels between past and present had been more subtle.

After finishing the book I looked to see what other people thought of it and it seems that most people have loved it, so I think this was probably just a case of book and reader not being right for each other! I enjoyed all of the other Nicola Cornick novels I’ve read, particularly The Phantom Tree, so I will continue to look out for more of her books in the future.

Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

I was drawn to this book first by the intriguing title. Who is Mr Lavelle and why is he ‘intoxicating’? Now that I’ve met him, I don’t think that’s the way I would choose to describe him; ‘annoying’, ‘rude’ and ‘unpleasant’ are better words, I think. However, I don’t suppose it matters how I feel about him; this is not a book about my own experiences with Mr Lavelle, after all – it’s a book about a young man called Benjamin Bowen and how Mr Lavelle is seen through his eyes. And to Benjamin, Lavelle really does seem to be as dangerously intoxicating as a drug.

Benjamin and his brother Edgar, both in their early twenties as the novel opens, have led sheltered, secluded lives, educated at home by a tutor and discouraged from mixing with other boys. Their Welsh father and Dutch mother want their sons to be accepted by the English upper classes in a way that they never could themselves, and have decided that now, in 1763, it is time to launch Benjamin and Edgar into the world and send them on a Grand Tour across Europe. This is their opportunity to meet ‘People of Quality’, to make impressive new friends and connections and to develop their knowledge of art and culture.

Edgar, desperate to please his parents, does his best to fit in with the people they meet and to give no hint of coming from a family who are ‘in trade’ (Mr Bowen owns a shipping business). Benjamin, on the other hand, is less enthusiastic and when he meets the beautiful, subversive, unconventional Mr Horace Lavelle, he is captivated and quickly finds himself falling in love. Knowing that his relationship with Lavelle could destroy Edgar’s chances and leave their parents’ dreams in ruins, Benjamin must decide whether his own happiness is more important to him.

I found The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle entertaining in parts and, being told from Benjamin’s point of view, written in a style that is usually quite readable and engaging. I say usually, because there are also several passages that feel more like pages from a philosophy textbook than a novel as characters have long discussions on Voltaire or Descartes in the sort of dialogue that doesn’t feel at all natural. In fact, there wasn’t much about this book that did feel convincing to me; I never felt as though I’d been truly submerged in the 18th century setting and the author’s decision to overlook anachronisms didn’t help (he admits in a note at the beginning that the terms Enlightenment and Renaissance weren’t in common use at that time, but he uses them anyway).

I did like the idea of having the Grand Tour as the backdrop for the story, although it would have been nice to have been given more vivid descriptions of the places the brothers visited and the things they saw there. Of course, Benjamin sees very little anyway once Lavelle comes into his life and he begins to disregard the itinerary of museum, art gallery and theatre visits carefully planned for him by his mother. Lavelle, as I’ve said, is someone I didn’t like at all; I can understand why Benjamin, coming from such a sheltered background, may have found his fearless, rebellious attitude exciting, but all I could see was a man who was needlessly cruel and insensitive and who thought it was clever to use crude language and offend and ridicule everyone around him. The author does a good job, though, of showing how easily Benjamin becomes ‘intoxicated’ by Lavelle and how he is made to think differently, as well as depicting some of the challenges faced by men like them in a time when homosexual relationships were not seen as acceptable.

Most of my sympathy was actually reserved for Edgar who wants so desperately to establish himself in society and make his parents proud. I really felt for him as he begins to discover the upsetting truth that no matter how hard he tries, his family’s position means that he will never be fully accepted – and that, as it must seem to him, his own brother is doing his best to embarrass them both and ruin their chances.

I was interested enough in the lives of Benjamin and Edgar to continue reading to the end, but the problems I’ve mentioned – particularly my dislike of Horace Lavelle – left me disappointed with this book overall.

Thanks to Random House Cornerstone for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian

The Surgeon’s Mate is the seventh novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series. Every time I review one of these books I say that I’m not going to leave such a long gap before picking up the next one, but then I get distracted and before I know it two or three years have passed by! It was September 2017 when I read the previous book, The Fortune of War, so I was worried at first that I might struggle to get back into the story and was relieved to find that it wasn’t a problem. As soon as I started to read, the events of book six came back to me quite vividly.

If you have not yet met Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, Dr Stephen Maturin, I would strongly recommend that you start at the beginning with Master and Commander. It will make it so much easier to follow the various storylines, which do continue from one book to the next, and to understand the complex relationships between the characters, particularly the one between Stephen and Diana Villiers.

