Catching up: Three mini-reviews

I always try to finish reviewing the current year’s reads before the new year begins (although I don’t always manage it), so today I’m catching up by posting some brief thoughts on three books read in November and December.

I added None But Elizabeth to my TBR a few years ago after reading Rhoda Edwards’ two novels about Richard III, Some Touch of Pity and Fortune’s Wheel, both of which I enjoyed. This one, first published in 1982, is a fictional retelling of the life of Elizabeth I. The book is written in a straightforward, linear style as we follow Elizabeth from childhood to old age.

There are some things Edwards does very well – the depiction of Elizabeth’s feelings for Robert Dudley, the man she loves but never marries; Elizabeth’s internal conflict over how to deal with the threat of Mary, Queen of Scots; the symbolism used to mark the passing of time; the way in which Elizabethan poetry is woven into the text – but as someone who has read about Elizabeth many times before, there was nothing new or different here. I would recommend reading Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess or Margaret George’s Elizabeth I rather than this one.

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow is a multiple time period novel in which our present day narrator, an aspiring interior designer, finds a beautiful quilt in her mother’s attic with a message embroidered into the lining. She sets out to learn more about the quilt and discovers a connection with a young woman called Maria who spent most of her life in a mental hospital claiming to be a former lover of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII). As Maria’s story unfolds, in the form of taped interviews recorded by a student in the 1970s, we find out whether she was telling the truth and, if so, what secrets are hidden in the quilt’s design.

I wasn’t expecting too much from this book, but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would – and for once, I found the modern day storyline as compelling as the historical one. On one level it’s almost a mystery novel, with the narrator hunting for clues to the quilt’s origins, tracking down people who may have known Maria and piecing fragments of information together to try to discover the truth. However, it also provides some insights into social issues such as living conditions in mental institutions, psychiatric treatment in the early 20th century and the later policy of ‘care in the community’. Some parts of the story were too predictable, but it was an interesting read overall and I will probably look for more of Liz Trenow’s books.

A Princely Knave was the oldest remaining book on my NetGalley shelf (from 2016, I’m ashamed to say). After receiving a copy, I read some negative reviews that put me off it, but in November I finally decided to give it a try. The book was originally published in 1956 as They Have Their Dreams and tells the story of Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne. Warbeck claimed to be Richard of York, one of the two ‘Princes in the Tower’ – the sons of Edward IV who disappeared from the Tower of London, believed to have been murdered. The novel begins with Warbeck landing in Cornwall in 1497, hoping to lead an army to overthrow Henry VII and take his place on the throne.

Philip Lindsay uses flowery and often antiquated language, a style which was common in older historical novels but feels very dated today. However, I’ve read one or two of his other books so was prepared for this. The biggest problem I had with this particular book was that, apart from Warbeck himself, the characters feel underdeveloped – the group of men who accompany Warbeck in his rebellion are almost indistinguishable and the only significant female character, Warbeck’s wife Katherine Gordon, also lacks depth. Lindsay does explore some fascinating ideas, though; for example, he suggests that even Warbeck himself doesn’t know who he really is – having been told by some that he has royal blood and by others that he is the son of Flemish merchants, he has become unsure of his real identity. I thought it was worth reading, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re as interested in this period as I am.

The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien

With a title like The Royal Game, you might expect this novel to be about a king or a queen; in fact, it’s the story of the Pastons, who rose from humble origins to become members of the aristocracy and one of Norfolk’s most influential families during the 15th century. Their collection of personal letters, known as the Paston Letters, is the largest archive of private correspondence surviving from the period and tells us a lot about life in England at that time.

The Pastons’ story is retold by Anne O’Brien in fictional form, using the letters as a guide. She has chosen to focus on three characters in particular: Margaret Mautby Paston, wife of John Paston, who becomes head of the family after the death of his father; John’s sister Elizabeth (known as Eliza); and Anne Haute, a cousin of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. There are chapters written from the perspectives of each of these women, mainly Margaret and Eliza at first, with Anne only introduced halfway through and becoming more prominent towards the end of the book.

During the period covered in the novel, the Wars of the Roses are playing out in the background as the House of Lancaster and the House of York fight for control of England’s throne. The Pastons are an ambitious family who see the changing political situation in terms of what it will mean for them and how they can turn things to their own advantage in order to increase their wealth and power. This means that much of the story is concerned with the gaining and losing of properties and land, disputes over wills and controversies surrounding inheritances. In particular, estates left to John Paston by his patron Sir John Fastolf (the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff), become the subject of a long legal battle.

I liked this book much more than Anne O’Brien’s previous one, The Queen’s Rival, partly because this one is written in a more straightforward format – although with the alternating narrators I mentioned above. I felt that the narrative voices of Margaret and Eliza were very similar and sometimes I had to remind myself which one I was reading about, but this was less of a problem as I got further into the book. Margaret is portrayed as a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman working alongside her husband to hold on to the family property, while Eliza is being badly treated by her mother and desperately hoping for marriage as a way of escape. Eventually, both women find themselves with the same focus in life: to protect their children’s titles and inheritances from jealous rivals who are trying to claim them for themselves. Our third narrator, Anne Haute, who is depicted as another young woman with ambition and hopes of an advantageous marriage, seems unconnected to the other two at first, but quickly becomes drawn into the Pastons’ world.

The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite historical periods to read about and it made a nice change to move away from the usual novels set at the royal court or on the battlefields and see what was going on elsewhere in the country at that time. I enjoyed this book but it’s very long and detailed and I was surprised when I reached a cliffhanger ending and discovered that there’s going to be a sequel. I will look out for it, but while I wait maybe this would be a good time to read my copy of Blood & Roses, Helen Castor’s non-fiction book about the Paston family.

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

Book 47/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

This impressive first novel by Annie Garthwaite tells the story of one of the women at the heart of the Wars of the Roses. As a member of the powerful Neville family, wife of Richard, Duke of York and mother to two kings, Edward IV and Richard III, Cecily Neville was a strong and intelligent woman who managed to wield some political influence at a time when it was rare for women to do so. This makes her the ideal subject for a book set during this period – and in fact, there have already been several, such as Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson and The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien.

Beginning in 1431 and ending in 1461, Cecily is set during the reign of Henry VI, whose weakness as king and inability to rule effectively leads to political instability and eventually to war. Cecily’s husband, Richard of York, is one of several noblemen trying to gain control of the king and his kingdom, while Henry’s young queen, Margaret of Anjou, does everything she can to hold on to power and keep the throne safe for her son. I won’t describe the plot of the novel in any more detail here; you may already be familiar with the history and if you’re not, it’s far too complex for me to explain in a few paragraphs! If you read the book, you’ll certainly learn all you need to know.

Cecily, as she is portrayed here, is not a very lovable or endearing person. She is driven by ambition and pushes her husband Richard towards first of all trying to displace Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, as the king’s closest adviser, and then to aim at the throne himself. As a medieval noblewoman, Cecily is obviously limited in what she can actually do – battles, for example, are played out in the background of her story and she only learns the outcome afterwards from other people – but she takes any opportunity she can find to shape the future of her family and her country, whether this means securing advantageous marriages for her children (she had twelve, seven of whom lived past infancy) or writing to Margaret of Anjou to try to get her husband restored to the king’s favour. Richard, in comparison, is portrayed as weaker and less decisive and Cecily, who almost plays the role of Lady Macbeth, becomes frustrated by his lack of ruthlessness.

The book is written in the third person present tense, which is not a favourite style of mine. I sometimes find it distracting and distancing, but in the hands of some authors it works very well and I think Annie Garthwaite does a good job of using it to give the story a feeling of immediacy, while also giving us access to Cecily’s intimate thoughts and feelings. I was often reminded of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – not just because of the writing style, but also because both books feature a complex, flawed protagonist and focus on political intrigue close to the throne. This is not the light and fluffy kind of historical fiction and it does require some concentration, particularly if this period of history is new to you. The only problem, for me, was a slight lack of emotion; Cecily’s story was fascinating, but I never felt very moved by it.

