Books I’ve Read This Week: Civil Wars

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 14: Civil Wars Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading a series of biographies and general histories that discuss Civil Wars around the world. The first three books discussed the Stuart dynasty and English Civil Wars from a variety of perspectives, the fourth examined the American Civil War, the sixth discussed Russia’s Time of Troubles amidst other conflicts and the seventh is a popular history of the partition of India and Pakistan. In between, I read about the impact of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the Americas on Italian cuisine. Here are this week’s reviews:

#92 of 365 James I: The Phoenix King by Thomas Cogswell

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: April 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 108 pages

Review:  One of the most entertaining volumes in the Penguin Monarchs series as James I had strong opinions on a variety of topics and the author’s goal is to present the king’s life and reign in his own words as much as possible. Cogswell presents James I’s personality and wide variety of interests, which blended ideas that were ahead of his time (the health risks of tobacco) and ideas that were already being questioned in his own time (witchcraft trials). I would have been interested to read more about the culture of his court as this was a time when William Shakespeare and John Donne were writing their masterworks. I also though there was a little too much time spent on James I’s love of hunting and dogs. The King nicknamed one of his ministers “Beagle” and that was likely a compliment! Overall, this short biography of James I is an an engaging and informative read.

#93 of 365 Cromwell: The Protector by David Horspool

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: April 5-6, 2018

Review: Cromwell probably would not have approved of being included in the Penguin Monarchs series but this volume provides a necessary account of English Civil Wars from the opposite side from the book on Charles I and summarizes the events of the Interregnum. Horspool presents Cromwell as a deeply pious man who was nevertheless willing to act ruthlessly to further his own goals. The section about the Protectorate is confined to a single chapter and I would have liked more details about Cromwell’s infamous military activities in Ireland. There is also very little in the book about Cromwell’s relationship with his wife and children except that he had an apparently harmonious marriage with his “dearest wife” Elizabeth for nearly forty years and his son Richard was not trained as a successor and was unable to remain in power after his father’s death, resulting in the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

#94 of 365 Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars by Linda Porter

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 432 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: April 7-8, 2018

Review:  The adventures of the children of Charles I and Henrietta Maria during the English Civil Wars. While their two eldest sons, Charles II and James II are the subject of numerous biographies, their youngest son, Henry, Duke of Gloucester and their daughters, Mary, Elizabeth, Anne and Henrietta Anne are little known today. The chapters concerning Mary and Henrietta Anne were especially interesting as these princesses represented Stuart interests abroad through their marriages in the Netherlands and France respectively. Royal Renegades is well written and interesting to read but there is a little too much summary of the events of the English Civil Wars and the circumstances of Charles I’s and Henrietta Maria’s marriage. The book is at its best when it focuses closely on the children and their experiences.

#95 of 365 Columbus Menu: Italian Cuisine After the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus by Stefano Millioni

Genre: Cookbook/Food History

Date Read: April 8, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from one of my students in my History of Imperial Spain course 

Format: Paperback, 127 pages

Review: This book was loaned to me by one of the students in my history of Imperial Spain course. The author explains the impact of the New World on Old World cuisine, ingredient by ingredient, including tomatoes, potatoes, beans, squash, turkey and chocolate. While chocolate became immediately popular, other produce from the Americas took longer to shape European cuisine. Spanish conquistadors observed Aztec women selling tomato sauce flavoured with chilies in what is now Mexico city in the 16th century but pasta and tomato sauce was not a common aspect of Italian cuisine in the 19th century (transforming pasta from a finger food to a dish eaten with a fork). I was expecting more history and fewer recipes though the recipes look delicious!

#96 of 365 Grant by Ron Chernow

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 48 hours and 1 minute

Date Listened: March 22-April 9, 2018

Review: An absorbing biography of Ulysses S. Grant, an underrated American president. While his role in the American Civil War is well known the events that followed Lincoln’s assassination are more obscure and the book illuminates a tragic period in American history as the civil rights of Native Americans and African Americans were suppressed despite Grant’s best efforts as President to make a success of Reconstruction in the South and treat native land claims fairly. I was fascinated by all the differences between the presidency in the 1860s and 1870s and today including the absence of campaign speeches, charitable causes for First Ladies and presidential pensions. The final chapters, detailing Grant’s career after the presidency were also interesting as Grant and his wife Julia went on a world tour, meeting more than half a dozen monarchs including Queen Victoria and Czar Alexander II before returning to financial difficulties and a memoir project completed just before Grant’s death. The audiobook was well read by Mark Bramhall but very long, at just over 48 hours.

#97 of 365 Russia: The Story of War by Gregory Carleton

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased on Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 35 minutes

Dates Read: April 11-12, 2018

Review:  I expected to read a military history of Russia in chronological order from the arrival of the Vikings to Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. Instead, Russia: The Story of War is a thematic analysis of the role of war in Russia’s national identity and international reputation. The book examines Russia’s view of itself as a nation under constant threat from west and east, the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and military culture (there is a patron saint of nuclear bombers), and the place of Civil War in Russia’s history. Certain conflicts are emphasized more than others. There is extensive analysis of conflict in Kievan Rus, the Mongols, the Time of Troubles and especially the Crimean War, the Second World War (Great Patriotic War) and Afghanistan. In contrast, the First World War is summarized quickly and Peter the Great’s Great Northern War (which regained Russia’s Baltic coast line and allowed for Saint Petersburg to develop as the Imperial capital) is mentioned in passing. The author includes both historical and literary sources and is especially fond of quoting Tolstoy. Fascinating, but should be read alongside other, more comprehensive histories of Russia.

