Books I’ve Read This Week: Singapore

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 47: Singapore: I recently travelled to Southeast Asia to lecture on a cruise ship and journey began and ended in Singapore. I enjoyed exploring the city, visiting the Botanic Gardens, Fort Canning, National Museum and Chinatown. I also enjoyed reading histories of Singapore and the wider region as well as novels set there. In recent weeks, I read the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, fiction and non-fiction about Singapore’s founder Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a traveller’s history of Southeast Asia and a mystery novel set in the 1930s Crown Colony of Singapore. For more histories of Singapore, see the reviews in Week 45: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia. Here are this week’s reviews:

#324 of 365 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Date Read: November 23, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 527 pages

Review: I read the novel after watching and enjoying the film. Nick Young and Rachel Chu have even more eccentric relatives in the novel and some of the storylines are more complicated including Astrid’s marriage and Eleanor’s family life. Like the movie, the book is a lot of fun. Kwan includes humorous footnotes about the slang phrases used in Singapore, and the designers favoured by the different social circles among the very wealthy. There’s a detailed annotated genealogy of all the interconnected families as well. The financial decisions made by the Young family and their relatives were interesting. The characters, especially Astrid, spend enormous sums spent on clothing and jewellery but they are expected to stay with family and friends whenever they travel instead of spending on hotel rooms, which of course leads to more complications. The perfect read for the long flight to Singapore.

#325 of 365 China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Date Read: November 25, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 479 pages

Review: The entertaining sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Most of the characters from the first novel return although there are surprisingly few scenes featuring Nick’s overbearing mother, Eleanor Young, with the exception of a dramatic entrance early in the novel. There is a fun subplot involving an “art consultant” to the wealthy who helps her clients break into high society with the correct fashions, behaviour and manner of speaking. In contrast to the first book, very little of novel takes place in Singapore. Instead, Nick and Rachel spend their honeymoon in China, getting to know Rachel’s half-brother and his complicated social circle, and take a side trip to Paris. There are some unexpected plot twists toward the end including a dramatic medical crisis.

#326 of 365 Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 541 pages

Dates Read: November 25-28, 2018

Review: My favourite book in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. In Rich People Problems, the future of Tyersoll Park, the stately home of NickYoung’s grandmother is in question, and the family matriarch’s last will and testament raises more questions than it answers. The history of Japanese occupation of Singapore is woven into the narrative with a fascinating back story concerning the older generation of the family and the Singapore Botanic Gardens. There is some great character development for both Kitty and Astrid while Rachel continues to find Nick’s overbearing family and immense wealth to be a challenge. An entertaining and satisfying conclusion to the series.

#327 of 365 A Traveller’s History of Southeast Asia  Nicholas J. White and J.M. Barwise

Dates Read: November 28-30, 2018

Genre: Travel/History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 358 pages

Review: A good overview of selected countries in Southeast Asia designed for travellers to the region. The writing style is a little bit dry but conveys a great deal of information in a concise manner. The book includes a chronology of key events and lists of political leaders as well as summaries of the current political situation of each of the countries discussed in the book. The intended audience of the book, travelers to the region, limits the scope of the history as the author leaves out Myanmar and the Philippines because they attract fewer tourists, even though they are relevant to the historical events mentioned in the text. There are also no conclusions presented about the region as a whole. A useful read for travellers but of limited value as an overall history of the region.

#328 of 365 Raffles: And the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning

Acquired: Purchased at the National Museum of Singapore

Date Read: December 5, 2018

Format: Paperback, 350 pages

Genre: History/Biography

Review: A comprehensive biography of Thomas Stanford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. The author devotes much of the book to his extended family and his sometimes contradictory ideas concerning Britain’s political and cultural influence in the wider world. The narrative often reads like a real life Jane Austen novel with passages such as “The Raffleses were ordinary people with no family money and few influential connections” and the circumstances surrounding Raffles’ two marriages and his efforts to arrange matches for his sisters. The book did not devote as much time to the founding of Singapore as I expected and I would have been interested to read more about Singapore’s history in the context of Raffles’ biography. An interesting read but the focus is more on Raffles’s early life and family than some of his later achievements.

#329 of 365 Olivia and Sophia by Rosie Milne

Dates Read: December 7-11, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Acquired: Purchased at the Battlebox Museum, Fort Canning, Singapore

Review: An engaging novel told through the fictional diaries of Olivia and Sophia, the successive wives of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. Both the scandalous Olivia and the pious and supportive Sophia were interesting historical figures in their own right and they were well traveled by the standards of their time, accompanying Raffles on his journeys to Asia. Milne captures the changing sensibilities of the 19th century as Olivia is presented as far more tolerant of local customs around the world than Sophia, who is convinced of the superiority of her own culture and religion.

There are moving entries concerning the loss of Raffles’ and Sophia’s children to tropical diseases. Some of the entries in the novel follow historical documents closely while others are heavily fictionalized. Sophia’s entries are more nuanced than Olivia’s, perhaps because Milne was able to draw upon Sophia’s real life memoir to get a strong sense of her voice. The entries from Olivia’s perspective are a bit too reliant on the cadence of the early 19th century with frequent uses of “twas” and “twere” that become distracting over time. An enjoyable read, especially for visitors to Singapore.

#330 of 365 The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Olivida Yu  

Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from W.H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Format: Paperback, 312 pages

Review: An entertaining murder mystery set in 1930s Singapore. I found the mystery itself a little bit hard to follow and had to reread the conclusion a second time but I greatly enjoyed the historical setting and the narrator’s dry humour. The novel incorporates the events and popular culture of the time from a Singaporean perspective including the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson, the Japanese invasion of China and the growing threat of war in Europe. Yu includes Singapore’s cultural diversity including different approaches to the English language, details which play a key role in solving the mystery. I look forward reading other novels in the series.

