Books I’ve Read This Week: Vacation Reading

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: June 30, 2018

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

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

#170 of 365 My Enemy the Queen by Victoria Holt

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at a second hand book sale

Dates Read: July 1-2, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Date Read: July 3, 2018

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

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

#172 of 365 Poland by James A. Michener

Genre: Historical Novel

Acquired: Borrowed from my parents

Format: Hardcover, 556 pages

Dates Read: July 4-7, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 5, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

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

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

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 59 minutes

Date Listened: July 6-7, 2018

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

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

#175 of 365 Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at the Port Elgin Flea Market

Date Read: July 7, 2018

Format: Paperback, 645 pages

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

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Power

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 24: Women and Power In recent days, I have been reading books about powerful women or women who challenged the power structures of their times. My reading list includes a historical novel, an extended essay that compares attitudes toward women in public life in classical and modern times, the diary of Marie Antoinette’s sister, a history of Parisian women during the Second World War, and three biographies of women who helped to change the course of history. Here are this week’s reviews:

#162 of 365 In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 25 minutes

Date Listened: June 27-28, 2018

Review:  I saw the film In The Time of Butterflies (starring Salma Hayek as Miranda Mirabel and Edward James Olmos as Rafael Trujillo, ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 t0 1938 and 1942 to 1952) some years ago. Although the film has an excellent cast, the novel is much better because it focuses on all four Mirabel sisters, beginning with the sole survivor of the four, and rotating the perspective among Patria, Mirabel, Dede and Maria Teresa. They were all affected by the Trujillo regime and engaged with the revolutionary movements of the times in different ways.

The novel also highlights the attitudes toward women on the island in the 1950s and 1960s as the Mirabel sisters were the first generation in their family to receive a formal education, which provided them with increased opportunities. The sisters also balanced their political activism with the expectations that they faced as wives and mothers. I would have been interested to read more about about the wider historical and political context for the events in the Dominican Republic shown in the novel. Overall, however, In the Time of the Butterflies is an excellent read.

#163 of 365 Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 27, 2018

Review: A well researched history of Parisian women’s experiences before, during and after the Second World War. Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, a biography of Wallis Simpson, emphasizes the difficult choices that individual women made in occupied Paris as well as the evolution of women’s roles in French society as a result of the war. In the 1930s, French women did not have the vote, were barred from certain professions and often did not have access to bank accounts. In common with many other European countries, the war transformed women’s lives and equal rights were enshrined in French law by the late 1940s.

There is also a strong focus on female support networks both within Paris and in concentration camps. Sebba structures the book chronologically and therefore moves quickly between different themes and life stories. A thematic structure or a series of short biographies might have brought together the wide range of fascinating historical detail in a more cohesive fashion. Overall, however, Les Parisiennes provides a vivid account of women’s lives in wartime Paris, describing the atmosphere of occupation then liberation.

#164 of 365 The Diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, 1781-1785: New Evidence of Queenship at Court by Cinzia Recca

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 422 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: June 26-28, 2018

Review: A translation and scholarly analysis of the 1781-1785 diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire and elder sister of Marie Antoinette. The first hundred pages of the book are comprised of discussion of key themes in the diary followed by notes on the diary’s structure and translation methods. The remainder of the book is the translation of the diary.

Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette were close in age and shared a governess during their childhoods. Maria Carolina’s reveals just how much they had in common. Both queens displayed warmth and affection to the most important people in their lives. (Maria Carolina hugged her brother Joseph II when he visited her) and were attentive and involved mothers concerned with the education of their children. Maria Carolina was especially concerned with her children’s health, a frequent theme in the journal. Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette both expected to exert political influence as well, and suffered from bad press both within their own lifetimes and in subsequent histories. The diary is a fascinating account of a late eighteenth century queen’s daily activities, public engagements and personality and brings Marie Antoinette’s lesser known sister out of comparative obscurity.

#165 of 365 Joan Of Arc: A History by Helen Castor

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 328 pages

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Review: A beautifully written and well researched history of the impact of Joan of Arc on the course of French history. Castor places Joan in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and English, French and Burgundian court politics in the fifteenth century. The book illuminates Joan’s own frustration that she could only achieve what she perceived to be her divinely inspired goals by persuading influential political and military figuresto work with her. The motives of the major historical figures of the times are explored in detail.

