The White Princess

whiteprincessAuthor: Philippa Gregory
First Published: July 2013
Publisher: Touchstone
Series: The Cousins’ War #5
528 pages (hardcover)

I bought this book right when it was released, but didn’t get around to reading it till now. Well, I did try once but I think I was getting a bit burnt out with so many Tudors-related novels, so I had to take a break. I took a very long break … Anyway, I finished this book over the course of two days. While I normally love Philippa Gregory’s books, this one just seemed kind of “meh” to me.

The White Princess is about Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen. The story begins right when Henry VII has claimed the throne of England by conquest. The previous king, Richard, who is also Elizabeth’s lover (and also her uncle) was cut down in battle and thrown into some unmarked grave. Elizabeth is not only distraught over the death of her beloved, but very unhappy that she is to marry her lover’s killer, Henry Tudor.

Henry initially tries to delay marrying Elizabeth, as she is from his rival family, but eventually is forced to by his mother and by Parliament. It is necessary that they wed so that the families can be united and hopefully no more wars will come about. Elizabeth and Henry hate one another at first, but as they begin their family together, slowly come to love one another.

Despite marrying Elizabeth, Henry is not safe on his throne. Elizabeth’s cousin, Edward Warwick, has, what some might say, a better claim to the throne to Henry. And there is a great pretender to the throne claiming to be Elizabeth’s long lost brother, Prince Richard, who has the greatest claim of all. As this pretender befriends the great monarchs of Europe and rallies to his side many, many supporters (many more than Henry has), Henry becomes increasingly paranoid and suspicious of everyone. As for Elizabeth, she wonders if this pretender could really be her brother? And if he is, how should she react to him trying to reclaim his throne from her husband, and her sons?

I have read every book in this series of The Cousins’ War so far. I think the problem is, the entire series is telling the exact same story, but through the perspectives of different characters. I think that is why I did not find the story in The White Princess very interesting. I mean, history is interesting, but there is so much overlap in the books’ stories that I feel like I have read the exact same story four times before already. I don’t think it helps that her female characters all have a very similar voice. Elizabeth narrates very similarly to her mother Elizabeth from The White Queen, Jacquetta from Lady Of The Rivers, to Anne Warwick in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, etc.

Elizabeth, in fact, is a completely unmemorable character in this book. Her character has absolutely no agency, she passively watches events unfold around her, and all she ever seems to say to anyone is, “I don’t know, I don’t know” when asked what she thinks is happening. Her character was rather disappointing.

The second half of the novel is much better, at least, because the stuff with the pretender to the throne, the boy pretending to be Prince Richard, is all new stuff that was not presented in any of the previous novels. It made me very interested in this pretender, and I actually went to look up more information about him after I finished this book. I knew very little about this pretender business during Henry VII’s reign, so I liked reading the fictionalized version of it in this book.

Overall, it was a decent read but nothing to write home about. The next, and final, book in The Cousins’ War series is going to be about Margaret Pole, Elizabeth’s cousin. Since Margaret spent much of her life with Elizabeth, I am predicting a considerable amount of story overlap again, but I will still give the book a chance when it is released.

My Rating:

The Cuckoo’s Calling

cuckooscallingAuthor: Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
First Published: April 2013
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Series: Cormoran Strike #1
455 pages (hardcover)

I finally got around to it; I finally read J.K. Rowling’s (using pseudonym Robert Galbraith) new series, The Cuckoo’s Calling. I didn’t really know what to expect because on the one hand, I love the Harry Potter series, but on the other hand, her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy wasn’t exactly stellar. Well, I always thought she did the “mysteries” in the Harry Potter universe pretty well, so I guess I should really say, I had some cautious optimism for this book. I just finished this book about 15 minutes ago, and I have to say, I really, really enjoyed this. Oh, it’s not without its flaws, but it did a pretty good job keeping me up late at night.

The book is about a struggling private detective named Cormoran Strike, whose life isn’t going so well. He lost a leg during the war in Afghanistan, his fiancee and him just broke up, he’s homeless and living in his office for now; oh and his business isn’t so well, so he’s up to his ears in debt. He can barely afford his temporary secretary, Robin, even though she’s very good at what she does.

