Daily Express Interview: Royal baby name: Will Meghan Markle and Harry choose ‘on trend’ name for Baby Sussex?

I discussed the history of royal baby names with Kat Hopps at the Daily Express. While royalty often choose names that belonged to royal relatives or godparents for their children, there are also examples of Kings and Queens choosing a names from the contemporary names of their times. I was also asked to suggest to some possible royal baby names and my ideas are included in the article.

Click here to read Royal baby name: Will Meghan Markle and Harry choose ‘ON TREND’ name for Baby Sussex?

My royal baby name ideas are also included in Baby Sussex: The final royal baby name predictions are here in Image Magazine

Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting featured in Town and Country Magazine

My book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting has been featured in Town and Country Magazine as one of the best books about Queen Victoria. I’m honoured to be on such an impressive list that includes Queen Victoria: 24 Days That Changed Her Life by Lucy Worsley, Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard, Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams and Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Click here to read The Best Books about Queen Victoria in Town and Country Magazine

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Viscount Byng of Vimy

My latest article in the Historica Canada Canadian Encyclopedia is about Field Marshall Julian Hedworth George Byng, 1st Viscount Byng of Vimy, Commander of the Canadian Corps from 1915 to 1917 and Governor General of Canada from 1921 to 1926. Byng led the Canadian Corps to victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War. As governor general, he is best known for his role in the King-Byng Affair, when he formally refused Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s advice to dissolve Parliament and call a federal election. 

Click here to read Viscount Byng of Vimy in the Canadian Encyclopedia

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Lady Byng of Vimy

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Marie Evelyn Byng, Viscountess Byng of Vimy, viceregal consort of Canada (1921–26) and author.

Lady Byng donated the Lady Byng Trophy for good sportsmanship to the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1925 (it was renamed the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy after her death in 1949). She returned to Canada during the Second World War and wrote about her impressions of the country in her 1945 memoir, Up the Stream of Time

Click here to read “Lady Byng of Vimy” in the Historica Canada Canadian Encyclopedia

Call for Contributors: English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty

I am pleased to announce that I will be co-editing English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty, a four-volume series for Palgrave Macmillan’s “Queenship and Power” series, which aims to provide short, focused, well-researched, and refereed biographies of all of the English royal consorts since the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Edited by a team of queenship experts and historians of monarchy –  Aidan NorrieJoanna LaynesmithDanna MesserElena Woodacre and myself -each of the volumes (Volume 1: Early Medieval Consorts; Volume 2: Later Medieval Consorts; Volume 3: Tudor and Stuart Consorts; Volume 4: Hanoverian to Windsor Consorts) will include biographical essays, as well as commissioned essays from leading experts on various thematic topics.

Click here for more information and the Call for Contributors

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

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

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

#359 of 365 The Winter Station by Jody Shields

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: December 27-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 10 hours and 15 minutes

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


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

#360 of 365 Russian Imperial Style by Laura Cerwinske

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Genre: Art History

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 223 pages

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

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

Genre: History/Memoir

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Acquired: Read online at Archives.org

Format: E-Books, 304 pages

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

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

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

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

#362 of 365 Peterhof by Yelena Kalnitskaya

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Genre: History/Museum Guide

Format: Paperback, 127 pages

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

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

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

Date Read: December 31, 2018

Genre: History/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 458 pages

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

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

Date Read: December 31, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 372 pages

Review: 

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

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

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

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

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

Date Read: December 31, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 690 pages

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


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

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

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

Week 51: Royal Reading for the New Year: 

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

#352 of 365 The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: December 23-27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 34 minutes

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

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

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

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 264 pages

Date Read: December 27, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

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

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


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

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

Genre: History

Date Read: December 28, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 266 pages

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


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


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


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

#355 of 365 Princess Margaret: A Life in Contrasts 

by Christopher Warwick

Date Read: December 28, 2018

Genre: History/Biography

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 344 Pages

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


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

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

Date Listened: December 28-30, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 24 minutes

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


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


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


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


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

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

Date Read: December 29, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 274 pages

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

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

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

#358 of 365 Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from ReReading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 378 pages

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

Books I’ve Read This Week: Holiday Reading

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

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

#345 of 365 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Listened: December 21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 3 hours and 31 minutes

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

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

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

#346 of 365 The Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Read: December 21-22, 2018

Acquired: Complimentary from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 57 minutes

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

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

Dates Listened: December 22-23, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 9 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Genre: Short Fiction/Recipes

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: December 22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 228 pages

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

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

Dates Read: December 1-25, 2018

Format: 25 Short Story Booklets

Acquired: Purchased from Hingston and Olsen

Genre: Short Fiction

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

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

Dates Read: December 23-25, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 499 pages

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

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

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

Dates Read: December 27, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 485 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date Listened: December 10-11, 2018

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 54 minutes

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

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

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

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 14 hours and 20 minutes

Dates Listed: December 11-12, 2018

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

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

Dates Listened: December 13-15, 2018

Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 12 hours and 17 minutes

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

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

Genre: History

Date Read: December 14-16, 2018

Format: Paperback, 704 pages

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: December 16-20, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 7 minutes

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

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

Date Read: December 18-20, 2018

Genre: Asian Studies

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 507 pages

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: December 20-26, 2018

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

Format: Paperback, 648 pages

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Biography/Music

Dates Read: November 28-December 1, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 494 pages

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

#332 of 365 Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 24-December 1, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 21 minutes

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

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

Genre: Biography/Music

Dates Read: December 2-4, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 520 pages

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

#334 of 365 Beartown by Frederik Backman

Dates Listened: December 1-7, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 432 pages

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

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

Date Listened: December 8-10, 2018

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 11 hours and 16 minutes

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

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

Date Read: December 9, 2018

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased at Kuala Lumpur Airport, Malaysia

Format: Paperback, 199 pages

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 16-17, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

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

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