Books I’ve Read This Week: February 12-18, 2018

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 7: The Olympics: I am told that the Winter Olympics are taking place right now. In past years, I have managed to watch events on TV, especially my favourite sport, The Opening Ceremonies. The Olympics have inspired a few of my royal history articles over the years. In 2012, the year Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter Zara Phillips won a silver medal with the British equestrian team, I wrote about the history of royal athletes at the Olympic Games. In 2014, I wrote about the history of Sochi and Czarist Russia. In 2018, however, I haven’t seen a single event. My book a day project is consuming all my free time, in the best possible way. This past week, I’ve read three royal history books, three novels (two classic and one modern) and a biography of Gordon Lightfoot. Here are this week’s reviews.

#43 of 365 History, Fiction, and The Tudors: Sex, Politics, Power, and Artistic License in the Showtime Television Series, edited by William Robison

Genre: Royal History/Popular Culture

Date Read: February 11-12, 2018

Format: E-Book, 384 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  A collection of twenty-one essays by historians who separate fact from fiction in the Showtime series The Tudors, theme by theme and character by character. The book highlights what the series does well (portrayals of violence and sport in the reign of Henry VIII) and the show’s weaknesses (most notably the character of Henry VIII himself). The essays are written in an accessible and often witty style, with one historian observing, “At its worst, Rhys Meyers’ Henry resembles a young and ambitious middle manager of an Internet sales company, who shouts, shakes his fists, and stamps as he drives his cowed team on to exceed their monthly targets so that he can get a bigger bonus” and another comparing the onscreen portrayal of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain to Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

In addition to identifying historical inaccuracies and critiquing how historical figures are dramatized, History, Fiction, and The Tudors includes fascinating discussion about the relationship between history and popular culture and how the series introduces general audiences to Tudor history. My only criticism is the amount of plot summary in the individual chapters. Readers of this book will have seen the series already. The most blatant historical inaccuracies in the series, such as how The Tudors combines Henry VIII’s two sisters into one fictional character, are repeated a number of times. History, Fiction, and The Tudors is a must-read for anyone who has seen The Tudors and is interested in learning more about the history that inspired the TV series.

#44 of 365 At The Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: February 12-13, 2018

Format: Paperback, 304 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Review:  I enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s previous novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn and was therefore excited to read her interpretation of westward migration in the United States. The descriptions of gardens and orchards were beautiful and the scenes where apple trees are lovingly grafted and grown from seedlings are richly compelling. I also liked the subtle inclusion of historical figures in the narrative, such as the real Johnny Appleseed, and the dramatization of how rare plants from the Americas traveled across the Atlantic to become part of English country estates and botanical gardens. There were a lot of unpleasant characters, however, and there were some plot developments that seemed unnecessarily harsh for the few likable figures. 

#45 of 365 Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 49 minutes

Dates Listened: January 31-February 15, 2018

Review: Mansfield Park is one of two Jane Austen novels that I had not read before this year. The other is Northanger Abbey, which I hope to read next month. There are some great scenes of social satire and Fanny Price is an unexpectedly complex heroine. She is frail, shy, and treated as a poor relation by Lord and Lady Bertram but she rejects Henry Crawford’s proposal because of his character, stands up to the Bertrams when they pressure her to accept the match and takes charge of her younger sister’s education during a visit home. Mansfield Park is not my favourite Jane Austen novel, however, as it is an overly long book with a meandering plot. There are digressions about Shakespeare’s role in English culture and the proper way to read aloud, which are interesting in themselves but delay the conclusion of the novel, which seems unnecessarily rushed compared to the rest of the book. The audiobook is well read by Juliet Stevenson.

#46 of 365 Imperial Crimea: Estates, Enchantment and The Last of the Romanovs by Coryne Hall, Greg King, Penny Wilson, and Sue Woolmans

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Paperback, 778 pages

Dates Read: February 13-February 16, 2018

Review: I greatly enjoyed this book of articles about the last Romanovs and their Crimean Palaces. Imperial Crimea discusses both the architecture of the Romanov palaces in the Crimea and the lives of the Emperors and Empresses, Grand Dukes and Grand Duchesses who lived in them. Most of the articles examine an individual palace but there are multiple chapters devoted to the Imperial estate of Livadia and its development during the reigns of Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Livadia palace continued to be a site of political significance after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, becoming the setting of the Yalta Conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in 1945.

Imperial Crimea also contains chapters concerning the history of the Crimea, the career of the architect Nikolai Krasnov and a fascinating profile of the Emir of Bukhara (now Uzbekistan) who was a frequent visitor to Livadia. The Emir is usually summarized in a single line within biographies of Czar Nicholas II as a visitor to the Livadia palace who brought the children extravagant presents but Greg King discusses the Emir’s love of poetry and complicated political position. The evacuation of Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Dowager Empress Marie and other members of the Romanov extended family from the Crimea in 1919 receives extensive analysis in the final chapters.

