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.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

I was doing so well with the Read Christie 2020 challenge earlier in the year. I read the suggested novels for January, February and March (Murder on the Orient Express, A Murder is Announced and The Hollow) but then, distracted by Covid-19 and lockdown, I never picked up April’s book – or May’s or June’s or July’s. I think I’ve officially failed this year’s challenge now, don’t you? Anyway, Sleeping Murder is the book I was supposed to have read in April. Published in 1976, it’s a Miss Marple mystery and was the final book in the Marple series.

The novel opens with a young woman, Gwenda Reed, arriving in England from New Zealand. Her husband, Giles, is due to come and join her soon, and Gwenda hopes to have found somewhere to live in time for his arrival. As soon as she sees Hillside, a house in the seaside town of Dillmouth, she decides she wants to buy it. There’s something about the house that feels strangely familiar and in fact, she seems to know things about it that she really shouldn’t know at all. When she suddenly has a vivid memory of seeing a dead body at the bottom of the staircase, Gwenda panics, believing that she is losing her mind.

After confiding in Miss Marple, who is related to Giles’ cousin, Gwenda discovers that there is a logical explanation for her recent experiences: Hillside had actually been her home as a very small child, before she left England for New Zealand. Convinced that a murder must have taken place in the house – and that she herself had witnessed the aftermath – Gwenda and Giles begin to investigate. However, Miss Marple has serious forebodings; she likes the young couple and is worried that they could put themselves in danger by trying to uncover secrets that have remained buried for almost twenty years. The only way to protect her new friends is to solve the mystery herself and catch the murderer before he or she has the chance to strike again!

I haven’t read all of Christie’s Marple novels yet, but this is one of my favourites so far. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery – I thought I had, but I was wrong – and I was surprised to find out who the murderer really was. The clues were all there, but I didn’t pick up on them; in fact, the biggest clue went over my head because I didn’t have the general knowledge to be able to interpret it. I can’t explain what I mean without spoiling the story, but if you’ve read the book you’ll know which clue I’m talking about.

I love the atmosphere Christie creates in this novel, with a sense of lingering evil from the moment Gwenda walks through the doors of Hillside. With the crime being one that took place in the past and which needs to be solved in retrospect, I was reminded of the Poirot mystery Five Little Pigs, although I enjoyed reading this one more, maybe because the present day characters are more actively involved in the story. We see most of the investigation unfold from Gwenda’s perspective, but Miss Marple herself has a large role to play in the novel. Although the book wasn’t published until the 1970s, it was actually written much earlier in Christie’s career (possibly in 1940) so Marple is actually younger and livelier than she is in some of the other books in the series which were published before this one!

Have you read Sleeping Murder? Which is your favourite Marple novel?

This is book 9/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Six Tudor Queens: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series aims to retell, in fictional form, the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. This is the fifth book in the series so, as you would expect, the focus is on the fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. Having enjoyed the first three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – I had been slightly disappointed by the one on Anne of Cleves, but I’m pleased to say that I thought this latest book was a return to form.

When Henry VIII sets aside Anne of Cleves and takes nineteen-year-old Katheryn Howard as his next wife, he believes her to be pure, innocent and virtuous, qualities he values highly in a woman. Telling her she is his ‘rose without a thorn’, he is delighted with his young bride and looks forward to her producing another son to secure his lineage. But what Henry doesn’t know is that Katheryn has had more experience with men than he has been led to believe.

Katheryn is surprised to find that, despite the age difference, she is becoming genuinely fond of her obese and ailing husband. The man she really loves, however, is Thomas Culpeper, one of the King’s courtiers, whom she continues to meet in secret even knowing that if they are discovered both of their lives could be in danger. Then there’s Francis Dereham, with whom she was sexually involved before her marriage to the King; Francis won’t leave her alone, insisting that she had been pre-contracted to marry him before she ever met Henry, and Katheryn lives in fear of the King hearing of their relationship.

Of course, history tells us that Katheryn (as Alison Weir chooses to spell her name) will fail to keep her past a secret, that her love affairs with Dereham and Culpeper will become public knowledge and that she will face the same fate as her cousin, Anne Boleyn – but that doesn’t mean there is no tension in this retelling of her story. We know from the start that Katheryn is doomed and we have to watch her make one mistake after another, choose the wrong people to trust and head irreversibly down a path which will lead her to the scaffold. Despite knowing what will eventually happen, though, we are kept in suspense waiting for the moment when she will be betrayed and her secrets will be revealed to Henry.

