Category Archives: Biography

Book Review: The Candidate by Alex Nunn

the candidate

This non-fiction book tells the story of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (relative rise of course!  He’s not in power…yet).  It focuses on how a man given the odds of 200/1 became Labour leader up against ‘more obvious’ leadership candidates and then how, after predictions from experts that Labour were on tract to lose 100+ seats at the snap 2017 election, they defied predictions to dramatically increase their number of seats and vote share and forced the Tories into a coalition.

It is very sympathetic to Corbyn and left wing politics so would probably be enjoyed most by people of a similar political persuasion but there is plenty in it for none ‘Corbynites’ – it deals with the changing unpredictable natural of modern politics, the rise of social media and the arguable decline of influence of traditional media.  Anyone interested in politics or media should find it interesting but it is also just a really good story of a man and a movement achieving the unexpected, it would be a great basis of a political thriller!  It’s easy to read and I don’t think it would be necessary to be a political expert to follow what is going on.

4.5/5

Zoe

 

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Book Review: Gone

gone

Gone is a heartfelt memoir where Min Kym describes her life as a childhood prodigy from the early age of six.  Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made and her first piece was “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” With each successive instrument, increasing in size and importance, she mastered her technique and expanded her repertoire. And finally at the age of 21 she met ‘the one’ a rare 1696 Stradivarius violin. Her career began to soar.

Then, in a London train cafe, her violin was stolen. She fell into a deep depression becoming unable to function or play. She lost herself, her soulmate and felt her life stopped having any meaning. This is a transfixing story about loss of identity and how Min breaks through and rediscovers her true self.

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Book Review: She Wolves by Helen Castor

I’m a big  fan of Helen Castor having really enjoyed her history programmes on TV.  This was the first book of hers I’ve read though.

Historian Helen Castor

Historian Helen Castor

She Wolves tells the story of English female rulers before Elizabeth I, there was surprisingly few of these and the ones she does include arguably not rulers at all as most only exercised power on behalf of male relatives.  Castor deals with the fact that until the reign of Elizabeth there were very real question marks as to whether a woman had the right to rule under any circumstances.  Throughout the middle ages a woman’s ‘natural’ character was seen to be gentleness and her role that of nurturing mother and helpmate to men – medieval kings had to be strong warriors a role viewed as impossible for a woman.

These particular issues are examined by Castor in the first section of the book telling the story of Matilda.  Matilda could be viewed as England’s first Queen (although she was never crowned) the only child of Henry I and her father’s recognised heir; under the heredity principles that have governed royalty in more recent times it seems obvious that she should have become Queen.  But these rules were not yet firmly established in the 12th century, only a generation before William the Conquer had seized the crown by force and force (or election/selection by nobles) were perfectly valid routes to power and different systems were used across Europe.  When her cousin Stephen seized the crown many supported his claim but many did not so civil war broke out!  If it had been 2 men fighting for the crown it would still have been an interesting story but Matilda’s sex makes it even more politically fascinating.  Matilda was a strong proud woman capable of proving those who said woman were weak wrong – but then she found out women rulers couldn’t really win!  At a point during the war she took the upper hand and seemed destined to be crowned but then lost a massive amount of support for behaving in a ruthless uncompromising manner (basically the way medieval kings were supposed to act) but from a woman it was seem as inappropriate, particularly by members of the church – which was a powerful force.  Rather than criticised for being naturally weak she was now attacked for being unnaturally strong – poor Matilda!

she wolves

Isabelle of France

Isabelle of France, wife of Edward II

Another strong story is of Isabelle wife of Edward II.  Edward II was almost certainly gay and had male lovers who he favoured with gifts and honours much to the disgust of his court.  The story and characters read almost like something out of Game of Thrones, particularly when teenage Isabelle, her husband and his long term gay lover are forced to go on the run together after a rebellion of key powerful nobles.  It’s hard to imagine the complicated dynamics within that triangular relationship; although Edward preferred male lovers he did have a physical relationship with Isabelle performing his dynastic duty and having several children with her.  She was only twelve when they married but as she got older she felt the humiliation of her husband’s public adultery harder to bear and began to become a force to be reckoned with.  She was a driving force behind the plot to overthrown her husband and replace him with her son with herself as regent (i.e. ruling England in practice if not name).  Being gay was seen as terrible sin in those days so Edward’s wife was viewed with a lot of sympathy and her actions of overthrowing an anointed King seen by many to be justified (in a way that they wouldn’t have been had he taken female lovers outside of his marriage – illogically mistresses were perfectly acceptable in fact expected of Kings!)  But support of Isabelle didn’t last after she took a lover herself she faced widespread condemnation and couldn’t hold power (Kings were allowed mistresses but Queens could not take lovers).