Imperial Crimea would have been enhanced by the inclusion of supplementary material such as maps, family trees, photographs and palace floor plans. There are also a few tired stereotypes included about the upbringing of the five children of Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. Grand Duchess Marie is described as “lazy” and uninterested in her studies, when the recent publication of her diaries and letters demonstrate that she was in fact a hard working and conscientious student.  All four of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters are described in Imperial Crimea as being “raised in isolation” but the whirlwind of balls, luncheons, excursions and charity bazaars described in the book suggest that they enjoyed a more varied social life than previously supposed, especially during their Crimean holidays.

I highly recommend Imperial Crimea to anyone interested in the Romanovs, nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture, and the history of Russia.

#47 of 365 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 44 minutes

Dates Listened: February 15-16, 2018

Review: The character of Janie Crawford, a young African-American woman in early twentieth century Florida, and her search for a marriage that resembles a bee and pear blossom is very compelling and I found this novel difficult to put down. Zora Neale Hurston’s central characters are complicated figures and each of Janie’s three husbands is flawed in his own way. The writing is lush and descriptive, especially the scenes in the aftermath of the hurricane where the houses do not have roofs and remains are impossible to identify. A spectacular performance by Ruby Dee on the audiobook. Highly recommended.

#48 of 365 Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 117 pages

Date Read: February 18, 2018

Review: I disagree with the first sentence of this book: “Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory.” That distinction belongs to King John who not only had his powers limited by Magna Carta but went down in history as a sniveling villain. Even Charles I’s detractors acknowledged his personal virtues including his devotion to his family, and that he met his end with courage and dignity. Despite this questionable beginning, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life is nevertheless a good introduction to the major issues of Charles’s reign including religion, foreign policy and parliament, ending with a summary of the English Civil Wars and the King’s trial and execution. Kishlansky provides a balanced analysis of Charles I’s character, discussing both his better qualities and his political shortcomings. I would have liked more information to have been included in the book about Charles I’s famous art collection.

#49 of 365 Lightfoot by Nicholas Jennings

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: February 18, 2018

Genre: Biography

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Review: I am a huge fan of Gordon Lightfoot’s music and I enjoyed reading the stories behind the songs. I appreciated how Jennings not only wrote about the big hits such as “If You Could Read my Mind” and “Sundown” but also examined the more obscure classics such as “Marie Christine” or “Sixteen Miles to Seven Lakes,” and unreleased tunes as well. The history of the Toronto music scene in the 1950s and 1960s was also very engaging. Nice to know that Queen Elizabeth II also enjoys Lightfoot’s music and praised “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Imperial Spain: My March-April course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies

Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile

I will be teaching an eight week course about the history of Imperial Spain at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies on Tuesdays from March 6 until April 24 at 11am. Click here for more details and to register.

Course Description:

Ferdinand and Isabella transformed Spain into a world power. They sponsored Columbus’s voyages to the Americas and formed alliances with other European kingdoms. This new imperial Spain had a dark side in the rise of the Inquisition, the expulsion of Spain’s Jews and the exploitation of the colonies’ native peoples. Gold and silver from the Americas made Spain’s rulers the richest in Europe until the Golden Age came to an end with the wars of the 18th century. Join Carolyn Harris for illustrated lectures and lively discussion about the rise, fall and enduring influence of imperial Spain.

What You’ll Learn:

Click here for more details and to register

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Books I’ve Read This Week: February 5-11, 2018

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 6: The Comfort of Reading: I’ve had a difficult week and reading has been a real solace. As always, I have been reading royal history books but I also read a few novels and memoirs this week, choosing both depressing and uplifting books. Here are this week’s reviews:

#36 of 365 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: February 5-6, 2018

Format: Paperback, 560 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Review: A very absorbing novel that made me think of all the small decisions that change the course of a life. The heroine, Ursula Todd, lives her life over and over again, gradually making small changes to her biography then making a decision to change the course of history. There are hints in the novel that Ursula’s mother Sylvia and brother Teddy may have the same ability. The novel is beautifully written and I liked the way the author developed the Todd family, especially sensible, sporty Pamela and unpredictable Aunt Izzy. Ursula’s multiple lives result in her experiencing the Second World War from a variety of perspectives and there are vivid descriptions of the London Blitz.

#37 of 365 For My Grandchildren by HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone

Format: Hardcover, 306 pages

Dates Read: February 6, 2018

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone was the last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria and she was encouraged to write down her memories. The narrative has a very intimate tone because she wrote the book for her grandchildren – she refers to her husband as Grampa and her daughter as Mummy. The most fascinating sections of the book concern Alice’s travels. She was vice regal consort of Canada and South Africa, and was the first member of the royal family to visit Saudi Arabia. She even went undersea diving in the Bahamas in the 1930s.

Alice’s memoirs are filled with anecdotes about her royal relatives such as how her cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II sat on a cushion at banquets so that his wife would not look taller than him.  She challenges the popular perception of the elderly Queen Victoria as dour and humourless, remembering that her grandmother was often amused. The social commentary in the book is rather dated, however, as Alice often expresses nostalgia for the world of her childhood and views more recent developments accordingly. There are also curious omissions as she discusses the premature deaths of her father and son without mentioning the cause: Hemophilia. An interesting read but Theo Aronson’s biography of Princess Alice provides a more detailed and comprehensive analysis of the Countess of Athlone’s long and varied life.