Good Housekeeping Interview: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s baby: What you need to know

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

I recently discussed the Duke and Duchess of Sussex with Good Housekeeping. The royal couple will become parents in the Spring of 2019 and the interview focused on the traditions surrounding royal births including names, titles and announcements.

Click here to read “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s baby: What you need to know” in Good Housekeeping UK

 

Books I’ve Read This Week: Biography and Memoir

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 46: Biography and Memoir: I have returned from lecturing on a cruise ship and I am catching up on my book reviews here! In addition to reading historical novels and histories of Southeast Asia in November, I read a variety of different biographies and memoirs. While a couple of these books are biographies of historical figures, the others are modern memoirs that examine a variety of themes including family history, First Nations experiences, growing up in apartheid South Africa, dealing with stress, and the division of household labour. Here are this week’s reviews:

#317 of 365 The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters by Anne de Courcy

Genre: History/Biography

Date Read: November 8, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 431 pages

Review: A joint biography of Irene, Cynthia and Alexandra Curzon, the three daughters of George Curzon, Viceroy of India, and an American heiress, Mary Leiter. de Courcy provides a vivid portrait of British upper class society in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, describing lavish dinner parties and debutante balls. The most interesting sections of the book are the accounts of King Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 and marriage to Wallis Simpson in 1937 from the perspective of his social circle. Alexandra “Baba” Curzon was married to Edward’s best friend (and best man) Fruity Metcalfe and her diary provides a first hand account of the unconventional royal wedding.

There are other sections of the book, however, that become mired in the numerous scandals involving the Curzon sisters and their friends and with less attention devoted to the broader historical context. Irene was one of the first female Life Peers in the House of Lords, Cynthia was a Member of Parliament and Alexandra provided financial assistance to the Dalai Lama after his flight from China, and received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her philanthropy. I would have been interested to read more about these political and charitable endeavours. Irene’s and Alexandra’s lives after the Second World War are summarized in a few pages at the end of the book, even though Alexandra died in 1995 at the age of 91. An engaging read but I prefer some of Anne de Courcy’s other books including 1939: The Last Season and Debs at War.

#318 of 365 Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot 

Date Read: November 9, 2018

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Review: My book club’s choice for November. An exquisitely written memoir. The author has experienced a great deal of personal suffering but there are moments of hope and humour that shine through her pain. Mailhot engages with the concepts of forgiveness and memory and how these ideas are shaped by culture. The influences of her own mother and grandmother and the experience of growing up on the Seabird Island Reservation in British Columbia infuse the narrative. The book includes an introduction by Sherman Alexie that describes the author as “the metaphorical love child of Emily Dickinson and Crazy Horse.” There is also an interview with the author that describes the process of writing the book from her original intent to write fiction to the uncovering of her life story. An original and absorbing read.

#319 of 365 It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs

Dates Read: November 16-17, 2018

Genre: Memoir/Comedy

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Review: An entertaining book about researching family history, the prospect of a global family tree and the author’s efforts to organize the world’s biggest family reunion. It’s All Relative is filled with entertaining anecdotes about the author’s own family tree, including a touching story about his grandparents’ courtship that Jacobs uncovers in his grandfather’s FBI file. He discovers famous people who are his 7th or 9th cousins and interviews them about their own views on family history research. (The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson is actively disinterested in geneology while the actress Mila Kunis sends Jacobs a DNA profile that is so complete that he learns her earwax consistency). The family history project does not seem to have been quite as all consuming as his previous books, which involved reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, following the Bible literally or transforming his diet and exercise regime but it’s still a very enjoyable read.

#320 of 365 Frederik III: The King Who Seized Absolute Power by Jens Gunni Busck

Date Read: November 19, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Hardcover, 60 pages

Review: An illustrated short biography of a little known monarch who had a profound effect on the government of Denmark for nearly two hundred years after this reign. Prior to the reign of Frederik III, a Council of the Realm imposed limits on the King of Denmark’s power, which the monarch was obliged to respect in order to ensure that his son would be accepted as the next King. After the Council was blamed for the mismanagement of a disasterous war with Sweden, Frederik III seized absolute power in 1660 and his Royal Laws remained in force until the introduction of a constitutional monarchy in 1848. While the politics of his reign are explained in detail, there is not as much space devoted to his personal life, aside from image captions that hint that his marriage was difficult one. A good short overview of Frederik’s reign but the book does not provide details concerning all aspects of his life.

#321 of 365 Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley

Genre: Memoir/Cultural Studies

Date Read: November 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 264 pages

Review:Fed Up is both a memoir of the author’s marriage and a wider cultural analysis of how society views emotional labour. Hartley writes with warmth and optimism about the frustrations caused by the activities that appear invisible but make individual homes and communities run smoothly such as planning meals, remembering birthday parties and organizing Christmas cards. In her own home, changing employment circumstances and better communication result in a more equitable division of household labour, giving Hartley the space required to complete her book manuscript. While much of the book is focused on the domestic sphere, there are also chapters that analyze perceptions of emotional labour in politics and the workplace. Hartley concludes that a more equitable division of emotional labour, in addition to setting boundaries around these activites and letting go of perfectionism, would benefit both men and women. An interesting and insightful read.

#322 of 365 Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: November 21-22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 44 minutes

Review: The best audiobook that I have listened to this year, brilliantly narrated by the author who is able to imitate a multiplicity of voices from all backgrounds. Noah is an excellent writer with an eye for memorable details and distinctive personalities. He provides a unique perspective on apartheid in South Africa as the child of a European father and an African mother whose relationship was illegal at the time of his birth. As he explains, he was literally “Born a Crime.” Noah writes about his religious, strict and resourceful mother with admiration and explains the complexity of the society where he grew up with a great deal of insight. Highly recommended.

