Books I’ve Read This Week: Vacation Reading

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: June 30, 2018

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

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

#170 of 365 My Enemy the Queen by Victoria Holt

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at a second hand book sale

Dates Read: July 1-2, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Date Read: July 3, 2018

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

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

#172 of 365 Poland by James A. Michener

Genre: Historical Novel

Acquired: Borrowed from my parents

Format: Hardcover, 556 pages

Dates Read: July 4-7, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 5, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

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

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

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 59 minutes

Date Listened: July 6-7, 2018

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

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

#175 of 365 Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at the Port Elgin Flea Market

Date Read: July 7, 2018

Format: Paperback, 645 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 307 pages

Date: June 9-10, 2018

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 12 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: June 12-14, 2018

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 8 minutes

Dates Listened: June 14-15, 2018

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

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

#151 of 365 Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com 

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 55 minutes

Dates Listened: June 15-18, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Format: Paperback, 343 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Date Read: June 16, 2018

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

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

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 455 pages

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: June 17, 2017

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Read June 18-19, 2018

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

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Historical Fiction

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 53 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 17-May 20, 2018

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

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

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

#128 of 365 I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: May 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: May 21-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 52 minutes

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

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

#130 of 365 Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: May 22-25, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 400 pages

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

#131 of 365 The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from one my students

Format: Hardcover, 416 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 56 minutes

Dates Listened: May 24-25, 2018

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

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

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

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

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 187 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

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

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

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 25 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: May 27, 2018

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

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

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CBC Books Interview: 6 Must Reads for the Royal Obsessed

I discussed my new book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting and some of my favorite royal books – fiction and non-fiction – with CBC books. The books I recommend include Our Queen by Robert Hardman, Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth by Philip Murphy, Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund and The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak.

Click here to read “6 must-reads for the royal obsessed from expert and author Carolyn Harris” at CBC Books

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Globe and Mail and Mashable Interviews about “The Crown” TV series on Netflix

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh kneeling before his wife, the Queen at her coronation in 1953 as portrayed by Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown on Netflix.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh kneeling before his wife, the Queen at her coronation in 1953 as portrayed by Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown on Netflix.

In the past few weeks, I have had a couple more interviews published about the portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth II in season 1 of “The Crown” on Netflix.

I discussed the Queen’s image with Elizabeth Renzetti at the Globe and Mail. In addition to “The Crown,” Queen Elizabeth II has been the subject of numerous works of fiction from novels such as Mrs Queen Takes the Train and The Uncommon Reader to films such as The Queen and Royal Night Out  and plays such as The Audience.

One of the reasons why Elizabeth II appeals to novelists, screenwriters and playwrights is that her appearance and demeanor is known to the world but as an impartial constitutional monarch, she is expected to remain above politics. Fictional portrayals of the Queen are opportunities to speculate about what she is really thinking when performs public engagements or meets with her Prime Ministers.

One of the key themes in “The Crown” is conflict between the young Queen Elizabeth II’s position as sovereign and the prevailing gender roles in Britain in the 1950s. I discussed how “‘The Crown’ is a low-key guide to outfoxing the men in your way” with Rachel Thompson of Masahable.com. Although women over 30 had been able to vote in Britain since 1918 and all adult women received the franchise in 1928, there were few female members of parliament in the 1950s and a female Prime Minister would not be elected anywhere in the world until Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Head of Government in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1960.

In “The Crown,” the Queen has to negotiate a role for her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and insist that her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, treat her according to her position as sovereign rather than her age and gender. She also reflects on her education, which included a thorough grounding in the constitution from the Provost of Eton College but paid little attention to subjects considered unimportant for women of her social background at the time such as mathematics or science.

Season 2 of the Crown is expected to be released in November 2017.

Click here to read “Despite attempts to decipher her, Queen Elizabeth II remains a mystery”  in the Globe and Mail.

