Books I’ve Read This Week: Vacation Reading

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 25: Vacation Reading  I was on vacation this past week and beach days naturally require beach reads! I like to read (or listen to) vintage historical fiction on vacation and find books at local book sales to add to my collection. Here are this week’s reviews:

#169 of 365 Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Kay Penman

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: June 30, 2018

Review: The second novel in Sharon Kay Penman’s medieval mystery series. I prefer Penman’s longer novels based on historical figures, especially the Welsh trilogy, but her medieval mysteries are enjoyable to read and make good use of the 12th century English setting. In the first novel, The Queen’s Man, written documents emerged as clues, creating complications in a society with widespread illiteracy. In Cruel as the Grave, switching language back and forth from Norman French (the language of the court) to English (the language of ordinary people) becomes a means of preventing conversations from being understood and overheard.

Justin de Quincy’s role as Eleanor of Aquitaine’s secret agent is overshadowed in Cruel as the Grave (except when he is sneaking into Windsor Castle to deliver clandestine messages) by his involvement in a tragic murder mystery involving prosperous merchant families and a Welsh peddler’s daughter. The mystery unfolds step by step until the final pages but the conclusion is not entirely surprising. Just the same, I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

#170 of 365 My Enemy the Queen by Victoria Holt

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at a second hand book sale

Dates Read: July 1-2, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Review: The historical novels of Jean Plaidy (another one of her pen names was Victoria Holt) are always enjoyable vacation reads, informed by primary sources and filled with period details, engaging dialogue and memorable characters. My Enemy the Queen examines the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her Boleyn cousin Lettice Knollys as they were both attracted to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. None of the major characters are especially likable – Robert Dudley is portrayed as charismatic but dangerous, Elizabeth I is vain and self centered and Lettice is impulsive and governed by her passions. The novel is nevertheless a page turner and especially enjoyable for readers who have also read Margaret George’s recent novel about Elizabeth and Lettice.

#171 of 365 La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Date Read: July 3, 2018

Review: I love Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and enjoy his Scottish novels but I did not find his foray into historical fiction, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, to be as compelling as his other books. There are some interesting philosophical passages about the Second World War and a nice message about daily life and small pleasures continuing to take place in difficult times but there was little of the subtle humor that appears in other McCall Smith novels.

The characters also failed to come to life and seemed similar to those in other McCall Smith novels. La contemplates the meaning of education and her career prospects as a woman, similar to the heroine of The Forever Girl, and her husband is a wine merchant, one of the short lived career ambitions of Bruce from the 44 Scotland Street series. A breezy read but not as good as McCall Smith’s other novels.

#172 of 365 Poland by James A. Michener

Genre: Historical Novel

Acquired: Borrowed from my parents

Format: Hardcover, 556 pages

Dates Read: July 4-7, 2018

Review: An epic historical novel that encompasses Poland as the battleground of Europe from the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century to the Soviet backed Polish People’s Republic in the 20th century. Michener includes aspects of Polish culture including pierogies and the mazurka as well as the horsemanship of the landed elites. Michener places three fictional families at the centre of historical events: the aristocratic Lubonskis, the petty gentry Bukowskis and the peasant Buks.

In the early chapters, the different generations of each family remain relatively unchanged but the characters come into focus as distinct individuals in the late 19th century as the Buks discover an opportunity to become small landowners themselves then all of the families experience the horrors of the Second World War. I disagreed with a few of the narrator’s statements, including an exceptionally negative assessment of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, but otherwise enjoyed the novel.

#173 of 365 The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, read by Meryl Streep

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 5, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: A beautiful short historical novel from the perspective of Mary during the early years of Christianity. Toibin imagines Mary as an elderly woman reminiscing about her son and frustrating the writers of the Gospels with her complicated perspective on her son’s miracles and crucifixion. The audiobook is a stellar performance by Meryl Streep, which presents the novel as an extended monologue by a revered elder who is eager to unravel her own story from the emerging New Testament. Highly recommended.

#174 of 365 The Iliad: The Fitzgerald Translation by Dan Stevens

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 59 minutes

Date Listened: July 6-7, 2018

Review: I have read The Odyssey on a few occasions but this is the first time I have experienced The Iliad from start to finish. The Iliad is filled with impressive speeches and vivid battle scenes. The conversations between Hector and his wife Andromache are quite touching. Of the two works attributed to the Homer, however, I prefer The Odyssey as Odysseus has a wide variety of adventures on his journey home while the battle scenes at the Siege of Troy, and the cycle of feasting and fighting, grow repetitive over the course of The Iliad.

As epic poetry, The Iliad suits the audiobook format. Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey) reads with enthusiasm but a little too quickly as the connections between the characters are important to the story and it is important that listeners do not miss them. The Robert Fitzgerald translation is excellent and brings the story to life.

