The King’s Concubine by Anne O’Brien

In this novel, Anne O’Brien undertakes a difficult task – resurrecting one of the most notorious women in British royal history – King Edward III’s mistress, Alice Perrers. She not only gives her a voice, but emotional depth, purpose and places her within the context of both the judgemental court and period. The result is, frankly, stunning.


Not much is known about Alice Perrers, a woman whose humble origins remain shrouded in mystery and yet who nevertheless rose to become one of the most powerful and influential women in the court of King Edward III. Freely called avaricious, “ugly”, a “whore” and a variety of other unflattering names, there’s no doubt that Alice used her position as the king’s concubine to her advantage but, as Warner has made clear in this fictitious account of her life, what other options did she have?

Literate and clearly an astute business woman, Alice becomes a damsel to Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa, by all accounts, a woman beloved by the people, court and, above all, the king. History tells us that even though the king adored his wife, he took Alice as his mistress. Warner seeks to explain the rationale for this in an original and believable fashion.

As Alice’s star rises, she also attracts a great deal of jealousy and resentment. She is a commoner and, worse, she (because, of course, it’s always the woman’s fault) is making a fool of the queen by seducing the king. Aware her status is subject to change with no notice, Alice accumulates property as well as tokens of the king’s affection earning her even more enmity from within the ranks of the nobles – male and female. While the king lives (and, indeed, the queen), she is protected but, as the years pass and, firstly, Philippa dies and the king’s frailty increases and his mortality becomes ever more evident, it’s clear that Alice has to look to her future and that of the four children she bears the king.

Without spoiling it for those who don’t know the little history there is, what Alice does to protect herself and her children is dangerous and the consequences should she get caught, dire. Warner joins the existing dots the contemporary chronicles give us, telling the tale from Alice’s point of view.

Not always likeable, the reader nonetheless grows to understand this pragmatic, strong woman and you cannot help but admire even her poor choices as Alice herself is the first to chide herself for bad decisions and seeks to own them and set them to rights. I found myself championing this thoroughly maligned woman and so appreciate Warner’s take on her story and the unfair epitaphs this resilient, honest and hard-working woman earned.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but liken her to another strong woman of the time – albeit a fictitious one – Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath – also an astute business woman who uses the means available to her – not only marriage and sex, but within those, her other formidable talents, to create a comfortable existence. It was no surprise then to read in Warner’s very brief notes that some historians (I admit, I haven’t found one yet) believe Chaucer’s portrait of the wife was loosely based on Alice. I like to think the feisty wife was an amalgam of a few women of the time, but there’s no doubt, Alice would have been tempting to immortalise in poetry the way history and then men who recorded it denied her anything but a toxic place.

Altogether, this was a fabulous book that allowed a defamed woman, denied her voice and rights in history, a chance to shine – not always in a positive light, but with understanding, compassion, toughness and an awareness of the limitations the times she lived in created. It also points to the fact that though women of the era were largely marginalised and oppressed, there were still those who challenged, overturned and even worked within the patriarchal structures and were thus able to advance, survive and even thrive. I’m thinking specifically here of John of Gaunt’s mistress, Katheryn Swynford – but there are many others just in that period (Margery Kemp, Julian Norwich etc) as well as Alice Perrers – and it’s wonderful to read Herstory as much as it is History.

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The Lost Order by Steve Berry

The Lost Order is the twelfth book in Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series and, once again, we find the former Magellan Billet agent immersed in conspiracies and doing his utmost to save America and those he loves from greedy, power-hungry people.

This instalment features characters we’ve come to know and love, including former President, Danny Daniels, the head of the Magellan Billet and Malone’s friend, Stephanie Nelle as well as the marvellous Cassiopeia Vitt. There’s even a strange historical sect, described as a terrorist organisation, called the Knights of the Golden Circle to either ally with or defeat, depending on whom Malone, Nelle, Daniels of Vitt believes.

