Newest Biography Reviews

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The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history by Richard Girling

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As a conservationist in Victorian England before the term existed, Frank Buckland was very much a man ahead of his time. Surgeon, naturalist, veterinarian and eccentric sums him up perfectly, and any biographer is immediately presented with a colourful tale to tell. Full review...

Captain Ronald Campbell of Bombala Station, Cambalong: His Military Life and Times by Ivor George Williams

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In March 1829 Ann Parker married Captain J A Edwards of the 17th Regiment of Foot. He was in command of the troops and convicts on board a ship sailing from Plymouth to Sydney, Australia: his wife and young son accompanied him. He was not destined to live a long life, dying suddenly at the age of 34 at Bangalore, leaving his widow to raise their two young sons. Edwards' death left his widow in a difficult position: not only did she have their farm to manage, she was also responsible for the convicts who worked the land. Two years later she would marry Captain Ronald Campbell. Full review...

My Husband and I: The Inside Story of 70 Years of the Royal Marriage by Ingrid Seward

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I'm writing this review on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the wedding the the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh: it's an amazing achievement particularly when you add to the difficulties of maintaining any relationship for that period of time the burden of the Queen being our monarch for sixty-five years and the challenges of having to live their joint and separate lives in the public eye. Ingrid Seward gives us the story of the marriage and insights into both parties, particularly Prince Philip. Full review...

Into The Mountain, A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock

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Mostly we choose what books to read, because there is so little time and so many books… I can understand the approach, but I also think we sell ourselves short by it, and we sell the myriad lesser known authors short as well. So while, like most other people I have my favourite genres, and favoured authors, and while, like most other people I read the reviews and follow up on what appeals, I also have a third string to my reading bow: randomness. It was in such a 'left-field' move that Into the Mountain was offered to me. Full review...

Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt

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Deep in the rural parts of France in the 1860s, you would never really expect to find someone who would come to embody a full artistic period – and not just a movement at that, but a full generation of both creative and societal change. And if you were to expect that someone, they would like as not be male. But almost stumbling into the hedonistic culture of Montmartre came Marie-Clementine Valadon. She started in the circus that first caught her teenaged eye, although her gymnastic career was short-lived. But what she did have from that was the poise to be an appealing model for some seriously important painters, and a natural beauty and figure to appeal to both them and their audiences. And what she also had, much to the surprise of many and the distaste of some, was artistic talent of her own… Full review...

James Ravilious: A Life by Robin Ravilious

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The name of Eric Ravilious, war artist, engraver and designer, has long been familiar. Less well-known was his equally gifted son James. This delightful biography by his widow should help to put the situation right. Full review...

The King's Pearl: Henry VIII and His Daughter Mary by Melita Thomas

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As the eldest surviving child of a much-married father whose main aim was to secure the royal succession with sons, Mary Tudor's relationship with Henry VIII, who called her his 'pearl of the world', was inevitably an important and often fraught one. Full review...

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon

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Angela Carter is remembered as an influential and inventive writer – with works like The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus propelling her to fame, and a status as an icon and inspiration for many modern-day writers. Here author Edmund Gordon delves into the life of Carter – from the London of the 1940s through to the London of the 1990s, with stops in Bristol, Tokyo, Australia, and various other places in between. A work that is as full of detail as it is full of devotion to a remarkable woman, The Invention of Angela Carter is the first authorised biography of a woman and a writer who is hugely missed today. Full review...

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

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Luke Dittrich seeks to shed light on the man behind the initials, and in doing so, uncovered quite a bit more than he expected. Full review...

Innocence by Roald Dahl

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What makes us innocent and how do we come to lose it? Featuring the autobiographical stories telling of Roald Dahl's boyhood and youth as well as four further tales of innocence betrayed, Dahl touches on the joys and horrors of growing up. Among other stories, you'll read about the wager that destroys a girl's faith in her father, the landlady who has plans for her unsuspecting young guest and the commuter who is horrified to discover that a fellow passenger once bullied him at school. Full review...

In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII: The visitor's companion to the palaces, castles & houses associated with Henry VIII's iconic queens by S Morris and N Grueninger

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It was inevitable that each of the six wives of Henry VIII would have left their mark in some way on the places they lived and visited. This book straddles several categories; history, gazetteer or guide book, and collection of potted biographies. Full review...

Owen Tudor: Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty by Terry Breverton

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Owen Tudor was one of those shadowy yet very important characters in medieval history. While we may know little about him, or at least did not until this biography appeared, his historical importance can hardly be overestimated. Without him, there would have been no Tudor dynasty. Full review...

Swell by Jenny Landreth

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I love Jenny's own description of her book as a waterbiography and I love her encouragement that we should each write our own. This is more than just (I say just!) a recollection of the author's own encounters with water; it's also a history of women's fight for the right to swim. That sounds absurd until you start reading about it, then it becomes serious. Not too serious though – because Jenny Landreth is clearly a lover of the absurd. Not a lover of book blurbs myself, I do always seek to give a shout-out to those who get it dead right: in this case I'm definitely with Alexandra Heminsley's giggles-on-the-commute funny. Full review...

Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

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John Craske was a fisherman, from a family of fishermen, who became too ill to go to sea. He was born in Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast in 1881 and would eventually die in the Norwich hospital in 1943 after a life which could have been defined by ill health. There were various explanations for what ailed him, what caused him to sink into a stupour, sometimes for years at a time and he was on occasions described as 'an imbecile'. But John had a natural artistic talent, albeit that his work had to be done on the available surfaces in his home. Chair seats, window sills, the backs of doors all carried his wonderful pictures of the sea. Then he moved on to embroidery, producing wonderful pictures of the Norfolk coast - and, most famously, of the evacuation at Dunkirk. Full review...

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin

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Lauren Elkin is down on suburbs: they're places where you can't or shouldn't be seen walking; places where, in fiction, women who transgress boundaries are punished (thinking of everything from Madame Bovary to Revolutionary Road). When she imagines to herself what the female version of that well-known historical figure, the carefree flâneur, might be, she thinks about women who freely wandered the world's great cities without having the more insalubrious connotation of the word 'streetwalker' applied to them. Full review...

The Black Prince by Michael Jones

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Generally known during and shortly after his lifetime as Edward of Woodstock, having been born at Woodstock Palace, Oxfordshire, the eldest son of King Edward III was arguably one of the Kings that never was. At last we have a modern biography to put him in his proper perspective. Full review...

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E Hoffman

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With the Cold War at its frostiest, there were few tougher locations for western intelligence agencies to try and run an agent than 1970s Moscow. That makes the tale of Adolf Tolkachev, a Russian engineer who provided thousands of top secret documents to the Americans right under the noses of the KGB, all the more incredible. Full review...

Buddha: An Enlightened Life (Campfire Graphic Novels) by Kieron Moore and Rajesh Nagulakonda

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I don't do religion, but still there was something that drew me to this comic book. For one, the whole Buddhist faith is still a little unknown to me, and this was certainly going to be educational. Yes, I knew some of the terms it ends up using, but not others, such as bhikshu, and had never really come across the man's life story. Yes, I knew he found enlightenment and taught a very pacifist kind of faith, but where did he come from? What failings did he have on his path, and who were the ones that joined him along the way? Full review...

The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great by Joanna Arman

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Aethelflaed, the 'Lady of the Mercians', was the daughter and eldest child of King Alfred. Considering the scanty details of her life which have been handed down to posterity, the author has done a very good job in presenting us with a portrait of her life and times. Full review...

Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner

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Edward II has come down to us as one of the worst English kings of all. With a reign filled by reliance on male favourites, constant threats of civil wars, endless quarrels with his barons, unsuccessful military campaigns (including what was perhaps the worst English military defeat ever to take place on British soil), abdication and – so we are led to believe – a brutal death in captivity - the balance sheet is a pretty poor one. But is it the full story? Full review...

Rooms of One's Own: 50 Places That Made Literary History by Adrian Mourby

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The debate is never-ending about how much of the author's life we can find in their pages, and what bearing every circumstance of their lot had on their output. Things perhaps are heightened when they do a Hemingway or a Greene and travel the world, but so often they have had a cause to stay in one place and write. Does that creative spirit survive in the walls and air of the room they worked in, and do those four walls, or the view, feature in the books? And does any of this really matter in admiring the great works of literature? Well, this volume itself kind of relies on that as being the case, but either way it's a real pleasure. Full review...

Fasting and Feasting - The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman

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For more than thirty years, Patience Gray--author of the celebrated cookbook Honey from a Weed--lived in a remote area of Puglia in southernmost Italy. She lived without electricity, modern plumbing, or a telephone, grew much of her own food, and gathered and ate wild plants alongside her neighbours in this economically impoverished region. She was fond of saying that she wrote only for herself and her friends, yet her growing reputation brought a steady stream of international visitors to her door. This simple and isolated life she chose for herself may help explain her relative obscurity when compared to the other great food writers of her time: M. F. K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Julia Child. So it is not surprising that when Gray died in 2005, the BBC described her as an almost forgotten culinary star. Yet her influence, particularly among chefs and other food writers, has had a lasting and profound effect on the way we view and celebrate good food and regional cuisines. Gray's prescience was unrivalled: She wrote about what today we would call the Slow Food movement--from foraging to eating locally--long before it became part of the cultural mainstream. Full review...

Lawson Lies Still in the Thames: The Extraordinary Life of Vice-Admiral Sir John Lawson by Gill Blanchard

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Twice within three centuries, England was convulsed by internal armed struggle. During the Lancastrian-Yorkist hostilities, several powerful figures changed sides at least once. Two hundred years later, when the roundheads and cavaliers were at odds, it was not uncommon for some of their protagonists to do likewise. This book tells the life of one of the major Stuart era changelings, one who as the author says played a pivotal role in the death throes of the republican cause for which he fought hard over seventeen years. Full review...

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd

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In view of her unique status, Aphra Behn seems to have been largely forgotten – if ever really acknowledged at all – by history. The preface states it loud and clear; she was the first Englishwoman to earn her living solely by writing, as the most prolific dramatist of her time as well as an innovative writer of fiction, poetry and translator of science and French romance. It seems remarkable that the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse should have achieved such status. Full review...

Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility by Marian Veevers

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The idea of a dual biography of two contemporaries who never met throughout their lives is an intriguing one. However, there were several unifying factors, which makes it seem logical enough. Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth were both renowned writers though one was much more famous than the other, and both were born just four years apart, in the 1770s. Full review...

Today We Die a Little: Emil Zatopek, Olympic Legend to Cold War Hero by Richard Askwith

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As a runner myself, I often look for sources of inspiration. Training is rewarding, but every so often a day comes along when I question whether it is all worth it or not. Zatopek proves that is, indeed, all worth it. He put copious amounts of effort into his training, and the number of races he won over his career as a professional athlete clearly shows the results of it. Full review...

Arbella Stuart: The Uncrowned Queen by Jill Armitage

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Lady Arbella Stuart, cousin to both Elizabeth I of England and James VI of Scotland, was one of the unfortunate figures of English history who might have been Queen – and who, like the even more tragic Lady Jane Grey, might have paid the ultimate price. This is a sad but engrossing story of one whose only crime was to have royal blood coursing through her veins. Full review...