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Jul 18, 2011

Review: Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders by Gyles Brandreth

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders by Gyles Brandreth
Touchstone, May 2011
Trade Paperback, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781439153680
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:Great fun! Four stars!

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders opens in 1890, at a glamorous party hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle. All of London's high society -- including the Prince of Wales -- are in attendance at what promises to be the event of the season. Yet Oscar Wilde is more interested in another party guest, Rex LaSalle, a young actor who claims to be a vampire.

But the entertaining evening ends in tragedy when the duchess is found murdered -- with two tiny puncture marks on her throat. Desperate to avoid scandal and panic, the Prince asks Oscar and his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to investigate the crime. What they discover threatens to destroy the very heart of the royal family. Told through diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and letters, Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders is a richly atmospheric mystery that is sure to captivate and entertain.

I love me some history with mystery and vice versa. Vampires, no, not so much. But last year I read Dracula in Love by Karen Essex and really loved it. The theme of medical experimentation is in both of these books, horrific as the thought is. I knew this Oscar Wilde series by Gyles Brandreth already had accumulated a following due to the prior mysteries, so I wanted to give this fourth one a try. Oscar Wilde was truly an amazing man, and I enjoyed how his character was so efficiently infused in this mystery. The absolute main draw of this mystery was the wittiness of Oscar and his never ending amount of one liners.

Apparently different from the previous forms of the series, this installment utilizes many different narrators as told via notes, letters and diaries. The main characters are all distinguished gentlemen who behaved in similar fashions, so I had to sometimes go back and look at the heading of the particular note or letter to see who was speaking presently. The narrations were short and swiftly changing, hence the minor confusion at times. This would be the only negative about this book, as the story was full of these British guys partying like 1890's rock stars and doing their little investigations of the murders along the way. There was indeed one of those guys who swore he was a vampire, and the murdered victims were adorned with vampire-like wounds, but that was pretty much the extent of the vampiristic tendencies except of course for the men discussing the habits of vampires. The first victim was a beautiful duchess named Helen, whom Oscar liked to quip "She is Helen, late of Troy, now of Grosvenor Square." The sleuths had to decipher whether there was a big cover-up going on because "the prince detests scandal" or was the prince never really involved at all.

Along with Oscar Wilde, other famous notables we have would be his close friend, Bram Stoker, aspiring vampire author, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the slowly becoming famous author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Among the suspect pool we have doctors, Princes, and of course, the vampire friend Rex LaSalle whom Oscar was infatuated with. And then of course there was the magnificent character of Victorian England herself, where the author did a magnificent job of setting the scene and reimagining the cobbled streets of the era. I especially enjoyed the High Tea scenes, where it boasted a feast that excluded only tea. One of the suspects, the Prince of Wales, is the same prince who became Edward VII in 1901, and it was his order that none of this vampire murder business be published while he was alive, which is why we have this splendid story at our disposal now (wink, wink).

And as far as the mystery goes, I had a feeling regarding the whodunit part, but the why part was intriguing as well. The novel was definitely the "rattling good yarn" the author wanted to give us, and I will definitely keep an eye out for his other Oscar Wilde history mysteries since I enjoyed this one so much.

Some witty Oscar Wilde lines in the novel:
"The man who thinks about his past has no future."
"It is, of course, the the second editions of my books that are the true rarities."
"The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it."

Jul 11, 2011

Review: Madame Bovary's Daughter by Linda Urbach

(To enter the giveaway for this novel which ends 7/16/11 visit Burton Book Review here.)
Madame Bovary's Daughter by Linda Urbach
Bantam Paperback, 512 pages
ISBN 13: 978-0385343879
Review copy provided by the author, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:4.5 stars!

Picking up after the shattering end of Gustave Flaubert’s classic, Madame Bovary, this beguiling novel imagines an answer to the question Whatever happened to Emma Bovary’s orphaned daughter?

