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BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BLURB:

The Magician's Book is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis's tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Finally reclaiming Narnia "for the rest of us," Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love books about books, particularly when they weave together a personal story with new insights into a beloved work of literature. The genre is called ‘bibliomemoir’, which is such a great word it makes me want to write one. But which book would I want to write about? 

Like hundreds of thousands of people, when I am asked to name my favourite childhood book, I answer ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ by C. S. Lewis. But, much as I’d love to write a bibliomemoir about its profound influence on me and others, I can’t anymore. That’s because this book - The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller – does it so beautifully I could never hope to compare. 

Laura Miller was enchanted by the world of Narnia as a child – as was I and every kindred spirit I know - yet as an adult became aware of the many criticisms levelled against C. S. Lewis. Classism. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Anachronism. 

So as an adult, she revisits the books and examines them in light of her own life, the life of C.S. Lewis and his friends, and the vast influence – both positive and negative – that Narnia has had on the work of other writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen and Philip Pullman. 

The result is utterly engrossing and utterly enchanting. It made me want to go and read all the Narnia books again!

BOOK REVIEW: Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

BLURB:

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

MY THOUGHTS:

I have spent the last two years deeply immersed in Victorian Britain. I have watched dozens of documentaries, and read more than a hundred biographies, memoirs, and histories of the time. Queen Victoria was a constant looming presence, sometimes revered, sometimes reviled. 

I was just finishing the final edit on Beauty in Thorns, my novel set in the mid 19th century, when Julia Baird’s immensely thick biography was published. It seemed a fitting way to finish my investigation of the period and so I paid the hefty $50 purchase price and lugged it home. I expected it to take me a while to finish, but the book is so warmly and engagingly written, and so fascinating, I whizzed through it in a couple of days. 

Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. Victoria was tiny, forthright, and loved sex. She refused to be a mere figurehead, and used her position to promote profound changes in the society in which she lived. For example, she hated cruelty to animals and was instrumental in bringing about anti-vivisectionist laws. Even though she famously said women who marched for female suffrage should be whipped, Queen Victoria was a great example to many women and supported education and job training for girls. And she condemned those around her for their snobbery and racism, and was actively engaged in trying to break down such societal barriers.

It is clear Julia Baird’s research has been impeccable, and there is much in this biography that is fresh and new. However, it is her storytelling skills that really shine.  The crowded streets of London, the stifling atmosphere of the court, the pure air of the lonely Highlands, are all brought vividly to life, as are the people in Victoria’s life – her austere and brilliant husband, Prince Albert, the rough yet tender gilly John Brown, and the many different Prime Ministers who served her. By far, the best biography of Queen Victoria I’ve yet read.

BOOK REVIEW: Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Saturday, January 07, 2017




THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience. 

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning. 




MY THOUGHTS:

I have spent the last two years deeply immersed in Victorian Britain. I have watched dozens of documentaries, and read more than a hundred biographies, memoirs, and histories of the time. Queen Victoria was a constant looming presence, sometimes revered, sometimes reviled. 

I was just finishing the final edit on Beauty in Thorns, my novel set in the mid 19th century, when Julia Baird’s immensely thick biography was published. It seemed a fitting way to finish my investigation of the period and so I paid the hefty $50 purchase price and lugged it home. I expected it to take me a while to finish, but the book is so warmly and engagingly written, and so fascinating, I whizzed through it in a couple of days. 

Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. Victoria was tiny, forthright, and loved sex. She refused to be a mere figurehead, and used her position to promote profound changes in the society in which she lived. For example, she hated cruelty to animals and was instrumental in bringing about anti-vivisectionist laws. Even though she famously said women who marched for female suffrage should be whipped, Queen Victoria was a great example to many women and supported education and job training for girls. And she condemned those around her for their snobbery and racism, and was actively engaged in trying to break down such societal barriers.

It is clear Julia Baird’s research has been impeccable, and there is much in this biography that is fresh and new. However, it is her storytelling skills that really shine.  The crowded streets of London, the stifling atmosphere of the court, the pure air of the lonely Highlands, are all brought vividly to life, as are the people in Victoria’s life – her austere and brilliant husband, Prince Albert, the rough yet tender gilly John Brown, and the many different Prime Ministers who served her. By far, the best biography of Queen Victoria I’ve yet read.

