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This book took me two months – to the day – to read. For someone who used to read a book a day and has now slowed down to generally a book a week, that is LONG time. But don’t think that it was because I didn’t enjoy reading this – on the contrary, I loved it, to the extent that I would put it in my top ten favourite books.

Because it is Richard Burton’s diaries, it is not an autobiography as such, but it does paint an revealing and fascinating picture of his life, particularly during his first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.

The diaries initially start with schoolboy Richard (then called Richard Jenkins) describing his day to day life – with focus on friends, family and sport (and a lot of board games!) but even then you can see his budding interest in books and literature. The majority of the diaries are, as aforementioned, written during his life with Elizabeth Taylor, and they are very absorbing – not just for the private snapshots of their lives together, but also for his thoughtful observations on the world in general, his profession, his children and his reading habits. Because he certainly loved to read – up to three books a day sometimes – and wrote his thoughts about almost everything he read. He had a wickedly acerbic sense of humour and often used quotes by poets, authors and playwrights to support his point.

The diaries tail off towards the end of his and Taylor’s relationship and then start again during his four marriage (to third wife Suzy Hunt). After another long gap, they restart again during his relationship with Sally Hay, and during preparation for the Private Lives tour, when he and Taylor starred together in Noel Coward’s play about a divorced couple who still have feelings for each other. I admire Burton’s widow Sally for releasing the diaries, especially when he writes with such passion and love towards Taylor for the majority of them.

What ultimately emerged from the diaries was a picture of a very intelligent, witty and generous man, with many demons (not the least of which was of course alcohol), but who was all too aware of the flaws in himself, as much as he noticed flaws in those around him.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book from beginning to end, beautifully edited (although I would have preferred the notes to be in a list at the back of the book, rather than footnotes on almost every individual page), and one I will definitely pick up and read again. Highly recommended for anyone with even the slightest interest in any aspect of Burton’s life.

(Click here for the official Richard Burton website.)

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The subtitle of this book is ‘A Neuroscientist and his dog decode the canine brain’.  Gregory Berns – the neuroscientist in question – has done years of MRI work to help understand how the human brain works, but as a dog lover, he wanted to learn how a dog’s brain works.  After first determining that such a thing could even be done, he and his team at Emory University came up with methods of doing MRI scans on a canine brain.  He leads the reader through the initial idea, right through the various difficulties they had to overcome (for example, from being given the go-ahead to do the experiment in the first place, or  training dogs how to lie absolutely still in the MRI scanner.

The two dogs who participate in the experiment are Callie, Berns’ own adopted mix-breed, and McKenzie, the Border Collie owned by a friend of a friend. Berns describes the scientific aspects of the experiment, including how an MRI works and is used, and while the narrative sometimes necessarily becomes quite technical, it was explained simply enough for someone like me – with not the best grasp of scientific concepts – and didn’t lose me or bore me along the way.

Stories about Berns’ family life and his two dogs – as well as Callie, they have a Golden Retriever named Lyra – keep the story bouncing along, and underline the fact that while he is a scientist, he is also a dog lover, with the greatest respect for their happiness and well-being.  For that reason, he was determined that the experiment should not be detrimental to the dogs in any way, and that they should be allowed to not participate if that was what they chose.

It’s a fascinating study, and the telling of it is engaging and, for the most part, upbeat.  I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this particular branch of science, but also for any dog lovers.  Very enjoyable.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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May 1983 – 14 year old Cynthia Bigge wakes up the morning after an almighty row with her father, and discovers that her entire family – her mother, father and brother have disappeared.  The mystery is never solved, and for 25 years, Cynthia has to live with not knowing what happened to them.  Are they dead? Alive?  Did they just choose to leave her, or did some other fate befall them?

2008 – Cynthia appears in one of those hokey true-crime television shows, which revisits the mystery of her family’s disappearance, and soon afterwards, strange things start happening – a phone call from someone saying that they know where her family are; her father’s old hat suddenly appearing in their house, and other events.  Is someone playing cruel games with Cynthia, or is they mystery finally about to be solved?

