Category Archives: Books

Mailbox Monday: The Post-Christmas edition

image of an old-fashioned post office with the words Royal Mail.

I’ve been a rather negligent blogger this past year, and although I expect I’ll be busier than ever during the first third of 2013 as I juggle a full-time job in my chosen field with finishing the last course of my graduate degree (by distance), I still hope to become more active on here.

As I’ve said before, I love the idea behind Mailbox Monday, which serves as a weekly gathering place for readers to share their newly acquired books. Originally created by Marcia at Hooked by a Book (formerly The Printed Page), it is now being hosted on a monthly basis as the ‘Mailbox Monday Blog Tour’ and can be found at Lori’s Reading Corner during the month of January. Although I rarely receive enough reading material in one go to merit devoting a post to it, Christmas is the exception as I was recently supplied with more than enough books to keep me occupied!

The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips shifts between Restoration-era London ( a new favourite time of mine to read about) and present- day Cambridge in a historical mystery.

Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet is also set in Restoration England. After reading about the famous actress and mistress of Charles II Nell Gwynn in Priya Parmar’s novel Exit the Actress, I was eager for more. I look forward to reading a different take on Nell’s rise from orange girl to royal mistress.

Jumping ahead to 1850s London, The Agency series by Y.S. Lee was recommended to me by a close friend, who enjoyed the banter and interesting female protagonist. A Spy in the House is the first novel in this YA series about an orphan instructed at a school that also happens to be a front for an all-female investigative unit.

Those three have been on my wishlist for awhile so I look forward to diving into them. Although the next two are new to me, they come highly recommended as well. I’m familiar with John Green, of course, and attended grad school with at least one “nerdfighter”, but have never read any of his works. The Fault in Our Stars will be my introduction to the author. As a historical fiction novel, Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is perhaps closer to my preferred genre. It tells the story of a pilot and an undercover spy who are forced to endure capture in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

When I first saw the fantastic HBO miniseries John Adams several years ago I loved Abigail and John, but was perhaps most captivated by Stephen Dillane’s portrayal of the complicated Thomas Jefferson. I’ve been looking for a good biography on the man for awhile, and was extremely pleased to receive Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham for Christmas, particularly as I am hoping to visit Monticello later this year.

Although I was the one doing the gifting, I should also mention Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which I bought my mother for Christmas, idly started flipping through and before I knew it was halfway through! I stole borrowed that one back for a few days to finish it off and now have the sequel on hold at the local library.

The Devlin Diary by Christi PhillipsDarling Strumpet by Gillian BagwellA Spy in the House by Y.S. Leethe Fault in Our Stars by John GreenCode Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

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Filed under Biography, Books, Fiction, Mailbox Monday, Uncategorized

Vienna, 1814

Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King. Crown Publishing Group, 2009.

One of the most famous images of the Congress of Vienna is Jean-Baptiste Isabey’s enduring portrait of the representatives, including the Duke of Wellington and Austrian Prince Metternich, gathered around a table. It isn’t hard to imagine them working diligently on a territorial dispute, but as David King explains in his non-fiction work Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, the biggest misconception about the event is that it was a Congress at all! Although many European delegates arrived for the Congress, it never sat as one. In fact, most of the business was discussed in private informal sessions between the Big Four (Austria, Russia, Britain, and Prussia) and France, or during decadent feasts and balls. One attendee, Prince de Ligne, who was known for his wit, famously commented “Le Congres danse, mais ne marche pas” (The Congress dances, but does not progress).

King’s book not only details the lavish feasts and balls, it also examines the romantic affairs that took place during the nine month Congress and looks at intelligence gathering in 1814. I was especially captivated by the description of Prince Metternich’s network of spies, who frequented salons (drawing rooms where the intellectual, political, and social elite gathered to converse) and intercepted letters, reading, copying, and re-sealing them, before delegates began to catch on and took measures to prevent intelligence from falling into Austrian hands.

King spends most of the book detailing the frivolity and excesses of the Congress but, despite its imperfections, ultimately concludes that the Congress of Vienna did have a positive and lasting impact on European history. The peace treaty signed on June 9, 1815 resulted in what Henry Kissinger called the longest period of peace Europe has ever known. It was also “the first international peace conference to discuss humanitarian issues” and resulted in a condemnation of the slave trade, and discussions on literary piracy and the civil rights of Jews.

Purely by chance, I began reading Vienna, 1814 during the preparations for the G20 summit in Toronto, and couldn’t help considering similarities between the two events, both of which were paid for by the hosting country and seemed to involve unnecessary excesses. Fortunately, the G20 didn’t last nine months, although it also seems to have accomplished a great deal less than the Congress of Vienna did.

History has provided a dynamic set of characters in the handsome Russian Tsar Alexander, French delegate Talleyrand, who had helped Napoleon gain power but resigned in 1807 because he did “not wish to become the executioner of Europe”, and Metternich, who likely arranged the marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria. With such strong personalities involved, it is no wonder that bickering over who entered a room first gave rise to the myth that Metternich had cut extra doors into his office so representatives could enter at the same time!

The personalities are there but it is King who brings them to life as characters by describing their physical presences as well as their temperaments and quirks. Instead of simply stating what historical figures discussed, King uses letters and other sources to extrapolate conversations between characters. The result is a researched work of non-fiction, complete with endnotes, that reads like a novel. I found the book to be so engaging with its balance of nineteenth century gossip and politics that I’m surprised there isn’t a film, or at least a documentary, based on the book!