#38 of 365 Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Genre: Fiction

Date Listened: February 8, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours and 56 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: A bleak and beautiful novel. I had seen the film before and the book provides more details about the characters, especially the heroine, Ree Dolly. There are very evocative descriptions of the characters such as the account of Ree’s mother’s depression, “Long, dark and lovely she had been, in those days before her mind broke and the parts scattered and she let them go.” The position of women in the novel is especially complicated. During her search for her father, Ree encounters both victims and villains. The audiobook is well read by Emma Galvin.

#39 of 365 James II: The Last Catholic King

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: February 9, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 114 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  A short biography from the Penguin Monarchs series, which discuses why King James II lost his throne in 1688. Womersley moves away from traditional accounts of the Glorious Revolution, which present James II as an unusually obstinate and misguided monarch and instead examines the broader political context of his times and the variety of different ideas about monarchy in western Europe in the late seventeenth century. Nevertheless, Womersley identifies traits in James II’s personality and conduct that contributed to his overthrow in 1688, noting that James “never seems to have grasped that an unswerving adherence to a plan, no matter what the circumstances, can show foolishness rather than resolution.” I would have been interested to read more details about the influence of James’s 2nd wife Mary of Modena and the royal couple’s exile in France.

#40 of 365 Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: February 10, 2018

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Acquired: Received as a gift

Review: The 2nd book in the 44 Scotland Street series (I read the first book last year). The Edinburgh setting is well crafted and the characters are endearing, especially Bertie, the precocious child whose mother insists that he wear “crushed strawberry coloured dungarees” and take saxophone lessons and yoga. The scene where Bertie accidentally visits an art gallery with a couple of Glasgow gangsters planning a heist was very funny. Amidst the quirks of the characters are gentle discussions of moral philosophy, which are present in all of McCall Smith’s novels. I’m looking forward to reading Book 3 in the series, Love over Scotland.

#41 of 365 Colonization, Piracy, and Trade in Early Modern Europe: The Roles of Powerful Women and Queens by Estelle Paranque,‎ Nate Probasco and‎ Claire Jowitt

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: February 11, 2018

Format: E-Book, 255 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library

Review: A fascinating collection of scholarly articles about the role of Queens and other powerful women in trade, finance and foreign affairs during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Studies of early modern royal women often focus on art patronage, court culture and domestic roles. Queen Elizabeth I is usually the sole exception to this pattern as she famously encouraged the piracy of Sir Francis Drake. Colonization, Trade and Piracy in Early Modern Europe demonstrates that Elizabeth’s contemporaries, such as Marie de Guise (Regent of Scotland), Catherine de Medici (Regent of France) and the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (Governor of the Netherlands) were also deeply concerned with the issues of trade and exploration. There is a wide range of historical and literary approaches to these topics in this volume. The book is a valuable contribution to the study of queenship, revealing the full range of activities undertaken by early modern royal women.

#42 of 365 Hunger by Roxane Gay

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: February 10-11, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review:  I discovered Roxane Gay’s writing on feminism and popular culture when a member of my book club recommended her previous book, Bad Feminist. Hunger is both a heartbreaking memoir about food and trauma and an insightful critique of how society and popular culture view obesity. My favourite chapters were about her complicated relationship with her family, her experiences with cooking as both self-care and a chore (including cooking the foods from her childhood), and her career as an author and public intellectual. The audiobook is read by the author and reminds me of her interview on This American Life.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Books I’ve Read This Week: January 29-February 4, 2018

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 5: A Community of Readers Since the beginning of 2018, I haven’t just been reading a book every day. I have also been posting one sentence reviews on Twitter and longer reviews here on the website and on Goodreads. My reading list has elicited strong opinions, mostly positive but occasionally scathing. This week, my review of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country received responses from twitter followers who “loved this book” while my praise for Queen Victoria’s Descendants prompted another twitter follower to observe that the author  “is one of the most prominent experts on modern European royals.” In contrast, my tweet about A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle prompted multiple tweets by one follower critiquing Sherlock Holmes beginning with “You have aggressively poor taste. Dear heavens.” I expect more social media feedback of all kinds will arrive in the coming weeks as my Book a Day project continues! Here are this week’s reviews:

#29 of 365 The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell.

Genre: Memoir/Travel

Dates Listened: January 27-29, 2018

Audiobook: 9 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: I visited Copenhagen in 2013 and 2014 and noticed numerous distinctive aspects of Danish culture including open faced sandwiches in every cafe and groups of toddlers on field trips with their day care groups. I enjoyed reading Russell’s experiences of moving from the UK to Denmark. She has a great sense of humour and captures the culture shock of arriving in small town Denmark in the middle of winter after building a career in London. Each chapter covers a different theme from leisure to food to parenting to Christmas traditions. There is a brief discussion of the Danish monarchy in the final chapter. Queen Margrethe II is one of Europe’s most popular monarchs with 77% approval ratings though few Danes would describe themselves as monarchists beyond their support for their own royal family. The audiobook is well read by Lucy Price-Lewis in an upbeat, English accent. A fun and informative read.