There is a map to follow (well, it has to be pieced together first), a key, dysfunctional relationships, betrayal, murder and ambition aplenty. There are tight situations, gun fights, collapsing buildings, dynamite, implausible escapes and some really dumb moves by people who should know better. There are also huge doses of history.

I really appreciate the history and effort that goes into a Berry book. I don’t even mind the predictable and sometimes repetitive action, after all, this is Malone’s schtick. He’d hardly be a super, secret agent if he didn’t haveto shoot himself out of a quandry, have split-second decisions to make and people to kill/rescue. It’s the history and the way that it’s woven into the novels lately that’s becoming a bit hard to take. Well, it’s not exactly woven – and that’s the problem. You seem to get an information dump between a chase sequence or some dramatic revelation that leads to action. While Berry does action very well, the history is often too didactic and, frankly, overdone. His books didn’t always feel that way, but I found The Lost Order a bit too like a lesson in US Constitutional Law and American political history interspersed with some scenes with Malone et al, than a rootin’ tootin’ action thriller like his earlier novels.

Then, there’s the women. While Cassiopeia and Stephanie (who is out of action for a great deal of the book) are drawn quite well, I found the female “villain” of this book very two dimensional and her motivation so vaudevillian, it became improbable. I am all for suspending my disbelief, and I love that Berry takes the reader on a ride where we can, but this woman, Diane, was just too much. Cruella De Ville minus the hounds but on steroids. I couldn’t even accept the man she’d been married to was one of Daniels’ good friends. Daniels is a nice guy and you get the sense Diane’s husband is too – if so, then what on earth was he doing married to that cow? She needed to have even one redeeming quality… she did not.

Likewise, a couple of the male “baddies” (and there’s no other word to really describe them) aren’t fleshed out either. They are just insanely (often literally) committed to a cause and don’t seem to have accepted times have changed. Thus, they will kill whoever to get whatever they want: money, power, or to ensure no-one else has it. They are a bit predictable – they run on one emotion, one idea, and we always know they’re going to kill or be killed…

Fortunately, over all, the book has many ideas and I did enjoy reading about Cotton and crew again.

I just think that next time, I’d like a little more adventure and a little less of a lesson.



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The Firemaker by Peter May

18948710Isn’t it strange how, when you discover an author whose work you adore you immediately reach for anything else they’ve written. But, if you’d picked up a different one to the first you selected, there is a chance you may never have read another they wrote… has that happened to you? Am I making sense? You see, this is what has happened to me with the uber talented writer, Peter May.

Fortunately, the very first book of his I read was The Black House, book one of the marvellous Lewis Trilogy. I followed those three books up with Coffin Road and Entry Island and was stunned by the breadth of this man’s talent, his knack for weaving complex but credible plots, the poetry of his prose and his fascinating characters. Then, I read Extraordinary People, book one in the Enzo series (yet to be reviewed). I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much, but once I accepted it was very different to the others and was sort of a Dan Brown lite, and pure escapism, I managed to go with the flow. Still, I won’t read another in that series. So, I tried to The Firemaker, the first book in what’s known as his China series. And here’s where how I opened this review comes into play.

If this had been the first of Peter May’s books I’d read, I doubt I would ever have picked up another. This was such a disappointment at so many levels. I know it’s an earlier book, and it’s setting is different – and I enjoyed that very much having spent some time in Beijing, but it’s so full of stereotypes, clichés, a tendency to tell instead of showing, and pure didactics, I really struggled. To make matters worse, I simply loathed the lead female character and found most of what she did and said didn’t gel with her life experience, qualifications or the romance that blossomed… who could love this xenophobic silly bitch? The male lead, though full of contradictions, was at least likeable and I wanted to scream at him to run a mile from this intolerant, gabby woman who had no respect for another culture or other people.

