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Feb 27, 2011

To Defy A King by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sunday, February 27, 2011

To Defy A King by Elizabeth Chadwick
Paperback, 560 pages
Medieval Historical Fiction
Published March 1st 2011 by Sourcebooks Landmark/May by Sphere
Review copy provided by Sourcebooks
The Burton Review Rating: 4.5 stars

Acquiring a novel by the now famous Elizabeth Chadwick is one of those win-win situations. You know you can't go wrong with Elizabeth Chadwick's writing, as she has gained fans around the world. I doubt anyone bothers reading this review because of the fact that almost everyone has the same opinions of her..Chadwick is an icon for the historical fiction community for her ability to create a believable and passionate story based around major events of the era. For me, she ranks up there with Sharon Kay Penman for medieval history.  Reading a new Chadwick novel is much like your favorite treat, you know you will be satisfied with the result. Last year I had loved her novels that focused on William Marshal, and here she comes again bringing us more William Marshal, perhaps the greatest knight to have ever lived... yet this time the story focuses on his daughter, Mahelt, also known as Maud or Matilda. I was eager to hate King John in Chadwick's The Scarlet Lion, and the feeling is back again with Mahelt's dealings with him as she watches her Marshal family become threatened by his various moods. He was murderous, treacherous, unwilling to cooperate with his barons; one shudders to think what his mama (Eleanor of Aquitaine) would have thought about his hateful and misguided actions.

Mahelt is not a prominent woman of historical importance, as opposed to the Eleanor of Aquitaine to whom her father had served, yet Chadwick weaves us a fascinating story of her as she reconstructs the historical events that occurred to her Marshal family and her marriage family. An interesting tidbit is that the sons of William Marshal had no children, yet it is through Mahelt's children that the Stuart Kings of Scotland claimed as part of their heritage. Through about three sentences mentioning Mahelt within medieval history which Chadwick found, she recreates with intricate details the life of Mahelt with a clarity that makes her readers feel like they are transported to that era. Chadwick portrays Mahelt as impetuous, stubborn, strong-willed, and totally likable.. Her marriage to Hugh Bigod comes at a time when the Marshals need a friend in high places, and the Bigods were a perfect fit, as were the new couple. Hugh seemed to enjoy Mahelt's willful character, and loved to be the one to tame her. I enjoyed the love story, the various characters such as her brothers, the historical details of King John vs. the world, and how the Marshals and the Bigods worked together, albeit tenuously.

Those readers who read Chadwick's The Time of Singing (UK) aka For The Kings Favor (USA), the story of Roger Bigod, will be reintroduced to Roger and Ida after their own love affair has settled. Ida now takes on Mahelt as her own daughter and helps her to adjust to the Bigod ways and tries to teach her to not step on gruff Roger's toes. As she proves her worth to the Bigods, her husband becomes smitten with her. Managing to please her father-in-law is another feat, but Mahelt does her best to heed to his will. King John creates havoc in the Marshals' world, and threatens the peace between the two families of Bigods and Marshals. King John loved to take hostages, such as Mahelt's brothers and others, some did not come out alive.

If there are any quibbles with the story of Mahelt, I can say that the author spoke of Mahelt's repulsion to sewing an awful lot, and her husband Hugh had many 'eloquent' looks, and the ending was a bit anti-climatic. But altogether the novel is one of family drama, loyalty, strife and historical details with a strong cast of characters that will please any history lover. I am waiting for some fabulous screenwriter/director combo to pick up on Chadwick's William Marshal novels and produce an epic movie for us that encompasses the stories of the Marshals and the Bigods before and during King John's rule. That would be a well-deserved feather in Chadwick's cap; she deserves all the accolades and praise as a queen of historical fiction. The spirit of the Marshals shine on her and through her worthy pen.

Feb 20, 2011

The Tudor Secret (The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles) by C.W. Gortner

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Tudor Secret (The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles) by C.W. Gortner
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (February 1, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0312658502
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!!