#30 of 365 Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Genre: Popular Science

Dates Listened: January 29-30, 2018

Audiobook: 3 hours and 41 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: A short overview of a series of fascinating topics related to the universe including the Big Bang, telescopes, galaxies and exoplanets. The prose is gloriously descriptive and your can picture the astronomical phenomena being described, especially while listening to the audiobook read by the author. I found the section on exoplanets and how they are studied to be especially interesting. An enlightening read, which reminded me of past visits to the Natural History Museum in New York.

#31 of 365 Queen Elizabeth II (Pocket Giants) by Victoria Arbiter

Genre: Royal Biography

Dates Read: January 30, 2018

Format: Paperback, 128 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Review: A good overview of Queen Elizabeth II’s life and reign. Arbiter is particularly effective at capturing the social and cultural changes that have occurred over the course of the Queen’s life. For example, she mentions that in 1947, the future Queen Elizabeth II promised to “obey” Prince Philip while Lady Diana Spencer and Catherine Middleton did not do the same at their weddings in 1981 and 2011 respectively. There is also analysis of the changing royal image in the media and the evolution of popular expectations of the monarchy. I would have been interested in reading more about the Queen’s Commonwealth tours and her subtle political influence as Head of the Commonwealth.

#32 of 365 Queen Victoria’s Descendants by Marlene Eilers Koenig

Genre: Royal History

Dates Read: February 1, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 191 Pages

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: A wonderful resource for learning more about Queen Victoria’s more obscure descendants. Anyone curious to know more about what happened to Kaiser Wilhelm’s children and grandchildren after WWI or how the Scandinavian royal houses and interconnected will find this book valuable. I was interested to learn that a few of Queen Victoria’s descendants settled in Canada including Prince Karl of Leiningen and Lady Iris Mountbatten in Toronto and Princess Frederike of Hanover in Vancouver. The illustrations are beautiful.

I read the 1987 edition so the genealogy does not include Queen Victoria’s descendants born since then (there are two updated versions) and the laws of succession have changed for most European monarchies to allow absolute primogeniture in the decades following the publication of the book. The book is still a valuable resource.

#33 of 365 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Genre: History/Biography

Dates Read: January 12-February 2, 2018

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 832 pages

Review: I greatly enjoyed this absorbing biography of Alexander Hamilton and hope to see the musical. The sections about Hamilton’s difficult childhood in the Caribbean, his prolific writings, his achievements as Treasury Secretary and the fatal duel with Aaron Burr were particularly engrossing. Chernow’s research is impressive and he captures Hamilton’s complicated personality, which combined a towering intellect, ambition and the ability to place himself at the centre of events with a extreme sensitivity to insults and occasional poor judgement, including his affair with Maria Reynolds. Chernow also rescues Hamilton’s devoted wife Eliza from obscurity and reveals her role in her husband’s career as well as her pioneering work with poor and orphaned children and commitment to preserving his legacy.

#34 of 365 A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Read: February 3, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home, Origins Unknown

Format: Paperback, 114 pages

Review: I have been watching the BBC Sherlock Holmes TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch in recent years and I read this book to see how the original stories compare to the adaptation. Sherlock’s personality and conviction that he knows everything that is necessary to be known is similar in the book and the series. The novel goes in some surprising directions, however, including a backstory for the mystery that involves Mormons and the westward expansion of the United States. The rapport between Holmes and Watson is more strongly developed in the TV series than in the novel where the characters who are not Holmes receive little development.

 #35 of 365 We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre: Personal Essay

Format: Audiobook, 64 pages

Purchased from

Date Read: February 4, 2018

Review: I have previously read the novel Half a Yellow Sun and listened to the We Should All Be Feminists Tedx Talk by the same author. The audiobook of We Shall All Be Feminists, which is read by the author, expands on the points in her Tedx talk, providing a deeply personal essay about why society should reclaim the word feminist, which the dictionary defines as “A person who believes in the social, political&economic equality of the sexes,” and raise children to follow their interests and abilities rather than traditional gender roles. The Tedx talk is 30 minutes and the audiobook is 45 minutes and I would have happily listened to a much longer book about the author’s experiences, attitudes toward women in society and how “sometimes it is the little things that sting the most.”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

NBC Interview: ‘The Crown’: Did Jackie Kennedy really badmouth the Queen?

Jacqueline Kennedy

I discussed the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, Jacqueline Kennedy and the Commonwealth in the Crown on Netflix with Daniel Arkin at NBC News.

Episode 8 of Season 2 of The Crown “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” employs a story structure that appears frequently over the course of the series: dramatizing two historical events and creating a fictional connection between them. In the case of “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” the Crown portrays two events from 1961: John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting Buckingham Palace (including reports that Jacqueline Kennedy was critical of both the palace and the queen) and the Queen’s visit to Ghana and creates a direct connection between them. I discussed fact and fiction in The Crown on Netflix with NBC News.