This seventh novel opens with Jack, Stephen and Diana arriving in Halifax aboard the HMS Shannon following the Royal Navy’s victory over the American ship USS Chesapeake (a real event in the War of 1812). From Canada, they make their way home across the Atlantic to await further instructions. It’s not long before details of their next mission emerge: with his half-Catalan/half-Irish background, Stephen is required to travel to Grimsholm, a heavily fortified island in the Baltic, to persuade the Catalan army there to side with Britain against Napoleon. After seeing the pregnant Diana safely settled in Paris, Stephen accepts the job – on the condition that Jack Aubrey will command the ship on the voyage.

Jack is pleased to have a ship to command once again – and grateful to have an excuse to escape from the various entanglements of his life in England. Not only is he being cheated financially by a man he thought he could trust, he has also received a letter containing some unpleasant news from a woman he met in Halifax. The Baltic mission provides a welcome distraction, then, and at first things seem to be going well. Unfortunately, things then begin to go badly, and after a series of mishaps our heroes find themselves taken prisoner yet again!

I didn’t love this book quite as much as the previous two in the series; in fact, I felt that a lot of time was spent tying up some of the loose ends from those two and perhaps laying the foundations for the next one. There was still a lot to like, though; I enjoyed the sections set in Halifax and later in Paris and the details of Stephen’s work, both as a doctor and natural philosopher and as a spy, are always interesting. There are some funny moments too, although maybe not as many as in some of the earlier books; I loved Jack’s account of how he once played Ophelia in a sailors’ production of Hamlet:

‘Why, there was only one midshipman in the flagship pretty enough for a girl, but his voice was broke and he could not keep in tune neither; so for the part where she has to sing, I put on the dress and piped up with my back to the audience. But neither of us was going to be drowned and buried in real earth, Admiral or no Admiral, so that part fell to a youngster who could not defend himself; and that made three of us, do you see.’

I still struggle with the nautical jargon and the lengthy descriptions of sea battles, but seven books into the series I now know that I don’t really need to follow the battles too closely as long as I can get the basic gist of what has happened and what the outcome is. However, with this particular novel I found the nautical parts more confusing than usual, for some reason. Maybe I’m just out of practice and need to move quickly on to book eight!

This is book 11/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Honey and the Sting by EC Fremantle

After 2018’s The Poison Bed, a Jacobean thriller based on a real life murder scandal, EC Fremantle has returned to the same period – the early seventeenth century – with another historical thriller, this time one which is only partly inspired by a true story.

Hester, Melis and Hope are three sisters who live together in a cottage in Iffley, Oxfordshire. With no male relative in the household, apart from Hester’s little boy Rafe, their living arrangements are unusual for the time – not quite respectable, some would say. Yet all three women have their reasons for avoiding outsiders and keeping themselves to themselves. Hester’s secret is perhaps the most scandalous: the father of her son is George Villiers, the powerful Duke of Buckingham and the King’s favourite. The beautiful, eccentric Melis experiences visions and premonitions which have an unsettling habit of coming true. And Hope’s African heritage makes her stand out from the other girls in Iffley, while also making her the target of unwelcome attention from men.

When we first meet the sisters, they are leading quiet lives at Orchard Cottage, filling their days with cooking, gardening, needlework and tending the bees in their hives. This will all change when George Villiers decides that the time has come to claim his son – something Hester refuses to contemplate as the Duke had cruelly cast her aside and left her to raise Rafe alone. In order to keep Rafe out of his hands, the three women are forced to go on the run, fleeing to an isolated house in the woods. But even here it seems there’s no guarantee of safety and they must decide who can and cannot be trusted.

Hester and her sisters are fictional, but their story is entwined with a sequence of real historical events involving George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. I won’t say too much here, but if you know anything about Buckingham then as soon as a certain character appears in the novel you will be able to guess what is ultimately going to happen. Knowing this didn’t spoil the story for me, though; I found this particular character and the motivations for their actions very intriguing and their inclusion made the book much more compelling than it would otherwise have been.

The novel is written in present tense, never my favourite but I didn’t find it as annoying as I often do because it somehow suited the pace of the story and gave it a sense of urgency and danger. Some of the chapters are told from Hester’s perspective and these are written in the first person, but others are from Hope’s perspective, in the third person. I didn’t really understand the reason for this and would have preferred one style or the other. We don’t hear from Melis at all, only seeing her through the eyes of the other characters, but this is quite effective and adds to the aura of mystery that surrounds her. I think she was probably the sister I found most interesting; Hester and Hope both frustrated me with the number of poor decisions they made!

The only other thing that bothered me slightly was the way Hester refers to Buckingham throughout the novel as ‘George’. I felt that, as she had been a servant in Buckingham’s household when he seduced her, she would have spoken of him as ‘the Duke’ or ‘Buckingham’ or ‘His Grace’. A servant calling a nobleman by his first name in the seventeenth century just didn’t seem right to me, but maybe I’m just being pedantic. Overall, this was an enjoyable novel, even if it wasn’t one of my favourites by Fremantle.

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.