Reviews

REVIEW!! Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

‘Reading has saved my life, again and again, and has held my hand through every difficult time’

For as long as she can remember, Cathy Rentzenbrink has lost and found herself in stories. Growing up she was rarely seen without her nose in a book and read in secret long after lights out.

When tragedy struck, books kept her afloat. Eventually they lit the way to a new path, first as a bookseller and then as a writer.

No matter what the future holds, reading will always help.

If you’re reading a book blog, it’s probably a safe bet for me to assume that you are a bit of a book lover or, at the very least, a fairly regular reader. If so then let me assure you that Dear Reader is most definitely a book for you.

Part memoir, part ode to the joy of books and reading, Cathy Rentzenbrink has written a book that will resonate, in some way, to all readers. Whether it’s the way in which early encounters with books enrapture us, to the power of stories to transport us away at the times when we need that break most, Dear Reader is a love letter to the power of the written word.

Rentzenbrick has previously written movingly about the death of her brother in her earlier memoir, The Last Act of Love. Here she turns her attention to the books that supported and comforted her in the aftermath of that tragedy, and examines the way in which the act of reading itself encouraged her to see a future for herself beyond the one that grief had sucked her into.

Coming in at just over 200 pages, Dear Reader is a slim volume but is packed to brimming with bookish reminiscences. From young Cathy being told off for reading books that were too advanced for her age (been there) to the sheer joy of losing yourself in a gloriously trashy novel and the delight in discovering a new favourite read, the pages are packed with anecdotes and readerly experiences.

I particularly enjoyed reading Rentzenbrink’s anecdotes about her life as a bookseller, first in the Waterstones outlet at Harrods then later in stores at Oxford Street and Piccadilly before moving to that most venerable of book-selling establishments, Hatchards. Whilst she’s careful to name very few names, her tales of demanding customers and spoilt celebrity authors make for darkly comic reading.

There was also great joy to be found in Cathy’s recollections of her father, a born storyteller whose early exit from education left him illiterate into adult life. His new-found joy at discovering books leaps off the page and Dear Reader is at its most passionate and heartfelt when describing the reading shared between father and daughter, as well as Cathy’s later work with the ‘Quick Reads’ initiative that supports adult literacy programmes.

Interspersed throughout the memoir are selections of themed reading recommendations. From Children’s Books that can be re-read throughout adulthood, to novels about Posh People Behaving Badly, there’s sure to be something to catch the eye of every reader – my own TBR certainly got a little longer as a result!

Beautifully written, Dear Reader is by turns poignant and passionate, joyful and comforting. As an ode to books and reading, it’s up there with Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living and would make the perfect present for the bookworm in your life – or the perfect treat for yourself!

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink is published by Picador and is available now from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

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

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!

Reviews

REVIEW!! Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Dead FamousCelebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise.

Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy; or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend; or Edmund Kean, the dazzling Shakespearean actor whose monstrous ego and terrible alcoholism saw him nearly murdered by his own audience – the list of stars whose careers burned bright before the Age of Television is extensive and thrillingly varied.

In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity’s historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight.

You may recognise Greg Jenner as the host of BBC comedy podcast You’re Dead To Me!, or as the public historian whose work behind the scenes on the series Horrible Histories has been part of making history fun, interesting, and accessible for children and adults alike. If you don’t, I highly recommend hunting down both (the podcast is a delightful mix of the fascinating and the obscure, whilst Horrible Histories is an absolute riot to watch – I can highly recommend the ‘Kings and Queens’ song).

Dead Famous or, to give it its full title, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen is not Jenner’s first foray into authorship. His previous book, A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age to Phone Age was a wide-ranging and fascinating look at the history of the everyday. Dead Famous is a little narrower in its scope, zoning in on the history of ‘Celebrity’ which, as Jenner explains, is still a relatively new field of historical enquiry. Indeed the field is so new that it’s still debating exactly what ‘Celebrity’ entails, let alone when it came into being. Jenner, therefore, spends an early chapter considering the various definitions of the term before moving on to consider when ‘Celebrity’ culture really began.

Whilst the book’s subtitle is billed as covering ‘Bronze Age to Silver Screen’, the majority of the content focuses on the period from around 1750 – 1950. This, as Jenner explains, his because his definition of the ‘Celebrity’ places the start of the phenomenon (as we know it today) firmly in the 1700s. However, he does make the occasional foray back to earlier centuries, and even to the Ancient World, to consider individuals who benefited from both fame and renown. Considering the differences between the famous, the infamous, the renowned, and the celebrity is, in itself, a fascinating topic – and that’s before Jenner even starts on the tales of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century publicity-seeking celebs, scandalous money-making schemes, and crazed fans.

