Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon

All fans of Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Through this heart-warming examination of an important and often overlooked person in Jane’s world, we uncover the life changing force of their friendship.

Each chapter details the fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. Within these pages we will relive their shared interests, the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

As an avid reader of Jane Austen’s work, I have often felt myself wishing I could get that little bit closer to this somewhat enigmatic author. The lively wit that rises from each page of Austen’s novels and letters often seems wildly at odds with the modest woman depicted in many of the biographies we have of her, and in the image of the retiring ‘Aunt Jane’ that her family were so keen to promote after her death. It is easy to wonder what Jane Austen was really like – and what it would be like to take a turn about the room with her or have her as a dinner party guest.

Zöe Wheddon is equally captivated by this and, in Jane Austen’s Best Friend, has turned to an overlooked figure in Jane’s life to help bring us closer to the author and her world. Martha Lloyd was Jane’s lifelong friend and who, Wheddon argues, may have known the writer as well as – and in some ways better than – Jane’s sister Cassandra, her more acknowledged confidant. Starting with Martha and Jane’s childhood, Wheddon moves through the lives of these two women, using surviving correspondence, diaries, and other archival records to depict a lasting and deeply important friendship that had a lasting and meaningful impact on both parties involved in it.

It is clear that Wheddon has done her research and, despite the occasional lack of concrete evidence (not all of Martha and Jane’s letters have survived), she examines what is there in almost forensic detail, connecting the small, seemingly trivial, moments of Jane and Martha’s lives into the wider picture of their life and times, including the impact and influence that this may have had upon Jane’s beloved novels. Wheddon’s enthusiasm for her subject really comes across in the book which is, for the most part, told in a lively and accessible way despite the wealth of both time and material covered.

Despite reading several biographies of Austen, I’d never really heard much about Martha Lloyd before. The role of friendship is often overlooked in biographies – especially of pioneering female writers – and Jane Austen is often portrayed as a writer bereft of friends, immersed wholly in the life of her family and a few close family acquaintances. It was therefore both heartening and interesting to see this reframed and to discover the impact that a close and long-lasting female friendship had upon the lives of these two women.

In fact if I had one quibble about the book it was that the focus was, at times, too much on Jane and not enough on Martha. Martha Lloyd appears to have been a lively and fascinating woman in her own right and I sometimes felt that this was explored only in so much as it accounted for development or influence in Jane’s life or writing. I understand that many readers will be attracted to this book because of the Austen connection but, for me, I’d have liked more chapters like the final one, which examines Martha’s life after Jane’s death. I also found some of the connections Wheddon makes between Martha and specific elements or incidents within Jane’s writing slightly tentative although I found her overall argument in favour of Martha’s influence to be a strong and compelling one.

Because of the Austen focus, it’s unlikely that this biography will appeal to those not already interested in Austen herself. And I’d probably recommend reading a biography of Austen (my preference is for Lucy Worsley’s excellent Jane Austen at Home, but there are many others) in order to get the most out of this book. For Austen aficionados however, Jane Austen’s Best Friend offers an interesting new way of navigating well-trodden territory, spotlights an overlooked figure within Jane’s life (and an interesting woman in her right!) and convincingly argues that we should consider the lasting influence of such a significant friendship when we read and appreciate Jane Austen’s work.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon is published by Pen & Sword and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Rachel from Rachel’s Random Resources for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 06 March so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Brando’s Bride by Sarah Broughton

Brando's Bride CoverIn October 1957 Marlon Brando married a young studio actress called Anna Kashfi. He was thirty-three and at the pinnacle of his beautiful fame having recently won an Oscar for ‘On the Waterfront’.

The wedding was front-page news around the world. His new bride was twenty-three, claimed to be an Indian princess and was pregnant.

The day after the wedding a factory worker living in Wales, William O’Callaghan, revealed that Brando’s bride was, in fact, his daughter, Joan O’Callaghan. He said she had been a butcher’s assistant in Cardiff.

Who was telling the truth and who was lying? And, perhaps most importantly, why?

I have, I’ll admit, a slight fascination with the so-called ‘golden age’ of Hollywood. I’m a fan of the podcast, You Must Remember This?, and I find it both endlessly fascinating and achingly sad to discover the complex and often troubled nature of the real lives being led behind the facades the studios and the media so carefully curated.