Perceptions of divine intervention during Joan’s lifetime are another key theme in the book as Joan was not the only person who claimed to be on a holy mission to change the course of the war. There was even a Joan of Arc impersonator who was recognized by two of her brothers after her death. Throughout the narrative, Castor emphasizes Joan’s ability to divide popular opinion both during her own lifetime and after her death. The sources of her inspiration, her military leadership and her insistence on wearing men’s clothes inspired widespread controversy and the chapters concerning her trial highlight the political, religious and gender debates of her times. The book concludes with a epilogue regarding Joan’s 20th century canonization. A fascinating read.

#166 of 365 Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Genre: Political Science/Classical History

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Acquired: Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 129 pages

Review: Women and Power: A Manifesto discusses how classical Greek and Roman attitudes concerning public speaking and rhetoric as masculine attributes continue to undermine the position of women in the public sphere. Beard, a renowned classicist, expertly blends negative depictions of women in public life in classical drama with the harsh criticism faced by female public figures in the present day. (Hilary Clinton has literally been depicted as Medusa).

The book provides a nuanced analysis of popular perceptions of women speaking in public, including the assumption that female politicians will focus on policies perceived as “women’s issues,” the struggle for women to be taken seriously in traditionally male dominated realms and “the right to be wrong” as women in public life are often held to a much higher standard than men in the same roles. The book is well illustrated with both classical and modern images of women being silenced in the public realm. Highly recommended.

#167 of 365 Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 52 minutes

Dates Listened: June 28-July 1, 2018

Review: A fascinating biography of a historical figure who, along with her family, deserves to be better known. Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and raised in Britain, with Queen Victoria as her godmother. Her father presented the Koh-I-Noor diamond to the Queen.

Sophia became a prominent British socialite, helping to set trends for cycling, dog breeding and field hockey as pursuits for fashionable young women. After visiting India, however, she developed a strong interest in philanthropy (especially the welfare of Indian soldiers and sailors), Indian nationalism and, after her return to Britain, women’s suffrage. Sophia was among the suffragettes who demonstrated on Black Friday in 1910 when hundreds of British suffragettes were attacked by police and bystanders.

In addition to Sophia’s life story, author Anita Anand also discusses the connections between the campaigns for women’s suffrage and Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi admired the activism of British suffragettes and studied their tactics. Sophia’s family also receives extensive attention as her parents and siblings also had interesting lives shaped by British rule over India.

The Duleep Singh family associated with many of the prominent figures of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. Sophia’s brother Victor was a close friend of Lord Carnarvon, who sponsored the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Sophia herself worked closely with the suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst. Sophia’s social circle also included suffragettes who are little known today but were influential in their times.

One of my favourite royal biographies of the year. Highly recommended.

#168 of 365 Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 33 minutes

Dates Listened: July 3-5, 2018

Review:  An insightful biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama that places her within the context of her family, Chicago, the experiences of African-Americans in the United States, press coverage of the Obama family in the White House, and the expectations faced by American First Ladies from Martha Washington to the present day. Journalist and author Peter Slevin, who covered the Obama White House extensively, focuses on Michelle Obama’s accomplishments including her Ivy league degrees, professional achievements and her initiatives as First Lady, including her efforts to promote healthy eating and exercise and her advocacy for military families.

There are mentions of how Michelle Obama had to compromise her own professional ambitions in support of her husband’s political career and presidency and it would have been interesting for Slevin to have analyzed these decisions in more detail. The audiobook is well read by Robin Miles. Highly recommended.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Living in America

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 23: Living in America One of my favourite weekly podcasts is This American Life, which showcases the experiences of people from all walks of life amidst unusual circumstances. I kept the format of This American Life in mind as I selected books to read this past week from a wide range of unexpected perspectives on American society including a Finnish journalist who recently received American citizenship, and the former executive director of the National Scrabble Association. My reading choices all focused on daily life in the United States in the past, the present, and (speculatively) the future. Here are this week’s reviews:

#155 of 365 The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Hardcover, 418 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Date Read: June 20-22, 2018

Review: A fascinating perspective on American society and culture by a Finnish journalist, who becomes an American citizen by the end of the book. Partanen argues that the generous social programs in Nordic countries such as Finland allow individuals to become independent adults and achieve their full potential regardless of social background while the comparative absence of a social safety net in the United States makes college students reliant on their parents for support (sometimes well into adulthood) and elderly people reliant on their adult children for care and assistance. The book is filled with fascinating details about life in Finland such as forest kindergartens where young children spend their time outside, and the delay of the start of academic education until children reach the age of seven, a gradual progression that has excellent results.

