October reading round-up

reading

Happy November, folks! Suddenly life is full of Christmas plans and all the people we promised to catch up with before the end of the year. And yet through summer I always think October and November will be quiet. One day I’ll learn!

We started the month on holiday in Yorkshire, which was lovely and relaxing and already feels like a thousand years ago. I went to see The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic, a “theatrical experience” called The Stick House in the Bristol Temple Meads tunnels (a creepy gothic fairy-tale-type story that wouldn’t be out of place in an Angela Carter novel), Salman Rushdie talking about his new book and Bill Bailey on his latest comedy tour. The large collection of tickets for stuff on the fridge is finally all gone now and I’m itching to book something in!

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This elemental silence which could crush you to nothing

magic-toyshopThe Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

This book was not what I had imagined, having read two previous works by Carter, but it was equally wonderful and has cemented her as one of the great authors for me.

The title had suggested to me something a bit fantastical, which aligned with my experience of Carter (I’d previously read Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) but – on the surface, at least – this book stays within the realm of reality. And yet from the very first page, there is an air of dark fantasy pervading the background.

The story centres on 15-year-old Melanie. She and her two younger siblings have to move from the middle-class comforts of their country home to live in relative poverty with their Uncle Philip in London. He is a toymaker but in every way defies the expectations of that label – he is tall, broad, strong, dark and frequently violent. He shows no kindness or empathy for the uprooted children.

“His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.”

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Leaving a vacuum in the air where his voice had been

My-Turn-to-Make-the-TeaMy Turn to Make the Tea
by Monica Dickens

I have been looking forward to reading my beautiful if slightly fragile copy of the 1962 Penguin reprint of Dickens’ memoir of her year working for a local newspaper. Though it’s the first printing from this classic orange-and-white edition, it’s too tattered and stained to be worth anything. But I do love the knowledge that this has been read by a series of people over 53 years. That’s pretty cool.

Dickens is funny and open, delighting in revealing the details of her life as a “cub reporter”. This includes life in her rented room, and the relationships between the building’s various tenants, as well as the intricacies of a hokey local newspaper.

“I put away my things and tried not to feel bleak. My first night in that room stretched before me with too many hours, and I found that I was looking forward to going to work tomorrow. At the Munts’, I had often craved solitude, and dreaded hearing the creak of the stair and the whimsical tattoo on my door that meant Mrs Munt had come up for a pow-wow, but up here on the top floor, a stranger to the rest of the house, I felt unwanted and alone.”

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Gilmore Girls returns!

gilmore-girlsThe news that Netflix is going to revive Gilmore Girls with a series of four feature-length episodes written by original creator and producer Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino has got me pretty excited to say the least. While, like everyone else I am curious to see who will be back and what developments will have happened in their lives in the last 8/9 years (and whether they map what I imagined for the characters), I am also looking forward to a general revival of interest in the original TV show, so that my fandom doesn’t seem quite so out of date!

I am unapologetically a Gilmore Girls fan. I don’t own any merchandise but I recorded every episode off the telly and have watched them all…well, a lot. Now this may seem a decidedly unbookish topic for a book blog (though it’s my blog and I’ll write about whatever I want to) but Gilmore Girls might be the most bookish fictional TV there ever was. In fact, it’s so bookish that there are countless reading lists out there based on it, including my own version of the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge in which I have attempted to list every book read in the show by Lorelei or Rory. And let’s not forget that the show’s star Lauren Graham is a bona fide author (of a book that has been languishing on my wishlist since it was announced).

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The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic

BOV_Crucible

“We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

This classic play marks 100 years since the birth of its playwright Arthur Miller by returning to the stage of its 1954 British première (its true première was a year earlier, on Broadway). Directed by Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, the production is largely traditional, with a few unusual twists. The cast gathers faces familiar to the Bristol stage with those from farther afield, but there are no star names, which is to its credit. This play works well as an ensemble, allowing each character’s importance to the story be highlighted in turn.

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Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)
(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)

Salman Rushdie, Festival of Ideas
St George’s Hall, Bristol, 11 October

On Sunday afternoon I saw Salman Rushdie in the flesh! Rushdie was visiting Bristol to promote his new novel Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (a title his publishers apparently thought cumbersome). St George’s Hall was packed to the rafters with fans keen to hear, well, pretty much anything the great man had to say, though he stayed mostly on topic.

The new novel was written in part as a reaction against the act of writing memoir (Rushdie’s previous book, Joseph Anton, documented his 10 years in hiding following the 1988 fatwa against him) – he felt an emotional desire to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, to make stuff up again. Rushdie was inspired by the Arabian Nights and here, as always, he feels he is part of the grand old tradition of non-naturalistic fiction – possibly the oldest form of world literature, encompassing fairy tales, heroic epics and other forms that seek to spread the collective wisdom of the human race.

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In Africa, you feel primordial

leaving timeLeaving Time
by Jodi Picoult

I was eager to read this after sampling the prequel novella Larger Than Life. That told the story of Alice, an animal psychologist studying elephants in Africa. This novel picks up the story with Alice’s daughter Jenna.

Jenna is 13 and wants to find her mother, who went missing when she was 3. Her father is in an asylum and she now lives with her grandmother, who won’t talk about Alice. Jenna has secretly been investigating for a while, but now her summer vacation has arrived and she’s saved some money. She approaches two people for help: Serenity, a psychic, and Virgil, a private detective. Between them, they try to figure out what happened that night 10 years ago.

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World Mental Health Day

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day. I write about this both because it’s an important cause that affects many many people, and because books and reading have a major part to play in helping improve mental health.

This year World Mental Health Day has the theme “dignity in mental health” – dealing with stigma and discrimination, changing social attitudes and spreading public awareness of the nature of mental illness. These are all major aims of Bristol Mind, among others, and many people are holding coffee mornings and other events around the city – and the world – today.

As author Matt Haig discussed in his excellent article for the Telegraph yesterday, books can genuinely help those with depression and other mental-health issues. The Reading Agency works with GPs to prescribe books to alleviate mental-health problems through its Reading Well scheme. And this actually works. Reading reduces stress; it also improves empathy, memory and cognition – perhaps we should all be prescribed books!

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I knew the story would change as I told it

bitter greensBitter Greens
by Kate Forsyth

This book has a lot of elements that appealed to me: a dark retelling of Rapunzel, a fictionalised account of the writer of the version of Rapunzel most of us know – Charlotte-Rose de la Force – and the story of a 16th century courtesan in Venice who was muse to the great artist Titian. Plus that absolutely gorgeous cover art. How could I resist?

Did it live up to expectations? Yes and no. About a quarter of the way through, I was a little bored and even considered stopping reading. But from about halfway until the end, I was gripped and thoroughly enjoying the ride. So what was the difference?

The bulk of the start of the book is about Charlotte-Rose, but the interesting bits of her story are saved for later on – and it does get very interesting. The book’s opening tells us that she has been banished from the Versailles court of her cousin Louis XIV and been sent to live in a convent as punishment for her behaviour. There are lots of details of how austere and rule-filled the convent is, and flashbacks to court to reveal how wide the contrast is.

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