This novel only covers the early stages of the Wars of the Roses, ending with the Battle of Towton in 1461. As Cecily Neville lived until 1495, I hope there is going to be a sequel telling the rest of her story!

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

Book 34/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Last Daughter by Nicola Cornick

I have read several of Nicola Cornick’s time slip novels over the last few years and enjoyed some much more than others, but I think her new one, The Last Daughter, is her best so far. It probably helped that the historical storyline is set during one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, but the modern day narrative interested me too, which isn’t always the case!

Beginning in the present day, we meet Serena Warren, a young woman who is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her twin sister, Caitlin, eleven years earlier – an event so traumatic, she has blocked out all memory of it. Serena is staying with an aunt in California when she receives the news she has been dreading: Caitlin’s body has been found during an archaeological dig close to their grandparents’ old home in Oxfordshire, which stands near the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Determined to uncover the truth, Serena returns to England and finds that once she is back in the place where Caitlin vanished all those years ago, she begins to regain her memories.

In the fifteenth century, our narrator is Anne FitzHugh, a niece of the powerful Earl of Warwick. Anne is only five years old when a marriage is arranged for her with eight-year-old Francis Lovell, a ward of Edward IV. Her new husband grows up to become a close friend and supporter of Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), and he and Anne are drawn into all the conflict and intrigue surrounding Richard’s rise to the throne – including the mystery surrounding the fate of Richard’s two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

These two narratives are linked in a very intriguing way; I can’t say too much as it would risk spoiling the story, but it involves both a ghost story based on the famous legend of the Mistletoe Bride and the theft of a mysterious relic known as the Lovell Lodestar. Although, as with all time slip novels, there are some elements of the supernatural here, I thought everything felt reasonably convincing in the context of the story and all the different threads of the plot tie together perfectly in the end.

I liked both protagonists, Serena and Anne (and I would love to have Serena’s job, researching and arranging ‘bespoke historical tours’). Serena’s story is probably the more complex; not only is she investigating her sister’s disappearance, she is also trying to uncover the secrets of her family history with the help of her grandfather, who is suffering from dementia. I was surprised to see Lizzie Kingdom, a character from Nicola Cornick’s previous book, make an appearance as an old friend of Serena’s, and I was wary of this at first as the book featuring Lizzie, The Forgotten Sister, is my least favourite novel by Cornick. However, Lizzie fits into this particular story very well and as both books are set in Oxfordshire, it’s believable enough that she and Serena could have known each other.

I also enjoyed reading about Anne and Francis Lovell, who are usually just minor characters in the background of Richard III’s story. Their marriage is portrayed as a loving one, despite it being arranged for them as children, but not without its challenges and its ups and downs. The solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is fascinating and certainly not one I’ve come across before, although I can’t say any more about it than that!

I’m looking forward to Nicola Cornick’s next book and hoping it will be as interesting and entertaining as this one!

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

Book 31/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

The Killer of the Princes in the Tower by MJ Trow

The fate of the Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York – remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time. Reportedly last seen in the grounds of the Tower of London in the summer of 1483, the disappearance of the two boys has divided historians ever since. Their uncle, Richard III, is the man most often accused of being responsible for their deaths, while the names of Henry VII and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham have also been suggested as possible culprits. In all three cases there is a logical political motive: to remove rival claimants to the throne. But what if the murder (assuming that it was actually murder) was not politically motivated at all? What if the princes were killed for an entirely different reason, by someone completely unexpected?

MJ Trow’s new book, The Killer of the Princes in the Tower, is subtitled A New Suspect Revealed, and I have to admit, when I first started reading, I was very sceptical about this. The Wars of the Roses and Richard III’s reign in particular is a period of history I’m very interested in and I’ve read a lot of books over the years, both fiction and non-fiction, that deal with the subject of the Princes in the Tower. Could Trow really come up with a ‘new suspect’? Well, yes he does – or at least, one that I can’t remember being suggested in any of the other books I’ve read.