Apart from the very brief prologue describing the night of the disappearance from Cynthia’s point of view, the rest of the story is narrated by her husband, a high school English teacher named Terry.  Cynthia and Terry have a more-or-less happy marriage, and an eight year old daughter named Grace, but the mystery of what happened to her parents and brother has haunted Cynthia for years, to the extent that when odd events occur, Terry questions Cynthia’s sanity.

If you are a fan of thrillers/whodunnits, then I’d recommend this story.  Sometimes the writing is a bit cliched, and I did figure out the ending before the big reveal, but there was plenty here that kept me entertained.  The writing flowed well, and I read huge chunks at a time, because I was eager to find out what happened (and if my guesses were correct).  The plot sometimes veered close to being ludicrous, but I just went with it, and enjoyed it anyway.  As with most books in this genre, I would not read it again, because it’s more about the destination rather than the journey, so once you know who ‘dunnit’ there’s not much point in re-reading.  Terry was a decent enough narrator, although not a particularly interesting character (to me anyway), but this book is definitely more plot driven than character driven, so the fact that he did not make a huge impression on me did not really matter.

All in all, it’s not brilliant, but it’s an enjoyable diversion and I’d read more by Linwood Barclay.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This book, written by Frank Sinatra’s youngest child, is a fascinating insight into the man behind the music.  It’s also a book of two halves.  In the first half, Tina describes life as a young child, with a loving but often absent father – Frank having left Tina’s mother Nancy for Ava Gardner, while Tina was a baby.  Although clearly very close to her mother, Tina speaks well of Gardner, and even better of her father’s third wife, Mia Farrow, with whom she became good friends.

In the second half of the book, things take a sombre turn, as Frank marries his fourth and final wife, Barbara Marx, who was formerly married to Marx brother Zeppo.  The difficulties between Barbara and Frank’s children – Nancy, Frank Jr. and Tina herself – have been fairly well documented, but here, any gaps are filled in, and Tina lets rip at Barbara. (I have read Barbara Sinatra’s book, ‘Lady Blue Eyes‘, which tells the story from the other side.  I didn’t enjoy that book anywhere near as much as those, or take to the author, and given the stories which were flying about within the industry while Frank and Barbara were married, I tend to believe Tina’s side of the story, although obviously only those who were there know the full truth.)

Tina describes how her mother and father remained close and loyal friends for the rest of Frank’s life, and how they often talked about getting back together.  It is sad to read about the troubles within the family upon Frank’s fourth marriage, and occasionally Tina makes a few assumptions about Barbara’s motives or actions, but it certainly appears that Barbara intentionally made life difficult for the Sinatra children, and caused a rift between them and their father.  Toward the end of his life, Frank Sinatra suffered from various illnesses, and was also diagnosed with dementia, and there is a real sense of tenderness in how Tina talks of her father.  His death and funeral were beautifully described, by a daughter who clearly loved her dad very deeply.

I would certainly recommend this book to any fans of Frank Sinatra – it’s an interesting and engaging read.  It’s not the book to read if you want to find out more about his career; it’s definitely a very personal memoir concentrating on Frank’s private life, but all the more enjoyable for it.

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The ever reliable Rob Lowe plays Rob Harlan, a happily married man who, after losing his job writes a book which becomes a best seller – turning Rob into a literary phenomenon.  However, as his fame spreads and his success grows, he starts to take his family for granted, and loses sight of what is important in his life.

This film was made for cable television, and is not one of Rob Lowe’s better known films, but it is definitely worth catching if you get chance.  Lowe is of course perfect in the lead role, and although Rob (Harlan)’s behaviour became frustrating, Lowe just about kept the audience on his side (or this viewer at least), in that I wanted him to open his eyes and see what he was in danger of losing.  Paget Brewster was great as his wife Allyson, who watches in dismay as her loving husband grows further away from here, and Frances Conroy is also very good as Rob’s agent and friend Camille.  Christopher Lloyd takes a small but pivotal role as a mysterious man who pops up several times and always unexpectedly, to warn Rob of what he is putting at risk by his behaviour.

The only thing that annoyed me about this film was the ending.  It’s an adaptation of a book – which I haven’t read, but which apparently the film remains pretty faithful to – and therefore, any disappointment at the ending is not really the fault of the film-makers.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and if I told the ending, it would be a BIG spoiler, but suffice to say that it was not what I was expecting, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  I mean it in a a kind of “what the heck were they going for there?” kind of way.  But for a film of an hour and  a half, at least an hour and a quarter of it is very enjoyable, and on that basis, I would recommend it.

Year of release: 2003

Director: Peter Levin

Producers: Stephanie Germain, Sunta Izzicupo, Frances Croke Page, Kimberley C. Anderson, Malcolm Petal, Judy Cairo

Writers: Richard Paul Evans (novel), Joyce Eliason

Main cast: Rob Lowe, Paget Brewster, Frances Conroy, Christopher Lloyd, Jude Ciccolella

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In the first part of this funny, moving and frank memoir, Alexandra Heminsley discusses how and why she started running, and – more importantly – how and why she continued to run, despite occasional setbacks and bouts of self-doubt.  She talks about how it brought her closer to family members, and made her feel better about herself, and along the way describes some of the races she has participated in.

The second part of the book is given over to hints and advice to other runners, or people who are thinking of taking up running, whether as a casual hobby, or a serious enthusiast.  The book also talks about the history of women’s running (and boy, did that chapter open my eyes; after reading about the journey that Joan Benoit Samuelson took to become the first female Olympic marathon winner, I watched some of the footage on YouTube, and was filled with admiration and tears).

While Heminsley’s own story is very entertaining and inspiring, the second section of the book is very useful to new runners, offering tips on buying running trainers and equipment, and what you will need if you take part in a big race.  It also highlights injuries that can be caused or aggravated by running, and the best ways to deal with them, and debunks many myths surrounding running.

As a fellow runner, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and identified with many of the feelings that the author described.  Heminsley is very engaging and relatable, and also very funny.  I don’t think you would have to be a runner to appreciate this book, but I am pretty sure that after reading it you would want to pull on your trainers and go for a trot around the block.

I would recommend this book for everyone, but particularly people with even just a passing interest in running.

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Polly is Rose’s oldest friend, so when Polly’s husband Christos is killed in a road accident, Rose doesn’t think twice about inviting Polly and her two sons to stay with Rose and her husband Gareth, and their children.  But soon after Polly, with her wild ways and dangerous habits moves into Rose’s carefully ordered life, things start going wrong.  As Rose watches her own world starting to fall apart, she realises one thing – now that Polly is there, it’s going to be hard to get her out again.

I thought this psychological thriller was pretty good.  It was certainly fast paced, with lots of twists and turns, and I found it hard to put down.  The characters were well drawn, although none of them was especially likeable.  I did find myself rooting for Rose at the beginning of the story, but about halfway through I got exasperated with her reactions to certain events.  Gareth was difficult to like, although there was a backstory which went some way to explaining his moods, and Polly was so selfish and thoughtless that I was amazed that either Rose or Gareth could stand being in her company for more than a couple of days.

The story is told in the third person, but from Rose’s point of view, which added to the suspense, especially as events took a firmer hold on her, and she became a more unreliable narrator.  I did think some of the phrasing was a bit clunky (a particular example was, “A dull nausea, like the smell of new carpet, began to seep into her toes…”  Is the smell of new carpet particularly nauseous?!) but overall it did not detract from the action, and certainly did not stop me from reading faster and faster as I got towards the end, because I was eager to see how things turned out.

There were a few loose ends and unanswered questions at the end of the story, but the major plot line was resolved, although not in the way I had hoped for.  However, I would recommend this book to fans of thrillers – it’s exciting and tense enough to be devoured in just one or two sittings, and I look forward to reading more books by Julia Crouch.

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