Books I’ve Read This Week: The Court of the Last Czar

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 52: The Court of the Last Czar: In the last few days, I have been reading from morning until evening to complete 365 books by the end of year. The theme of the last seven books in my reading challenge is The Court of the last Czar and includes a historical novel, two memoirs, a collection of scholarly articles, a palace museum guide and an art book. My Book a Day 2018 project concluded at 10:45pm ET on December 31 when I finished reading a collection of documents by and about Russia’s last Imperial family. Thank you to everyone who has provided encouragement and book recommendations in 2018. Happy New Year! Here are this week’s reviews:

#359 of 365 The Winter Station by Jody Shields

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: December 27-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 10 hours and 15 minutes

The historical events that inspired The Winter Station are interesting ones. During the Winter of 1910-1911, a mysterious plague devastated the Chinese city of Harbin, then an Imperial Russian railway outpost in Manchuria. Both Russian and Chinese doctors struggled to overcome their cultural differences, biases and difficulties understanding the disease. The audiobook was part of Audible’s Hallowe’en audiobook sale so the novel was intended clearly to be chilling. 

Despite the setting, historical context and atmosphere, The Winter Station somehow manages to be an extremely dull book. There is a lot of exposition describing past events and doctors recounting symptoms, death and anxieties over tea and vodka during long meetings and social visits. The information presented in these conversations should have been shown in more dramatic and immediate scenes. The panic and grief that would have been caused by a plague of this magnitude never comes alive in the novel until perhaps the final moments because reactions to the epidemic are usually recounted by other characters rather than shown directly to the reader. A good idea for a historical novel but the power of the story is undercut by the detached writing style.

#360 of 365 Russian Imperial Style by Laura Cerwinske

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Genre: Art History

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 223 pages

An attractive coffee table book that provides an overview of the material culture of the Imperial Russian court including fashions, furniture, paintings and objets d’art. There is some background information concerning how Imperial Russian pieces came to be collectors’ items in the USA. The photographs are beautiful and include close images of some of the more obscure Faberge eggs, such as the 1903 Peter the Great egg, which show the details of these pieces. Unfortunately, the overview of Russian history that accompanies these images is a bit simplistic and a few of the captions are inaccurate or inadequate. A gorgeous book that would have been improved by a more detailed and nuanced text to accompany the images.

#361 of 365  The Emperor Nicholas II as I Knew Him by John Hanbury Williams

Genre: History/Memoir

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Acquired: Read online at

Format: E-Books, 304 pages

The diary of Major-General Sir John Hanbury-Williams, head of the British Military Mission to Russian Military Headquarters in Mogliev (now in Belarus) during the First World War, along with his character sketches of Czar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra, their son Alexei, the Grand Duke Nicholas and General Alexeev. In his capacity as British military representative, Hanbury-Williams spent a great deal of time with Czar Nicholas II, and became a close personal friend of the monarch.

The diary focuses on military matters, especially the supply issues that undermined the Russian war effort but Nicholas also spoke to Hanbury-Williams about his family. Hanbury-Williams recorded, “He is evidently very devoted to [his children] and said that sometimes he forgot he was their father, as he enjoyed everything so much with them that he felt more like an elder brother to them.” As Empress Alexandra was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and therefore a fluent English speaker, she also became comfortable speaking with Hanbury-Williams about her children’s education and her war work. 

Before undertaking the Russian mission, Hanbury-Williams had been military secretary to the Governor General of Canada and frequently made comparisons between the Russian and Canadian climates in his diary. For example, Hanbury-Williams wrote “Emperor Nicholas asked me how I stood the cold of the Russian winter, but I told him I had been in some below zero weather in Canadian winters and liked it.” Hanbury-Williams also drew parallels between Canada and Russia in terms of the difficulties transporting goods over long distances and encouraged Nicholas to study the Canadian example to address his own transport difficulties.

The Emperor Nicholas II as I Knew Him provides an interesting perspective on Russia during the First World War and Czar Nicholas II in his capacity as Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. Hanbury-Williams is understandably critical of the Russian Revolution because of its impact on Russia’s participation in the war and the diary ends in April 1917.

#362 of 365 Peterhof by Yelena Kalnitskaya

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Genre: History/Museum Guide

Format: Paperback, 127 pages

Acquired: Purchased from the Peterhof Palace Museum gift shop near Saint Petersburg

An attractive room by room and fountain by fountain guide to the Great Palace at Peterhof outside Saint Petersburg and the Peterhof gardens with information about the surrounding smaller palaces and museums as well. The photographs are gorgeous, especially the aerial perspectives on the palace gardens that show the intricate layout of the various fountains and landscapes. The text and photo captions are informative and include interesting facts about the development of Peterhof under successive Russian rulers. For example, the southernmost fountain in the Upper Garden is still called The Indeterminate Fountain “most likely a result of repeated changes of decoration.” A great souvenir of the Peterhof palace and gardens.

#363 of 365 A Countess in Limbo: Diaries in War & Revolution; Russia 1914-1920, France 1939-1947 by Olga Hendrikoff, edited by Suzanne Carscellen

Date Read: December 31, 2018

Genre: History/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Paperback, 458 pages

A fascinating series of diaries about the experiences of the Imperial Russian aristocracy during the First World War and Russian Revolution then in exile during the Second World War occupation of Paris. Hendrikoff writes with a great deal of detail and insight, bringing her social circle and times to life. I expected more of the book to be about the Russian Revolution, which is done after just over 50 pages of the 450 page text but Hendrikoff’s account of the Second World War and its aftermath is thoroughly engrossing and I found the book difficult to put down. There are glimpses of exiled members of the extended Russian Imperial family in the text including Czar Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Boris, who entertained exiled Russian aristocrats with the remnants of his fortune, and Grand Duke Gabriel who retained an excellent memory. The diaries were compiled and edited by Hendrikoff’s grandniece Suzanne Carscallen who provides help annotations.

#364 of 365 Transnational Histories of the ‘Royal Nation’ edited by
 Milinda Banerjee, Charlotte Backerra and Cathleen Sarti

Date Read: December 31, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 372 pages


A collection of 15 scholarly articles concerning how monarchs and their governments responded to the challenges of nationalism and the modern state. The chapters also include studies of how non-monarchical governments have addressed the existence of monarchy in their immediate or more distant pasts. In contrast to many other collections of scholarly articles about monarchy, Transnational Histories of the ‘Royal Nation’ does not focus primarily on Europe but also includes research and analysis concerning monarchical government in Japan, Siam, Morocco, Nepal, Brazil, China and central Asia. Highlights include a study of how late 19th and early 20th century rulers in Siam and Japan incorporated Western style fashions into their public image; the patronage and promotion of Modern Art by Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse-Darmstadt (brother of the Czarina Alexandra of Russia); and analysis of how past Queens consort were remembered amidst more restrictive roles for women in 19th century France.

There are two chapters that address the reign and legacy of Czar Nicholas II. First, an analysis of portrayals of the Czar in central Asia draws interesting comparisons with British royal imagery in India. Ulrick Hofmeister notes that”The British Empire served as a permanent point of reference for the Russian administration in Turkestan. Tsarist ideologists and officials closely followed the practices of the British in India and frequently tried to draw lessons from them.” 

Second, Eva Marlene Hausteiner observes how Russian President Vladimir Putin incorporates Czarist elements into his public image, concluding that “These symbolic practices—the official and unofficial depiction of Putin as the nation’s preeminent heroic figure with a benevolent but strong position towards the population and an intimate relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church—are arguably reminiscent, on a surface level, of royal and specifically Tsarist symbolism and ritual.”

Transnational Histories of the ‘Royal Nation’ provides a broad range of perspectives on monarchy and the modern nation around the world showing how monarchies are dynamic institutions that responded to the challenges of statecraft from the early 19th century to the present day.

#365 of 365 In The Steps of the Romanovs: Final two years of the last Russian imperial family (1916-1918) (In their own words) by Helen Azar

Date Read: December 31, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Paperback, 690 pages

A fascinating collection of diaries, letters, memoirs and photographs by and about Russia’s last Imperial family from January 1916 until their murder in July 1918 compiled to complement the author’s Romanov themed tours of Russia. The material gives an excellent sense of the distinct personalities within the Imperial family and their range of interests and friends in the last years of their lives. Some of the documents will be familiar to readers of the author’s previous edited collections of Romanov documents concerning Czar Nicholas II’s daughters as well as The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra (with an introduction by Robert K. Massie), The Fall of the Romanovs by Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev and A Lifelong Passion by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko. 