#175 of 365 Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at the Port Elgin Flea Market

Date Read: July 7, 2018

Format: Paperback, 645 pages

Review: An absorbing beach read. Beatrice Lacey, an eighteenth century gentlewoman who resembles Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and Ashton from John Jakes’ North and South, is obsessed with controlling her family’s Wideacre estate and ruins the lives of everyone in the novel, including herself, in order to do so. The plot is completely over the top but Gregory has written the novel as a page turner, with a looming threat just beyond the boundaries of the estate that maintains the momentum of the story to the very end. There are some plotlines specific to the 18th century, such as the enclosure of common lands on landed estates, but otherwise, this is a historical novel that could have been set in a variety of time periods as the focus is on the scandalous behaviour at Wideacre rather than the wider world.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Power

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 24: Women and Power In recent days, I have been reading books about powerful women or women who challenged the power structures of their times. My reading list includes a historical novel, an extended essay that compares attitudes toward women in public life in classical and modern times, the diary of Marie Antoinette’s sister, a history of Parisian women during the Second World War, and three biographies of women who helped to change the course of history. Here are this week’s reviews:

#162 of 365 In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 25 minutes

Date Listened: June 27-28, 2018

Review:  I saw the film In The Time of Butterflies (starring Salma Hayek as Miranda Mirabel and Edward James Olmos as Rafael Trujillo, ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 t0 1938 and 1942 to 1952) some years ago. Although the film has an excellent cast, the novel is much better because it focuses on all four Mirabel sisters, beginning with the sole survivor of the four, and rotating the perspective among Patria, Mirabel, Dede and Maria Teresa. They were all affected by the Trujillo regime and engaged with the revolutionary movements of the times in different ways.

The novel also highlights the attitudes toward women on the island in the 1950s and 1960s as the Mirabel sisters were the first generation in their family to receive a formal education, which provided them with increased opportunities. The sisters also balanced their political activism with the expectations that they faced as wives and mothers. I would have been interested to read more about about the wider historical and political context for the events in the Dominican Republic shown in the novel. Overall, however, In the Time of the Butterflies is an excellent read.

#163 of 365 Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 27, 2018

Review: A well researched history of Parisian women’s experiences before, during and after the Second World War. Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, a biography of Wallis Simpson, emphasizes the difficult choices that individual women made in occupied Paris as well as the evolution of women’s roles in French society as a result of the war. In the 1930s, French women did not have the vote, were barred from certain professions and often did not have access to bank accounts. In common with many other European countries, the war transformed women’s lives and equal rights were enshrined in French law by the late 1940s.

There is also a strong focus on female support networks both within Paris and in concentration camps. Sebba structures the book chronologically and therefore moves quickly between different themes and life stories. A thematic structure or a series of short biographies might have brought together the wide range of fascinating historical detail in a more cohesive fashion. Overall, however, Les Parisiennes provides a vivid account of women’s lives in wartime Paris, describing the atmosphere of occupation then liberation.

#164 of 365 The Diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, 1781-1785: New Evidence of Queenship at Court by Cinzia Recca

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 422 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: June 26-28, 2018

Review: A translation and scholarly analysis of the 1781-1785 diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire and elder sister of Marie Antoinette. The first hundred pages of the book are comprised of discussion of key themes in the diary followed by notes on the diary’s structure and translation methods. The remainder of the book is the translation of the diary.

Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette were close in age and shared a governess during their childhoods. Maria Carolina’s reveals just how much they had in common. Both queens displayed warmth and affection to the most important people in their lives. (Maria Carolina hugged her brother Joseph II when he visited her) and were attentive and involved mothers concerned with the education of their children. Maria Carolina was especially concerned with her children’s health, a frequent theme in the journal. Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette both expected to exert political influence as well, and suffered from bad press both within their own lifetimes and in subsequent histories. The diary is a fascinating account of a late eighteenth century queen’s daily activities, public engagements and personality and brings Marie Antoinette’s lesser known sister out of comparative obscurity.

#165 of 365 Joan Of Arc: A History by Helen Castor

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 328 pages

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Review: A beautifully written and well researched history of the impact of Joan of Arc on the course of French history. Castor places Joan in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and English, French and Burgundian court politics in the fifteenth century. The book illuminates Joan’s own frustration that she could only achieve what she perceived to be her divinely inspired goals by persuading influential political and military figuresto work with her. The motives of the major historical figures of the times are explored in detail.

Perceptions of divine intervention during Joan’s lifetime are another key theme in the book as Joan was not the only person who claimed to be on a holy mission to change the course of the war. There was even a Joan of Arc impersonator who was recognized by two of her brothers after her death. Throughout the narrative, Castor emphasizes Joan’s ability to divide popular opinion both during her own lifetime and after her death. The sources of her inspiration, her military leadership and her insistence on wearing men’s clothes inspired widespread controversy and the chapters concerning her trial highlight the political, religious and gender debates of her times. The book concludes with a epilogue regarding Joan’s 20th century canonization. A fascinating read.

