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.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Historical Fiction

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

Week 19: Royal Historical Fiction: In the past week, I read six historical novels about royalty. There are certain monarchs who have become iconic figures in popular culture such as Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette and are therefore the subject of dozens of historical novels. I focused on novels about historical figures that have not been dramatized as frequently, choosing novels set in Spain, Russia, Sweden and India as well as England. After six historical novels, I wrapped up the week with a couple of fun books, classic and modern. Here are this week’s reviews:

#127 of 365 The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile by C.W. Gortner

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 53 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: May 17-May 20, 2018

Review:  I enjoy C. W. Gortner’s novels, especially The Last Queen, because he brings a fresh perspective to historical figures and events. Queen Isabella of Castile is an excellent subject for a historical novel because her life and reign were filled with dramatic circumstances and interesting personages. I enjoyed the first half of this book because Isabella’s path to throne was filled with danger and sudden changes in fortune, which provide the novel with dramatic momentum.

In contrast, the second half of the novel moved very quickly through the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, Isabella’s first meeting with Christopher Columbus and waging war against the Moors, leaving out other key events or mentioning them in passing. I thought Ferdinand was introduced too early as part of a fictional teenage romance. It would have been more compelling to have Isabella come of age and develop her own ideas without his influence before their marriage.

While Ferdinand appears in the novel too early, Isabella’s intent to wage war against Granada emerges too late in the narrative, and appears to be Ferdinand’s idea, when it was in fact her intention from the time of her marriage as stated in the Marriage Conditions of 1469. The book ends abruptly, acting as a prequel to The Last Queen (a novel of Isabella’s daughter Queen Juana la Loca). An engaging read but I did not always agree with the author’s pacing and approach to dramatizing Isabella’s reign.

#128 of 365 I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: May 21, 2018

Review: I Was Anastasia has a fascinating premise, following the story of the most famous Anastasia claimant backwards and the Russian Revolution and imprisonment of the Romanovs forwards, with the stories meeting in the cellar room in Ekaterinburg where the Imperial family was murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918. The chapters concerning the claimant are interesting as they reveal a broad range of colourful characters who become involved in her quest to be recognized as Anastasia including Rasputin’s daughter Maria, and a Romanov cousin, Princess Xenia, who became an Oyster Bay socialite after the revolution.

The chapters concerning the actual Grand Duchess Anastasia and the imprisonment of the Romanovs in 1917 and 1918, however, contain numerous historical inaccuracies, which are infuriating for readers who have read extensively about Anastasia and her family. The author notes in her afterward that she is not particularly interested in royalty and considers Russian names confusing. These biases are evident in her portrayal of the Romanovs. There are violent scenes involving the Czar’s daughters prior to the murder of the Romanovs that did not actually take place but are presented as historical, even in the author’s afterward. If these scenes had been depicted as the claimant’s imaginings, which differ from the historical record, they might have made sense in the novel but as a dramatization of the actual Anastasia’s experiences, they are completely inaccurate and come across as gratuitous sensationalism.

I Was Anastasia has an interesting structure and approach and would have been a much better novel if the author had focused entirely on the claimant and her imagined memories instead of providing an inaccurate and sensationalized portrayal of the imprisonment of the last Romanovs.

#129 of 365 Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: May 21-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 52 minutes

Review: My favourite novel in Alison Weir’s 6 Tudor Queens series so far. Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife is presented as quiet and contemplative but not a passive figure, as she is often described. Her rise from country girl to maid of honour to queen consort unfolds amidst Tudor intrigue and an engaging cast of characters including the royal family, ladies-in-waiting, ambassadors, political figures and the ambitious Seymour family. The first two books in the series, which focused on Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively, sometimes became mired in the details of Henry VIII’s first divorce but Jane’s perspective provides a sense of how individual courtiers responded to these circumstances.

Jane sometimes compromises her principles to maintain her family’s place in the Tudor court hierarchy and her experiences reflect the difficult choices made by many of her contemporaries at Henry VIII’s court as the king initiated religious and political upheaval. Weir provides a richly detailed narrative, contrasting Jane’s comparatively modest family home, where all the women of her family joined in the labour of kitchen and the herb garden, with the glittering Tudor court where established and rising families jostle for precedence. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is an absorbing read and I am looking forward to the publication of the next novel in the series, Anna of Kleve, next year!

