Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: History Books

This is another post that has been months and months in the making – as you’ll be able to tell if you look at my Goodreads. This started as a non-fiction roundup, but there have been a lot of non-fiction Books of the Week during the Quarantimes, so it evolved into a specifically historical non-fiction post which has taken me (even) longer to pull together than I originally thought. But as always, I got there in the end, even if I’m publishing this after I’m fully vaccinated when I started writing it when a vaccine for Covid-19 was still in the early stages of research.

Alexandria by Edmund Richardson*

Cover of Alexandria

The Alexandria of the title is the city that was “discovered” in the 1830s in Afghanistan, by Charles Masson. Masson was a deserter turned pilgrim turned spy turned many other things who roamed parts of Asia that very few Westerners had visited at the time. I read this before the current situation in Afghanistan deteriorated so far (although by this point it’s more of a complete collapse) and it was already somwhat poignant when talking about Bamiyan Buddhas, but I can only imagine that it will be heart-breaking at this point. It is a fascinating story and impeccably researched but sometimes a little dense. And with so many name changes it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what’s going on with whom. A new area of history for me – in geographical terms, but not in terms of the East India Company and its machinations.

The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand*

Cover of the Fall of the House of Byron

If you’ve only heard of the poet, there’s a lot you’re missing out on about the Byron family – and this book sets out to change that. I had come across Admiral Byron before – but only in passing in history lectures. But it turns out there’s a scandalous sister and a profligate baron who fought in a duel. I enjoyed this, and it’s clearly very well researched, but I found it sometimes quite hard to keep track of the large cast of characters (who often share names) and I found the jumps forward and backwards a little confusing – but that may just be the way that it was formatted in the advance e-copy I had. But if you like histories of aristocratic families, this is worth your while – there is so much going on here in so few generations. And if you’re interested in the poet, then this has valuable insight into his family and backstory – although not a huge amount about him.

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things by Robin Muir

Regular readers will know that I have a fascination for the interwar period – a lot of the fiction that I love was written then, or is set then and I also read a lot of non-fiction and biography from that period. One of the things that I had been really looking forward to doing last spring/early summer was going to the Cecil Beaton exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. But sadly it was open less than a week before the first lockdown happened. So instead I treated myself (and it was a treat because art books are proper expensive – all those photos) to the book of the exhibition – and it’s so good. It’s got all the pictures that you would expect – and along with writing about Beaton himself, his portraits are accompanied by one or two page biographies of the people they feature. If you like the period, all the notables are here, it’s very dip in and out-able (ideal in these crazy times) and as an added bonus, it’s got a huge bibliography in the back to give you ideas about what to read next on anyone who particularly interests you.

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Cover of the Romanovs

One last bonus book – bonus because I still haven’t finished it because this is a really long read and a bit gruesome so needs to be read in sensible chunks!  This is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s group biography of the Romanov dynasty. For a lot of people, all they might know about them is the story of the death of Nicholas II and his family in the Russian Revolution but the family had ruled over Russia from the early seventeenth century. I did half of it while running (or what passes for a run with me) because hearing about all the awful ways people got killed made me run faster. But after a couple of generations of people with the same names it started to get a bit hard to keep track of who was who, so I got hold of the ebook and have carried on with that.

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Podcast edition

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series of things that have been helping me through the Quarantimes. I listen to a lot of podcasts, even in normal times, because I do a lot of walking as part of my commute and I like to have something to listen to. But they’re mostly topical news and politics podcasts, and you don’t need my recommendations for that. I’ve always had some podcasts that I *only* listen to while I’m running – because it gives me an incentive to run to hear the next part – but during the various lockdowns, this has expanded so I have some podcasts that I’m only allowed to listen to while I’m out walking and getting some exercise. And now, even though lockdowns are easing, I’ve moved jobs so I’m working from home rather than in the office, so having a reason to go out and exercise is really useful! So that’s the list I’ve drawn these recommendations from – stuff that’s so good that it’s worth leaving the house to listen to! All of these are available to listen to for free – and although there are premium options available for some, the series are all complete so there’s no waiting to binge.

