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The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde

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The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna, book reviewThe Secret Life of Oscar Wilde was written by Neil McKenna and published in 2004. I can never resist books about Oscar Wilde and had never heard of this one until fairly recently. This is not so much a biography of Wilde though as a biography of Wilde’s private life, specifically his homosexuality. The author begins by explaining that he wanted to discover more about this side of Wilde’s life, which of course ultimately led to his downfall. When did Wilde first realise he was attracted to men? Why did he get married? Did his wife suspect anything? Why did he not take the advice of his friends to go abroad when his court battle against the Marquess of Queensberry collapsed and he faced charges of ‘gross indecency’?


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The Happy Prince and Other Tales

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The Happy Prince and Other Tales  by Oscar Wilde, book reviewThe Happy Prince and Other Tales is a collection of children’s stories by Oscar Wilde and was published in 1888. The collection contains The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Selfish Giant, The Devoted Friend and The Remarkable Rocket. The stories are laced with Wilde’s descriptive flourishes of flowers and nature and the first three in particular are wonderful and quite heartbreaking at times. There is often a very obvious religious subtext (with acts of kindness, generosity and sacrifice rewarded in fantastical ways) and some incredibly touching and sad moments but the stories, for the most part, manage to be uplifting too and Wilde’s major theme is always that we should think of others and not just ourselves.


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The Kenneth Williams Diaries

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The Kenneth Williams Diaries by Kenneth Williams, book reviewKenneth Williams kept a diary for more than forty years and in 1993, five years after his death, these diaries were published in an edited form. The diaries revealed a more complex figure than the comedian who became much loved through his Carry On roles and famous appearances on the chat show circuit. The private Kenneth Williams was a remarkably well read, religious man haunted by his homosexuality, his sometimes outrageous behaviour, and his thoughts of suicide. He lived an ascetic and often lonely life in a series of modest London flats and never seemed to have much money considering how famous he was. The diaries are 800 pages long (in my paperback copy) and include many interesting photographs from different points in Williams’ life, from his early revue days to the distinguished, grey haired figure of the late eighties shortly before his death.


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The Fight

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The Fight by Norman Mailer, book reviewThe Fight is the late writer Norman Mailer’s acclaimed book about the 1974 World Heavyweight Championship bout between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. Mailer was there to expertly cover The Rumble in the Jungle and infiltrated both camps (Ali in particular was a friend of Mailer) to get an inside picture of the famous encounter. The book is his account of the build-up and fight, the personalities, the entourages, the intrigue, ‘Bantu’ philosophy and the extraordinary experience of being in Africa for such a spectacular and unique event. My paperback copy of The Fight runs to nearly 240 pages and this is a must for anyone interested in boxing or Muhammad Ali.


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From Hell

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From Hell By Alan Moore, Illustrated by Eddie CampbellFrom Hell is a graphic novel by Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell and was first published over a number of dates stretching back to 1989. This collected edition is 572 pages long and although Moore has been responsible for the likes of Watchmen, V For Vendetta and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this is probably his masterpiece. From Hell is Moore’s own speculation on the case of Jack the Ripper, a blending of fiction, fact and fantasy that begins with a Royal Conspiracy and weaves a complex and gripping story that involves Freemasons, time travel, prostitution, the history of London, detective work, a psychic, corruption, poverty, mystical visions, famous figures of the era and the birth of the 20th century. The book begins with the premise that Prince Albert Victor fathered an illegitimate child with a mere shop girl and married her – all while gaining a ‘social education’ under the care of artist Walter Sickert.

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Dream Catcher

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Dream Catcher: Reflections on Reclusion By Margaret Salinger, book reviewDream Catcher was published in 2000 and is a memoir by Margaret Salinger, daughter of the infamous recluse JD Salinger. At the height of the fame that followed the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger moved to Cornish, New Hampshire and lived in a modest house in the woods on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Although he continued to write he never published anything after 1965 and his reclusive and apparently eccentric lifestyle frequently led to much speculation about him. Dream Catcher is about what it was like to grow up in this house as JD Salinger’s daughter and then gradually spins out into a more general memoir by the author about her own life with her father flitting in and out of the book. ‘I grew up in a world nearly devoid of living people,’ the book begins. ‘Cornish, where we lived, was wild and woody, our nearest neighbours a group of moss-covered gravestones that my brother and I once discovered. My father discouraged living visitors to such an extent that an outsider, looking in, might have observed a wasteland of isolation.’


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Birthday Letters

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Birthday Letters By Ted Hughes, book reviewBirthday Letters is a collection of poetry by Ted Hughes that, with two exceptions, is addressed to his late wife Sylvia Plath who committed suicide in 1963. The book was first published in 1998 and contains poems that were written over the course of 25 years. Despite the intense enduring interest in Plath and her life, Hughes had always remained completely silent about her and frequently received much scorn from Plath admirers for having an affair when they were married and destroying the last part of her journals after her death, an act Hughes says he did to spare their children. Given the long silence by Hughes on Plath, Birthday Letters (which contains 88 poems) was therefore a very big deal when it was published and eagerly anticipated. ‘You are ten years dead,’ says Hughes in one of the first poems (Visit). ‘It is only a story. Your story. My story.’