While the substance of the book is engaging, the tone sometimes becomes repetitive as Partanen repeats the phrase “The Nordic Theory of Love” numerous times to describe Finnish marriages and family structures. She also describes certain American policies as backward or anachronistic, words that might make an American audience defensive rather than open to embracing her suggestions for social change. Perhaps Canadians are the ideal readers for a book of this kind. An engaging and thought provoking read.

#156 of 365 Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Read: June 21, 2018

Review: A fascinating and sometimes depressing study of a little known subculture of Americans who live in vans and RVs, traveling from one temporary job to another. Bruder, who lived in a van herself while researching these 21st century nomads, interviews a wide variety of nomadic workers. Some lost their houses and jobs in the recession and took to the road out of necessity while others relish the freedom of the open road and compare themselves to 19th century mountain men.

There are sections of Nomadland that resemble The Grapes of Wrath with the promised jobs being offered by 21st century Amazon warehouses instead of the California peach orchards of the 1930s. Nevertheless, many of the interviewees display a great deal of optimism, ingenuity and support for one another in difficult circumstances. An absorbing audiobook, well read by Karen White.

#157 of 365 Calypso by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 38 minutes

Date Read: June 22, 2018

Review: David Sedaris’s best essay collection since Me Talk Pretty One Day. In common with all of Sedaris’s books, there are some hilarious chapters including his addiction to his Fitbit (even when suffering from digestive problems at the airport) and his description of checking into an American hotel then ordering “the southeast lard pocket” in a chain restaurant.

Calypso stands out, however, because, of the introspective chapters where Sedaris mourns his mother and sister and grapples with his own mortality. Amidst all the fun anecdotes, there are some moving reflections such as “Though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family… Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of.” The audiobook is well read by the author and includes some sketches from his live performances. Highly recommended.

#158 of 365 Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar and Geek Underground by John D. Williams Jr

Genre: Memoir/Society and Culture

Format: Paperback, 216 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 23, 2018

Review: An entertaining short memoir by the former Executive Director of the National Scrabble Association that includes what goes on behind the scenes at the Scrabble tournaments, the differences between living room play and tournament play, how words are added and removed from the Scrabble dictionary, tips for improving your game, anagrams, palindromes, and the list of around 175 offensive words that were removed from the Official Scrabble Dictionary in the 1990s.

Williams keeps the focus firmly on Scrabble rather than himself and I was curious to know more about how Scrabble affected his life. He mentions in passing that he liked to keep his weekends to himself but the book makes clear that he was also being bombarded by letters and calls from everyone from retired schoolteachers to prison inmates asking for his advice on whether a word was correct in the game and if Scrabble dictionaries could be distributed more widely. Great as an introduction to competitive Scrabble culture but falls short as a memoir.

#159 of 365 New York: 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Genre: Science Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 22 hours and 34 minutes

Dates Read: June 22-26, 2018

Review: An engaging and thought provoking novel that is both a warning about the possible impact of climate change on the coastal cities of the world and a whimsical tale of an imagined future New York that resembles Venice only with skyscrapers emerging from the canals created by rising sea levels. There are searches for sunken treasure and an effort to prevent the extinction of polar bears by flying them from Churchill, Manitoba to Antarctica in a zeppelin, angering protesters who want to keep Antarctica’s existing ecosystem intact.

While the setting and imagined history of the future is fascinating and cleverly blended with references to 19th and 20th century New York events and historical figures, the characters are often thinly drawn and are not particularly memorable. The most prominent character is the city of New York itself, which is still recognizable after the deluge with traffic jams (involving boats), apartment living, property speculators and new arrivals in search of opportunity in spite of the rising sea levels flooding lower Manhattan. The plot also slows down in the second half and begins to change focus from climate change to financial mismanagement. The audiobook is read by a chorus of narrators, which helps keep the wide variety of different perspectives distinct for listeners.

#160 of 365 Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Date Read: June 24-26, 2018

Review: An interesting and sometimes unsettling history of the rise of positive thinking in the United States and the surprising dangers of too much optimism. Ehrenreich begins with her own experiences being treated for breast cancer where she notices a strong focus on the patient keeping up a positive attitude throughout treatment although the science behind whether the patient’s determination to stay positive affects their overall health is inconclusive. She then explores how positive thinking emerged as a reaction to harsher Calvinist doctrines in the 19th century but still retained a strong focus on self examination at the expense of looking at conditions in the outside world in a realistic fashion and working to change them for the better. The book calls for neither positive nor negative thinking but balanced examinations of circumstances, followed by actions that ultimately lead to positive change outside the individual.