Click here to read ‘The Crown’: Did Jackie Kennedy really badmouth the Queen? at NBC News

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Books I’ve Read This Week: January 22-January 28, 2018

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 4: Books, E-Books and Audiobooks: At the end of week four of a my Book a Day 2018 project, I’ve discovered that one of the keys to completing a book per day is a balance of different book formats – traditional books, e-books and audiobooks. Each day, I read part of a physical book or e-book and listen to part of an audiobook, finishing one or the other. Audiobooks have been especially helpful to keeping the reading going as I listen while walking or making dinner. This week’s reading includes three hardcovers, two paperbacks and two audiobooks with an e-book, Empress Adelheid and Countess Matilda: Medieval Female Rulership and the Foundations of European Society, ready to go for tomorrow! Here are the past week’s reviews:

#22 of 365 Charles II: The Star King by Clare Jackson

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: January 22, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  A concise, thematic biography of Charles II with a strong focus on the King’s image both during his reign and in the centuries following his death. Jackson examines the interplay between Charles II’s personal and political lives including public concern regarding the influence of his mistresses on state  policy. The last chapter, entitled “Afterlives” is particularly interesting as Jackson observes that popular and scholarly perceptions of Charles II today are very different. “The Merry Monarch” – a nickname not originally intended as a compliment – is viewed is a positive light in popular culture but more critically by scholars who have analyzed his shortcomings as a ruler. Jackson holds a more favourable view of Charles II, noting that he kept his throne, in contrast to his father, Charles I and brother, James II.

#23 of 365 Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin

Genre: Memoir/Travel Literature

Date Read: January 23, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Acquired: Received as a gift

Review: Flaneuse blends history, literature and Elkin’s own life, reading as a memoir of her experiences walking the cities where she has lived. There is a strong focus on Paris, where she has spent much of her adult life with forays into her childhood neighbourhood in New York, her time in London and Venice and a difficult year in Tokyo. The opening chapters were particularly well crafted as Elkin examines the experiences of Virginia Woolf, George Sand and other literary flaneuses, examining the history of attitudes toward women walking alone in cities.

#24 of 365 The Ideas Industry by Daniel W. Drezner

Genre: Non-Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 58 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: January 21-24, 2018

Review:  The focus of The Ideas Industry is the nature of commentary on political science, economics and foreign policy in the American public sphere but certain themes apply to a variety of disciplines such as scholarly engagement on social media. I found the last few chapters particularly interesting as they analyze why particular individuals and ideas achieve public prominence. I would have been interested to hear more analysis of the impact of the changing academic job market on the careers of public intellectuals. The audiobook is well read by Adam Grupper.

#25 of 365 Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 448 pages

Acquired: Review Copy

Dates Read: January 24-25, 2018

Review: I have previously read Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution and A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 by Laurent Dubois but was less familiar with modern Haitian history. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, written in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, provides a good analysis of the past 200 years of Haitian history. Dubois discusses the cultural impact of Haitian intellectuals and writers as well as political history and economic developments. There is strong analysis of the lasting negative impact of the early 20th century American occupation and the 19th century indemnity imposed by France. I would have liked more detail on the events of the most recent decades preceding the earthquake.

 #26 of 365 Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Genre: Classic Novel

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 27 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: January 24-27, 2018

Review:  Agnes Grey was based on Anne Bronte’s own experiences as a governess and examines the difficulties of this position. Agnes faces low pay, long hours (extended with additional duties at a moment’s notice), obnoxious employers, and a succession of troubled children in her care.

Agnes is sometimes dismissed as a bland character compared to the passionate Jane Eyre in the novel written by her elder sister, Charlotte Bronte, but she has a great deal of quiet strength and advocates both the humane treatment of animals and the importance of empathy toward others, subtly critiquing the behaviour of the elites (especially elite parents) of the time. Agnes becomes a governess not only to help support her family but to achieve self determination and prove her ability to take care of herself in times of adversity.

#27 of 365 William III and Mary II: Partners in Revolution by Jonathan Keates

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 112 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: January 27, 2018

Review: This short biography is subtitled “Partners in Revolution,” challenging the traditional narrative of the Glorious Revolution, which focuses almost exclusively on William III at the expense of his wife and co-monarch, Mary II. Keates is careful to give Mary her due, stating that “There was always more to Mary than Protestant piety, and a fondness for knitting, old folk songs and blue and white porcelain” noting that she was praised for her political abilities as well as her willingness to undertake public engagements in contrast to her more reserved husband.  I’m not sure if I agree with the author’s conclusion that William and Mary are little known today because there was a comparative absence of scandal in their public or private lives. Mary’s willingness to join her husband in overthrowing her father, King James II, was highly controversial at the time. The book provides a strong analysis of William and Mary’s impact on British history, however, and I wish it had been longer.