#166 of 365 Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Genre: Political Science/Classical History

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Acquired: Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 129 pages

Review: Women and Power: A Manifesto discusses how classical Greek and Roman attitudes concerning public speaking and rhetoric as masculine attributes continue to undermine the position of women in the public sphere. Beard, a renowned classicist, expertly blends negative depictions of women in public life in classical drama with the harsh criticism faced by female public figures in the present day. (Hilary Clinton has literally been depicted as Medusa).

The book provides a nuanced analysis of popular perceptions of women speaking in public, including the assumption that female politicians will focus on policies perceived as “women’s issues,” the struggle for women to be taken seriously in traditionally male dominated realms and “the right to be wrong” as women in public life are often held to a much higher standard than men in the same roles. The book is well illustrated with both classical and modern images of women being silenced in the public realm. Highly recommended.

#167 of 365 Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 52 minutes

Dates Listened: June 28-July 1, 2018

Review: A fascinating biography of a historical figure who, along with her family, deserves to be better known. Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and raised in Britain, with Queen Victoria as her godmother. Her father presented the Koh-I-Noor diamond to the Queen.

Sophia became a prominent British socialite, helping to set trends for cycling, dog breeding and field hockey as pursuits for fashionable young women. After visiting India, however, she developed a strong interest in philanthropy (especially the welfare of Indian soldiers and sailors), Indian nationalism and, after her return to Britain, women’s suffrage. Sophia was among the suffragettes who demonstrated on Black Friday in 1910 when hundreds of British suffragettes were attacked by police and bystanders.

In addition to Sophia’s life story, author Anita Anand also discusses the connections between the campaigns for women’s suffrage and Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi admired the activism of British suffragettes and studied their tactics. Sophia’s family also receives extensive attention as her parents and siblings also had interesting lives shaped by British rule over India.

The Duleep Singh family associated with many of the prominent figures of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. Sophia’s brother Victor was a close friend of Lord Carnarvon, who sponsored the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Sophia herself worked closely with the suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst. Sophia’s social circle also included suffragettes who are little known today but were influential in their times.

One of my favourite royal biographies of the year. Highly recommended.

#168 of 365 Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 33 minutes

Dates Listened: July 3-5, 2018

Review:  An insightful biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama that places her within the context of her family, Chicago, the experiences of African-Americans in the United States, press coverage of the Obama family in the White House, and the expectations faced by American First Ladies from Martha Washington to the present day. Journalist and author Peter Slevin, who covered the Obama White House extensively, focuses on Michelle Obama’s accomplishments including her Ivy league degrees, professional achievements and her initiatives as First Lady, including her efforts to promote healthy eating and exercise and her advocacy for military families.

There are mentions of how Michelle Obama had to compromise her own professional ambitions in support of her husband’s political career and presidency and it would have been interesting for Slevin to have analyzed these decisions in more detail. The audiobook is well read by Robin Miles. Highly recommended.

Daily Express Interview: Will Princess Eugenie take Jack Brooksbank’s last name? The bride’s surprising options

Princess Eugenie

Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter Princess Eugenie of York will marry Jack Brooksbank at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor on 12 October 2018. After the wedding, her title will likely change from Her Royal Highness Princess Eugenie of York to Her Royal Highness Princess Eugenie, Mrs. Jack Brooksbank. There are historical precedents for other possibilities as well. I discussed Princess Eugenie’s future title with the Express newspaper in the United Kingdom.

Click here to read “Will Princess Eugenie take Jack Brooksbank’s last name? The bride’s surprising options” in The Daily Express

Books I’ve Read This Week: Living in America

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 23: Living in America One of my favourite weekly podcasts is This American Life, which showcases the experiences of people from all walks of life amidst unusual circumstances. I kept the format of This American Life in mind as I selected books to read this past week from a wide range of unexpected perspectives on American society including a Finnish journalist who recently received American citizenship, and the former executive director of the National Scrabble Association. My reading choices all focused on daily life in the United States in the past, the present, and (speculatively) the future. Here are this week’s reviews:

#155 of 365 The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Hardcover, 418 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Date Read: June 20-22, 2018

Review: A fascinating perspective on American society and culture by a Finnish journalist, who becomes an American citizen by the end of the book. Partanen argues that the generous social programs in Nordic countries such as Finland allow individuals to become independent adults and achieve their full potential regardless of social background while the comparative absence of a social safety net in the United States makes college students reliant on their parents for support (sometimes well into adulthood) and elderly people reliant on their adult children for care and assistance. The book is filled with fascinating details about life in Finland such as forest kindergartens where young children spend their time outside, and the delay of the start of academic education until children reach the age of seven, a gradual progression that has excellent results.

While the substance of the book is engaging, the tone sometimes becomes repetitive as Partanen repeats the phrase “The Nordic Theory of Love” numerous times to describe Finnish marriages and family structures. She also describes certain American policies as backward or anachronistic, words that might make an American audience defensive rather than open to embracing her suggestions for social change. Perhaps Canadians are the ideal readers for a book of this kind. An engaging and thought provoking read.