One day, in walks into his office John Bristow, a lawyer. He needs Strike to investigate his sister’s supposed suicide, because he believes she didn’t kill herself, but rather, was murdered. To make the case more interesting, John’s sister just so happens to be the incredibly famous supermodel, Lula Landry. Strike is skeptical at first that this is actually a murder. He chalks it up to a bereaved brother who can’t handle the idea of his beloved sister killing herself. However, after John offers Strike a hefty amount of money for him to take on the case, Strike accepts. As he investigates the case, he comes to the realization that John’s right: someone did kill Lula.

Let’s start with the thing I didn’t like about this book first and get that out of the way. The entire structure of this novel is Strike interviews person after person after person, and near the end, obviously, fits the pieces together, confronts the murderer by monologue-ing to the murderer exactly how the murderer committed the crime, and voila, mystery solved. I did think it was rather boring of a structure, to just have Strike basically interview people for the entire book. I guess I was hoping for some sleuthing of some sort, where he would find himself searching for clues in places he shouldn’t be. Anyway, so there’s that, but luckily, I found all the interviews to be very interesting to read. I really do like the conversations Strike has with people. To sum up, I liked the content but not really how it was delivered.

What I really loved about this book was the characters. I have always thought J. K. Rowling has a wonderful way with characterization and I’m glad she continues this in this novel. The characters really came alive to me, they each had a memorable personality, and personal problems that really added to how the character felt and thought about things. My favourite was Robin, Strike’s secretary; I just picture this super keener whose desperate to please, she’s so funny sometimes. And of course, there’s Strike, who comes with so many personal problems that are left unsolved in this novel, I’m sure they will carry over into the next book (don’t worry, his personal problems are rather secondary to the main plot).

The best part was that this book successfully kept me wondering the “whodunnit” aspect of the mystery the entire time. I just had to keep reading to see who was the murderer! I figured it was probably going to the be the last person I’d suspect — and then I toyed with the idea that maybe it’s actually someone really obvious — regardless, I was surprised at the end at who the true culprit was. I enjoyed the tease and the mystery of trying to figure out who the murderer was (even though I do not think, as a reader, you could figure out the mystery on your own), but I have to say I’m actually kind of disappointed with who it is. I don’t want to spoil things, so I’ll just leave it at that …

All in all, a great book that I enjoyed reading. It’s a very classic kind of mystery, and I don’t read mysteries all too often. I look forward to reading the second book in this series!

My Rating:

Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853

elisabeth-theprincessbrideAuthor: Barry Deneberg
First Published: 2003
Publisher: Scholastic
Series: The Royal Diaries
151 pages (hardcover)

For my next Royal Diaries book, I decided to read about Empress Elisabeth of Austria. I don’t really know anything about her, so I didn’t have any preconceived expectations or anything like that.

I’ve read a fair number of Royal Diaries books (including this one on Elisabeth, I have read 12 of the 20 books in this series), so from my experience so far, I think this book is the most put-together one. Some of the other diaries were just, well, diaries, where the princesses talked about their day to day activities and barely any plot happens. This series is meant to educate kids about not only these historical figures, but also about what life was like back in their respective time periods, so I understand why some of the books were written that way. I was very pleased to find, when reading this book, that it managed to fit in an actual story as well, instead of just talking about what Elisabeth did every day.

This book on Elisabeth begins with herself, her mother and her sister being summoned to meet the Emperor of Austria and his mother, Princess Sophie. The reality of the meeting is that the mothers have paired up the 23 year old emperor with Elisabeth’s 18 year old sister. However, when everyone met, the Emperor found himself smitten with Elisabeth instead. He asks for her hand in marriage, which shocks Elisabeth. She had not expected this at all, and what’s worse, she’s afraid her sister will hate her for this. However, she, too, really likes this handsome young emperorĀ  so she accepts — well, also because her mother really wants Elisabeth to accept so at least ONE of her daughters can become Empress of Austria.

Even though Elisabeth is happy to be marrying the Emperor, she is absolutely intimidated by her future duties as an Empress. As the day of the royal wedding approaches closer and closer, Elisabeth finds herself more and more uncomfortable with imperial life. Yet, she must endure …

Like I said, it was great that this book actually had a story and I enjoyed reading it. It’s extremely short, only about 100 pages — the rest of the book is the epilogue, historical notes, family tree and pictures, which is roughly 50 pages on its own! While the story presented in this book is interesting, Elisabeth’s life after she was married would have made an even more fascinating story, I think! In a tragic sort of way. Of course, the Royal Diaries series focuses on the princess’ and queens’ childhoods since it is a series aimed at children.

