Newest Biography Reviews

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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...

The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women's Stories by Amy Licence

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According to popular wisdom, Henry VIII had six wives and only two mistresses. The former statement is correct, but the latter only tells part of the story. Even while he was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, there were many more ladies in his life. Full review...

Tragic Magic: The Life of Traffic's Chris Wood by Dan Ropek

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Chris Wood was a member of Traffic, the group formed by Steve Winwood in 1967 after he left The Spencer Davis Group. A gifted musician best known for his flute and saxophone work, he also played keyboards, bass guitar and contributed backing vocals as well as having a hand in writing several of the songs and one or two instrumentals. This biography takes its title from the name of one of his compositions for their fifth album. Full review...

The Prince Who Would Be King: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart by Sarah Fraser

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Henry Stuart, eldest child of King James VI and I, was not the only eldest son of a monarch who did not live long enough to succeed to the throne. The list also included Arthur (son of Henry VII) and Albert Victor (Edward VII). Of the three, Henry undoubtedly showed the most promise. Full review...

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

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It's been said very often that 'history is told by the winners'. Well, too often history, the news and even destinies are written by men, and the proof is between these covers. I didn't know anything about this before reading it, even if it has become the most richly-backed crowd-funded book ever. I'd never heard of the Hollow Flashlight, powered purely by body warmth – which is rich if you're old enough to remember the brou-ha-ha when a maverick British bloke did a wind-up radio. I'd never read about the Niger female who has successfully made a stand against forced, arranged marriage, rejecting a cousin for a fate she wishes to write for herself. My ignorance may, perhaps, show me up to be a chauvinist of sorts, but I think it is further evidence that 'the gaze is male' and that the media are phallocentric. I hope too that this book doesn't turn any of its readers into a feminist, for that would be as bad as the chauvinist charge against me. If anything it is designed to create equals, and that is as it should be, even if there is still a long way to go… Full review...

The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de' Medici by Catherine Fletcher

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Most of the Medicis, who had ruled Florence for much of the fifteenth century, led colourful and violent lives, but few more so than Alessandro, Duke of Florence. In a world of political drama and intrigue, disputed parentage, family rivalry and violent death at an early age, his short life encompassed everything. Full review...

Blades of Grass by Mark Aylwin Thomas

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Any book that has me in tears at the end has been worth my time. Any book that has me hoping it will end differently to the way I know it must is worth the reading. Any book that convinces me that maybe there is still hope in the world – that for all the mistakes made thus far, still being made right now, there is a common humanity which ultimately, eventually, must do some good – that is worth the writing and the reading and the time. Blades of Grass is one such book. It's a forgotten story, an unknown story to most people. It is one that should be told – and reflected upon. Full review...

The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964 by Zachary Leader

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At over eight hundred pages, 'The Life of Saul Bellow' is not a light book, but it is the most complete account of the life and work of America's most honoured literary figure. During the course of his life, a number of notable attempts were made to capture the essence of the man in biographical form. Zachary Leader benefits from this groundwork; he also has the advantage that his work has been compiled since Bellow's death in 2005. As a result, he has had access to sources, manuscripts and letters denied to previous biographers. Leader's research is exemplary and incredibly detailed. He not only looks at the life of the man but at the creative process that made him the colossus that he became and it's all written with a genuine passion, love and respect for his subject. Full review...

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston

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Jeremy Thorpe was the sort of person who was generally liked by others. He was flamboyant and gregarious but could give the impression that meeting someone had made his day. He never seemed to forget a name and he was witty, charismatic and very charming. He appeared to be a decent man, with views with which I would have agreed on race, capital punishment and membership of the Common Market, as the European Union was then known. For this was the nineteen sixties and Thorpe had entered Parliament at the age of thirty and by 1967 he would be party leader. On the surface he was a man who had everything going for him. Full review...