Click here to read “‘The Crown’ is a low-key guide to outfoxing the men in your way” at Mashable.com

 

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The Weekend Bookshelf: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, The Luminaries and How to Be a Victorian

Royal History: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence When King Edward IV of England announced to his council in 1464 that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, his advisers responded “she was not, all things considered, a suitable wife for him, nor a woman of the kind who ought to belong to such a prince.” Elizabeth was not the wealthy foreign princess expected to become queen but the widow of a knight as well as the mother of two young sons. The unlikely royal romance has become part of popular culture, inspiring Philippa Gregory’s novel, The White Queen and a TV series of the same name.

Licence, author of Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen and Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen examines the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth and the culture of their court. The book stands out for its careful examination of the reputations of the King and Queen. Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard III, claimed the throne on the grounds that Edward and Elizabeth’s children were illegitimate. Edward’s reputation as a womanizer and Elizabeth’s image as a schemer suited Richard’s purposes and continue to appear in popular biographies and historical fiction to the present day. Licence examines Edward and Elizabeth within the context of their times, attempting to separate the surviving evidence from Edward IV’s reign from later speculation about the characters of the controversial King and Queen. ***

History: How To Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman Histories of the Victorian era often focus on the lives of the wealthy and powerful. Goodman is interested in the daily routines of ordinary people in nineteenth century England from the city clerks (whose offices were only heated to 10 degrees in the winter, if at all, necessitating heavier business suits than those worn today) to the farm labourers (who ate better meals in the north where potatoes and oatmeal were widely available than in the south where bread was the staple food). The book is structured as a day in the life for the average Victorian, from stepping out of bed onto a tiny homemade rug made from woven rags to washing dishes by gaslight after the evening meal.

Goodman is uniquely placed to explain daily life in the nineteenth century as she starred in the the BBC historical documentary series, Victorian Farm. Goodman combines diaries, letters and advertisements from the Victorian era with her own experiences doing laundry with a hand cranked washing machine, keeping clean with a pitcher and basin, going to the seaside in a voluminous nineteenth century bathing suit and wearing a corset for months at a time. How To Be a Victorian is a treasure trove of fascinating details about an era that still influences the structure of daily life today. ****

 Historical Fiction: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton In Catton’s novel (winner of the Man Booker prize and Governor General’s Literary Award), a series of unexplained events occur near the New Zealand goldfields in 1866. An enormous fortune appears in the cabin of an intoxicated hermit, one of the wealthiest prospectors disappears and a “camp follower” appears to have attempted suicide. Newcomer Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of twelve men at a local hotel determined to get the bottom of these mysteries and he becomes involved in the investigation. The Luminaries includes the classic structure and plot elements of nineteenth century novels. Chapters have headings like “In which Harald Nilssen reneges on a contract; the holy book; Cowell Devlin is confounded; and George Shepard forms a plan.” Characters hold seances, struggle with opium addiction, attempt to hide family secrets and seek their fortunes. Over the course of eight hundred pages, details emerge connecting the characters one another – and the wider mystery – in unexpected ways within a broader astrological framework. The perfect book for a long train journey. ****

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Friday Royal Read: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas (Historical Fiction)

For centuries, Europe’s rulers sealed political alliances with dynastic marriages between their children. This practice was already criticized in the 16th century. The humanist philosopher Erasmus wrote in his 1516 treatise, Erasmus: The Education of a Christian Prince that these royal marriages did not bring peace. He observed that England and Scotland still went to war with each other after the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and James IV of Scotland in 1503. Erasmus also remarked that the princesses themselves were unhappy about being “sent away to remote places” and “would be happier if they could live among their own people, even though with less pompous display.”

The princesses sent to these remote places also complained about their fate. In 1514, Isabella of Austria wrote to one of her sisters, “It is hard enough to marry a man…whom you do not know or love, and worse still to be required to leave home and kindred, and follow a stranger to the ends of the earth, without even being able to speak his language (Retha Warnicke, The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England, p. 3-4). Despite the shortcomings of dynastic marriage for both political stability and personal happiness, the practice continued into the nineteenth century and royalty were expected to marry other royalty until the First World War.

