First of all, a happy Christmas to everyone and a very safe new year's, too. Thank you all for continuing to read this blog throughout 2012; I wish you and yours a prosperous Yuletide season!
I've said that I'd try to keep up with posts about what I'm reading, so here's a brief set of reviews of books I've read this autumn and winter. (With my own second novel coming out and rehearsals going on for a play in January, I actually find it's always a good idea to read somebody else's book in bed at night. To clear my head.)
A Brief Life of the Queen - (By Robert Lacey, 2012). A short but succinct life of the current Sovereign, Robert Lacey's book is beautifully illustrated and a sympathetic approach to the life of Elizabeth II. A few members of the Royal Family, namely the current Prince of Wales, do not emerge too well from Lacey's narrative and he doesn't gloss over the Queen's rage at her courtiers' advice during the weeks after Princess Diana's death in 1997, but overall this is a fast-moving and convincing biography of one of the most successful leaders of the modern age.
The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland, 1740 - 1840 - (By A.P.W. Malcomson, 2006). A.P.W. Malcomson's account of marriage between, and in to, the Irish aristocracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a beautiful book to look at. Full of illustrations, Malcomson discusses the extent to which class, money, land and love influenced how the aristocrats of the Ascendancy picked their mates. He's particularly interesting on those who married "in" to the Ascendancy, although at times his attempts to be utterly thorough can make the book a little dry for the casual reader. For anyone interested in Ireland's (in)famous Protestant Ascendancy, and probably for someone who has already done a bit of reading on them, The Pursuit of the Heiress is a good recommendation and I enjoyed it.
Evita: First Lady - (By John Barnes, 1996). This is not a sympathetic biography of Argentina's notorious first lady, although it's nowhere near as harsh as Mary Main's book Evita: The Woman with the Whip, which proved the inspiration for the famous musical based on Evita's life and death. Barnes presents Evita as shallow, materialistic and addicted to fame. There are times when one questions how much of this book is original research, but it's written well enough and it's easy to follow.
Farewell, My Queen - (By Chantal Thomas, 2004). First published in French and recently adapted into a movie, starring Diane Kruger (below) and Lea Seydoux, Farewell, My Queen tells the story of the last three days in the palace of Versailles from the point-of-view of a fictional servant, whose job it is to read aloud to the Queen while she takes her morning coffee. The novel, narrated in the first person, gives free rein to the servant-girl's obsessive devotion to Marie-Antoinette and it brilliantly captures the rising tide of panic as the full impact of the storming of the Bastille reaches the court. This is my second time reading Farewell, My Queen; at times, it feels like the translation into English may have diminished some of the text's drama, but it remains a very good book.
Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr - (By Linda Porter, 2011.) I preferred Linda Porter's first biography, of Mary Tudor, but this biography was still a fine one. It helped remind me of why the life of Henry VIII's sixth wife is so interesting, despite the fact that she's often looked upon as "the boring one." Katherine the Queen is sympathetic, well-written and enjoyable.
Lost Liners - (By Robert Ballard, 1997). You could certainly say this book about the most famous shipwrecks of the twentieth century is written by an expert; Robert Ballard is the man who discovered the remains of the Titanic in 1985. The illustrations are by the ludicrously talented marine artist, Ken Marschall, and they are incredible. It's a short but beautiful book.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - (By J.K. Rowling, 2003.) For some reason, people seem to generally agree that this is the "worst" book in the Harry Potter franchise. It's also the longest, which may have something to do with it. I love the Harry Potter books and I have to say that I really rather like Order of the Phoenix. In the first place, Dolores Umbridge is such a good villain that I had to punch my pillow in rage at several moments; secondly, it takes a gutsy author to take the risk of making her eponymous hero as irritating as Rowling does with moody Harry in this book. Too much Hogwarts is never a bad thing.