One year after her mother’s suicide and just one day after her father’s brokenhearted demise, twelve-year-old Berthe Bovary is sent to live on her grandmother’s impoverished farm. Amid the beauty of the French countryside, Berthe models for the painter Jean-François Millet, but fate has more in store for her than a quiet life of simple pleasures. Berthe’s determination to rise above her mother’s scandalous past will take her from the dangerous cotton mills of Lille to a convent in Rouen to the wealth and glamour of nineteenth-century Paris. There, as an apprentice to famed fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth, Berthe is ushered into the high society of which she once only dreamed. But even as the praise for her couture gowns steadily rises, she still yearns for the one thing her mother never had: the love of someone she loves in return.

Brilliantly integrating one of classic literature’s fictional creations with real historical figures, Madame Bovary’s Daughter is an uncommon coming-of-age tale, a splendid excursion through the rags and the riches of French fashion, and a sweeping novel of poverty and wealth, passion and revenge.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert caused quite a stir over a hundred years ago in Paris, as it gave us the uninhibited housewife's struggle to always want more than what she was given. Madame Bovary caused a scandal with her adultery, and died a young woman. Shortly after, her doting husband followed her to the grand mausoleum. This left their daughter, Berthe, a penniless orphan. And this is where author Linda Urbach picks up the story as she brings us the tale of Berthe's life in Madame Bovary's Daughter.
With great attention to period detail, the author recreated Berthe's world in France as she struggled to find her place in the world. Berthe is young, but intelligent, and yet the author had the young girl making decisions as a young girl would, even though I wished Berthe would wise up at times. Those times were very hard for her, and she just wanted a normal, decent life for herself. That was not in the cards, though, as her grandmother reduced her to a slave and later Berthe toiled in a textile mill.
Berthe's only female friend was a thief, but Berthe managed to maintain a friendly relationship with a painter. He introduced to the world of art, and this opened up her creativity. She later found herself suggesting fabrics and designs to friends of her employer, and managed to work her way up slowly in society. How she got there was a struggle that was at times difficult to bear, as she underwent much hardship since her story began. But throughout her story, we witness Berthe becoming a young woman, never quite losing her girlish impetuousness, but finally managing to make wise decisions.

Madame Bovary's Daughter is not a quick light-hearted read, as it can be depressing and disheartening And even though my psyche railed against the poor decisions of Berthe, I always wanted to keep reading and see how she would get out of her current predicament. As a pretty young girl, Berthe attracted the attentions of many (female and male), thus there were several sexual situations and they could get graphic. These scenes add to the authenticity of the plight of Berthe as she attempts to make her life better than her own mother's was. At 500 pages, this novel took me 3 days to read, which means I found it very hard to put down. A very intriguing story, and Gustave Flaubert would be proud to have Berthe's voice finally on paper, as well as an additional understanding of Gustave's original characters.

Jul 6, 2011

{Giveaway!} Guest Post: Linda Urbach, author of Madame Bovary's Daughter

Have you heard of the scandalous Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert? His first published novel in 1850, and it was a pioneering one at that. And the scandal! The criticism of social classes, the affairs..Flaubert himself was hit with an immorality charge when Madame Bovary was serialized in a literary magazine.

I am looking forward to learning more of this intriguing story, and I will review Madame Bovary's Daughter here on Burton Book Review this summer. I asked the author to elaborate on a few key topics for her potential readers. Please welcome author Linda Urbach to Burton Book Review with her introduction to her newest novel, and she is offering up a giveaway, too!

Why I wrote Madame Bovary’s Daughter.
When I encountered the novel Madame Bovary for the first time in my early twenties I thought: how sad, how tragic. Poor, poor Emma Bovary. Her husband was a bore, she was desperately in love with another man (make that two men), and she craved another life; one that she could never afford (I perhaps saw a parallel to my own life here). Finally, tragically, she committed suicide. It took her almost a week of agony to die from the arsenic she’d ingested.

