Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

I love Rafael Sabatini’s books. His classic tale of the French Revolution, Scaramouche, and his two famous pirate novels, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, have been some of my favourite reads of the last few years, while Bellarion was a great book too. I’m now beginning to explore his more obscure books and chose this one, Bardelys the Magnificent, more or less at random when I was putting my Classics Club list together. I hoped it would be a good choice – and it was!

The story is set in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIII, and is narrated by the wealthy Marquis de Bardelys, a ‘libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift’ and a favourite of the King. As the novel opens, Bardelys is hosting a party in Paris at which his rival, the Comte de Chatellerault, makes an unwelcome appearance. It is well known that Chatellerault has recently tried and failed to win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan and as Bardelys and his friends tease the Comte about his failure, the discussion becomes more heated. Before the night is over, Bardelys finds himself wagering his entire fortune that he can succeed where Chatellerault could not – and he sets off the next day for Languedoc, the home of Roxalanne.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and following a series of misunderstandings, Bardelys arrives at the Lavedan estate under a mistaken identity. When he meets Roxalanne and discovers that he is genuinely falling in love with her, he knows that he should tell her the truth about who he really is, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to do this. To complicate things further, Bardelys learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a wanted traitor. Our hero’s life quickly becomes such a confusing mess that it’s difficult to see how anything can ever be resolved! Will he lose his fortune, his life, or the love of Roxalanne – or will he somehow manage to keep all three?

Bardelys the Magnificent is one of Sabatini’s earliest novels, published in 1906, and although I did find it weaker than the others I’ve mentioned above, it’s another entertaining adventure with all the drama, romance, political intrigue and sword fights that you would expect. As a character, I found Marcel de Bardelys less memorable than other Sabatini protagonists such as Andre-Louis Moreau, Peter Blood and Oliver Tressilian, but he is still interesting and engaging. I referred to him as a hero above, but he is not particularly heroic at all – he is selfish and irresponsible, he makes one mistake after another, and his original reason for wanting to marry Roxalanne is hardly very admirable. Despite all of this, I still had some sympathy for him and wanted him to succeed – and, thankfully, he does also develop as a character as the novel progresses. While concealing his true identity, he finds out what people really think of him and sees himself as he appears to others.

Although I wouldn’t recommend Bardelys as the best place to start with Sabatini, if you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy this early example of his work as much as I did. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his lesser-known novels and hope my next choice will be another good one.

This is book 11/50 from my Classics Club list.

The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr

2018 has been an eventful year in many ways and in November we marked the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I picked up Deborah Carr’s new novel, The Poppy Field, to read over the centenary weekend, but I’ve since fallen behind with my reviews, which is why I’m only posting about it now.

The Poppy Field has two narratives, one set in 2018 and the other in 1916-18. First, in the present day, we meet Gemma, a British trauma nurse who has taken some time away from her stressful job to work on the renovation of a farmhouse in Doullens, in Northern France. Her father has recently inherited it and wants to get it into a good enough condition to be able to sell. With the help of Tom, a man she meets in Doullens who offers to assist with the building work, Gemma begins the long and difficult task of restoring the house to its former beauty. During the refurbishment, they discover a bundle of old letters dating back to World War I, written by an Alice Le Breton, and as soon as Gemma settles down to start reading them, she becomes obsessed with finding out how Alice’s story will end.

The other thread of the novel follows Alice, a young woman from Jersey in the Channel Islands, who volunteers as a VAD nurse at a casualty clearing station near Doullens during the war. Working conditions at the station are challenging and often horrifying, as wounded soldiers are brought in from the front line and the doctors and nurses do their best to save lives with the limited medication and equipment available to them. In the midst of so much pain and suffering, Alice is still able to find some happiness when she falls in love with one of her patients – but in times of war life is uncertain and Alice knows that her dreams could be shattered in an instant.

Although Alice and Gemma are very different people, there are many parallels between their stories – they are both nurses, they have both reached important turning points in their lives, and they have both found themselves in the same part of France. They also each become involved in a romance, but while I found Alice’s very moving (as wartime romances usually are), I thought Gemma’s was less convincing and very predictable. She meets the man who will become her love interest almost as soon as she arrives in France and there’s no real suspense involved in wondering whether they will end up together or not. Gemma’s whole storyline felt like little more than a frame for Alice’s, but I find that’s often the case with dual-time period novels and I almost always prefer one narrative over the other.

Although I’d hoped for more from this book, I did still enjoy it, particularly the historical sections and the details of Alice’s nursing work. The two separate threads of the story tie together nicely towards the end and the novel as a whole is an interesting and poignant read.

