Written by historian and author extraordinaire Essie Fox, this beautiful book is loosely based on silent screen vamp Theda Bara and the strange rumours that were affixed to her screen reputation. However, before Leda Grey returns to the spotlight, we spring forward to 1976 when a young journalist named Ed Peters meets Theo, a mysterious shopkeeper who deals in film memorabilia. Looking for a photograph of Bette Davis, his late mother’s favourite, Ed is drawn to a photograph of Leda Grey, who is Theo’s sister, and the seeds of curiosity are sewn. In the seaside town of Brightland, on top of a rocky cliff resides Leda, who has lived as a recluse for several decades. Theo hints that darker elements are at play, such as the curse surrounding the story of an Egyptian queen, the silent film which brought Leda fame. Ed goes to see the reclusive Leda, whose crumbling house is a museum dedicated to her heyday when the great film director Charles Beauvois had made her a star, albeit for a brief moment. She welcomes Ed into her home, and slowly reveals the events which led her into a life of obscurity. I was especially touched by the merging of the two worlds: the ‘has-been’ actress and the bright young man struggling with his mother’s suicide, and the parallel universe of the young girl onscreen and the old woman who has found a captive audience. Fans of Essie Fox will be familiar with her knowledge of and love for the Victorian era, and although her latest book is set in a different time period, her flawless aesthetic remains true. This is a magical read that will hold your attention long after the story fades to black.
In the heyday of 1930s Hollywood Carole Lombard’s star shone bright. She found stardom as a comedienne opposite John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, and the title of this book is a nod to that. I’m quite pleased to say that I chose the title! But moving along . . . As with many Hollywood ladies, Lombard’s legacy has somewhat been overshadowed by her famous husband, Clark Gable, and the tragic plane crash which cut her life short. This book, although it mentions the plane crash, veers away from dwelling on the cause of Lombard’s death (for a book on the crash I recommend Robert Matzen’s Fireball). What we are presented with is a detailed look at Lombard’s private life as a human being and her many struggles which ring true today, and ultimately her rise as a film star. I discovered after reading this book that I not only know more about Lombard, but I have found a person whom I admire both as a private individual and a lead player in her industry. A fitting tribute to a woman who should be revered in her own right.
I admit that I knew nothing about Astrid Lindgren before reading this volume of wartime diaries but I was drawn to the cover because of her resemblance (at least in this photograph) to Daphne du Maurier. As one of the most famous and loved children’s writers of her generation Lindgren championed the qualities of love, hope, understanding, and kindness in her books, and when war is declared with Germany in 1939 she is forced to put the aforementioned into practice. Her diary, published for the first time in English, displays not only the violence that is sweeping Europe, but the perspective of a woman on the Swedish home front. The topics that she writes about are relevant today: racism, fascism, intolerance, and how we individuals can take a stand against evil. During her work at the Swedish Mail Censorship Office, and her domestic world as a wife and mother, she came up with the idea for Pippi Longstocking – a bright note in this, to quote Lindgren, ‘…poor plant in the grip of madness’. Perhaps it is due to the English translation but I found the sentences very clean and straightforward, a quality which I like. It is so common for diarists, who are expecting to be read in the future, to embellish facts or dress up their thoughts and feelings, but Lindgren, although candid, is to the point. A no nonsense woman in a world gone mad.
As Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote a frank memoir (Slipstream) before her death in 2014, one can be forgiven for asking what else can be added to a factual study of her life. At first glance and from the opening chapters alone it seems the question is to be vain, for Artemis Cooper borrows heavily from her subject’s memoir. However, as the book picks up its pace and Howard grows up, or, rather, makes a series of foolish decisions, it is clear that this is no ordinary biography. With access to Howard herself, and using letters and diaries, Cooper examines a women who tried to make sense of her life by putting it into her fiction novels – most famously the Cazalet Chronicles. She looks at those who were in Howard’s life and who, perhaps, have been unfairly portrayed in past works – this makes Howard herself a far more complex, and indeed sympathetic, character. DuriI ng her lifetime and in her writing Howard did not pretend to be a good person, or even a nice person, but her honesty often disarmed her harshest critics, and Cooper’s biography does the same. Devoted fans of Howard might not learn anything new from this book, but they will certainly develop a deeper understanding for their heroine. It is a fitting tribute to one of our greatest writers.
I freely admit that my head is often turned by pretty books and this was no exception. Reminiscent of Judith Lennox’s family sagas, The Last Debutante is set during the years when debutantes and ‘coming out’ were the singular most important event in a young aristocratic woman’s life. The prologue, set in 2014, introduces us to an elderly Kit and sets the tone for family secrets. Regressing back to the 1930s and then through to the Second World War, the book’s setting has a sprawling landscape, taking place in the Dorset countryside, London, Germany, Iraq, Oman, and the West Indies. As with most historical fiction, especially aimed at women or about women from that period, secrets and lies drive the plot and this is no exception. In 1936 Kit, then aged thirteen, is confined to the nursery while her elder sister, Lily, has been initiated into the grown-up world. But there is more to Kit’s banishment than her age, for the guests are German and with Britain on the verge of war, they are therefore outcasts. Her parents, Lord and Lady Wharton, are having financial difficulties and so it is important that Lily marries well. And this potential husband happens to be German. Within six months she is married and is living in Germany, and now a Nazi sympathiser she becomes friends with Unity Mitford. Kit realises the social impact this will have on her future, and she is pulled further into the web of lies when she is dispatched with an uncle to bring Lily home to England. But something happens and changes her life completely, and it will have consequences for her future descendants. I am always a bit dubiois of books set in the far off future which travel back in time as I fear they stick to cliches, but Lesley Lokko’s writing was engaging and Kit was very likeable. This was defnitely a surprising read and I think one for fans of the Cazalets and Jane Thynne’s Clara Vine series.
Before reading Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women last year I was not much of a short story fan. That has changed. This elegant little hardback is pleasing to the eye and would make a beautiful gift. With seven stories contributed by famous writers it has a variable tone and a different theme throughout. Each story is a joy to read and each theme will strike a chord within the reader. A surprising little read, I definitely recommend it.
Renowned for writing biographies of great figures from the twentieth century ranging from Beryl Markham to the Churchills, and of course the Mitfords, Mary Lovell focuses her attention on a building. The Château de l’Horizon, to be exact. Built for and presided over by Maxine Elliot, it was an exclusive haven for famous and infamous people alike. Elliot played host to Winston Churchill during his ‘wilderness years’, Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton were frequent visitors, as were the naughty society girls Daisy Fellowes and Doris Delevingne. Lovell details the lively atmosphere of the 1920s and ’30s heyday of the Riviera when it was a playground for aristocrats, heiresses and artists. If you are anything like me and have read extensively on the period many stories will be familiar to you, but it’s nice to see them compiled in one place. After Elliot’s death in the 1940s, Aly Khan bought the Château and it’s from there that he wooed Rita Hayworth, and it became a hideaway for Hollywood stars and playboy moguls. Lovell expertly chronicles the two worlds: the past where those with wit, background and breeding dominated the scene, and the present when everything has the shiny veneer of the nouveau riche. What is definite, and she makes this clear, is that the Château was the catalyst for all that is en vogue. Although a host of characters flit in and out of the text (too many to name), Lovell dissects their lives and curates the interesting parts, bringing together the crème of high society. A sparkling biography detailing a bygone era.