#323 of 365 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found a Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris

Genre: Memoir

Date Listened: November 23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 50 minutes

Review:10% Happier appears to be a self help book but it is actually an interesting memoir about a news anchor who finds a lasting solution to his depression and panic attacks through mindfulness meditation. His reflections on his journalism career were interesting and insightful. He discusses the impact of war on the mental heath of war correspondents and the manner in which reporters competing for scarce air time view current events through the lens of their own careers. Harris discovers meditation through his press coverage of religion and spirituality and goes from skepticism about this practice to attending week long silent retreats. The audiobook is well read by the author.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 45: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia: Next week, I will be giving a lecture series on a cruise ship sailing to Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In recent weeks, I have been researching the history of Southeast Asia, reading a general history of the region, two histories of Singapore, two histories of Vietnam, two histories of monarchy in Thailand and the surrounding nations, and a novel set in colonial Malaysia that includes a historical afterword about the history of the Straits Settlements. Here are this week’s reviews:

#309 of 365 A New History of Southeast Asia by M.C. Ricklefs, Bruce Lockhart, Albert Lau, Portia Reyes and Maitrii Aung-Thwin.

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 572 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: October 31, 2018

Review: A strong overview of the political and religious history of the region. There is less space devoted to society and culture as well as the status of women. The early chapters are little hard to follow but the modern history is well organized and described for those who are new to the history of southeast Asia. There are certain key developments that seem to be summarized very quickly, especially the Vietnam War. The further reading section is exceptionally detailed and useful as it is organized by time period, country and theme. A good introduction to Southeast Asian history.

#310 of 365 Singapore A Pictorial History 1819-2000 by Gretchen Liu

Date Read: November 8, 2018

Genre: History/Photography

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Review: An informative and beautifully illustrated history of Singapore that reflects the country’s cultural diversity from the 19th century to the present day. Liu does not only provide a political and social history of Singapore through visual culture but also the history of art and photography in the region. The author discusses the origins of the images in the book as well as the events depicted in them. There are some interesting photographs of royal tours including the welcome of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (the future King George V and Queen Mary) in 1901, a garden party in honour of the Duke of Connaught in 1906, the future King Edward VIII at the Malaya Borneo exhibition in 1922, and Queen Elizabeth II at a military review in 1972. The book concludes with panoramic landscapes of modern Singapore. A fascinating volume, especially for travelers to the region.

#311 of 365 Monarchy in South East Asia: The Faces of Tradition in Transition (Politics in Asia series) by Roger Kershaw

Genre: Political Science

Date Read: November 9, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 268 pages

Review: An analysis of monarchical governments in southeast Asia from the Second World War to the end of the 20th century with an introductory chapter summarizing the influence of key events from the mid 19th century. The book is a comprehensive study of monarchy in the region, encompassing Laos, Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia, and includes rulers and dynasties who are comparatively little known. Since the book was published in 2001, the discussion of current events is a little dated and some of the predictions did not unfold quite as described by the author but the historical context, theoretical framework, and further reading list is detailed and informative.

The book includes a timeline of events and would have been enhanced by the inclusion of maps and geneological charts. Since the focus is on the influence of monarchical government on political structures rather than the wider history of region, Monarchy in South East Asia is best read after finishing a general history of the region as the author assumes a certain degree of general knowledge of historical and political events. A detailed and informative book relevant to both scholars and general readers interested in royalty and Southeast Asia.

#312 of 365 Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 11-16, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 23 hours and 42 minutes

Review: An excellent book that provides an overview of the political, social and cultural history of Vietnam with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. Vietnam: A New History is thoroughly researched and scholarly but written a style accessible to readers new to the history of southeast Asia. While most English language histories of Vietnam focus almost exclusively on the Vietnam War, Goscha provides an extensive analysis of Chinese and French influences on Vietnamese culture in addition to the impact of the United States in the region. Goscha also addresses the cultural diversity of the region and Vietnam’s relationship with other countries in Southeast Asia. An informative and interesting read.

#313 of 365 The End of the Absolute Monarchy in Siam by Benjamin A. Batson

Date Read: November 17, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 349 pages

Review: A fascinating in-depth study of the reign of King Prajadhipok (reigned 1925-1935), the last absolute monarch of Siam (Thailand) that draws upon a wide variety of sources including memoranda drafted by the King (which are included as an appendix in the book) and the popular press of the time. Batson explains the King’s routine and responsibilities during the final years of the absolute monarchy, which included reviewing personally all the petitions that he received as well as participating in court ceremonies and undertaking foreign tours. The King visited Canada and the United States in 1931 to seek treatment for an eye condition and described his stay in Banff as “a real holiday for me.” Batson does an excellent job of explaining the court politics of the time and the roles of the various princes within the wider royal family and the government. An interesting and informative book.

#314 of 365 Singapore: A Biography: by Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Date Read: November 19, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 456 pages

Review: A history of Singapore from the 1300s to 1965, incorporating images from the History Galleries of the National Museum. The book discusses the history of the island  including the mysterious fire that destroyed the settlement that predated the British colony, the goals of Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquar in creating a British outpost there, the cultural and social history of the island, trade and commerce in the region, and the effects of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The illustrations include the London Illustrated News coverage of the royal visit to Singapore by the future King George V and Queen Mary in 1901. A fascinating and engaging book that presents Singapore’s rich history from a variety of perspectives.

#315 of 365 A History of the Vietnamese by K.W. Taylor

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 626 pages

Review: A monumental history of the lands and peoples that comprise present day Vietnam with the majority of the book devoted to the centuries before European contact and conquest. Taylor focuses on the steady influence of China over Vietnamese politics and culture over the centuries with comparatively brief periods of French, Japanese and American involvement in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a strong emphasis on royal court politics and dynasties including the policies and personalities of successive rulers. Women played a prominent role at court and often helped to determine which one of the numerous princes within the extended royal family would become the next ruler. The Vietnam War is summarized relatively quickly in the second last chapter but the events of this conflict have received extensive attention in other works of Vietnamese history. A detailed and comprehensive history from the earliest surviving sources to the present.