Unfinished: Short Creek

The second series of Witness Doc’s Unfinished podcast focused on the town of Short Creek, on the Arizona/Utah border, which is also divided by religion. It was the epicentre of the branch of the fundamentalist Mormon sect led by Warren Jeffs and the residents are a mix of FLS members – and ex-members. It’s the story of how the current situation came about – the history of the group and the circumstances surrounding Jeffs’ conviction and imprisonment for sex crimes but it’s also an examination of Freedom of Religion and freedom from religion. There are 10 parts available (and a bonus AMA) available without a premium subscription, and I found it fascinating. And not just because I read a lot of early Mommy bloggers who were Mormon and have watched a fair few episodes of Sister Wives. You may have seen Under The Banner of Heaven on my reading list the other week  – and Short Creek features in that too, but that book has a different focus – and is also more than a decade old now. But if you’ve read that – you’ll probably like this. More info about Unfinished here. And if you like this and enjoy it, then my next stop was Heaven’s Gate – another series about a cult, this time one that ended in a mass suicide. And just this week, Wondery have dropped a trailer for a new series about Jerry Falwell Jr called In God We Lust which is going to be next on my list to listen to.

Wind of Change

From Crooked Media (a group of ex-Obama staffers who started a media company, you may know them from Pod Save America) and Pineapple Street Studios (the company who produced Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill podcast), this is an investigation into whether the CIA had a hand in writing the Scorpions’ song ‘Wind of Change’ which became an anthem across Eastern Europe just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s got music history and spying but it also says a lot about how America used its culture to spread power, and how Western culture got behind the Iron Curtain. If you like spy thrillers and John Le Carre, this should be on your playlist. I listened to most of this podcast while plodding around my local park in 30+ degree heat back in summer 2020, which feels like so long ago now, but it says a lot about how engrossed I was in it that I was prepared to turn out for a run in a heatwave so that I could keep listening to it! And it’s just been nominated for a Webby Award as well. More info here.

Boom/Bust  

Logo of Boom/Bust

This one is firmly in the spectacular business failures section of my wheelhouse – see also Bad Blood and Billion Dollar Loser – Boom/Bust, as the logo suggests covers what on earth happened to HQ Trivia which was briefly the hottest thing in mobile gaming and allegedly the future of TV. If you didn’t come across it at the time, it was a live trivia game with big money prizes. For a few weeks (maybe months) here in the UK I’d see some of my coworkers on the late shift logging on to their phones to try and win some money. But as quickly as it started, it was over and this podcast from the Ringer looks at what happened and why. The story is actually somewhat longer than I expected – because it was around for longer in the US – but it’s another story of The Next Great Idea – where it got massively popular without a sense of how to sustain it long term. Find out more here.

Bunga Bunga

Logo of Bunga Bunga

So if you’re my sort of age, Silvio Berlusconi was a fixture of European and world political life for a long time. In fact, my first foreign trip was to Italy to see relatives right at the time his first successful election campaign was in its closing stages – I remember seeing the Forza Italia song on the evening news while we were there. And I knew it had been a hell of a story since that 1994 election win through to the Bunga Bunga party scandal that saw him eventually banned from holding public office. But as Wondery’s Bunga Bunga  demonstrates, it’s actually even wilder than you could imagine. Even if you’re not that into politics, the story of how the child of a middle class bank employee and a housewife became first a media mogul and then one of the most important figures in modern Italian politics is a fascinating one even before the many controversies and scandals that came along the way. You can find more info (and a trailer) here.

What am I listening to next? Well I’ve already mentioned In God We Lust, but that only has the trailer out so far, so I’ll have to wait for that. I’m also looking at Spy Affair (about Maria Butina) and The Lazarus Heist (about North Korean hacking) but again neither of those series are complete yet so I’m still looking for my next series binge. If you have any recommendations please put them in the comments – nothing too violent though please. In the mean time there are a few new episodes of Real Dictators that have been dropping over the last few weeks- but I’m not sure I’m in the right headspace to listen to five (so far) episodes about Hitler. I’ve listened to previous episodes while running and find that the awfulness makes me run faster – I think I’m trying to get away from it (this also happened when I tried listening to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of the Romanovs. So much death, so much torture, so very gruesome). I’m also a few episodes behind in Greg Jenner‘s latest series of You’re Dead to Me but laughing while running is not the best idea for me.