Once upon a time there was a writer striving to become published so he did it his own way via the self-publication route. Out came The Secret Lion: Book One of The Spymaster Chronicles and although it caught my eye, it wasn't readily available unless I wanted to pay a pretty penny. Several years later, this same author found huge success with his 2009 novel The Last Queen, and then again with The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. I loved these two novels as C.W. Gortner easily became my favorite male author to read. Imagine my joy when I heard that Gortner's first spy novel had been picked up by St. Martin's Griffin for a reissue after Gortner tweaked it up a bit. I was thrilled to receive a review copy of one of the first Tudor novels that had originally sparked my interest a few years ago. Gortner has another hit on his hands, as once again he takes the blogging community by storm with the story of a fictional character inserted directly into the intrigues of the dangerous Tudor courts.

This new novel takes on the name The Tudor Secret and follows a young squire Brendan Prescott who is a new arrival at a court that is about to become entwined once again in its perils of succession. King Edward VI is dying, and the Dudley family that raised Brendan the foundling is controlling all information in and out so that no one really knows what is going on with the young King. Princess Elizabeth has few friends, and one of those is Master Cecil. Brendan realizes quickly that his own survival depends on cooperating with Cecil and his cohort the deadly Walsingham.. all in a bid to save Elizabeth from peril at the hands of the scheming Dudley upstarts.

Most Tudor fans know the story of  how the monarchy changed hands from King Edward to Lady Jane and finally Queen Mary I. Gortner doesn't bore us with the replaying of these same historical details and the struggle of the people during these times. Instead, he turns this well-known story into a spine-tingling mystery of many depths with romance, friendship and loyalty as underlying themes. I found the mystery angle to be well written and expertly interwoven into historic events, making this an unforgettable story for Tudor fiction fans. The Tudor Secret also shows a rare outsider's look at Elizabeth and her sister Mary, as opposed to the many Tudor reads that typically focus on a noble or member of the royal family. I relished the tones of deviousness that Gortner put on some regular faces such as the Dudley men who I love to hate, Frances Brandon and Master Stokes. And I loved the rare favorable look at Cecil, who becomes Elizabeth's biggest ally during her reign. Although some Tudor aficionados may take slight with the convenient plot twists that Gortner utilizes, I loved every scandalous moment. Any book that has me itching to get back to it is a win-win in the entertainment department, and this blends two genres that I love seamlessly together: historical fiction and mystery, set in one of my favorite eras to read about.

The Tudor Secret is full of suspense and fast-paced adventures which is an exciting departure from Gortner's previous successful novels which focused on members of royal families, and I cannot wait for another Spymaster Chronicles novel! Those who are bored with the everyday Tudor-style novel should find a renewed interest in the genre with this new perception from a commoner new to the courts. C.W. Gortner is easily my favorite male author at this time for historical fiction, whether it is this historical mystery genre or otherwise. Congrats to C.W. for another excellent novel that I would love to recommend to any Tudor fiction fan, and it was well worth my wait. Five stars for its entertainment value, its mystery twists and the scandalous secrets!

Feb 14, 2011

Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Monday, February 14, 2011
Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran
Hardcover, 464 pages
February 15th 2011
Crown Publishing Group
ISBN-13 9780307588654
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: 4.5 stars

In this deft historical novel, Madame Tussaud (1761-1850) escapes the pages of trivia quizzes to become a real person far more arresting than even her waxwork sculptures. Who among us knew, for instance, that she moved freely through the royal court of Louis XVI, only to become a prisoner of the Reign of Terror? Her head was shaven for guillotining, but she escaped execution, though she was forced to make death masks for prominent victims. Novelist Michelle Moran covers this breathtaking period without losing the thread of its subject's singular story

Readers have many ways to hear of the atrocities of the French Revolution, but Michelle Moran's is one that should not be overlooked as among the best. Through the eyes of Marie Grosholz, the famous sculptress known later as Madame Tussaud, we become witnesses to the crimes of the anarchists who stylized themselves as Revolutionaries. With what first begins as a documentary view of the fall of the monarchy under Louis XVI, Madame Tussaud evolves into a passionate first-hand look into the horrors and the fears that the French people faced during the Revolution.

The novel begins as a sedate look at the salon of wax figures that Marie is running with her Uncle Curtius, which is a pleasant trade that allows her mother and she to thrive. Her greatest ambition is to be noticed by Queen Marie Antoinette, and is not until much later that she realizes that this one ambition for greatness could mean the guillotine for her family. Marie is extremely talented in portraying the wax sculptures with lifelike accuracy, and the salon does become recognized throughout France especially after the Royal family visit. With a devastating turn of events, the revolutionaries also visit the salon and her uncle, who becomes one of Robespierre's National Guard. The politics of the Third Estate and the plight of the poorest people are well developed in the story, and it is with a crescendo of suspense and fear that we read on as King Louis's head is brought to the salon's doorstep.. with several other horrors beforehand that pulls you into this story of a remarkable time and a woman who showed great fortitude and resilience during those times of extreme crisis.

