“Seven Sovereign Queens” by Geoffrey Trease

This book got me out of a reading slump, one filled with ‘meh’ quality books that were making me want to watch Netflix instead of read. That might seem strange, since Seven Sovereign Queens was originally published in 1968 and includes seven brief biographies of seven women who ruled nations no more recently than 1796. I’ll take what I can get.

And Trease’s biographies of these women were just the right length with just enough to make me want to read full length biographies and histories of them all… in large part because I learned things, and I am here for that!

Cleopatra I blame Shakespeare for my mixed up knowledge of the Egyptian Queen, who was actually Greek (I did know that). I didn’t know that she became queen because at least three older siblings died or were defeated, some by herself and Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. I hadn’t known that, at least in her time, Egyptian kingdoms passed to daughters but kings wanted their sons to rule so siblings got married.

Boudicca This was the weakest biography, I think because it is more like one very long battle plan. And perhaps that is because there is some lack of historical record about her? In any case, she lacks the most personality beyond winning fierce, harsh battles.

Galla Placidia I do admit that the Roman Empire history has always confused me. The names are so similar and there are so many, I can’t keep it straight. But this is the first time I’d heard of Galla Placidia, and now I want to know more about her and any other women who ruled the Roman Empire.

Isabella of Spain Isabella was way more awesome than I knew! And also not so awesome, in terms of crushing the Moors and bringing the start of the infamous Spanish Inquisition. But she essentially arranged her own marriage to consolidate power for herself and only agreed if it was completely on her terms, and for that she gets full credit. And she made sure her daughters were educated to be powerful women on their own.

Christina of Sweden Christina of Sweden’s struggles with identity (faith, gender, sex, and even simply desire) are so fascinating. That she was crowned ‘king’ instead of ‘queen’ in order to leave no doubt as to who was meant to rule Sweden was something not even England’s Elizabeth I thought to do. And then she had the bravery to abdicate and follow her own heart.

Maria Theresa I thought I knew more about Maria Theresa than I apparently did. The way Trease describes her, she is even more impressive as a queen first, a mother second, and a traditional woman willing to follow third. She truly did reshape world history during her long reign over the Habsburg empire.

Catherine the Great This was the sovereign queen I knew most about so the only thing I really found in terms of new information or new ways of thinking is that the Potemkin villages story is most likely fabricated, probably by those who wished to criticize her.

I received a copy of Seven Sovereign Queens from NetGalley and Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad” by Catherine Butcher

27168912.jpgAfter reading Catherine Butcher’s biography of English nurse Edith Cavell, I kind of feel like all the history classes I took shortchanged me by never teaching me about this extraordinary woman. Florence Nightingale is fine but Edith Cavell should have been included too.

At the end of Butcher’s biography she quotes Prince Reginald de Croy as telling Edith Cavell’s mother that her daughter’s only crimes were “Pity and Humanity.” That simple phrase essentially sums up all that Edith did during her lifetime. Raised in a Christian household, she was taught early on that giving on oneself is more important than anything else. Unlike a lot of people, she remembered that until the day she was executed fairly early in World War I – executed for the crime of helping British and French soldiers trapped in Belgium escape capture and death by the Germans. Before that, though, she was a governess, a nurse, and a teacher. The things she did were for the betterment of others.

When the war began, it didn’t stop. The hospital she founded in Brussels continued to operate and it became an ideal place for soldiers to pass through.

Edith could have said no, refused to be a part of it. She could have gone home to England as her family tried to convince her to do. She didn’t. She said yes. Believing that the soldiers faced being shot if captured, she said yes. And when interrogated and put on trial, she admitted to helping 200 – though Butcher contends that sources place the number at closer to 1000. Knowing that the Germans wanted death for her, she told them at least a version of the truth so that they would not go after the nurses she thought of as sisters and daughters.

And when an Anglican priest was allowed to see her before the execution and he told her that she would be remembered as a heroine and a martyr, she told him she only wanted to do good for others.

Butcher’s biography focuses heavily on Cavell’s religious devotion. That almost put me off the book at first but I reminded myself that Victorian England was a time of religious devotion and that such devotion, whenever and wherever it appears, should work to produce extraordinary women like Edith Cavell.

Her story is tragic in how it ended but the meaning of her life is not. What she did, that two of the women in the resistance with her were spared execution and joined the resistance movements during World War II, is proof that there is hope for us yet.

I received a copy of Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squadthrough NetGalley and Lion Hudson Plc in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas” by Alison Weir

59.jpgI love Tudor history.

I love reading about the women who lived in the Tudor era.

I have read other books by Alison Weir about the Tudor era, so I was excited to be able to read The Lost Tudor Princess… and then I remembered the trouble with reading Alison Weir’s books about the Tudor era… they are long and they have a tendency to read sort of like Weir found old lists stuffed in faded books in dusty libraries and turned them into paragraphs. Which is probably a part of what happens when writing about someone this far removed from modern day history and not as well known as, say, Anne Boleyn.