And as a final note, my original “only listen to it while you’re running” podcast was Hit Parade from Slate – which is a examination of Billboard chart music trends. It looks at why some songs become mega hits and how some artists (or music types) came to dominate the airwaves. Early in the pandemic they moved the whole podcast behind the Slate plus paywall and I love it so much that I joined up just so I could keep listening to it. As the situation with coronavirus has changed, it’s rememerged slightly – so there is one full episode every month which everyone can get (although non-subscribers get it as two parts with a couple of week gap in between) and a bonus episode for Slate plus subscribers. The latest episode is about Taylor Swift – although with the news in the last 24 hours about the death of Jim Steinman their October episode is all about his career in music and would make a great listen instead of reading an obit, but it’s one of those podcasts where you can go back to the beginning (an episode about the Beatles) and just work the whole way through. I did. It might change your views on some groups (I’m a lot more pro BeeGees than I used to be) or it might not (I still hate hair metal, but so does the host so it’s fine) but you’ll learn a tonne of stuff.  

Happy Listening!

Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: The TV Edition

It’s been a few months since I posted one of these, but given that the days are all blurring into one again with the sameness and we’re back in lockdown here, I thought I’d drop in another set of recommendations for things to do to survive the Coronavirus. Today: it’s TV. There’s not necessarily a bookish link to all of these – they’re just things that I’ve liked – and so if you enjoy the sort of books that I write about, you might want to check out.

Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent) – Netflix

And this first recommendation is the reason that I’m posting this this week – because the fourth and final series drops on Netflix today (Thursday). Call My Agent is a French TV series about a talent agency and their stars. The French title – dix pour cent – refers to the ten percent commission that agents take from their clients. Each episode has a different French actor or personality playing themself with a fresh drama to solve, but the heart of the series are the agents – Andrea, Gabriel, Mattias and Arlette (and her dog Jean Gabin) who almost cause themselves as many problems as they solve (see Andrea’s affair with the woman from the tax authorities) and their assistants Noemie, Hervé and Camille. It’s funny, but it’s not a sitcom. It’s a drama, but the stakes aren’t life or death or traumatic. It’s just a rollicking good journey through the world of celebrity. I can’t wait to see what the final series has in store for the gang – and how it all ends.

Staged (BBC iPlayer)

The first series of this (which the clip above is from) was out in Lockdown one – and now they’re back with a second. David Tennant and Michael Sheen basically bicker over zoom for 20 minutes as they try to rehearse a play. Oh and it has great cameos. Series two is on the iPlayer now, I’ve only watched the first episode so far (because of getting all caught up on Call My Agent before the new series) but it seems to be picking up where it left off, but even more meta! I know some people find this just too theatre-luvvie and in jokey, but I’m a theatre nerd who is missing going to see shows so much so I guess I’m smack bang in the target audience. The episodes are short so it’s a nice bite sized watch. The only problem is that it may be over too soon.

Bones (Amazon Prime)

 

From one extreme to another – if Staged might be over too quickly, there are 12 whole series of Bones, adding up to nearly 250 episodes. I started watching this in September, after catching a couple of episodes on a tv channel and getting a little bit sucked in – probably due to my teen crush on Boreanz’s Angel on Buffy. Initially i was watching it while Him Indoors was doing other things. Then he got hooked and insisted that I didn’t watch without him. We’re now midway through the final season – as it’s one of those shows where it’s really easy just to have it on running episodes back to back for a whole evening. It’s a comedy drama crime procedural – Bones is Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) a forensic anthropologist and she gets paired up with FBI agent Seeley Booth to help him solve murders. As with all these things you need to not think too hard about whether any of this could actually happen – especially when it comes to investigating cases that they have a personal interest in, but it makes me laugh and although there are a lot of gross looking bodies around, it manages not to be too gory or too far down the psychological thriller end of things. It does go overboard sometimes – the episodes where Booth and Brennan go undercover as Buck and Wanda Moosejaw make my teeth itch – but the unresolved sexual tension in the first half of the show’s run is *really* good.