You may also be interested in my review of The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK




BOOK REVIEW: A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother – Jeremy Gavron

Thursday, January 05, 2017


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


It's 1965, and in Primrose Hill, north London, a beautiful young woman has just gassed herself to death, leaving behind a suicide note, two small children, and an about-to-be-published manuscript: The Captive Wife.

Like Sylvia Plath, who died in eerily similar circumstances two years earlier just two streets away, Hannah Gavron was a writer. But no-one had ever imagined that she might take her own life. Bright, sophisticated, and swept up in the progressive politics of the 1960s, Hannah was a promising academic and the wife of a rising entrepreneur. Surrounded by success, she seemed to live a gilded life.

But there was another side to Hannah, as Jeremy Gavron's searching memoir of his mother reveals. Piecing together t
he events that led to his mother's suicide when he was just four, he discovers that Hannah's success came at a price, , and that the pressures she faced as she carved out her place in a man's world may have contributed to her death. Searching for the mother who was never talked about as he grew up, he discovers letters, diaries, and photos that paint a picture of a brilliant but complex young woman grappling to find an outlet for her creativity, sexuality, and intelligence.



A Woman on the Edge of Time not only documents the too-short life of an extraordinary woman; it is a searching
examination of the suffocating constrictions in place on intelligent, ambitious women in the middle of the twentieth century.



MY THOUGHTS:


In 1965, in Primrose Hill, London, a beautiful and passionate young woman gasses herself to death, leaving behind two small children and an about-to-be-published manuscript of her life’s work …


The woman is Hannah Gavron, and her death is eerily similar to that of Sylvia Plath who killed herself two years earlier and only two streets away. 


Jeremy Gavron, Hannah’s son, was only four when she died and has no memory of her. She was always an aching presence in his life, however, as absences so often are. He wondered about her, but could never talk about it to his father or his brother. When his brother died, however, Jeremy Gavron was so overwhelmed with pain he realised that he was also grieving for his mother. A few months later, Sylvia Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes committed suicide. The similarities between his own life and that of Nicholas Hughes chilled him, and he set out to try and solve the mystery of his mother’s death. 


A Woman on the Edge of Time is therefore a memoir of a woman the author could not remember, an autobiography which reveals little about the author’s life, a true-life detective story about a death in which the murderer was always known. It is also an utterly brilliant book about a woman who could not break out of the cage of her time.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

BOOK REVIEW: Peacock & Vine – A.S. Byatt

Saturday, December 10, 2016



THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

From the Booker Prize-winning author: a ravishing, intimate, richly illustrated meditation on two astonishingly original artists whose work--and remarkable lives--have obsessed her for years. 

William Morris and Mariano Fortuny were born decades apart in the 19th century. Morris, a wealthy Englishman, was a designer beloved for his floral patterns that grace wallpaper, serving ware, upholstery, and countless other objects even today; Fortuny, a Spanish aristocrat, is now less recognized but was revolutionary in his time, in his ideas about everything from theatrical lighting to women's fashion. 

Though seeming opposites, these two men of genius and driving energy have long presented a tantalizing juxtaposition to A. S. Byatt; in this delightful book she delves into how their work converses with her across space and time. At once personal, critical, and historical, Peacock & Vine is a gorgeously illustrated tour of their private and public worlds: the women who were their muses; their eccentrically curated homes; the alluring works themselves, and above all what it means to this one brilliant and curious writer, whose signature gift for rendering character and place enlivens every page. Rich with insight and color, this book is itself a work of art, one to savor and treasure.


MY THOUGHTS:


This beautiful little hardcover book was a gift from a writer friend of mine who knew of my fascination with William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. 


It is an extended personal essay, in which A.S. Byatt shares with us her personal response to the lives of two men whose art and creativity echoed each other in interesting ways. The first is William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement and a poet who refused to become Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate. Nowadays he is best known as the designer of beautiful intricate wallpapers and fabrics. 