Anyway, I digress. This is definitely one of the better Royal Diaries books of the series, short and sweet!

My Rating:

The Poisoned Crown

thepoisonedcrownAuthor: Maurice Druon
First Published: 1956 (2014 in English)
Publisher: Harper
Series: The Accursed Kings #3
294 pages (paperback)

Book number three of The Accursed Kings series. Last we left off, Louis X was still on the throne, his wife had just conveniently left the picture for him, and he was setting his eyes on Princess Clemence of Hungary. Louis had already shown himself to be a bumbling idiot of a king who cannot handle being wrong on anything, so let’s see how he continues to ruin his father’s legacy in this book.

In The Poisoned Crown, Louis successfully becomes betrothed and then, married to Princess Clemence of Hungary. Clemence thinks she is a pretty lucky lady, given that she is already 22 (an old age to be married at in those times, for a noble) and had thought she would end up going to a convent. However, she soon realizes being Queen of France doesn’t make her very happy and her husband isn’t as charming as he seems. Louis, continuing his streak of bad decisions, decides to go to war against Flanders, which ends disastrously.

In the meantime, Robert of Artois and Mahaut, Countess of Artois, are still arguing and bickering over lands like they have been since book one. This time, however, they have involved King Louis into the matter. Louis wants to resolve their differences peacefully, but is forced to pick sides when they refuse to relent in their accusations against one another. Mahaut is outraged at the conclusion and plots the downfall of King Louis.

I definitely liked this book better than the last one. The last one was centered on the rivalry between the Charles, the Count of Valois the Rector-General of the kingdom, Enguerrand Marigny, and was very political in nature, which is sometimes hard for a non-political person like me to understand, even though I did overall enjoy that book. This one is more about family ambitions, which is more up my alley. If you want pure family drama, this book is it.

Clemence is a new character introduced in this book. Even though she’s a solid goody-goody kind of girl, I liked her because she seemed to have an uncanny ability to bring out the best in others around her. And she is so innocent and sweet, no one would try to harm her. Of course, sometimes it was frustrating that she cannot see, or refuse to see, the ‘evil’ that is in the hearts of others. In such cases, it was a little frustrating having a character that’s so solidly in the “Good People” camp. However, I do hope that she and her baby will make it out of this story alright, considering what usually happens to the royal family in this series!

The most infuriating (and I say that in the best way possible) part of this novel is Mahaut, the Countess of Artois. I was like, “God damn it, just give your nephew [Robert of Artois] back some parts of his lands!!” And it’s not like I particularly like Robert that much either, but I do feel really bad that his inheritance got stolen by his greedy aunt. In the previous two books, she was merely an annoying old lady (to me, anyway), but in this book, she has definitely become more selfish. Her daughter was imprisoned a couple books ago, and instead of simply wishing for her safe return like any loving, caring mother would, she thinks about if her daughter is released, and is Louis dies with no heirs, her daughter could get a shot at being Queen of France (since she is married to Louis’ brother). What a strange way of thinking about things like this! Ugh, I hate Mahaut, I hope she meets her end soon (but I don’t want to Wikipedia her actual historical self to spoil things for myself, haha).

Definitely looking forward to the next one.

My Rating:

India Black

India_BlackAuthor: Carol K. Carr
First Published: November 2010
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Series: Madam of Espionage Mysteries #1
296 pages (paperback)

I discovered this series via Goodreads’ “Readers Also Enjoyed …” recommendation section. The combination of a promise of exciting espionage by a femme fatale kind of character and the gorgeous cover had me persuaded to give the book a try. Also, I love the time period this book takes place in, during Queen Victoria’s reign.

Bizarrely enough, despite the word “mystery” being used to describe this book (it’s right on the cover!), it’s not a mystery novel at all. At least, I don’t think so … The story is about a woman named India Black who is a madam that runs a whore house in London, called the Lotus House. She becomes pulled into an international crisis of some sort when one of the clients of her establishment dies inside Lotus House. Said client is a pretty high ranking government official, who was supposed to be carrying a briefcase with top secret military documents that could be very detrimental to Britain should they fall into the wrong hands — such as Russian hands. India is forced/blackmailed by the Prime Minister of Britain and a government spy agent nicknamed French (real name is confidential) to help them in retrieving this briefcase that was stolen from the Lotus House. India becomes engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase with Russian spy agents as they both race to be the first to retrieve these documents.

