Follow Us @burtonreview

Mar 29, 2011

Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George
Hardcover: 688 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (April 5, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0670022533
Review copy provided by the publisher, with many thanks!!
The Burton Review Rating: five big stars

Margaret George is one of those iconic historical fiction authors that even if you have not read her books, you have heard of her. I have been collecting her books but have not been able to read them as they look so daunting in size. This year, fans are treated to another tome by Margaret George as she brings us a novel on Elizabeth I. This is not your ordinary Elizabeth I novel for two reasons: 1. It is written by Margaret George. 2. It begins in 1588, when Elizabeth is fifty-five and about to face the Spanish Armada.

I was ecstatic when I realized this was not another rehash of Elizabeth's life from Thomas Seymour's pats on her butt to her struggles during her sister's Mary's reign, though it does cover the rise and fall of the Earl of Essex in detail. I was then overly ecstatic when I realized that this novel also features Lettice Knollys, whom Elizabeth liked to call the she-wolf. My Enemy The Queen by Victoria Holt was one of my favorite Tudor reads and I loved Lettice as she tried to out-maneuver Elizabeth every chance she got. The rivalry was heightened when Lettice married Elizabeth's favorite, Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester.

Elizabeth I: A Novel read very much like the Dickens' favorite A Christmas Carol. We see through the aged Elizabeth's eyes the ghosts of the past from her parents to her favorites who flit in and out of her consciousness; the present with the younger courtiers who no longer have anything of value to Elizabeth except their looks; the future of England because of course this Virgin Queen left no heir for England. The decisions of the past and the present and how they affect the future of England are also an underlying theme for Elizabeth as she struggles to maintain her hold on the country that she married for richer or for poorer. The Spanish Armada was always a threat, and even though she was able to defeat it in 1589, by the time Spain had rebuilt its forces to strike again, Elizabeth's most trusted advisors and the strongest fighters and nobles had withered away.

Elizabeth hated most of all Lettice Knollys, who had secretly married Elizabeth's perhaps one true love Robert Dudley. Lettice was like Elizabeth in many ways as far as stubbornness and force of will, but promiscuous Lettice lacked the self-control of the Virgin Queen. Lettice was also the mother of Elizabeth's next favorite after Robert Dudley, the Earl of Essex Robert Devereux. In and out of this story of Elizabeth we are treated to chapters devoted to Lettice, as she struggles in vain to regain all that she has lost since Robert Dudley's death. Her one shining hope remains with her son the Earl of Essex, as he hopes for favors from Elizabeth I to help sustain his family. Robert Devereux is headstrong and unruly, and both Lettice and Elizabeth had difficulty with restraining Robert's self-destruction, and this spiral of love and hate between the Queen and Essex became interwoven into the novel as a major theme.

There were many names and titles, and a few Roberts as Robert Cecil is also featured here. There were even surprising occurrences behind closed doors, including the famous Will Shakespeare. The cousins descended from the Boleyn family are a strong part as the old loyal favorites of Elizabeth who always stayed loyal. And yet there were always some who were tired of Elizabeth's Protestant ways as more religious strife occurred with both Catholics and Puritans. The crisis in Ireland and the years of crop failure are another focus as Elizabethans struggled to maintain the Golden Age. The wax and wane of Elizabeth's reign is well known to Tudor fans, but I have not read any novels that actually spotlight their entire work on the wane of Elizabeth's life such as Margaret George's does here. Names of courtiers are weaved in and out of the story like our own old friends, so that those readers familiar with the Tudor era will feel right at home without getting another monologue of the backstory of each person. It is only for that reason that newbies to the Elizabethan era may find themselves lost in the vague comings and goings of the important people of Elizabeth's time, but as a lover of Tudor fiction I appreciated it as the minute details are lightly touched upon as a refresher.

The first person point of view of Elizabeth (and intermittently Lettice) seemed spot on.. the face on the outside to her subjects being different than the thoughts swirling in her head; slightly sarcastic and witty in her aging years even though she seemed a bit shocked that she was as old as she was. The magnificence of this tome is the way that George encompasses the era, without leaving out the other minor and major players of the court. This novel is by far the most human look at Elizabeth that I've ever read as the author brings Elizabeth to grips with her legacy that includes her executed mother and her tyrant father. I especially loved the secret garden scene at Hever Castle.

