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 Audible.com

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 Audible.com

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.

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