#98 of 365 Freedom at Midnight: Inspiration for the major motion picture Viceroy’s House by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

Acquired: Purchased from Books and Company in Picton, Ontario

Dates Read: April 10-14, 2018

Genre: History

Format: Paperback: 628 pages

Review: A compelling though incomplete history of the Partition of India and Pakistan. Collins and Lapierre write in a dramatic style and describe the violence and tragedy that accompanied partition in emotional detail. There is a narrow focus, however, on the most famous figures of the time at the expense of the experiences of ordinary people. There are large sections of the book that read as a dual biography of Lord Mountbatten and Mahatma Gandhi rather than a wider history of partition. The authors interviewed Mountbatten for the book and his perspective sometimes dominates the narrative.

 

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New Book Chapter about Royalty and The Arts in Canada

The Canadian Kingdom: 150 Years of Constitutional Monarchy, edited by D. Michael Jackson was published  by Dundurn Press today. The book contains a chapter I wrote about the history of Royalty and the Arts in Canada from the eighteenth century to the present day. Click here to purchase The Canadian Kingdom: 150 Years of Constitutional Monarchy

From the introduction of The Canadian Kingdom:

“In “Royalty and the Arts in Canada,” Carolyn Harris examines royal interest in Canadian culture over the three centuries since Queen Anne. The royal family have paid particular attention to the artistic heritage of the Indigenous Peoples, paralleling the intimate link between the Crown and the Indigenous Peoples in Canada. A daughter of Queen Victoria, the accomplished artist Princess Louise gave a big boost to Canadian culture when she was chatelaine of Rideau Hall with her husband Lord Lorne, governor general from 1878 to 1883. Vigorous royal support resumed when the artistic Princess Patricia, daughter of Louise’s brother the Duke of Connaught, accompanied her father during his term as governor general from 1911 to 1916. Harris points out that the present Queen and her family are very much involved as patrons and collectors of the arts in contemporary Canada. Indeed, she refers to Elizabeth II as the “curator monarch” and believes that “the continued close ties between the royal family, the creation of fine art, and the Royal Collection suggest a dynamic future for royal involvement in the arts in Canada.”

Click here to purchase The Canadian Kingdom: 150 Years of Constitutional Monarchy

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Medieval Monarchs

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 13: Medieval Monarchs This past week, I read five more titles in the Penguin Monarchs series, immersing myself in the reigns of England’s thirteenth and fourteenth century kings, historical figures whom I know well from the research for my 2015 book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada. Although the Penguin Monarchs books all follow a similar format and length, the authors adopt a variety of approaches to the material including the chronological narrative, analysis of key themes in each reign and a focus on the central event or legislation of the monarch’s reign. In addition, to reading fresh perspectives on medieval English monarchs, I read a history of the world that focuses on the ideas and trade that traveled across Asia to Europe along the Silk Road.  Here are this week’s reviews.

#86 of 365 Henry III: A Simple and God-Fearing King by Stephen Church

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Review: An excellent analysis of King Henry III’s reign in the context of the legal reforms that occurred over the course of the thirteenth century including Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest and the Provisions of Oxford. The First and Second Barons’ war are discussed in detail, illuminating the weaknesses of Henry III’s rein including his long minority and his later patronage of his extended family at the expense of his barons. There is less attention devoted to Henry III’s relationship with his wife and children, which was much more harmonious than the personal lives of his predecessors. The political activity of Henry III’s influential queen, Eleanor of Provence, however, is noted at various points in the book. I would have been interested to read more about Henry III’s lesser known building projects as his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey was part of a larger series of architectural initiatives that shaped the development of Windsor Castle and Tower of London.

#87 of 365 Edward I: A New King Arthur by Andy King

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

Review: A short, political biography of King Edward I that captures the contradictions within the king’s life and reign. Edward was an admirer of the legend of King Arthur and confirmed Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, making a public show of consulting his leading subjects through regular parliaments. However, Edward also annexed Wales, invaded Scotland and seized lands belonging to his subjects on dubious pretexts. As king, Edward favoured brutal, theatrical punishments for those defied him including hanging, drawing and quartering for the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llywelyn and imprisonment in an outdoor cage for Mary, one of the sisters of future Scottish king Robert the Bruce.

This book is primarily a political biography with Edward’s close relationship with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile and conflicts with his heir, the future Edward II, summarized in the first chapter. Nevertheless, there are bursts of Edward’s Plantagenet temperament throughout the text, especially his contempt for a member of the Bruce family who asked for Edward’s support and received the reply: “Have we nothing better to do than win kingdoms for you?” The author concludes that Edward was an effective medieval king but also details his ruthlessness and greed.

#88 of 365 Edward II: The Terrors of Kingship by Christopher Given-Wilson

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 30, 2018

Review: An engaging overview of the life, reign and fall from power of King Edward II. While the previous two books in the Penguin Monarchs series, concerning Henry III and Edward I, focused on law, politics and war, Given-Wilson devotes time to Edward II’s personality and interests in an effort to explain his difficulties as king. Edward’s sarcastic wit, enthusiasm for pursuits considered unbecoming for royalty such as swimming, rowing and roof thatching, close relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the younger and conflicts with his barons are discussed in detail. The events following his overthrow (and speculation concerning his death) is passed over quickly but there is an extended discussion of his place in modern popular culture.

#89 of 365 Edward III: A Heroic Failure by Jonathan Sumption

Format: Hardcover, 112 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 30, 2018

Review: A short critical biography of King Edward III with a strong focus on the Hundred Years’ War. Sumption provides an especially negative portrait of Edward III’s approach to finances, arguing that he paid for his wars in such a haphazard fashion that three of his barons, who acted as guarantors for his loans, spent time in debtors prison. Other aspects of Edward III’s reign receive less attention. The Black Death plague is only mentioned in passing a few times even though it caused tremendous social change in Edward III’s kingdom and resulted in the deaths of three of his dozen children. The Six Statutes are not discussed and I would have liked more analysis about the culture of his court. Edward III’s plans for his sons are discussed in the text but not his daughters. A good introduction to certain aspects of Edward III’s reign but not a comprehensive biography.