#130 of 365 Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: May 22-25, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 400 pages

Review: The Rani of Jhansi is an ideal subject for a historical novel, a female ruler with a dramatic life and times who deserves to be better known around the world. This novel is not about the Rani, however, but one of her female guards, Sita. A lot of the book is devoted to court intrigue, conflicts and friendships between the women in the Rani’s household and Sita’s concern for her family. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, where the Rani was one of the key leaders, goes by quickly in the last 70 pages of the novel. The book is engaging and readable but it seems like a missed opportunity to focus on the Rani and the Rebellion.

#131 of 365 The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from one my students

Format: Hardcover, 416 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

Review: This book was recommended to me by one the students in the history of Imperial Spain course that I taught earlier this year. The novel is an absorbing murder mystery set in rural Aragon during the reign of King Philip II amidst the preparations for the royal wedding of the king’s daughter, the Infanta Catalina, to the Duke of Savoy. The novel is well researched and captures the atmosphere of the sixteenth century Spanish kingdoms when the Inquisition was scrutinizing the behavior of Conversos (descendants of Jewish people who had converted to Christianity) and Moriscos (Former Muslims and their descendants who converted to Christianity) for signs of their former religious practices.

The mystery itself was less compelling for me than the setting and historical context but the author maintains a consistent pace and I was interested in Magistrate Mendoza’s investigation to the very end. The novel provides a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of King Philip II and I would have liked to have read more scenes set at the royal court.

#132 of 365 The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 56 minutes

Dates Listened: May 24-25, 2018

Review: A fun, farcical novel about a missing atomic bomb and a plot to kidnap the King of Sweden. The last six or seven chapters are especially funny as the calm King and anxious Prime Minister are kidnapped by an anarchist in 2007 (who has himself narrowly survived falling through a roof into a pillow distribution centre in a condemned building). The anarchist, and his much smarter identical twin brother who does not legally exist, have accidentally come into possession of a South African atomic bomb mailed in error to Sweden. Like the twin, the bomb also does not legally exist.

There is amusing repartee between the King and the Prime Minister such as “Fredrik Reinfeld finished pondering&he said to his king,”I have been thinking.””Great,”said the king,”That’s the sort of thing we have Prime Ministers for, if you ask me.” The kidnappers travel to a farm owned by a potato growing Countess who arranges an impromptu dinner party because “no-one should have to abdicate on an empty stomach” and then the Israeli secret agent arrives…

At the centre of the novel are the twists and turns in the life of Nombeko, who goes from latrine emptier to jewel thief to the brains behind a nuclear facility to the king’s unlikely rescuer. The author provides an affectionate portrait of King Carl XVI Gustaf who is unflappable throughout the kidnapping (even fixing a tractor) and always has the common touch. An enjoyable and sometimes hilarious read. I look forward to reading other novels by this author.

#133 of 365 Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 187 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

Review: “My dear, it is just busy people that have time for everything,” declares Lucia to describe her wide array of hobbies and interests including taking up yoga. A 1920s social satire set in a British resort town with lots of quirky characters. The novel was written in the aftermath of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and Lucia uses over the top analogies about social disorder whenever there is a threat to her leadership of seaside society such as “Bolshevism was in the air!” A fun read but I prefer the recent BBC TV series.

#134 of 365 Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 25 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Date Listened: May 27, 2018

Review: I always enjoy David Sedaris’s essays, especially his reflections about his childhood, family, travel and learning languages. This collection is not as funny as the classic Me Talk Pretty One Day but it is more entertaining than the recent Theft by Finding. There is some Canadian content as Sedaris gives a reading at an Indigo bookstore in Toronto then makes a disastrous appearance at Costco, where he is ignored by passing shoppers.