#161 of 365 Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diane Preston

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 532 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City

Date Read: June 25, 2018

Review: An harrowing account of the last voyage and sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, filled with evocative details that bring the passengers to life. There is a newlywed couple departing on their honeymoon who still have confetti in the folds of their clothes, children in sailor dresses who want to help the crew paint the lifeboats and a talent contest for the passengers on the last evening of the voyage. The book is difficult to put down during the scenes concerning the sinking of the ship and the rescue of the few survivors. What is striking throughout the narrative is how disaster was anticipated by many of the passengers and the press from the beginning of the voyage, in contrast to the confidence of the passengers on the Titanic a few years earlier. Also, safety precautions recommended by the Titanic inquiry were not uniformly implemented by the First World War, contributing to the death toll on the Lusitania. A tragic and compelling book about a disaster that informed the American entry into the First World War in 1917.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 307 pages

Date: June 9-10, 2018

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 12 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: June 12-14, 2018

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 8 minutes

Dates Listened: June 14-15, 2018

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

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

#151 of 365 Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com 

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 55 minutes

Dates Listened: June 15-18, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Format: Paperback, 343 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Date Read: June 16, 2018

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

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

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 455 pages

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: June 17, 2017

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Read June 18-19, 2018

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

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Russian History and Literature

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 21: Russian History and Literature: In late May and early June, I read some works of modern Russian history and literature including a history of Saint Petersburg (which I am looking forward to visiting for the second time this August), a very somber history of Russian gulags in the 20th century, a history of the October Revolution written by a science fiction author and a Dostoyevsky novel that critiqued the revolutionary movements of his times. After taking a break to read some royal biographies (reviewed here last week) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later this week), I finished reading a biography of Mikhail Gorbachev that I started earlier in the month and concluded with a Trans-Siberian railway travelogue. Here are this week’s reviews:

#142 of 365 Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia by W. Bruce Lincoln

Genre: History

Format: Hardcover, 470 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from a friend

Date Read: May 28-30, 2018

Review: A excellent overview of Saint Petersburg’s history, especially the art and literature inspired by the city, with a strong focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. The chapters about the Silver Age of Russian poetry and the Siege of Leningrad are especially well written. The eighteenth century, however, including the seminal reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, however, do not receive as much attention as they merit and the building of the city goes by quite quickly. Overall, however, Sunlight at Midnight is a well written and insightful biography of Russia’s old Imperial capital.

#143 of 365 Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 27 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 27-30, 2018

Review: A well researched, comprehensive and heartbreaking history of the gulag forced labour camps in Soviet Russia. The chapters concerning child and adolescent inmates are particularly difficult to read. Journalist Anne Applebaum balances the history of how and why the gulag system was established with a comprehensive analysis of daily life in the camps including food, visitors, labour, and relations between prisoners and guards. Sources include memoirs and archival documents. The focus on the voices of the inmates makes the history very compelling.

While the book is excellent, the audiobook has a few shortcomings. The narrator has difficulty with Russian names and sometimes pronounces the same name in a few different ways over the course of the book. Also, the chapter subheadings do not match the audiobook sections and so it can be difficult to find subsections within a chapter. Otherwise, an excellent book.

#144 of 365 October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 37 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: May 30-June 1, 2018

Review: Since October is a history book written by a novelist, I was expecting the book to be more of a page turner. Instead, it is a history of the Russian Revolution that consists primarily of revolutionaries attending meetings (“And still the soviet continued to debate.”) The author also tends to romanticize the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin and Trotsky as well as the October Revolution, even though this event ultimately led to a great deal of suffering for the Russian people. There are some one dimensional portrayals of some of the other major historical figures (Czar Nicholas II is described as having “bovine passivity”) and a few historical inaccuracies (Princess Putiatina was a friend of Grand Duke Michael, not his wife). Readable but not as engaging as I expected.

#145 of 365 Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

Genre: Russian History/Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 928 pages

Dates Read: June 3-18, 2018

Review:  The definitive biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, informed by extensive research and interviews. The subject of the book warned the author in the introduction that “Gorbachev is complicated” and Taubman unravels this complexity by placing Gorbachev within the context of his times. The influence of Gorbachev’s parents and grandparents and how their experiences countered the prevailing soviet cultural narrative is especially well presented.