#90 of 365 The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 672 pages

Dates Read: March 31-April 1

Review: I agree with the author that the study and teaching of history should move beyond national boundaries and encompass a more global perspective. The first half of the book is very engaging, discussing various eastern cultures including the Mongols, the Byzantine Empires and Kievan Rus and their impact on western Europe as trade goods and ideas traveled up and down the Silk Roads. I found that the book lost a bit of focus in the second half as there is an extended digression concerning European exploration of the Americas and then the narrative moves out of central Asia for extended periods to discuss British, American and Russian foreign policy, particularly relations with the Middle East. There are some compelling chapters in the second half, such as the analysis of Russia’s impact on global affairs in the nineteenth century, but overall, I enjoyed the medieval chapters more than the modern ones.

#91 of 365 Richard II: A Brittle Glory by Laura Ashe

Date Read: April 3, 2018

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Review: Most titles in the Penguin Monarchs series provide an introduction to an individual monarch’s life and reign but this short biography of Richard II is best enjoyed by readers already familiar with the key events and people of the time period or, at least, have seen a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Ashe adopts a strictly thematic approach, analyzing Richard II’s reign through the lens of parliament, church, battlefield and London. The literary culture of Richard II’s time (and Shakespeare’s time) is woven into the text with extensive quotations from primary sources.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Library Books and Audiobooks

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 12: Library Books and Audiobooks: My recent reading has been a combination of library books for work and audiobooks for fun. I gave a lecture about the Spanish Inquisition on March 20, as part of my Imperial Spain course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and a lecture about Queen Victoria and Canada on March 21 for the University Lecture Series. I am also working on a Canadian Encyclopedia article about Pauline Vanier, viceregal consort of Canada from 1959 to 1967. In between lecture preparation and article research, I listened to a couple of short audiobooks and read two more books from the Penguin Monarchs. Here are the past week’s reviews:

#78 of 365 The Spanish Inquisition by Joseph Perez

Genre: History

Format: Hardcover, 248 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 19, 2018

Review:  A good overview of the Spanish Inquisition and the relationship between Church and State in Early Modern Spain. There is a fascinating chapter about how the Inquisition assessed books to be banned, an issue satirized in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, including the cultural impact of these policies. The book did not, however, include the details of specific trials and I am not sure if I agree with some of the author’s comparisons to modern totalitarian states. The book is worth reading as part of a longer reading list about the Spanish Inquisition.

#79 of 365 Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours, 57 minutes

Date Read: March 19-20

Review: A fun audiobook, narrated by the author. I enjoyed hearing about Kaling’s adventures attending an American state dinner and learning that her book had been Malia Obama’s vacation reading. Her Harvard Law speech, which referenced both the Supreme court and Legally Blonde, was also entertaining. The book ends with some nice remarks about confidence.

#80 of 365 Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 752 pages

Dates Read: March 20-March 21, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  An engaging biography of Queen Victoria, which captures her personality and wide range of interests. Baird places Victoria in the context of her times, highlighting the social issues and changing attitudes toward women over the course of the 19th century. As a female Head of State, Victoria inspired other women interested in achieving a greater role in public life, even though she was personally opposed to women’s suffrage and women joining a number of the professions. This focus on Victoria’s influence as a woman in power makes this biography stand out from the many others about the Queen. The contradictions within Victoria’s character and relationships are also well illustrated here.

There are a few points where I disagree with Baird’s analysis. Like A.N. Wilson, author of Victoria: A Life, she argues that Victoria had romantic feelings toward Lord Melbourne while I agree with Kate Williams, author of Becoming Queen that she viewed him more as a father figure and “favorite tutor.” I was also disappointed to see some of the speculation about Princess Louise from Lucinda Hawksley’s recent biography of the Princess repeated as fact.

Overall, I enjoyed Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria, which demonstrates that more than a century after the Queen’s death, there are still fresh perspectives and interpretations of her long life.

#81 The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Genre: Classic Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Read: March 20-22, 2018

Review:  I was drawn to this audiobook because it is a female coming of age novel and is read by Susan Sarandon. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the novel. The Member of the Wedding is well written and the audiobook is well read but there is very little plot and what does happen is unsettling. There are endless long conversations between Frankie and Bernice in the kitchen at sunset, which appear to be the background to a story that never unfolds. Frankie’s reflections are repetitive. The Member of the Wedding reminded me of Catcher in the Rye, another book that I respect but did not enjoy.

#82 of 365 Athelstan: The Making of England by Tom Holland

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Date Read: March 24, 2018

Review: The epic first installment of the Penguin Monarchs series, describing Athelstan’s achievements uniting England more than one thousand years ago including establishing diplomatic relations with continental European powers and managing a fractious royal succession. Athelstan’s personality and even the site of the most decisive battle of his reign remain elusive but the book discusses the political and religious influences of his times and the family who shaped his childhood and adolescence including his grandfather, Alfred the Great, his father, Edward the Elder and his warrior queen aunt, Aethelflaed of Mercia. I am pleased that the Penguin Monarchs series includes volumes about the most influential monarchs from the Houses of Wessex and Denmark as it is essential to start before 1066 to understand the foundations of England and the monarchy.