#316 of 365 The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Genre: Historical Fiction/Supernatural

Dates Listened: November 18-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 8 minutes

Review: “Desires and feuds lingered even after death.” A unique novel that is both historical fiction set in the Chinese community of 1890s colonial Malaysia and a ghost story where the heroine visits the plains of the dead and discovers family secrets. In the novel, the living and the dead are connected through numerous channels as the dead draw upon offerings left by their living family members and recreate the same social hierarchy that they experienced while they were alive. The writing has a dreamlike quality as the ghosts move differently than the living (they have difficulty moving in straight lines) and travel at different rates through the various stages of the afterlife. I expected the book to spend a bit more time in land of the living and would have been interested to read more scenes set in colonial Malacca. An interesting read that includes a detailed historical afterward that discusses the Chinese communities in the Straits Settlements and the ideas of the afterlife that existed in that place and time.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The 19th and 20th Centuries in Historical Fiction

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 44: The 19th and 20th Centuries in Historical Fiction: In recent weeks, I have been reading historical fiction (reviewed today) and histories of Southeast Asia (to be reviewed tomorrow) as well as a few biographies and memoirs (to be reviewed at a later date). The historical novels are all set in the 19th and 20th centuries and there is a strong wartime focus, especially the First World War. I read books by authors whose work I have enjoyed before, such as Jacqueline Winspear and C. W. Gortner and discovered some new authors as well. Here are this week’s reviews:

#302 of 365 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 28-November 2, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 44 minutes

Review: I enjoyed listening to the prose of this novel, which is filled with evocative descriptions of the Essex landscape and insightful turns of phrase. Perry captures the atmosphere of Victorian science and culture including the fossils catalogued by Mary Anning and the medical discoveries of the time. I did not find the story itself to be a page turner though and it was easy to step away from this audiobook and start listening again later in the day. The characters were also not especially memorable. Beautiful writing and interesting historical context but the events of the novel made little impression. The audiobook is well read by Juanita McMahon.

#303 of 365 The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 2-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 39 minutes

Review: An engaging coming of age novel set in the early 20th century that includes the social issues of the times such as the obstacles faced by women and immigrants, child labour and orphan trains. The novel is structured as a grandmother telling her life story to her granddaughter and therefore works especially well in the audiobook format. The main character, Addy Baum, tells interesting stories of her life and highlights the social change that has taken place over the course of the 20th century but she seems to overcome obstacles relatively easily and I was surprised that she was able to achieve her personal and professional goals in such a straightforward manner. The novel would have been more interesting if the narrator had faced more complicated challenges during her youth. If one of her sisters had been the central character, the tone of the novel would have been very different. A good read but the novel would have been more compelling with a less predictable storyline.

#304 of 365 Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 39 minutes

Dates Listened: November 3-8, 2018

Review: The first installment in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey&Maturin series set during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is rich in historical detail and includes brief appearances by historical figures. Aubrey describes the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV), who was a sea captain by the age of 21 as “that singularly unattractive, hot-headed, cold-hearted, bullying Hanoverian.” Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, nicknamed “Queeney” is presented as a childhood friend of Aubrey whom he remembers with admiration. The nautical setting is beautifully rendered and gives a real sense of what it was like to be on a British naval vessel in the early 19th century. The story sometimes gets lost in all the nautical detail, however, and the novel is more difficult to follow than, for example, the first installment in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. The audiobook is well read by Patrick Tull.

#305 of 365 The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 4 minutes

Review: The fascinating early life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria is reduced to a generic romance in this historical novel. There are a few details that suggest the setting such as the beer and bratwurst in Bavaria and references to the Alps and schnitzel in Austria but the famous palaces of the Hofburg and the Schonnbrunn in Vienna are not described in any detail. Only the final chapters engage in depth with the events of the time such as the Austro-Prussian War or Hungarian demands for autonomy. Most of the book is focused on Elisabeth’s feelings for Emperor Franz Joseph and her conflict with her mother-in-law with the occasional pause for a diplomat to explain the eastern question or Archduchess Sophie to discuss Habsburg geneology.

The book would have been more interesting if the historical context was integrated into all aspects of the story and informed the personal decisions of the characters to a greater degree. There is also little evidence of Elisabeth’s unique personality and interests until the final quarter of the book. Instead, she spends her courtship blushing and her marriage grinding her teeth. Only after an extended separation during her marriage does she take control over own image and devote more time to her interests including poetry and fashion. A passable novel that could have been much better considering the interesting historical figures and political turmoil of the 19th century Habsburg Empire.

#306 of 365 Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 12-15, 2018

Acquired: Complimentary Copy from the Author

Format: Paperback, 365 pages

Review: A heartwarming novel about an American journalist in London during the Second World War, inspired by the author’s grandmother. Robson holds a PhD in British economic and social history from Oxford and her in depth research, including interviews with British women who lived through the war, informs the novel. Goodnight From London is filled with fascinating historical details about London in the 1940s including fashions, food, office culture and the Blitz with an emphasis on the cultural differences between the United Kingdom and United States at the time. The characters are likable and there are some interesting developments in the plot as their backstories are slowly revealed. While most of the characters are fictional, there are a some memorable scenes featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth make a cameo appearance toward the end of the novel. Recommended for readers of history and historical fiction.

#307 of 365 Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 16-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 10 hours and 19 minutes

Review: The second book in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series focuses on a missing woman and a series of mysterious deaths. The mystery is set in 1930 but like the first book in the series, the focus is the lingering trauma caused by the First World War on British society. As Maisie’s former employer Lady Rowan observes, “That’s one more thing that I detest about war. It’s not over when it ends. Of course, it seems like everyone’s pally again, what with the agreements, the international accords and contracts and so on. But it still lives inside the living, doesn’t it?” Winspear’s novels are filled with historical detail and Birds of a Feather devotes particular attention to women’s roles both during wartime and afterward. I look forward to reading more of the series.