#156 of 365 Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Date Read: June 21, 2018

Review: A fascinating and sometimes depressing study of a little known subculture of Americans who live in vans and RVs, traveling from one temporary job to another. Bruder, who lived in a van herself while researching these 21st century nomads, interviews a wide variety of nomadic workers. Some lost their houses and jobs in the recession and took to the road out of necessity while others relish the freedom of the open road and compare themselves to 19th century mountain men.

There are sections of Nomadland that resemble The Grapes of Wrath with the promised jobs being offered by 21st century Amazon warehouses instead of the California peach orchards of the 1930s. Nevertheless, many of the interviewees display a great deal of optimism, ingenuity and support for one another in difficult circumstances. An absorbing audiobook, well read by Karen White.

#157 of 365 Calypso by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 38 minutes

Date Read: June 22, 2018

Review: David Sedaris’s best essay collection since Me Talk Pretty One Day. In common with all of Sedaris’s books, there are some hilarious chapters including his addiction to his Fitbit (even when suffering from digestive problems at the airport) and his description of checking into an American hotel then ordering “the southeast lard pocket” in a chain restaurant.

Calypso stands out, however, because, of the introspective chapters where Sedaris mourns his mother and sister and grapples with his own mortality. Amidst all the fun anecdotes, there are some moving reflections such as “Though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family… Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of.” The audiobook is well read by the author and includes some sketches from his live performances. Highly recommended.

#158 of 365 Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar and Geek Underground by John D. Williams Jr

Genre: Memoir/Society and Culture

Format: Paperback, 216 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 23, 2018

Review: An entertaining short memoir by the former Executive Director of the National Scrabble Association that includes what goes on behind the scenes at the Scrabble tournaments, the differences between living room play and tournament play, how words are added and removed from the Scrabble dictionary, tips for improving your game, anagrams, palindromes, and the list of around 175 offensive words that were removed from the Official Scrabble Dictionary in the 1990s.

Williams keeps the focus firmly on Scrabble rather than himself and I was curious to know more about how Scrabble affected his life. He mentions in passing that he liked to keep his weekends to himself but the book makes clear that he was also being bombarded by letters and calls from everyone from retired schoolteachers to prison inmates asking for his advice on whether a word was correct in the game and if Scrabble dictionaries could be distributed more widely. Great as an introduction to competitive Scrabble culture but falls short as a memoir.

#159 of 365 New York: 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Genre: Science Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 22 hours and 34 minutes

Dates Read: June 22-26, 2018

Review: An engaging and thought provoking novel that is both a warning about the possible impact of climate change on the coastal cities of the world and a whimsical tale of an imagined future New York that resembles Venice only with skyscrapers emerging from the canals created by rising sea levels. There are searches for sunken treasure and an effort to prevent the extinction of polar bears by flying them from Churchill, Manitoba to Antarctica in a zeppelin, angering protesters who want to keep Antarctica’s existing ecosystem intact.

While the setting and imagined history of the future is fascinating and cleverly blended with references to 19th and 20th century New York events and historical figures, the characters are often thinly drawn and are not particularly memorable. The most prominent character is the city of New York itself, which is still recognizable after the deluge with traffic jams (involving boats), apartment living, property speculators and new arrivals in search of opportunity in spite of the rising sea levels flooding lower Manhattan. The plot also slows down in the second half and begins to change focus from climate change to financial mismanagement. The audiobook is read by a chorus of narrators, which helps keep the wide variety of different perspectives distinct for listeners.

#160 of 365 Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Date Read: June 24-26, 2018

Review: An interesting and sometimes unsettling history of the rise of positive thinking in the United States and the surprising dangers of too much optimism. Ehrenreich begins with her own experiences being treated for breast cancer where she notices a strong focus on the patient keeping up a positive attitude throughout treatment although the science behind whether the patient’s determination to stay positive affects their overall health is inconclusive. She then explores how positive thinking emerged as a reaction to harsher Calvinist doctrines in the 19th century but still retained a strong focus on self examination at the expense of looking at conditions in the outside world in a realistic fashion and working to change them for the better. The book calls for neither positive nor negative thinking but balanced examinations of circumstances, followed by actions that ultimately lead to positive change outside the individual.

#161 of 365 Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diane Preston

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 532 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City

Date Read: June 25, 2018

Review: An harrowing account of the last voyage and sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, filled with evocative details that bring the passengers to life. There is a newlywed couple departing on their honeymoon who still have confetti in the folds of their clothes, children in sailor dresses who want to help the crew paint the lifeboats and a talent contest for the passengers on the last evening of the voyage. The book is difficult to put down during the scenes concerning the sinking of the ship and the rescue of the few survivors. What is striking throughout the narrative is how disaster was anticipated by many of the passengers and the press from the beginning of the voyage, in contrast to the confidence of the passengers on the Titanic a few years earlier. Also, safety precautions recommended by the Titanic inquiry were not uniformly implemented by the First World War, contributing to the death toll on the Lusitania. A tragic and compelling book about a disaster that informed the American entry into the First World War in 1917.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Fun Novels and Unexpected Royal References

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 22: Fun Novels and Unexpected Royal References: Over the course of year, I have read more non-fiction than fiction. Where there have been novels on my reading list, they have mostly been historical fiction, dramatizing the lives of historical kings and queens. In the past few weeks, I have attempted to introduce more of a balance by reading fun novels that are not about royalty, at least on the surface.

