Newest Biography Reviews

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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...

Dadland: A Journey into Uncharted Territory by Keggie Carew

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Keggie Carew is the second child of a most unorthodox father. On the one hand he's a left-handed stutterer with little to recommend him other than that he was a law unto himself and a complete maverick. But - born in 1919, the second world war found him being tested for SOE, Churchill's secret army, who were tasked with conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and later in South East Asia. Within a matter of months he would be parachuted into occupied France with the aim of supporting resistance groups ahead of the allied invasion of occupied France and carrying the rank of major - at the age of just 24. Later, in South East Asia he would be known as 'Lawrence of Burma' and worked with Aung San, the head of the Burma Defence Army (and father of Aung San Suu Kyi)and was at one stage plucked off the Irrawaddy by a flying boat, like James Bond. Full review...

A Bradford Apprenticeship by Donald Naismith

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with all schools removed from their control and established as freestanding and self-governing academies. In effect this would (and possibly will) mean that what was once a national service, locally administered will become a local service, nationally administered. Donald Naismith is perhaps best known as the former Chief Education Officer of Richmond-upon-Thames, Croydon and then Wandsworth but his education and formative working years took place in his adopted home city of Bradford. In A Bradford Apprenticeship he gives us an affectionate tribute to the city which made him what he is and his thoughts on the education system. Bradford was once one of the country's leading education authorities and he values the opportunities it gave him to fine tune his thinking. Full review...

The Private Life of Edward IV by John Ashdown-Hill

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Edward IV is currently a popular subject for biographers. All credit is therefore due to Dr Ashdown-Hill, one of the foremost of current Yorkist-era historians, for looking at the King from a fresh angle – that of his romantic involvements. Full review...

The Scholl Case by Anja Reich-Osang and Imogen Taylor (translator)

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I think I'd like Ludwigsfelde. I wouldn't have liked it when it was an industrial village, with one or two huge mechanical plants and nothing else to its name. But now, even with the constant hum of the autobahn (one of Hitler's) keeping it company, it must have an appeal. It has been rebuilt, refashioned and remodelled since the end of East Germany, under the most prosperous and forward-looking mayor in the state, if not the country. He it was who put in a mostly-nude swimming spa. It has dispensers for doggy poo bags, so there's nothing as uncouth as taking your own. The mayor, bless him, even expanded the motorway to three lanes in each direction. It is within touch of Berlin, and in tune with so many business wants, yet is surrounded by woodland. Woodland where, between Christmas and New Year a few years back, the mayor's own wife and dog were found, both having been strangled… Full review...

Great British Eccentrics by S D Tucker

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Some very strange people have stalked our green and pleasant land. In his introduction, Tucker asks us why. Is it our status as an island people which has made so many of our countrymen turn in on ourselves? Has our long libertarian tradition of the idea of individual freedom, as long as we do nobody else any harm, permitted weirdness to flourish among us? Full review...

Travels With My Father by Karen Jennings

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Despite the coda, this does not feel like an autobiographical novel. I am not sure why Jennings felt the need to couch it in those terms unless there is much in the structure that is fiction. I'm hoping there isn't. I am hoping that the fiction is purely that conceit that this pretends to be a novel. If that was necessary to get it published, then I'll applaud the subterfuge, because this is writing that needs to be read. It is – if as true as I want it to be – a delicate reminiscence: a daughter's in memoriam to a father she loved, worshipped, idealised, cared-for, lived with, and yes (in true daughterly fashion) at times, hated. A father who was, therefore, a good dad. Full review...

Pop Pickers and Music Vendors: David Jacobs, Alan Freeman, John Peel, Tommy Vance and Roger Scott by John Van der Kiste

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You know those questions you get in celebrity interviews - 'which extinct being would you most like to see brought back to life?' Well, I'd like to see Jimmy Savile brought back, so that he could get his comeuppance. It's not just the damage he did to children and young people, dreadful as that was - it's the shadow he cast over the entertainment industry. We know that he wasn't alone in what he did, but somehow there's a whole era of entertainment which has been tarred by the same brush. John Van der Kiste has turned the spotlight away from Savile and on to five of the great DJs of the music industry. Full review...