#308 of 365 Marlene: A Novel of Marlene Dietrich by C. W. Gortner 

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: November 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 403 pages

Review: An enjoyable novel about the actress Marlene Dietrich from her childhood to the end of the Second World War. The opening and closing chapters are especially well done. The novel begins with the young “Lena” living in genteel poverty. Her mother was from a distinguished family but obliged to become a housekeeper during her widowhood, remarrying a lieutenant in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grenadiers during the First World War. Dietrich is determined to transcend the social conventions enforced by her mother and forge her own career as an actress. The final chapters focus on Dietrich’s work for the USO during the Second World War and her estrangement from her sister, who made very different choices in war time. In between the world wars, there is a strong focus on Dietrich’s personal life, which becomes repetitive at times, but Gortner’s depiction of the cultural life of Weimar Germany then Hollywood is interesting throughout the book. An engaging read.

Good Housekeeping Interview: Why are we so obsessed with the royal family?

The Royal Family on the Buckingham Palace balcony after the 2012 Trooping the Colour Parade

I discussed the current popularity of the royal family with Good Housekeeping in the UK. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

“Members of the royal family are certainly conscious of how they are perceived. The Queen reputedly once said ‘I have to be seen to be believed’ and remaining in the public eye through tours, charitable patronages and presence on major occasions in the life of the nation is certainly key to the monarchy’s popularity,” said Dr Carolyn Harris, historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.

Click here to read Why are we so obsessed with the royal family? in Good Housekeeping UK

 

Books I’ve Read This Week: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 43: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II In recent weeks, I have been reading new perspectives on the lives and reigns of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, a novel about Queen Elizabeth II, three volumes of scholarly articles about 19th and 20th century British and European royalty and a new history the United Kingdom in the 19th century. Here are this week’s reviews:

#295 of 365 Queen of the World: Elizabeth II: Sovereign and Stateswoman by Robert Hardman

Genre: Biography

Date Read: October 29-30, 2018

Acquired: Received a Review Copy

Format: Paperback, 578 pages

Review: The best royal biography of the year! Most books about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign focus on her life and reign within the United Kingdom but Queen of the World examines her role as Head of the Commonwealth and sovereign of sixteen Commonwealth realms, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Hardman provides fascinating behind-the-scenes descriptions and analysis of royal tours and state visits as well as subtle examples of royal diplomacy, especially within the context of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

The various aspects of royal travels including unique gifts, fashion choices, menus and itineraries are explained in detail. There is a section devoted to the role of the Royal Yacht Britannia in royal diplomacy before the ship was decomissioned in the 1990s. Queen of the World includes interviews with numerous ambassadors, diplomats and members of the royal household as well as Princess Anne, the Countess of Wessex and Andrew Parker Bowles. Over the course of the book, Hardman addresses some of the inaccuracies in The Crown series on Netflix, including the circumstances surrounding the Queen’s historic 1961 visit to Ghana.

Hardman places Commonwealth history within the context of current events concerning the monarchy and Commonwealth. Queen of the World begins with the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, which confirmed that the Prince of Wales will succeed the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and concludes with the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, who included floral emblems from the Commonwealth nations in the design of her wedding veil. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the global significance of the monarchy and the Queen’s role in international diplomacy.

#296 of 365 The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray

Genre: History

Dates Read: October 28-29, 2018

Acquired: Received as a gift

Format: Paperback, 390 pages

Review: A culinary biography of Queen Victoria and a history of attitudes toward food, cooking and dining in the Victorian era. Victoria was an enthusiastic and adventurous eater who who sampled bird’s nest soup in 1884 and an ostrich egg omelette in 1899. There are fascinating descriptions of the Queen as a culinary tourist, tasting bouillabaisse in the French riviera and seeking out local delicacies on private visits to Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Victoria’s daily meals, which generally featured lamb chops or mutton, are compared to the more elaborate meals served at state dinners.

Queen Victoria’s weight fluctuated over the course of her reign, declining during her adolescence, increasing in her early years as Queen, declining again during her marriage to Prince Albert then increasing rapidly during her widowhood. I would have been interested to read more about the impact of the British Empire on the Queen’s meals. There are references to her enthusiasm for Indian curry dishes and assurances by importers of preserved meats from Australia and New Zealand that their products did not contain kangaroo but there is no discussion of Canadian wheat, bacon and fish, which were all exported to Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign. The book includes recipes for a variety of dishes enjoyed by the Queen including pancakes with marmalade and royal haggis. A delicious read with a fresh perspective on Queen Victoria.

#297 of 365 The Autobiography of the Queen by Emma Tennant

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: October 25-26, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Harcover, 218 pages

Review: An interesting premise for a novel: Queen Elizabeth II departs for Windsor Village, St. Lucia incognito as Mrs. Gloria Smith to write her autobiography. There are a few fun details imagining the Queen flying economy class or checking in at the aiport, in contrast to the formal circumstances of her official overseas tours. Unfortunately, the novel is consistently written in the tone of an outsider curious about and mildly critical of the monarchy rather than the Queen herself. There is a lot of time devoted to the contents of the Queen’s handbag and what the corgis might do if the Queen was not there to walk them on their usual schedule.