In The Steps of the Romanovs , however, also contains a wide range of previously unpublished material available in English translation for the first time. There is extensive material from Czar Nicholas II’s 1917-1918 diary that gives a real sense of just how ill his children were around the time of his abdication, especially Maria and Anastasia, circumstances that precluded a prompt departure from Russia after the March Revolution even if other conditions had been favourable to an escape. Grand Duchess Tatiana’s letters to her Aunt Xenia in the Crimea provide vivid descriptions of life under house arrest in the Governor’s House in Tobolsk. The book also includes the long letter that the Imperial family’s doctor Eugene Botkin is believed to have been writing the same night that the Imperial family, Botkin and three servants were murdered. The illustrations are excellent and include some rare photographs and artwork. An essential read for anyone interested in Russia’s last Imperial family.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Reading for the New Year

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 51: Royal Reading for the New Year: 

As my Book a Day 2018 project comes to an end, I reviewed my list of books that I am interested in reading and found yet more royal titles! In the past few days, I read a couple of historical novels where royalty appear, three scholarly histories of Kings, Queens and Princes in England, Germany and Spain, and biographies of Queen Mary and her granddaughter Princess Margaret. Here are this week’s reviews:

#352 of 365 The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: December 23-27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 34 minutes

A nice, understated novel about coming of age during Napoleon’s rise to power. Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy are among my favourite historical novels and I am always glad to read/listen to new books by the same author. Compared to the epic Josephine trilogy, The Game of Hope focuses on a comparatively short period of time in the life of Josephine’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais. There is a strong focus on Hortense’s studies at a boarding school run by the late Queen Marie Antoinette’s lady of the bedchamber, Madame Campan, her ambition to become a composer, her difficulties coming to terms with the execution of her father during the Terror and her mother’s remarriage to Napoleon, and a budding romance with one of Napoleon’s officers.

The novel convincingly recreates the setting and society of late 1790s France and the lasting trauma created by the Terror for Hortense and her friends and family. The book is intended for a young adult audience and therefore concludes as Hortense is launched into adult society but I would be interested to read a sequel about the events that followed her social debut including her marriage and time as Queen of the Netherlands. The audiobook is well read by Janick Hebert but does not include the author’s historical afterword.

#353 of 365 Elizabeth I in Writing: Language, Power and Representation in Early Modern England

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 264 pages

Date Read: December 27, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

A fascinating collection of scholarly articles about Queen Elizabeth I as an author, scholar, translator, diplomat, patron and inspiration. Elizabeth I received an extensive humanist education and made use of the written word to shape her public image both at court and in her dealings with other European powers. The book contains extensive analysis of the writings surrounding the the French Duke of Anjou’s courtship of the queen including Cristina Vallaro’s chapter on Elizabeth I’s poetry and Iolanda Plescia’s comparison of the letters exchanged by Elizabeth I and Duke of Anjou with Henry VIII’s letters to Anne Boleyn.

Elizabeth I’s translations of classical and literary texts also receive an extensive analysis as the political circumstances of the Queen’s life and reign may have shaped the linguistic choices of her translations. Elizabeth I often bestowed her translations as gifts and Carole Levin provides an extended analysis of the variety of gifts that the queen bestowed and received. The gift exchanges between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, who never met in person, are especially interesting as they include clothing, needlework and sound advice as well as gold objects and jewellery.

Elizabeth I in Writing is an excellent resource for scholars and general readers alike interested in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and the humanist education received by her generation of noblewomen in the 16th century.

#354 of 365 Royal Heirs in Imperial Germany: The Future of Monarchy in Nineteenth-Century Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg by
Frank Lorenz Müller

Genre: History

Date Read: December 28, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 266 pages

A complicated thematic study of three heirs to regional German thrones: the future King Wilhelm II of Württemberg, the future King Friedrich August of Saxony and the future King Ludwig III of Bavaria. These three princes became the last rulers of their respective kingdoms and fell from power as the German monarchy collapsed in 1918. Royal Heirs in Imperial Germany contains a vast wealth of information about the three future Kings but the narrative sometimes comes across as two books condensed into one. 

First, there are chapters devoted to the public perception of each prince with an emphasis on the difficulties that they faced when the public expected contented domesticity from royalty who were still obliged to marry other royalty. The popular response to the breakdown of the marriage of Friedrich August to Luise of Tuscany in 1903 was especially interesting and foreshadowed certain aspects modern royal coverage. Although Luise eloped with her children’s French tutor, she received widespread public sympathy because of the perceived unhappiness of her marriage, the cold formality of the Saxon court and the fact that her divorce separated her from her children. 

The other theme that could easily be expanded into a book of its own is the role of the Bavarian, Saxon and Württemberg royal houses within a German state united under the overbearing Kaiser Wilhelm II and the House of Hohenzollern in Berlin. Some of the analysis of this theme moves away from the three regional princes themselves to wider political issues within the late 19th and early 20th century federal German state.

Royal Heirs in Imperial Germany is an informative and interesting read but one that attempts to cover a great deal of material in a comparatively short book.

#355 of 365 Princess Margaret: A Life in Contrasts 

by Christopher Warwick

Date Read: December 28, 2018

Genre: History/Biography

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 344 Pages

An authorized biography of Princess Margaret updated and reissued this year with the popularity of The Crown on Netflix. Warwick focuses closely on Margaret’s family and early life and the first half of the book is the Princess’s life to age 18. There is some interesting analysis of the influence of Margaret’s Bowes-Lyon grandparents on her cultural interests. Margaret’s maternal grandmother, the Countess of Strathmore, was fond of singing and after dinner musical entertainment, traditions cherished by her granddaughter. 

Warwick also devotes extensive attention to Margaret’s doomed romance with Peter Townsend, and analyzes their relationship and obstacles to their marriage at length. I would have been interested to read more about Margaret’s children and her overseas tours. Warwick clearly admires Margaret and sometimes minimizes the more difficult aspects of her personality. Princess Margaret: A Life in Contrasts should be read alongside 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown for a more critical perspective.

#356 of 365 The Quest for Queen Mary by James Pope-Hennessy and Hugo Vickers

Date Listened: December 28-30, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 24 minutes

One of my favourite royal history books of the year, filled with fresh information and perspectives from often overlooked members of the extended royal family in the 1950s. 

James Pope-Hennessy was commissioned to write the official biography of Queen Mary after her death in 1953 and interviewed dozens of European royalty and courtiers to gather their impressions of the Queen and her family. He took extensive notes about his interviewees and their insights, leaving instructions that they were not to be published for another 50 years as many comments were provided off the record. Hugo Vickers, author of biographies of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Princess Andrew of Greece (Alice of Battenberg), has edited the notes, providing a unique behind the scenes look at writing an official royal biography in the 1950s, and accounts of the fascinating people whom Pope-Hennessy interviewed while researching his book.

The Quest for Queen Mary is a fascinating and entertaining look at royal court culture during Queen Mary’s lifetime and immediately afterward. Perhaps the most memorable chapter is the weekend that Pope-Hennessy spent with Queen Mary’s third son, Prince Henry Duke of Gloucester and his wife Princess Alice that included a hilarious series of Scrabble matches and time working in the garden. Henry and Alice shared their memories and often corrected one another and expanded on each other’s memories, providing a portrait of their marriage as well as their views on Queen Mary. 

Another highlight is Pope-Hennessy’s sensitive interview with a nervous Grand Duchess Xenia. Pope-Hennessy never mentions the numerous relatives that Xenia lost in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, including her brother Czar Nicholas II, the Czarina Alexandra and their children but instead encourages the Grand Duchess to reminisce about her childhood holidays with her maternal grandparents, King Christian IX and Queen Louise. I hoped that Pope-Hennessy had traveled to Canada to speak to Nicholas and Xenia’s younger sister Grand Duchess Olga but only Xenia appears to have been interviewed.

All the interviewees provide interesting insights concerning Queen Mary. While they agree that her first fiance Albert Victor would have made a disastrous King and her father, Duke Francis of Teck suffered from mental illness toward the end of his life, they also provide individual insights concerning the Queen’s daily life including how she chose Christmas gifts by colour and liked her ladies in waiting to read to her for 7 hours a day. These details all add up to a multifaceted portrait of the Queen and her milieu. The Quest for Queen Mary is an engrossing read filled with new information and entertaining anecdotes. Highly recommended.

#357 of 365 Raising Heirs to the Throne in Nineteenth-Century Spain: The Education of the Constitutional Monarch by Richard Meyer Forsting

Date Read: December 29, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 274 pages

An insightful comparative study of the education of three nineteenth and early twentieth century Spanish monarchs: Isabel II, Alfonso XII and Alfonso XIII. The book makes a strong case for the importance of including Spain in comparative analysis of the development of modern European monarchical government. Although literacy rates in Spain were comparatively low (45% in 1900 compared to 89% in the USA or 83% in France), there was a widespread view that the education of the heir to the throne was a decisive factor in the future of Spain, even after the establishment of a constitutional monarchy limited the monarch’s powers.

