Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones

This book spun into my consciousness towards the end of last year, when I was captivated by an extract in one of those lovely anthologies from the Wildlife Trust.

‘We stared at each other, the fox and I, for a charged moment. Her eyes were a pale bronze and seemed bright and aware. She turned away and trotted down the street towards my house. She wasn’t in a rush at all. We walked for a while, her in front, me a few paces behind. In those seconds I got the sense that we were one and the same, mammals, predators, denizens of the earth …’

I wanted to learn more, and I have learned so much from this book.

It’s wonderfully readable, it holds a wealth of fascinating detail, and it is underpinned by the authors obvious love of her subject. She is fair though, giving time to all interested parties, all sides of the debate; and acknowledging that some of those who hate foxes have good reason and that some of those who love them may not be entirely clear-sighted.

She writes of riding out with huntsmen, and then seeks out evidence to evaluate their assertion that their sport is ‘actually the most humane form of pest control and a more natural way for the fox to die than poisoning or shooting.’ And she remembers her grandfather who rode with his local hunt, leading her to an understanding of why fox-hunting was loved by so many, why it thrived for so many years.

Then she writes of an outing with hunt saboteurs. She examines the strength of their convictions, the lengths they will go to, their treatment by huntsmen and by the authorities, and the foundations of their beliefs.

Each account is vividly drawn. There is remarkable drama, and extraordinary and ordinary characters are given room to share their opinions and their experiences.

Other chapters consider the fox in the country and in the town.

In the country there were farmers with many different attitudes. Some hated foxes and regarded them as vermin who would take anything; but others had experiences that suggested that wasn’t their case and that it was possible to live side by side with foxes.

I loved this statement:

“Chickens aren’t native to this country. We domesticated one of the most dopey animals that just sits there and lays eggs with no protection. So when a wild animal comes in it’s the same as saying ‘don’t eat a doughnut’ that is sat in front of us.”

In the town I was interested by a pest controller who loved nature but believed that there was a need to manage numbers; and I could sympathise by those who had suffered damage, intrusion or injury, though I didn’t always agree with their interpretation of what had happened.

(The fox debate in the city is very much like the seagull debate down here on the coast.)

Lucy Jones sets out the arguments, the evidence, and so many different facts and stories about foxes wonderfully well throughout.

There are foxes in literature, there are foxes embedded in language, there are foxes in folklore; and though I really loved that what I loved most of all was coming away with a much better understanding of the fox as a living creature.

There are so many wonderful stories and details that I really can’t pull out just a few to share.

I will simply say that this quote expresses my feelings perfectly:

“The fox’s perceived villainy has much to do with our attitude to the earth and the way we treat it. The fox is a problem only in so far as it affects our own interests – and that problem is often exaggerated to suit other agendas. Intentions of spite and malevolence have been projected onto the fox for many years when, in fact, it is simply a wild animal, acting according to its nature.”

And that I love foxes but I understand why other don’t; and I am so pleased that I read this thought-provoking and entertaining survey of our relationship with them.

The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons (2015)

Harry Fox-Talbot, a noted English composer, was devastated when his beloved wife died. She had been a celebrated singer, music had brought them together, bound them together, and illuminated their lives; but now Fox – he had always been known as Fox – could not listen to music let alone think of playing or composing.

He had no idea what to do with his days; or how he might live the rest of his life.

But he found inspiration.

Inspiration came in the unlikely shape of his grandson, a troublesome four year old who was driving his mother – one of Fox’s two daughters – to distraction. One day he did something that made Fox realise that he had the musicality that his daughters – and his other grandchildren – lacked; and it soon became clear that he was something of a prodigy.

Fox took steps – quite instinctively – to nurture his grandson’s talent; and as he did that his own love of music and life came creeping back. This was so lovely to watch.

5b10a2f37334eed597070546d41444341587343Of course it wasn’t easy. Fox had to learn to teach a pupil who was not easy to manage; and he soon realised that his pupil needed more that he could offer.

There were resentments because Fox was engaging with his grandson as he never had with his daughters. Natasha Solomons showed wonderful understanding of family dynamics here and throughout the story.

Fox threw a wonderful party for his only grandson’s fifth birthday; he didn’t understand why his daughters were less than happy, until they told him that he had never taken any interest in birthday parties when they were children, and that he had always been unhappy when any concern of theirs pulled him away from his music.

There was another occasion, later in the book, when he thought they were doing the wrong thing for his grandson, but he accepted that he had to stand back, and maybe pick up the pieces afterwards ….