The second subject is Mariano Fortuny, the aristocratic Spanish fashion designer and artist who lived and worked in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. They were not really contemporaries – Morris died in 1896 in London and Fortuny was born in 1871 in Granada – and they never met. However, A.S. Byatt finds interesting correlations between the two men, and the book is enriched with beautiful photographs of both of their work. 


I love books like this, which illuminate art and history and creativity in such interesting and unexpected ways, and which are themselves are work of art. 


Read my review of A.S. Byatt's POSSESSION or SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites - and please leave a comment, I love to know what you think. 


BOOK REVIEW: THE ALICE BEHIND WONDERLAND by Simon Winchester

Thursday, March 17, 2016




THE BLURB:

Charles Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford, photographed six-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of Christ College dean, with a Thomas Ottewill Registered Double Folding camera, recently purchased in London. It was summer, 1858.

Simon Winchester deftly uses the resulting image--as unsettling as it is famous, and the subject of bottomless speculation--as the vehicle for a brief excursion behind the lens, a focal point on the origins of a classic work of English literature.

Dodgson's love of photography framed his view of the world, and was partly responsible for transforming a shy and half-deaf mathematician into one of the world's best-loved observers of childhood. Little wonder that there is more to "Alice Liddell as the Beggar Maid" than meets the eye. 

Using Dodgson's published writings, private diaries, and of course his photographic portraits, Winchester gently exposes the development of Lewis Carroll and the making of his Alice.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

On a summer's day in 1858, in a garden behind Christ Church College in Oxford, a shy and half-deaf mathematician named Charles Dodgson photographed six-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the college dean, with his new camera. 

She was barefoot and dressed in rags, posing as a beggar-girl, and looks at the camera with a look of preternatural worldliness. Her dress has been pulled from her shoulder to show one small nipple. 

Eight years later, Charles Dodgson became Lewis Carroll and his book Alice in Wonderland became a publishing sensation.

Simon Winchester has used this famous and troubling photograph as a launch pad for an exploration of the life and work of Lewis Carroll, his fascination with photography, and the ongoing speculation about the nature of his relationship with Alice Liddell.

It’s a fascinating account, beautifully written, and an excellent entry point for anyone interested in the story behind Alice in Wonderland.

I'D LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:


BOOK REVIEW: MADEMOISELLE CHANEL by C.W. Gortner

Friday, January 29, 2016


THE BLURB:

Born into rural poverty, Gabrielle Chanel and her siblings are sent to orphanage after their mother’s death. The sisters nurture Gabrielle’s exceptional sewing skills, a talent that will propel the willful young woman into a life far removed from the drudgery of her childhood.


Transforming herself into Coco—a seamstress and sometime torch singer—the petite brunette burns with ambition, an incandescence that draws a wealthy gentleman who will become the love of her life. 

She immerses herself in his world of money and luxury, discovering a freedom that sparks her creativity. But it is only when her lover takes her to Paris that Coco discovers her destiny. 

Rejecting the frilly, corseted silhouette of the past, her sleek, minimalist styles reflect the youthful ease and confidence of the 1920s modern woman. 

As Coco’s reputation spreads, her couturier business explodes, taking her into rarefied society circles and bohemian salons. But her fame and fo::rtune cannot save her from heartbreak as the years pass. 

And when Paris falls to the Nazis, Coco is forced to make choices that will haunt her.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:


Like many people, I have long been fascinated by the life of Coco Chanel, the famous French designer, and have read a number of biographies about her life.

Christopher Gortner is one of my favourite contemporary historical novelists and – with his background in the fashion world – is ideally suited to bringing this enigmatic woman to life. 

The first person voice rings startlingly true, revealing her steely determination to escape her childhood of poverty and abandonment, her passionate and impetuous nature, her loneliness and longing. 

Gortner does not shy away from the more troubling aspects of her life, such as her involvement with the Nazis in German-occupied France, and her hard-heartedness towards many around her.

This clear-sightedness makes the book feel much more true than some of the biographies I have read – this is a must-read for anyone who has ever longed to know the story behind the creation of the iconic Chanel No 5. Perfume and the famous little black dress.