 This is a very detailed book and even though it is fiction I felt like I was being educated during the read. I loved this look at the last decade of Elizabeth's reign, and admired the amount of facts and the imagery that were blended throughout the story. This is the epitome of a well-researched book, and since it was enjoyed on so many levels it would be remiss if you did not include this latest Elizabeth I novel on your Tudor bookshelf. Elizabeth I: A Novel is an absolute must read for Elizabeth I fans, as this novel is a fitting tribute to the woman and Virgin Queen that seemed to outwit many of her enemies and always made sure she was above reproach. This one is certainly going on my Favorites of 2011 post.

Other pieces that I recommend that deal with the fall of Essex and his relationship with Elizabeth are Elizabeth & Essex: A Tragic History by Lytton Strachey and  The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a 1939 movie featuring Bette Davis. Also, I have yet to read The Walsingham Woman, by Jan Westcott, about Frances Walsingham married to Phillip Sidney first then the Earl of Essex. Frances is mentioned a lot in George's novel which is why I include Westcott's here. And as mentioned before, there is Victoria Holt's My Enemy the Queen which I loved. 

I was also beyond excited to be able to see Margaret George speak for the Arts & Letters Lectures held at the Dallas Museum as part of her book tour for Elizabeth I. Yoy can visit this link to see if she will be coming to a town near you!

Read all about my fabulous experience of meeting Margaret George in Dallas here.

Mar 21, 2011

Q&A with Geraldine Brooks, author of CALEB’S CROSSING

Monday, March 21, 2011
Q&A with Geraldine Brooks, author of CALEB’S CROSSING

The publisher has provided permission to The Burton Review to post the following interview with author Geraldine Brooks. Geraldine is the author of several prize winning novels, such as March, and Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague.

A richly imagined new novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller, People of the Book.

Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.

The narrator of Caleb's Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe's shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb's crossing of cultures.

Like Brooks's beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha's Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart. Evocative and utterly absorbing, Caleb's Crossing further establishes Brooks's place as one of our most acclaimed novelists. 

Caleb Cheeshahteamauk is an extraordinary figure in Native American history. How did you first discover him? What was involved in learning more about his life?

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah are proud custodians of their history, and it was in materials prepared by the Tribe that I first learned of its illustrious young scholar. To find out more about him I talked with tribal members, read translations of early documents in the Wopanaak language, then delved into the archives of Harvard and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially the correspondence between colonial leaders and benefactors in England who donated substantial funds for the education and conversion to Christianity of Indians in the 17th century. There are also writings by members of the Mayhew family, who were prominent missionaries and magistrates on the island, and John Cotton, Jr., who came here as a missionary and kept a detailed journal.

There is little documentation on Caleb's actual life. What parts of his life did you imagine? Do you feel you know him better after writing this book, or is he still a mystery?

The facts about Caleb are sadly scant. We know he was the son of a minor sachem from the part of the Vineyard now known as West Chop, and that he left the island to attend prep school, successfully completed the rigorous course of study at Harvard and was living with Thomas Danforth, a noted jurist and colonial leader, when disease claimed his life. Everything else about him in my novel is imagined. The real young man—what he thought and felt—remains an enigma.

Bethia Mayfield is truly a woman ahead of her time. If she were alive today, what would she be doing? What would her life be like with no restrictions?

There were more than a few 17th century women like Bethia, who thirsted for education and for a voice in a society that demanded their silence. You can find some of them being dragged to the meeting house to confess their "sins" or defending their unconventional views in court. If Bethia was alive today she would probably be president of Harvard or Brown, Princeton or UPenn.

 The novel is told through Bethia's point of view. What is the advantage to telling this story through her eyes? How would the book be different if Caleb were the narrator? 
I wanted the novel to be about crossings between cultures. So as Caleb is drawn into the English world, I wanted to create an English character who would be equally drawn to and compelled by his world. I prefer to write with a female narrator when I can, and I wanted to explore issues of marginalization in gender as well as race.

Much of the book is set on Martha's Vineyard, which is also your home. Did you already know about the island's early history, or did you do additional research?

