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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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George Boleyn by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgeway

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King. This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother.”

REVIEW: As many of you will not know, but as everyone who knows me well is all too aware, I am completely obsessed with George Boleyn. Much of my academic career so far has been dedicated to research about him and his life, and I am currently planning my Master’s dissertation, in which he will heavily feature. It has always frustrated me that George, despite being such a fascinating and important historical figure is generally overlooked due to the fame of his sister, Anne Boleyn. Although Anne Boleyn is of course worth great admiration –  my undergraduate dissertation was on her, in fact – it is upsetting that George is often relegated to a chapter or a few sentences in books about his sisters. His portrayal in fiction, both in the form of books and TV shows, is also something that I have often found distressing, not to mention based on very little factual evidence, as is pointed out in this book. Therefore I was delighted to receive this biography as a Christmas present from my Mum, who has been a victim of my obsession for several years now and has herself become quite fond of George. This biography brilliantly gathers together the little evidence we have on George from primary documents and cleverly examines what these sources can tell us about George’s life and his career as a courtier, poet and diplomat. The authors’ admiration for George and respect for his talents really shines through in the writing, and it made such an enjoyable change to read something of this nature dedicated entirely to George. This book will be a valuable source to me in the research and writing of my dissertation, and I hope it introduces many more people to the fascinating historical figure that is George Boleyn.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter, yet these two extraordinary women never knew one another. Nevertheless, their passionate and pioneering lives remained closely intertwined, their choices, aspirations and tragedies eerily similar. Both women became famous writers and wrote books that changed literary history, had passionate relationships with several men, were single mothers out of wedlock; both lived in exile, fought for their poisition in society, and interrogated ideas of how we should live.”

REVIEW: I have counted both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley among my historical idols  since I was introduced to them both by my fantastic English teacher during my AS level year: Wollstonecraft for her feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which addresses many areas that feminists such as myself still identify as areas that require change to this day; and Shelley for her novel Frankenstein, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as her tumultuous personal life. Until now, I have never before had the opportunity to read a biography covering this exceptional mother and daughter in one go. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Gordon chose to structure this biography; it can be difficult, initially, to understand how Wollstonecraft and Shelley can have led such similar lives, and how Wollstonecraft had such an influence on her daughter, when the two only shared the same earth for a matter of days. In structuring it so that the chapters alternate between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Gordon makes it easier for the reader to map out the parallels in the lives of these two women, looking at what they were each experiencing during the different stages of their lives. Gordon’s writing style itself is fantastic – the book flows almost like a novel, and is engaging from start to finish, with keen speculation and vivid description adding to the enjoyment of the reader, who may feel daunted by such a large non-fiction text without such additional flourishes. Gordon made me feel much closer to these two women, whom I have long considered as role models, and I feel I gained so much more understanding and sympathy from knowing more about their lives. It has also given me a new way to look at things when reading their written works, as I can now apply my knowledge of their backgrounds and the events occuring in their lives when writing to enhance my understanding of their novels, letters, diaries and tracts. I found it difficult to put this book down, something of a rarity with me and non-fiction, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literature, the women themselves or even those interested in the period from a historical perspective, as the lives of these women tell us much about the political climate and social expectations of the period.

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Top Ten Books of 2016

So, the time of year for summarising my Top 10 best reads of the year has come around again! It’s been an unbelieveable awful year for me, and for a lot of people I know, but books have always been there to keep me going, and keeping this blog has given me a purpose even when I didn’t feel like I could ever be motivated to do anything again. First of all, a brief disclaimer – no, I did not include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, despite it being one of my favourite reads of the year. Why? It’s a script, and it seemed unfair to include it and neglect some of the amazing writers whose work I have had the pleasure of reading this year. Just for the record though, if I could have had two number 1 spots, it would have been on here.

10. Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne du Maurier

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/03/05/frenchmans-creek-by-daphne-du-maurier/

9. Katherine Howard by Josephine Wilkinson

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/katherine-howard-by-josephine-wilkinson/

8. Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/four-sisters-by-helen-rappaport/

7. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/11/10/the-girl-on-the-train-by-paula-hawkins/

6. The Angel Tree by Lucinda Riley

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/the-angel-tree-by-lucinda-riley/

5. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/02/20/the-storyteller-by-jodi-picoult/

4. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/me-before-you-by-jojo-moyes/

3. The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/12/26/the-fate-of-the-tearling-by-erika-johansen/

2.The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/the-kingdom-of-little-wounds-by-susann-cokal

1. The Bronze Horseman Trilogy by Paullina Simons

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/the-bronze-horseman-by-paullina-simons/

https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/tatiana-and-alexander-by-paullina-simons/

https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/the-summer-garden-by-paullina-simons/

Okay, so it’s a bit cheeky to have a whole trilogy hogging the number one spot in my chart; but these books flowed so seamlessly together and we are all incredible that it would have been impossible to separate and rank them: so here they are, the whole set, as my top read of 2016. Aside from having the most amazing quotes (because the writing is among the most beautiful I have ever read), this trilogy is gripping, absorbing, heartbreaking, surprising, and it fills your heart with so much love and pain and joy you hardly know how to handle it – and that, I think, is the very best kind of books.

Thank you so much to everyone who reads this blog, makes comments, gives recommendations, and favourites and follows my post – I am eternally grateful. I also run accompanying Twitter and Instagram accounts for this blog (both @CBPbookblog); feel free to look them up. Thank you so much for all your support – see you in 2017!

 

 

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The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII was ‘a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting’. Over the years, this did not change much. Henry was considered a demi-god by his subjects, so each woman he chose was someone who had managed to stand out in a crowd of stunning ladies. Looking good was not enough (indeed, many of Henry’s lovers were considered unattractive); she also had to have something extra to keep the king’s interest. And Henry’s women were every bit as intriguing as the man himself.”

REVIEW: I’ve had this book sitting on my Amazon wishlist for ages, so when I saw how cheap the second-hand copies were I decided to finally give in and order it. I’ve read  quite a bit on Henry VIII’s more famous mistresses, particularly Mary Boleyn, but I enjoyed learning more about some of his other mistresses, such as Anne Stafford and Bessie Blount, and was fascinated in uncovering those whom I didn’t even know existed. This book was clearly well-researched and the rumours and gossip surrounding possible mistresses of Henry’s was clearly lifted from primary documents, giving it true authenticity. My only criticism of the book, however, is that I feel the title can be a little misleading – the book did, in fact, focus quite heavily on Henry VIII’s wives as well as his mistresses. This is something that Hart explains clearly in the introduction, as she puts forward her intention to focus on all of the women of Henry’s romantic life, which would include his wives as well as his mistresses. In this case, I feel that the title should perhaps have reflected this direction of study more obviously; however, this did not spoil the book for me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learning more about the extramarital affairs of Henry VIII.

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Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “On 17 July 1918, four young women walked down twenty-three steps into the cellar of a house in Ekaterinburg. Together with their parents and their teenage brother, they were brutally murdered. Their crime: to be the daughters of the last Tsar and Tsarita of All the Russias. ‘Four Sisters’ is an authoritative and poignant account of the lives of Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Drawing on their own letters and diaries, Rappaport paints a vivid picture of the sisters’ lives in the dying days of the Romanov dynasty. We see their hopes and dreams, the difficulty of coping with a mother who was a chronic invalid and a haemophiliac brother and, latterly, the trauma of the revolution and its terrible consequences.”

REVIEW: I have always been fascinated by the Romanov Imperial family, particularly these final seven individuals, who make up the last ruling family of Russia. The four sisters – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – are vividly bought to life within this work. The Grand Duchesses are shown as they grow from innocent girls into accomplished and caring young women. We learn of their secret crushes, their work as nurses during the First World War, the games they played, the struggles they dealt with in coping with their unwell mother Alexandra and brother Alexei, their love for the notorious Grigory Rasputin, and above all we learn of how sheltered their lives were and how they seemed to have longed for a sense of normality, to be part of the ‘outside world’. What I enjoyed most about this book is that Rappaport clearly presents the four princesses as individuals; their collective nickname, OTMA, and the fact that the most famous photographs of them involve them all dresssed to match and seated as a group, means that often in books about this period their individual identities and personalities can get lost and muddled together. Here we learn about the passionate heart and caring nature of Olga; the serious but sensitive Tatiana; the sulky but devoted Maria; and the mischevious, lively Anastasia. I was absolutely fascinated to learn more about the sisters as individuals, and surprised to learn how difficult their lives often were, and how it was mostly their reputation and image that allowed this last Imperial family to survive as long as they did. The girls became a symbol of innocence and hope, and in the end were taken down by the perceived extravagance of their regime, which had almost nothing to do with them at all. My only minor criticism was that I felt that the section of the book dealing with their last days at Ekaterinburg were a little rushed; this can be excused, however, by the fact that Rappaport has published a book solely dealing with this time, which I have already ordered and am looking forward to reading. I absolutely loved this book and relished the opportunity to learn more about these young women who are, so often, neglected by history.