The novel sticks closely to the known facts of Katheryn Howard’s life; although obviously there are some areas where Weir has to use her imagination or make decisions as to how certain things should be interpreted, she doesn’t seem to invent large chunks of the story as she did in Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets. I suppose Katheryn’s life is more well documented than Anne of Cleves’ and already dramatic enough without the need for too much invention.

Although Katheryn is frustratingly naive and reckless, I did have a lot of sympathy for her. A lot of time is spent discussing her early life before her marriage to Henry, when she lived in the household of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The household included several other young women who were also wards of the Duchess and it seems that there was very little supervision and discipline; Katheryn appears to have been easily influenced and sometimes even encouraged by the other girls to behave in a way that would have been seen as promiscuous in the 16th century. Because of the nature of Katheryn’s story, there is a lot of focus on her sex life and her liaisons with various men and this does become a little bit repetitive and tedious at times, but I still found it a more compelling read than the previous book in the series.

I am looking forward to the final novel, which isn’t available yet, but which I’m assuming will be about Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife.

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

This is book 8/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson

It’s been a four-year wait but The Silver Collar, the fourth book in Antonia Hodgson’s wonderful Thomas Hawkins series, is here at last. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting ‘Half-Hanged’ Hawkins and Kitty Sparks, this book does work as a standalone, but I would recommend going back to the beginning and starting with The Devil in the Marshalsea.

The Silver Collar is set in 1728. After their adventures in Yorkshire in the previous novel, Tom and Kitty are back in London running Kitty’s bookshop, The Cocked Pistol – ‘an establishment of such ill repute that a brief glance through its window could tarnish the soul‘. The couple still aren’t married and their relationship is still affectionate but stormy – and there are those who seem to want to drive them apart, such as Sir John Gonson, Tom’s old enemy, and the sinister Lady Vanhook.

When Tom is attacked in the street one day by men who appear to be intent on killing him, he is saved only by the intervention of his young ward Sam Fleet, son of an infamous underworld villain. With Sam’s help, Tom begins to investigate, determined to find out who was behind the attack, but while he is preoccupied, Kitty is facing problems of her own and has become reacquainted with a very unwelcome face from her past.

The Silver Collar also introduces another intriguing character by the name of Jeremiah Patience. Jeremiah’s story unfolds in the middle of the book, incorporating escaped slaves, a plantation in Antigua and a little girl forced to wear a silver collar – this was interesting, sensitively written and certainly very topical, but I felt it was a bit too similar to other storylines I’ve been coming across in historical fiction recently. I did like Jeremiah, though, and had a lot of sympathy for his situation.

It was also lovely to meet Tom and Kitty again after such a long wait. Tom, who narrates most of the novel in the first person, is such a great character – a lovable rogue who is always trying his best to reform himself but never quite managing it. In this book, though, his associations with other disreputable figures such as Sam Fleet and his mother Gabriela prove to be very helpful! Kitty is another strong character; I’ve enjoyed getting to know her over the course of the four books and I keep forgetting how young she still is. I didn’t think the parts of the book written from her perspective worked as well as Tom’s, though; they are written in the second person, which always feels a bit strange, I think.

This book is less of a mystery novel than the previous one (A Death at Fountains Abbey); historical thriller is probably a better description. However, we do see Tom keen to put the mystery-solving skills he gained in Yorkshire to good use by establishing a sort of Georgian-style detective agency. Sadly, he becomes too distracted by his own problems to spend much time worrying about other people’s, but maybe this is something that will be returned to in a future book.

I’ve enjoyed all four books in this series, including this one, but I still think The Devil in the Marshalsea was the best. Such a high standard was set with that book, it was always going to be hard for the others to live up to it. They are all entertaining reads, though, and I will look forward to a fifth book and finding out what the future has in store for Tom and his friends.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

City of Dragons by Robin Hobb

This third novel in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles is my favourite of the series so far – although it doesn’t really have a lot of competition, as I was disappointed with the previous two books. If you’re new to Robin Hobb, don’t start with the Rain Wild quartet; they are part of a larger sequence and not only are they not as good as the earlier books, they also fall towards the end of the sequence. You need to begin with the Farseer Trilogy, the Liveship Traders Trilogy and the Tawny Man Trilogy, all of which are excellent!