If any part of it is a mystery, I suppose it’s when India was just trying to figure out who the gentleman was that died in her brothel, but that was solved very early on. I really don’t think this is a mystery at all. It’s certainly a thriller kind of novel though, and action oriented. Another thing about this novel that might throw you off is that the plot summary and even the cover of this book look “serious” and “cool”– however, it’s actually humorous. I read some reviews where people said the characters were kind of ‘idiotic’ and certain plot points is nonsensical or bizarre, in a “why the heck would they do that?” kind of way. I really think it is all intentional, as my impression of the novel is that it’s all meant to be sort of comedic. No, I don’t buy the reason why the British government would recruit a brothel madame to help them retrieve top secret documents and various other events in the book, but I never, for once, felt this was a serious, realistic espionage novel. So I was able to easily suspend my belief and enjoy the ride.

With all that being said, I actually found myself quite enjoying the story. Mainly because I found it funny. The plot is kind of predictable, but India’s wittiness, sarcasm and humor held my interest. And you know what, it was just a plain ol’ fun novel to read. It didn’t take itself seriously, and it was so easy to slip into the story.

I think the main shortcomings of this novel is that it was packaged all wrong (not really a mystery, looks too serious on the outside); as well, the official book premise includes a promise of India starting to develop feelings for the British spy agent French … but that never happened in the book!! To be fair, I did get a vibe that India and French were to be an item in the future, however, this vibe came from my own ‘intuition’, if you will, about how characters in such novels usually end up. I don’t think I could find much contextual evidence to support this vibe I have. I think there was only one scene where the two of them had a slightly meaningful conversation, but 99% of the time, they were just bickering at one another.

So, all in all, initial expectations from the book’s premise and book cover could be potentially disappointing, especially if you thought you were getting a certain story but really wasn’t. However, overall, a very fun book and a series that I would love to continue reading.

My Rating:

Victoria: May Blossom of Britannia, England, 1829

victoriaAuthor: Anna Kirwan
First Published: November 2001
Publisher: Scholastic
Series: The Royal Diaries
219 pages (hardcover)

This time around in my reading of The Royal Diaries series (one of my absolute favourite childhood series, though I never managed to read ALL of them when I was a kid), the focus is on Queen Victoria from England. I am really interested in Queen Victoria, but it’s hard to find historical fiction on her (I only know of two novels that are about Queen Victoria, including this one). There are lots of books that take place in the Victorian Era, but very few where Queen Victoria is the main character … sad!

This book is about Victoria when she was 9 to 10 years old. The book centers around her childhood and her relationships to the various people in her lives. In particular, she is fond of the king of her time, George IV, who she calls Uncle King. She doesn’t have the strongest relationship with her mother, but does love her; unfortunately she is under the influence of John Conroy, her mother’s comptroller, who also is hoping to rule over Victoria (through her mother). For unbeknownst to Victoria, Uncle King’s heir (his brother) is most likely unable to have children with his wife, making Victoria, their niece, very likely to become Queen of England one day.

One thing that stood out to me in this Royal Diaries installment is that the writing actually feels more authentic to its time period than others. I mean, I understand some of the Royal Diaries are going to have a difficult time making the writing seem authentic to the time period when the princess writing it isn’t even supposed to know English. But some of the other Royal Diaries do take place in European countries and none of them had writing that felt as “real” as this one.

Like most of the other Royal Diaries books, this book is also mainly concerned with the day to day life of little Victoria in 1800’s England. Maybe that would be more interesting to a child reading this book (which I realize is its intended age group); I thought it was just okay. I wouldn’t say I’m really knowledgeable in what life was like in 1800’s England, but I probably know more than a child reading this book, so probably the educational portion of this novel would be much more fascinating to a kid. This book has not much action, I’m afraid. Towards the end, it gets a little more exciting (though I use that word in the relative sense) when Victoria begins to piece together how the inheritance of the throne of England is going … and her shock when she realizes it could be her, though she tries to brush it off at first.

All in all, it was a solid read with both pros and cons. I’m just glad to read something on Queen Victoria, there should be more his-fics on her life!

My Rating: