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

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

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

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

Genre: Royal Biography

Dates Listened: May 10-12, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 25 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

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

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 An fun read but provides little new information and is already outdated following Harry and Meghan’s wedding and new titles.

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

Genre: Royal Biography

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 39 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 12-12, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Dates Read: May 12-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Paperback, 678 pages

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

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 35 minutes

Dates Read: May 13-15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Dates Read: May 15-16, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 31 minutes

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

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

Genre: Royal Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 272 pages

Date Read: May 19, 2018

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

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

Genre: Royal Biography

Format: Paperback, 268 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Willow Books, Toronto

Date Read: May 20, 2018

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

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Society

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

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

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

Genre: Popular Science

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 31 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 1-2, 2018

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

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

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 48 minutes

Dates Listened: May 2-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

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

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

#115 of 365 Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Genre: Classic Novel

Dates Listened: May 3-5, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 10 minutes

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

#116 of 365 Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback, 576 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Dates Read: April 25-May 5, 2018

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

#117 of 365 Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: May 6, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 46 minutes

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

 #118 of 365 Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours

Date Listened: May 7, 2018

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

#119 of 365 Personal History by Katharine Graham

Genre: Memoir

Format: Paperback, 642 pages

Acquired: Purchased from ABC Books

Dates Read: May 8-10, 2018

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

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

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

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

#106 of 365 Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 22-April 25, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 29 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

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

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

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

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

#107 of 365 Varina by Charles Frazier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 356 pages

Dates Read: April 25-26, 2018

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

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

#108 of 365 The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Genre: Classic Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: April 25-26, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 19 minutes

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

#109 of 365 The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

Genre: Philosophy

Genre: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 224 pages

Date Read: April 28, 2018

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

#110 of 365 The German Girl by Joy Osmanski

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 26-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 48 minutes

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

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

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: April 29, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

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

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

Genre: Classic 

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours and 8 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Read: April 30-May 1, 2018

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

 

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New Book Chapter about Royalty and The Arts in Canada

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

From the introduction of The Canadian Kingdom:

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

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

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Medieval Monarchs

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

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

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

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 30, 2018

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

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

Format: Hardcover, 112 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 30, 2018

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

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

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 672 pages

Dates Read: March 31-April 1

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

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

Date Read: April 3, 2018

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

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

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

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

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

#78 of 365 The Spanish Inquisition by Joseph Perez

Genre: History

Format: Hardcover, 248 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 19, 2018

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

#79 of 365 Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours, 57 minutes

Date Read: March 19-20

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 752 pages

Dates Read: March 20-March 21, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

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

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

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

#81 The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Genre: Classic Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Read: March 20-22, 2018

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Date Read: March 24, 2018

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardover, 120 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 24-25, 2018

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

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

Genre: Biography:

Format: Hardcover, 283 pages and Paperback, 175 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

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

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

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

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Vogue Interview: How Royal Babies Are Named Around the World

Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra of Russia present their baby daughter, Grand Duchess Olga to her great grandmother, Queen Victoria during their 1896 coronation visit to Balmoral.

I discussed the history of royal baby names with Elizabeth Holmes at Vogue Magazine this month, including examples from the twelfth century to the present day. While “Victoria” is considered a royal name today, it was unusual in Britain during the future Queen Victoria’s childhood. Victoria encouraged her own descendants to include “Victoria” or “Albert” as part of their children’s names. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth II appears to accept a wide variety of names among her grandchildren and great-grandchildren from the traditional (George and Charlotte) to the more unique (Princess Anne’s grandchildren Savannah and Isla). There is intense speculation concerning the name that William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will choose for their third child in April with “Mary” “Alice” “Victoria” “Arthur” and “Philip” among the possibilities.