I discovered that there are often royal references in the most unexpected places. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain references a state dinner to the United States by Charles and Camilla where one of the attendees discovered common ground with the royal couple by talking about hunting and shooting. A would-be Russian Revolutionary in The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson loses interest in his cause because he begins to empathize with Czar Nicholas II who was having “a spell of bad luck” that lasted until the very end of his life.

Unexpected royal references are even more common in fiction set in the United Kingdom. It’s seemingly impossible to write a novel like Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress, which features English country house parties in the 1890s, without the future King Edward VII (who greatly admired American heiresses) appearing as one of the guests. The 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith features different varieties of monarchism from supporters of Queen Elizabeth II and her family to modern day Jacobites. The cultural influence of royal history extends far beyond books that focus on royalty. Here are this week’s reviews:

#148 of 365: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 307 pages

Date: June 9-10, 2018

Review: My book club selected this novel for the month of June. An enjoyable satire of American culture, especially celebrity worship. There are also some very funny scenes set in country clubs and corporate boxes that give a sense of the complicated attitudes toward the military in the United States, informed by social class, as the Bravos encounter numerous well wishers who just not sure what to say to them. Although the book is set more than a decade ago, the cultural references are surprisingly current with the characters excited about the possibility of meeting Beyonce and conversations about Charles and Camilla visiting the United States and dining at the White House. An engaging read.

#149 of 365 The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder

Genre: Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 12 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: June 12-14, 2018

Review:  A novel about a dysfunctional American family preparing for the wedding of their beautiful, wealthy, charitable half-sister at an English country estate. The perspective rotates among the major characters but the tone is consistently snarky and cynical. Some scenes are quite funny but the narrative also drags in places and it seems to take too long for the family to arrive in Britain for the wedding festivities. The audiobook is well read by two different narrators, who are quite good at imitating English accents, making the scene where Alice runs up the room service bill at Claridge’s especially entertaining. A fun read that could have been even more entertaining with some careful editing.

#150 of 365 The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 8 minutes

Dates Listened: June 14-15, 2018

Review: I have made many efforts to read Tolkien’s work in the past because people I know have recommended it to me and I have seen the movies. This audiobook of The Hobbit is the first time that I have completed one of Tolkien’s novels. The narrator is very enthusiastic about the material and brings a lot of energy to the voices and singing. The audiobook is a relaxing listen except for the section where the dwarves are battling giant spiders and I increased the reading speed to get that section done as quickly as possible.

I found the story fairly boring overall, however, and had difficultly telling the singing dwarves apart. There are too many descriptions of daily life on the road including all the walking and frequent hobbit mealtimes. There are some engaging scenes such as the exchange of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum and I respect Tolkien’s ability to create a fully realized fictional world but his work does not particularly appeal to me.

#151 of 365 Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from 

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 55 minutes

Dates Listened: June 15-18, 2018

Review: Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719 and large sections of the book are either dull or painfully dated. Robinson’s patronizing attitude toward Friday is especially tiresome. The novel also shows little character development as Robinson’s views and outlook on the world seem to remain the same despite living for more than 25 years on a desert island.

The scenes where Robinson Crusoe figures out how to survive on the island, including hunting, raft building and farming, however, are fascinating and have lasting cultural significance, informing subsequent novels from Swiss Family Robinson to The Martian. The novel is worth reading for it’s influence on cultural history and insights concerning the attitudes of early eighteenth century Britain.

#152 of 365 The World According to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Fiction

Format: Paperback, 343 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Date Read: June 16, 2018

Review: I always enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s novels and The World According to Bertie is an especially enjoyable contribution to the #44 Scotland Street series. Although Bertie, the saxophone playing gifted child and his overbearing mother are at the centre of the story, there is a whole cast of entertaining characters who are connected to each other in surprising ways including an art gallery owner with a good heart but poor fashion sense (distressed-oatmeal sweaters), a globe trotting anthropologist, a monarchist cafe owner who defends Prince Charles’s reputation and a modern day Jacobite who notes that the current Stuart candidate to the throne is German. I also like how McCall Smith includes bits of Edinburgh history and geography in the novel. Looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

#153 of 365 The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 455 pages

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: June 17, 2017

Review: A blend of romance and historical fiction about a fictional American heiress, aptly named Cora Cash, who meets and marries a mysterious Duke and gradually learns his secrets and the secrets of British high society. The future Edward VII, who admired American women, makes some appearances at English country house parties and plays a key role in diffusing a confrontation between Cora and an especially unpleasant character.