Meanwhile, it was still a struggle to come to terms with a life without his wife, with the knowledge that he was getting older, and with the that there were things in his life – things from the past – that he still had to try to put right.

There was another story set against this one.

The Fox-Talbot family home – Hartgrove Hall – was requisitioned during the war; and when it was handed back they found that its wartime occupation had done much damage to what was already a run down property. And so a father and his three very different sons – Fox was the youngest – were faced with the daunting prospect of restoring a house and land with means that were limited to say the least.

The house was beautifully evoked and gloriously described; everything is this story is. It is written in prose that is beautiful and lyrical, that is enriched by references to music and nature, and that evokes times and places so very well.

For the young Fox there was another complication: he fell in love with Edie Rose, the lovely sister who he met as his brother’s girlfriend, and who would become his brother’s wife.

How Fox got both the house and the girl is the mystery that is threaded through this story. But of course there is so much more here than mystery.

Fox was a wonderful narrator and I loved coming to know him as a young and an old man. He drew me into his story, he made me care about him and about what would happen, and I came to understand his hopes and his dreams, his loves and his fears.

I saw his world and the people whose lives touched his so very clearly.

I loved the way that his story spoke so profoundly about family, love, friendship, loss, grief, regret, acceptance …. so many things. There are times when it is heart-breaking, there are times when it is uplifting; and every emotion is pitch perfect.

I loved the tone. It was elegant, it was elegiac, and it suited the story that was unfolding so well.

It’s one of those stories that created a world that captivated me and that I really didn’t want to leave.

I can pick out some things that didn’t quite work. The ‘song collector’ concept that gives the book its title isn’t integrated as well as it might be. Edie Rose’s own story was a little under-written. But in the end those things really didn’t matter.

Sometimes a book speaks to you, and this one spoke to me.

I loved it.

The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh by Marina Fiorato (2015)

The War of the Spanish Succession?

I must confess that, for al the historical novels I’ve read over the years, I knew nothing of that particular conflict but the name. I know now; I learned a lot in the course of a wonderful adventure with a remarkable heroine.

In 1700 Charles II, king of Spain, died without an heir. He willed his throne to Philip of Anjou, and Philip’s grandfather, Louis XIV of France,  was quick to declare him king of Spain, and to declare that France and Spain would be united.

Neighbouring countries were unhappy at the prospect of France wielding so  much power, and so a  Grand Alliance of England, Holland, Prussia, and Austria was formed; their objective to put the Archduke Charles of Austria on the Spanish throne instead of Philip.

Kit Kavanagh knew nothing of that. She was happy; she was young, pretty and vivacious; she loved working in her aunt’s Dublin inn; and she loved her handsome new husband.

28938925She was devastated when he disappeared without warning; leaving without a word, leaving behind his ‘Queen’s shilling’; his reward for enlisting in the British army. Her father had been killed in battle and she knew that she had to do something to make sure that she didn’t lose her husband too.

With her aunt’s tacit encouragement, Kit disguised herself as boy and enlisted too.

Now, this may sound improbable, but I must tell you that Kit Kavanagh lived and breathed, and that Marina Fiorato has dressed the bones of a true story with some plausible, if unlikely, fiction.

The first half of the novel follows Kit’s life with her regiment. She worked hard to keep up with the men, taking a great deal of trouble and fervently hoping that she would be able to catch up with her husband.

There were complications:

Kit could not bear to see injustices, and she would speak out and take action first and worry about the consequences later.

And she found herself falling in love with her captain, Captain Ross; and she knew that he cared about her too, but as a promising young man, not as the woman she really was.

I loved all of the twists and turns, all of the characters and relationships, in this part of the story. I loved Kit, but I worried about her. She had the best of hearts and the best of intentions, she had her wits about her; but it seemed unlikely that she would find her husband and very probable that her secret would be discovered. And what then?

Well, luckily, when this chapter of Kit’s life had to come to an end she tumbled into another story.

She fell into the hands of the Duke of Ormonde, and he was quick to see her potential. He made Kit his pupil, so that she could be sent into a very different kind of battle, as a spy.

I was less taken with this part of the story; it seemed a little too improbable, a little too unsubtle, but I still had a lovely time following Kit.

The various threads of the story came together to make a wonderfully exciting final act.

(I’d had an idea of how things would end up quite early on, but no idea quite how the story would get there.)