Forsting examines three key themes: the degree to which each monarch was trained for their future political role, the involvement of the military in their education, and debates concerning royal education in the press. This analysis places royal education within the framework of the political, intellectual and cultural history of nineteenth century Spain. I found Forsting’s analysis of Isabel II especially interesting as she was a contemporary of Queen Victoria and also had to balance 19th century conceptions of gender roles with her role as head of state.

While Queen Victoria’s upbringing was left to her mother, Isabel II’s education was the subject of widespread debate in the press and in parliament with at least one tutor arguing that Isabel should receive less training in feminine accomplishments such as music, dancing and needlework, and more instruction in politics and science because her role as monarch transcended her gender. Isabel II ultimately received a fairly narrow education and was unable to project the domestic image embodied by Queen Victoria because of her turbulent personal life. Raising Heirs to the Throne in Nineteenth-Century Spain is a fascinating read that provides a fresh perspective on 19th century Spanish history.

#358 of 365 Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from ReReading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 378 pages

An engrossing novel about the aviator Beryl Markham. I especially enjoyed the early chapters about her free spirited childhood in Kenya and the descriptions of the landscape. The book becomes more slow moving in the middle as Markham’s personal life becomes extremely complicated but picks up pace once again toward the end as two Princes, the future King Edward VIII and his younger brother Henry, Duke of Gloucester, make a royal visit to Nairobi at a time when Markham’s son’s life hangs in the balance. I would have liked the book to have been a bit longer as McLain speeds through the rumors of royal scandal surrounding Markham and the Duke of Gloucester as well as her record breaking flight across the Atlantic. An enjoyable read that shares many characters with Out of Africa.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Holiday Reading

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

Week 50: Holiday Reading: My Holiday Reading consisted of the annual Hingston and Olsen Short Story Advent calendar, three Christmas themed audiobooks, a couple more installments in Winston Graham’s Poldark series and the latest book from Alexander McCall Smith’s No #1 Ladies Detective Agency Series. Here are this week’s reviews:

#345 of 365 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Listened: December 21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 3 hours and 31 minutes

Review: I have seen numerous film adaptations of A Christmas Carol (my favourite is Muppet Christmas Carol, which is hilarious, heartwarming and incorporates a remarkable amount of text from the novel) but nothing compares to the original. Dickens evokes the atmosphere of mid-Victorian London perfectly with its cold winters, fog and widespread poverty.

There are hints in the novel that the Cratchit family is in far more straightened circumstances than it is portrayed in many of the film adaptations, which makes the ending even more joyous for the characters. Bob Cratchit comes to work wrapped in a blanket because he cannot afford an overcoat, his elder daughter works long hours in a milliner’s shop and the Cratchit Christmas goose has to be taken to a bake shop because the family does not have the necessary kitchen to prepare the festive meal at home.

The novel also gives a good sense of how Scrooge came to be such an unpleasant figure as the disappointments of his past Christmases are recreated by the spirits in detail. The audiobook is well read by Tim Curry, who does an especially good job of bringing to life Scrooge himself and the succession of spirits who haunt him on Christmas Eve. An excellent holiday listen.

#346 of 365 The Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Read: December 21-22, 2018

Acquired: Complimentary from

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 57 minutes

Review: A classic Victorian Christmas story with a few endearing characters and a heartwarming ending. I listened the the audiobook while wrapping presents and the tale is well read by Richard Armitage. The Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, however, does not transcend its time in the manner of A Christmas Carol as it contains a variety of Victorian novel stereotypes without the evocative descriptions of the setting or original turns of phrase that characterize Dickens’s novels. In The Christmas Hirelings, there is a rich elderly gentleman who has become estranged from his daughter because he disapproves of her marriage, a stately home in need of Christmas cheer, three adorable children and a sudden medical crisis that precipitates the elderly man’s change of heart. These characters and plot developments have all appeared in other Victorian novels to a greater effect. A nice holiday listen but not especially memorable.

#347 of 365 Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson

Dates Listened: December 22-23, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 9 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Genre: Short Fiction/Recipes

Review: “Good memories, happy memories also need to be honoured. We remember so much of the bad stuff and we are so careless with the good stuff.” Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days is a collection of holiday inspired essays, short fiction and recipes by Jeanette Winterson. I enjoyed the opening essay, which places Christmas and the wider need for light, feasting and community in the depths of winter within a broad historical and cultural context. Winterson encourages readers not to see Christmas as a routine holiday but a time to expect the unexpected, which is the theme of much of her short fiction, which includes talking snowmen, Christmas fairies with ipads, and medieval mistletoe murders.

The stories are really quirky and some are a little bit dark for the Christmas season and seem better suited to Hallowe’en. The sections about the recipes and what they mean to the author are quite joyous though and contain some thought provoking meditations on the holiday season. An interesting seasonal read with some chapters of greater interest to me than others.

#348 of 365 The Colors of All The Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: December 22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 228 pages

Review: On January 2, earlier this year, I reviewed Book 18 in the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, The House of Unexpected Sisters, and predicted that it would be the conclusion to the series. I am pleased to discover that I was wrong and the series has continued into a 19th installment, The Colors of All The Cattle. Alexander McCall Smith’s characters continue to be endearing and the series remains enjoyable to read. There is less attention devoted to Precious Ramotswe and her Detective Agency in The Colors of All The Cattle and more time devoted to secondary characters and plot lines including Charlie’s new girlfriend Queenie-Queenie and her bodybuilding brother Hercules, Grace Makutsi’s marital difficulties, and the city council elections in Gabrone. There are some nice introspective passages for Precious Ramotswe toward the end of the novel but the book ends quite abruptly, perhaps in anticipation of a 20th volume.

43069204#349 of 365 The 2018 Short Story Advent Calendar edited by Michael Hingston, designed by Natalie Olsen

Dates Read: December 1-25, 2018

Format: 25 Short Story Booklets

Acquired: Purchased from Hingston and Olsen

Genre: Short Fiction

Review: An annual holiday tradition! I have read all four of the Short Story Advent Calendars since 2015 and I always enjoy being introduced to new authors and genres as well as reading a few seasonal stories close to Christmas. The 2018 advent calendar was an especially diverse collection that includes stories from a variety of different countries. There was a wide range of styles and characters as well. Highlights for me included “Sea Monster,” a tale of past lives, on December 1, “Mister Elephant” about childhood bullying on December 11, the Christmas Triptych of Stephen Leacock stories on December 20 and Christmas Eve, 1944 on Christmas Eve. The advent calendar concluded with a lovely story about the power of belief in Santa on December 25. I look forward to reading the stories in next year’s Advent Calendar!

#350 of 365 The Stranger from the Sea by Winston Graham

Dates Read: December 23-25, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 499 pages

Review: The Stranger from the Sea is the 8th book in Winston Graham’s Poldark series and it is set 10 years after the events of the 7th book (and the 4rd season of the television series). As a result, the book begins with a lot of recap of what has happened to the characters from the last book in the intervening decade. There are a number of key characters from the earlier books, including Verity, Drake, Morwenna, Sam and Rosina who are described as doing well but play little role in the Book 8.

After this underwhelming beginning, the novel develops an absorbing momentum of its own, focusing closely on Ross and Demelza’s children, and the financial and romantic misadventures of the aging George Warleggan. As always, Graham weaves the history of the times into his novels as the Napoleonic Wars continue and Jeremy Poldark becomes fascinated by potential uses for steam engines. There is some lovely writing about Ross and Demelza coming to understand their children as adults with distinct personalities that combine the qualities of their parents with some unique interests and traits as well. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

#351 of 365 The Miller’s Dance by Winston Graham

Dates Read: December 27, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 485 pages

Review: The Poldark series continues with The Miller’s Dance, which focuses on Ross and Demelza’s two elder children Jeremy and Clowance as well as Valentine Warleggan. Graham brings back some characters who were almost entirely absent from The Stranger from the Sea including Verity, Sam and Rosina (though Drake and Morwenna are once again described as doing well but never actually appear), and there is therefore more continuity between this novel and the first seven books in the series.

My favourite scenes include Clowance’s joy at the discovery of a Roman coin in one of her father’s mines and the talk of the War of 1812 (including the Battle of Queenston Heights) at the Truro races. In contrast, I would have preferred that Stephen Carrington had left the series at the end of Book 8 as I disliked the character and thought that too much of the story was centred around Stephen and his perspective in both Book 8 and Book 9. I look forward to reading the last three books in the series.

Books I’ve Read This Week: History and Culture of Asia and the Middle East

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 49: History and Culture of Asia and the Middle East: During an extended layover at Changi Airport in Singapore earlier in December, I bought a few books with Asian and Middle Eastern themes in a W. H. Smith bookshop sale and have been gradually reading them over the past few weeks. I also listened to a few audiobooks in my collection set in the same regions of the world. The books include a memoir about escaping North Korea, a history of Jerusalem, an analysis of 1990s China and a history of the Mongol Empire as well as three historical novels. Here are this week’s reviews:

#338 of 365 A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa

Date Listened: December 10-11, 2018

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 54 minutes

Review: “No one thought or talked about anything except food.” A heartbreaking memoir that provides a rare glimpse of daily life in North Korea from the 1960s to the 1990s. Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan, the son of a Korean father and Japanese mother. Since Koreans were treated as second class citizens in postwar Japan, his father accepted an invitation to immigrate with his family to North Korea in search of a better life. Instead, the author and his family experienced constant shortages of food, housing and basic medical care and were socially ostracized for their Japanese background.

The author discusses his family’s suffering and the differences between propaganda and reality in North Korea at length. The description of the birth of his third child without medical care is especially horrifying. The escape described in harrowing detail at the end of the book is not necessarily a happy ending as the author remains separated from his family. A short and powerful book.

#339 of 365 Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 14 hours and 20 minutes

Dates Listed: December 11-12, 2018

Review: A engaging overview of Mongol society and government during the reigns of Genghis Khan and his descendants. The author highlights the lasting impact of the Mongol Empire on world history and compares Mongol and medieval European politics and warfare. Genghis Khan himself is the focus of just the first part of the book with the majority of the narrative focused on his children and especially his grandchildren, including the famous Kublai Khan. The book is well written but reliant on a fairly narrow source base, especially The Secret History of the Mongols, and favours positive depictions of the Mongol Empire over critical ones. The book would have benefited from more of the insights from the author’s travels to the region included over the course of the book instead of being confined largely to the introduction/afterword. An interesting audiobook but I preferred The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by the same author.

#340 of 365 The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Dates Listened: December 13-15, 2018

Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 12 hours and 17 minutes

Review: “You have walked with me through the library past the spines of old friends”A lyrical novel about the Syrian refugee experience today where the travels of one family to safety are interwoven with a tale of the 12th century cartographer Mohammed Al-Idrisi and his map, the Tabula Rogeriana. The novel begins slowly and the audiobook is initially a little difficult to follow as the narrator moves seamlessly between the two time periods. Once the rhythm of the story becomes clear, however, both stories are deeply compelling and compliment one another more and more as the novel progresses. Joukhadar creates rich landscapes with metaphors and telling details and she shows the anxiety of being on a journey where the destination is unclear. An engaging novel that provides a fresh perspective on past and present events.

#341 of 365 Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Genre: History

Date Read: December 14-16, 2018

Format: Paperback, 704 pages

Acquired: Purchased from W. H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Review: An epic history of religion, politics, war and scandal in Jerusalem with a strong emphasis on how the city fascinates the rest of the world. The book is filled with detailed information about the development of the city including lengthy footnotes that explain recent archeological discoveries and provide biographical information on the historical figures discussed in the text. Simon Sebag Montefiore provides an especially strong overview of the Classical, Crusader and Modern periods of Jerusalem’s history. I would have been interested to read more about the Mamluk and Ottoman influence over the city prior to the 19th century. An absorbing read that places Jerusalem at the centre of world history.

#342 of 365 The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: December 16-20, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 7 minutes

Review: I listened to the audiobook while sipping Pu’er, the tea at the centre of the novel. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is an epic multigenerational novel that encompasses the history of China from the Cultural Revolution to the present, the impact of contact with the outside world on the traditions of the Akha people of Yunnan province, the complexities of transnational adoption and, of course, the health benefits and economics of tea. There is so much fascinating historical and cultural background that the setting and context occasionally overwhelm the human drama at the centre of the novel but the book is always interesting and engaging. The audiobook is well read by a team of narrators who bring the various perspectives to life. The ending is perhaps too brief but deeply moving.

#343 of 365 China Wakes by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Date Read: December 18-20, 2018

Genre: Asian Studies

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 507 pages

Review: I read Half the Sky by the same authors in 2010 and China Wakes has long been on my reading list. The book provides a snapshot of China and its relationship with the wider world in the 1990s, placing the status of women, economy, culture, foreign affairs and politics within a broad historical context. There are some sections of the book that are a little dated because some of the laws discussed in the book, such as the one child policy, have since changed and new issues have emerged. The subjects addressed by the authors, however, remain topical. China Wakes was more of a memoir than I expected as Kristof and WuDunn frequently discuss their conflicts with local authorities and the difficulties of gathering information in their roles as foreign correspondents in China. China Wakes is informative and engaging and I would be interested in reading an updated edition.

#344 of 365 Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: December 20-26, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from W.H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Format: Paperback, 648 pages

Review: I listened to the audiobook of Pachinko earlier this year and greatly enjoyed it. I was delighted to find another novel by the same author. Free Food for Millionaires begins with an inspiring essay about how Lee became an author in the face of repeated setbacks and obstacles. The book itself, however, was not to my taste. Free Food for Millionaires is well written and contains astute social commentary. Both Ella and Leah are complex characters shaped by the expectations faced by women in their Korean-American community. Nevertheless, I disliked the central character, Casey Han, until she stood up for her mother toward the end of the novel. I was not especially interested in the issues that Casey encountered in business school, which dominate so much of the story. The secondary plots also contained some distasteful characters. The New York City setting never really came alive for me as there are few references to local landmarks or other distinctive aspects of the city. Of the author’s two novels, I greatly prefer Pachinko.

Books I’ve Read This Week: On Land and At Sea

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 48: On Land and At Sea My recent reading includes a blend of titles read on land and sea during my recent Southeast Asia cruise ship lecture series. The library on the cruise ship had a large collection of music biographies and I purchased both fiction and non-fiction about Malaysia, the last stop in my travels, in various airport bookshops. I also listened to a variety of audiobooks. Here are this week’s reviews:

#331 of 365 Becoming Beyoncé: The Untold Story by J. Randy Taraborrelli

Genre: Biography/Music

Dates Read: November 28-December 1, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 494 pages

Review: An engaging biography of Beyonce Knowles with a strong focus on the development of her career through various early girl groups then Destiny’s Child then her current solo career. The author clearly recognizes Beyonce’s talent, work ethic and drive to succeed and writes about her music career with a great deal of warmth and admiration. (He has a less favourable opinion of her film appearances in Dreamgirls and Austin Powers). The biography, however, is hampered by the author’s limited access to key sources as none of the members of Destiny’s Child or Beyonce’s immediate family provide interviews exclusive to the book. A fun travel read but limited in terms of the range perspectives included in the biography.

#332 of 365 Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 24-December 1, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 21 minutes

Review: A moving novel about orphaned city children who were sent out west to be placed with new families in 1920s America. The novel goes back and forth between the perspective of Neve/Dorothy/Vivian, a young Irish girl who loses her family in a New York tenement fire and finds herself on an orphan train with other children in equally difficult circumstances, and Molly, a 21st century First Nations foster child who is assigned to organize Vivian’s papers as community service. The novel captures the hardships experienced by both Vivian and Molly in their respective time periods and the friendship that they develop as they discover that that they have a great deal in common. The audiobook is well read by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren.

#333 of 365 Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz

Genre: Biography/Music

Dates Read: December 2-4, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 520 pages

Review: A biography of Aretha Franklin written with a great deal of Respect. David Ritz collaborated with Franklin on her autobiography but observed that Franklin was careful about which aspects of her life that she was interested in sharing with the public. In Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Ritz interviews Franklin’s siblings, all talented musicians themselves, to provide a more comprehensive portrait. Franklin was passionate about her career and reputation as the Queen of Soul, observing that if Queen Elizabeth could be queen for life then so could she. Behind the scenes, however, Franklin suffered a great deal of heartbreak and these difficult circumstances informed her music. An engaging read that is also a portrait of the music industry over the course of her career.

#334 of 365 Beartown by Frederik Backman

Dates Listened: December 1-7, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 432 pages

Review: “They say it takes a village to raise a child. We chose the wrong village.” Beartown is an extraordinary achievement. At first glance, Beartown  appears to be a novel about the importance of a junior hockey team to a small town but it instead examines how that town creates the conditions for a crime to take place and how the victim and her family come to be ostracized by the community that has known them all their lives. Backman knows his characters inside out including their past, present and future decisions and he ruminates on the nature of society, family and community as the events unfold. The friendships and other relationships between the characters shift as the story unfolds in unexpected and compelling ways. The ending is especially powerful. Highly recommended.