There are a few scenes that are a bit over the top but so was the gilded age of the 1890s. While the novel is enjoyable to read and illustrates the differences between the British and American elites in the late nineteenth century, I would have liked more depth for the secondary characters. The confident Cora and her perceptive lady’s maid, Bertha, come alive but the Duke never really comes into focus until the rushed ending and Cora’s overbearing mother seems to fade from view as the novel progresses. A fun read but not especially memorable.

#154 of 365 The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Genre: Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Read June 18-19, 2018

Review: A quirky historical novel that features cameos by historical figures from Czar Nicholas II (“A spell of bad luck that lasted right up to the end.”) to Einstein to Kim Jong Il. The author has a dry sense of humour and the ability to present an over the top, almost farcical plot in an amusingly deadpan manner. The 100 year old man’s past, which intersects with key events in the 20th century, is juxtaposed with his modern day adventures escaping the nursing home. Entertaining, but I probably prefer The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden on Jonasson’s novels as it has a more cohesive plotline and fewer characters to keep straight. The audiobook is well read by Steven Crossley.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Russian History and Literature

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 21: Russian History and Literature: In late May and early June, I read some works of modern Russian history and literature including a history of Saint Petersburg (which I am looking forward to visiting for the second time this August), a very somber history of Russian gulags in the 20th century, a history of the October Revolution written by a science fiction author and a Dostoyevsky novel that critiqued the revolutionary movements of his times. After taking a break to read some royal biographies (reviewed here last week) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later this week), I finished reading a biography of Mikhail Gorbachev that I started earlier in the month and concluded with a Trans-Siberian railway travelogue. Here are this week’s reviews:

#142 of 365 Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia by W. Bruce Lincoln

Genre: History

Format: Hardcover, 470 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from a friend

Date Read: May 28-30, 2018

Review: A excellent overview of Saint Petersburg’s history, especially the art and literature inspired by the city, with a strong focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. The chapters about the Silver Age of Russian poetry and the Siege of Leningrad are especially well written. The eighteenth century, however, including the seminal reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, however, do not receive as much attention as they merit and the building of the city goes by quite quickly. Overall, however, Sunlight at Midnight is a well written and insightful biography of Russia’s old Imperial capital.

#143 of 365 Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 27 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: May 27-30, 2018

Review: A well researched, comprehensive and heartbreaking history of the gulag forced labour camps in Soviet Russia. The chapters concerning child and adolescent inmates are particularly difficult to read. Journalist Anne Applebaum balances the history of how and why the gulag system was established with a comprehensive analysis of daily life in the camps including food, visitors, labour, and relations between prisoners and guards. Sources include memoirs and archival documents. The focus on the voices of the inmates makes the history very compelling.

While the book is excellent, the audiobook has a few shortcomings. The narrator has difficulty with Russian names and sometimes pronounces the same name in a few different ways over the course of the book. Also, the chapter subheadings do not match the audiobook sections and so it can be difficult to find subsections within a chapter. Otherwise, an excellent book.

#144 of 365 October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 37 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Date Listened: May 30-June 1, 2018

Review: Since October is a history book written by a novelist, I was expecting the book to be more of a page turner. Instead, it is a history of the Russian Revolution that consists primarily of revolutionaries attending meetings (“And still the soviet continued to debate.”) The author also tends to romanticize the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin and Trotsky as well as the October Revolution, even though this event ultimately led to a great deal of suffering for the Russian people. There are some one dimensional portrayals of some of the other major historical figures (Czar Nicholas II is described as having “bovine passivity”) and a few historical inaccuracies (Princess Putiatina was a friend of Grand Duke Michael, not his wife). Readable but not as engaging as I expected.

#145 of 365 Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

Genre: Russian History/Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 928 pages

Dates Read: June 3-18, 2018

Review:  The definitive biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, informed by extensive research and interviews. The subject of the book warned the author in the introduction that “Gorbachev is complicated” and Taubman unravels this complexity by placing Gorbachev within the context of his times. The influence of Gorbachev’s parents and grandparents and how their experiences countered the prevailing soviet cultural narrative is especially well presented.

Taubman also provides an excellent account of Gorbachev’s marriage. Raisa Gorbachev was the most influential spouse of a Russian leader since the Czarina Alexandra and her role both within Russia and abroad is discussed in detail. There is also extensive analysis of Gorbachev’s interactions with world leaders including American president Ronald Reagan, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as King Juan Carlos of Spain, whom Gorbachev admired for managing Spain’s transition from Francisco Franco’s rule to democracy. A fascinating and absorbing biography of one of the 20th century’s most significant political leaders.

#146 of 365 Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Genre: Russian Literature

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: June 3-7, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 28 hours and 2 minutes

Review: An intense and difficult listen. There are some powerful scenes but I preferred Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as novels. Dostoevsky’s philosophy is front and centre in Devils and it tends to overwhelm the characters. Like all Dostoevsky novels. there are desperate men committing unspeakable acts, long suffering women, meditations on the nature of Russian society and spirituality and a few moments of dark humour amidst all the depressing developments but, in my opinion, these characteristics don’t come together in Devils to create a satisfying whole. The audiobook was well read by George Guidall but I did not find this book as compelling as Dostoevsky’s other novels.