I was impressed with how well Marina Fioranto constructed her plot, how well she must have understood – and loved – the history, and how very well she told her story. She brought all of her characters and all of the different places they passed through so vividly to life.

Her prose is very easy to read – light rather than literary – and I found it very easy to keep turning pages.

An epilogue tied up all of the loose ends – it maybe tied them up a little too tightly, but it was nice to know what happened, and it was good to have the real history that underpinned the story acknowledged.

The fiction became a little too fanciful; but its heart was in the right place, it was never less that entertaining, and I am delighted to have been introduced to a wonderful woman from history.

Landfalls by Naomi J Williams (2015)

In her first book, Naomi J Williams has spun a lovely fiction round a fascinating piece of history.

Two ships, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, set sail from Brest in August 1785; carrying officers, crew, engineers, artists, scientists, priests, interpreters and others. They were sailing under the orders of Louis XVI, into a world that was only partially mapped and very little known. They were to circumnavigate the globe; to create new maps and to open up trade routes; and to bring knowledge and understanding home to France.

It was hoped, of course, that this expedition would cast a shadow over that of Captain Cook.

I knew nothing at all about the history, I resisted looking it up, and I’m very glad that I did; I’m sure that I would have loved the book even if I had foreknowledge, but coming to this narrative as I did made it an enthralling voyage of discovery.

22929561‘Landfalls’ is a collection of tales told in different voices. Some are told in the third person, by the most observant of omniscient narrators, but most are told in the first person, by some of the very different men who sailed on the two ships and by some of the people whose lives they touched.

The range of the stories is wonderful – a young man very nearly out of his depth as he seeks vital supplies and intelligence in London; a journey across the Russian Steppes for another young man who had always been destine to leave the expedition there, for work in the diplomatic service; a misjudgement of currents in uncharted territory that could have terrible consequences; a man found dead, in circumstances that are far from clear ….

Some are stronger that others, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that several had originally been short stories, but they come together to make a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Because the progress of the expedition is always at the centre of the narrative, and because that expedition always felt so real and so alive.

The scope of the research that underpins this novel is extraordinary; and that it was a work of love, and that the author gained a real depth of understanding of her subject is obvious. The fiction that she built on fact was both wonderfully inventive and utterly believable.

She manages a large and diverse cast of characters with aplomb; threading them in and out of different stories. I didn’t doubt that she always knew exactly who was on each ship, what each person’s role was, what their history was, how they fitted in to the life of the expedition. If only the man called on to write a report after a certain incident had known as much ….

She writes perceptively of the complex relationships between people who much live and work at close quarters; the strain and tension between those who are not compatible and the bonds that are strengthened by shared experiences by those who are. She understood that even men who yearn to travel and explore feel the pull of home, and wonder and worry about the people they left behind.

Each and every one of the places where the expedition finds land is vividly realised. The diversity and the differences were explored; as were the different perceptions of explorers and natives, and the gulf of understanding between them. I wondered how it must have felt, whether it was possible to understand, that your who world was just one stop on a journey, a place to do business and acquire fresh supplies before moving on ….

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The Boussole and the Astrolabe at Port des Francais, Alaska

I was so impressed with the way Naomi J Williams assembled her pieces, to create a whole that had so many aspects and so much breadth and depth. A few of the pieces seemed less than perfect – an early story that went on for far too long; a late story that seemed less important than others that might have been told  – but when I saw the whole I didn’t think about that, I thought about the lives, about the history, about so many things.

And so I have to say that ‘Landfalls’ is a very fine historical novel, that it sent me on a voyage of discovery, the like of which I could never have imagined; and that it spoke to both my head and my heart.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (2015)

I’ve been reading crime fiction from the ‘Golden Age’ for a long, long time. I began with Agatha Christie, who was always my mother’s favourite; I moved on to Ngaio Marsh, on the recommendation of a librarian; I borrowed a book by Dorothy L Sayers from my godmother and was quickly smitten; I discovered Margery Allingham when the BBC dramatized her work. Over the years I discovered more wonderful writers: Michael Innes, Josephine Tey and Anthony Berkeley and the first name to come to mind, but I know that there are others I’ve read and others I have still to read.

That made Martin Edwards’ books – its full title ‘The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story’ – a quite wonderful proposition. I thought that I could have a lovely time learning more about books and authors I knew and loved, remembering books and authors who had slipped my mind, and, of course,  and discovering new authors and finding more books that I might read.