There are many notables in the novel, from the royal family to the revolutionaries, and then there are those members of Marie's small circle that help bring a stunning clarity to the tenuous position Marie found herself in every day during the Revolution. Not knowing what was the right thing to say at any given moment (for the king or for the people?) as Marie was forced to put aside her morals and sense of right and wrong, in fear of those leaders who were making names for themselves as writers of political papers that brought chaos to the kingdom and the monarchy. No one was safe, innocent women and children were slaughtered just as the King and Queen were.

Although the start of the novel felt a bit rushed to document the events of France that brought the monarchy to its knees, the climatic story redeemed itself as this reader became completely engrossed in the travails of Madame Tussaud and her friends. I had little knowledge of the devastation the Revolutionaries caused for the entire country, and was stunned at the sanction of murder that was committed in the name of freedom. The seemingly simple title of French Revolution brings to me now a new found respect for those that lived, died or endured during the Revolution, such as young Marie Grosholz, and it is only through the magnificent storytelling via Michelle Moran from which I have achieved this. Brava to Michelle Moran for another job well done for a spectacular (heartwrenching and nerve wracking!) piece of work. P.S. The last book I read took over a week, this took two days.

Feb 8, 2011

The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney

Tuesday, February 08, 2011
The Matchmaker of Kenmare: A Novel of Ireland by Frank Delaney
Hardcover, 416 pages
Random House February 8, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6784-8
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: 4 stars

“And there’s a legend—she had only vague details—that all couples who are meant to marry are connected by an invisible silver cord which is wrapped around their ankles at birth, and in time the matchmaking gods pull those cords tighter and tighter and draw the couple slowly toward one another until they meet.” So says Miss Kate Begley, Matchmaker of Kenmare, the enigmatic woman Ben MacCarthy meets in the summer of 1943.

As World War II rages on, Ben remains haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his wife, the actress Venetia Kelly. Searching for purpose by collecting stories for the Irish Folklore Commission, he travels to a remote seaside cottage to profile the aforementioned Matchmaker of Kenmare.

Ben is immediately captivated by the forthright Miss Begley, who is remarkably self-assured in her instincts but provincial in her experience. Miss Begley is determined to see that Ben moves through his grief—and a powerful friendship is forged along the way.

But when Charles Miller, a striking American military intelligence officer, arrives on the scene, Miss Begley develops an intense infatuation and looks to make a match for herself. Miller needs a favor, but it will be dangerous. Under the cover of their neutrality as Irish citizens, Miss Begley and Ben travel to London and effectively operate as spies. As they are drawn more deeply and painfully into the conflict, both discover the perils of neutrality—in both love and war.

Steeped in colorful history, The Matchmaker of Kenmare is a stirring story of friendship and sacrifice. New York Times bestselling author Frank Delaney has written a lush and surprising novel, rich as myth, tense as a thriller, and like all grand tales—harrowing, sometimes hilarious, and heartbreaking.

*Be careful reading other reviews of this book on Goodreads, because major plot twists were given and spoiled some of the book's suspense for me before I had started the book. I have flagged that review so perhaps it will be officially flagged with a spoiler alert.* This Review is Spoiler Free.

This is another one of those books that I just could not refuse after reading that synopsis. I forgive the editors for creating such a long synopsis, because there is so much going on behind the scenes that calling this a World War II love story would be completely remiss. The book is a sort of anomaly for me: vague, opaque, labyrinthine.. yet still hypnotic, engrossing, suspenseful. There is love, romance, whimsy, tragedy, loss, and everything in between. Upon opening the book you are setting one foot into the riddle of an unknown story, not knowing which way you are supposed to go, as each piece of the puzzle is slowly lifted and you become more and more interested in the events of Miss Kate Begley and Ben MacCarthy. And the prominent side note throughout: is Ben falling in love with Kate? Too bad for him if he is, because Kate is in love with the dashing USA Military Hero Prototype Charles Miller.