 I was always intrigued by what brought English settlers to the island so early in the colonial period...they settled here in the 1640s. Living on an island is inconvenient enough even today; what prompted the Mayhews and their followers to put seven miles of treacherous ocean currents between them and the other English—to choose to live in a tiny settlement surrounded by some three thousand Wampanoags? The answer was unexpected and led me into a deeper exploration of island history

You bring Harvard College to life in vivid, often unpleasant detail. What surprised you most about this prestigious university's beginnings?
For one thing, I hadn't been aware Harvard was founded so early. The English had barely landed before they started building a college. And the Indian College—a substantial building—went up not long after, signifying an attitude of mind that alas did not prevail for very long. It was fun to learn how very different early Harvard was from the well endowed institution of today. Life was hand to mouth, all conversation was in Latin, the boys (only boys) were often quite young when they matriculated. But the course of study was surprisingly broad and rigorous—a true exploration of liberal arts, languages, and literature that went far beyond my stereotype of what Puritans might have considered fit subjects for scholarship.

 As with your previous books, you've managed to capture the voice of the period. You get the idiom, dialect, and cadence of the language of the day on paper. How did you do your research?
I find the best way to get a feel for language and period is to read first person accounts—journals, letters, court transcripts. Eventually you start to hear voices in your head: patterns of speech, a different manner of thinking. My son once said, Mom talks to ghosts. And in a way I do.

 May 2011, Tiffany Smalley will follow in Caleb's footsteps and become only the second Vineyard Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard. Do you know if this will be celebrated?
In May Tiffany Smalley will become the first Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb to receive an undergrad degree from Harvard College. (Others have received advanced degrees from the university's Kennedy school etc.) I'm not sure what Harvard has decided to do at this year's commencement, but I am hoping they will use the occasion to honor Caleb's fellow Wampanoag classmate, Joel Iacoomis, who completed the work for his degree but was murdered before he could attended the 1665 commencement ceremony.

Stay tuned to The Burton Review for the book review of Caleb's Crossing!!

Mar 16, 2011

The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas

Wednesday, March 16, 2011
The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: NAL Trade (March 1, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0451232151
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: 4 stars

In a city-state known for magnificence, where love affairs and conspiracies play out amidst brilliant painters, poets and musicians, the powerful and ambitious Alfonso d'Este, duke of Ferrara, takes a new bride. Half of Europe is certain he murdered his first wife, Lucrezia, the luminous child of the Medici. But no one dares accuse him, and no one has proof-least of all his second duchess, the far less beautiful but delightfully clever Barbara of Austria.

 At first determined to ignore the rumors about her new husband, Barbara embraces the pleasures of the Ferrarese court. Yet wherever she turns she hears whispers of the first duchess's wayward life and mysterious death. Barbara asks questions-a dangerous mistake for a duchess of Ferrara. Suddenly, to save her own life, Barbara has no choice but to risk the duke's terrifying displeasure and discover the truth of Lucrezia's death-or she will share her fate.

The young Lucrezia de Medici was the first duchess to the powerful Alfonso d'Este, a Duke of Ferrara with eyes for greatness. Lucrezia was found dead in a monastery and Alfonso required a second wife. Enter Barbara, Archduchess of Austria, and they were married in 1565. Elizabeth Loupa's suspenseful novel of The Second Duchess is a thrill of a ride as Barbara tries to unravel all the mysteries of her predecessor's past. She arrives at her new court full of hope for a successful marriage and a bright future, but the demons of the past must be silenced in the only way Barbara knows how.. which is to discover the nasty truths.

Alfonso is a man to be feared. His grandmother was Lucrezia Borgia, and just that name of Borgia summons thoughts of poisons and murder. It is quite possible Alfonso murdered the first duchess.. and Barbara finds out first hand how cruel he can be. Barbara has few friends at the court of Ferrara, and those are the ones that she brought with her from Austria. Barbara is fearful but resolute.. she must find out what happened to Lucrezia de Medici so that she can silence the whispers that are told behind her back. She is in danger herself as she gets closer to the truth, and just when I think that's it.. I've got it figured out!! Another proverbial bomb drops and off we go with another was one twist after another leading this reader in and out of the story with perfect precision of suspense and ghostly apparitions. I can't go further into the story without spoiling the plot, but there are wonderful things like devious nuns, knife-wielding husbands and forbidden books! The entire focus of the novel is the suspense, so that pure historical fiction lovers who do not enjoy mysteries as much may not like this novel as much as I did. There were the mysteries behind each of the characters as we didn't know who was part of what conspiracy, but there was also the facet of the relationship between Barbara and her new husband Alfonso. I love the added layers of mystery to historical characters, so this book was a quick light read for me that was very hard to put down.