My favourite chapter was about Sedaris’s travels in Hawaii where the holiday exactly matches the brochure in contrast to Normandy, which is not as picturesque as he expects. I could have done without most of the opening chapter at the creepy British taxidermist shop though Sedaris’s observations about gift giving at the beginning of the book are very funny.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the Modern Monarchy

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 18: Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and The Modern Monarchy: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were married on May 19 in a wedding that combined royal traditions with modern innovations, which reflected the personalities and interests of the royal couple. I have spent the week discussing the history of royal weddings with the media and reading about the royal couple and the modern monarchy. My recent book choices include three recent biographies of Harry and Meghan as well as biographies of royal women both current (Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Sophie, Countess of Wessex) and past (Queen Mary, whose tiara Meghan wore on her wedding day, and Queen Victoria’s descendants, who married into most of Europe’s royal houses) Here are this week’s reviews:

#120 of 365 American Princess: The Love Story of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry by Leslie Carroll

Genre: Royal Biography

Dates Listened: May 10-12, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 25 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: A light and breezy joint biography of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Only the last few chapters are about Harry and Meghan as a couple and the plans for their wedding. The book covers a lot of familiar ground including Charles and Diana’s divorce, Harry’s military career and his past relationships with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas as well as Meghan’s acting career and lifestyle blog and the charity work undertaken by both Harry and Meghan. The author memorably refers to Harry as “A Rebel with Many Causes.”

The chapters about Meghan’s early life, growing up in California are more interesting because her life is less well known than Harry’s. The book was published before the wedding and therefore concludes with speculation concerning which title the royal couple would receive on their wedding day. The author discusses the precedents for the couple becoming Duke and Duchess of Clarence, Sussex or Buckingham. An fun read but provides little new information and is already outdated following Harry and Meghan’s wedding and new titles.

#121 of 365 The Duchess: Camilla Parker Bowles and the Love Affair That Rocked the Crown by Penny Junor

Genre: Royal Biography

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 39 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: May 12-12, 2018

Review: I enjoyed the early chapters of this book, which provide an excellent overview of Camilla’s upbringing, worldview and the culture of her social background and times, which included limited education for women and close proximity to the royal family and the rhythms of royal life. The later chapters, from Camilla’s marriage to Charles until the end of the book are also very interesting as they discuss the challenges of her transition to royal life at the age of 57 including overcoming her fear of flying to undertake Commonwealth tours as Duchess of Cornwall. Camilla’s charitable work also receives extensive analysis in the later chapters.

The middle of the book, however, is dominated by the conflicts between Charles and Diana, which are well known from other sources, as well as conflicts among courtiers. Junor is also interested in the tense relationship between the royal family and the press. The author has a clear bias toward Charles in her analysis of his marriage to Diana and emphasizes her own proximity to royalty. These sections become repetitive. The book is at its best when the focus is on Camilla’s life and work. The audiobook is well read and engaging.

#122 of 365 Grandmama of Europe: The Crowned Descendants of Queen Victoria by Theo Aronson

Genre: Royal History

Dates Read: May 12-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Paperback, 678 pages

Review: A royal history classic! Theo Aronson examines the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria who married into Europe’s royal houses. The book was first published in the 1970s and there are some sections of the book, especially the chapters concerning the Russian Imperial family, which are rather dated, but Aronson provides an excellent account of how princesses with British upbringings experienced the courts of Russia, Romania, Greece, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Aronson’s favourite among of Queen Victoria’s descendants is clearly Queen Marie of Romania, who is described in glowing terms throughout the book. Aronson argues that the the connections between Europe’s royal houses were of limited political importance as the frequent family gatherings of the early 20th century did not prevent the First World War but these marriages still had a profound cultural influence as British customs and conceptions of royal duties spread across the continent. Well worth reading, especially in conjunction with more recent works. 

#123 of 365 Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 35 minutes

Dates Read: May 13-15, 2018

Review: Despite her profound influence on the monarchy, including the upbringing of her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II, there are few in depth of biographies of Queen Mary, the consort of King George V. The most famous and comprehensive is the 1959 book by James Pope-Hennessey. Anne Edwards, who has written books about numerous public figures, wrote her biography of Queen Mary in the 1980s, a period of increased interest in the monarchy with the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer and the births of Prince William and Prince Harry.