#28 of 365 The Grand Duchess of Nowhere by Laurie Graham

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback, 341 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Date Read: January 28, 2018

Review: Most historical novels about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution focus on the last Czar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra and their children. Laurie Graham instead tells the story of Grand Duchess Victoria Melita or Ducky as she is nicknamed, who divorced Alexandra’s brother Grand Duke Ernest Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt to marry Nicholas’s cousin, Grand Duke Kyrill Vladimirovich and found herself at the centre of an early 20th century royal scandal. The novel is written from Ducky’s perspective and includes lesser known members of her grandmother Queen Victoria’s family and the extended Russian Imperial family who rarely appear in historical fiction. The author dramatizes Ducky’s experiences in the First World War and Russian Revolution including her family’s efforts to escape over the border into Finland. An entertaining read.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

NBC Interview: ‘The Crown’: Was Princess Margaret’s life really full of scandal?

Princess Margaret in 1965

I discussed the portrayal of Princess Margaret in the Netflix series “The Crown” with Daniel Arkin at NBC News.

As I mention in the interview, The Crown focuses closely on Princess Margaret’s personal life with Season 1 examining her doomed relationship with the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend and Season 2 ending with her marriage to society photographer, Antony Armstrong-Jones. The emphasis on Margaret’s relationships with Townsend and Armstrong-Jones as well as her struggle to establish an independent identity within the royal family obscures some of the Princess’s other interests such as art and the theatre. The Crown, like other works of historical fiction, emphasizes certain events and personality traits of public figures and obscures other aspects of their lives.

Click here to read “‘The Crown’: Was Princess Margaret’s life really full of scandal?” at NBC News Pop Culture


Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Books I’ve Read This Week: January 15-21, 2018

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 3: The Reading Schedule. At the end of Week 3 of my Book a Day 2018 project, I have settled into a regular reading schedule, starting books in the evenings and continuing them in the mornings, finishing the following evening and starting the next book. I’ve also established a pattern of reading material. Each week’s reading list includes 1) A scholarly history book in my field (My 2nd book Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette is part of the Queenship and Power series and I have been reading other recent titles in this series in recent weeks); 2) A work of classic literature; 3) A novel or work of popular history that’s outside my field 4) Plenty of royal history! Here are this week’s reviews:

 #15 of 365: William IV: A King at Sea by Roger Knight

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 103 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Read: January 15, 2018

Review: A good overview of the life and reign of King William IV (Queen Victoria’s uncle and predecessor). Knight is critical of William’s career as a naval officer but concludes that he was a success as king because he was willing to listen to advice. There is some insightful analysis of William’s personal life as well. Knight praises William’s longtime mistress Dora Jordan as “remarkable and openhearted” but has a mixed view of Queen Adelaide who helped William get his finances under control but opposed political reform in the 1830s. I would have been interested to read more about William’s relationship with his ten children with Dora Jordan and his travels in British North America and the Caribbean. Knight concludes with a wide range of suggestions for further reading.

#16 of 365 Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 52 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Genre: Classic Novel

Dates Read: January 12-16

Review: I listened to the audiobook of Far From the Madding Crowd after watching the 2015 film starring Carey Mulligan. In the film, Bathsheba Everdene is always at the centre of events but in the novel, there are numerous chapters from Gabriel Oake’s perspective and much of the narrative follows other characters observing Bathsheba rather than Bathsheba herself. Thomas Hardy’s descriptions of nature and rural life at the time are beautiful but the narrator’s generalizations about women are painfully dated and distract from the story. The audiobook is well narrated, capturing the regional accents and the songs in the text (which are different from the songs in the film). The novel was enjoyable but not quite what I expected.

#17 of 365 Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 416 pages

Read: January 15-17, 2018

Acquired: Review Copy

Review: I enjoyed Princes at War by Deborah Cadbury and looked forward to reading her research about Queen Victoria’s efforts to arrange marriages for her children and grandchildren among Europe’s royal houses. I especially enjoyed the first two thirds of Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking where Queen Victoria’s strong character and opinions are present on almost every page and the correspondence of her grandchildren demonstrates their efforts to manage her expectations concerning their personal lives. The book is filled with extracts from royal diaries and letters and the personalities of Albert Victor, George V and Queen Mary, Queen Marie of Romania, Grand Duchess Ella, and Czar Nicholas II and Empress of Alexandra of Russia are particularly well illustrated.

The book loses a bit of focus in the final chapters as Cadbury expands the scope of her work to discuss the place of Europe’s monarchies during the First World War then relates this material back to the broader theme of royal matchmaking in the final few pages. Cadbury devotes the greatest amount of attention to the courtships and marriages of Queen Victoria’s most prominent grandchildren and I would have been interested to read more about the marriage prospects of their lesser known cousins.

#18 of 365 The Memoirs of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester by Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 208 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: January 18, 2018

Review: Queen Elizabeth II’s late aunt, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester was witty, well traveled and a keen observer of changing social customs and the nature of royal life. Her personality comes alive in her memoirs. Alice begins by describing her aristocratic Scottish childhood as the daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch. Her family employed one maid who made the boiled eggs for breakfast in the stillroom while another maid made the scrambled, fried and poached eggs in the kitchen. As an adult, Alice traveled the world. In her 20s and early 30s, she spent time in Kenya (where she learned Swahili), South Africa, India and what is now Pakistan (where she joined a dangerous expedition to the Afghan border). After her marriage to Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester at the age of 34, she undertook a busy schedule of royal engagements during the Second World War and overseas tours including two years as viceregal consort of Australia. Henry and Alice brought their young sons to Australia and there are fun anecdotes about the royal children on tour.