Using Robert Browning's 1842 poem "My Last Duchess" as inspiration, debut novelist Elizabeth Loupas surprises us as she masterfully reimagines the arrival of the second duchess and successfully blends historical fiction with suspense that I think fans of the two genres would love this bit of court intrigue.

Mar 13, 2011

Historical Movies featuring Plantagenets and Tudors, Oh my!

Sunday, March 13, 2011
Praise the Lord for Netflix. There are days when I just don't feel like opening a book. Let's watch some good old historic movie to ease me into my dreams.. such as The Lion In Winter or Wallis & Edward.

Movies that I have never been able to watch before are now delivered to my mailbox courtesy of my very tolerant husband's Netflix account.

I wanted to share some of the winners (& losers) that I've come across these past weeks. If you don't have a Netflix account, let me tell you that I am impressed with the quick turn around of the DVD's incoming and outgoing. There is an option to view them instantly on your computer or iPhone, or you can go the DVD route, which is what I prefer.

My favorites that I've watched so far are The Lion In Winter and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex: each old classic movies that I am sad I've waited this long to see.
Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine with her son Richard (Anthony Hopkins!)
Even though The Lion In Winter is another movie that is historically inaccurate, I loved the way Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine bantered back and forth. Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole were perfect frenemies together, and debuts by Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton were superb as well. (Hopkins looked like he could squish Dalton with his thumb!)

(Email subscribers need to click through for this fabulous video).

Even though the movie spans a simple (fictitious) Christmas season, the references within the dialogue to all of the major events (fights, betrayals etc) in their lives were a treat for this Eleanor fan. The quips coming out of Hepburn's mouth as Eleanor were fast, furious and hilarious! Alys (the same Alais from The Queen's Pawn by Christy English) was also very well portrayed by Jane Merrow, and she was a vixen you would love to hate. I could go on and on about the rest of the cast, and the sinister plot line to kill one's sons and fathers.. but you'll just have to watch it yourself!

Bette Davis as Elizabeth in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) was very well done and so far the most passionate Elizabeth I portrayal I've seen, even though Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchette are well known for their more recent roles. The romance lovey-dove must-have-you-desperation theme was incredibly overplayed but Bette Davis and Errol Flynn were indeed glorious in their roles. There is a fantastic mirror smashing scene that stands out in my mind.

The Madness of King George (1994) was pretty sad for its subject matter as it seems King George's son was just waiting for his old dad to kick the bucket, and although the acting seemed well enough there wasn't a fabulous impression made on me after it was over. Definitely an interesting portrayal by Helen Mirren as  Queen Charlotte. Of course this time period is much later on after the Tudor era and I still prefer earlier history thus far.

 Lady Jane (1986, Carey Elwes, Helena Bonham Carter) was beautifully done although completely inaccurate, pretending there was a real romance between the two forced into marriage. This will probably be the favorite role that I have seen Helena Bonham Carter in. Patrick Stewart as Henry Grey Duke of Suffolk was a bit much for my senses, but his wife Frances Brandon was quite a witch! I have always had trouble picturing King Edward VI as a king.. but the portrayal here was perfect for easing the ambiguity in my mind.

Richard III (1995) was horrific and I could not finish it. I had hoped for so much more. The Shakespearean dialogue talking to the camera thing was just completely annoying, and, yes, I even took Shakespeare in college as I had enjoyed him so much when a student. To top it off, this Richard III film was set in 1930's. Ick.

Wallis & Edward (2005) was impressive and intrigued me about that time in England's monarchy, where a king chose his lover over the throne. Joely Richardson as Wallis Simpson was fantastic, and I noticed the splendid scenery in this one, perhaps it was just my love for all things vintage.

A Man for All Seasons (1966) was another great classic movie, and perfect for Thomas More fans, as it was focused on his plight rather than Henry VIII. And an ideal role for Paul Scofield as he was a magnificent Thomas More. It was a pity that the movie only focused on Thomas's disagreement over 'the great matter' with Henry VIII, as he was much more of a scholar than to be reduced to that one event. I also felt Robert Shaw was a remarkable Henry VIII and I would have loved to see more of him.