The one area where the author fell a little short was in his examination of the long and short term consequences of the Congress of Vienna. He does note that it created a lasting peace using a system where leaders met periodically to work out their differences, through what diplomatic historian Charles Webster called the first ever attempt “to regulate international affairs during a time of peace”, but I felt that the book would be better served by a more detailed look at the consequences of the Congress. This was my only criticism of an otherwise informative and fast-paced read though.

Verdict: A great popular history book that will inform and entertain with its balance of gossip and history.

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Filed under Books, British History, European History, French History, Non-Fiction, The Regency

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill. Ballantine Books, 2009.

Gillian Gill’s We Two is a biographical look at Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In it she presents the argument that their marriage was not a case of Victoria submitting to Albert, but a constant struggle for power. She begins with Victoria’s unhappy childhood as a virtual captive in her own home, forced to abide by a set of strict rules implemented by her mother and the household comptroller Sir John Conroy which came to be known as the Kensington System. She then examines Albert’s childhood in Germany before discussing their marriage and their family life including the nine royal children who would marry into Royal houses across Europe.



We Two gets off to a great start. While it includes historical detail, it is also very readable and Gill’s narrative style flows. Some interesting details are offered, including the fact that the morality for which the Victorian age is remembered was due to Albert’s influence rather than Victoria’s, and I loved the descriptions of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Royal Visit to France. These events are presented in such vivid detail that the reader can feel the enthusiasm Gill’s subjects must have felt during these events. The biography sets out to demonstrate that Victoria and Albert’s marriage was a constant power struggle but the strongest chapters are those dealing with Victoria’s youth and their family life together.



Unfortunately Gill is less effective when she writes about Albert and the early years of their marriage. Biographers must walk a fine line. They must be interested enough in their subjects to devote months or even years of study to them, but identifying too closely with the subject may cause the work to become a biased text that overlooks flaws and criticism in favour of undisguised adoration. This is not Gill’s problem. In fact she leans too far to the other side of the spectrum, making this reader wonder why she would bother writing on two subjects when she so clearly dislikes one of them!

Gill is extremely hard on Prince Albert, especially during the chapters chronicling the early years of his marriage to Victoria, so I can only imagine what reading Duff’s biography, which Gill cites as a “scathing indictment” of the Prince in her endnotes, would be like! Throughout We Two she complains about Albert’s excessive morality, his lack of humour and warmth with the general populace, and his desire for political and household control. These can be easily accepted as human flaws, but Gill goes one step further by using the label ‘misogynist’ for Albert.

Was the Prince Consort sexist by 21st century standards? Absolutely, as were most men of his time, but labeling him a misogynist, a term defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as a “man who hates women”, is completely unfounded. Feminist theory suggests that there is no difference between sexism and misogyny. I respectfully disagree.

Albert did hold sexist views. He was raised in Germany, where law forbid women from inheriting the throne, and was surrounded entirely by other men in the form of his father, brother Ernest, and uncle Leopold. His mother was exiled from court when he was six and passed away five years later. It’s hardly a surprise that the ambitious Albert doubted his wife’s ability to reign as a consequence; yet Albert loved his mother as a boy, showed affection for Victoria throughout their marriage, and doted on his eldest daughter Vicky, The Princess Royal. Certainly in the nineteenth century it was possible to hold sexist views, as Albert did, without hating women. The friction in Albert and Victoria’s relationship over power demonstrates that both had human flaws but it does not constitute misogyny and Gill’s labeling of it as such put me off her biography.

It is also worth mentioning that she not only uses the word in reference to Albert more than once but also uses it to label other male characters. Admittedly this is something that I found extremely off-putting personally but that might not influence other readers’ enjoyment of the work. If this mislabeling doesn’t bother you or if you choose to believe that misogyny and sexism are one and the same then you will likely enjoy this biography. It just wasn’t for me.

On an unrelated note, the choice of endnotes over footnotes might be more appealing for a popular history work, but it is distracting to have to flip back and forth to expand on sources.

Verdict: Your mileage may vary on this one. While I found Gillian Gill to be a capable writer, her obvious bias put me off and I can’t recommend this book. If you are interested in reading it borrow the book rather than buying it and take what she writes about the Prince Consort with a grain of salt.

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Filed under Biography, British History, Victorian

Mystery March at Truth in Fiction

One of the great pleasures of blogging is that you get to share books and thoughts with others. Ideally the blogger not only enjoys writing about a subject that interests them, but others learn from, enjoy, or are inspired by their posts. I haven’t progressed very far in my chosen reading challenges yet, but I have been inspired by other people’s blogs, and by books that I have discovered through these challenges. While scrolling through other January reviews at the Year of the Historical Reading Challenge, I found a series of mysteries featuring playwright Oscar Wilde as a sleuth. Earlier that month I had become intrigued by the Historical Novel Society’s review of an Abigail Adams mystery. Much to my surprise, there are a number of mysteries that recast famous historical figures in the role of amateur detective. Finding it hard to pass up the alliteration, an idea was born for “Mystery March”, a month of mystery and history. Throughout March I’ll be taking a look at some of these historical mysteries and their famous detectives.

Having signed up for the fabulous Ireland Reading Challenge over at Books and Movies, I’ve also decided that March is the perfect month to jump in and explore Irish history. Although I’ve always had an interest in history, it was a wonderful professor and a course on Irish history that really sparked my passion, so Irish history holds a special place in my heart. Over the course of the month I’ll be reading and reviewing some Irish fiction and non-fiction and sharing interesting tidbits on the history of the Emerald Isle. I’ll also be introducing a new feature called “The Historical Tourist”, in which I’ll take a look at the history behind some of the tourist attractions I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.

I look forward to sharing my interest in Irish history with you!

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Filed under Biography, Ireland Reading Challenge, The Historical Tourist, Uncategorized