Poverty is romanticised only by fools

very good livesVery Good Lives
by J K Rowling

I was commissioned to write some short comments about this book for For Books’ Sake, but I found that I had more to say than I could squeeze into 150 words, so here is my longer review.

This is Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, published for the first time in book form. Taking as her subjects “the fringe benefits of failure” and “the importance of imagination”, Rowling shares the wisdom of her own experience with the new graduates. Some of her comments and advice are profound, some less so. Some of it is old and familiar, some new and original.

As you might expect of a speech that took maybe 20 minutes to give, this isn’t a big book, even though to bulk it out the publisher has added illustrations to every page by Joel Holland, in bold black and red. His style is so-so but the overall effect still makes the book feel special and beautiful.

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Defeated by its own decay, it was dying

lady-and-the-unicornThe Lady and the Unicorn
by Rumer Godden

I had never heard of Rumer Godden until I flicked through the Virago Modern Classics catalogue and saw that they are reissuing her books, but she was apparently hugely successful in her lifetime. Between the 1930s and 1990s she wrote an astonishing 70 books, including most famously Black Narcissus, which was made into that wonderful film with Deborah Kerr that I have always loved but never knew was based on a novel.

Godden had an interesting life. Born to an English family in India, she moved back and forth between India and the UK throughout her life, and her first-hand knowledge of both countries is clear in The Lady and the Unicorn.

The story centres around a crumbling, decaying mansion in Calcutta, split into apartments occupied by several Eurasian families. Belonging to neither the British colonial society nor the native Indian society, they cling to pride in their “Europeanness”, but it’s a lonely position to be in.

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Under the Dark Moon

The Invisible Circus
Bristol Old Vic, 10 April 2015

Photo by Joe Clarke
Photo by Joe Clarke.

From the opening shadow theatre sequence, Under the Dark Moon‘s atmosphere of macabre beauty combined with the blackest humour is clear. The silhouettes of elegant dancers are chased across the stage by giants. A child won’t stop eating, becoming grotesque.

When “Old Victor”, the ringleader/storyteller (see what they did there?), introduces his troupe, he invites us – even implores us – to delight in their misfortune, to laugh at their pain and sorrow. They have suffered for their art, and he positively encourages that. One by one he tells their stories, and while there is plenty of clowning fun, they don’t shy away from plumbing the depths of human despair.

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Literary day out: Hay-on-Wye

Addyman Books

When I was a teenager, I forget which year, for my birthday I asked for money and a trip to Hay-on-Wye. For those unfamiliar with it, Hay-on-Wye is a small town in Wales that’s very pretty, surrounded by lovely walking country, but most importantly it’s full of bookshops – about two dozen of them in fact. It’s pretty awesome and that was my favourite birthday treat ever. So this year when a friend invited me to spend Easter weekend in the Brecon Beacons, including Sunday in Hay-on-Wye, I obviously said yes.

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Shiny New Books is one year old!

A very quick post to congratulate the team behind Shiny New Books who have just published their fifth edition of book reviews, author interviews and essays, marking one year since the website launched. If you haven’t yet checked them out, I do recommend taking a look and subscribing to their excellent newsletter, which has the admirable aim of bringing great new books to people who don’t know what to read next.

I should add that I have contributed to the latest edition, by writing a review of White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. If you’re interested in what I thought of this Finnish novella about a harsh winter in the 19th century, do check out my review. And while you’re there take a look at the rest of the content in the Spring 2015 edition.

Five-year book giveaway: the winners

As my blog turned five last month, I held a giveaway of five of my favourite books from the last five years. The books I chose were:


An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy

The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

I have now put the entrants’ names into a metaphorical hat and can announce that the winners are…

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March reading round-up

sleeper and spindleIt’s been another genuinely good reading month. Oddly enough, my favourite title was one I didn’t review at the time The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell so I thought I would write a little about it now. It’s a beautifully told and even more beautifully illustrated retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, with some other fairy tales mixed in for good measure and some major deviations from what you might remember/expect. It stars a kickass queen who sets out sword in hand to save the neighbouring land. I really loved Gaiman’s language and the ways he mixes the familiar with brand new ideas but what really made this special was the artwork. It’s all drawn in black and gold, elaborate and, well, gorgeous. I highly recommend you seek it out.

This month my blog turned five years old. Five years already! To celebrate I held a giveaway of five of my favourite books of the last five years. If you’re reading this before midnight on 31 March you can still enter, but do it quickly!

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A story can even raise the dead

Gospel of LokiThe Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M Harris

I had very high hopes for this book, possibly too high, so that even though I really enjoyed reading it, I somehow feel slightly disappointed. I’m pretty sure I’m being unfairly harsh.

Yes, the Loki of the title is indeed the Loki of Norse myth. This is the story of his time in Asgard, from his recruitment by Odin, the Allfather, to the final battle of Ragnarok. Loki narrates the tale himself, putting his own self-serving spin on events as they unfold. In this accessible, relatable style, Harris successfully brings to life a complex set of myths without the whole thing feeling complicated (although I did have to refer to the handy character list a few times early on).

“Words are what remain when all the deeds have been done. Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead.”

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Bloggiesta: nearly done

Bloggiesta-S15Thank goodness for Bloggiesta! After a year of thinking about it I have finally installed a new theme that’s mobile-friendly and supports some plug-ins my old one didn’t. It took a few tweaks to get it working but I think it’s there now. Please do let me know if you spot anything strange!

I’ve also tidied up my pages, read lots of great blogging advice and finished reading one of the three books I was in the middle of. (Which is progress of a kind, though perhaps not as much as I’d hoped for. I keep having non-blog chores to do. Damn that real life.)

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Bloggiesta: best blogging advice ever

Bloggiesta-S15Today’s Bloggiesta challenge is to post the best blogging advice you have ever been given. I’ve been blogging about books for five years now and I’ve definitely been grateful for some nuggets of wisdom along the way.

Lesson number one for every blogger should be back up your blog regularly. If you’re self-hosted or have made any tweaks to personalise your blog theme, then this means more than just exporting your posts and comments. Make a full copy of all the files on your blog’s FTP server once a year or so. Believe me: it can be a lifesaver. (You never know when you might need an emergency reinstall. It happened to me a year in and it was super scary, but thank goodness I had the files on hand.)

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