#335 of 365 Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman

Date Listened: December 8-10, 2018

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 11 hours and 16 minutes

Review: An overview of the science behind the importance of sociability to human life. I enjoyed some chapters more than others. The chapter on social pain was well reasoned and explains the lasting harm caused by childhood bullying. The victim often views the bully as speaking for a wider group of silent bystanders and the trauma of this perceived wider social exclusion endures long after the actual bullying has ended. In contrast, I found Lieberman’s suggestions for how to make the education system more sociable to be simplistic. He presents stereotypical depictions of how History and English are taught based on little more than his own experiences in high school and provides heavy handed advice about how he believes these subjects could be improved. The book contains some interesting research and insights but it is an uneven read overall.

#336 of 365 Malaysians and their Identities edited by Yeoh Seng-Guan 

Date Read: December 9, 2018

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased at Kuala Lumpur Airport, Malaysia

Format: Paperback, 199 pages

Review: I purchased and read this book at the airport in Kuala Lumpur and enjoyed learning more about Malaysian society. The essays in Malaysians and their Identities are written by young scholars at Monash University Malaysia and discuss a variety of different subjects including coffeehouse culture, the indie music scene, fashion, beauty standards, technology and sports. There is a lot of interesting analysis of women’s roles in society including perceptions of female musicians and foreign wives of Malaysian spouses. The chapter about how the smartphone has transformed society speaks to wider cultural trends around the world. Recommended for travelers and readers interested in learning more about Malaysia today.

#337 of 365 The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 16-17, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Acquired: Purchased from W. H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Review: “Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals the gap, and the world is in shadows again.” A beautifully written novel about grief, loss, and the nature of memory. Yun Ling is the sole survivor of a Second World War Japanese internment camp in Malaysia who seeks to create a memorial garden for her sister in the 1950s, at the height of the Malaysian emergency. The other characters in the novel have all been shaped by these traumatic events in Malaysian history as well and Yun Ling’s quest to memorialize her sister emerges as part of a wider effort to survive and remember the past. A haunting and thought provoking novel.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Singapore

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 47: Singapore: I recently travelled to Southeast Asia to lecture on a cruise ship and journey began and ended in Singapore. I enjoyed exploring the city, visiting the Botanic Gardens, Fort Canning, National Museum and Chinatown. I also enjoyed reading histories of Singapore and the wider region as well as novels set there. In recent weeks, I read the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, fiction and non-fiction about Singapore’s founder Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a traveller’s history of Southeast Asia and a mystery novel set in the 1930s Crown Colony of Singapore. For more histories of Singapore, see the reviews in Week 45: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia. Here are this week’s reviews:

#324 of 365 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Date Read: November 23, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 527 pages

Review: I read the novel after watching and enjoying the film. Nick Young and Rachel Chu have even more eccentric relatives in the novel and some of the storylines are more complicated including Astrid’s marriage and Eleanor’s family life. Like the movie, the book is a lot of fun. Kwan includes humorous footnotes about the slang phrases used in Singapore, and the designers favoured by the different social circles among the very wealthy. There’s a detailed annotated genealogy of all the interconnected families as well. The financial decisions made by the Young family and their relatives were interesting. The characters, especially Astrid, spend enormous sums spent on clothing and jewellery but they are expected to stay with family and friends whenever they travel instead of spending on hotel rooms, which of course leads to more complications. The perfect read for the long flight to Singapore.

#325 of 365 China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Date Read: November 25, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 479 pages

Review: The entertaining sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Most of the characters from the first novel return although there are surprisingly few scenes featuring Nick’s overbearing mother, Eleanor Young, with the exception of a dramatic entrance early in the novel. There is a fun subplot involving an “art consultant” to the wealthy who helps her clients break into high society with the correct fashions, behaviour and manner of speaking. In contrast to the first book, very little of novel takes place in Singapore. Instead, Nick and Rachel spend their honeymoon in China, getting to know Rachel’s half-brother and his complicated social circle, and take a side trip to Paris. There are some unexpected plot twists toward the end including a dramatic medical crisis.

#326 of 365 Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 541 pages

Dates Read: November 25-28, 2018

Review: My favourite book in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. In Rich People Problems, the future of Tyersoll Park, the stately home of NickYoung’s grandmother is in question, and the family matriarch’s last will and testament raises more questions than it answers. The history of Japanese occupation of Singapore is woven into the narrative with a fascinating back story concerning the older generation of the family and the Singapore Botanic Gardens. There is some great character development for both Kitty and Astrid while Rachel continues to find Nick’s overbearing family and immense wealth to be a challenge. An entertaining and satisfying conclusion to the series.

#327 of 365 A Traveller’s History of Southeast Asia  Nicholas J. White and J.M. Barwise

Dates Read: November 28-30, 2018

Genre: Travel/History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Paperback, 358 pages

Review: A good overview of selected countries in Southeast Asia designed for travellers to the region. The writing style is a little bit dry but conveys a great deal of information in a concise manner. The book includes a chronology of key events and lists of political leaders as well as summaries of the current political situation of each of the countries discussed in the book. The intended audience of the book, travelers to the region, limits the scope of the history as the author leaves out Myanmar and the Philippines because they attract fewer tourists, even though they are relevant to the historical events mentioned in the text. There are also no conclusions presented about the region as a whole. A useful read for travellers but of limited value as an overall history of the region.

#328 of 365 Raffles: And the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning

Acquired: Purchased at the National Museum of Singapore

Date Read: December 5, 2018

Format: Paperback, 350 pages

Genre: History/Biography

Review: A comprehensive biography of Thomas Stanford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. The author devotes much of the book to his extended family and his sometimes contradictory ideas concerning Britain’s political and cultural influence in the wider world. The narrative often reads like a real life Jane Austen novel with passages such as “The Raffleses were ordinary people with no family money and few influential connections” and the circumstances surrounding Raffles’ two marriages and his efforts to arrange matches for his sisters. The book did not devote as much time to the founding of Singapore as I expected and I would have been interested to read more about Singapore’s history in the context of Raffles’ biography. An interesting read but the focus is more on Raffles’s early life and family than some of his later achievements.

#329 of 365 Olivia and Sophia by Rosie Milne

Dates Read: December 7-11, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Acquired: Purchased at the Battlebox Museum, Fort Canning, Singapore

Review: An engaging novel told through the fictional diaries of Olivia and Sophia, the successive wives of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. Both the scandalous Olivia and the pious and supportive Sophia were interesting historical figures in their own right and they were well traveled by the standards of their time, accompanying Raffles on his journeys to Asia. Milne captures the changing sensibilities of the 19th century as Olivia is presented as far more tolerant of local customs around the world than Sophia, who is convinced of the superiority of her own culture and religion.

There are moving entries concerning the loss of Raffles’ and Sophia’s children to tropical diseases. Some of the entries in the novel follow historical documents closely while others are heavily fictionalized. Sophia’s entries are more nuanced than Olivia’s, perhaps because Milne was able to draw upon Sophia’s real life memoir to get a strong sense of her voice. The entries from Olivia’s perspective are a bit too reliant on the cadence of the early 19th century with frequent uses of “twas” and “twere” that become distracting over time. An enjoyable read, especially for visitors to Singapore.

#330 of 365 The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Olivida Yu  

Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from W.H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Format: Paperback, 312 pages

Review: An entertaining murder mystery set in 1930s Singapore. I found the mystery itself a little bit hard to follow and had to reread the conclusion a second time but I greatly enjoyed the historical setting and the narrator’s dry humour. The novel incorporates the events and popular culture of the time from a Singaporean perspective including the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson, the Japanese invasion of China and the growing threat of war in Europe. Yu includes Singapore’s cultural diversity including different approaches to the English language, details which play a key role in solving the mystery. I look forward reading other novels in the series.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Biography 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 46: Biography and Memoir: I have returned from lecturing on a cruise ship and I am catching up on my book reviews here! In addition to reading historical novels and histories of Southeast Asia in November, I read a variety of different biographies and memoirs. While a couple of these books are biographies of historical figures, the others are modern memoirs that examine a variety of themes including family history, First Nations experiences, growing up in apartheid South Africa, dealing with stress, and the division of household labour. Here are this week’s reviews:

#317 of 365 The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters by Anne de Courcy

Genre: History/Biography

Date Read: November 8, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 431 pages

Review: A joint biography of Irene, Cynthia and Alexandra Curzon, the three daughters of George Curzon, Viceroy of India, and an American heiress, Mary Leiter. de Courcy provides a vivid portrait of British upper class society in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, describing lavish dinner parties and debutante balls. The most interesting sections of the book are the accounts of King Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 and marriage to Wallis Simpson in 1937 from the perspective of his social circle. Alexandra “Baba” Curzon was married to Edward’s best friend (and best man) Fruity Metcalfe and her diary provides a first hand account of the unconventional royal wedding.