Kate is the Matchmaker (happily setting Irish folks up for marriage), and Ben is the returning main character from author Frank Delaney's previous work, Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show (Feb. 2010). Although I had not read any of the author's previous works, I had no problems enjoying this on its own, though questions posed with the previous book become answered with this new book. Frank Delaney has an impressive voice that he imbibes with Ben the narrator, who was an intriguing and likeable character on his own and a perfect narrator. We get to observe Ben's reactions to the people he meets in Ireland, London and France as he follows along on a somewhat insane chase after Kate's ex-neighbor who could be a German spy. Then the next adventure comes along, and another.. as he is inextricably tied to Kate Begley in soul mate fashion.

The feel of certain countries during the war was also a major part, standing in as a character on its own was the War and how Ireland was trying very hard to be neutral. The prose the author uses is one of those that embodies the term lyrical, and I am not using it loosely here. I was very impressed with the writing style, where in reality not a lot was happening, yet the words were giving it just enough meaning to make me guessing and wanting more. The suspense and mystery behind the entire quest, with it being during the war, gave it enough of a tense sort of danger lurking beneath each character as we slowly learned bit by bit who was really who.

The major impression of the story was the way it was narrated, as Ben was telling a memoir of sorts for his children. He recounts snippets from his writings during the time the story was taking place, and once he recited the piece he offers a bit of foreshadowing and more of a clue of what is going on, as we never really know exactly what it is that is the proverbial bomb that Ben keeps alluding to throughout his adventures with Kate, the matchmaker of Kenmare. Kate is a complex character, but someone you know you would love the moment you sat down with her. The phrases and beliefs she displays make her seem intelligent, perfect, yet her heart is hidden somewhere beneath her own demons.

The plot is not a fast moving one, as the author is establishing more of a relationship between the reader and the characters, so it was a little tough in the very beginning to get my head into the intricacies of the story. Once the events started picking up and I was able to get invested with the characters and setting, I was eager to move the pages to see where The Matchmaker of Kenmare would take me. Recommended for those in the mood for an engaging mystery involving Ireland, polished with historical insight regarding World War II. I am off to discover Frank Delaney's backlist which focuses on an Ireland that he describes with an infectious glittering adoration. He has a gift with words that I am eager to be entertained with.

Feb 1, 2011

Pale Rose of England: A Novel of The Tudors by Sandra Worth

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Pale Rose of England: A Novel of The Tudors by Sandra Worth
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Berkley Trade (February 1, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0425238776
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: 4 stars

It is 1497. The news of the survival of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, has set royal houses ablaze with intrigue and rocked the fledgling Tudor dynasty. With the support of Scotland's King James IV, Richard-known to most of England as Perkin Warbeck-has come to reclaim his rightful crown from Henry Tudor. Stepping finally onto English soil, Lady Catherine Gordon has no doubt that her husband will succeed in his quest.

But rather than assuming the throne, Catherine would soon be prisoner of King Henry VII, and her beloved husband would be stamped as an imposter. With Richard facing execution for treason, Catherine, alone in the glittering but deadly Tudor Court, must find the courage to spurn a cruel monarch, shape her own destiny, and win the admiration of a nation.

I have all of Sandra Worth's books, but have only found the time to read The Rose of York: Love and War (review) which paints a very different picture of Richard III than my normal style of reads. Worth is evidently pro-Richard, pro-Yorkist etc. and I still have not yet defaulted to that side, though Worth has made it her mission in life as far as a writer to put a glorious light on the Yorkist line as opposed to the usual vilification of Richard III. In my opinion, Sandra Worth's first book was well written (yet it was slightly overdone with the romantic view of Richard), thus with the new Yorkist installment, Pale Rose of England, I was skeptical but ready to be open-minded. (And yes, I say this only because I have not yet read Sharon Kay Penman's Sunne in Splendour, who probably turned many Lancastrians into Yorkists with that book).