I did all of that, and a great deal more,

Golden AgeThis is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club, in  between the wars. It was an age when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War; when austerity and unemployment would lead to the General Strike, while the rich grew richer and more decadent than ever before; when the British Empire was beginning its inevitable decline; and when some saw – and some didn’t see – a new threat emerging in Germany.

All of that history is reflected in the lives of the writers and in their writings.

The Detection Club grew out of the dinners Anthony Berkeley and his wife Peggy hosted at their home in the late 1920s; their guests included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Douglas and Margaret Cole, Ronald Knox, Henry Wade, H C Bailey and John Rhode. Eventually a club was formed, with rules, a constitution and a committee, and with the stated aim of encouraging and maintaining a high standards in the writing of detective novels

It allowed crime writers to meet, to talk over ideas, to support one another each other, and to collaborate on a number of books.

The book opens dramatically, as Ngaio Marsh is a guest at a ritual dinner to install a new club president.  Present are ‘Eric the Skull’ and a host of crime writers  including the founding members whose stories Martin Edwards will use to provide a framework for all of the stories he has to tell: Dorothy L Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Agatha Christie.

There really is a wealth of information in this book.

The stories of the writers I’ve mentioned and many more are told well; with insight that allowed me to understand them as people and to understand why they wrote what they wrote in the way and at the time they did, and with understanding and restraint so that I never felt that I was intruding. They were people with very different lives and concerns, but the Detection Club made them a community, and I came to understand that they were also people who loved and appreciated the art of the crime writer every bit as much as their most enthusiastic readers.

I was intrigued by the number of real crimes than underpinned the fiction of the period. There were cases I knew – most famously Doctor Crippen and Thompson and Bywaters – but there were many I didn’t; some were solved but some were not; some were of the period and some were from the past. The cases were discussed, and there were instance of crime writers turning detective to try to solve some of the unsolved mysteries.

The discussion of specific titles told me that the author had a wonderful depth of knowledge of subject; and he made me want to read any number of books again in the light of what I had learned as well as reading many others for the first time. I was fascinated as I learned how the authors used their books to refer to each other,  and so many interesting details that I really don’t know where to start.

I was particularly interested to see the connections between people – some club members and some not – and I spotted many names I wouldn’t have associated with the crime fiction of the period, who were friends, relatives or descendants of the main protagonists.

The narrative was moving slowly and steadily through time, but I was so caught up with everything in this book, with the interplay of true crime, social history, lives lived and crime fictions, and with the wealth of wonderful detail, that I hardly noticed. That speaks volumes for the author’s depth of knowledge, for his love of his subject, and for the craftsmanship he deployed in the building of this extraordinary book.

It isn’t quite a comprehensive account of the Golden Age, because there were key writers who weren’t involved with the Detection Club, or who became members later, of who remained on the fringes. I have to mention that, but I also have say that it really doesn’t detract from the quality of the work.

My interest dipped just a little towards the end as many of the people I had been reading about had aged, passed the peak of their writing careers, or had left this life. But it was piqued again when the author returned to the relationship between two writers, one remembered – though not as well as he might be – as a crime writer, and the other remembered for quite different reasons.

This is the one specific I am going to mention, and it would have been worth the price of admission on its own. Anthony Berkeley and E M Delafield had a long and very close relationship, each influenced the other’s writing, and there are nods one to the other in many of their books.

That added a more books to the very long list that I so want to read and find.

I’ll also read this book again. I’ll look things up and I’m sure I’ll read it again from cover to cover.

I’d call it essential for lovers of the subject; and well worth reading for anyone with any interest at all.

The Night in Question by Laurie Graham (2015)

I have had a lovely time, meeting Miss Dot Allbones, in London, in the late 1880s.

She was a music hall performer, a singer and a comedienne, and I warmed to her from the start. I learned that she had risen from humble beginnings, in the Midlands; that she had been encouraged when she showed signs of talent at a very young age; and, though she had been married, she was happy that she could support herself in her own home in Victoria Park.

That isn’t to say that she didn’t enjoy the company of men. she enjoyed an intimate relationship with journalist Tom Bullen; she got on well with her young lodger, rising artiste Valentine St John; and she had a warm, professional relationship with her long-time manager, Monty Hyams.

25728098She appreciated her good fortune, and she always looked after her friends. She liked to be appreciated – and she was concerned that as she got older she was being pushed a little further down the bill than she had been – but she knew was fortunate, and that others were much less fortunate through no fault of their own.