#83 of 365 Cnut: The North Sea King by Ryan Lavelle

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardover, 120 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 24-25, 2018

Review: A surprisingly dry biography of a king famous for ordering the seas to obey him! Lavelle addresses major themes and incidents in Cnut’s reign but I found that the book was missing valuable context concerning the Viking invasions and the differences between Danish and English ideas of kingship. In contrast to the biography of Athelstan in the same series, there was little information about the formative influences over Cnut and how they might have shaped his kingship. There were some fascinating sections in the second half of the book, however, concerning the king’s complicated personal life and his relationship with the church.

#84 and #85 of 365 Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple by Mary Frances Coady and One Woman’s Journey: A Portrait of Pauline Vanier by Deborah Cowley and George Cowley

Genre: Biography:

Format: Hardcover, 283 pages and Paperback, 175 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: March 25-28, 2018 and March 28, 2018

Reviews: Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple is a well written and well researched biography of Governor General of Canada Georges Vanier (1959-1967) and his wife, Pauline Vanier, a noted humanitarian and one of the first Companions of the Order of Canada. Coady discusses their personalities, marriage and public life, drawing upon a wide range of sources including fascinating correspondence with their five children. I would have been interested to read more about Georges Vanier’s term as Governor General, which is confined to a few chapters. An engaging and interesting read.

One Woman’s Journey: A Portrait of Pauline Vanier is an engaging short biography of Pauline Vanier. The main source for the book are recordings of 18 hours recollections by Pauline Vanier, which display warmth, keen observations of other political figures of time and a self deprecating sense of humour. I found Pauline Vanier’s conversations with royalty to be especially interesting including the advice she received from Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, a previous viceregal consort of Canada (1940-1946) as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s observation during a difficult 1964 visit to Quebec, “Every time the politicians appear to get more nervous, I seem to get calmer.” A fascinating read.

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New Book Chapter: Royalty and the Arts in Canada in The Canadian Kingdom edited by D. Michael Jackson

I contributed a chapter about Royalty and the Arts in Canada to The Canadian Kingdom edited by D. Michael Jackson and published by Dundurn Press. The book will be published next month.

Queen Elizabeth II’s role as a curator monarch over the course of her long reign has exerted a profound impact on Canadian art and culture, building upon centuries of patronage of Canadian artists, architects, and cultural institutions by past generations of royalty, most notably members of the royal family who resided in Canada for years at a time. A number of Canada’s past royal residents, including Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise and granddaughter Princess Patricia, were accomplished artists in their own right who raised the profile of Canadian galleries by founding new cultural institutions, attending events, submitting their pieces for judgement in Canadian exhibitions, and donating their work. Over the course of her reign, Queen Elizabeth II has loaned or donated art to Canadian cultural institutions and acquired works by Canadian artists for the Royal Collection, expanding the scope of royal involvement in the arts in Canada and setting precedents for artistic patronage by future generations in the royal family.

Click here to view The Canadian Kingdom – Table of Contents

Click here to pre-order The Canadian Kingdom 

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Succession

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 11: Royal Succession The first book I read this past week examined how “unexpected heirs” who were not educated to wield power shaped the history of Early Modern Europe. Throughout British history, numerous monarchs have been second sons or second daughters including Henry VIII, Charles I, George V, George VI, Elizabeth I and Anne. The theme of unexpected developments in royal lines of succession informed the rest of the week’s reading. Here are my reviews:

#71 of 365 Unexpected Heirs in Early Modern Europe: Potential Kings and Queens edited by Valerie Schutte

Date Read: March 15, 2018

Genre: Royal History

Format: E-Book, 280 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review: Unexpected Heirs in Early Modern Europe: Potential Kings and Queens examines the educations, images and actions of unlikely monarchs in Early Modern Europe, demonstrating that they often came to the throne with very different experiences than Kings and Queens who were born with a clear expectation of the throne. My favourite chapters included Valerie Schutte’s examination of books dedicated to Mary I and Elizabeth I before they respectively succeeded to the English throne, demonstrating popular views of the amount of influence wielded by each princess, and Troy Heffernan’s study of how the education of the future Queen Anne was less comprehensive that that of her male predecessors and even previous queens such as Mary and Elizabeth. The final chapter, by William Robison, about Elizabeth I as an unexpected heir summarizes the contingencies that governed that entire royal succession from Anglo-Saxon times to the sixteenth century, emphasizing how rarely the throne passed from father to son without unexpected developments. A fascinating read that includes analysis of Early Modern royalty in England, Scotland France and Sweden.

#72 of 365 George I: The Lucky King by Tim Blanning

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 115 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 15, 2018

Review: George I succeeded his second cousin, Queen Anne, as the monarch of Great Britain after Anne died without surviving children (despite seventeen pregnancies) in 1714. Blanning provides a detailed analysis of the succession of the Hanover dynasty to the English throne, challenging the perception that George I was distant relation of Queen Anne as his mother, Sophia of Hanover, was a granddaughter of James I, niece of Charles I and cousin of Charles II and James II. The domestic and foreign policy, economics, culture and society of George I’s reign are all discussed in this short biography. While some of the other titles in the Penguin monarchs series focus on a monarch’s political activity at the expense of his or her personal life, Blanning also discusses George I’s “seedy private life,” which was satirized by his subjects, and his famously acrimonious relationship with his son, the future King George II. Blanning’s only defense of George I’s relationship with his son is “At least George did not follow the example of Peter the Great…”A comprehensive further reading list organized by theme is included at the end of the book.

#73 of 365 Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

Genre: Royal History

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 33 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 13-16, 2018

Review: 

A well researched and engaging dual biography of the young Queen Victoria and her tragic cousin Princess Charlotte. Williams captures a period of transition between the decadent regency period and the Victorian era, where the royal family presented a respectable, domestic image. Both Charlotte and Victoria had strong personalities and were determined to preserve their independence in an era when women were usually advised to be passive and defer to others. The two cousins captured the popular imagination as successive heiresses to the throne. I agree Williams that the public image of both princesses set precedents for the modern monarchy. The audiobook is well read by Carole Boyd.