The plot is also convoluted and it’s difficult to suspend your disbelief. The basic story (without spoilers) revolves around an American female pathologist, Margaret someone (she’s so awful, I don’t want to remember her) taking up a short-term position at a Chinese university in order to escape a turgid relationship and period in her life. After an inauspicious (and frankly ridiculous) start, she is asked to aid in the investigation of a murder. You see, her speciality is burns victims and it turns out the police have found the badly burnt corpse of a prominent Chinese businessman and government official. When Margaret gets embroiled in not only the investigation but with a rather sinister American figure and the body-count grows, both she and the newly-promoted and popular Inspector Li realise they’ve stumbled into something bigger than they ever imagined, something that raises the stakes and the danger levels high.

The plot sounds great, but it’s encumbered by all the things I mentioned above. Even the romance is squirm-worthy as are the sex scenes. Maybe it’s just me, because other people loved it and May IS a good writer, despite what I’ve said. But, I am SO glad I didn’t read this first, as I would have missed out on the pleasure of his other sublime novels. Needlesstosay, I won’t be reading the rest of this series, even though reviews suggest it gets better…

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Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

19613980The fifth book in the Giordano Bruno series, Conspiracy, has everything we’ve come to love and expect from these fabulous novels by S.J. Parris: an excellent hero, toxic politics, intelligencers trying to outwit, outlast and out survive each other and, of course, the continuous deadly and vexatious issue of the 1500s: religion.

Yet, what I love about this series also left me, in Conspiracy, a little bit irritated at times too. In that, a great deal of the plot was driven not by Bruno’s intellect and ability to read signs and people (as has happened in previous books), but by his propensity in this one to make critical errors and find himself in deep trouble and even outright danger. The good Dr Bruno kept repeating the same mistakes and trusting and/or putting his faith in those everyone except him knew he shouldn’t. Rather than solving dilemmas, he stumbled in and out of them – and then, lo and behold, did the same thing again! This became quite frustrating. However, in terms of the richness of the book and the pleasure gained from reading it, these are small criticisms.

The year is 1585 and Bruno is a reluctant returnee to Paris. The effete Valois, King Henry III is on the throne, his mother, Catherine di Medici rules from behind with an iron fist, controlling her son and his policies and all the while, the ambitious Guise family do what they can to promote rebellion and arouse dissatisfaction with the king and his court. In other words, France is not unlike the England Bruno left behind, something the presence of many English Catholic exiles and spies also makes apparent. Yet, Bruno is not pleased to be back.

Deciding he needs to make peace with Rome if he’s to have a future, Bruno seeks out a priest he knows (who also happens to be a member of the radical Catholic League) in order to beg him to facilitate the reconciliation process. When this priest is found brutally bashed and is only able to utter one last word, “Circe”, to his friend, Bruno, before he dies, suspicion falls on the Italian doctor and the Hugenots.

This being a Bruno story, more deaths follow and though he knows it puts him in danger, Bruno agrees to help the King and the Duke of Guise (who approach him independently and quite dramatically) to track down the murderer. But what if it’s those asking for his help who are guilty?

From dank and stinking prison cells to court masques, monasteries, libraries, boudoirs, the streets of Paris, the Seine, and hotel rooms, Bruno needs to pull out all stops – physical and mental – to solve these murders and before the killer or killers set their sights on him.

Written in its usual fine style, this is a solid addition to the series, even if Bruno’s silly decisions and the repetition of events and consequences did get a tad tiresome. The historical detail is superb and the book ended with a wonderful possibility that will no doubt lead our erstwhile philosopher down more fantastical and dangerous paths.

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Book Review: The Wreckage by Michael Robotham

I have a complaint to make about Michael Robotham’s books, or rather, the effect they’re having on me – they have turned me into an insomniac. From the moment I pick up one of his novels until I turn the last page, I am unable to sleep. Last night, The Wreckage, proved to be no exception and, as a consequence, I feel the book’s title now applies to me J

Seriously, last year, I spent a couple of weeks reading everything of Robotham’s I could get my hands on and loved every story, character, plot and word. I deliberately saved this book for my holidays, knowing I’d be guaranteed at least one terrific read. I was not disappointed.