There are other sections of the book, however, that become mired in the numerous scandals involving the Curzon sisters and their friends and with less attention devoted to the broader historical context. Irene was one of the first female Life Peers in the House of Lords, Cynthia was a Member of Parliament and Alexandra provided financial assistance to the Dalai Lama after his flight from China, and received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her philanthropy. I would have been interested to read more about these political and charitable endeavours. Irene’s and Alexandra’s lives after the Second World War are summarized in a few pages at the end of the book, even though Alexandra died in 1995 at the age of 91. An engaging read but I prefer some of Anne de Courcy’s other books including 1939: The Last Season and Debs at War.

#318 of 365 Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot 

Date Read: November 9, 2018

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Review: My book club’s choice for November. An exquisitely written memoir. The author has experienced a great deal of personal suffering but there are moments of hope and humour that shine through her pain. Mailhot engages with the concepts of forgiveness and memory and how these ideas are shaped by culture. The influences of her own mother and grandmother and the experience of growing up on the Seabird Island Reservation in British Columbia infuse the narrative. The book includes an introduction by Sherman Alexie that describes the author as “the metaphorical love child of Emily Dickinson and Crazy Horse.” There is also an interview with the author that describes the process of writing the book from her original intent to write fiction to the uncovering of her life story. An original and absorbing read.

#319 of 365 It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs

Dates Read: November 16-17, 2018

Genre: Memoir/Comedy

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Review: An entertaining book about researching family history, the prospect of a global family tree and the author’s efforts to organize the world’s biggest family reunion. It’s All Relative is filled with entertaining anecdotes about the author’s own family tree, including a touching story about his grandparents’ courtship that Jacobs uncovers in his grandfather’s FBI file. He discovers famous people who are his 7th or 9th cousins and interviews them about their own views on family history research. (The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson is actively disinterested in geneology while the actress Mila Kunis sends Jacobs a DNA profile that is so complete that he learns her earwax consistency). The family history project does not seem to have been quite as all consuming as his previous books, which involved reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, following the Bible literally or transforming his diet and exercise regime but it’s still a very enjoyable read.

#320 of 365 Frederik III: The King Who Seized Absolute Power by Jens Gunni Busck

Date Read: November 19, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Hardcover, 60 pages

Review: An illustrated short biography of a little known monarch who had a profound effect on the government of Denmark for nearly two hundred years after this reign. Prior to the reign of Frederik III, a Council of the Realm imposed limits on the King of Denmark’s power, which the monarch was obliged to respect in order to ensure that his son would be accepted as the next King. After the Council was blamed for the mismanagement of a disasterous war with Sweden, Frederik III seized absolute power in 1660 and his Royal Laws remained in force until the introduction of a constitutional monarchy in 1848. While the politics of his reign are explained in detail, there is not as much space devoted to his personal life, aside from image captions that hint that his marriage was difficult one. A good short overview of Frederik’s reign but the book does not provide details concerning all aspects of his life.

#321 of 365 Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley

Genre: Memoir/Cultural Studies

Date Read: November 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 264 pages

Review:Fed Up is both a memoir of the author’s marriage and a wider cultural analysis of how society views emotional labour. Hartley writes with warmth and optimism about the frustrations caused by the activities that appear invisible but make individual homes and communities run smoothly such as planning meals, remembering birthday parties and organizing Christmas cards. In her own home, changing employment circumstances and better communication result in a more equitable division of household labour, giving Hartley the space required to complete her book manuscript. While much of the book is focused on the domestic sphere, there are also chapters that analyze perceptions of emotional labour in politics and the workplace. Hartley concludes that a more equitable division of emotional labour, in addition to setting boundaries around these activites and letting go of perfectionism, would benefit both men and women. An interesting and insightful read.

#322 of 365 Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: November 21-22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 44 minutes

Review: The best audiobook that I have listened to this year, brilliantly narrated by the author who is able to imitate a multiplicity of voices from all backgrounds. Noah is an excellent writer with an eye for memorable details and distinctive personalities. He provides a unique perspective on apartheid in South Africa as the child of a European father and an African mother whose relationship was illegal at the time of his birth. As he explains, he was literally “Born a Crime.” Noah writes about his religious, strict and resourceful mother with admiration and explains the complexity of the society where he grew up with a great deal of insight. Highly recommended.

#323 of 365 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found a Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris

Genre: Memoir

Date Listened: November 23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 50 minutes

Review:10% Happier appears to be a self help book but it is actually an interesting memoir about a news anchor who finds a lasting solution to his depression and panic attacks through mindfulness meditation. His reflections on his journalism career were interesting and insightful. He discusses the impact of war on the mental heath of war correspondents and the manner in which reporters competing for scarce air time view current events through the lens of their own careers. Harris discovers meditation through his press coverage of religion and spirituality and goes from skepticism about this practice to attending week long silent retreats. The audiobook is well read by the author.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia

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 45: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia: Next week, I will be giving a lecture series on a cruise ship sailing to Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In recent weeks, I have been researching the history of Southeast Asia, reading a general history of the region, two histories of Singapore, two histories of Vietnam, two histories of monarchy in Thailand and the surrounding nations, and a novel set in colonial Malaysia that includes a historical afterword about the history of the Straits Settlements. Here are this week’s reviews:

#309 of 365 A New History of Southeast Asia by M.C. Ricklefs, Bruce Lockhart, Albert Lau, Portia Reyes and Maitrii Aung-Thwin.

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 572 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: October 31, 2018

Review: A strong overview of the political and religious history of the region. There is less space devoted to society and culture as well as the status of women. The early chapters are little hard to follow but the modern history is well organized and described for those who are new to the history of southeast Asia. There are certain key developments that seem to be summarized very quickly, especially the Vietnam War. The further reading section is exceptionally detailed and useful as it is organized by time period, country and theme. A good introduction to Southeast Asian history.

#310 of 365 Singapore A Pictorial History 1819-2000 by Gretchen Liu

Date Read: November 8, 2018

Genre: History/Photography

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Review: An informative and beautifully illustrated history of Singapore that reflects the country’s cultural diversity from the 19th century to the present day. Liu does not only provide a political and social history of Singapore through visual culture but also the history of art and photography in the region. The author discusses the origins of the images in the book as well as the events depicted in them. There are some interesting photographs of royal tours including the welcome of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (the future King George V and Queen Mary) in 1901, a garden party in honour of the Duke of Connaught in 1906, the future King Edward VIII at the Malaya Borneo exhibition in 1922, and Queen Elizabeth II at a military review in 1972. The book concludes with panoramic landscapes of modern Singapore. A fascinating volume, especially for travelers to the region.

#311 of 365 Monarchy in South East Asia: The Faces of Tradition in Transition (Politics in Asia series) by Roger Kershaw

Genre: Political Science

Date Read: November 9, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 268 pages

Review: An analysis of monarchical governments in southeast Asia from the Second World War to the end of the 20th century with an introductory chapter summarizing the influence of key events from the mid 19th century. The book is a comprehensive study of monarchy in the region, encompassing Laos, Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia, and includes rulers and dynasties who are comparatively little known. Since the book was published in 2001, the discussion of current events is a little dated and some of the predictions did not unfold quite as described by the author but the historical context, theoretical framework, and further reading list is detailed and informative.

The book includes a timeline of events and would have been enhanced by the inclusion of maps and geneological charts. Since the focus is on the influence of monarchical government on political structures rather than the wider history of region, Monarchy in South East Asia is best read after finishing a general history of the region as the author assumes a certain degree of general knowledge of historical and political events. A detailed and informative book relevant to both scholars and general readers interested in royalty and Southeast Asia.

#312 of 365 Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 11-16, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 23 hours and 42 minutes

Review: An excellent book that provides an overview of the political, social and cultural history of Vietnam with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. Vietnam: A New History is thoroughly researched and scholarly but written a style accessible to readers new to the history of southeast Asia. While most English language histories of Vietnam focus almost exclusively on the Vietnam War, Goscha provides an extensive analysis of Chinese and French influences on Vietnamese culture in addition to the impact of the United States in the region. Goscha also addresses the cultural diversity of the region and Vietnam’s relationship with other countries in Southeast Asia. An informative and interesting read.

#313 of 365 The End of the Absolute Monarchy in Siam by Benjamin A. Batson

Date Read: November 17, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 349 pages

Review: A fascinating in-depth study of the reign of King Prajadhipok (reigned 1925-1935), the last absolute monarch of Siam (Thailand) that draws upon a wide variety of sources including memoranda drafted by the King (which are included as an appendix in the book) and the popular press of the time. Batson explains the King’s routine and responsibilities during the final years of the absolute monarchy, which included reviewing personally all the petitions that he received as well as participating in court ceremonies and undertaking foreign tours. The King visited Canada and the United States in 1931 to seek treatment for an eye condition and described his stay in Banff as “a real holiday for me.” Batson does an excellent job of explaining the court politics of the time and the roles of the various princes within the wider royal family and the government. An interesting and informative book.