Edwards’s biography of Queen Mary excels in certain respects but is curiously incomplete in other ways. Edwards incorporates a variety of primary sources including Queen Mary’s correspondence and diaries as well as newspaper reports of the time. There is a great deal of attention devoted to Mary’s family life including her often distant relationship with her children and their experiences growing up in the royal family. Mary’s various homes and her intellectual interests are also discussed. Mary was far better educated than George and she read aloud to her husband and helped him practice his French and German. There are also whole chapters about wider European events that affected Mary and her family.

In contrast, the book summarizes Mary’s childhood very quickly, even though her background as a the child of a morganatic marriage – but also a close relative of Queen Victoria – is essential to understanding her character and outlook on the monarchy. The 1901 world tour is also summarized quickly with little discussion of how she was received in Canada or Australia. Her visits to India receive more attention. There are frequent references to public engagements and visits to hospitals in wartime but I would have liked more detail about her charities and her interactions with the people she met as a public figure. The author also mentions Britain and England interchangeably, which is inaccurate and distracting.

The audiobook is read in a suitably stately fashion by Corrie James.

#124 of 365 Harry: Life, Loss and Love by Katie Nicholl

Genre: Royal History

Dates Read: May 15-16, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 31 minutes

Review: My favourite one of the recently published biographies of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. In contrast to past biographies of Harry that often recount all the details of Charles and Diana’s marriage and divorce, Nicholl keeps the focus firmly on Harry and his experiences. Nicholl discusses Harry’s family life and the loss of his mother, how he gained a reputation as a party prince in his youth, his military career, passion for endangered species conservation and spending time in Botswana, humanitarian work, and relationships, including his engagement to Meghan Markle. Well worth reading in the aftermath of the royal wedding.

#125 of 365 Meghan: A Hollywood Princess by Andrew Morton

Genre: Royal Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 272 pages

Date Read: May 19, 2018

Review: Morton’s biography of Meghan Markle, clearly written in anticipation of the royal wedding, contains some interesting facts. Meghan, now Duchess of Sussex, once took part in a USO holiday tour and appeared in a school play with Scarlett Johansson. The tone of the book is sometimes judgmental though, with references to Meghan having a love of selfies or having a reputation as a “thirsty socialite.” There are interviews with people who only knew Meghan in passing (such as Deal or No Deal co-stars) or clearly have an axe to grind (such as her half brother Thomas Markle Jr.). The book was clearly written in haste and the photographs are out of order with later photos preceding earlier ones. The book did not meet my expectations.

#126 of 365 Sophie’s Kiss: The True Love Story of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones by Garth Gibbs and Sean Smith

Genre: Royal Biography

Format: Paperback, 268 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Willow Books, Toronto

Date Read: May 20, 2018

Review: I found this 1999 joint biography of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones (now the Earl and Countess of Wessex) in a secondhand bookstore and it is an interesting read in light of the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Like Harry and Meghan, Edward and Sophie enjoyed cooking together while they were dating and dealt with the intrusive behaviour of the media. The authors clearly admire Sophie and describe her as “a delightful girl.” The tone of the book, however, is very gossipy and occasionally in poor taste. There are some patronizing generalizations about women and relationships. I enjoyed the subject matter of this biography but not the authors’ approach to the material.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Society

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 17: Women and Society: The last seven books on my reading list all examined the role of women in society from the nineteenth century to the present day. I read a work of popular science, three novels, two memoirs and a history of women pirates! While 5 of this week’s books were audiobooks, I also read a long novel and a memoir that took more than a day or two to finish. I am currently around a week a half behind schedule in my Book a Day project and hope to catch up over the summer to ensure that I finish 365 books by the end of the year. Here are this week’s reviews:

 #113 of 365 Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

Genre: Popular Science

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 31 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: May 1-2, 2018

Review: A fascinating book about how gender stereotypes from the Victorian era to the present shaped scientific research as well as modern research that indicates that male and female brains are not very different after all. Angela Saini, an engineer and science writer, examines the history of research concerning women in a variety of scientific fields including psychology, anthropology, biology and pharmacology. The chapters are divided by scientific field, examining longstanding assumptions about fundamental gender differences and how they are being challenged today. Saini’s observations concerning the place of women in the history of science are also interesting as she discusses how women’s contributions were often undervalued as science became increasingly confined to the universities from the late 19th century, excluding independent scholars. An important read that combines science, history and cultural studies.