The references to the Queen’s German ancestry and detachment from the day to day lives of regular people sound as though they were written in a critical opinion column about the monarchy rather than how the Queen would muse about her own circumstances. Some of the speculation about the Queen’s opinions is dated as the novel was published in 2007. The plot twist concerning a pretender to the throne ignores the existence of The Royal Marriages Act. For better historical fiction about the Queen, I recommend Mrs. Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn and An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

#298 of 365 Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 293 pages

Review: A well researched and insighful collection of scholarly articles concerning the role of heirs to the throne in 19th century monarchies. The editors observe that the 19th century saw the expansion of the institution of monarchy in Europe as newly independent countries such as Greece, Norway, Belgium and Bulgaria adopted monarchical government. At the same time, the spread of photography and the popular press allowed for greater scrutiny of royal dynasties as families. There were increased expectations that the lives of royalty would bear some resemblance to the lives of their elite and middle class subjects instead of other royalty alone.

Numerous articles in this collection focus on the popular view in 19th century Europe that royal weddings should follow a romantic attachment between the bride and groom and that the royal domestic sphere should allow for relaxed and informal interactions between royal parents and children. The popular perceptions of royalty developed in the 19th century continue to influence attitudes toward royal family life in the 21st century. Although the focus of the book is the 19th century, there are some fascinating articles about perceptions of royal heirs during the First World War as the future Edward VIII became extremely popular because of his military service (even though his position precluded a combat role) while Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eldest son Crown Prince Wilhelm was satirized across Europe as “Little Willy” because of his self indulgence during the war.

The focus of the book is Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Britain with individual articles concerning Belgium, Spain and Demark. The inclusion of articles concerning the role of the heir to the throne in Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan states would have enhanced the collection. The examination of popular perceptions of 19th century female heirs such as the future Queen Victoria or Queen Wilhelmina would have also been of interest. I look forward to reading future volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series!

#299 of 365 Royal Heirs and the Uses of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 325 pages

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles concerning the royal image from the early 19th century until the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip in 1947. The editors observe that royalty needed to find new methods of maintaining public support during this period including presenting their family life to the public through photographs and public appearances. In common with Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europethe topics addressed in this volume remain relevant to public perceptions of royalty in the 21st century including attitudes toward royal tours, fashions, wedding and childrearing as well as royal involvement in the Olympic Games.

There are some fascinating chapters about royalty whose relationship with the public is less known today including King Oscar II of Sweden’s efforts to cultivate a Norweigian identity during his visits to Norway and Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s objections to royalty being concerned with their public image. There are detailed chapters devoted to 19th and early 20th century royal tours of the United States and India. The volume is informative and interesting for both scholars and general readers.

#300 of 365 Monarchies and the Great War edited by Matthew Glencross and Judith Rowbotham

Date Read: November 11, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 336 pages

Review: An informative, original and insightful collection of scholarly articles concerning the impact of the First World War on European monarchies. Matthew Glencross notes in the introduction that studies of royalty between 1914 to 1918 often focus on the personalities of individual monarchs involved in the conflict rather than the wider political and ceremonial aspects of monarchical government. Monarchies and the Great War examines this wider context in addition to the individual kings and queens who reigned during the hostilities.

The book includes an analysis of the role of royalty in Anglo-American relations from the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War, discussing the importance of a frequent royal presence in Canada to royal engagement with the United States. There are detailed chapters devoted to the wartime activities of King George V and Queen Mary as well as the political agenda of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary in addition to chapters concerning monarchies at war in Belgium, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Japan.

Although Czar Nicholas II’s ill fated role as Commander and Chief of the Russian Army from 1915 to 1917 is discussed in the introduction, there are no chapters devoted to the Romanovs, a surprising omission considering that the other prominent European monarchies of the First World War each receive at least one chapter. Judith Rowbotham’s analysis of Queen Mary’s war work is excellent and the inclusion of more articles concerning European royal women’s roles during the First World War would have enhanced the book.

Monarchies and the Great War is an engaging and topical read for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. I hope that there will be further volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series that continue to explore this fascinating subject as there is still much research to be done concerning European monarchies in wartime.

#301 of 365 Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain) by David Cannadine

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 10-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 602 pages

Review: A masterful political history of 19th century Great Britain and Ireland with a strong focus on the Westminster System and party politics as well as the changing role of the monarch over time. Histories of 19th century Britain often begin with Congress of Vienna and extend to the outbreak of the First World War but Victorious Century begins with the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and integrates Irish history into the narrative. While the focus of the book is political developments, Cannadine (the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), also weaves cultural history into the narrative, discussing the work of authors from Jane Austen to HG Wells. Social history receives less attention but the final chapters contain an extended analysis of how daily life in the United Kingdom changed over the course of the century. Events in the wider British Empire and Dominions are mentioned throughout the book but do not receive the same attention as politics within Great Britain and Ireland.

In terms of royal history, Cannadine notes that the 19th century was a period of gradual evolution from a monarchy able to influence political events in the manner of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert early in Queen Victoria’s reign to the more ceremonial role of the elderly Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. He also observes that successive monarchs misread the political and religious situation in Ireland. King George III opposed Catholic emancipation and Queen Victoria was hostile to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support for Irish Home Rule. Not until King George V did a monarch observe that Irish Home Rule in the 19th century would have been a wise policy.

Cannadine admires Prince Albert, arguing that “no member of the British royal family since has made so many-sided a contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of the United Kingdom” and there is a chapter devoted to the Great Exhibition of 1851. In contrast, Cannadine is dismissive of King George III’s “delinquent sons” and argues that the Duke of Kent did not make any notable contribution besides fathering Queen Victoria, a claim disputed by the Duke’s recent biographers. I would have been interested to read more of Cannadine’s thoughts about Queen Victoria’s changing political views over the course of her reign. Overall, however, Victorious Century is an authoritative and engaging history of the 19th century United Kingdom, especially for readers interested in the political figures and developments of the time.

