12 February 2013

Tuesday's Review: The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford

In The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I Stephen Alford presents a book that satisfies both the history buff in me and the side of me that loves mystery and intrigue. Although political intrigue is not a new phenomenon, Tudor England, in particular, the Elizabethan era, had it in spades. The setting of the book is a time when religion was less about worshiping God, and more about power and the riches and control of the world that went with that power. This is no romanticized version of the paranoia and intrigue that surrounded the governments of the day. It is a excellent detailing of the methods and lengths that governments would go to protect themselves in a time when the stakes were the highest and turmoil was the norm. 

Alford begins the book with a look at what history might have been like if one of the supposed assassination plots against Elizabeth had succeeded. With this alternate look at history, he immediately throws the reading into the feelings of fear and conspiracy that were rampant at the time. And who could blame the Court for these feelings? In the few years after the death of Henry VIII, England had switched from Anglican  to more austere Prostestanism, back to Catholicism, and then back to Protestantism. Also in this time, a pretender to the throne, Lady Jane Grey, had been beheaded, and two monarchs, Edward and Mary, had died without an heir, and the Catholic Church had Mary Queen of Scots waiting in the wings. 

Enter into this miasma two of the most cunning men in Elizabeth's court, Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, both trusted advisers to Elizabeth and men who would stop at nothing to protect their Queen. It is Walsingham in particular that is adept picking men that he cold "turn" to spying. Alford's research and discussion of the many men and varied methods used by Cecil and Walsingham to protect the Queen is well researched and presented in a manner that is easily followed by those interested in and familiar with Elizabeth and her court. He leaves nothing out, detailing the dealings of many of the eras most prolific spies and double agents and the various plots against the Queen. I was particularly fascinated by his discussion of the Throckmorten Plot and the attempts to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. 

The one drawback to this book, as to all non-fiction history books is that the detailed information can be a bit overwhelming to the casual reader. On the other hand, if you are a fan of anything Elizabethan, this book will not disappoint. 

I am thankful to Bloomsbury Publishing and Netgalley for giving me the chance to read this book for an honest review. 

11 February 2013

The Monday Challenge: Reading the Series

One of the challenges that I am doing this year entails reading from a series or multiple series.  This is a common challenge among reading groups that I have been involved in.  The particular iteration that I am doing has a few interesting rules, though.  First, in order for a series to qualify, you must read 3 or more books from that series.  This means that trilogies count, but you cannot use the last book of a series that you have been reading all along or new series that only have one or two books out so far.  The second twist is that you must read 24 series books in total throughout the year to meet the challenge.  That is the average of two books a month.  The biggest problem that I have is I can't decide which series I really want to read for this challenge. There are so many out there to choose from.
Has anyone else noticed that stand alone books are falling by the wayside from many of the most prolific and popular authors?  Series are nothing new.  In fact, the first books that I remember reading as a child were all from various series.  I spent many a day with Laura Ingalls, Anne of Green Gables, The Five Little Peppers, the Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew and later Cherry Ames.  Series make a lot of sense from a marketing perspective.  If you create a good series concept and good characters, you have your readers hooked.  From the readers perspective, series are also nice.  I have read a number of books that I really wanted to be able to continue with the characters.  I also have read a number of fantastic series with story lines that just cannot be handled in one book.  
There is a trick to writing a good series.  An author has to be able to keep the story fresh, while still keeping it familiar to a certain extent.  The characters must be able to grow and develop and new ones must be introduced.  If these two rules are not followed, the series has the potential to become stagnant and readers will leave the fold.  One example of a series done well that comes to mind is the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  This series started out as sort of a run of the mill PI series with the twist that the main protagonist was a practicing wizard.  As the series has developed, though, it has become less and less about the main character's cases and more and more about the non-human world.  Butcher is a master of developing his characters in a way that keeps the reader coming back for more.  In addition, his ability to develop the story and reveal a bit more of the big picture in each book is wonderful.  His is just one example of a well developed series, and one I highly recommend.
Anyway, I digress.  Back to the series challenge that I am working on.  I have several series in mind for this challenge.  Among them are:

  • The Elvis Cole series by Robert Crais
  • The Reverend Clarie Ferguson and Russ Van Alystyne Mysteries by Julia Spencer-Fleming
  • The Inspector Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny
  • The Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs
  • The Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin
  • The John Cole series by Nelson DeMille
I won't be reading The Dresden Files as I have already read all of the ones that have been published to date.

What is your favorite series?  If you were suggesting a series for someone to read, what would it be?  what about the series draws you to it?