If you have any prior knowledge of the period and the controversy surrounding the princes, it will probably be helpful, but if not Trow does provide plenty of background information, describing the whole sequence of events following the death of the boys’ father, Edward IV, and explaining how Richard III came to take the throne before the young Edward V could be crowned. He spends some time discussing the idea that the princes could have been secretly released from the Tower and not murdered at all – a theory some people believe is supported by the appearance a few years later of a ‘pretender’, Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the younger of the princes, Richard of York – but (sensibly, in my opinion), he doesn’t consider this as a serious possibility. He then looks at all of the potential suspects one by one, presenting the evidence for each one being the murderer and then dismissing it, until only one name is left…

Trow approaches the mystery like a modern day police investigation, believing that no stone should be left unturned and looking for motive, means and opportunity. Beginning with the three most obvious suspects, he moves on to consider their supporters, servants and family members; even Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville, and the princes’ own mother, Elizabeth Woodville, are discussed – because, as Trow says, they would certainly have been interviewed by the police if the boys had disappeared today. He also examines the reliability of the various sources and what we can learn from them.

The revelation of the new suspect did take me by surprise because it’s not someone who would ever have occurred to me. It’s true that this person certainly had the means and the opportunity, but I wasn’t at all convinced about the motive, even though Trow devotes a whole chapter to drawing comparisons with other people throughout history who have killed for similar reasons. Although what Trow suggests is not impossible, I don’t think it’s very likely either and as far as I’m concerned the mystery remains unsolved! Still, it’s good to read a theory that is neither pro-Ricardian nor anti-Ricardian and that looks at the whole subject from a very different angle. I found this book almost as gripping as fiction, so despite not agreeing with the conclusion I still really enjoyed reading it.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

Having read six of Anne O’Brien’s previous novels, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from this one, but I was wrong. It couldn’t be more different! I’m not sure that every aspect of it really worked for me, but it’s nice to see authors trying something new now and then.

The Queen’s Rival is the story of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. As a prominent member of the House of York, Cecily has an important role to play in the Wars of the Roses, yet she is often just a minor character in novels set during this period. Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose is the only other book I’ve read which focuses specifically on Cecily, so I was keen to see how O’Brien would choose to tell her story.

The way O’Brien chooses to tell her story is through a series of letters sent between Cecily and various members of her family, as well as diary entries, prayers, recipes and articles from a (fictitious) newspaper called England’s Chronicle. From Cecily’s perspective we see all of the major events of the Wars of the Roses unfold – the attempts of her husband, the Duke of York, to claim the throne of England for himself; the events that lead to the defeat of Henry VI and to Cecily’s eldest son Edward becoming king; the controversy surrounding Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville; and finally, the end of Edward’s reign and the coronation of Cecily’s youngest son, Richard.

The epistolary format gives the story a feeling of immediacy and intimacy, especially where Cecily is exchanging letters with her sisters Anne and Katherine (both of whom also see their fortunes rise and fall several times throughout the novel). However, as all of the other O’Brien novels I’ve read have been written in ordinary prose, this change in style and structure was completely unexpected and, as I’ve said, not completely to my taste. I particularly disliked the excerpts from the Chronicle, which were written in the gossipy style of a modern tabloid newspaper, but I’m sure Anne O’Brien knew that newspapers in this form didn’t exist in the 15th century, so I do appreciate that it was intended as a bit of fun, as well as a way to provide information that might not otherwise have been available to Cecily.

Still, I did find the book entertaining overall. This is such a fascinating period of history with so much still open to debate, so many mysteries and controversies, that it never fails to interest me – although sadly, the novel ends just as Richard III is coming to the throne, so the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is not explored. Cecily herself comes across as an intelligent, politically astute woman who is loyal to her family, but without being blind to their faults. I did wonder about the title: was she a ‘rival’ to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, or Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen? It could refer to either or both, I think.

Despite this probably being my least favourite Anne O’Brien book so far, I will still look forward to her next novel, The Royal Game, about the 15th century Paston family, which is due to be published later this year.

Book 3/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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.