#74 of 365 Henry V From Playboy Prince to Warrior King

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: March 16, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Genre: Royal History

Review: An comprehensive short biography of Henry V, who became heir to the throne after his father, Henry IV, deposed his cousin Richard II and seized the throne. Anne Curry has written extensively about the Battle of Agincourt and that research informs the book but she also includes lesser known information about Henry V including his book collection (Henry enjoyed Chaucer and other English language authors) and patronage of the Bridgettine monastic order. Curry concludes that Henry was “one of England’s busiest kings,” an accurate assessment considering his achievements in war, diplomacy and politics before his early death at the age of thirty-five.

#75 of 365 Henry VI: A Good, Simple and Innocent Man

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 118 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 16-17, 2018

Review: A short sympathetic biography of one of England’s most unsuccessful monarchs. Henry VI succeeded to throne at the age of just nine months. Ross examines Henry’s famous piety as well as his periods of mental illness, likely inherited from his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI “the Mad” or “the Foolish” of France. Henry VI emerges as neither an entirely passive figure nor a consistently active monarch. Henry was easily influenced by his courtiers and queen and prone to abrupt changes in policy, from excessive generosity to severe repression of dissent. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book is the evidence that Henry was aware of his own shortcomings as monarch. When asked if he wished to be buried next his father, Henry V, the victor of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry VI stated “Nay let him alone: he lieth like a noble prince. I will not trouble him.”

#76 of 365 Edward IV: The Summer King by A. J. Pollard

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 17-18, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Review: A short critical biography of Edward IV. Pollard judges Edward to have been resourceful leader in the crises of the Wars of the Roses and an able military commander but a king who “did not look much beyond his immediate personal interests and desires.” Pollard observes parallels between Edward IV and his grandson Henry VIII, noting that both were handsome young princes fascinated by tournaments and courtly display who became increasingly obese and self indulgent as they grew older.

In contrast, Pollard provides a surprisingly positive assessment of Elizabeth Woodville as queen, noting that she fulfilled the requirements of a queen consort including motherhood, piety and patronage although she was unfairly maligned as an ambitious intriguer. Pollard concludes by noting that Edward IV belonged to a dysfunctional family, ordering the murder of his brother George then having his own children disinherited by his brother Richard III after his death. I look forward to reading the biographies of Richard III and Henry VII in this series, when they are published later in the year.

#77 of 365 The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson 

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 52 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 16-19, 2018

Review:An engaging history of Ancient Egypt, providing a detailed analysis of the Old Kingdom (best known for the building of the Pyramids of Giza), the Middle Kingdom (a period of literary Renaissance), the New Kingdom (including the famous Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty: Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Hatsheput, and Tutankhamen as well as the military victories of Ramses II), and the foreign invasions of the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period. The Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ended with the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII at the Battle of Actium, is passed over quickly with the Ptolemaic Pharaohs prior to Cleopatra summarized in a single chapter.

Wilkinson focuses on the elites at the top of the social pyramid including Pharaohs, their families and high officials. This emphasis on the lives of the wealthy reflects the surviving archaeological evidence, including tomb inscriptions, but the book also includes the difficult conditions faced by ordinary people such as the evidence of one of earliest labour strikes.

While I enjoyed much of the book, I found the author was quite critical of the Pharaohs of the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period because they did not measure up to the standards set by the New Kingdom rulers. Even during the chapter on the reign of Cleopatra, one thousand years after the New Kingdom, there is a comparison to this earlier zenith of ancient Egyptian empire. I would have preferred an assessment of the later rulers according to the standards of their own times instead of continuous comparisons with the glories of the New Kingdom. Otherwise, the book is richly detailed, and emphasizes the lasting impact of Ancient Egypt on modern history. The audiobook is well read by Michael Page.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: The Tudors

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 10: The Tudors This week, (or should I say 10 days as I am a few books behind schedule in efforts to read a book a day in 2018) there was a clear theme to my reading: England’s Tudor Dynasty. I read short biographies of King Henry VIII and two of his children, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I as well as a scholarly study of early Tudor queenship, historical novels about Henry VIII’s first two wives, and a book about how Tudor England established diplomatic and trade relations with the court of Czar Ivan the Terrible in Russia.  Here are this week’s reviews:

#64 of 365 Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame by John Guy

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 6, 2018

Review: A balanced introduction to King Henry VIII’s reign that includes both Henry’s strengths and his “deadly impatience.” Guy incorporates the latest research concerning Henry and his reign including medical analysis of his ulcerated leg and difficulty fathering surviving children. The book provides an especially detailed discussion of Henry’s public image and the contrast between Henry’s “delusions of grandeur” and his comparatively marginal significance in continental European politics. I disagree, however, with Guy’s conclusion that Henry was “the most remarkable ruler ever to sit on the English throne.” I would give that distinction to his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

 #65 of 365 Elizabeth of York and Her Six Daughters-in-Law: Fashioning Tudor Queenship (1485-1547) by Retha Warnicke

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 291 pages

Date Read: March 7, 2018

Review: An excellent study of change and continuity in Tudor queenship during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Renowned Tudor scholar Retha Warnicke emphasizes the importance of Elizabeth of York’s role as queen during the reign of Henry VII, challenging the idea that the queen was completely overshadowed by her mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. Since Elizabeth of York died before her son Henry VIII became King and married six successive wives, she is rarely compared to her daughters-in-law even though her experiences as queen set precedents for subsequent Tudor queens. The book is arranged thematically, examining coronations, incomes, households, family life, religious activities, patronage, court entertainments and burials.

There are a few points where I disagree with Warnicke’s interpretations of source material. For example, she describes Mary Boleyn as Anne Boleyn’s younger sister while I agree with evidence cited by other historians indicating that Mary was the elder of the two Boleyn sisters. Overall, I found the book extremely informative and fascinating to read, combining the experiences of Tudor queens consort with the life cycle of elite women of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

#66 of 365 Edward VI: The Last Boy King by Stephen Alford

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 90 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 7, 2018

Review: This short biography of King Edward VI provides a good overview of the child king’s portraits, writings, interests, social circle and education but there are key themes from his reign that receive comparatively little attention. Aside from a final chapter about Edward VI’s changes to the line of succession to favour his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, there is little analysis of the lasting impact of Edward’s strong Protestant beliefs and policies. His interactions with his sisters, the future Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, also received comparatively little attention. The Further Reading sections provides some useful suggestions that address these themes in the King’s reign.

#67 of 365 Mary I: The Daughter of Time by John Edwards

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 112 pages

Acquired: Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: March 8-9, 2018

Review: An excellent introduction to the reign of Queen Mary I. For centuries, Mary has been dismissed as a “Bloody Mary” and compared unfavourably to her half sister and successor Elizabeth I. Recent scholarship has emphasized her achievement as England’s first uncontested female ruler. In common with his longer biography of Mary “England’s Catholic Queen” for Yale University Press, Edwards, an expert in Spanish history, carefully analyzes Mary’s Catholicism, Spanish influences (including her mother Catherine of Aragon and husband Philip II) and her place in continental European politics. The focus of this short biography is Mary’s education and reign and there is little attention paid to her personality beyond the traumatic impact of the breakdown of the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. 

#68 of 365 Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 22 hours and 32 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 6-March 10, 2018

Review: A richly detailed historical novel about King Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, filled with sumptuous gowns, banquets and jewels. The novel begins with Katherine’s arrival in England to marry Henry’s elder brother Arthur and Weir shows the cultural differences between the English and Spanish royal courts. Weir also captures the atmosphere of Tudor England, especially the court entertainments and tournaments presided over by Henry VIII. While most novels about Katherine of Aragon focus almost exclusively on the breakdown of her marriage, Weir shows Catherine’s full range of interests such as her patronage of scholars and her wide social circle including Maud Parr (mother of Catherine’s goddaughter and Henry VIII’s future 6th wife, Catherine Parr), Margaret, Countess of Salisbury and Maria de Salinas, Lady Willoughby. The prose is sometimes repetitive as the reader learns again and again that Catherine dislikes Cardinal Wolsey and favours an alliance with her nephew, Emperor Charles V, and key characters sometimes come and go with little explanation but overall, the novel is engaging. The audiobook is well read by Rosalyn Landor although the narrator sometimes overemphasizes the Spanish accents of Catherine and her ladies.

#69 of 365 Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 10-12, 2018

Review: A detailed historical novel about the life of Anne Boleyn from childhood to execution. I especially enjoyed the early chapters where Anne serves a series of European royal women and is mentored by these powerful figures including Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands and Marguerite of Navarre. Henry VIII does not begin to pursue Anne until around a quarter of the way through the novel, allowing Anne’s personality as an independent, educated, confident and stylish young woman to be established before she becomes the central figure in “The King’s Great Matter.” The novel also shows the power imbalances between European monarchs such as Henry VIII or Francois I and the young maids-of-honour whom they pursued at their courts.

Once Henry begins to seek a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, however, the narrative slows down and the courtship and quarrels between Henry and Anne become repetitive. First, they argue numerous times about Cardinal Wolsey, then they argue about Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary. In Weir’s previous novel about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII has a variety of interests and political objectives but the king is almost entirely focused on Anne in this novel and therefore seems more one dimensional. The wit, charm and personal magnetism that Anne must have possessed to receive a promise of marriage from the King is also curiously absent from much of the novel. Once Henry and Anne’s marriage begins to break down, the narrative becomes more dramatic and builds to a tragic conclusion.

#70 of 365 Tudor Adventurers by James Evans

Genre: History

Date Read: March 14, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 383 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Review:  An interesting account of how Tudor England established diplomatic and trade relations with Ivan the Terrible’s Russia. The impressions of the English explorers, traveling by sledge to Moscow and being invited to lavish banquets at the Kremlin were fascinating. I was also interested to read about the founding of the Muscovy Company under the reign of Queen Mary I. I would have preferred that the book follow these developments more closely as there are often digressions about English politics during the expedition to Russia and the history of navigation and seafaring that could be streamlined to focus more closely on the voyage itself. I agree with the author that the search for the northeast passage should be better known as it had a lasting impact on England’s economy.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: February 26-March 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 9: How The Books All Fit Together This past week, I ignored my own guidelines for my Book a Day 2018 project (to read an academic history book, a classic novel and more than one royal themed book each week), and instead chose books that looked interesting without any concern for how the books related in one another, shopping at Book City early in the week and choosing from recent audiobook selections and secondhand bookstore finds as the week progressed.

Even when selecting books at random, however, I noticed connections between this weeks books and books I have read during previous weeks. The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris (no relation), discusses Sherlock Holmes’ “mind palace” as it is introduced in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, which I read a few weeks agoShrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls by Elizabeth Renzetti references Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, which I also read earlier in the year. There will be more royal books reviewed next week and undoubtedly more connections with my past reading. Here are this week’s reviews:

#57 of 365 The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris

Genre: Philosophy/Community and Culture

Date Read: February 26-27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Review: I am one of the youngest people who can remember life before the internet and I often think about how society has changed in recent decades with the advent of social media and smartphones. Harris examines how the internet and social media have affected memories, attention spans and relationships and analyzes his own attempts to undertake a one month digital detox and read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace as buzzing devices compete for his attention. A thought provoking read, which reinforces my view that occasional breaks from the online world are a very good thing!