In France and Spain, the exchange of princesses was a tradition that lasted from 1559 until 1739. Both Louis XIII and Louis XIV married princesses from the Spanish branch of the House of Habsburg and Louis XV seemed destined to also make a Spanish match. In The Exchange of Princesses, historian and novelist Chantal Thomas, author of the novel, Farewell, My Queen and scholarly study, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette dramatizes an early eighteenth century exchange of princesses between France and Spain and the unhappiness that followed for the young princes and princesses involved.

Thomas excels at looking behind the glamorous facade of eighteenth century European royal courts. In Farewell, My Queen and the film based on the novel, Farewell My Queen / Les Adieux à la Reine, there were as many scenes set in the flea ridden servants’ quarters of Versailles as in Marie Antoinette’s elegant rooms at Petit Trianon. In The Exchange of Princesses, the princesses experience separation from their families, extreme discomfort traveling between France and Spain on muddy roads, unfamiliar customs when they reach their destinations and grotesque illnesses from measles to smallpox. The atmosphere of both courts and the eccentricities of the individual characters are vividly portrayed as neither match goes according to plan.

The style of the novel is unusual. Thomas focuses closely on the two royal couples brought together by the The Exchange of Princesses: King Louis XV of France and Mariana Victoria of Spain and Luis I of Spain and Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans. Mariana Victoria is between the ages of four and seven over the course of the novel and Louise Élisabeth is  gradually losing her mind and their perspectives therefore reflect extreme youth and mental illness respectively. Amidst the alternating stream of consciousness of these two princesses and the people who surround them are actual letters written by the historical figures involved in the The Exchange of Princesses, newspaper accounts from the period and the author’s own asides from her travels. While all this additional material provides interesting context and detail, it sometimes slows down the narrative and creates distance between the reader and the characters.

In The Exchange of Princesses, Thomas brings alive a little known episode in the history of France and Spain that was one of the last of a series of exchanges of its kind. Both Mariana Victoria and Louise Élisabeth were sent to remote places and may well have been happier if they had been permitted to remain among their own people with less pompous display.

Next Week: The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation, and the Dignified Crown in Canada by Nathan Tidridge

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Royal Travelogue 4: The Queens Who Shaped Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh is Queen Elizabeth II’s official residence in Scotland. Every year, the Queen resides at the Castle for “Royal Week,” hosting garden parties on the Holyroodhouse grounds and inducting new members into the ancient Order of the Thistle. If Scotland votes to secede from the United Kingdom in September, the Queen’s successor may have a separate Scottish coronation at Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral.

The Queen has a close affinity for Scotland. She spent her childhood summers visiting both sets of grandparents there: King George V and Queen Mary at Balmoral and the Earl and Countess of Strathmore at Glamis Castle. Elizabeth II is not the only Queen who has made her mark on the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Here are 5 Scottish and English queens who contributed to the development of the modern palace:

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey

1) St. Margaret (1045-1093) Malcolm III’s queen, Margaret, chose Edinburgh as Scotland’s capital, persuading her husband to move his court there from Dunfermline. Margaret was renowned for her piety and education and transformed the Scottish court into a centre of learning. One of the holy relics in her possession was a fragment of the “holy rood” or true cross. In 1128, Margaret’s son, David I, founded Holyrood Abbey to house the relic.

2) Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) When James IV negotiated his marriage to Henry VII’s elder daughter, Margaret, he decided to transform to royal apartments at Holyrood Abbey into a Renaissance Palace between 1501 and 1505. James IV was well versed in history and spoke multiple languages. The construction of  the Palace of Holyroodhouse was intended to impress the King’s English bride and proclaim to the world the Scottish court was the equal of other European royal establishments.