The life of Anna Kashfi, the ‘forgotten’ first wife of Hollywood star Marlon Brando, is one such troubled life, and her story is given the treatment it deserves in Brando’s Bride, a biography by writer and researcher Sarah Broughton.

According to her studio biography, and the story she would most often relate about her own life, the ‘exotic’ Anna Kashfi was the daughter of Indian parents Devi Kashfi and Selma Ghose. Born and raised in India, she moved to Wales only when her mother met and married an Englishman, William Patrick O’Callaghan, living there briefly before setting off to London, where she came to the attention of a Hollywood producer and landed her first film role in The Mountain (1955), staring alongside Robert Wagner and Spencer Tracy.

According to Patrick O’Callaghan, his daughter was an English woman called Joan and was the daughter of his wife, Phoebe. Neither of them was Indian. In fact, they didn’t have a drop of Indian blood in the family at all. Phoebe’s family were, in fact, French.

So who was telling the truth?

As with most stories, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two accounts, a complex tale of Anglo-Indian heritage, personal shame, and Hollywood gloss. Broughton carefully fits together these pieces, picking apart the motivations behind the studios’ portrayal of Kashfi as an ‘exotic’ young actress, and examining why her parents; now assimilated into life in a Cardiff suburb, would distance themselves from their Anglo-Indian heritage – and why their daughter might wish to reclaim it.

It’s a fascinating tale even before Anna’s involvement with Marlon Brando. In fact, I preferred the book when the focus was on Anna. Whilst her tempestuous and short-lived marriage to Brando might be what she is most famous for, it is, in many ways, the least interesting thing about her.

Instead, I enjoyed the parts of Brando’s Bride that focused upon Anna’s acclimatisation into Hollywood, examining the creation and maintenance of identity within the studio system. The intense control that the studio’s maintained over their stars and starlets – and the carefully crafted versions of themselves that they wanted portraying – is really quite frightening, and it’s easy to see why so many young stars became deeply troubled figures in later life. The chapter on Anna’s contemporaries Pier Angeli, Belinda Lee, and Gia Scala, is both fascinating and poignant, as are glimpses into Brando and Anna’s own addictions, and the impact of these upon their son, Christian.

Broughton has clearly spent a great deal of time researching Anna’s life, although her prose wears this research lightly and Brando’s Bride benefits from this investigative, personal style. Whilst the book is largely sympathetic to Anna, Broughton also manages to maintain enough distance from her subject to cast a critical eye on the less salubrious aspects of her life, such as her continuing refusal to speak to, see, or even acknowledge her parents, and the bitterness that followed in the wake of her divorce from Brando.

Told with empathy, warmth, and insight, Brando’s Bride casts light onto one of the hidden histories of Hollywood. Although I had never heard of Anna Kashfi before – and cannot even claim to be a particular fan of Brando and his work – I found this to be a fascinating glimpse into the world that lies behind the glamour.

Brando’s Bride by Sarah Broughton is published by Parthian and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 October 2019 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Brandos Bride BT Poster

Reviews

REVIEW!! Unladylike: A Grrrl’s Guide to Wrestling by Heather Bandenburg

UnladylikeForget what you think you know about wrestling.

In the world of Heather Honeybadger, aka Rana Venenosa, there are no steroids, no tans, no million-dollar contracts – there is only lycra, a sweaty underground club and an unbreakable resilience. From the day that Heather steps into the ring of the punk wrestling school Lucha Britannia, she finds herself transformed into a person she never knew she could be.

How do you become a wrestler when you hate sports so much you can’t do a press-up? What makes feminists and wrestlers both mortal enemies and unlikely best friends?

For the first time, an independent female wrestler talks in depth about how she went from a sad, lost riot grrrl to an empowered, persevering fighter who has performed across the world. 

Despite being a teenager during the famous ‘Attitude’ era of WWE, I’ve never really ‘got’ wrestling. I can appreciate the showmanship and skill involved but, as a sport, it’s just not one I’ve ever really understood. Which probably doesn’t make me the obvious target audience for Heather Bandenburg’s memoir Unladylike, a chronicle of her life in the ring.

And yet, despite having next to no knowledge about wrestling – and even less about the Lucha Libra tradition that Heather becomes involved in – I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, witty and, at times, hard-hitting memoir about a young woman finding her identity and her place in the world through her absorption into the wrestling world.

Because, whilst Unladylike is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of London’s indie wrestling scene, it’s also an incredibly identifiable personal story about finding what makes you happy, and coming to terms with the varied aspects of your own personality and your place in the world. Heather is unflinching in her portrayal and touches on issues of gender, sexuality, personal identity, self-belief, confidence and anxiety as she discusses her involvement and development within the world of female wrestling.

She also offers a considered examination of the trials that come with defining yourself as a woman in a male-dominated environment, casting a critically appraising eye over the history of women in the sport, and the struggles that many of them still face today.

Full of anecdotes and packed with fascinating details of life behind the scenes, Unladylike is also a riot to read. By turns funny, self-deprecating, insightful, it’s packed with sharp observational humour that makes for an easy, page-turning read. Sort of the reading equivalent of sharing a few drinks at the pub with a friend!

There’s also a series of great appendices at the end of the book explaining common wrestling terms, providing a brief history of female wrestling, and offering diagrams of moves – it was a useful addition that quickly helped to explain any terminology and really helped me appreciate the effort and skill that goes into each and every wrestling match.

A fascinating biography that offers a unique combination of personal memoir, sporting anecdotes, and feminist critique, Unladylike is a witty and enjoyable read that packs a surprising punch. Wrestling fans will, naturally, find much to enjoy here but, for those of us not familiar with the sport, Unladylike still has plenty to offer. If you’re looking for something a little unusual to add to your reading list, then you won’t go far wrong with this.

Unladylike by Heather Bandenburg is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Unbound Shop, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to the author for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton

Maud West CoverFor more than thirty years, Maud West ran a detective agency in London, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905.

A tireless self-publicist, Maud’s exploits grabbed headlines around the world – a woman, solving crimes, how could they not? But, in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.

Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the golden age of crime?

In this enthralling true story, Stapleton interweaves tales from Maud’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, forensically examining the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.

With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.

Combining the charm of a classic mystery novel with the diligent research and careful analysis of a biography, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is a rich and compelling story about secrets and lies in the golden age of crime.

A lover of golden age mystery novels herself, Susannah Stapleton is curled up on a winter’s night reading about Glady’s Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley when a thought strikes her – were there any real lady detectives in the golden age of crime? The resulting internet search brings up a Miss Maud West “London’s only Lady detective”, and starts Stapelton off on a journey filled with more red herrings and secret histories than even Agatha Christie might find plausible!

Without giving away too many of the details of Maud’s life, the unravelling of which is part of the joy of reading Stapleton’s painstakingly researched book, Maud West was a fascinating personality. Shamelessly self-publicising (it quickly becomes apparent that she is not, in fact, London’s sole Lady Detective at all), Maud sells her tales of derring-do to readers across the world, inventing numerous backstories and delighting thrill-seekers with her stories of foiled robberies, attempted kidnappings and dangerous continental drug gangs. But, as Stapleton digs deeper, ever questioning the truth behind Maud’s own account of herself, another story begins to emerge. Possibly less glamourous – and without a sinister blackmailer in sight – but no less compelling and, if anything, even more fantastical.

Interspersing her chapters with some of Maud’s delightful accounts of her endeavours, Stapelton has written an immensely readable blend of biography, social history and real-life mystery. I was fascinated to learn about the roles that private detectives played in the early part of the twentieth century, and encouraged by the initiative that so many early female pioneers took to advance their careers, such as the creation of the all-female ‘Efficiency Club’ to provide networking and advancement opportunities.

The book is also a compelling account of the difficulties of biographical research, especially when the subject is a little more ordinary than the royals or the political influencers that usually get this sort of treatment – and when they don’t necessarily want the facts of their life to be discovered. Although not able to fill all of the gaps, Stapelton is nonetheless able to craft together the essence of Maud’s fascinating life, pulling together the various traces that this enthralling woman left behind.

Doggedly researched and deliciously entertaining, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, is a testament to the life of a forgotten pioneer who forged both an enduring personal life and a successful career in an era when women’s options were limited. Combining biography, mystery, and social history, this is one piece of literary sleuthing that golden age fans won’t want to miss this summer.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton is published by Picador and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.