The Benn Diaries: The Definitive Collection by Tony Benn and Ruth Winstone (editor)

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Tony Benn must be one of the most famous diarists of the modern age. He kept a diary from his schooldays in the nineteen forties until he made his last entry in 2009, five years before his death. Benn was also a particularly charismatic politician: since my teens I've found myself listening to him believing that I disagreed with what he was saying and then realising that perhaps we weren't so far apart after all. Whatever he spoke about always gave food for thought. Of course the ideal way to enjoy the diaries would be to read the individual volumes, beginning with Years Of Hope: Diaries,Letters and Papers 1940-1962, but that's a lengthy undertaking and The Benn Diaries: The Definitive Collection edited by Ruth Winstone gives you the opportunity to sample the best of the diaries in a mere seven hundred or so pages. Be warned though: there has been a previous composite volume, also called The Benn Diaries and published in 1996. The current volume goes to 2009. Full review...

David Astor by Jeremy Lewis

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The name 'David Astor' is familiar to a lot of people: some will remember him as being the middle child of Nancy and Waldorf Astor. Others will know of his family home, Cliveden, either from its influence in the second world war or its notoriety during the Profumo affair in the sixties. I remember him best for his work as the editor of The Observer, but despite being a quietly understated man many will remember the causes he espoused, not all of which, such as his support for the release of moors murderer Myra Hindley, brought him admiration. Full review...

Jumpin' Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock'n'Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim

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Each decade throws up its misfits, mavericks and anti-heroes, its icons of what might be loosely termed social estrangement and disillusion. In the 1950s it was James Dean, and in the 1970s it was Sid Vicious. In between them, although admittedly a good few years older, was one David Litvinoff. Full review...

In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher

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Tamla Motown groups and singers apart, in the mid-sixties there were three major names in the soul music field who mattered above all. James Brown was something of a cult name who rarely bothered about or troubled the singles charts, and Otis Redding was on the verge of shooting into the stratosphere when he died in an aeroplane crash. The other was the man from Alabama, 'the wicked Pickett'. Full review...

A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson

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With grandparents who were distinguished writers and a father who co-founded a major publishing house, it was inevitable that Juliet Nicolson would follow in the family’s literary tradition. Already known for two works of social history, here she tells her family story through seven generations. Full review...

Sarah Valentine, No Great Expectations Part 1 by Philip Valentine Coates

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Sarah was the first of several children born in dire poverty to Jim and Sarah Valentine, and these pages tell her story from birth in December 1819 to her eighteenth birthday. Everything is vividly conveyed, from the poorly-clothed barefoot children in crowded living quarters in the Whitechapel Road area, without a lock on the door and with no possessions worth stealing except for the occasional shilling, to the noisy public houses with their fist-fights and the dirty, evil-smelling streets with sewage overflowing down the alleys and where epidemics spread all too rapidly. Full review...

The Vanishing Man - In Search of Velazquez by Laura Cumming

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Pitching up at an auction and picking up a lost masterpiece for a pittance is the dream for most art lovers. That seemingly happy circumstance happened to bookseller John Snare at a sale in 1845 and is the centrepiece to Laura Cumming's excellent The Vanishing Man – In Pursuit of Velazquez. Full review...

The Cruise of Naromis: August in the Baltic 1939 by G A Jones

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There's brave, and there is brave. I may well have been born in a coastal county but certainly would baulk at the idea of setting out to sea with four colleagues in a 37'-long boat. Boats to me are like planes – the bigger the better, and the safer I feel as a result. But luckily for the purpose of this book, George Jones was born with a much different pair of sea-legs to mine, and took to the waters of the English Channel, the North Sea and beyond in Naromis with brio. But – and this is where the further definition of bravery comes in – he did it in August 1939, knowing full well that he would be sailing full tilt into the teeth of war. Full review...

Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios

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There were few sadder casualties of the sixties music scene than Syd (real name Roger) Barrett. The original songwriting genius and front man of Pink Floyd, he burnt out all too soon. A few months in the spotlight were followed all too soon by a pathetic postscript of a stuttering solo career, and over three decades as a largely housebound recluse. Full review...