Anyway, getting back to City of Dragons, it continues the story where the previous novel, Dragon Haven, left off: with our band of stunted, poorly formed dragons and their human keepers within reach of the fabled Elderling city of Kelsingra at last. Separated from the city by the swollen, fast-flowing waters of the Rain Wild River, the group need to make their way across – but only one of the dragons, Heeby, has successfully learned to fly. The magical properties of Kelsingra could restore the dragons to their former glory, but first they need to find a way to get there…

I think the fact that I enjoyed this book more than the first two in the series is mainly due to the wonderful, atmospheric descriptions of Kelsingra. Although most of the dragons and keepers are stranded on the opposite banks of the river, a few of the characters do manage to make trips back and forth to explore the abandoned city. Different characters hope for different things from Kelsingra. Historian Alise Finbok tries to leave the buildings and treasures untouched, determined to make a careful record of everything she finds before word of the discovery begins to spread and traders and scavengers from Bingtown descend upon the city. Rapskal and Thymara, however, part Elderling now themselves, know that Kelsingra is not quite the dead, empty place it may at first appear, and they are able to connect with the memories it holds in a way that Alise cannot:

“Some of the streets she [Thymara] ran through were dark and deserted. But then she would turn a corner and suddenly be confronted by torchlight and merrymakers, a city in the midst of some sort of holiday. She had shrieked the first time, and then she recognized them for what they were. Ghosts and phantoms, Elderling memories stored in the stone of the buildings she passed.”

Although the Kelsingra sections of the book interested me most, the action moves away from the city now and then so that we can catch up with some of the other characters and subplots from earlier in the series: Alise’s estranged husband, Hest, waiting in vain for Sedric to return to Bingtown with dragon parts to cure the invalid Duke of Chalced; Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, who is heading back to Cassarick to claim the keepers’ payment for the expedition; and Malta and Reyn Khuprus, expecting the birth of their first child at any moment. There’s a lot going on in this novel and the way the various storylines begin to converge towards the end sets things up nicely for the fourth and final book, Blood of Dragons, which I hope to read soon.

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (I think we can see why the title is usually shortened) was originally published in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848. It’s the book I was supposed to read for a Classics Club Spin over a year ago, but I struggled to get into it at the time and decided to wait until I was more in the mood for Dickens. And you definitely need to be in the right mood for a book of this length – more than 900 pages in the edition I read! I’ve loved other very long Dickens novels, though, such as the wonderful Our Mutual Friend, so I hoped I would end up loving this one too. Unfortunately I didn’t, but I did still find a lot to enjoy.

The Dombey of the title is the wealthy owner of a shipping company who dreams of having a son and heir who will be able to continue the family business. Dombey gets his wish early in the novel when his wife gives birth to a son, Paul. However, she dies shortly after the birth, leaving Paul to become the sole focus of his father’s attention – even though Dombey already has a six-year-old daughter, Florence. Florence loves her father and does her best to please him, but no matter how hard she tries, it’s obvious that all of Dombey’s hopes and ambitions lie with Paul and that Florence is just a useless girl and an inconvenience.

Whether or not the proud and arrogant Dombey will ever come to love and value his daughter as she deserves is the question at the heart of the novel, but as you would expect from Dickens, there are also plenty of diversions and subplots and lots of larger than life characters to get to know. Of these, my favourites were Captain Cuttle, the kind-hearted retired sea captain with a hook for a hand, and Susan Nipper, Florence’s loyal nurse and one of the few people who will stand up to Dombey for his neglect of his daughter. There’s a great villain too: James Carker, the scheming manager of Dombey and Son, with gleaming white teeth and a devious brain. There are too many others I could have done without, though – mainly the ones who seem to be there purely for their comedy value, such as Major Bagstock, Sir Barnet Skettles and Cousin Feenix, without actually adding much to the central plot.

Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his treatment of female characters (I think Dora in David Copperfield is his worst), but the women in this book are well-drawn and interesting. Yes, Florence can be too good to be true at times, but her father’s rejection of her is so cruel and hurtful that it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her. Her stepmother, Edith Dombey, though, is one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across in a Dickens novel: a woman filled with self-loathing after being pushed into marriage by her mother, who then decides to take her fate into her own hands.

Although I really enjoyed parts of this book, other sections dragged and I’m afraid I can’t list it amongst my favourite novels by Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby is the next one I’m planning to read, so I’m hoping for better luck with that one.

This is book 17/50 read from my second Classics Club list.