1833 artist's depiction of the murder of David Rizzio in 1566

1833 artist’s depiction of the murder of David Rizzio in 1566

3) Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) When Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France in 1561 at the age of eighteen, she introduced French style decorations to her apartments in Holyroodhouse. Mary spent her youth in France as the future wife of King Francois II and found Holyroodhouse shabby in comparison to the Louvre and the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. In 1566, a heavily pregnant Mary, Queen of Scots witnessed the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio, in her private apartments at Holyroodhouse by a faction of Scottish nobles led by her second husband, Lord Darnley. After the murder, Mary left Holyroodhouse and gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland/James I of England at Edinburgh Castle.

Holyroodhouse Gardens, where the Queen hosts Scottish garden parties today.

Holyroodhouse Gardens, where the Queen hosts Scottish garden parties today.

4) Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) Charles II’s Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, never visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Following the restoration of the English and Scottish monarchies in 1660, however, Charles II ordered extensive improvements to the palace for himself and his bride including new apartments for the queen. The King appointed architect Sir William Bruce to oversee additions to the palace including the modern quadrangle. Catherine also had a strong cultural impact on Britain – she popularized tea drinking at a time when coffee was the preferred beverage of the aristocracy.

5) Queen Victoria (1819-1901) Queen Victoria discovered Scottish culture through the novels of Sir Walter Scott and developed a strong affinity for Scotland. While her predecessors largely neglected Holyroodhouse, Victoria spent part of her year in Scotland, attending official engagements in Edinburgh and holidaying at her private residence, Balmoral. While in Scotland, Victoria immersed herself in Scottish culture, dressing her children in tartans, listening to readings of Robert Burns poems and even assuming a Scottish accent. The relationship between the monarchy and Scotland has remained close since Victoria’s reign.

Further Reading on the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Scotland’s Palaces and Scottish Monarchs

History:

Elizabeth Patricia Dennison, Holyrood and Canongate: A Thousand Years of History
John Dunbar, Scottish Royal Palaces: The Architecture of the Royal Residences During the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Periods

John Guy, Queen of Scots: Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart

Historical Fiction:

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley

Nigel Tranter, Robert the Bruce Trilogy

Jean Plaidy, The Thistle And The Rose

ReayTannahil, Fatal Majesty: A Novel of Mary Queen of Scots

Next: The Investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle in Wales

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A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman (Historical Fiction Review)

King Richard I “the Lionhearted” is rarely the main character in the story of his capture during his return from the Third Crusade, ransom and fight to maintain his Anglo-French empire during his last years. In the Robin Hood tales, Richard is significant because of his absence. While he languished in the Holy Roman Emperor’s custody, his brother John and King Philippe II of France schemed to divide up his domains, allowing the legendary Robin to distinguish himself through his loyalty to the King. In any historical fiction set in England during Richard’s reign, the King is an absentee monarch because he only spent six months on England soil during his reign. In A King’s Ransom, the sequel to Lionheart, bestselling historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman places Richard at the centre of events, imagining how his imprisonment and ransom changed him as a monarch and a man, affecting his family, household and the history of medieval Europe.

In her author’s note, Penman describes Lionheart, her novel of the Third Crusade, as Richard’s Iliad while A King’s Ransom is Richard’s Odyssey, consumed by his struggle to return home. The novel opens with Richard on the run across Europe and the Mediterranean, hunted by Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich and his vassals in Germany and Austria in addition to Philippe and his allies. All of these rulers emerge as distinct villains. There is Heinrich, a cold and merciless ruler determined to extract the greatest profit from Richard’s capture, Philippe, who nurses a personal grudge against the English King and opportunistic and ineffectual Prince John. The novel maintains a dramatic pace as Richard is forced to contend with all these powerful figures who have few common goals beyond a desire to keep him from his lands and wealth by any means necessary.

Richard’s larger than life historical reputation as  a crusading King often means that he appears in fiction as one dimensional figure. Penman’s Richard is a multifaceted person with a sarcastic sense of humour, a keen sense of honour and the ability to inspire loyalty in followers of all backgrounds. In A King’s Ransom, his imprisonment has a profound impact on his character, ensuring that he returns from crusade as a very different man and King than when he left.