Reader’s Digest Interview: What to Do (and Not Do) If You Meet a Royal

Elizabeth II on a royal walkabout in New Zealand in 1970

I discussed protocol for meeting a member of the royal family with Lauren Cahn at Reader’s Digest. There are no obligatory rules but there are traditional forms. Individual members of the royal family such as Princess Anne and Prince Harry have also expressed their preferences, especially concerning selfies and intrusive photography by members of the public during royal walkabouts.

Click here to read What to Do (and Not Do) If You Meet a Royal in Reader’s Digest

 

Books I’ve Read This Week: Britain and France

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 42: Britain and France: In recent weeks, I have read novels, histories and travelogues set in Britain and/or France including a classic novel, two very different mystery novels, a book about British perceptions about France, a history of the opening weeks of the First World War, the story of a British matchmaking bureau during the Second World War, a joint biography of five influential women who presided over a famous English country house, and a history of Napoleon’s last years on the Island of St. Helena and his friendship with an English family residing there. Here are this week’s reviews:

#287 of 365 Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: October 4-7, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 14 minutes

Review: A classic novel where literary characters make poor life choices while drinking champagne and discussing philosophy! An excellent performance by Juliet Stevenson on the audiobook and some lush descriptions by Gustave Flaubert but I found the characters and plot were not to my taste. The tragedy that unfolds seems as though it could have been so easily avoided. The best passages are those that evoke the atmosphere of the times including Emma’s absense of meaningful occupation as a country doctor’s wife and the references to the impact of Rousseau’s work on 19th century French childrearing. The characters, however, were all unlikable and the narrative is narrowly focused on them to the exclusion of different perspectives that would present alternate possible outcomes for the story. A classic that I did not especially enjoy.

#288 of 365 They Eat Horses, Don’t They?: The Truth About the French by Piu Marie Eatwell

Dates Read: October 6-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Genre: Travel/Society

Review:  A book about British perceptions of France and a few French perceptions of Britain that examines each stereotype to see if there is any truth behind it. The book is filled with interesting facts about how France compares to the rest of Europe. For example, the highest per capita consumption of wine and cheese is not in France but in Vatican City and Greece respectively. The structure of the book, however, limits its scope as it only examines those aspects of French culture that are known from popular British stereotypes. I expected a more comprehensive analysis of French society. A fun read but there are other entertaining books about France by expats that cover more ground including 60 Million Frenchman Can’t Be Wrong by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau.

#289 of 365 The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Genre: Social History

Date Read: October 19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 359 pages

Review:  A light and breezy history of a 1940s matchmaking agency and the variety of clients that came through the door. While there is some discussion of the impact of the Second World War, the declining British Empire and postwar austerity on the marital decisions made at the time, the focus of the book is on individual anecdotes and the process of setting up and expanding a matchmaking business. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 1947 led to an increase in inquiries at the marriage bureau as the celebrations prompted others to want to get married. The most entertaining part of the book is the Appendix, which lists the requirements for the ideal spouse provided by British men and women in the 1940s. The requests varied from being open to meeting “Any reasonable young woman” to very specific criteria such as “South Welsh (not North Welsh)” and “Nobody called Florence.” A fun read but the book could have included more social history of the times.

#290 of 365 A Study in Scarlet Women: The Lady Sherlock Series, Book 1 by Sherry Thomas

Genre: Historical Mystery

Dates Listened: October 23-26, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours

Review: The first volume of the adventures of Charlotte Holmes, who claims to be the sister of her alter ego Sherlock Holmes. The central character is interesting as she has strong analytical mind and little use for the social conventions of her time, which are especially restrictive for women. The novel is filled with critiques of Victorian gender roles and larger philisophical debates about the role of women in society that remain relevant in the 21st century. 
While Charlotte Holmes and her times are interesting, the story is sometimes difficult to follow, especially when multiple perspectives and plot twists are presented by a single narrator in the audiobook format. I did not agree with Charlotte’s reasoning at the beginning or end of the book and I think that she could have found other ways to achieve her independence, even in the 19th century. An interesting novel but it is probably better read on the page than experienced as an audiobook.

#291 of 365 Maisie Dobbs by Jacquline Winspear

Genre: Historical Mystery

Dates Listened: October 26-27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 1 minute

Review: I greatly enjoyed this mysery novel and look forward to reading more books in the series. Maisie Dobbs begins her career as a housemaid provided with an education by her employers. After attending Girton College, Cambridge and serving as a nurse during the First World War, she becomes a detective who draws upon psychology and philosophy to solve her cases. The author does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of Britain during the First World War and its aftermath including the possibilities for social change and the suffering of those who were disfigured or had lost loved ones. Maisie is an engaging heroine with a thoughtful approach to investigating her cases that is reminiscent of the detectives in Alexander McCall Smith novels. The setting and themes are engaging for fans of Downton Abbey. Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction and mysteries.

#292 of 365 The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone

Genre: History/Biography

Dates Read: October 24-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 512 pages

Review: A fascinating joint biography of five influential women who made their home at Cliveden House: Anna Maria Talbot, mistress of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham; Elizabeth Villiers, mistress of King William III; the politically astute Augusta, Princess of Wales, mother of King George III; the abolitionist Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland; and the first female MP to take her seat in the United Kingdom, Nancy Astor. Livingstone discusses the contributions that each of these historical figures made to the development of Cliveden House and to the politics and society of their times.
The degree of financial independence enjoyed by elite women in Britain varied from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and the book explores the choices available to each of the women who presided over Cliveden. There is also some fascinating history of the house itself. The Cliveden estate was the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital during the First World War and served as a Canadian Red Cross Hospital again during the Second World War. The author currently runs Cliveden as a hotel and the book is informed by her extensive research and experience of spending time on the estate. An enjoyable and informative read.