#58 of 365 Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls by Elizabeth Renzetti

Genre: Memoir/Feminism

Date Read: February 27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 304 pages

Review: I enjoy Elizabeth Renzetti’s columns in the Globe and Mail and looked forward to reading her essays on women and society. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Highlights include an analysis of work-life balance and how being busy becomes a status symbol in itself, the complicated cultural attitudes regarding women’s ambition, and the literal cost of being female as products marketed toward women often cost substantially more than equivalents for men. Renzetti’s own life experiences and interviews with prominent women are woven into the text. Shrewed ends with inspiring advice for women and girls, which I hope Renzetti eventually gets to deliver as a commencement address.

#59 of 365 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Genre: Science Fiction

Format: Audiobook,

Dates Listened: 9 hours and 39 minutes, February 25-March 1, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: Ursula Le Guin passed away recently and her most famous book, The Left Hand of Darkness, was featured as an audiobook on Audible. I don’t normally read science fiction but I decided to give it a try as the audiobook narrator is George Guidall and I enjoyed listening to his readings of Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote last year.

I found the early chapters of this novel extremely engrossing as  Le Guin creates a fully realized alternate universe. The planet of “Winter” is most famous for its uniquely androgynous population but Le Guin also discusses the planet’s political system, royal succession, low protein diet and communal child rearing arrangements and of course, the freezing weather. As the novel progressed, however, the plot unfolded very slowly with multiple chapters devoted to the central characters wandering around in the snow, forming a bond and learning about each other’s cultures. The audiobook is beautifully read by Guidall but since different chapters are from the perspective of different characters (and there are folktales interspersed with the narrative), more than one reader might have made the different perspectives more evident.

#60 of 365 The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Paperback, 688 pages

Dates Read: March 1-2, 2018

Genre: Memoir/Psychology

Review: A well written and insightful overview of depression. The book combines the author’s own experiences with a variety of approaches to examining depression itself including symptoms, treatment, history and theories concerning the role of depression in human evolution. Provides both a helpful perspective for those experiencing depression and a scientific and historical overview for those interested in learning about the various facets of mental illness. The history chapter includes a reference to the delusions of King Charles VI of France, nicknamed “the foolish” during the Hundred Years’s War and Charles’s grandson, King Henry VI of England would also fit well into the narrative. Highly recommended.

#61 of 365 Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Date Read: March 3, 2018

Review: The 3rd book in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. I’m enjoying the 44 Scotland Street series but this installment was little slower moving than the two previous novels. I love the story-lines involving Bertie, especially his trip to Paris as the only saxophone playing six year old in a teen orchestra but there were too many digressions involving other, less interesting, characters including Angus, his dog and Dominica’s tenant. Dominica’s adventures in the Malacca Straits were fun but took the narrative out of Scotland too often. I look forward to reading the 4th book in the series, The World According to Bertie.

#62 of 365 The Bridesmaids: Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco and Six Intimate Friends by Judith Balaban Quine

Genre: Royal Biography

Date Read: March 4, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from the Hollywood Canteen Secondhand Bookstore in Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 498 pages

Review: I found this out of print book about Grace Kelly and her bridesmaids at a secondhand bookstore and it seemed like the perfect Oscar night read. The author, Judith Balaban Quine was married to Kelly’s talent agent and was one of her bridesmaids at her wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco. The book provided a fun snapshot of the times and I greatly enjoyed the sections about the wedding and how it was covered in the press. Unfortunately, the author devotes a great deal of the book to her own life story, including circumstances that did not relate to her friendship with Grace Kelly and these sections of the book are comparatively dull. Nevertheless, The Bridesmaids is one of the more detailed books about Grace Kelly and her role as Princess of Monaco.

#63 of 365 Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Dates Listened: March 1-March 6, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 52 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: I enjoy David Sedaris’s books and his segments on This American Life but I found the early chapters of this book were unrelentingly bleak as Sedaris’s diary details his financial difficulties (there are a lot of entries about unpaid phone bills), drug problems and a series of difficult/disturbed customers at the International House of Pancakes, where he spent much of his time. The book picks up, however, when Sedaris begins to experience success as an author and playwright and moves to Paris. There are fun scenes in French class that read like the deleted scenes from Me Talk Pretty One Day and a lot of entertaining book tour anecdotes as he travels around Europe and North America promoting his writing. There are entries about both Princess Diana’s wedding and death. There are some strange entries toward the end (I could have done without his writings about spiders) but overall, the second half of the book is much funnier than the first. I look forward to reading the next volume of diaries.

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Books I’ve Read This Week February 19-25, 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 8: The First Two Months: I’m two months into my Book a Day 2018 project and it’s definitely the longest I have ever stuck with a New Year’s Resolution. The daily routine of reading and writing book reviews is comforting during difficult times and I’m enjoying a nice blend of royal history, general history, classic fiction, modern novels, and philosophy. This week, I read fewer royal history books than usual but chose titles on a variety of different topics from classical Rome to comedy. Here are this week’s reviews:

#50 of 365 Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann

Genre: History

Acquired: Review Copy

Format: Paperback, 384 pages

Date Read; February 19, 2018

Review:Black Tudors: The Untold Story  focuses on ten people of African descent who lived in Tudor and Stuart England, providing a social history of sixteenth and seventeenth England as a cosmopolitan, maritime kingdom where people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds lived alongside one another, especially in seaside towns. The most detailed chapters concern Diego, who escaped slavery in Spanish America by talking his way aboard Sir Francis Drake’s ship and the curiously named Reasonable Blackman who became a silk weaver and sadly lost two of his three children in a plague epidemic. Henry VIII’s trumpeter John Blanke is also the focus of a chapter, which demonstrates his rise to prominence at the royal court with the King purchasing his wedding clothes.