Some of the movies I have seen before the Netflix proved its worth are Anne of A Thousand Days and Mary Queen of Scots which my father had bought for me in a DVD set. Both are wonderful movies that I am glad to have in my collection. I have also seen Duchess, though Knightly irritates me for some unknown reason, so it hasn't really made an impression on me either way yet. The story was a new one for me and I probably didn't understand much of it.. something of a triangle thing. I have seen Elizabeth I and The Golden Age flicks along with The Queen with Helen Mirren but still prefer Bette Davis's portrayal. Of course I have seen 2008's The Other Boleyn Girl and after I got over that horrific rape scene it was a decent movie although we can all talk circles around it regarding inaccuracies etc. I didn't really like Scarlett Johansson in that one though. I still have to watch the 2003 version.

So far it seems the old adage oldie but goodie holds true! What British-themed historical movies have you seen that you would recommend to me? I still have some more to go on the Netflix account but I think I've seen the ones that I really wanted to thus far. What's next scattered around the 65+ queue on my Netflix are The Libertine (long wait, sigh), Young Victoria, and Elizabeth and Mrs. Brown. I also went ahead and put the BBC series of Robin Hood on there which I have only heard fantastic things about. Perhaps I can get the husband interested in that one.

Mar 7, 2011

The Queen's Rival by Diane Haeger

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Queen's Rival by Diane Haeger
New American Library, March 1, 2011
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: 4 stars

As the beautiful daughter of courtiers, Elizabeth "Bessie" Blount is overjoyed when she secures a position as maid of honor to Katherine of Aragon. But when she captures the attention of the king himself, there are whispers that the queen ought to be worried for her throne.
When Bess gives birth to a healthy son the whispers become a roar. But soon the infamous Boleyn girls come to court and Henry's love for her begins to fade. Now, Bess must turn to her trusted friend, the illegitimate son of Cardinal Wolsey, to help her move beyond life as the queen's rival.

Finally a novel on Bessie Blount! Her name has followed me throughout many Tudor reads, but I have never been able to read something that had the potential to answer many of my questions about her, a famous mistress to a handsome and dashing King Henry VIII. Diane Haeger has focused some recent novels on the Tudor courts, and along with Philippa Gregory she was one of the first historical authors I read (The Secret Bride which was an intriguing story of Henry VIII's favorite little sister, Mary). In The Secret Bride, Mary defied her royal brother's wishes and married the man she loved.. his best friend. And thus.. I was hooked on that wild Tudor family. Last year, Haeger wrote of Catherine Howard in The Queen's Mistake, and the author finally gave young Catherine the voice that she is always lacking in most Tudor novels. Now Haeger gives us yet another inside look in those same veins of Henry VIII's court and finally gives us Bessie Blount. Blount is almost always mentioned in Henry VIII reads as she was the mistress who bore Henry his first son, who grew up to marry the fearsome Thomas Howard's daughter.

Everyone knows how Henry VIII noticed Anne Boleyn dancing one day and promptly had to have her, which then set him up for the succession of wives afterwards. But before all that.. who was Bess Blount? Was she a flighty air headed girl? What was the relationship between she and Henry really like, especially since he was at his prime? How did pious Queen Katherine treat her rival? How did Henry's other mistresses treat Bess? Why did she leave the court?  Did Henry shush her aside once she was with child? What was it like to be a mistress to a man whom everyone wanted a favor from? Why didn't she have the stuff that Anne Boleyn  had to make Henry marry her?

My questions were answered with Diane Haeger's novel on the mysterious lady who seemingly loved King Henry VIII. Haeger portrayed the relationship without rushing, as she made the reader get to know Bess and wish for her to take a different path, safely away from a ruthless king. Yet Henry is not quite the murdering king we have come to know, as he is still young and vibrant and full of hope. Bess's own life is like an open book with Haeger's writing, although besides the facts we will truly never know what depths of emotions there were between Henry and Bess, I was impressed and satisfied with the story that Haeger writes, which finally fills in so many blanks regarding Bess Blount and her family as she spun her tale with devotion and patience to the subject. It was tenderly written with sweet as opposed to bawdy sex scenes and the ending of the story had me dabbing at my eyes. I enjoyed the book more for the amount of time it encompassed, from Bess' arrival at court at age fourteen to Bess's second marriage while following along King Henry's own timeline of subsequent mistresses and marriages. The reader is also treated to well-known players at Henry's court such as Wolsey, Katherine of Aragon, and Henry's bastard son. One wonders how close England could have been to having his bastard son in succession to the throne which could have set a precedent for England. Haeger's novel on Bessie Blount is one that will be most appreciated by Tudor fans who have always longed to know what went on behind Henry's closed doors and in his heart with regards to one of his first acknowledged mistresses.