#114 of 365 Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 48 minutes

Dates Listened: May 2-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: I expected the book to be a series of short biographies of female pirates throughout history but Duncombe is instead as interested in the idea of female pirates in their respective cultural contexts as the women themselves. The early chapters are surprisingly dull as Duncombe discusses Viking and Ottoman society with little attention to the female pirates of these time periods. The book becomes more dramatic during the Golden Age of Piracy as the most famous women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, are better documented than their predecessors. The section about the 19th century discusses some fascinating and little known Australian and Canadian pirates as well as a fictional tale of a Canadian woman pirate that is often mistaken for historical fact.

In the introduction, Duncombe describes herself as a storyteller rather than a historian but the book does not entirely succeed as either storytelling or history. The historical analysis is superficial and the dry tone of the book often detracts from the storytelling. Nevertheless, Duncombe provides an interesting study of the appeal of fictional pirate stories with female characters. The book also brings some fascinating historical figures out of obscurity. The audiobook is read in a dry monotone by Hillary Huber, who is far more expressive in her readings of fiction such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

#115 of 365 Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Genre: Classic Novel

Dates Listened: May 3-5, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 10 minutes

Review: My previous experiences with Virginia Woolf’s fiction have been mixed. I read To The Lighthouse a few times before I properly appreciated the work and much preferred Woolf’s essay about women and writing, A Room of One’s Own. In contrast, I was drawn into Mrs. Dalloway from the opening lines and found this novel captivating. While the novel is ostensibly a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for an evening party and considers the circumstances of her life, Clarissa’s thoughts and the thoughts of those around her reveal the culture of Britain in the years following the First World War, including attitudes toward the monarchy, the class system, the trauma experienced by returning soldiers, and, most of all, the experience of being female in an environment where the achievements of women often unfolded behind the scenes. I was also impressed by Woolf’s ability to invoke the geography of post-WWI London as her characters consider the Queen Victoria monument outside Buckingham Palace (at a time when Queen Victoria was within living memory) and Trafalgar Square among other landmarks. Highly recommended.

#116 of 365 Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback, 576 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Dates Read: April 25-May 5, 2018

Review: An epic historical novel about a village in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The author uses the experiences of the villagers – Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenians – to tell the wider story of the tragedies that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of modern Turkey. There are also vivid scenes depicting the Ottoman experience at Gallipoli and the accidental death of King Alexander of Greece. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s father, Prince Andrew of Greece makes a cameo appearance in the story. The characters are described as though they are in a folktale – “Iksander the Potter” “Philothei the Beautiful” – and perhaps the most interesting figure is Leyla, who poses as a Circassian concubine then seizes her chance for freedom and an unexpected homecoming. While the novel was absorbing and beautifully written, it was not a page turner and I found the multiple perspectives made it easy to put the down the book and pick it up again the next day. Well worth reading.

#117 of 365 Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: May 6, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 46 minutes

Review: An engaging sometimes heartbreaking memoir. I liked that the author was forthright about her career ambition and how her work as an actor provides meaning in her life. The confident tone of the memoir was inspiring, considering the adversity that the author has experienced including the loss of two her sisters and giving her daughter up for adoption. I was disappointed, however, that the book ended with Mulgrew’s role on Star Trek Voyager and did not continue to her current role on Orange is the New Black. Excellent narration of the audiobook by the author.

 #118 of 365 Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours

Date Listened: May 7, 2018

Review: A deeply unsettling novel about a murder and its aftermath. Two unpleasant characters successfully conceal their murder of another unpleasant character but their guilt and feelings of being haunted gradually destroy their lives. Zola’s detached, naturalist style provides details that make the story even more creepier including the description of drowned bodies in the morgue and the feelings of the paralyzed mother of the murder victim who is unable to communicate her knowledge of the crime. Not my kind of book but I understand why it is a classic. Kate Winslet provides an excellent narration for the audiobook.