In his travels across Europe, Richard encounters a diverse array of rulers and their interconnected families. Penman does an excellent job of making all these princes, princesses, duke and duchesses, counts and countesses distinct individuals, even in the scenes at the Holy Roman Emperor’s court, which feature numerous German Princes named variations of Heinrich. (There is a cast of characters at the front of the book). As in Penman’s previous novels, little known historical figures emerge as compelling personalities. The portrayal of the friendship between Richard’s sister, Joanna and his neglected queen consort, Berengeria, is particularly compelling. Most of the medieval women who inspire historical novels are larger than life figures such as Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Penman’s Berengeria is a pious, conventional medieval woman but she emerges  in both A King’s Ransom and Lionheart as a complex personality with “steel in her spine.”

I have enjoyed Penman’s novels since reading The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III when I was seventeen. Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning is some of the best historical fiction ever written. Perhaps because Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine have already been the subject of countless novels and films, I found the early volumes of Penman’s Plantagenet series to be less compelling. With Lionheart and A King’s Ransom, Penman is once again writing some the best historical fiction published today. A King’s Ransom is the best historical novel I have read all year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak (Historical Fiction Review)

Since the publication of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, the Tudors have dominated English language popular historical fiction. In addition to novels about Henry VIII and his wives, children and parents, obscure figures from the Tudor court have captured the imagination of novelists. Even Henry VIII’s confectioner is a main character in a historical novel, Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen Of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. The publication of Eva Stachniak’s first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, reminded historical fiction readers that the Tudors do not have a monopoly on court intrigue and spectacle. In the The Winter Palace, Stachniak told the story of German Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst’s unlikely path to the Russian throne as Catherine the Great through the eyes of her watchful servant, Varvara. Empress of the Night imagines Catherine as a mature ruler.

Readers expecting a conventional sequel to The Winter Palace will be disappointed by Empress of the Night. Stachniak does not resume Catherine’s story in the aftermath of the military coup that made her Empress but in her dying hours. Following a stroke, Catherine looks back on her life and reign. The last third of the novel covers the drama of the last year of Catherine’s life, including her desire to disinherit her unstable son, Paul, her attempts to secure a prestigious royal marriage for her eldest granddaughter, Alexandrine, and her relationship with her final lover, the young Platon Zubov. Stachniak’s  evocative writing shows the tensions within Catherine’s family and court.

While Catherine’s last months and hours unfold in rich detail, earlier periods of her life and reign pass by too quickly in the novel. While swift progress through Catherine’s life before becoming Empress makes sense because this material is covered in The Winter Palace, Catherine’s early reign does not receive enough attention. The creation of her law code takes place over a few pages and the aquisition of her famous art collection is alluded to in short scenes. Stachniak’s talents as a writer ensure that each of Catherine’s favourites emerges as a distinct personality but they seem to come and go at a dizzying pace before her last year.

Stachniak’s Catherine is steeped in Russian folk proverbs from her time learning the language and constantly struggles with conflicts between passion and power.  This interpretation of Catherine’s character evokes the complexities of eighteenth century Russia but does not do the historical Empress justice. In the novel, Catherine refers to her love of reading but does not mention, much less quote, her favourite French Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu. There is little sense of Catherine’s place among eighteenth century Europe’s Enlightened despots beyond Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s visit to Russia.

Empress of the Night provides an engaging portrait of Catherine’s Russia and her last year. Stachniak’s first novel, The Winter Palace, however, provided a stronger imagining of Catherine’s character. Her early reign passes by too fast in Empress of the Night to reveal her evolution from enlightened despot to determined reactionary in her final years. Both Stachniak’s novels reveal that Catherine’s Russia is an ideal setting for historical fiction. Hopefully, there will be many more Imperial Russian historical novels to come.

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