As a scholar of the long eighteenth-century (the period from 1660 – 1820, because us eighteenth-century scholars like to steal a bit of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries for kicks), I was particularly interested to discover how early stars of the London stage such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons curated and managed their own image, and was fascinated to learn that so many of the facets of celebrity that we consider to be ‘modern’ – such as product endorsements, celebrity souvenirs, and appearance fees – originated in the very early days of celebrity and fan culture.

In addition to be extremely interesting, Dead Famous is also wildly funny. Jenner has a real gift for a wry turn of phrase and had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. His witty style makes his topic instantly accessible without sacrificing any of the scholarly rigour or intelligence required to consider such a vast topic at length. Dead Famous is clearly extensively researched but it wears that research lightly, each fact and anecdote recounted with a richness and a relish that makes for extremely enjoyable reading.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely LOVED Dead Famous. To be fair, a book combining humour, history, sociology and the eighteenth-century was always going to be reading-catnip for me. But I genuinely think a lot of other readers will love this too. If you have even a passing interest in celebrity or fan culture, or have ever been gripped by news from your latest fandom or the gossip columns of magazines, Dead Famous is packed to brimming with facts that are sure to fascinate and amuse in equal measure.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner is published by W&N and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

And don’t forget that, whilst high street bookshops might be closed at the moment, many of your local indies are still delivering – personal favourites include Booka Bookshop and The Big Green Bookshop!

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! There’s Something About Darcy by Gabrielle Malcolm

9781911445562For some, Colin Firth emerging from a lake in that clinging wet shirt is one of the most iconic moments in television. But what is it about the two-hundred-year-old hero that we so ardently admire and love?

Dr Gabrielle Malcolm examines Jane Austen’s influences in creating Darcy’s potent mix of brooding Gothic hero, aristocratic elitist and romantic Regency man of action. She investigates how he paved the way for later characters like Heathcliff, Rochester and even Dracula, and what his impact has been on popular culture over the past two centuries.

For twenty-first century readers the world over have their idea of the ‘perfect’ Darcy in mind when they read the novel, and will defend their choice passionately.

In this insightful and entertaining study, every variety of Darcy jostles for attention: vampire Darcy, digital Darcy, Mormon Darcy and gay Darcy.

Who does it best and how did a clergyman’s daughter from Hampshire create such an enduring character?

Proud, aloof, and emotionally distant. Any modern woman in her right mind would, you think, reject Mr Darcy  – and his ten thousand a year – quicker than Lizzie Bennet turns down Mr Collins. And yet we (and I include myself in this collective ‘we’) seem to adore the man more than ever.

Whether it’s Matthew Macfadyen strolling through a misty field, Colin Firth emerging from a lake, or Bridget Jones’ very own Mark Darcy bringing Regency romance to modern-day London, there really is something about Darcy. And Gabrielle Malcolm is determined to find out what.

There’s Something About Darcy is an extensive examination of the enduring appeal of Austen’s most famous aristocratic hero. Written with a scholar’s eye for detail whilst retaining a light and engaging tone throughout, Dr Malcolm breaks down and analyses the various portrayals of Mr Darcy on screen, as well as the inventive directions that Austenesque writers have taken the character.

From Bollywood hero to vampire slayer (and even vampire!) Darcy has been re-imagined in every possible way and it was fascinating to consider the impact of these portrayals on our perception of the character – and how they might have added to the endurance of his appeal.

I would, however, have liked a little more discussion about the modern adaptations that reinterpret Darcy through the lens of another culture, and more consideration of why we continue to seek out romantic heroes who exhibit such problematic character traits.

In the latter portion of the book, Dr Malcolm also considers the relationship between Darcy and other popular romantic heroes – Mr Rochester, Heathcliff, Edward Cullen, Dracula, Christian Grey – as well as the heroes of some lesser-known (by modern audiences at least) Regency romances written by Austen’s contemporaries.

Whilst I felt that these chapters provided an interesting insight into the way in which various societies and eras construct and interpret ‘heroes’, I wasn’t sure that the discussions always succeeded in shedding new light upon Austen’s hero and this section of the book, for me anyway, wasn’t quite as successful as the chapters that focus primarily on Austen’s hero.