But twenty- five years later and as the mother of a very cherished daughter, I reread Madame Bovary. And now I had a different take altogether: What was this woman thinking? What kind of wife would repeatedly cheat on her hardworking husband and spend all her family’s money on a lavish wardrobe for herself and gifts for her man of the moment; most important of all, what kind of mother was she?

It was almost as if she (Berthe Bovary) came to me in the middle of the night and said, “please tell my story.” Having adopted my beautiful daughter at age 2/12 days I had a big soft spot in my heart for the orphan Berthe Bovary. I totally sympathized with her lack of mother love. Also, I remembered how much I loved Paris when I lived there. I had a strong desire to return-- which I was able to do in my head as I wrote the novel.

The research and writing process of Madame Bovary’s Daughter.

This is the first historical fiction I’ve ever written, so research played a big part. My first two novels were all about me but my life had gotten very boring which is why I turned to historical fiction. I used the Internet almost extensively. I found sites where I could walk through Parisian mansions of the times. Sites that not only showed what women wore but also gave instructions on how to create the gowns that were popular. I bought this great book, Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management which gives you details of absolutely everything you need to know about the running of a house in the 1850’s. You want to serve a 12-course dinner, she’ll tell you how. She’ll also tell you how many servants you need and how many pounds of paté you need to order.

The thing about research is you have to be careful not to let research get in the way of the writing. I tended to get so interested and involved in reading about the Victorian times and France in the 1850’s I would find the whole day had gone by and I hadn’t written a word. So the important thing for me is making sure I’ve got the story going forward. That’s the work part. The fun part is then filling in the historic details. It’s like I have to finish my dinner before I’ve earned my dessert. The other thing about research is that I learned to keep room open for a character I hadn’t thought about before. For example, I suddenly came across the famous couturier Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who went to Paris and revolutionized the fashion business. He jumped off the page at me and insisted on being part of my novel. So my advice to writers is always keep a place at the table of your book for an unexpected guest.

Release date: July 26, 2011
Summary of Madame Bovary’s Daughter

What you may remember about Madame Bovary is that she was disappointed in her marriage, shopped a great deal, drove her family into bankruptcy, was abandoned by two lovers, and finally took her own life. With all that drama, who even remembers she had a daughter?

And what ever happened to the only, lonely daughter of the scandalous Madame Bovary? Poor Berthe Bovary. She was neglected, unloved, orphaned and sold into servitude before the age of 13. It seems even Flaubert didn’t have much time for her. She was the most insignificant and ignored character in that great classic novel.

But in Madame Bovary’s Daughter we see how Berthe used the lessons she learned from her faithless, feckless, materialistic mother to overcome extreme adversity and yes, triumph in the end. As a young girl, Berthe becomes a model for famed artist Jean Francois Millet, later a friend to a young German named Levi Strauss and finally a business associate of Charles Frederick Worth, the world’s first courtier.

This is a Sex and the Cité tale of a beautiful woman who goes from rags to riches, from sackcloth to satin, from bed to business. Busy as she is, she still has time to wreak revenge on the one man who broke her mother’s heart. And, of course to have her own heart broken as well.

From her grandmother’s farm, to the cotton mills to the rich society of Paris, it is a constant struggle to not repeat her mother’s mistakes. She is determined not to end up “like mother, like daughter”. And yet she is in a lifelong search for the “mother love” she never had.

Berthe Bovary is a Victorian forerunner of the modern self-made woman.

~~Thanks so much to Linda Urbach for introducing us to her new novel! If this novel intrigues you as much as it does me, then sign up for the giveaway! The author is offering one lucky follower their own copy of Madame Bovary's Daughter, open to the USA. Please leave me your email address in the comments as well. Giveaway ends 7/16/11.

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EDIT to add that I have finished the novel (LOVED it) and you can read my review here at Burton Book Review.

Jul 5, 2011

For The King now out in Paperback!