#314 of 365 Singapore: A Biography: by Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Date Read: November 19, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 456 pages

Review: A history of Singapore from the 1300s to 1965, incorporating images from the History Galleries of the National Museum. The book discusses the history of the island  including the mysterious fire that destroyed the settlement that predated the British colony, the goals of Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquar in creating a British outpost there, the cultural and social history of the island, trade and commerce in the region, and the effects of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The illustrations include the London Illustrated News coverage of the royal visit to Singapore by the future King George V and Queen Mary in 1901. A fascinating and engaging book that presents Singapore’s rich history from a variety of perspectives.

#315 of 365 A History of the Vietnamese by K.W. Taylor

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 626 pages

Review: A monumental history of the lands and peoples that comprise present day Vietnam with the majority of the book devoted to the centuries before European contact and conquest. Taylor focuses on the steady influence of China over Vietnamese politics and culture over the centuries with comparatively brief periods of French, Japanese and American involvement in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a strong emphasis on royal court politics and dynasties including the policies and personalities of successive rulers. Women played a prominent role at court and often helped to determine which one of the numerous princes within the extended royal family would become the next ruler. The Vietnam War is summarized relatively quickly in the second last chapter but the events of this conflict have received extensive attention in other works of Vietnamese history. A detailed and comprehensive history from the earliest surviving sources to the present.

#316 of 365 The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Genre: Historical Fiction/Supernatural

Dates Listened: November 18-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 8 minutes

Review: “Desires and feuds lingered even after death.” A unique novel that is both historical fiction set in the Chinese community of 1890s colonial Malaysia and a ghost story where the heroine visits the plains of the dead and discovers family secrets. In the novel, the living and the dead are connected through numerous channels as the dead draw upon offerings left by their living family members and recreate the same social hierarchy that they experienced while they were alive. The writing has a dreamlike quality as the ghosts move differently than the living (they have difficulty moving in straight lines) and travel at different rates through the various stages of the afterlife. I expected the book to spend a bit more time in land of the living and would have been interested to read more scenes set in colonial Malacca. An interesting read that includes a detailed historical afterward that discusses the Chinese communities in the Straits Settlements and the ideas of the afterlife that existed in that place and time.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The 19th and 20th Centuries in 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 44: The 19th and 20th Centuries in Historical Fiction: In recent weeks, I have been reading historical fiction (reviewed today) and histories of Southeast Asia (to be reviewed tomorrow) as well as a few biographies and memoirs (to be reviewed at a later date). The historical novels are all set in the 19th and 20th centuries and there is a strong wartime focus, especially the First World War. I read books by authors whose work I have enjoyed before, such as Jacqueline Winspear and C. W. Gortner and discovered some new authors as well. Here are this week’s reviews:

#302 of 365 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 28-November 2, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 44 minutes

Review: I enjoyed listening to the prose of this novel, which is filled with evocative descriptions of the Essex landscape and insightful turns of phrase. Perry captures the atmosphere of Victorian science and culture including the fossils catalogued by Mary Anning and the medical discoveries of the time. I did not find the story itself to be a page turner though and it was easy to step away from this audiobook and start listening again later in the day. The characters were also not especially memorable. Beautiful writing and interesting historical context but the events of the novel made little impression. The audiobook is well read by Juanita McMahon.

#303 of 365 The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 2-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 39 minutes

Review: An engaging coming of age novel set in the early 20th century that includes the social issues of the times such as the obstacles faced by women and immigrants, child labour and orphan trains. The novel is structured as a grandmother telling her life story to her granddaughter and therefore works especially well in the audiobook format. The main character, Addy Baum, tells interesting stories of her life and highlights the social change that has taken place over the course of the 20th century but she seems to overcome obstacles relatively easily and I was surprised that she was able to achieve her personal and professional goals in such a straightforward manner. The novel would have been more interesting if the narrator had faced more complicated challenges during her youth. If one of her sisters had been the central character, the tone of the novel would have been very different. A good read but the novel would have been more compelling with a less predictable storyline.

#304 of 365 Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 39 minutes

Dates Listened: November 3-8, 2018

Review: The first installment in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey&Maturin series set during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is rich in historical detail and includes brief appearances by historical figures. Aubrey describes the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV), who was a sea captain by the age of 21 as “that singularly unattractive, hot-headed, cold-hearted, bullying Hanoverian.” Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, nicknamed “Queeney” is presented as a childhood friend of Aubrey whom he remembers with admiration. The nautical setting is beautifully rendered and gives a real sense of what it was like to be on a British naval vessel in the early 19th century. The story sometimes gets lost in all the nautical detail, however, and the novel is more difficult to follow than, for example, the first installment in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. The audiobook is well read by Patrick Tull.

#305 of 365 The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 4 minutes

Review: The fascinating early life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria is reduced to a generic romance in this historical novel. There are a few details that suggest the setting such as the beer and bratwurst in Bavaria and references to the Alps and schnitzel in Austria but the famous palaces of the Hofburg and the Schonnbrunn in Vienna are not described in any detail. Only the final chapters engage in depth with the events of the time such as the Austro-Prussian War or Hungarian demands for autonomy. Most of the book is focused on Elisabeth’s feelings for Emperor Franz Joseph and her conflict with her mother-in-law with the occasional pause for a diplomat to explain the eastern question or Archduchess Sophie to discuss Habsburg geneology.

The book would have been more interesting if the historical context was integrated into all aspects of the story and informed the personal decisions of the characters to a greater degree. There is also little evidence of Elisabeth’s unique personality and interests until the final quarter of the book. Instead, she spends her courtship blushing and her marriage grinding her teeth. Only after an extended separation during her marriage does she take control over own image and devote more time to her interests including poetry and fashion. A passable novel that could have been much better considering the interesting historical figures and political turmoil of the 19th century Habsburg Empire.

#306 of 365 Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 12-15, 2018

Acquired: Complimentary Copy from the Author

Format: Paperback, 365 pages

Review: A heartwarming novel about an American journalist in London during the Second World War, inspired by the author’s grandmother. Robson holds a PhD in British economic and social history from Oxford and her in depth research, including interviews with British women who lived through the war, informs the novel. Goodnight From London is filled with fascinating historical details about London in the 1940s including fashions, food, office culture and the Blitz with an emphasis on the cultural differences between the United Kingdom and United States at the time. The characters are likable and there are some interesting developments in the plot as their backstories are slowly revealed. While most of the characters are fictional, there are a some memorable scenes featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth make a cameo appearance toward the end of the novel. Recommended for readers of history and historical fiction.

#307 of 365 Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 16-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 10 hours and 19 minutes

Review: The second book in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series focuses on a missing woman and a series of mysterious deaths. The mystery is set in 1930 but like the first book in the series, the focus is the lingering trauma caused by the First World War on British society. As Maisie’s former employer Lady Rowan observes, “That’s one more thing that I detest about war. It’s not over when it ends. Of course, it seems like everyone’s pally again, what with the agreements, the international accords and contracts and so on. But it still lives inside the living, doesn’t it?” Winspear’s novels are filled with historical detail and Birds of a Feather devotes particular attention to women’s roles both during wartime and afterward. I look forward to reading more of the series.

#308 of 365 Marlene: A Novel of Marlene Dietrich by C. W. Gortner 

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: November 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 403 pages

Review: An enjoyable novel about the actress Marlene Dietrich from her childhood to the end of the Second World War. The opening and closing chapters are especially well done. The novel begins with the young “Lena” living in genteel poverty. Her mother was from a distinguished family but obliged to become a housekeeper during her widowhood, remarrying a lieutenant in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grenadiers during the First World War. Dietrich is determined to transcend the social conventions enforced by her mother and forge her own career as an actress. The final chapters focus on Dietrich’s work for the USO during the Second World War and her estrangement from her sister, who made very different choices in war time. In between the world wars, there is a strong focus on Dietrich’s personal life, which becomes repetitive at times, but Gortner’s depiction of the cultural life of Weimar Germany then Hollywood is interesting throughout the book. An engaging read.

Books I’ve Read This Week: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II

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 43: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II In recent weeks, I have been reading new perspectives on the lives and reigns of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, a novel about Queen Elizabeth II, three volumes of scholarly articles about 19th and 20th century British and European royalty and a new history the United Kingdom in the 19th century. Here are this week’s reviews:

#295 of 365 Queen of the World: Elizabeth II: Sovereign and Stateswoman by Robert Hardman

Genre: Biography

Date Read: October 29-30, 2018

Acquired: Received a Review Copy

Format: Paperback, 578 pages

Review: The best royal biography of the year! Most books about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign focus on her life and reign within the United Kingdom but Queen of the World examines her role as Head of the Commonwealth and sovereign of sixteen Commonwealth realms, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Hardman provides fascinating behind-the-scenes descriptions and analysis of royal tours and state visits as well as subtle examples of royal diplomacy, especially within the context of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

The various aspects of royal travels including unique gifts, fashion choices, menus and itineraries are explained in detail. There is a section devoted to the role of the Royal Yacht Britannia in royal diplomacy before the ship was decomissioned in the 1990s. Queen of the World includes interviews with numerous ambassadors, diplomats and members of the royal household as well as Princess Anne, the Countess of Wessex and Andrew Parker Bowles. Over the course of the book, Hardman addresses some of the inaccuracies in The Crown series on Netflix, including the circumstances surrounding the Queen’s historic 1961 visit to Ghana.