#147 of 365 Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into The Heart of Russia by David Greene

Genre: Travel Writing

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Date Read: June 19, 2018

Review: I expected Midnight in Siberia to focus closely on the author’s journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway and the major cities along its route. Instead, the book focuses on the author’s efforts, as an American journalist, to understand Russian political attitudes and culture. His interviews provide a series of snapshots of rural life in modern Russia. Since the author is the former Moscow bureau chief of NPR, I was surprised that he was not more familiar with the language (he relies heavily on his translator, Sergei) and that his mentions of Russian history were limited to Stalin’s gulags and the Decemberists. There are some interesting chapters that illustrate the complexities of Russian society today but there are also repetitive straightforward observations from the author such as “Russians like tea” or “history and culture matter.” Interesting but not quite what I expected.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Kings and Queens

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 20: Kings and Queens: These past few weeks, I have been reading a combination of biographies of King and Queens (reviewed in this post), Russian History and Literature (to be reviewed in the next post) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later next week). I am continuing to read the biographies in the Penguin Monarchs series (Henry II, Richard I and Elizabeth I) in addition to recent books about English/British queens consort Catherine Howard and Caroline of Ansbach, the French King Francis I, and the Spanish queen, Juana I. There is a strong focus on the sixteenth century in these reading choices but also two medieval kings and a Georgian queen! Here are this week’s reviews:

#135 of 365 The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach by Matthew Dennison

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: June 5-7, 2018

Review:  I enjoyed reading more about Caroline of Ansbach, a British queen who deserves to be better known. Caroline was central to the House of Hanover’s public image in Britain as her husband George II and father-in-law, George I had little charisma or rapport with the British public. Caroline trained carefully for her future role while still a princess in Hanover, reading British history during her husband’s naps (the future George II was bored by reading or the sight of other people reading), requesting tea and taking English conversation lessons. Dennison incorporates attitudes toward the queen in the popular culture of the period, which was fascinated by Caroline’s strong Protestant faith, large family and her perceived political influence. An interesting and engaging read.

#136 of 365 Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

Genre: Royal History

Dates Listened: June 1-3, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review:  An insightful and well written biography of Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of King Henry VIII. Most biographies of Catherine present her as a fool or a passive victim but Russell provides a nuanced portrait, explaining both her strengths as queen, including her mastery of court etiquette and courtesy toward others, and the reasons for her perceived weaknesses including her continued engagement with figures from her past who had the power to undermine her reputation. Russell is an expert on Catherine Howard’s household provides a vivid depiction of the Tudor court and a critical analysis of Henry VIII.

The only section that I did not find entirely convincing was Russell’s account of Catherine’s childhood, which Russell describes as happy. He presents Catherine as a social leader within her step-grandmother’s household. Instead, Catherine seems to have been in a vulnerable position in spite of her rank because her mother was dead and her father was fleeing his creditors in Calais. Her situation, in the household of an inattentive guardian, attracted the attention of the arrogant, aggressive men whom she encountered in her adolescence.

The concluding chapters are tragic as Catherine’s past and present conduct comes under scrutiny and she meets the fate of her cousin, Henry VIII’s 2nd wife Anne Boleyn. Russell describes these events in thoughtful detail and reveals how her execution was perceived at the time. The book is well worth reading as a study of the role of the queen consort, religion and politics during the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.

#137 of 365 Richard I: The Crusader King by Thomas Asbridge

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 4, 2018

Review: A balanced short biography of a famous medieval king. Asbridge does not ignore Richard the Lionheart’s flaws as a king including his quest for personal glory at the expense of other objectives but he convincingly challenges the idea that Richard was uninterested in his role as King of England. Richard ruled a vast Anglo-French empire but England was the jewel in his crown and he introduced new aspects of English kingship including “the royal we” and the custom of dating reigns by regnal year. Asbridge argues that Richard would have a very different reputation if he had been able to return to England immediately after the Third Crusade instead of being taken captive and held for ransom.

I would have liked the book to have included a little more about the king’s personal life. His queen, Berengeria of Navarre is only mentioned in passing even though she accompanied him on the 3rd Crusade and there is little sense of his social circle or his interests beyond literature and waging war. In all other respects, Richard I: The Crusader King, is an excellent contribution to the Penguin Monarchs series.

#138 of 365 Henry II: Prince Among Princes by Richard Barber

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 5, 2018

Review: A short biography of Henry II that emphasizes his achievements in holding together the Angevin Empire and initiating legal reforms that would shape the development of English common law. Barber makes clear that Henry was more than Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband and Thomas Becket’s adversary though there is extensive analysis of church and family conflict throughout the book. Barber divides the book into three sections – Henry’s appearance and character, his life story and his achievements – and the final section should have been expanded to highlight the specific legal developments discussed in the text. Barber achieves a good balance between the personal and the political and readers will come from the book with a good sense of Henry’s character and kingship.