#293 of 365 The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Genre: History

Dates Listened: October 16-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 10 minutes

Review: A Pulitzer prize winning popular history classic that continues to shape histories of the First World War. Tuchman focuses closely on the events of the first month of the war, demonstrating why the various countries involved were determined to fight until the bitter end. The description of the German burning of the university library in Louvain, Belgium and the horrified public response to the destruction of so many historic manuscripts is especially compelling. Tuchman has a talent for proviving a vivid description of a historical figure in a single phrase, allowing the reader to distinguish a vast array of military and political figures across Europe. New documents have come to light since publication, especially concerning the eastern front, but the book still provides an excellent overview of the early weeks of the war. The audiobook is well read but I would have preferred to have read the physical book with maps of the western and eastern fronts.

#294 of 365 The Emperor’s Shadow: Bonaparte, Betsy and the Balcombes of St Helena by Anna Whitehead

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 1, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at Book City, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 452 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Review:The Emperor’s Shadow is three books in one: the story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s last years on the island of St. Helena, a biography of his friend and neighbour Betsy Balcombe, and a travelogue of the author following in the footsteps of the Balcombes. Betsy is an engaging figure who resembles Lydia Bennet from Pride and Prejudice with her high spirits, irreverence, and hasty marriage to a fortune hunting military officer in scandalous circumstances. There are times when Betsy’s own experiences and impressions become overwhelmed by the wider narrative of historical events described in the book from the fall of Napoleon I to the rise of Napoleon III (who visted Betsy to hear her impressions of his famous uncle). The Emperor’s Shadow is always engaging, however, and demonstrates how members of Napoleon’s social circle became celebrities in their own right.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The Ancient World in Historical Fiction

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 41: The Ancient World in Historical Fiction In between books about history and royalty this past month, I have read some historical fiction set in the classical world. The novels include an epic saga of Israel’s history from the stone age to the 1960s, the fictional autobiography of a Roman Emperor, the perspectives of Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters and three novels inspired by characters in the The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Here are this week’s reviews:

#281 of 365 The Source by James Michener

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 54 hours and 32 minutes

Dates Listened: September 24-October 4, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:  An epic historical novel that follows the history of Israel from prehistoric times until the 1960s. The structure of the novel follows the fourteen layers of an archeological dig and the stories behind the artifacts found there. The role of Judaism in structuring society over the centuries and the successive waves of military conflict and displacement in the region are dramatized in detail. While the setting comes alive in the novel, the characterization is sometimes repetitive. The novel contains many examples of men who do not feel that they fit into their society and their long suffering but loyal wives. Since the book was published in 1965, some material and perspectives are rather dated. The audiobook narrator reads very slowly and clearly and it’s therefore possible to listen at 1.25 times the usual audiobook speed and still enjoy the story at a reasonable pace.

#282 of 365 The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 11 hours and 15 minutes

Review:  A beautiful and moving Iliad inspired novel from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’s closest companion. The love story in the midst of the Trojan war is well developed. The characters are engaging including the clever Odysseus and the resourceful Briseis, who develops a close friendship with Patroclus. There is a good balance between myth and magical realism with goddesses and centaurs woven into the fabric of everyday life in Greece and Troy. The audiobook is well read, especially the rasping voice of Achilles’s mother. Highly recommended!

#283 of 365 I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 9-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 47 minutes

Review: Classic historical fiction written in the form of Emperor Claudius’s memoirs of his path to the throne. Claudius is a charming, engaging narrator, conscious that he is writing for posterity. His childhood health problems, including a limp and speech impediment, result in him being underestimated by his family, especially his formidable grandmother Livia. Claudius receives advice that the perception that he is not a viable potential Emperor might keep him safe during periods of palace intrigue and he carefully navigates the conflicts within his extended family.

In contrast to his ambitious relatives, Claudius is more interested in scholarly pursuits such researching and writing history even in face of scepticism about his abilities and doubts that his work will ever be read. This historical perspective allows more background information about Claudius’s extended family that would be expected in a straightforward fictional memoir. I, Claudius is best enjoyed with Claudius’s family tree close at hand as there is an enormous cast of characters connected to one another through complicated geneologies and marriages.

#284 of 365 The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 18, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 199 pages

Review: The first page or two of this novel were underwhelming for me. I could not imagine Penelope using the word “factoids” or explaining her life story after her death, thousands of years after the events of The Odyssey. Once I finished the first chapter, however, I found the book difficult to put down. Atwood’s retelling of the life of Penelope and her twelve doomed maids is original, tragic and darkly funny. The characters come to life including Helen of Troy (“Why is it that really beautiful people think everyone else in the world exists merely for their amusement?”) and Telemachus (“I’m sorry to say he was quite spoiled.”) I also liked the blend of different writing styles that brought the maids to life before their untimely deaths. Highly recommended.

#285 of 365 Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: October 17-22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 342 pages

Review:  An absorbing novel about Queen Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters Berenice and Arsinoe and the decline of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The perspective alternates between Berenice, who supplants her father as ruler and is determined to maintain Egypt’s independence from Rome, and her half sister Arsinoe who is the overlooked middle child, ignored during the struggles for power within her family. There is a strong focus on the challenges faced by women of all social backgrounds at the time, including queens. The novel ends fairly abruptly and I look forward to reading the next book in the Fall of Egypt series, The Drowning King.

#286 of 365 Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 24, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 279 pages

Review: A historical novel inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid told from the perspective of Lavinia, the last wife of Aeneas and ancestor of the Romans. In the Aeneid, Lavinia is barely mentioned and is certainly overshadowed by other female characters such as Queen Dido of Carthage. In Le Guin’s novel, Lavinia is depicted as both a fully realized figure of great political significance in the prehistoric world of “the Latins” and a literary creation who speaks with the spectre of the future poet Virgil. Lavinia believes that the Aeneid ended too abruptly and that if Virgil had lived longer and continued the epic, her true deeds and character would have become well known. Lavinia is an engaging narrator and the writing is richly detailed but the plot sometimes moves slowly. Well written but not necessarily a page turner.