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Tintin in Tibet

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Tintin in Tibet by Hergé, book reviewTintin in Tibet is the twentieth book in the long running Tintin series of illustrated adventures by Hergé and was first published in 1960 – thirty years after the first Tintin adventure, Tintin in The Land of the Soviets. The story begins with Tintin on holiday in Switzerland with his good friends Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus plus, of course, Snowy, his beloved dog. Returning from a brisk walk in the mountains with Snowy, Tintin goes back to his hotel to meet Captain Haddock – who is unsurprisingly enjoying the holiday in a more sedate fashion and would much rather read the newspaper with a drink close to hand than clamber over rocks all day. The Captain shows Tintin a newspaper headline about a terrible plane crash high in the remote and icy mountains of Nepal.

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For Your Eyes Only

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For Your Eyes Only (Paperback) By (author) Ian Fleming‘The destruction of a Russian hideout at SHAPE headquarters near Paris; the planned assassination of a Cuban thug in America; the tracking of a heroin ring from Rome to Venice and beyond; for Bond it is just routine. For anyone else – certain death.’

For Your Eyes Only is a collection of five James Bond short stories by Ian Fleming and was first published in 1960. Fleming had originally written the stories for a proposed series of Bond television adventures to be broadcast by CBS but that never transpired in the end. Two of the stories here were first published by Cosmopolitan and Playboy respectively. Although regarded to be an interesting offshoot from his series of Bond novels, For You Eyes Only is not generally regarded to be one of the strongest examples of Fleming’s work.

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Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde By Richard EllmanOscar Wilde is a comprehensive (my paperback copy is well over 600 pages long with the index) and acclaimed biography by Richard Ellmann. The book took two decades to complete and was only finished shortly before the author’s death. Ellman completed the biography in the face of incurable illness and his affection and love for the subject shines through this astonishingly erudite and very sympathetic account of the writer’s life. ‘Oscar Wilde,’ writes Ellman. ‘We only have to hear the great name to anticipate that what will be quoted as his will surprise and delight us. Among the writers identified with the 1890s, Wilde is the only one who everybody still reads. The various labels that have been applied to the age – Aestheticism, Decadence – ought not to conceal the fact that our first association with it is Wilde – refulgent, majestic, ready to fall.’ The book is split into five sections (BEGINNINGS, ADVANCES, EXALTATIONS, DISGRACE, EXILE), each of which consists of chapters and is like a mini-book in itself.


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Masters and Commanders

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Masters and Commanders: The Military Geniuses Who Led the West to Victory in World War II By Andrew RobertsMasters and Commanders is a 2008 book by the historian Andrew Roberts about the Western Alliance between the United States and Great Britain at the highest level during World War 2. This is a comprehensive and absorbing study of the decisions that were made, the conferences, the disputes, the arguments over strategy, the friendships, the fractious relationships, and so on. It revolves around the four men who were key in the Anglo-American Alliance against Hitler; Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the head of the British Army, and General George C Marshall, his American counterpart. The interactions between and around these four very different men and the ever changing problems they faced are fascinating to read about. ‘In all they had met seven times,’ writes Roberts of them. ‘And at these hard-fought meetings had hammered out a victorious strategy. There had been some individual defeats and disappointments in battle against the Axis, of course, but no campaign reversals. Above all the timing of the greatest amphibious assault in history had been justified by the only truly unanswerable criterion of warfare: success. Through their rows, standoffs, fist-shaking, charm offensives, hard-fought compromises and occasional tantrums, the Masters and Commanders performed that miracle and won victory in the west.’

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The Island of Doctor Moreau

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The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. WellsThe Island of Doctor Moreau is a quasi-allegorical 1896 science fiction novel written by the great HG Wells. The story concerns the frequently terrified Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked sailor who is rescued in the South Seas and ends up on a remote and mysterious island where a hubristic scientist named Moreau is conducting all manner of strange and troubling experiments. Prendick is soon spooked by the strange sights he catches glimpses of in the jungle and the cries he hears late at night from his room and becomes very curious to find out what exactly is going on as this unsettling tale unfolds and the macabre secrets of Moreau are gradually revealed. ‘On January the Fifth, 1888,’ informs the wonderfully atmospheric introduction. ‘That is eleven months and four days after my uncle, Edward Prendick, a private gentleman, was picked up in latitude 5′ 3″ S. and longitude 101′ W. in a small open boat of which the name was illegible but which is supposed to have belonged to the missing schooner Ipecacuanha.


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