Don't let the subtitle fool you... this is not yet another look at Henry VIII and his many wives, as this novel begins before Henry VIII's rule. This novel is also an intriguing alternate history examination of what could have happened to the princes in the tower, namely, the boys locked away from their mother in terror during the usurper Richard III's rule. Their uncle, Richard III, took the throne after Edward's death, and little Edward and Richard simply vanished after being held in the Tower. Edward was supposed to be crowned in 1483 around age nine or ten, but Uncle Richard declared them illegitimate. No one can truly say what happened to the innocent young boys, but they never did return to the courts and take the throne in succession as they were meant to do after their father Edward IV. Since no one can realistically proclaim what really happened to those boys, I say alternate history because the author has used Perkin Warbeck as the Pretender who was out to take Henry VII's throne for himself in the name of the Yorkist line.

In Pale Rose of England, the author uses a popular theory that young Richard was safely stowed away as a child, perhaps by Uncle Richard himself. Later, this same Richard Plantagenet returns to England, known as Perkin Warbeck to the English who ridicule him, bringing his Scottish wife Catherine Gordon with him.

"Without exception, the Tudor is hated. All he has brought us is fear and taxes. We pray daily for the restoration of your royal father's line. When you leave here to march against the Tudor, you'll see the truth of what I say. All Cornwall with rise up to join you." says Prior John to Richard. Thus sets the scene for the very high hopes that Richard, Catherine and fellow Yorkists shared, and I realize I will have to put aside my strong Lancastrian (Tudor loving) tendencies in order to root for this Perkin fella. Which is not hard, with the way Worth has written this despairing, heart wrenching, soul gripping story. Henry VII is a force to be reckoned with, and is a part of the story as much as Richard is, which is a refreshing change of pace as far as characters go.  I enjoyed reading more about him and wondering about his characteristics as a ruler, as a miser, as a man under his mama's thumb, even though I could never say he was a good guy. Lady Catherine Gordon was new to me, and she was her own pillar of strength in opposition to Henry, most of the time. Though I did want to slap her at some parts and tell her to run run run run run.. but she didn't.

Sandra Worth sets forth her theories regarding this Pretender who really could have been England's Richard IV.. who could have tossed the Tudor line off of the throne.. with as much attention to historical details as she could. This is not a piece of Tudor fluff, it became depressing beyond words and made my heart ache for Lady Catherine, a royal lady of Scotland who was kept an essential prisoner in the Royal Courts for much of the more than four hundred pages. Catherine went through one emotional upheaval after the other during her support for her husband's quest, and as we know since thereafter was only a successful Tudor rule, she lost it all. Her story kept me reading, as I hoped she would somehow be redeemed, that somehow there would be a knight in shining armor for her, somehow her years of misery would be rewarded with something.

This is not an easy read, and runs along the lines of a tragedy with political forces pulling the strings. Who is pulling the strings this time was the Tudor usurper as we he was pleasantly called. The major dimension of the story of Catherine Gordon's life is loss, torture, despair, and impossible situations and the cloud of doom hovers over the reader and Catherine throughout most of the 464 pages.

Whether or not this Perkin fella is truly Richard, Duke of York, the young "lost" prince in the tower, I cannot say. Worth certainly presents a compelling argument leaning that way.. but I am not utterly convinced, even though the major European rulers at the time seemed to believe the Pretender was not pretending. I am looking forward to reading Anne Wroe's The Perfect Prince for further insight. As far as Worth presents this tangled weave of love and deception, you really have to be ready to put your lot in with Catherine and support her emotionally as you go along. Otherwise, I see a strong possibility of some not liking the novel because of the way Catherine let things happen around her. Yes, in reality, she may not have had much of a choice, but I still think that there were other things that could have occurred to help her plight, especially since her cousin was the King of Scotland. But that's not the way history tells it, so neither does the author. Henry VII had a grip on her and the entire situation, and somehow all other major powers let Henry maintain this power. There are small quibbles I had with the plot, mainly because I didn't want Henry to have so much power, but Sandra Worth tells a compelling, poetic and romantic story that really could sway Tudor lovers into becoming Tudor lovers with Yorkist tendencies. Ahem.

A few books from my library that I can recommend regarding the mystery of the Princes in the Tower include David Baldwin's Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower and Alison Weir's Princes in the Tower as well as her The Wars of the Roses which are detailed (and conflicting) non-fiction reads. Sandra Worth has authored an interesting article regarding Richard/Perkin at On The Tudor Trail: Uncovering The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck  and she will also be the author of the month for the lovely ladies of the Historical Fiction Round Table. Be sure to watch that site for the links to the giveaway opportunities, reviews and more articles regarding the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.