For the King is available in Paperback!

For the King by Catherine Delors comes out today, a great day indeed (it's my birthday)!! I really enjoyed this novel and highly recommend for anyone interested in the French Revolution. You can read my review here. This was an adventure that had romantic and mystery elements set within a tumultuous historical atmosphere, which was all tied together very well in this novel. Find it at B&N or Indiebound. And yesterday was the author's birthday, so buy yourself her book in honor of her birthday!

Jun 28, 2011

Review: The King's Witch by Cecelia Holland

The King's Witch by Cecelia Holland
Berkley Trade June 7, 2011
Paperback 320 pages
Review copy from publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:Great weekend read!

Of the women in King Richard’s life, she is the least known—and the most powerful.

During the Third Crusade, deaths from fever and starvation are common, but King Richard the Lion-Hearted has a secret ally against these impassable enemies—a mysterious healer by the name of Edythe. She was sent to him by his mother Eleanor, and Richard first assumes that Edythe is a spy. But when her medical knowledge saves his life, she becomes an indispensable member of his camp—even as his loyal soldiers, suspicious of her talent for warding off death, call her a witch.

I read this novel on the Third Crusade in a weekend. It is a perfect summer read, sitting by the pool and losing yourself in a tumultuous era without getting bogged down with the details and facts of the times. The author uses the storyline of Richard of Lionhearted's quest for Jerusalem and brings us the story of the fictional doctor, Edythe, who travels along with Richard's Crusader Army and his sister Johanna as they progress through Acre and Jaffa in efforts to defeat Saladin.

The Third Crusade features notables such as King Conrad of Montferrat and King Philip of France who add to the religious and political strife, but the story focuses on Edythe and her relationships. Edythe serves Johanna, who also has a significant storyline as she is caught up in personal tangles, and Edythe becomes well-known as a doctor of sorts which tags her with the witch insult among the other Crusaders. Edythe helps King Richard during his illnesses and fevers throughout the Crusade, and along the way meets Rouquin who acts as a military commander for Richard. Edythe is attempting to discover the meaning of her own life, as she was rescued by Queen Eleanor many years ago during the persecution of the Jews. That was a different life for Edythe, though, and she had felt like she had acclimated herself to the Christian ways. When she goes along on the Crusade, she begins to doubt herself and her faith, becoming very afraid of the secret she harbors. The secret threatens to harm the only true thing she has come across, which is the love she bears for Rouquin.

Author Cecelia Holland has become quite prolific, as her back list includes over thirty historical novels. I reviewed her last release The Second Eleanor last year and found that I was intrigued by Holland's easy writing style. The King's Witch is no different: the writing was fluent and fast paced and I was entertained by this story set during an important time for King Richard. I was particularly engaged within the story during the battle scenes, and I felt like I raced through those pages. As a fan of historical fiction, I have recently read stories that solely focused on real characters, but this novel reminds me of what is so wonderful about the genre. The setting of the time and place was an educational backdrop to the two fictional characters at the heart of the story, and their story helped me appreciate and understand the turmoil that the Crusaders experienced. This was not just a love story, but The King's Witch incorporated the pressures of the Crusaders versus Saladin with intriguing side stories such as the succession of the crown of Jerusalem. I think it's time I peruse Holland's back list for more of her entertaining reads.

Jun 24, 2011

Review: Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen

Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Crown (June 28, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0307716576
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:

Karleen Koen's newest novel represents several firsts for me. Before Versailles is the first novel on Louis XIV that I've read, therefore it offers my first characterization of Louis and his contemporaries. Secondly, this is my first Karleen Koen novel, even though I've ogled her previous books and been told many times that I absolutely must read them. I do own them and have already let my mother read them (who devoured them all in a short amount of time) and now I am certainly looking forward to all those novels after enjoying Before Versailles so much!