That said, considering other examples of ‘Darcy-like’ characters did illustrate how the prevalence of the Darcy archetype became established in popular culture – and how the numerous adaptations and reinterpretations of the character, both in print and on the screen, have allowed Darcy to take precedence over other romantic leads who exhibit similar traits.

Although literary scholars and die-hard Janeites may find themselves wanting a bit more meat on the bones in some places, for most readers who have a soft spot for Austen’s aloof heroine, There’s Something About Darcy is sure to both entertain and inform in equal measure.

Written with a scholar’s eye for detail whilst retaining the explanations of key plots and characters needed to hold the interest of a general reader, There’s Something About Darcy is a lively, informative and engrossing read.

There’s Something About Darcy by Gabrielle Malcolm is published by Endeavour Media and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to Hannah Groves from Endeavour Media for providing an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 November so do check out the other stops along the way for more reviews and content!

Darcy Blog Tour Schedule

 

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Fuck Yeah, Video Games by Daniel Hardcastle

Fuck Yeah CoverAs Daniel Hardcastle careers towards thirty, he looks back on what has really made him happy in life: the friends, the romances… the video games.

Told through encounters with the most remarkable – and the most mind-boggling – games of the last thirty-odd years, Fuck Yeah, Video Games is also a love letter to the greatest hobby in the world.

From God of War to Tomb Raider, Pokémon to The Sims, Daniel relives each game with countless in-jokes, obscure references and his signature wit, as well as intricate, original illustrations by Rebecca Maughan.

Alongside this march of merriment are chapters dedicated to the hardware behind the games: a veritable history of Sony, Nintendo, Sega and Atari consoles.

Joyous, absurd, personal and at times sweary, Daniel’s memoir is a celebration of the sheer brilliance of video games.

Confession Time. In addition to being a postgraduate student, book blogger, home owner, cat lady, wife, responsible employee and Fully Paid Up Adult (with a capital ‘A’), I am also a HUGE video game nerd. Ever since I got my tiny little mitts on a Sega Mega Drive and discovered that an interactive (and rock solidly hard) version of Disney’s The Lion King existed, I’ve been hooked.

As such, Dan Hardcastle’s Fuck Yeah, Video Games might have well have been written for me. I’m just a tad older than Dan but we were both introduced to games in the same era and at a similar age. So many of the games that Dan covers in his memoir/love-letter to video games are personal favourites of my own (SSX3, BloodborneAnimal Crossing, Tomb Raider – though personally I preferred TRII to TRIII, sorry Dan), and I can recollect many of the frustrations and failures that Dan touches on in his hardware overview chapters.

Dan is a professional YouTube gamer (his channel, Official Nerd Cubed has more than 2.6 million subscribers and more than 4,000 videos) so he’s well qualified to wax lyrical on video games, and does a brilliant job of conveying his passion for gaming as he takes a wander through some of his favourite gaming memories.

Combining sharp, often sweary, humour with personal anecdotes, Dan’s style is both amusing and insightful – he really does manage to capture what makes these games special, especially when talking about multiplayer and couch co-op games. I genuinely snorted out loud with laughter on more than one occasion, and frequently interrupted my reading to read out particularly funny sections to my long-suffering (and slightly less nerdy) husband.

I am, of course, writing this review from the perspective of the target audience. This is, as the title would suggest, a book about video games written by a gamer and for fellow gamers. For those who don’t get gaming, I doubt there will be much here that will be either of interest or entirely understandable (although Dan does provide a brilliant glossary at the back of the book for those who don’t yet fully speak Nerd).

But for video game fans, whether old or young, Fuck Yeah, Video Games is an absolute riot.

Combining short, sharp chapters with witty illustrations by Dan’s partner Rebecca, Fuck Yeah, Video Games will be immediately relatable to anyone who has broken a controller out of sheer frustration (my Tekken 3 years were rough on the old controllers), spent work/school days contemplating exactly how to defeat that bastard of a boss (I’m looking at you Dark Souls), or severely damaged a thumb through a combination of intense button mashing and the non-ergonomic nature of an N64 controller (yeah…that happened). I loved it and, if you love video games, I think you might too.

Fuck Yeah, Video Games by Daniel Hardcastle is published by Unbound and is available now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Unbound, Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this tour and, as always, being a fantastic tour organiser. The tour continues until 29 September 2019 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Fuck Yeah 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. 