Tales of Loving and Leaving by Gaby Weiner

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In Tales of Loving and Leaving, author Gaby Weiner tells the story of three of her family members: her grandmother, Amalia Moszkowicz Dinger; her mother, Steffi Dinger; and her father, Uszer Frocht. Full review...

Henry III: The Son of Magna Carta by Matthew Lewis

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For a monarch whose reign over England of fifty-six years was unequalled until the nineteenth century, Henry III remains curiously little-known. Nobody could claim that he was a particularly outstanding or successful ruler, but the fact that he held his throne for so long in an unstable age was no mean achievement in itself. Full review...

Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII's True Wife by Amy Licence

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Catherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII's six wives and Queens, was arguably the most unhappy figure during the Tudor era who did not meet her end on the scaffold or at the stake. The cliché 'tragic love story' must be a fitting one in her case. Full review...

The Road To War: Duty & Drill, Courage & Capture by Steven Burgauer

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After World War II Bill Frodsham led an everyday life, raising a family in an ordinary US suburb. He, his wife and children became friends with the Burgauer family, little Steven Burgauer knowing him as Mr F. Time rolls on and little Steven grows up, and then eventually retires from the American financial sector to write science fiction and lecture from time to time. He's therefore surprised when, out of the blue, Mr F's daughter tracks him down and presents him with a pile of handwritten notes asking Steven to make them into a book. These are Mr F's self-authored memoirs, stretching from his youth onwards and showing that this seemingly good, kind but unremarkable man was anything but unremarkable. During the war Mr F trained for the impossible and then lived it as he led men across Omaha Beach on D Day. He was then captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW in inhumane conditions. Steven accepted the request and The Road to War is the result: the life and war of Captain William C Frodsham Jr. Full review...

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff

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Faringdon House in Oxfordshire was the home of Lord Berners; composer, writer, painter, friend of Stravinsky and Gertrude Stein, and a man renowned for both his eccentricity and his homosexuality. Turning Faringdon into an aesthete's paradise, exquisite food was served to many of the great minds and beauties of the day. Since the early 1930's, his companion there was Robert Heber-Percy, twenty-eight years his junior, wildly physical and unscholarly, a hothead who rode naked through the grounds and was known to all as the Mad Boy. If those two sounded an odd couple, especially at a time when homosexuality was illegal, the addition of Jennifer Fry to the household in 1942, a pregnant high society girl who became Robert's wife, was really rather astounding. After the child was born, the marriage soon foundered. Berners died in 1950, and Robert was left in charge of Faringdon, ably assisted by a ferocious Austrian housekeeper. This mad world was the one first encountered by author Sofka Zinovieff, Robert's granddaughter. A typical child of the sixties, it was much to her astonishment that Robert decided to leave the house to her. Full review...

Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive

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Cameron and his wife, Sam, had been leading a very active, adventurous life. Even after the birth of their three sons they wanted to continue their adventures, so they decided to travel to Thailand for a family holiday. They were having a brilliant time until, suddenly, Sam was involved in a dreadful, almost fatal, accident. The accident left her paralysed and, because of the sudden and extremely severe impact on her life she slid quickly into a very deep and dark depression. Cameron feared for his family's future, and his wife's life, until one day a small abandoned magpie chick came along, and managed to change everything. Full review...

Orson Welles, Volume 3: One-Man Band by Simon Callow

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Orson Welles, the noted actor, director and producer, was one of those larger than life characters whose impact on the world of stage and screen during his lifetime was inestimable. Simon Callow has found the task of condensing his story into a single volume is impossible, and this is the third of three solid instalments. Full review...

George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

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George Harrison was the youngest of the four wartime-born youngsters who came together to form The Beatles. He was also the only one who came from a relatively stable family background, his early years not scarred by the loss of one parent through divorce or early bereavement. With two elder brothers and a sister, he was the baby of the Harrison clan. A poor scholar but a promising trainee electrician in his teens, a musical ear and the advent of rock'n'roll soon led him along an alternative career path. This is a finely balanced warts-and-all portrait of the man, his life, character, songwriting and other interests, an often baffling figure, a strange mix of good and bad. Thomson has dug deeply and spoken to several people who knew him well and worked with him, and as a life of the 'Dark Horse', I doubt it could be bettered. Scrupulously researched, it is easily the most comprehensive Harrison life I have come across, and the most objective. Full review...