#19 of 365 Anna of Denmark and Henrietta Maria: Virgins, Witches, and Catholic Queens by Susan Dunn-Hensley

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 230 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: January 19, 2018

Review: An innovative comparative study of the first two Stuart queens consort of England, Anna of Denmark (queen to James I) and Henrietta Maria of France (queen to Charles I). Susan Dunn-Hensley places each queen in the cultural context of how women were perceived in early 17th century England and Scotland, focusing on their organization of court masques and their participation in these theatricals. Anna of Denmark has been dismissed as “stupid” by a number of her past biographers and the author’s research demonstrates that she was in fact “a shrewdly political woman.” The lasting influence of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots over the image of subsequent royal women also informs the book. Well written and thought provoking.

#20 of 365 Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: January 16-20, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 48 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: I enjoyed Belgravia more than Julian Fellowes’s other novels but not as much as his television series, Downton Abbey. The early Victorian setting, with the aristocracy coming into contact with a rising middle class, is engaging and the audiobook is well read by Juliet Stevenson. The plot, however, moves slowly in the middle chapters as half a dozen characters investigate a mystery is already known to the reader from the first chapters of the novel. I would have preferred the point of view to have been focused more closely on Charles and Maria and the mystery to have been revealed to the characters and the reader at the same time. A good story, which could have been better plotted.

#21 of 365 Flapper by Joshua Zeitz

Genre: History

Date Read: January 21, 2018

Format: Paperback, 338 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City

Review: I bought this book after reading a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. Zeitz provides a good analysis of American consumer culture and changing attitudes towards women during the 1920s. The illustrations, including photographs of actresses and advertisements from the times, capture the aesthetic of the era. The focus is almost exclusively on the United States and it would have been interesting to read more about how the Flapper phenomenon shaped popular culture in other regions of the world.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

CBC News Interview: Obama or Trump at royal wedding? Why Prince Harry and Meghan’s guest list may not get too political

Prince Harry

I discussed the history of politics and royal wedding guest lists with Janet Davison at

The location of the royal wedding and the member of the royal family’s place in the line of succession both impact the guest list. Queen Victoria did not attend the wedding of her second son, Prince Alfred because his marriage to Czar Alexander II’s only daughter, Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna took place in Saint Petersburg. Queen Victoria’s own comparatively modest wedding at St. James’s palace was controversial because the guest list displayed her political sympathies: far more Whig politicians were invited than Tory ones.

In the 20th century, both the Queen and Prince Philip had relatives who were not included on their 1947 wedding guest list: the Queen’s uncle, the former King Edward VIII, who had abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936 and Prince Philip’s 3 surviving sisters, whose husbands were German princes.

The marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 took place at St. Paul’s cathedral, a large venue that could accommodate the full range of diplomatic guests expected to the attend the wedding of the heir to the throne. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson also had a large wedding in Westminster Abbey in 1986 but Prince Edward married Sophie Rhys-Jones in St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle in 1999 (the venue where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will marry on May 19), in a ceremony that was notable for the absence of non-royal political figures as attendees.

When Prince William married Catherine Middleton in 2011, the couple had more control over the guest list than previous younger members of the royal family as the Queen allowed them to give priority to their friends. The guest list still contained a strong representation of European royalty and Commonwealth leaders as William is second in line to the throne. Prince Harry will also expect to have influence over his wedding guest list and his more junior place in the line of succession, as well as the choice of location at St. George’s chapel, will ensure that the couple themselves have a greater degree of control over the guest list and that fewer political figures and foreign royalty are present.

Click here to read “Obama or Trump at royal wedding? Why Prince Harry and Meghan’s guest list may not get too political.”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Books I’ve Read This Week: January 8-14, 2018

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 2: The Big Books: During week 2 of my Book a Day 2018 project, I searched for books and articles by authors who had also spent  a year reading a book each day. I noticed a common theme: an emphasis on short to medium length books. In  Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, Nina Sankovich discusses searching for books in the library that were 250-300 pages to allow for time to read each day and write her daily review. A 2012 article in Slate Magazine by Jeff Gray entitled “366 Days, 366 Books” states that “Read Short Books” is rule number 2, after the importance of not allowing the reading challenge to take over all aspects of your life.

“Read Short Books” is not a helpful guideline for my 2018 Book a Day project because there are some enormous books on my to-read shelf. My book club is reading Hamilton, which is more than 700 pages long, for the beginning of February and I have long been interested in reading the 422 page Diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (Marie Antoinette’s sister). I have tailored my approach to reading a book a day to ensure that I complete the long books as well as short and medium books. After I finish each day’s book, I also read a few chapters of a longer book, to be completed in subsequent weeks. Long books as well as short and medium length books will be reviewed here in the coming months. Here are the books I finished this week:

#8 of 365: Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 351 pages

Read: January 8, 2018

Acquired: Review Copy

Review: I enjoyed Sarah Gristwood’s book about royal women during the Wars of the Roses, Blood Sisters, and looked forward to reading her book about the connections between the ruling queens of sixteenth century Europe, a topic that I address in my Women in Power course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.