Uncategorized

Non-Stop Non-Fiction

I recently took a glance over my ‘Read’ shelf on Goodreads and was surprised to see how many non-fiction titles I’ve been reading of late. Whilst I’ve never been adverse to reading non-fiction, I’ve always considered myself  primarily a fiction reader. Yet out of the last ten books I’ve read, five have been non-fiction and my only recent 5* Goodreads review went to a non-fiction title. So why the sudden change in my reading habits?

I think primarily it’s because I’ve been super busy  recently so most of my reading has taken place in snatched bites of time. 5 minutes over my morning cup of tea, 15 minutes before bed, 10 minutes whilst waiting for an appointment. A whole day to sit and read – or even a few uninterrupted hours – sounds like a complete luxury to me at the moment. Reading in small doses means its hard to settle into a plot-heavy novel where it’s important to recall who all the characters are, what happened in the last chapter and what person A said about person B ten pages ago.

 

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child MurdererThis coincided with my discover that the true crime genre – something I’d always worried would be sensational and tacky – has become home to some thought-provoking, genre-blending books that scratch the itch left by ‘Serial’ and ‘S-Town’: two of my favourite podcasts in recent years.

First up, I listened to the audiobook of Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer‘. Although not actually as focused on the ‘sensational’ murder as the blurb and advertising would have you believe, this was a fascinating piece of narrative non-fiction covering such varied topics as early mental health treatment in Victorian England (surprisingly progressive) and the role of bandsmen in the trenches of WWI (much larger than they’ve been given credit for). Complete with the narrative drive that Summerscale is known for, this was a great audio – although the ‘mockney’ accent the narrator used for some of the characters nearly drove me to distraction!

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBIDavid Grann’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon‘, subtitled ‘Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI’, is ostensibly a book about the murders of a number of Osage Indians throughout the 1920s, but opens up into a discourse on power, money, land rights, injustice and racism. It was a sensitively written, fascinating and powerful examination of a largely forgotten piece of  American history. Grann’s writing is a brilliant blend of journalistic drive (he knows how to work a cliffhanger!) and stylised reportage and I was keen to check out more of his work so also read ‘The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession‘, which is a collection of his shorter essays and articles. I didn’t enjoy this as much as ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ – as with all essay collections, some pieces held my interest more than others – but it confirmed my opinion of his writing style and I’m looking forward to starting ‘The Lost City of Z‘ soon.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a MemoirAlexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s ‘The Fact of a Body‘ is a slower-paced combination of narrative true crime with memoir resulting in an emotionally raw yet moving examination of the lasting effects of historic abuse. Juxtaposing the 1992 molestation and murder of a young boy by a paedophile with the author’s own repressed feelings about abuse within her own family. Not an easy read by any means, and with subject matter that will undoubtedly have triggers for some readers, but a skillful and intimate blending of two genres that really pushed the boundaries of what I thought a ‘true crime’ book could be.

Most recently, I’ve read ‘True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Disappearance of Maura Murray‘ by James Renner. This is written in short, snappy chapters – often only one or two pages each – and is also a blend of personal memoir and true crime. Less literary in style than ‘The Fact of a Body’ and with more of the narrative drive found in Grann or Summerscale’s work, this is a dual investigation of the strange disappearance of a young woman from rural New Hampshire and of Renner’s own complicated true-crime addiction. It definitely had that page-turning quality although, because the focus is less on a historic case and on an open, unsolved investigation, I did experience a level of unease about some of the speculative elements of Renner’s investigation. It’s a compelling narrative to be sure – and Renner does a good job of keeping the primary focus on his own mentality and raison d’etre – but there are some leaps into the dark corners of the internet and  toying with outlandish amateur theories that left me feeling a cold.

So do I intend to carry on with this non-stop slew of non-fiction? More than likely. I’ve got a short break planned this coming weekend which is a much needed chance to get absorbed into a nice chunky novel. But I have become more aware of how my reading habits need to change to fit around my lifestyle in order to avoid a slump. When I’m busy, non-fiction is just easier to read in short doses. So maybe I need to use non-fiction as my weekday reading and make fiction my weekend choice, when I can indulge in a lazy morning sipping tea and curling up with a good book? If it stops me from entering those hideous periods when I just don’t read at all, it’s certainly worth a try!

I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds their reading habits have changed with their lifestyle and if you find yourself reading differently at different times? Drop me a comment down below or send me a message over on Twitter. And, until next time, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or something in between, Happy Reading! x