August reading round-up

Happy Bank Holiday Monday to those of you having one!

I’m cheerful having spent most of the weekend celebrating 13 years with Tim. Tim gave me a night in a fancy hotel, I gave him a behind-the-scenes tour of Temple Meads train station and the SS Great Britain. I clearly got the better end of that deal (though the tour was a lot of fun too).

Secret underground

I’ve also read some great books this month, my favourite being The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. What was your favourite recent read?

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Light travels differently in a room that contains another person

by David Nicholls

I’ve enjoyed David Nicholls novels in the past, but the hype around this one, partly because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, suggested it was something a bit different, a break from the usual. I was unsure how to feel about that, but I gave it a go and now I’m befuddled, because to me it felt exactly like a David Nicholls novel.

That’s not a criticism of the novel, only of the marketing. Well, maybe it’s a little bit a criticism of the novel, in that I’m not sure exactly why this was deemed more literary, more mature in style, because to me it’s not. It’s a sweet, easy-to-read tale that’s more about plot than the writing. It is often introspective and soul-searching and I very much enjoyed it. I just…thought I might get a little more from it.

The novel opens with middle-aged Douglas being woken by his wife Connie who says that she is leaving him. Or she thinks she wants to. Their marriage isn’t working for her anymore and in a few months’ time, when their son Albie leaves home for university, she will probably leave too. In the meantime, it’s the summer when they had intended to take Albie on the trip of a lifetime, an old-fashioned grand tour around Europe, or at least its greatest art galleries. Connie wants to go ahead and so Douglas throws himself into planning the best holiday ever, hoping that maybe this way he can salvage his marriage.

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TV shows based on books

jeeves-and-woosterI seem to be watching several TV shows based on books at the moment. Not that it’s in any way a new phenomenon. I was raised on The Waltons, M*A*S*H, Lovejoy, Jeeves and Wooster, BBC Shakespeare and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes. (To be honest, I didn’t even know those first three were based on books until recently.) And let’s not forget Woof! and, well, basically all children’s TV shows from my youth (or so it sometimes feels). Books, and especially series of books, are ripe for TV adaptation, where more time can be devoted to the plot than a film allows.

Of the examples I’m currently watching, I have read none of the books. There’s The Walking Dead (Tim is reading the comics and says they’re more graphic and violent than the TV show, which I can’t say appeals to me), Orange is the New Black (how have multiple series been made from one slight memoir?), Mr Selfridge (same question re this biography), Masters of Sex (this is one book I’d like to read, actually) and True Blood (I really can’t tell if I’d like the books but I lean towards not).

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Sunday Salon: So many things

I seem to have spent this week endlessly booking tickets for awesome stuff coming soon to Bristol or somewhere nearby. My diary is now crammed with dates for theatre, comedy, music, author events and other cool stuff. Why does all the awesome bunch up like that?

I shouldn’t complain. I love living somewhere with so much going on that I want to do. Like a Metric gig! Super exciting. And Salman Rushdie! And The Crucible at the Old Vic. And a new Mark Thomas show! Bristol rocks.

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A man is no better for having made the worst journey in the world

worst journey in the worldThe Worst Journey in the World
by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Wow. Just wow. Perhaps I’m biased by my pre-existing fascination with polar exploration, but this is an incredible book. Or rather, it reaches the very limits of credibility but does not overstep them, for I do not think that Cherry exaggerates at all. Humans beings have been through worse at the hands of other human beings, but not at the hands of nature.

This is a big book, but I tore through it in less than a week, foregoing most of my television and internet-pottering time because I just had to get back to this gripping story. For a day after finishing it I was reluctant to start another book or experience any other story. I wanted to sit with this tale of hardship and suffering in the name of science, of men who willingly endured that humankind might benefit. It is inspiring.

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We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

I had read conflicting reviews of this book, so I’d put it to one side for a while. But then along came the Books on the Nightstand Summer Bingo, with that classic square “A random book from a shelf”. So I stood in front of the TBR shelves, closed my eyes, waved my hand around, and lo and behold this was what I picked out.

The framework is the story of two girls’ friendship in Naples in the 1950s, but through Elena and Lila we really get to know a whole neighbourhood and all the minutiae of money, class, society and education that will affect the lives of everyone born there.

To begin with Elena and Lila are not all that different. Elena, who narrates the story, is the daughter of a porter at the city hall, while Lila is daughter of a shoemaker. Elena admires Lila from a young age and so wants to be her friend that she hangs around nearby, playing with her doll at the same street corner, until Lila has tested her bravery enough times to form a lasting bond.

“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us…Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this.”

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I’d be rocketing through my dreams

rocket girl vol 1Rocket Girl Vol.1: Times Squared
by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder

This was on the staff recommends shelf at Midtown Comics in New York, and I do like a good staff recommendation. Plus the artist is female, and I was on the hunt for some female representation on our comic shelves.

Rocket Girl has a fairly complex plot, which I suspect will get easier to follow in later volumes, although maybe not. DaYoung Johansson is a detective in the New York Teen Police Department in an alternate-reality 2013 who is sent back in time to 1986 to investigate shadowy but all-powerful Quintum Mechanics for “crimes against time”. There’s some twisty time-loop who-did-what-when stuff going on and some action-adventure chase sequences, but what I found more interesting was the culture clash DaYoung faces.

“I get to fly. It’s why I joined the NYTPD. I used to lay in my bed thinking all about it, trying to make sure that when I fell asleep I’d be rocketing through my dreams. Force it. Focus. Fantasize real hard and hope when your eyes shut you don’t know the difference. It usually didn’t work.”

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Royal Society Winton Prize shortlist announced

Today, the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books shortlist was announced. Congratulations to all the 2015 contenders:

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam

Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex Bellos

Smashing Physics: Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment by Jon Butterworth

Life’s Greatest Secret: the Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb

Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe Mcfadden and Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Adventures in the Anthropocene: a Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made by Gaia Vince

After the great success of my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge, I have completely dropped the ball and read zero popular science this year, so I have read none of the above titles. Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm has read and recommended The Man Who Couldn’t Stop. I don’t think any of the others have been covered by bloggers I follow, but I may be being rubbish at searching so please do leave a link in the comments if I missed your review.

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To really see the state of things is lethal

hold your ownHold Your Own
by Kate Tempest

I bought this poetry collection when I went to see Kate Tempest as part of the Bath Festival of Literature, and like her live performance, the book is inspiring.

Tempest’s words fizz with righteous anger and passion, but they are also highly intelligent, filled with classical references and political insight.

Just take this collection’s premise. It centres on the myth of Tiresias, who as a young man disturbs a pair of copulating snakes and is punished by the goddess Hera, who turns him into a woman. Years later, she is “allowed” to return to the form of man, but then another encounter with the gods leaves him a blind clairvoyant. Tempest takes this story apart into four chapters – childhood, manhood, womanhood and blind profit (see what she did there?!) – each of which is a sequence of poems about Tiresias and the myth’s parallels to modern society and her own life. This gives her a natural route to discussions of gender, sex and relationships, but also poverty, community, age, politics and the future.

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