Game of Queens is an excellent introduction to the powerful women of 16th century Europe. The book will be of interest to readers of biographies of Tudor queens who are interested in learning more about their counterparts in France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Gristwood places Anne Boleyn in a European context, examining the influence of Margaret of Austria and Marguerite of Navarre over Anne’s approach to queenship as the second wife of Henry VIII. The book contains an extensive list of suggestions for further reading, highlighting recent scholarship in the field of queenship in Early Modern Europe.

#9 of 365: The Ring and the Crown by Alison Weir, Tracy Borman, Sarah Gristwood and Kate Williams.

Genre: Royal History

Format, Audiobook, 4 hours and 53 minutes

Listened: January 9, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: The Ring and the Crown was published at the time of Prince William’s marriage to Catherine Middleton in 2011 and readers interested in more recent developments in the history of royal marriage, (such as the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle or the repeal of the Royal Marriages Act) will not find them here.

Nevertheless, The Ring and the Crown, provides a good overview of the history of royal wedding ceremonies and celebrations including the origins of street parties (the Tudors), the white wedding dress (Queen Victoria) and the kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony (Charles and Diana). The book provides a particularly detailed account of the weddings from Princess Patricia of Connaught in 1919 (the first modern royal bride to be married in Westminster Abbey) to Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005.

#10 of 365 The Man Behind the Queen: Male Consorts in History edited by Charles Beem and Miles Taylor

Genre: Royal History

Format: e-book, 270 pages

Read: January 10, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review: The scope of the scholarly articles in The Man Behind the Queen: Male Consorts in History is impressive from the kings consort of medieval Navarre to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh today. Among the highlights of this volume are Elena Woodacre’s thoughtful examination of the different approaches adopted by the husbands of the Queens of Navarre, Michael Bittner’s analysis of the role of Empress Anna Ivanovna of Russia’ favourite, Johann von Biron, in Anglo-Russian relations and the favorable account of Francis Stephen of Lorraine’s role as Empress Maria Theresa’s consort by Derek Beales.

There are two chapters about Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert and a detailed analysis by Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska of Prince Philip’s promotion of athletics and youth leadership during the early years of his marriage. There comparatively few studies available in English about the present day European royal houses and the chapters about the different styles of the consorts of the three successive 20th century Dutch Queens, and the grievances of Queen Margrethe of Denmark’s husband, Prince Henrik are therefore especially interesting. Highly recommended!

#11 of 365: Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

Genre: Non-Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 30 minutes

Listened: January 7-11, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: An engaging history of cooking and kitchen implements from ancient times until today. The book is divided into thematic chapters, examining the changing roles of various aspects of cooking and eating such as cold storage, fire, tableware and weights and measurements. The author, Bee Wilson, is a food writer for the BBC and there is a strong British focus to the book. For example, the section about fire discusses the history of roasting meat in detail as well as the modern phenomenon of chip pan fires. Wilson places British culinary history in a wider global context, however, discussing the reasons why refrigeration was far more prevalent in the United States than the United Kingdom until recently and the impact of forks vs. chopsticks on how meals are prepared and eaten.

#12 of 365: Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Genre: Classic Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours and 27 minutes

Listened: January 11-12, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: The audiobook of Eugene Onegin (translated by James E. Falen and read by Raphael Corkhill) is excellent. Falen captures the rhyme and metre of Pushkin’s original and Corkhill reads with enthusiasm. The famous scenes in the epic poem including Tatiana’s letter, Tatiana’s dream and the duel unfold amidst beautiful descriptions of the Russian winter, (and the boredom experienced by the Russian aristocracy at their country estates during this season), as well as the nature of 19th century Russian literature. Pushkin is critical of how French had supplanted Russian in fashionable society and the poem captures the flavour of his times.

#13 of 365: Victoria: Queen, Matriarch, Empress (Penguin Monarchs Series) by Jane Ridley

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Read: January 13, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review: Jane Ridley, the author of Bertie: A Life of Edward VII, provides a solid overview of Queen Victoria’s life and reign, providing new analysis of the Queen’s restrictive upbringing, her marriage to Prince Albert, her relationship with her children, her attitudes toward her Prime Ministers, and her controversial friendship with John Brown. Ridley is especially critical of the romantic narrative of Queen Victoria’s marriage, popularized in the film The Young Victoria (and now the Victoria series on PBS), noting that Albert undermined Victoria’s self-confidence and that she had to relearn how to reign alone after his death. Victoria’s interest in her own public image is also discussed in the book, including her letters to newspapers that were critical of her extended period of mourning as a widow.

#14 of 365 Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

Genre: Memoir

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Read: January 13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Chapters/Indigo online

Review: A memoir about finding joy and solace in reading. The author, Nina Sankovitch, read a book a day for a year while grieving the loss of her sister. Her impressions of the books are interwoven in a wider memoir about her family. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair includes a full list of the books she read during her book a day challenge.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather