Newest Biography Reviews

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Innocence by Roald Dahl

5star.jpg Short Stories

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

5star.jpg History

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

5star.jpg Politics and Society

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

4star.jpg History

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

5star.jpg Biography

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

5star.jpg Biography

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

4.5star.jpg Biography

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

4.5star.jpg Children's Non-Fiction

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

5star.jpg True Crime

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)

5star.jpg Biography

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...