Dot was warm and outgoing, she was witty and self-deprecating; she was excellent company, and her voice always rang true.

It’s been a long time since I read Laurie Graham, but I remember that she often drops a fictional character into a well-know story from the past, and that what she has done again here.

In East London, not so very far away, brutal killings, that would be attributed to Jack the Ripper, had begun. Everyone was talking about it. Dot always made sure that she had an escort to take her home after her nightly performance. Tom was much busier that usual, chasing stories. Monty joined a group of men who would patrol the streets at night.

Dot was particularly worried about Kate, a childhood friend she had met for the first time in years. She went out of her way to help her, and her help had been much appreciated. But Dot knew that Kate was too fond of a drink. I appreciated that Dot had the sense to give things, and to give her time, rather than money. I loved that when her friends were critical, she pointed out that they came from the same place and it was just that she’s been lucky and Kate hadn’t – though there was actually a little more to it than that- and I really loved that she stood up for women who ‘went with men, pointing out that most of them only did it because they had no other way of getting the money they desperately needed to pay for food and shelter.

She was also concerned about Valentine’s American friend, Dr Frank Townsend. Valentine was clearly very taken with him, but he was unwilling to step forward when a medical man was needed, he was vague about exactly what it was he did, and Dot was sure that something was amiss, though she couldn’t quite say what.

All of this plays out beautifully. The characterisation is marvellous, the evocation of time and place is exactly hat it should be, and the story is clearly underpinned by careful research into the music hall, into 19th century London life, and into the Ripper case.

Because one of the killings sends shockwaves through Dot’s circle of friends.

I only knew the broad history, but when I went to look up a few specifics I found that Laurie Graham had fitted her own story around the real history very cleverly indeed. She takes just a little artistic licence, but nothing that I felt was unreasonable.

The tone changes a little in the latter part of the story, inevitably, given what had happened, and it works very well. The story needed a change of gear, and that change of gear made me realise how caught up I was, with Dot and her world.

I wondered if the ending would be effective – given that the real history had no real conclusion – but it was.

Some things changed, and some things stayed the same.

I could pull out some minor niggles – about pacing, about one or two plot developments being a little too clearly signposted, about one or two attitudes being a little too modern – but they were no more than niggles. As a whole, the book worked very well indeed.

This was a wonderfully engaging and entertaining story; I loved the way it balance the darker side of life with humour; and I loved meeting all of the people and stepping into their world for a little while.

A Game for all the Family by Sophie Hannah (2015)

This is the book that I’ve been waiting for Sophie Hannah to write: an intricate, complex, impossible mystery that seems unsolvable and yet has an utterly logical solution, free from the encumberances of a series

At least, it’s nearly that book. It was intriguing, it was compelling, but it wasn’t quite as perfect as it might have been – as it needed to be to really work.

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The set-up is brilliant:

A family is moving, out of London to a big house set deep in Devon, in the Dart valley. Justine has given up a high-powered media job, and she wants to cut all of her ties with that life. Because her husband, Alex, is a successful opera singer she can do that; and her daughter, Ellen, can be enrolled in an exclusive private school with an excellent reputation.

While the car is moving slowly through congested streets, a suburban house catches Justine’s attention, and she knows that – for reasons she doesn’t quite understand – it will be important to her. When she explains why she seems distracted, her husband and daughter tease her. She changes the subject, but she doesn’t forget.

At first it seems that the move has been a great success, but it isn’t long before there are complications.

Justine receives threatening anonymous telephone calls. When a name is mentioned, Justine protests that she isn’t that person, that she has no idea who she is. But the caller insists that she is, and every fact that she mention correlates with the facts of her life.

And then Ellen is disturbed when her friend George is expelled from school. She believes that to be unjust, and when she explains why her mother agrees. Justine approaches the school, but she is told that there never was a George, and that there has never been an expulsion. But the way she is told, the way she is handled, make her quite sure that her daughter is right and that the school has something to hide.

She links the school situation and her anonymous calls, and she sets out to find out what is going on. It was classic Sophie Hannah, without the dull detectives, of the Culver Valley, and there was more. There was something else that really elevated this book.

Ellen had a writing project for school. Justine picked up the first few pages, and she found that it was a murder mystery set in their new house. It didn’t feel like Ellen’s work – not the content, not the style, not the strange names – but she insisted that it was, and she refused to explain or to share any more of her work.

That became a story within a story. And with a touch of the gothic, and a dash of black humour, I have to say that it was a more engaging and more thought-provoking story than Justine’s.