Hardman places Commonwealth history within the context of current events concerning the monarchy and Commonwealth. Queen of the World begins with the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, which confirmed that the Prince of Wales will succeed the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and concludes with the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, who included floral emblems from the Commonwealth nations in the design of her wedding veil. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the global significance of the monarchy and the Queen’s role in international diplomacy.

#296 of 365 The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray

Genre: History

Dates Read: October 28-29, 2018

Acquired: Received as a gift

Format: Paperback, 390 pages

Review: A culinary biography of Queen Victoria and a history of attitudes toward food, cooking and dining in the Victorian era. Victoria was an enthusiastic and adventurous eater who who sampled bird’s nest soup in 1884 and an ostrich egg omelette in 1899. There are fascinating descriptions of the Queen as a culinary tourist, tasting bouillabaisse in the French riviera and seeking out local delicacies on private visits to Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Victoria’s daily meals, which generally featured lamb chops or mutton, are compared to the more elaborate meals served at state dinners.

Queen Victoria’s weight fluctuated over the course of her reign, declining during her adolescence, increasing in her early years as Queen, declining again during her marriage to Prince Albert then increasing rapidly during her widowhood. I would have been interested to read more about the impact of the British Empire on the Queen’s meals. There are references to her enthusiasm for Indian curry dishes and assurances by importers of preserved meats from Australia and New Zealand that their products did not contain kangaroo but there is no discussion of Canadian wheat, bacon and fish, which were all exported to Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign. The book includes recipes for a variety of dishes enjoyed by the Queen including pancakes with marmalade and royal haggis. A delicious read with a fresh perspective on Queen Victoria.

#297 of 365 The Autobiography of the Queen by Emma Tennant

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: October 25-26, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Harcover, 218 pages

Review: An interesting premise for a novel: Queen Elizabeth II departs for Windsor Village, St. Lucia incognito as Mrs. Gloria Smith to write her autobiography. There are a few fun details imagining the Queen flying economy class or checking in at the aiport, in contrast to the formal circumstances of her official overseas tours. Unfortunately, the novel is consistently written in the tone of an outsider curious about and mildly critical of the monarchy rather than the Queen herself. There is a lot of time devoted to the contents of the Queen’s handbag and what the corgis might do if the Queen was not there to walk them on their usual schedule.

The references to the Queen’s German ancestry and detachment from the day to day lives of regular people sound as though they were written in a critical opinion column about the monarchy rather than how the Queen would muse about her own circumstances. Some of the speculation about the Queen’s opinions is dated as the novel was published in 2007. The plot twist concerning a pretender to the throne ignores the existence of The Royal Marriages Act. For better historical fiction about the Queen, I recommend Mrs. Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn and An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

#298 of 365 Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 293 pages

Review: A well researched and insighful collection of scholarly articles concerning the role of heirs to the throne in 19th century monarchies. The editors observe that the 19th century saw the expansion of the institution of monarchy in Europe as newly independent countries such as Greece, Norway, Belgium and Bulgaria adopted monarchical government. At the same time, the spread of photography and the popular press allowed for greater scrutiny of royal dynasties as families. There were increased expectations that the lives of royalty would bear some resemblance to the lives of their elite and middle class subjects instead of other royalty alone.

Numerous articles in this collection focus on the popular view in 19th century Europe that royal weddings should follow a romantic attachment between the bride and groom and that the royal domestic sphere should allow for relaxed and informal interactions between royal parents and children. The popular perceptions of royalty developed in the 19th century continue to influence attitudes toward royal family life in the 21st century. Although the focus of the book is the 19th century, there are some fascinating articles about perceptions of royal heirs during the First World War as the future Edward VIII became extremely popular because of his military service (even though his position precluded a combat role) while Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eldest son Crown Prince Wilhelm was satirized across Europe as “Little Willy” because of his self indulgence during the war.

The focus of the book is Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Britain with individual articles concerning Belgium, Spain and Demark. The inclusion of articles concerning the role of the heir to the throne in Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan states would have enhanced the collection. The examination of popular perceptions of 19th century female heirs such as the future Queen Victoria or Queen Wilhelmina would have also been of interest. I look forward to reading future volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series!

#299 of 365 Royal Heirs and the Uses of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 325 pages

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles concerning the royal image from the early 19th century until the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip in 1947. The editors observe that royalty needed to find new methods of maintaining public support during this period including presenting their family life to the public through photographs and public appearances. In common with Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europethe topics addressed in this volume remain relevant to public perceptions of royalty in the 21st century including attitudes toward royal tours, fashions, wedding and childrearing as well as royal involvement in the Olympic Games.

There are some fascinating chapters about royalty whose relationship with the public is less known today including King Oscar II of Sweden’s efforts to cultivate a Norweigian identity during his visits to Norway and Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s objections to royalty being concerned with their public image. There are detailed chapters devoted to 19th and early 20th century royal tours of the United States and India. The volume is informative and interesting for both scholars and general readers.

#300 of 365 Monarchies and the Great War edited by Matthew Glencross and Judith Rowbotham

Date Read: November 11, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 336 pages

Review: An informative, original and insightful collection of scholarly articles concerning the impact of the First World War on European monarchies. Matthew Glencross notes in the introduction that studies of royalty between 1914 to 1918 often focus on the personalities of individual monarchs involved in the conflict rather than the wider political and ceremonial aspects of monarchical government. Monarchies and the Great War examines this wider context in addition to the individual kings and queens who reigned during the hostilities.

The book includes an analysis of the role of royalty in Anglo-American relations from the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War, discussing the importance of a frequent royal presence in Canada to royal engagement with the United States. There are detailed chapters devoted to the wartime activities of King George V and Queen Mary as well as the political agenda of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary in addition to chapters concerning monarchies at war in Belgium, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Japan.

Although Czar Nicholas II’s ill fated role as Commander and Chief of the Russian Army from 1915 to 1917 is discussed in the introduction, there are no chapters devoted to the Romanovs, a surprising omission considering that the other prominent European monarchies of the First World War each receive at least one chapter. Judith Rowbotham’s analysis of Queen Mary’s war work is excellent and the inclusion of more articles concerning European royal women’s roles during the First World War would have enhanced the book.

Monarchies and the Great War is an engaging and topical read for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. I hope that there will be further volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series that continue to explore this fascinating subject as there is still much research to be done concerning European monarchies in wartime.

#301 of 365 Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain) by David Cannadine

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 10-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 602 pages

Review: A masterful political history of 19th century Great Britain and Ireland with a strong focus on the Westminster System and party politics as well as the changing role of the monarch over time. Histories of 19th century Britain often begin with Congress of Vienna and extend to the outbreak of the First World War but Victorious Century begins with the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and integrates Irish history into the narrative. While the focus of the book is political developments, Cannadine (the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), also weaves cultural history into the narrative, discussing the work of authors from Jane Austen to HG Wells. Social history receives less attention but the final chapters contain an extended analysis of how daily life in the United Kingdom changed over the course of the century. Events in the wider British Empire and Dominions are mentioned throughout the book but do not receive the same attention as politics within Great Britain and Ireland.

In terms of royal history, Cannadine notes that the 19th century was a period of gradual evolution from a monarchy able to influence political events in the manner of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert early in Queen Victoria’s reign to the more ceremonial role of the elderly Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. He also observes that successive monarchs misread the political and religious situation in Ireland. King George III opposed Catholic emancipation and Queen Victoria was hostile to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support for Irish Home Rule. Not until King George V did a monarch observe that Irish Home Rule in the 19th century would have been a wise policy.

Cannadine admires Prince Albert, arguing that “no member of the British royal family since has made so many-sided a contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of the United Kingdom” and there is a chapter devoted to the Great Exhibition of 1851. In contrast, Cannadine is dismissive of King George III’s “delinquent sons” and argues that the Duke of Kent did not make any notable contribution besides fathering Queen Victoria, a claim disputed by the Duke’s recent biographers. I would have been interested to read more of Cannadine’s thoughts about Queen Victoria’s changing political views over the course of her reign. Overall, however, Victorious Century is an authoritative and engaging history of the 19th century United Kingdom, especially for readers interested in the political figures and developments of the time.