Click here to read “How royal babies are named around the world”

 

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Succession

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

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

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

Date Read: March 15, 2018

Genre: Royal History

Format: E-Book, 280 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 115 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 15, 2018

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

#73 of 365 Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

Genre: Royal History

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 33 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 13-16, 2018

Review: 

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

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

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: March 16, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Genre: Royal History

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 118 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 16-17, 2018

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 17-18, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

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

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

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

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 52 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 16-19, 2018

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

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

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

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Books I’ve Read This Week: The Tudors

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

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 6, 2018

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 291 pages

Date Read: March 7, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 90 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 7, 2018

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

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

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 112 pages

Acquired: Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: March 8-9, 2018

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 22 hours and 32 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 6-March 10, 2018

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 10-12, 2018

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

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

#70 of 365 Tudor Adventurers by James Evans

Genre: History

Date Read: March 14, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 383 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

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

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Books I’ve Read This Week: February 12-18, 2018

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

Week 7: The Olympics: I am told that the Winter Olympics are taking place right now. In past years, I have managed to watch events on TV, especially my favourite sport, The Opening Ceremonies. The Olympics have inspired a few of my royal history articles over the years. In 2012, the year Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter Zara Phillips won a silver medal with the British equestrian team, I wrote about the history of royal athletes at the Olympic Games. In 2014, I wrote about the history of Sochi and Czarist Russia. In 2018, however, I haven’t seen a single event. My book a day project is consuming all my free time, in the best possible way. This past week, I’ve read three royal history books, three novels (two classic and one modern) and a biography of Gordon Lightfoot. Here are this week’s reviews.

#43 of 365 History, Fiction, and The Tudors: Sex, Politics, Power, and Artistic License in the Showtime Television Series, edited by William Robison

Genre: Royal History/Popular Culture

Date Read: February 11-12, 2018

Format: E-Book, 384 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  A collection of twenty-one essays by historians who separate fact from fiction in the Showtime series The Tudors, theme by theme and character by character. The book highlights what the series does well (portrayals of violence and sport in the reign of Henry VIII) and the show’s weaknesses (most notably the character of Henry VIII himself). The essays are written in an accessible and often witty style, with one historian observing, “At its worst, Rhys Meyers’ Henry resembles a young and ambitious middle manager of an Internet sales company, who shouts, shakes his fists, and stamps as he drives his cowed team on to exceed their monthly targets so that he can get a bigger bonus” and another comparing the onscreen portrayal of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain to Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

In addition to identifying historical inaccuracies and critiquing how historical figures are dramatized, History, Fiction, and The Tudors includes fascinating discussion about the relationship between history and popular culture and how the series introduces general audiences to Tudor history. My only criticism is the amount of plot summary in the individual chapters. Readers of this book will have seen the series already. The most blatant historical inaccuracies in the series, such as how The Tudors combines Henry VIII’s two sisters into one fictional character, are repeated a number of times. History, Fiction, and The Tudors is a must-read for anyone who has seen The Tudors and is interested in learning more about the history that inspired the TV series.

#44 of 365 At The Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: February 12-13, 2018

Format: Paperback, 304 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Review:  I enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s previous novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn and was therefore excited to read her interpretation of westward migration in the United States. The descriptions of gardens and orchards were beautiful and the scenes where apple trees are lovingly grafted and grown from seedlings are richly compelling. I also liked the subtle inclusion of historical figures in the narrative, such as the real Johnny Appleseed, and the dramatization of how rare plants from the Americas traveled across the Atlantic to become part of English country estates and botanical gardens. There were a lot of unpleasant characters, however, and there were some plot developments that seemed unnecessarily harsh for the few likable figures. 

#45 of 365 Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 49 minutes

Dates Listened: January 31-February 15, 2018

Review: Mansfield Park is one of two Jane Austen novels that I had not read before this year. The other is Northanger Abbey, which I hope to read next month. There are some great scenes of social satire and Fanny Price is an unexpectedly complex heroine. She is frail, shy, and treated as a poor relation by Lord and Lady Bertram but she rejects Henry Crawford’s proposal because of his character, stands up to the Bertrams when they pressure her to accept the match and takes charge of her younger sister’s education during a visit home. Mansfield Park is not my favourite Jane Austen novel, however, as it is an overly long book with a meandering plot. There are digressions about Shakespeare’s role in English culture and the proper way to read aloud, which are interesting in themselves but delay the conclusion of the novel, which seems unnecessarily rushed compared to the rest of the book. The audiobook is well read by Juliet Stevenson.