I had to keep turning the pages, because the book was so well written, the puzzle was so fascinating, and the characters – though not likeable – were intriguing. I needed answers, I needed to know what was fact and what was fiction, and I needed to work out who – if anyone – was reliable.

There were some answers as the story progressed, but there were more questions.

This is the kind of book where you need to trust the author and accept some things that see ridiculously improbable. I can – and I love the complex puzzle and the twisted logic – but I can understand why many can’t and don’t. I think that Sophie Hannah’s books engage the logical part of my brain that makes me an accountant as well as the part that makes me a reader, and without those two part working together I doubt that the books would work for me.

One character – in Ellen’s story – said that the clues were there. They were, and I spotted some of them.

And another character – in Justine’s story – said, after something happened, that it made them realise that they would never have answers to some of their questions. I felt like that too, and it was a problem.

Ellen’s story was wrapped up very cleverly, but the deouement of Justine’s felt messy. It was compelling, it was clever, many questions were answered, but not all of them, and I was left a little disappointed.

It also made me look back and realise that there had been unnecessary details and complications in Justine’s story; it wasn’t as well executed as her daughter’s writing assignment.

I loved my journey through this book, I found much too love, but this time the puzzle was just a little too twisted to be satisfactorily solved.

But I do hope that Sophie Hannah write more stand-alone books, because there is no one else quite like her, and I know that when she gets it just right the results will be truly exceptional.

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay by William Boyd (2015)

Books that guide you through a whole life can be magical.

I know that William Boyd has written that kind of book before and I’ve read his books before I’ve not read any that have been journeys right through lives. I’ve meant to, because I’ve read good things about them, but because I’ve liked some of his books more than others they’ve never quite come to the top of my reading queue.

Until now.

I found much to appreciate in the stories that Amory Clay had to tell, reaching back from the late seventies to childhood when the twentieth century was still quite young, but I also found that some things were missing.

When Amory was seven, her uncle Greville, a society photographer, gave her camera, a Kodak Brownie. He showed her how to use it, and she was captivated. Her father had been her hero, but he was damaged by his experiences in the Great War and he let her down. That would shape her outlook on life, and her relationships with men.

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Amory wanted to establish herself as a photographer and her uncle took her under his wing. She began by photographing socialites for the magazine Beau Monde. But a misjudgement has consequences and she escapes to Berlin, where she will take pictures of the demi monde of the late 20s. Back in London those pictures cause a sensation, but soon she needs another escape, and that leads her to 1930s.

Over the years she will photograph the Blackshirt riots in London, France during the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and an alternative community founded by those who opposed that war in 70s California.

Amory had a happy knack of being present at defining moments of modern history, but it is to William Boyd’s great credit that his story doesn’t feel contrived; Amory’s life was shaped by her own initiative, and by a few mistakes along the way.

It helped that the author clearly had a depth of knowledge of all of the history that Amory’s life touched. The story is episodic, as Amory looks back at significant parts of her life, and in every episode the world was so well evoked, the details were so well done, that I never doubted that Amory lived and breathed there, and that the author might, if he chose, extend every episode into a much longer piece.

The history is wonderful, but the book is at its strongest when Amory is involved with her family. Maybe because this is her story, because those relationships shape her, and it’s only then is her story feels entirely hers.

She’s a fascinating character, Amory Clay. Life taught her to be self-reliant, and she was. She made mistakes but she gained wisdom and I loved watching her operate; she was bright, she was complex, and she had all of the social skills she needed to move forward as a woman in what was very much a man’s world.

I appreciated that, in a world that sees full of fictional retellings of real lives lived, Amory is a proper fictional character. Clearly her life story is informed by lives of real 20th century women photographers, but I couldn’t tie it any more closely than that.

I was disappointed though that, as she told her story, she often seemed quite guarded; I appreciated that she was restrained, and in any places her understatement was wonderfully telling, but I often found myself wanting to feel a little more emotionally engaged.

I had to think that this was a life story told because she wanted to leave a clear record of the facts; rather than a story told because she wanted others to understand who she had been, and why she had done the things she had done.

I could understand that. I could accept it. I just would have liked to understand a little more of what made her want to become a photographer, and what made her define herself as a photographer throughout the course of her life.

I loved what I found in this book, I’ve very glad that I read it, and my only wish is that it had told me a little more that it did.

As it stands I’d say it’s a very good book, but not quite as magical as it might have been.