#119 of 365 Personal History by Katharine Graham

Genre: Memoir

Format: Paperback, 642 pages

Acquired: Purchased from ABC Books

Dates Read: May 8-10, 2018

Review: I was inspired to read this memoir after seeing the film, The Post and greatly enjoyed reading Katherine Graham’s account of her family, social circle and experiences as owner and publisher of the Washington Post. The author belonged to a fascinating family including an uncle who perished on the Titanic and a sister who befriended Queen Marie of Romania. Over the course of her life, Graham socialized with American presidents and cultural figures and even became the first woman to be received individually by Emperor Hirohito of Japan. The book is particularly fascinating in the second half as Graham took charge of the Post after the suicide of her husband and overcame both dismissive attitudes toward women in the business world and her own insecurities shaped by stereotypes about women at the time. Highly recommended.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Historical Fiction, Classics, Philosophy and Memoir

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

Week 16: Historical Fiction, Classics, Philosophy and Memoir: The last seven books on my reading list came from a variety of genres. I began by reading three historical novels, set around the same time period (from the French Revolution to the American Civil Wars with Queen Victoria’s accession in between these two events) then some 20th century philosophy about the pursuit of happiness, followed by a Second World War historical novel, a modern prison memoir and a medieval epic poem. Here are the past week’s reviews:

#106 of 365 Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 22-April 25, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 29 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review:  An enjoyable novel, which dramatizes the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign as a coming of age story. The best scenes are from Victoria’s perspective, showing her learning from her mistakes and growing into her new position as Queen. I liked the idea that Victoria was inspired by past Queens such as Mary II, who acquired Kensington Palace where Victoria grew up and Queen Elizabeth I.

In common with the PBS Victoria series inspired by the novel, however, there is too much scheming behind the scenes by the Duke of Cumberland and John Conroy, which moves the narrative away from Victoria’s own experiences. I found the fictionalized “romance” between Victoria and her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, unconvincing as well. Prince Albert is introduced too late in the novel, considering that Victoria had met him before her accession.

There are also some distracting historical inaccuracies. While the author made some changes to history to advance the plot of the novel, such as keeping the Duke of Cumberland in England after Victoria became Queen, when he in fact traveled to Hanover to take up his new position as King of Hanover in 1837, other historical inaccuracies seem unnecessary. The future Czar Alexander II, who indeed visited Queen Victoria’s court, is depicted as the son of Victoria’s godfather, Alexander I, when he was in fact the son of Alexander I’s brother Nicholas I and his betrothed is described as a Danish princess, when Alexander II actually married a Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt and it was his son who married a Danish princess.

I would have preferred the novel to follow the historical record more closely as the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign are a fascinating time period that does not require major changes to provide dramatic material for novelists.

#107 of 365 Varina by Charles Frazier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 356 pages

Dates Read: April 25-26, 2018

Review: Cold Mountain is one of my favourite novels and so I was delighted to see that Charles Frazier had written a new historical novel about the American Civil War. The novel imagines the reminiscences of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy in her old age, after being contacted by James Blake, an African-American man who had once been a young boy in her care during her flight from Richmond.  In her conversation with James, Varina grapples with the society she grew up in and the decisions made by her stubborn, misguided husband, Jefferson Davis.

Frazier does not only focus on Varina’s relationship with her often absent husband but her friendships with the prominent women of her times, including the diarist Mary Chestnut and even, after the end of the Civil War, American First Lady Julia Grant. The strongest scenes in the novel depict Varina, her children and James attempting the flee the confederacy at the end of the Civil War, meeting a variety of characters from union deserters to a bigoted teenage plantation owner in scenes reminiscent of Cold Mountain. A very absorbing and well written novel.

