February reading round-up

(George Romney 1734-1802)
(George Romney 1734–1802)

Happy Leap Day! Despite the extra bonus day, I haven’t read as much as I’d have liked to this month. That’s not because I’ve had less free time but because I’ve picked back up on multiple hobbies that I’d let slide over winter. I’m writing and knitting, but the biggest time suck is that I’ve started running.

I’m using the good old Zombies, Run! app created by author Naomi Alderman, which I’ve used for the past few years. But this time I’m working harder. I’m running three times a week, a fraction further each time, no excuses. I still intensely dislike running, but it doesn’t half make me feel better about myself afterward!

This month I also went to see the excellent play Pink Mist at the Bristol Old Vic, which is written entirely in verse. We’ve booked tickets to see a play every month until June. It’s our best plan ever!

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Fun bookish stuff


I was looking for a book recommendations tool online and found some excellent stuff. The Lovereading Google Maps Book Mash-up and the Mappit Global Book Map are both user-generated maps of book settings. The content varies widely but they’re both fun to explore and could be useful if you fancy recreating my recent attempts to list authors from my home town and region.

However, what I was really looking for was a place to type in the names of authors I know a friend likes and get recommendations of similar authors. And that’s just what the Gnooks Map of Literature is. I have had a lot of fun playing with this. Again, it’s user-generated so there are some spelling errors (which you can fix if you see them) but the more people who contribute, the better the data that comes out of it, so do go have a look at the Suggestions tool to help build the Gnod database.

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Pink Mist

Bristol Old Vic
19 February 2016

One of my Christmas presents from Tim was tickets to the play Pink Mist at Bristol Old Vic, which I knew nothing about except that it’s all in verse and was first performed last year. So it’s modern and experimental but in other ways classical, harking back even as far as ancient Greek theatre. Because this is the story of three young men – boys, really, the main character Arthur corrects himself – who go to war.

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There were silences as murmurous as sound

beautiful-damnedThe Beautiful and Damned
by F Scott Fitzgerald

I love the way Fitzgerald writes, but his books sure are depressing. This book lives up to the title and to its reputation as Fitzgerald’s most pessimistic work. I started the book wondering why it’s so long since I last read Fitzgerald but by the end I’d decided long breaks in-between are necessary for my sanity.

It is the story of Anthony and Gloria. They are the young and the beautiful, the idle rich. Anthony is expecting to inherit billions on the death of his grandfather, so he spends his allowance frivolously on himself, his friends, girls. Gloria dates eligible bachelor after eligible bachelor, sometimes even getting engaged, but never staying with one man for long enough to fall in love. They of course fall for each other, but is it really love or is it a shared appreciation for the same carefree lifestyle?

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My literary heritage: Forest of Dean

Mr blue sky

Last week I blogged about authors from my home town of Coleford. But when people ask where I’m from I don’t say Coleford, I say the wider district of the Forest of Dean. Yes, that’s partly because they’re more likely to have heard of it, but not much more likely. I identify with the lakes and woodland of the Forest more than being from a small town. Living in a city now, I miss trees; I don’t miss those same old four pubs and no shops being open after 5 pm. The Forest of Dean is truly beautiful and while it has an industrial past, these days the economy is mostly tourism and leisure, so I can see why writers might move there. Here are some Forest writers to add to the list from Coleford.

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Recent reads: winter

Work has been crazy busy and while I have been able to find time to read, I have not been keeping notes or thinking about writing reviews while I read. So here’s some very brief thoughts.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty islands I have not visited and never will
by Judith Schalansky
translated from German by Christine Lo

atlas of remote islands

This might just be the most beautiful book ever made. Judith Schalansky was raised in East Germany, and in her early childhood it looked like she would never be able to travel, so maps and atlases held a fascination for her. She has created the most gorgeous object here – every detail is considered, functional, exquisite – typography, art, infographic, end papers, edging.

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My literary heritage: Coleford

Inspired by Louise of Lone Star on a Lark I have been researching authors from my home town. I’ve looked before at books set in Bristol, but this is my adopted home, not where my roots are. So what about my original home of Coleford, Gloucestershire?

Men of Iron and Steel

Now, Coleford is a pretty small place, a country market town of 8000 people, and a good third of those have arrived during my lifetime, so you might not expect there to be many authors with links to it. But, partly thanks to a local literary culture cultivated by the (now sadly closed) Forest Bookshop, Coleford is a bit of a writers’ hotspot.

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We find ourselves through the process of escaping

reasons-to-stay-aliveReasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

I had come across some very smart, funny, insightful blog posts by Haig that had put him on my to-read list, so when I saw that he was going to be at Toppings bookshop in Bath, I suggested to Tim that he might want to buy me tickets to the event. I am a helpful gift-receiver that way.

This book is a few things at once – it’s part memoir, part essay, part self-help – with depression as its subject. Haig said that the reader he had in mind was himself aged 25 having his first terrifying experience of depression and anxiety. So the chapters are short, the factual bits are never condescending, the literary quotes on the topic are accessible; it’s all very readable.

But most importantly, the trajectory of the book is upward. There is no “before” – the story starts at Haig’s rock bottom, aged 25 and not understanding at all what was happening to him. From there it is largely, though not entirely, chronological so that we end with Haig’s current state, which is that of course he still has depression but he has lots of ways to deal with it, he knows the bad times pass, and he is even thankful in some ways for having depression – for one, it made him a writer.

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