2016 TBR Pile Challenge: In Triumph’s Wake

Yesterday was a holiday in most of Canada. In 2016 we still have a holiday dedicated to Queen Victoria.

In my world, anything celebrating the Royals is a-ok but most people probably don’t share my enthusiasm. Except when it means a day off.

To keep up with my unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge, I’m trying to ensure that I read one book off the list every month. With Victoria Day looming, this seemed like an excellent time to finally read In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by Julia P. Gelardi.

This book looks at the reigns and lives of Queen Isabella of Castille, her daughter Catherine of Aragon; Empress Maria Theresa and her daughter, the ill-fated Marie Antoinette; and Queen Victoria and her equally unlucky daughter Empress Frederick of Prussia.

And it was SO GOOD. For real – I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, without reservation.


First of all, Gelardi is one of the very best biographers. She knows her stuff, she clearly cares for her subjects but manages to write about these august persons in such a real way. She knows they were flawed humans and she doesn’t try to gloss over those flaws but she also understands the burdens placed on them. Her books are such accessible reading, even for those who don’t flex their non-fiction muscles that often.

I think In Triumph’s Wake is actually a perfect introduction to biography reading for those of you that are intimidated by the genre.

This book is only 343 pages and that ably covers the lives of these six incredible women. It more or less breaks down to about 50 pages per Queen. This means that Gelardi had to really pare down the times in which these women lived –you will not find long, meandering, complicated passages about the politics or military exploits of the times.

There are some good tidbits in this one as well. For example, Isabella of Castille basically ran away from home to marry Ferdinand of Aragon and then asked for forgiveness afterwards. Queen Victoria was called Gangan by her great-grandkids – just like Queen Elizabeth II is now. And Maria Theresa’s marriage was a love match that produced 16 children. All of her daughters were Maria-something.

Before I read this, I was familiar with the lives of Catherine of Aragon, Marie Antoinette and Queen Victoria but I knew next to nothing about Isabella, Maria-Theresa and the Empress Frederick. I’m glad that it was Julia P. Gelardi who introduced me. I sincerely hope she is working on something new and that I can read it soon because her work always brings me such joy.

I leave you with this quote from the end of the book, which I think really shows you where Gelardi is coming from when she writes about these women:

In the end, what is most fascinating and moving from the storied past of these unique sets of royal mothers and daughters is that the three daughters, though left in their mothers’ triumphant wake, faced their tragic fates with heroism. […] These courageous, dignified responses were the ultimate legacies of their august mothers. In that respect, Catherine, Marie Antoinette and Vicky prevailed in a manner that would have made Queen Isabella, Empress Maria Theresa and Queen Victoria ultimately proud – and should qualify the daughters to be placed  beside their mothers in history’s pantheon of valiant, noteworthy figures.


A Non-Fiction Binge

I have been having some time with reading in 2016.

First there was the whole “first book” debacle where I was terrified to choose the wrong first book and then had a hard time getting into said chosen first book before falling hard for the ending. I followed that up with a favourite author standby, Maeve Binchy. And while Scarlet Feather was good and I enjoyed the read, it wasn’t Minding Frankie, Circle of Friends, Tara Road or Evening Class. Then I thought Classics! And thought that a book that did double duty as a classic and a start on the 2016 TBR Pile Challenge would be exactly what I needed.

Ultimately I enjoyed The Custom of the Country (review to hopefully follow) but it wasn’t The House of Mirth, you know?


My reading restlessness means that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about books. Like, more than usual. And I’ve also wandered into a bookstore or two.

Apparently I think the answer to my book problems is more books.

Non-fiction books to be more specific.

Because if fiction isn’t doing its thing, it’s obviously time for non-fiction to take a crack at it.

In recent days I’ve collected the following non-fiction titles:

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay. I’ve been meaning to read this since it was published. Roxane Gay is one of the best people to follow on twitter and I narrowly missed out on seeing her at the Vancouver Writers Fest this past October. I’m finding my feminist voice and I want to read what Roxane has to say.

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Anne Dowsett Johnstone. This is my book club’s pick, timed perfectly for a time of year when we’re probably all thinking about drying out a little. Methinks book club will be a lot cheaper to host this time.

Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Anyone noticing a theme? I’ve been called ‘difficult’ more times than I care to remember. This one was sitting on the shelf screaming at me (the word “Bitch” in hot pink on a spine will do that) when I picked up Drink. I’m looking forward to this one.

Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. I’m doing it Chelsey! I’m taking the first step to actually reading this. This is on hold for me at the library RIGHT NOW.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. When I woke up to the news that Emma Watson, the patron saint of new wave Feminists, was starting a Feminist Book Club, I was ON BOARD. This is the first selection (obviously) and I’m just 8th in line (on 6 copies) at the library.

Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic by Jill Leovy. This book has also been on my list forever. When I noticed it on a table marked “Books You Have to Read in 2016” and that it was in paperback, I knew it was meant to be. I cracked this one and read a few pages – it’s written in that wonderful novelistic style which should make for a great read even though I may want to burn the world down when I’m done.

And for Christmas I got Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards and In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by my biography star, Julia P. Gelardi. So those should satisfy my royals reading requirements.

With all of those non-fiction gems at my disposal, one might wonder why I chose Second Life by SJ Watson after The Custom of the Country. And the answer would be because I am weak.

What non-fiction is on your radar?


Beach Read: The Royal We

I have a Monarchy obsession and a weakness for gossipy books. So it stands to reason that eventually I would break down and read The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan.

Admittedly, when I first came across it I may have rolled my eyes. Even reading the blurb on the book’s jacket (that’s even after looking at the cover, an obvious [and very pretty] homage the Cambridges) one can tell that it’s the Kate Middleton story with some minor changes: Rebecca “Bex” Porter is American, she has a twin sister, she’s an artist studying at Oxford and the princes are Nick and Freddie.

But I got sucked in. I kept hearing good things about it and when I realized that Cocks and Morgan are the geniuses behind Go Fug Yourself…well I gave in. I even bought the hardcover.

royal we

Bex Porter is an exchange student at Oxford, living in a wing of the dorms with a very select group of friends that go way back, one of whom happens to be Prince Nicholas of Wales. Before realizing who he is she drops a joke about his family and syphilis and after that she pretends to play it cool, allowing Nick to feel like a regular guy. He feels a lot of pressure from his father to be a certain way and Bex just lets him watch terrible TV in her room, bingeing on American snacks.

Most of the story follows the Cambridge narrative: they date for an extended period of time under the radar, are outed on a ski trip in Klosters, break up, she parties to make it look like she’s having the time of her life, they get back together, get engaged and so begins the training to be a Princess.

Here’s what I really appreciated about this book: it was just as much about the construct of Monarchy as the ultimate fairy tale (girl meets boy, falls in love, realizes he’s a prince and becomes a princess). Nick is keenly aware of his destiny and his public persona the whole time, the media is a constant shadow over him – everything has to be a certain way. Obviously it’s fiction (for example there’s a whole storyline about Nick’s “Ginger Gigolo” brother Freddie and Bex’s sister that probably has no basis in reality) but there was enough reality to make it almost feel like a behind-the-scenes look.

Despite knowing the milestones of the relationship and even some of the motivations, I found myself completely engrossed in this book. It was smart, funny, and thoroughly entertaining. A great addition to anyone’s beach bag, even if you’re not a real-life Royals fan.


Wallis Simpson

Apologies for not being all festive and posting about a Halloween read. Being scared is just not my thing!

I’ve mentioned here more than once that I’ve been meaning to read That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba, for quite a while now.

I finally read it!

And. I’m not totally sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, I kind of knew what was going to happen and apparently I’m really familiar with that segment of society in England in the 1930s. So a lot of it wasn’t new. And I still don’t think that I liked her very much. Or him really.

On the other, it did offer a better understanding of the motivations behind what ultimately transpired.


Wallis’ father died when she was just a few months old and for the rest of her childhood she and her mother were dependant on various family members for looking after them financially. The stress of it made her forever after constantly concerned about money. Predictably, soon after finishing school she married the first man to ask her in the hopes of some pecuniary stability. Well he hit her and she had enough backbone not to put up with that, so she got a divorce.

I didn’t know that she actually did care for her second husband, Ernest Simpson. They seemed to have a good thing going, even if he did prefer to sit quietly at home in the evenings while she needed to entertain or go to parties constantly.

When she ended up getting involved with the Prince of Wales, Mr. Simpson kind of went along with it. That is, he wasn’t totally unaware and he didn’t fight it. But Wallis herself always assumed that it would peter out and life would go back to normal between them.

We all know that this is not how things happened. I was surprised at the characterization of the Prince of Wales, ultimately King Edward VIII and then, of course, the Duke of Windsor. In other books that the abdication figures in, he’s always characterized as selfish, used to getting his own way, kind of a d*ck. But in That Woman, Sebba paints a picture of a man desperate for approval who allows Wallis to tell him what to do and how to behave. More pathetic than selfish. Reading this book you get the feeling that Wallis and the Duke of Windsor spent a lifetime together kind of regretting that they took things so far.

Sebba did make an excellent point in the end though. I was trying to decide if this book changed my opinion of Wallis when Sebba points out that had Wallis not stepped in and been so irresistible to the King, he would have been the King during the War and his loyalties probably shouldn’t have been tested so far. In the immediate aftermath of his abdication, Winston Churchill had to reprimand him several times for not representing the position of the English government accurately, given as he was to making seriously suspect friends.

Ultimately Wallis was left a pathetic old woman, basically completely alone, having no children or living relations and still frozen out by the Royal Family. She was blind, bedridden and confused most of the time. Probably more than enough penance for a woman that caused so much upheaval.