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

Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

This is the second in Allan Massie’s four-book crime series set in occupied France during the Second World War. My review is as spoiler-free as I could make it, so it should be safe to read on even if you’re new to the series, but I would definitely recommend beginning with the first book, Death in Bordeaux, as there are lots of recurring characters and some storylines which continue from book to book.

In Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we re-join Superintendent Jean Lannes of the Bordeaux Police as he is called out to deal with another crime – this time involving the murder of an elderly man, whose body has been found in a city park. As Lannes learns more about the man and how he died, some political implications begin to emerge, as well as some surprising links to the murders committed in the previous novel. Lannes comes under pressure from his superiors who want the investigations brought to a close as quickly as possible, but he is not ready to drop the case just yet – not until he finds out what is really going on here.

Investigating a murder is never going to be easy or pleasant at the best of times, but it is particularly challenging for Lannes because of the political situation in France, where the demands and concerns of the Vichy secret services, the German occupiers and the French Resistance all have to be taken into consideration. As a decent, principled person Lannes often finds himself torn between his conscience telling him to do what he knows is right and see justice done, and his common sense telling him to do as he is told and keep his family safe.

As if the stress of his job was not enough, Lannes is also worried about all three of his children, for different reasons. His eldest son, Dominique, is making plans to go and work for the Vichy regime, while Alain, whose views are rather different, wants to join Charles de Gaulle and the Free French. Meanwhile, his daughter, Clothilde, announces that she is in love with the young German officer who is stationed in their apartment block. Lannes is not very happy about any of this, but only because he is looking ahead to a time when (he hopes) the war will be over and a wrong decision taken now could have disastrous consequences. His wife, Marguerite, has her own opinions and this is causing tension in her marriage to Lannes.

As well as Lannes and his family, we also catch up with other characters from the previous book, including one of my favourite characters – Leon, the nephew of Lannes’ friend Miriam. Leon is in a particularly interesting – and dangerous – position in Vichy France, being both Jewish and gay, and this makes him a target of blackmailers and others who want to take advantage of him for their own ends. It seems that, in Bordeaux, the war is bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. It’s a fascinating setting, even more so because I have read so little about life in France during the Occupation.

I haven’t said much about the mystery aspect of this novel, but that’s because I found it almost secondary to the setting and the characters. The murder of the man in the park is important and ties all the other threads of the story together, but I was much less interested in finding out who killed him than I was in reading about Leon’s ordeals or Alain’s support for the Resistance. I found this a more enjoyable book than the first one, probably because I already knew the characters and was invested in what happened to them. I’m looking forward to continuing with the third book, Cold Winter in Bordeaux.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery).

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).

By Sword and Storm by Margaret Skea

This is the third novel in Margaret Skea’s Munro Scottish Saga set in 16th century Scotland and France and based on the history of a clan feud known as the Ayrshire Vendetta. I haven’t read the first two, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this third book.

The novel opens in 1598 with Adam Munro, a colonel in the Scots Gardes, living in France with his wife Kate, who has skills as a healer, and their three children, Robbie, Maggie and Ellie. One of the functions of Adam’s regiment is to provide protection to Henri IV of France and when Adam saves the king’s life while risking his own in the process, the Munro family are rewarded with an invitation to come and live at the French court.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the feud between the Cunninghames and Montgomeries is supposedly at an end and the Scottish king, James VI, has banned unauthorised duelling. Most of the family members are trying to keep the peace, but two of them – Hugh Montgomerie and William Cunninghame – are still not prepared to let things rest. The Scottish storyline and the French one alternate throughout the book, eventually coming together as the novel heads towards its conclusion.

By Sword and Storm is a mixture of fact and fiction; many of the characters are real historical figures while others come from the author’s imagination – if you want to know who really existed and who didn’t, there’s a character list at the beginning of the book. Apart from the storylines involving the fictional characters, the novel is grounded in historical fact and has obviously been well researched. I loved the portrayal of life at the court of France, where Kate gets to know the king’s mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, and I sympathised with Maggie, who longs to study medicine and despite being given opportunities in France that would not have been open to her in Scotland, still faces obstacles because of her sex.

The political and religious situation in France at that time also plays a part in the story. At the beginning of the novel we see Henri IV issuing the Edict of Nantes, bringing the French Wars of Religion to an end and giving the Huguenots more freedom. However, it is still not safe for people in Paris to worship as they wish, as Kate and Adam’s son, Robbie, discovers when he becomes romantically involved with a Huguenot girl. I think Margaret Skea does a good job of showing the many dangers of 16th century life, not only where religion was concerned, but also for pregnant women before and during childbirth, patients with the sort of illness or injury that could be easily treated today, and anyone who had to travel by ship. It’s a period I love to read about but would not have liked to have lived through!