#108 of 365 The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Genre: Classic Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Listened: April 25-26, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 19 minutes

Review: The plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel resembles Zorro set during the French Revolution with a masked swordsman referred to as a fox who achieves daring rescues under the cover of darkness. The Scarlet Pimpernel in fact inspired Zorro and all subsequent stories about heroic figures with secret identities. The melodramatic plot is engaging but the characters are one dimensional and there are a lot of stereotypes, especially involving men and women or the English and the French. A fun but forgettable classic novel.

#109 of 365 The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

Genre: Philosophy

Genre: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 224 pages

Date Read: April 28, 2018

Review: My book club chose The Conquest of Happiness for this month and the book prompted a great deal of discussion. Russell presents a curious combination of ideas that remain relevant today and dated concepts that reflect the political conditions and stereotypes of his times. Perhaps the most insightful chapters concern the importance of thinking outside yourself to achieve happiness. Those who think of lifelong learning, world events, and other people in their lives will be happier than those who focus on their own deficiencies and the social pressure that surrounds them. In contrast, Russell’s judgment of childless people as cutting themselves off from “the stream of life” is dated and narrow minded. An interesting and influential book but very much a product of its times.

#110 of 365 The German Girl by Joy Osmanski

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 26-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 48 minutes

Review: A melancholy novel about the St. Louis, a ship full of German refugees that was turned away from North America at the beginning of the Second World War. The scenes aboard the ship are very moving but the later scenes in Cuba could use more detail. The audiobook was generally well read but because there are two points of view alternated in the book – Hannah, a passenger on the St. Louis, and her great-niece Anna, who is searching for information about her father – two audiobook narrators would have been helpful to keeping the past and present scenes distinct, especially because there are so many parallels between Hannah and Anna.

#111 of 365 Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: April 29, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Review: I am enjoying the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black and found the memoir interesting and enjoyable to read but very different from the TV show. While the series provides the back stories for numerous inmates, the book focuses very closely on Piper’s experiences and how she is perceived by the guards and other prisoners because of her privileged background. The book describes daily life behind bars in detail including the bonds and rivalries that develop between the inmates, work assignments and hobbies, and the disconnect between the prison routine and the skills required to succeed in the outside world. I would have been interested to read more about the post-prison lives of Piper and her fellow inmates.

#112 of 365 Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

Genre: Classic 

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours and 8 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Read: April 30-May 1, 2018

Review: Epic poetry, well read by George Guidall. The verse translation from Old English by Seamus Heaney captures the drama of Beowulf’s rise to power and battles. The final hour of the audiobook is an essay by the translator about the place of Beowulf in English literature, the reasons why the poem has not entered the cultural imagination in the manner of The Odyssey or the Iliad and how the language speaks to an earlier, more global history. Highly recommended.


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CBC News Interview: All about the dress

Charles and Diana, The Prince and Princess of Wales, on their wedding day in 1981

I was interviewed by Janet Davison at CBC News for The Royal Fascinator newsletter concerning the history of royal wedding dresses including the voluminous dress and train worn by Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

Click here to read “All About the Dress” at CBC News.

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CBC News Channel Interview: Prince William Will Be Prince Harry’s Best Man

Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge

The planning for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19 continues with the announcement that Prince William will be his brother’s best man. Prince Harry was the best man at the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011. I discussed royal wedding planning with the CBC News Network earlier this week.

Click here to watch “CBC News Network speaks with Royal Historian Carolyn Harris following the announcement that Prince William will be Prince Harry’s Best Man.”


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Books I’ve Read This Week: Jane Austen and other Classics

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 15: Jane Austen and Other Classics: One of my goals this year was to finish reading Jane Austen’s novels. I had previously read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Emma but did not get around to reading Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey until this year. Once I finished reading the Austen novels, I read a couple of books about Austen including a study of how she incorporated the political, economic and cultural upheaval of her times into her books and an advice book written by a descendant of one of Austen’s brothers. I also read a few other classics this past week as well as a social history of marriages between American heiresses and British aristocrats, circumstances that inspired the television series, Downton Abbey. Here are this week’s reviews.

#99 of 365 Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 16 minutes

Dates Listened: April 14-15, 2018

Review: My favourite Jane Austen novels remain Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice but Northanger Abbey includes a lot of fun moments including Catherine’s conviction that the Tilney estate is in fact the setting for a gothic novel and every chapter that includes the sarcastic wit of Henry Tilney. Henry delivers the most memorable dialogue in the novel including “Now I must give you one smirk, then we can be rational again” and “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” The story is not especially memorable but the gothic novel satire and characters are very entertaining. The audiobook is well read by Juliet Stevenson.

#100 of 365 Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

Genre: Literary Criticism

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Acquired: Received as a gift

Dates Read: April 15, 2018

Review: A fascinating and engaging book. Kelly places Jane Austen and her novels in the context of their times, and reads between the lines to observe the influence of the political, cultural and economic climate of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain on the plots and characters. The chapter concerning Sense and Sensibility was particularly interesting as it discussed how Ferrars, Brandon and Willoughby had more in common than readers (and viewers of the film adaptations) would at first notice. There were sections where I disagreed with Kelly’s interpretations but even the theories that seemed unlikely encouraged me to look at Jane Austen’s work from a different perspective. Highly recommended, after reading all six novels of course!

#101 of 365, Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas 

Genre: Advice Literature

Acquired: Purchased from Book City

Format: Hardcover, 226 pages

Date Read: April 18, 2018

Review:  Austen’s great-great-great-great-great niece Rebecca Smith, writer in residence at Chawton House makes creative use of quotes from Jane Austen’s novels and letters to answer questions about relationships, family, friends, work, household and travel. For example, dress for success as everyone encounters a Caroline Bingley in their career. The overall Georgian diet may not be recommended today but the regency enthusiasm for fresh fruit and tea is still recognized for its health benefits. It is best to read Austen’s novels first as their plots are outlined over the course of the book!

#102 of 365 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

Genre: Classic Novel

Acquired: Purchased from

Dates Read: April 15-20, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 24 minutes

Review: I greatly enjoyed Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. I thought that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, however, was much less engaging. There are some fun moments in the beginning: (“Bridgeport?” said I. “Camelot!” said he.) but the plot seems to slow down mid way through the narrative and the novel becomes Mark Twain stating his views on politics and economics over and over again. There are repeated tirades against monarchical government and long digressions about comparative wages. Also, the novel seemed to replace one set of tired stereotypes about medieval times (Sir Walter Scott’s tales of romance and chivalry) with another set of stereotypes (a credulous society with excessive deference to authority). The narrator is excellent, and manages to make the material as entertaining as possible.

#103 of 365 The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 28 minutes

Date Read: April 21, 2018

Review:  This short novel is well written, capturing the atmosphere of early 20th century Alaska and the Yukon, and well read by John Lee. However, I found the early chapters of the novel really difficult to listen to because of the upsetting scenes of cruelty to animals and the fights between the sled dogs. The last chapters are quite beautiful though, as Buck bonds with a kindly master, John Thornton, then answers the Call of the Wild.

#104 of 365 The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Read: April 22, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 42 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review: The Moon is Down is an absorbing short novel based on the German occupation of Norway during WWII (though the author is careful not to name the location or “The Leader”), examining how a town comes together to resist an occupation. The complicated feelings of both the occupiers and the occupied are interspersed before it becomes clear that the occupation will never succeed and resistance will continue until the war is won. The novel ends quite abruptly and I would have liked the author to have dramatized the very end of the war. 

#105 of 365 The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York by Anne de Courcy

Genre: Social History

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Ben McNally Books

Dates Read: April 21-22, 2018

Review:  Anne de Courcy’s social histories are always enjoyable to read. I have previously read 1939: The Last Season, Debs at War and The Fishing Fleet. The Husband Hunters is filled with fascinating details about elite society in late 19th and early 20th century Britain and the United States. The phenomenon of American heiresses marrying British and European nobleman has been covered in other books, including To Marry an English Lord, but de Courcy’s book is notable for focusing as closely on American social traditions as British ones. She is also interested in the mothers of the heiresses who often arranged glittering marriages for their daughters in the hope of being accepted by established social circles in New York or Boston. I would have been interested to read more about the marriages themselves as the focus of the book is courtship and weddings rather than later married life.

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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

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

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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