The lives of individual people of African descent in England serve as a lens for examining the broader context in which African migration to England took place during this time and Kaufmann reminds readers that all of the historical figures discussed in the book received wages for their labour and that the presence of Africans in England at this time cannot be explained by the overseas slave trade. Black Tudors: The Untold Story  is a fascinating read, which reveals the full complexity of of English society during the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

#51 of 365 The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

Format: Paperback, 416 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: February 20, 2018

Review:  The Secret Wife by Gill Paul is a historical novel that imagines that Czar Nicholas II’s second daughter Grand Duchess Tatiana (murdered by Bolsheviks with her family in 1918) and her admirer Dmitri Malama (killed fighting in the White Army in 1919, during the Russian Civil Wars) survived and found each other. I have read a great deal of Romanov survival fiction from the excellent (The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander) to the terrible (The Czarina’s Daughter by Carolly Erickson) and I was interested to find out how this novel would portray Russia’s last Imperial family.

The Secret Wife begins well with a touching depiction of Tatiana and Malama meeting in the palace infirmary where the Grand Duchesses worked as nurses during the First World War. These early chapters are well researched and pleasant to read. Unfortunately, I found it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief once the Russian Revolutions of 1917 take place and Malama becomes involved in increasingly unrealistic rescue plans. I also did not enjoy the parallel, modern day narrative about Malama’s great-granddaughter Kitty renovating her cabin and dealing with her marital issues, which was far less compelling than the historical fiction.

Tatiana’s alternate life in the novel, which is not revealed until close to the end, is very sad. I did not understand the purpose of changing Tatiana’s historical fate only to provide her with a tragic fictional life. This novel had promise but I was disappointed by the end.

#52 of 365 Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Genre: History/Philosophy/Memoir

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 58 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: February 17-February 21, 2018

Review: Wanderlust is subtitled “A History of Walking” but it is best described as a philosophy of different modes of walking, in urban and rural areas, informed by history and the author’s own experiences. Solnit draws some interesting parallels between historical and modern modes of walking, for example, comparing pilgrimages and modern charity marathons. The different experiences of urban and rural walkers also receive extensive attention. Solnit examines why walking is often associated with authors and philosophers and how the early 19th century romantic movement transformed popular attitudes toward nature.

There is a strong focus on the United States, Britain and France with some discussion of mountaineering and hiking other parts of the world including Mount Everest and The Great Wall of China. I would have been interested to read more about how walking is conceptualized in other regions of the globe. Also, the narrative is sometimes rambling (in every sense of the word) and some of the chapters and examples are overly long and digress away from the subject of walking. An interesting read filled with insightful observations about what it means to walk in landscapes increasingly dominated by automobiles.

#53 of 365 SPQR: A History of Rome by Mary Beard

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 608 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Ben McNally Books, Toronto

Date Read: February 22, 2018

Review:  A fascinating history of Rome’s “first millennium.” Mary Beard not only provides a history of ancient Rome but discusses how the Romans viewed themselves over time and the lasting influence of Roman history over modern politics and culture. Much of what we think we know about ancient Rome comes from modern paintings and film and Beard returns to the original sources, complicating popular perceptions of Roman life. Beard includes both textual sources, which have informed past histories of Rome, and recent archaeological discoveries. The chapters devoted to high politics and philosophy are interspersed with social history, discussing Roman families and the thriving bar and cafe culture where many less affluent Romans spent their spare time. The book is written in a readable style and includes numerous illustrations and a family tree showing the complicated genealogy of Rome’s Emperors.

#54 of 365 Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Genre: Philosophy

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: February 22-23, 2018

Review: I found the Meditations interesting as a historical document, especially having just read a history of ancient Rome, and it’s fascinating that a Roman Emperor left such extensive evidence of his personal philosophy. However, I thought the stoic philosophy put forward in the book seemed very severe and contrary to human nature. I’m not sure if it’s possible or even desirable to maintain complete inner serenity in the face of extreme adversity. We are all shaped by our experiences and have emotional responses to the events in our lives. The audiobook is well read by Duncan Steen.

#55 of 365 Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: February 24, 2018

Review: The best of David Sedaris’ books. I enjoy his sketches on the This American Life podcast and began reading (and listening to) his books last year. The sections set in France are particularly hilarious as Sedaris learns French from an instructor who hurls insults at him until the language becomes clear. Perhaps the funniest chapter is where Sedaris mistaken for a French pickpocket by a pair of American tourists speaking English loudly on the Paris metro. As always, there are chapters about Sedaris’s eccentric family including his sister Amy, who comes to Christmas dinner in a fat suit, prompting lectures on healthy eating from their father. A fun and enjoyable read.

#56 of 365 The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Genre: Classic Novel

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 35 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Read: February 23-25, 2018

Review: There are many similarities between the Phantom of the Opera novel and musical, including the dramatic scene where the chandelier comes down. While the musical emphasizes sound and spectacle, however, the novel is written in the unadorned style of 19th century detective fiction, presenting the “facts” of the case of the opera ghost and the investigations by the managers and police. While there is extensive backstory provided for the Phantom, named Erik in the novel, Raoul and Christine remain fairly one dimensional characters. The best character in the novel is the opera house itself with its secret passageways, trapdoors and underground lakes.

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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 Audible.com

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 Amazon.ca

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 Audible.com

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.”

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