I really enjoyed By Sword and Storm. I liked the characters and even though I hadn’t been with them from the beginning, I found it easy enough to jump into their story and follow what was happening. Although this was meant to be the third in a trilogy, at the end of the novel I felt that there was still scope for more, so I was pleased to find that Margaret Skea has said she may return to this story again in the future.

Thanks to the publisher Corazon Books for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Lady Agnès Mystery Volume 1 by Andrea Japp – #WITMonth

I hadn’t made any plans for taking part in Women in Translation Month, but when I came across this book which had almost disappeared into the black hole of my Kindle, I decided to join in. Andrea Japp is a French crime novelist and this, the first volume of her Lady Agnès Mystery (originally published in 2006), has been translated into English by Lorenza Garcia. Japp herself is also a translator and produced the French translations of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels, which I think makes her a perfect choice for Women in Translation.

There are actually two books included in this volume – The Season of the Beast and The Breath of the Rose – but they do not stand alone and although they can be bought separately, there is not much point in reading one without the other. Together, the two books tell the story of Lady Agnès de Souarcy, a young widow living in 14th century France with her eleven-year-old daughter Mathilde and ten-year-old Clément, a servant’s child whom she has raised as her own son. Left with only a small dowry to live on, Agnès is struggling financially and reliant on the support of her half-brother, Eudes de Larnay. Unfortunately she and Eudes have always had a difficult relationship and when Inquisitors arrive in the area to hunt down heretics, Eudes sees this as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of his troublesome sister.

Agnès may have some powerful enemies but, unknown to her, she also has some powerful friends who are prepared to do everything they can to protect her from the horrors of the Inquisition. But is there any connection with the murders that have been carried out on Agnès’s land – dead bodies which have been discovered with the letter A marked on the ground beside them – and with the poisoning of several nuns at nearby Clairets Abbey? It seems that all of these things must be linked..but how?

The Lady Agnès Mystery is a book with many layers. First, there’s the richness of the historical setting. Set in the Perche region of France in 1304, the story takes places at a time of religious conflict and of power struggles between King Philip IV the Fair, his various advisers and their rivals, and the two religious orders, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. We meet characters who belong to each of these groups and are given a range of different views and perspectives. It’s exactly the same period of history as I’ve previously read about in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series and I loved revisiting it here. If you’re not familiar with this period, though, it shouldn’t be a problem; everything you need to know to understand the story is clearly explained in the text – and if you do want to know more, there are several appendices at the back of the book which provide definitions, explanations and brief biographies of historical figures.

This is not a dry, heavy read, though. There’s always something happening – a clandestine meeting in a dark tavern, a coded message being deciphered or a hidden room being explored, not to mention the vivid scenes depicting Agnès’s ordeals at the hands of the Inquisitors. My favourite aspect of the book was the mystery surrounding the deaths of the nuns…I particularly enjoyed watching the apothecary nun Sister Annelette using her knowledge of plants and herbs to try to catch the murderer.

So far so good. However, there is another storyline involving the Knights Templar, a secret prophecy and a missing manuscript which didn’t really interest me at all. I thought there was already enough going on with Agnès’s personal story and the murder mystery…and I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to read this sort of storyline without making comparisons with The Da Vinci Code.

Volume 1 ends, not on a cliffhanger exactly, but with some of the many plot threads still unresolved. I would like to know what happens next to Lady Agnès and her family, and I would love to see more of the nuns of Clairets Abbey, but I have a feeling Volume 2 will be dominated by the prophecy storyline. Will I read it? At the moment I don’t think so, but I could change my mind.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (re-read)

When I joined the Classics Club in 2012 and put together the list of books I wanted to read, I decided that, whichever order I read the others in, I would save my re-read of The Count of Monte Cristo until last. It’s one of my favourite books (I had already read it twice) and I thought it would be something to look forward to, even if some of the other classics on my list turned out to be disappointing.

Picking it up to start reading for the third time, I did have a few doubts – there’s always a chance that a book you once loved might have lost its magic – but of course I needn’t have worried. The opening line (“On the 24th of February 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples”) is hardly the most scintillating or memorable in literature but reading it, knowing what is to come, gives me the same feeling as when I re-read the first line of other favourite books, such as Rebecca (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), Jane Eyre (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day”) or Watership Down (“The primroses were over”).