#139 of 365 Francis I: The Maker of Modern France by Leonie Frieda

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 9 minutes

Dates Listened: June 9-11, 2018

Review: An old fashioned royal biography that recounts various aspects of Francis’s life and reign, especially his foreign policy, without much additional analysis from the author. Frieda describes wars, peace treaties, dynastic marriages and contacts between rulers but rarely brings these details together to assess Francis’s overall strategy toward kingship. The book is filled with historical figures who are more interesting than Francis himself including his mother, Louise of Savoy, sister, Marguerite of Navarre and artist in residence, Leonardo de Vinci. Frieda argues that Francis is more worthy of the description “Renaissance Prince” than his contemporary King Henry VIII of England and the book provides a sense of Henry VIII’s dealings with the France from the French perspective. A worthwhile read that would have benefited from more analysis of Francis and his policies.

#140 of 365 Juana I: Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Castile by Gillian B. Fleming

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 365 pages

Date Read: June 12, 2018

Review: An excellent scholarly biography of Queen Juana I, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Juana has gone down in history as Juana la Loca and most biographies and cultural representations of the Queen focus on her mental health instead of her sovereignty. In contrast, Fleming examines Juana’s political significance as Queen of Castile and places her within the context of sixteenth century attitudes toward female rule in the Iberian peninsula and beyond. I found the background concerning Ferdinand’s family particularly interesting as one of his half sisters had been imprisoned by his father because her determination to exercise her rights over her mother’s inheritance threatened his rule. A similar pattern unfolded in Ferdinand’s treatment of Juana. Well written, well researched and interesting to read. Highly recommended.

#141 of 365 Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity by Helen Castor

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: June 15, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Review: A wonderful short biography of Queen Elizabeth I. Dr. Helen Castor looks behind the Queen’s confident public image as Gloriana and examines her precarious position over the the course of her reign. The fates of Henry VIII’s six wives are so well known today that the probable impact of these events on Elizabeth I’s sense of her own position and her attitudes toward marriage are sometimes overlooked. Elizabeth experienced a treacherous path to the throne and a series of threats to her authority over the course of her reign. I thought the author’s comparison of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots was especially illuminating. The book is filled with interesting facts, such as how Queen Elizabeth I’s accession is the only time in English history when heralds cried, “The queen is dead, long live the queen.” Highly recommended.

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex)

Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex)

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex)

Her Royal Highness (HRH) The Duchess of Sussex, née Rachel Meghan Markle (born 4 August 1981 in Los Angeles, California), is a philanthropist, a former actress and the wife of HRH The Duke of Sussex (Prince Harry). Meghan has a strong connection with Canada and has described herself as an “honorary Canadian.” She lived in Toronto, Ontario, while filming the television legal drama Suits and, in 2016, she became a Global Ambassador for World Vision.

Click here to read Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex) in the Canadian Encyclopedia


New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall

The Duchess of Cornwall

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (born 17 July 1947 in London, United Kingdom), the second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the thrones of Canada, the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth Realms. She has undertaken four official tours of Canada with the Prince of Wales, including celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

My article focuses on Camilla’s Canadian tours and her Canadian ancestor, Sir Allan Napier McNabb, Premier of the Province of Canada from 1854 to 1856.

Click here to read my article about Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the Canadian Encyclopedia 


Royal Studies Journal Article: Canadian Women’s Responses to Royal Tours from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day

Princess Louise in Canada, dressed for an Ottawa winter during her time as vice regal consort of Canada from 1878 to 1883.

My new article in the Royal Studies Journal discusses how Canadian women responded to royal tours from the late eighteenth century to the present day.

Abstract: In the United Kingdom and Canada, support for the monarchy is higher among women than men. From Walter Bagehot’s political theory in the nineteenth century to modern day polling data, monarchism among women is usually attributed to royal events in popular culture from nineteenth-century royal weddings to twenty-first century depictions of the royal family in television and film. Press coverage of royal tours of Canada in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often depicted women as passive bystanders in crowds, only gradually adding depictions of women as active participants in welcoming royalty.

The history of Canadian women’s responses to royal tours and other public engagements by royalty in Canada from the eighteenth century to the present day reveals that there is a long history of women assuming active roles when royalty are present in Canada, seeking redress in legal cases in the eighteenth century, requesting patronage for organizations benefiting women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and debating the future of the monarchy in Canada in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The impact of royalty in Canada on women’s lives has become part of Canadian culture and literature. The higher levels of support for monarchism among women compared to men should therefore not be assumed to be due to passively viewing royal weddings, fashions or popular culture alone, but should be placed within this context of women actively engaging with royalty during their public appearances in Canada, viewing royal occasions as opportunities to have their concerns addressed by prominent public figures.

Click here to read “Canadian Women’s Responses to Royal Tours from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day” in the Royal Studies Journal