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Katherine Howard by Josephine Wilkinson

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and cousin to the executed Anne Boleyn. She first came to court as a young girl of fourteen, but even prior to that her fate had been sealed and she was doomed to die. She was beheaded in 1542 for crimes of adultery and treason, in one of the most sensational scandals of the Tudor age. The traditional story of Henry VIII’s fifth queen dwells on her sexual exploits before she married the king, and her execution is seen as her just dessert for having led an abominable life. However, the true story of Katherine Howard could not be more different. Far from being a dark tale of court factionalism and conspiracy, Katherine’s story is one of child abuse, family ambition, religious conflict and political and sexual intrigue. It is also a tragic love story. A bright, kind and intelligent young woman, Katherine was fond of clothes and dancing, yet she also had a strong sense of duty and tried to be a good wife to Henry. She handled herself with grace and queenly dignity to the end, even as the barge carrying her on her final journey drew up at the Tower of London, where she was to be executed for high treason. Little more than a child in a man’s world, she was the tragic victim of those who held positions of authority over her, and from whose influence she was never able to escape.”

REVIEW: There a very few biographies out there on Katherine Howard, and, more importantly, of the ones that are out there very few of them are actually very good. Wilkinson has done extensive research into Katherine Howard and interpreted the sources in a new and different way, uncovering new findings and creating a fascinating, sensitive and insightful biography that gives the reader a real sense of connection to Katherine herself. Wilkinson’s findings show Katherine to be a young girl whose naivety led to her being used and abused by older and more experienced men, chiefly her childhood music teacher, Henry Mannock, and her famed lover Francis Dereham. Both of these men, in Wilkinson’s eyes, used the pretty and vulnerable Katherine as a kind of plaything, and Dereham at least seems to have held their intimacy over her for her entire life, possibly using it as a form of blackmail when she became Queen, as did many of the women whom she had viewed as her girlhood friends. Wilkinson also shows that although Katherine is believed to have taken Thomas Culpepper as her lover, and indeed this is what it is often believed she and Culpepper were executed for, this may not neccessarily be the case. Wilkinson presents and compelling and believable case, using primary documentation, that suggests that instead Katherine was merely cultivating Culpepper’s friendship and loyalty so that he could report back to her when the King was unwell and unable to see his wife. This would, in turn, extend her influence when apart from the King and, although Wilkinson believes (as did many contemporaries involved in the building of evidence against Katherine) there may have been a intention or desire between Katherine and Culpepper, she does not suggest that the two of them actually engaged in any intimate sexual act; simply that they exchanged letters, were close friends, and held long conversations with Lady Rochford as their chaperone. I found this biography to provide a fascinating and somewhat heartbreaking insight into Katherine’s life and found myself fully convinced by Wilkinson’s presentation of the evidence; the only slight thing in which our opnions differ, however, is that Wilkinson suggests Katherine herself encouraged flirtateousness with the King and was glad to be even considered for the position of Queen – I personally, however, believe that Katherine was instead encouraged by her ambitious family, perhaps even pushed forward, to become Henry’s next Queen. I do believe, however, that Katherine was a good, kind-hearted queen who used her influence to help others and tried to be a good wife to her king. As such, she suffered a tragic fate, and the evidence put forward by Wilkinson which shows how she was used and then later accused of crimes she may not have even committed makes her an even more tragic victim of the tyranny of Henry VIII.