Taubman also provides an excellent account of Gorbachev’s marriage. Raisa Gorbachev was the most influential spouse of a Russian leader since the Czarina Alexandra and her role both within Russia and abroad is discussed in detail. There is also extensive analysis of Gorbachev’s interactions with world leaders including American president Ronald Reagan, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as King Juan Carlos of Spain, whom Gorbachev admired for managing Spain’s transition from Francisco Franco’s rule to democracy. A fascinating and absorbing biography of one of the 20th century’s most significant political leaders.

#146 of 365 Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Genre: Russian Literature

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: June 3-7, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 28 hours and 2 minutes

Review: An intense and difficult listen. There are some powerful scenes but I preferred Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as novels. Dostoevsky’s philosophy is front and centre in Devils and it tends to overwhelm the characters. Like all Dostoevsky novels. there are desperate men committing unspeakable acts, long suffering women, meditations on the nature of Russian society and spirituality and a few moments of dark humour amidst all the depressing developments but, in my opinion, these characteristics don’t come together in Devils to create a satisfying whole. The audiobook was well read by George Guidall but I did not find this book as compelling as Dostoevsky’s other novels.

#147 of 365 Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into The Heart of Russia by David Greene

Genre: Travel Writing

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Date Read: June 19, 2018

Review: I expected Midnight in Siberia to focus closely on the author’s journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway and the major cities along its route. Instead, the book focuses on the author’s efforts, as an American journalist, to understand Russian political attitudes and culture. His interviews provide a series of snapshots of rural life in modern Russia. Since the author is the former Moscow bureau chief of NPR, I was surprised that he was not more familiar with the language (he relies heavily on his translator, Sergei) and that his mentions of Russian history were limited to Stalin’s gulags and the Decemberists. There are some interesting chapters that illustrate the complexities of Russian society today but there are also repetitive straightforward observations from the author such as “Russians like tea” or “history and culture matter.” Interesting but not quite what I expected.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Kings and Queens

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

Week 20: Kings and Queens: These past few weeks, I have been reading a combination of biographies of King and Queens (reviewed in this post), Russian History and Literature (to be reviewed in the next post) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later next week). I am continuing to read the biographies in the Penguin Monarchs series (Henry II, Richard I and Elizabeth I) in addition to recent books about English/British queens consort Catherine Howard and Caroline of Ansbach, the French King Francis I, and the Spanish queen, Juana I. There is a strong focus on the sixteenth century in these reading choices but also two medieval kings and a Georgian queen! Here are this week’s reviews:

#135 of 365 The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach by Matthew Dennison

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: June 5-7, 2018

Review:  I enjoyed reading more about Caroline of Ansbach, a British queen who deserves to be better known. Caroline was central to the House of Hanover’s public image in Britain as her husband George II and father-in-law, George I had little charisma or rapport with the British public. Caroline trained carefully for her future role while still a princess in Hanover, reading British history during her husband’s naps (the future George II was bored by reading or the sight of other people reading), requesting tea and taking English conversation lessons. Dennison incorporates attitudes toward the queen in the popular culture of the period, which was fascinated by Caroline’s strong Protestant faith, large family and her perceived political influence. An interesting and engaging read.

#136 of 365 Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

Genre: Royal History

Dates Listened: June 1-3, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:  An insightful and well written biography of Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of King Henry VIII. Most biographies of Catherine present her as a fool or a passive victim but Russell provides a nuanced portrait, explaining both her strengths as queen, including her mastery of court etiquette and courtesy toward others, and the reasons for her perceived weaknesses including her continued engagement with figures from her past who had the power to undermine her reputation. Russell is an expert on Catherine Howard’s household provides a vivid depiction of the Tudor court and a critical analysis of Henry VIII.

The only section that I did not find entirely convincing was Russell’s account of Catherine’s childhood, which Russell describes as happy. He presents Catherine as a social leader within her step-grandmother’s household. Instead, Catherine seems to have been in a vulnerable position in spite of her rank because her mother was dead and her father was fleeing his creditors in Calais. Her situation, in the household of an inattentive guardian, attracted the attention of the arrogant, aggressive men whom she encountered in her adolescence.

The concluding chapters are tragic as Catherine’s past and present conduct comes under scrutiny and she meets the fate of her cousin, Henry VIII’s 2nd wife Anne Boleyn. Russell describes these events in thoughtful detail and reveals how her execution was perceived at the time. The book is well worth reading as a study of the role of the queen consort, religion and politics during the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.