Since this is my first novel that deals with Louis XIV, please realize that I really have no way of differentiating from the gossip, rumors, scandals or facts that Koen utilizes in her magnificent storytelling. Before Versailles focuses on a specific four months of the reign of Louis soon after the powerful Cardinal Mazarin passes away in 1661. The Cardinal and the Queen mother, Anne, were known to have a close relationship, but how close was any one's guess. Louis realizes it is now time to take over the reigns of the government after the passing of the Cardinal, and he begins to learn of the treachery amongst his family and courtiers. And while he is focusing on the politics of his court with a lookout for more revolts, he is also eyeing Henriette, his brother's wife whom everyone adores. Henriette is portrayed as a bored woman stuck in a loveless relationship, and happily wreaks romantic havoc throughout Louis' court, as she tells the King to court other girls as well as her to divert some of the rumors surrounding her own conduct with the King.

Louise de La Baume Le Blanc
The story features these women who Louis courts, as well as his own boring wife and his meddling mother. His brother Phillippe is a scandalous creature causing embarrassment everywhere, yet I couldn't help but feel sorry for him as his wife was making him a fool until I later realized Phillippe didn't really deserve my sympathy at all. One of the main characters is maid of honor Louise de La Baume Le Blanc, a young spirited girl who adores animals over people any day. (She is featured in Sandra Gulland's novel Mistress of the Sun). King Louis takes notice of her and a courtship eventually develops, helped along by Henriette's maneuvering. Louise seemed like a hunted deer, as she was caught in the royal traps and manipulations of the court although she was the one of the few true innocents of the court. It was very hard to not feel sympathetic towards her, especially how the author favorably portrays both Louis and Louise.

Besides the relationships of Louis and his dalliances with women, the novel touches upon Viscount Nicolas as we watch Louis and his main man Colbert slowly gather damning evidence against the Viscount who was becoming a threat to Louis due to his own wealth and powerful connections. The Viscount is not aware of the concerns of the King, and blindly hopes for a high position under Louis's wing. It was all very entertaining and suspenseful to read and witness the Viscount's downfall, learning the ways of the early reign of Louis before he was known as the Sun King. Louis was portrayed in a most positive light as a strong and powerful young man with a growing leadership ability, yet with the faults of having a soft heart as well. The women at court were catty and snobby and the men encouraged it as they took advantage of whatever they could get. I really enjoyed how the intricacies (and scandals!) of the storyline played out because there were quite a few of them running concurrently. Behind the scenes of Louis' courtships and political machinations, there was always the running current of Louise's girlish curiosity of a mysterious boy in an iron mask which slams her into reality when she finally tells the King of this strange boy she saw at a monastery.

"L'Homme au Masque de Fer" ("The Man in the Iron Mask") 1789
Fontainebleau was the setting for the story, and I was immediately intrigued by the author's description of it and its immeasurable beauty. It was always there as a symbol for Louis, as a place that was built by ancestors, where Louis seemed to walk along its shadows and those of his predecessors. It slowly began to make sense to this reader why Louis moved court to Versailles and why the author chose the title Before Versailles. The writing of Karleen Koen was a bit different, as she has her own uniquely mesmerizing style which was conversational yet verges occasionally towards stream of consciousness. The myriads of court players in the beginning of the story were a bit much to get my head wrapped around, but I quickly caught up and found myself intrigued and enthralled with Louis and his many courtiers and musketeers, as Karleen Koen offers us a sensational glimpse of Louis as he was just beginning to become the man known later as the Sun King. I absolutely adored the ending, and there were several times in the book I could have cried. This is a must read for French history fans as well as those who enjoy historical romance, because there was plenty of that in this story, with a healthy dose of suspense as well. A wonderful combination of enjoyable factors and I am so glad that this one was my first read on Louis XIV. In fact, this is going on my shortlist for favorites of 2011. Where to go from here? And where does Karleen Koen go from here? A novel on Athenais, and Louis' later reign? I would love to see another trilogy that starts with Before Versailles.