#46 of 365 Imperial Crimea: Estates, Enchantment and The Last of the Romanovs by Coryne Hall, Greg King, Penny Wilson, and Sue Woolmans

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Paperback, 778 pages

Dates Read: February 13-February 16, 2018

Review: I greatly enjoyed this book of articles about the last Romanovs and their Crimean Palaces. Imperial Crimea discusses both the architecture of the Romanov palaces in the Crimea and the lives of the Emperors and Empresses, Grand Dukes and Grand Duchesses who lived in them. Most of the articles examine an individual palace but there are multiple chapters devoted to the Imperial estate of Livadia and its development during the reigns of Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Livadia palace continued to be a site of political significance after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, becoming the setting of the Yalta Conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in 1945.

Imperial Crimea also contains chapters concerning the history of the Crimea, the career of the architect Nikolai Krasnov and a fascinating profile of the Emir of Bukhara (now Uzbekistan) who was a frequent visitor to Livadia. The Emir is usually summarized in a single line within biographies of Czar Nicholas II as a visitor to the Livadia palace who brought the children extravagant presents but Greg King discusses the Emir’s love of poetry and complicated political position. The evacuation of Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Dowager Empress Marie and other members of the Romanov extended family from the Crimea in 1919 receives extensive analysis in the final chapters.

Imperial Crimea would have been enhanced by the inclusion of supplementary material such as maps, family trees, photographs and palace floor plans. There are also a few tired stereotypes included about the upbringing of the five children of Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. Grand Duchess Marie is described as “lazy” and uninterested in her studies, when the recent publication of her diaries and letters demonstrate that she was in fact a hard working and conscientious student.  All four of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters are described in Imperial Crimea as being “raised in isolation” but the whirlwind of balls, luncheons, excursions and charity bazaars described in the book suggest that they enjoyed a more varied social life than previously supposed, especially during their Crimean holidays.

I highly recommend Imperial Crimea to anyone interested in the Romanovs, nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture, and the history of Russia.

#47 of 365 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 44 minutes

Dates Listened: February 15-16, 2018

Review: The character of Janie Crawford, a young African-American woman in early twentieth century Florida, and her search for a marriage that resembles a bee and pear blossom is very compelling and I found this novel difficult to put down. Zora Neale Hurston’s central characters are complicated figures and each of Janie’s three husbands is flawed in his own way. The writing is lush and descriptive, especially the scenes in the aftermath of the hurricane where the houses do not have roofs and remains are impossible to identify. A spectacular performance by Ruby Dee on the audiobook. Highly recommended.

#48 of 365 Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 117 pages

Date Read: February 18, 2018

Review: I disagree with the first sentence of this book: “Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory.” That distinction belongs to King John who not only had his powers limited by Magna Carta but went down in history as a sniveling villain. Even Charles I’s detractors acknowledged his personal virtues including his devotion to his family, and that he met his end with courage and dignity. Despite this questionable beginning, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life is nevertheless a good introduction to the major issues of Charles’s reign including religion, foreign policy and parliament, ending with a summary of the English Civil Wars and the King’s trial and execution. Kishlansky provides a balanced analysis of Charles I’s character, discussing both his better qualities and his political shortcomings. I would have liked more information to have been included in the book about Charles I’s famous art collection.

#49 of 365 Lightfoot by Nicholas Jennings

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: February 18, 2018

Genre: Biography

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Review: I am a huge fan of Gordon Lightfoot’s music and I enjoyed reading the stories behind the songs. I appreciated how Jennings not only wrote about the big hits such as “If You Could Read my Mind” and “Sundown” but also examined the more obscure classics such as “Marie Christine” or “Sixteen Miles to Seven Lakes,” and unreleased tunes as well. The history of the Toronto music scene in the 1950s and 1960s was also very engaging. Nice to know that Queen Elizabeth II also enjoys Lightfoot’s music and praised “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”

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