Anyway, back to The Count of Monte Cristo! Our hero, or anti-hero (he can be considered to be both), is Edmond Dantès, a young sailor who, at the beginning of the novel, feels that he is the luckiest man in the world. Not only is his marriage to the beautiful Mercédès approaching, but following the death of his captain, he is also about to be given a ship to command. Things couldn’t be better…until the day of his wedding, when he is arrested on suspicion of conspiring against the king with the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course, Edmond has done nothing of the sort – it is all part of a plot by his jealous shipmate, Danglars, and his rival for Mercédès’ love, Fernand Mondego.

A third man, Villefort, has reasons of his own for wanting Dantès imprisoned and safely out of the way, so with these three enemies ranged against him, Edmond is thrown into a dungeon in the Château d’If where he remains for the next fourteen years. Although he does eventually find a way to escape, his life has been ruined: all of his hopes and dreams have been destroyed, Mercédès is lost to him and he can never get back the years of his youth that have been stolen from him. Vowing to punish his enemies for what they have done, Edmond transforms himself into the Count of Monte Cristo and launches an intricate and carefully planned system of revenge.

The events I have described above take up only a relatively small section of the novel; most of the book is devoted to following the Count as he sets his plans into action. It takes a long time before he begins to see results, but if there is one thing he has learned in prison it is how to be patient – and so he is prepared to spend years devising the perfect methods of revenge. This means the reader is faced with a series of seemingly unrelated subplots and a huge cast of characters; it can be quite overwhelming on a first read, but when you’re reading for the second or third time you can appreciate how things that appear to be irrelevant actually have great significance. This time round, without the same urgency to turn the pages to ‘see what happens next’, I was able to read at a slower pace and enjoy some of the episodes I had previously seen as unnecessarily long digressions, such as Franz and Albert’s adventures in Rome, La Carconte and the diamond ring, and the story of the bandit Luigi Vampa.

Does the Count achieve his aims – and is he happy with the final outcome? I’m not going to tell you (and if you haven’t read the book I’m sure you don’t want me to) but I will say that he does have some doubts along the way, particularly when he discovers that innocent people he never intended to hurt have also become caught up in his web of revenge. “What a fool I was,” said he, “not to tear my heart out on the day I resolved to avenge myself”. I always find it sad to see how he has changed as a result of his imprisonment – when we first meet him again after his escape from the Château d’If, the lively, optimistic young man has disappeared, to be replaced by someone much more cynical and bitter – but towards the end of the book there are signs that the old Edmond is still there, beneath the surface. Most people think of this as a revenge novel, which it certainly is, but we should remember that the Count also takes care to help and reward the friends who stayed loyal to him throughout everything.

Although The Count of Monte Cristo was published around the same time as Dumas’ d’Artagnan series, I think this is a much more mature novel, dealing with serious issues and raising some thought-provoking questions. There are moments of reflection and philosophy like this:

“The friends that we have lost do not repose in the bosom of the earth, but are buried deep in our hearts, and it has been thus ordained that we may always be accompanied by them.”

And this:

“It is the way of weakened minds to see everything through a black cloud. The soul forms its own horizons; your soul is darkened, and consequently the sky of the future appears stormy and unpromising.”

And this:

“Joy to hearts which have suffered long is like the dew on the ground after a long drought; both the heart and the ground absorb that beneficent moisture falling on them, and nothing is outwardly apparent.”

The novel takes the reader through a range of emotions, from anger to pity to frustration to sadness (some of Edmond’s scenes with a certain other character always bring tears to my eyes, thinking of everything he has lost and can never regain). As always with Dumas, though, you can expect an exciting and entertaining read, so there are also murders, poisonings, court cases and duels, thefts, anonymous letters, illegitimate children and searches for buried treasure. Not everything that happens feels entirely realistic and you do need to suspend disbelief now and then, but I don’t mind that when a book is so enjoyable to read.

I haven’t said very much about the other characters in the book (and apart from Edmond Dantès himself, whom I have always found fascinating and complex), I have to admit that most of them don’t have a lot of depth. There are two, however, that I do particularly love. The first is the Abbé Faria, a fellow prisoner of Edmond’s in the Château d’If, an extraordinary man who acts as inspiration, adviser and teacher to Edmond and without whom he would have lost the will to live. The other is Monsieur Noirtier, an elderly man who has been left unable to walk and talk, but who devises an unusual form of communication and forms a special bond with his granddaughter, Valentine.

There is so much more I would like to say about this wonderful book, but I would have to give spoiler warnings, and I think this post is long enough now anyway! I will leave you to read The Count of Monte Cristo for yourself, if you haven’t already. I know the length of the book can seem off-putting, but I wouldn’t recommend reading an abridged edition as the story is so complex I think you would be missing out on a lot.

This is book 100/100 read for the Classics Club, which means I have now completed my list! I’ll be posting a summary of my Classics Club experience soon.