However, pages upon pages of what kind of fabric Henry VIII sent to his niece for Christmas after Christmas and how much he paid for them is, while interesting, not the most exciting thing to read about. Especially not when Lady Margaret Douglas was a very interesting figure who did not necessarily live a life wholly consumed by clothes and jewels. She was involved in countless intrigues, some of which would seem to make Anne Boleyn pale in comparison. Weir does write about those… she just has a tendency to drift back into “and the curtains were purple” or other such things that, while describing life in Tudor England, seem vaguely out of place in what she wants to be the biography of a daughter, niece, cousin, sister, and mother-in-law to the kings and queens who ruled England and Scotland.

I tried to read this book for six weeks. I am giving up now because… maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the moment, but I just can’t do it. I’ll probably go back to it eventually, because it is a good, incredibly well-researched book. When I get over my fear of lists of fabrics…

I received a copy of The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas through NetGalley and Random House – Ballantine in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father” by George Goodwin

57.jpgI tried. Hard. But… something about Benjamin Franklin is just… not that interesting to me at this time in my life. Which is not to say George Goodwin’s book is not good and packed full of information. It is. It’s just not the information that I’m going to sit and soak up right now.

Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father starts of really well. I was fascinated to read about the family squabbles he grew up with and how he bested everyone who said they were better than him. In his family, anyway. There are some kind of adorable anecdotes about how Franklin was cheated and scammed by various people as he grew richer and more powerful, despite being cheated and scammed, of course.

But once the biography moved on to mostly citing letters that rich, powerful Person A sent to rich, powerful Person B – one of them always being Franklin – my interest waned. For now, at least. And that’s all I can say.

I received a copy of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father through NetGalley and Yale University Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman” by Eleanor Phillips Brackbill

49.jpgIt’s hard to find biographies of pioneer women so I requested Eleanor Phillips Brackbill’s biography of her great-grandmother, Harriet Smith Pullen, the moment I saw it.

It should be noted that the title is a bit deceiving in that about a third of the book is more a biography of her father and only about a third has anything to do with Heartbreak Trail, the path that led gold miners to the Klondike during the gold rush there.

That being said, it is a fascinating story that Brackbill tells, one based on A.J. Smith’s diaries, court documents involving Harriet and her husband, and interviews Harriet and her children did in later years.

Other reviews compare it to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie series but it’s much more… adult and unvarnished than those books. Harriet’s father pushed religion on everyone he met, rued the fact that Native Americans would be better of if only they were Christian, made his wife and eight children move again and again (often living in sod houses or shacks) because he decided actual laws were too hard to follow and he could start again and make his own rules. When Harriet grew up, by all accounts, she and her husband – a fur trader in the Pacific Northwest – treated the Quileute Indians horribly, to the point that the Indian agent in the area lobbied for them, the white settlers, to be removed from the land and expelled, I suppose, from the Olympic Peninsula. And this was at a time that the government was trying to force the Quileutes onto a reservation. Harriet and her husband had more problems than that and she went to Alaska at the start of the gold rush there, manipulating everything she could to make a new life in the fairly lawless land.

Harriet Smith Pullen was not perfect. She was not the paragon of law and order and civility. But she was a woman who really made herself the queen of her domain, whichever domain she chose in that moment, and that took courage, determination, and grit. Even if the results aren’t necessarily what we approve of today.

I’d rate the book higher but Brackbill lets the story lag in a few places, veering off into tangents that don’t relate in an obvious way to Harriet’s world and getting bogged down in details. That being said, perhaps the most compelling part of the story was the in-depth history of the Quileute Nation, something I knew about only because I, like so many others, read and loved TWILIGHT.

(I received a copy of THE QUEEN OF HEARTBREAK TRAIL through NetGalley and Rowman & Littlefield in exchange for an honest and original review.)

Reviewed: “Almost Famous Women” by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Almost Famous WomenMegan Mayhew Bergman hit on an intriguing idea when she wrote Almost Famous Women, a collection of short biographies of women who were almost famous.

Almost famous women are women who hovered on the edge of fame, of doing something that led to them being in the collective consciousness decades after their deaths. Bergman cites biographies of most of the women, but they probably aren’t commonly read in the 21st century. This qualifies as almost famous. More than that, though, is the fact that these women were known in their time and their place, even if it was just by the world they inhabited.

Bergman includes the three year old illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Oscar Wilde’s niece, Butterfly McQueen – Prissy in Gone With the Wind, conjoined twins who moved in the same circles as Bob Hope, and an integrated swing band in the Jim Crow South. Some more famous than others and some with more of a story to tell than others, they are all intriguing.

What makes the stories both interesting and slightly confusing is the fact that they aren’t written as biographies. They’re written as short stories, almost never from the perspective of the person they are intended to be about. The strand of fiction in what the reader must otherwise assume is non-fiction can make the reader a little skeptical of the facts. I found myself wondering, for example, if the Capuchin nun who looked after Allegra Byron was real and how Bergman might have known what happened in that convent.

Usually, I like it when a book sends me for further research but in this case it seems more like a bother. I wish Bergman had cited more, even if she kept the stories as they are.

Three stars out of five.

(I received a copy of Almost Famous Women through NetGalley in exchange for an honest, original review. This review will be cross-posted on NetGalley, Goodreads, and my blog.)