#137 of 365 Richard I: The Crusader King by Thomas Asbridge

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 4, 2018

Review: A balanced short biography of a famous medieval king. Asbridge does not ignore Richard the Lionheart’s flaws as a king including his quest for personal glory at the expense of other objectives but he convincingly challenges the idea that Richard was uninterested in his role as King of England. Richard ruled a vast Anglo-French empire but England was the jewel in his crown and he introduced new aspects of English kingship including “the royal we” and the custom of dating reigns by regnal year. Asbridge argues that Richard would have a very different reputation if he had been able to return to England immediately after the Third Crusade instead of being taken captive and held for ransom.

I would have liked the book to have included a little more about the king’s personal life. His queen, Berengeria of Navarre is only mentioned in passing even though she accompanied him on the 3rd Crusade and there is little sense of his social circle or his interests beyond literature and waging war. In all other respects, Richard I: The Crusader King, is an excellent contribution to the Penguin Monarchs series.

#138 of 365 Henry II: Prince Among Princes by Richard Barber

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 5, 2018

Review: A short biography of Henry II that emphasizes his achievements in holding together the Angevin Empire and initiating legal reforms that would shape the development of English common law. Barber makes clear that Henry was more than Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband and Thomas Becket’s adversary though there is extensive analysis of church and family conflict throughout the book. Barber divides the book into three sections – Henry’s appearance and character, his life story and his achievements – and the final section should have been expanded to highlight the specific legal developments discussed in the text. Barber achieves a good balance between the personal and the political and readers will come from the book with a good sense of Henry’s character and kingship.

#139 of 365 Francis I: The Maker of Modern France by Leonie Frieda

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 9 minutes

Dates Listened: June 9-11, 2018

Review: An old fashioned royal biography that recounts various aspects of Francis’s life and reign, especially his foreign policy, without much additional analysis from the author. Frieda describes wars, peace treaties, dynastic marriages and contacts between rulers but rarely brings these details together to assess Francis’s overall strategy toward kingship. The book is filled with historical figures who are more interesting than Francis himself including his mother, Louise of Savoy, sister, Marguerite of Navarre and artist in residence, Leonardo de Vinci. Frieda argues that Francis is more worthy of the description “Renaissance Prince” than his contemporary King Henry VIII of England and the book provides a sense of Henry VIII’s dealings with the France from the French perspective. A worthwhile read that would have benefited from more analysis of Francis and his policies.

#140 of 365 Juana I: Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Castile by Gillian B. Fleming

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 365 pages

Date Read: June 12, 2018

Review: An excellent scholarly biography of Queen Juana I, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Juana has gone down in history as Juana la Loca and most biographies and cultural representations of the Queen focus on her mental health instead of her sovereignty. In contrast, Fleming examines Juana’s political significance as Queen of Castile and places her within the context of sixteenth century attitudes toward female rule in the Iberian peninsula and beyond. I found the background concerning Ferdinand’s family particularly interesting as one of his half sisters had been imprisoned by his father because her determination to exercise her rights over her mother’s inheritance threatened his rule. A similar pattern unfolded in Ferdinand’s treatment of Juana. Well written, well researched and interesting to read. Highly recommended.

#141 of 365 Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity by Helen Castor

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: June 15, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Review: A wonderful short biography of Queen Elizabeth I. Dr. Helen Castor looks behind the Queen’s confident public image as Gloriana and examines her precarious position over the the course of her reign. The fates of Henry VIII’s six wives are so well known today that the probable impact of these events on Elizabeth I’s sense of her own position and her attitudes toward marriage are sometimes overlooked. Elizabeth experienced a treacherous path to the throne and a series of threats to her authority over the course of her reign. I thought the author’s comparison of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots was especially illuminating. The book is filled with interesting facts, such as how Queen Elizabeth I’s accession is the only time in English history when heralds cried, “The queen is dead, long live the queen.” Highly recommended.

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Historical Fiction

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 53 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 17-May 20, 2018

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

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

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

#128 of 365 I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: May 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: May 21-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 52 minutes

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

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

#130 of 365 Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: May 22-25, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 400 pages

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

#131 of 365 The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from one my students

Format: Hardcover, 416 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

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

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

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

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 56 minutes

Dates Listened: May 24-25, 2018

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

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

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

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

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 187 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

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

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

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 25 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: May 27, 2018

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

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

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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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