I WOULD LOVE TO GET YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS BOOK


BOOK REVIEW: A PROFOUND SECRET by Josceline Dimbleby

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


THE BLURB:

A chance encounter with Andrew Lloyd Webber at a summer party sent Josceline Dimbleby on a quest to uncover a mystery in her own family's past. Her great-aunt Amy Gaskell was the subject of a beautiful dark portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, but all that was known about Amy, according to family lore, was that she had 'died young of a broken heart'.


In her search, Josceline discovered a cache of unpublished letters from Burne-Jones to her great-grandmother May Gaskell, Amy's mother.They formed a passionate and prolific correspondence, of up to five letters a day, from the last six years of the painter's life. 

As she read, more and more questions were raised: why did Burne-Jones feel he had to protect May from an overwhelming sadness? What was the deep secret she had confided to him? And what was the tragic truth behind beautiful Amy's wayward, wandering life, her strange marriage and her unexplained early death?

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

Josceline Dimbleby has been one of Britain’s favourite food writers for a long time. A PROFOUND SECRET is a departure for her – it is the story of how an old portrait inspired her to dig deeper into her family’s past and its many secrets and mysteries. The portrait was of her great-aunt Amy Gaskell, and it was painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones. 

As a girl, Josceline was told her great-aunt had died young of a broken heart. Deciding to find out more, Josceline uncovered a box of secret love letters between the famous artist and Amy’s mother, May. Both were married to others. Josceline also discovered the tragic truth of Amy’s early demise.  The book is as much about Josceline’s search as it is about what she discovered, and so it is as much a detective story as it is a story of a secret love affair. 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT ABOUT THIS BOOK:

BOOK REVIEW: Hanns & Rudolf by Thomas Harding

Tuesday, November 19, 2013




Title:  

Hanns & Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz


Author: Thomas Harding

Publisher: William Heinemann 

Age Group & Genre: Biography/Historical Non-Fiction for Adults


Reviewer: Kate Forsyth


The Blurb:

The untold story of the man who brought a mastermind of the final solution to justice.

May 1945. In the aftermath of the Second Word War, the first British War Crimes Investigation Team is assembled to hunt down the senior Nazi officials responsible for the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen. 

One of the lead investigators is Lieutenant Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who is now serving in the British Army. Rudolf Höss is his most elusive target. 

As Kommandant of Auschwitz, Höss not only oversaw the murder of more than one million men, women, and children; he was the man who perfected Hitler’s program of mass extermination. Höss is on the run across a continent in ruins, the one man whose testimony can ensure justice at Nuremberg. 

Hanns and Rudolf reveals for the very first time the full, exhilarating account of Höss’s  capture, an encounter with repercussions that echo to this day. Moving from the Middle Eastern campaigns of the First World War to bohemian Berlin in the 1920s to the horror of the concentration camps and the trials in Belsen and Nuremberg, it tells the story of two German men- one Jewish, one Catholic- whose lives diverged, and intersected, in an astonishing way.



Hanns & Rudolf 


What I Thought: 
The author of this utterly riveting and chilling book found out, at his great-uncle’s funeral, that the mild-mannered old man he had known had once been a Nazi hunter. And not just any Nazi. His Great Uncle Hanns had been the man who had hunted down and caught Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz and the architect of the Final Solution that saw millions of people efficiently and cold-bloodedly murdered.

This stunning realisation led Thomas Harding – a journalist who has written for the Financial Times, Washington Post and The Guardian – on a quest to find the whole story. His research is remarkable and at times harrowing. As a result, his book Hanns and Rudolf is as illuminating and fact-filled as a biography, and as personal as a memoir. Harding tells the life stories of both men in parallel, moving from their childhood towards the outbreak of war, which happened when they were both young me, and then onwards through all the horrors of the death camps, Rudolf’s to escape and hide himself and Hanns’s determination to hunt him down, and then on the execution of one and the peaceful old age of the other. 

The most awful aspect of the book is, of course, Auschwitz. The steps Rudolf Höss took to turn this prison camp into the most efficient killing machine the world has ever known is told with absolute clarity, often in the Kommandant’s own words. The lack of guilt or pity or mercy is utterly horrifying.

However, the book is so filled with a sense of the strength and resilience of the human spirit that I was left both moved and uplifted. This is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in a long while. 


Shoes of Auschwitz victims

Thomas Harding's website 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT – I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK



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