Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review: The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien

One marriage.  Three people.  Proud king.  Loving wife.  Infamous mistress.  1362.  Philippa of Hainault selects a young orphan from a convent. Alice Perrers, a girl born with nothing but ambition. The Queen has a role waiting for her at court. 

‘I have lifted you from nothing Alice. Now you repay me.’ 

Led down the corridors of the royal palace, the young virgin is secretly delivered to King Edward III – to perform the wifely duties of which ailing Philippa is no longer capable.  Power has a price, and Alice Perrers will pay it. 

Mistress to the King.  Confidante of the Queen.  Whore to the court. Her fate is double edged; loved by the majesties, ostracised by her peers. Alice must balance her future with care as her star begins to rise – the despised concubine is not untouchable. 

Politics and pillow talk are dangerous bedfellows.  The fading great King wants her in his bed. Her enemies want her banished.  One mistake and Alice will face a threat worse than any malicious whispers of the past.

Synopsis courtesy of amazon.co.uk

My Review

4.5 Stars

Infamous mistress Alice Perrers is best known for being the long-time lover of England's King Edward III.  Reviled by her contemporaries for being too ambitious and over-stepping her station, history has not been kind to Alice.  Despite her notorious reputation, little is actually known about Alice's life, or about how she managed to catch and keep the eye of a king.

In The King's Concubine, historical novelist Anne O'Brien vividly brings Alice Perrers and the era in which she lived to life.  Rather than being portrayed as a manipulative, power-hungry schemer,  O'Brien's Alice Perrers is a fiercely loyal, able and determined young woman who puts the needs of her monarchs above her own, even if her reputation could suffer for it.  Although I'm not usually a fan of first-person narratives, the use of Alice as narrator of her own tale works brilliantly for The King's Concubine.  This choice of narrative technique enables the reader to really come to know Alice and understand the reasons behind the choices she made.  Through Alice's eyes the reader sees how Queen Philippa, stricken with illness, struggles to come to terms with both her physical condition and her decision to purposely place Alice in the path of the king.  Throughout the novel the reader is able to witness firsthand the gradual physical and mental decline of the once great King Edward III, a man whose later years were marked not only by the loss of his beloved wife, but by the illness and eventual death of his son and heir, Edward the Black Prince, and the significant loss of English territories in France.  While always considerate of her own future, the Alice Perrers of this novel consistently demonstrates her willingness to protect the king during his decline and, though surrounded by enemies, she stays devoted to the him until his death. 

In addition to O'Brien's wonderfully sympathetic characterization of Alice, what makes this novel such a worthwhile read is that this fictionalized account of Alice's life comes across as entirely plausible.   While it is likely that we'll never know who the real Alice Perrers was, I would like to believe that her true character is consistent with her portrayal in this novel. 

I highly recommend The King's Concubine to fans of historical fiction, especially those interested in reading about the medieval period and those who enjoy books with strong female protagonists.

Note: The book comes from my own personal collection.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review: Never Tell by Alafair Burke

Sixteen-year-old Julia Whitmire appeared to have everything: a famous father, a luxurious Manhattan townhouse, a coveted spot at the elite Casden prep school. When she is found dead in her bathtub, a handwritten suicide note left on her bed, her parents insists that their daughter would never take her own life.

But Julia's enviable world was more complicated than it seemed. The pressure to excel at Casden was enormous. Abuse of prescription anti-depressants and ADHD medication ran rampant among students; an unlabeled bottle of pills in Julia's purse suggests she had succumbed to the trend. And a search of Julia's computer reveals that in the days leading up to her death, she was engaged in a dangerous game of cyber-bullying against an unlikely victim.

NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher is convinced the case is a suicide, but she knows from personal experience that a loving family can be the last to accept the truth. When the Whitmire's use their power to force a criminal investigation, Ellie's resistance causes trouble for her both at work and in her personal life.

As she is pressured to pursue a case she doesn't believe in, she is pulled into Julia's inner circle-an eclectic mix of overly precocious teenagers from Manhattan's most privileged families as well as street kids she met in Greenwich Village. But when the target of Julia's harassment continues to receive death threats, Ellie is forced to acknowledge that Julia may have learned the hard way that some secrets should never be told.

Synopsis courtesy of Alafairburke.com

My Review

4 Stars

In Never Tell, the latest release from crime novelist Alafair Burke, NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher is called upon to investigate the possible suicide of a sixteen year-old girl.   Although there is no evidence of foul play, the girl's mother is adamant that her daughter would never take her own life.  While Ellie believes the case to be a simple one, she and her partner Rogan are compelled by the NYPD brass to investigate further.  As Ellie delves deeper into the privileged life of the victim and her circle of friends, she soon realizes that not everything about this case is as straightforward as it seems.   Is this case a suicide as initially thought, or is it something else?

While Never Tell is the fourth installment in Burke's Ellie Hatcher series, it is the first Burke novel I've had the pleasure of reading.  I was impressed not only by the strength of Burke's writing, but also with the development of the novel's characters and plot.   Never Tell is a smart thriller, one in which the investigation at the centre of the plot moves logically and plausibly.   Furthermore, the ultimate resolution to the investigation is not obvious, leaving the reader guessing until the final pages.  Although I don't generally read books in a series out of order, at no point in this novel did I feel my understanding of Ellie's back story to be hampered by the fact I haven't yet read the earlier Ellie Hatcher books.  As such, even though the novel is part of a series, it can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone.  

If you enjoy the mystery/crime genre and haven't yet given Alafair Burke's novels a try, I recommend you do so.  In fact, I enjoyed this novel so much that I've already bought the other three books in the series.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review for TLC book tours.  

Never Tell is currently on tour.  Click here to view the tour schedule. 

About Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is the bestselling author of seven novels, including the stand-alone thriller, Long Gone, and the Ellie Hatcher series which includes 212, Angel’s Tip, and Dead Connection. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan.

Be sure to check out the results of the 2012 Duffer Awards, which are hosted by Alafair and can be found at the following link: http://alafairburke.com/2012-duffer-award-achive/

Monday, July 9, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Just Had to Buy...But Are Still Sitting on My Shelf

It's time for Top Ten Tuesdays, a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and Bookish that features a different book/reading theme each week.   This week's topic is a freebie, so I've decided to go with

Books I Just Had to Buy...But Are Still Sitting on My Shelf

This list wasn't difficult for me to put together, since my huge to be read pile is a testament to the fact that I buy books much faster than I can possibly read them :-) 

(1) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.   I love the fantasy genre and this novel gets great reviews.  While this book has been sitting on my shelf since shortly after its release in 2007, I still haven't read it. 

(2) Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones.  Billed as a Pillars of the Earth-type work of historical fiction, I had to have this one simply because Pillars is one of my favourite novels.  

(3) Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simmonson.   I bought this one immediately after its 2010 release, telling my shelf I'd read immediately.  Obviously, I didn't.

(4) War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Richard Peaver/Larissa Volokhonsky translation).   This is one of those books I've always wanted to read but continue to avoid.    I received a copy of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation for Christmas a few years back and convinced myself it was time to give it a go.   It's still waiting on my shelf....

(5) Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.   I bought all three books in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle upon each of their releases.   The three novels that make up this series have to be among the oldest on my to be read pile.   I have no idea when I'll get to them...but get to them I will. 

(6) The Passage by Justin Cronin.  When this book was first released I wasn't sure that it would interest me, but after reading positive reviews from trusted reading friends I decided I just had to try it for myself.   That was last year and I still haven't read it. 

(7) The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.   I loved Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind so when I found out about this novel I ordered a copy right away.    Unfortunately, this one hasn't received the positive reviews Shadow did so I continue to put off reading it. 

(8) The Taker by Alma Katsu.  I was encouraged to purchase this novel based on all the positive hype surrounding its release, and couldn't wait for it to arrive in my mailbox.  While I keep telling myself it's high time I cracked it open I still have yet to do so. 

(9) Divergent by Veronica Roth.  This book is recommended to fans of The Hunger Games trilogy.  As soon as I read this I knew I had to have this book.   I do plan to read it this year. 

(10) Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.  I couldn't ignore the positive reviews for this book, especially those by trusted reading friends, so I bought it.   I'll get to it one of these days....

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: The Stolen Crown by Susan Higginbotham

When six-year-old Kate Woodville’s beautiful sister Elizabeth makes a shocking—and secret—marriage to King Edward IV in 1464, Kate and her large family are whisked to the king’s court. Soon a bedazzled Kate becomes one of the greatest ladies in the land when she marries young Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. But Kate’s fairy-tale existence as a duchess is shattered when the ongoing conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York engulfs the Woodville family.

As Edward IV fights to keep his crown, Harry’s relatives become hopelessly divided between Lancaster and York. Forced constantly to struggle with his own allegiances, Harry faces his defining moment when his dear friend Richard, Duke of Gloucester, determines to seize the throne for himself as Richard III. With lives in jeopardy and nothing less than a dynasty at stake, Harry’s loyalties—and his conscience—will be put to the ultimate test.

Synopsis courtesy of SusanHigginbotham.com

My Review

4 Stars

Set at the end of the Wars of the Roses and spanning the reigns of Kings Edward IV and Richard III, The Stolen Crown brings to life a tumultuous period in English history from the perspectives of two of the people who witnessed many of its defining moments first hand - Katherine Woodville, younger sister of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV's Queen, and Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, one of England's preeminent noblemen.   When her sister marries the king, Kate goes from being the mere daughter of a knight to the sister-in-law of the king, a situation that greatly improves her marital prospects.   As a result, it is not long before Kate is married to the young Duke of Buckingham, a ward of the Queen's whose family has ties to the Lancasters.  Although married very young, Kate and Harry's union is a successful and, despite a somewhat rocky start, loving one.  When Edward IV suddenly dies, leaving a young son as his heir, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, takes the governing of England into his own hands and names himself king.  When Harry, who has idolized the Richard since childhood, joins Richard's cause, it tears his relationship with Kate apart.  In the end, Kate must fight not only to save her marriage, but also to help bring down the man who stole the crown from her nephew.

Higginbotham's attention to historical detail is one of the greatest strengths of The Stolen Crown.   As a result, the reader is immersed in a novel that gives a great sense of both time and place, two elements very important to the success of a work of historical fiction.  Higginbotham's attention to historical detail is complemented by her well-drawn characters.  I particularly enjoyed the development of both Kate and Harry, not only as individuals but also as a couple.  Elizabeth Woodville, who is often vilified in fiction, comes across in a positive light and I liked how Higginbotham chose to portray her.   I also enjoyed her characterization of the formidable Margaret Beaufort, whose appearances in the novel are brief but memorable.   The only issue I have with The Stolen Crown lies with Higginbotham's depiction of Richard III.  While there is much debate over Richard's character, his rise to the throne and the fate of the princes in the tower (Edward IV's sons), my views of the much maligned monarch do not mesh with how he is characterized in this novel.  As such, I was a little put off by his portrayal, at least in the second half of the book, as nothing but a power hungry tyrant willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his own ends.  Although I take issue with Higginbotham's portrayal of Richard III, this fact did not diminish my enjoyment of the novel.   Higginbotham's excellent Author's Note presents the case for her portrayal of all the characters featured in the book.    

Overall, The Stolen Crown is a great novel and is highly recommended to fans of historical fiction, especially those set in England. 

Note: The novel comes from my own personal collection.