Once the disturbing prologue is out of the way, The Wreckage commences by introducing us to a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Luca Terracini, who works and lives “outside the wire” in Iraq, hoping to file a world-changing or, at least, war-changing story. When he stumbles on a series of robberies at multinational banks in Baghdad, and uncovers shady financial deals in the process, Terracini may just have been handed either the Holy Grail of journalism or a death sentence.

Segue to London and one of my favourite characters in crime/thriller fiction, retired cop, Vincent Ruiz. On the eve of his daughter’s marriage, hard on the outside but soft-as-a-marshmallow-on-the-inside Ruiz is conned by a needy and attractive young girl in a clever grift. When her partner is found brutally tortured and dead, Ruiz understands that, not only is this young girl in danger, but also she has inadvertently exposed a conspiracy that could overturn not just the British banking system, but rock the foundations of the global economy and bring down the careers of  powerful and dangerous men as well.

And so, the story is established. Larger in scope than his other novels, Robotham tackles the greedy, mystifying world of international banking, taxation fraud, funded terrorism, and uses the world as his stage.

When I first started reading this book, I was disappointed that Joe O’Loughlin and Ruiz didn’t feature that, instead, this new character, Luca, and the Middle East, took centre stage. But, as the action proceeds and the pace becomes utterly relentless, my initial misgivings were soon forgotten as Luca and the clever accountant he befriends, Daniela, start to rattle the local authorities’ nerves and become established as characters the reader loves and who possess resolve and integrity.

Enter, Ruiz, stage right (yay!) and the story, which was already moving apace, begins to accelerate, speeding through countries, characters and a growing body count without pausing for breath. Suspense builds as does the reader’s anticipation and our level of care for the characters and the situations they are placed in. I think this is Robotham’s real strength. Despite this fabulous tempo, and the complexity of the tale, never once does Robotham forget about the characters that give his story heart, that flesh out the plots and endows them and their consequences with a terrible humanity. Even the most hateful of individuals are given a context, and thus their deeds meaning – all of which makes the approaching climax the more nail-biting, the more suspenseful.

Motives and machinations are assigned to various people and organisations, from the CIA, MI6, or the huge bank, Mersey Fidelity, to a personal assistant, young jihadist, or ambitious brother, exposing the absence (or deliberate denial) of an ethical framework. Truth is absent from the commercial wheelings and dealings taking place; ambition is king. Thank goodness then for Ruiz and O’Loughlin who shine wherever and whenever they appear and yet, for all their heroics, also have feet of clay and Ruiz particularly, a knack for attracting trouble.

So does Terracini. When he and Ruiz finally encounter each other and understand they’re on the same side, the stage is set for a showdown of epic proportions.

What I love about Robotham’s books is that amidst the large-scale crimes and their ripple effect are all-important themes. In The Wreckage, truth and lies play an important role, not simply because the main characters search and long for the truth, but because it’s absence is revealed as the first serious casualty in the breakdown of personal, professional and international relationships. Truth is not just a word or an ideal in this book, but a moral code and those who choose to live by it suffer and are rarely rewarded for their principles.

Another theme is that of family – whether it’s how we establish and keep one together, or how easily they can be torn apart. How one decision, one misjudgement can hurt so many but also, how in the end, family (the real or pseudo kind) is all, for better or worse, we have. It’s this kind of thought-provoking and beautifully rendered theme that places Robotham above the average (and even above-average) thriller writers and which give his books unexpected richness and depths.

The Wreckage is a marvellous rollercoaster of a read that I literally could not put down. Robotham has done it again. And, while I am sleep-deprived and exhausted, I can’t wait for him to write another novel – please, Michael, I want some more!



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