Overall this is a great book.  It deals with the stories of 6 female ‘rulers’ who came before Elizabeth and also tells us a bit about Elizabeth’s rocky path to power which finally lead to a woman successfully holding the crown.  It’s a very detailed book and I think I made a mistake in reading it from start to finish as I would a novel, I think I would have enjoyed it more had I dipped in and out of it.  I found my interest waning in the second half but don’t think the second half was necessarily less interesting just all those facts and huge cast of characters got a bit tiring!

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review – The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley

Biography of Queen Victoria’s ‘scandalous’ daughter.

This book is a detailed biography of Princess Louise the sixth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  The author, Lucinda Hawksley, focuses on the aspects of her life that made her a rather unconventional 19th century royal.  This include the fact that she was a talented sculptress, that she mixed in bohemian circles and that she may have had lovers and perhaps even an illegitimate child.

Parts of the book are very interesting and it is well researched.  I particularly enjoyed reading about Louise’s childhood and youth – a period dominated by her controlling mother.  It provided a good insight into Victoria’s domestic life; her happy marriage, prolonged mourning for Albert, lack of maternal affection for all but her youngest child, the sometimes fierce sibling rivalry between the children (particularly relating to Victoria’s favourite – Beatrice).  I guess the only trouble was that Victoria’s strong (if often unpleasant!) character somewhat dominated the early part of the book so that as Louise grew older and moved away from her mother I felt the book became tamer and more dull.

On the surface Louise’s life was exciting.  She travels a lot, her husband was governor general of Canada for a time and she also travels extensively for pleasure.  She was a successful artist, extremely unusual for a royal Princess who’s more usual role would be to breed and perhaps open the occasional building.  She had a childless and at times difficult marriage and Hawksley speculates that her husband, the Duke of Argyll, may have been homosexual.  She may have had love affairs herself, Hawksley offers compelling, if not convincing, argument that she did take lovers and had a child before her marriage – Hawksley has no evidence for this although she seems to have entirely convinced herself by the gossip and conjecture, I guess we’ll never know for sure but I wasn’t as convinced as the author was.

Louise was regarded as the most attractive of Victoria's daughters.  She was artist and interested in fashion throughout her life.

Louise was regarded as the most attractive of Victoria’s daughters. She was artist and interested in fashion throughout her life.

A story of such a varied life was, however, at times rather dull.  I missed the presence of Victoria whenever she faded from the story and often wished I could follow her tale rather than learning more about Louise.  Despite all that happens to her I didn’t find Louise an interesting character, she did do interesting things but her character came across as pretty flat.  Perhaps this is how she was or maybe Hawksley failed to capture her spirit.  Hawksley seems to have become fond of her subject and repeatedly tells us that Louise was cleverer, more attractive and slimmer that the rest of her family!  This maybe true but I felt her less intelligent and much tubbier mother and siblings might have made more compelling central figures.  Also I wished the book had given more weight to the times in her life that were most interesting, her childhood and early part of her marriage, and less time to the later part of her life when she does seem to become more conventional attending dull official events with Hawksley providing unnecessary eyewitness accounts reminding us that Louise was attractive, stylish and slim even towards the end of her life.

I think Hawksley was hampered by the lack of evidence about certain areas of Louise’s life.  Many letters and papers relating to her youth were edited or destroyed by Princess Beatrice after Victoria’s death and Hawksley was denied access the parts of the Argyll archive that may have shed more light on the nature of Louise’s marriage.  Hawksley deserves credit for piecing together this life story in spite of these gaps and Hawksley’s speculation about love affairs and illegitamate children, although not entirely convincing, are possible and add a much needed hint of spice to the story.

3/5 – well researched and gives a new take on the Victorian royal family but not a great page turner.

Zoe

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