Pride and Prejudice (BBC, but available on Netflix)

And an old favourite to finish: I’m not sure that there’s anyone out there who hasn’t heard of the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I’ve watched it umpteen times over the years – when it first came out, then we owned it on video, I think at one point both my sister and I had it on DVD and if I happened across it on TV (UKTV Drama used to reshow it fairly regularly) then I would stop to watch. For me, it’s one of the ultimate comfort watches. I’ve already watched it twice through since Coronavirus started and Lizzy is about to read her letter from Jane about Lydia on my third watch through. The BBC showed it again earlier in lockdown (I think as part of the educational offer) which I recorded on the TiVo and means I can keep it handy. It’s also on Netflix – but it’s a *really* grotty print – it’s grainy 4:3 and the one I’ve got recorded looks much better, even if they’ve zoomed in on it to make it 16:9.

I’ve been back to a few of my other old favourites too – Miss Marple, Inspector Alleyn but you already know all about my love of those and one of my guilty favourites – Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team which is currently being repeated on ITVBe and should be everything that I hate, but I somehow love. I have a whole series sitting on the box waiting for Little Sis to return from China so we can have a sleepover and watch it together. It’s that sort of TV.

Anyway, if you’ve got any recommendations for me, pop them in the comments, otherwise – stay safe!

book adjacent, Children's books, Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Baby-Sitters Club

Another in my occasional series of posts about things that have been getting me through the Coronavirus, and this is one that dovetails with my love of middle grade books, despite the fact that I’m no longer a middle grader – and in fact am easily old enough to have a middle grader of my own!

If you’re my sort of age, The Baby-sitters Club was up there with Sweet Valley High as a series that you binge-read from the library. Or at least it was for me.  The books – with the building blocks logo and the house with the illustration of the story in the window were instantly recognisable. It’s hard to remember so many years later, but I’m fairly sure I read almost all of the first 50 books, and all the early super specials as well as some of the mysteries. So, I was excited – but also a little trepidatious – to see that Netflix had adapted it. How do you update a series written in the pre-internet, pre mobile phone world so that it works for children today?

As it turns out, they’ve done it really, really well. The personalities of the girls are the same – but Dawn is Hispanic and Mary Anne is biracial. Stacey still has diabetes, but now she has an insulin pump rather than having to do injections. There are mobile phones, but Kristy and Mary Anne still have flashlights to signal between their houses – because Mary Anne’s dad is so overprotective. Would modern parents really trust a bunch of barely teenagers with their kids? Well the series does try and address that. It’s got a strong focus on social justice, which I think is both true to the original books and inline with what the kids today (!) are interested in and it has enough easter eggs in there for the grownups too – like the handwriting on the episode titles being the “right” ones for each girl from the original books, Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mum, Kevin from Brooklyn 99 as Mary Anne’s dad. As grown up, sometimes it was all a little bit ott but I’m not the target audience- and i find that with a lot of children’s shows. It was perfect though for watching while ironing. And low-stakes drama is about all I can deal with right now. At the end of the series Mallory and Jessi were introduced, which means I’m hoping there are plans for a second series – but obviously these strange times we live in could have thrown all that up in the air and mean that the cast age out faster than expected.

Anyway, you can find the Baby-sitters Club on Netflix – and I’m off to read one of the new Babysitter’s Club graphic novels which have been adapted by Raina Telgemeier.

Happy reading!

 

Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Kindle Unlimited

So I started a Kindle Unlimited trial at the back end of last year – the trial is about to end, so I thought now was a good time to do a little review, plus given the situation that we’re in at the moment, where people may have more time on their hands to read books but less money to spend on them, then it seemed like a good time to do a little recap. The first thing to note with this – as will any free trial – is that you need to diarise when you need to cancel your trial so that you don’t get charged if you don’t want to. I use Google Calendar for this – with a note on the actual date and a string of reminders ahead of time to make me do something. It’s also good if you have an annual subscription to something at a special rate that you want to haggle with to keep rather than pay the full price (hello New York Times). So my first point is that it’s only free if you remember to cancel it. And if you don’t cancel it, it’s only worth having if you are using it, so you need to work out a way of keeping track of what you’re reading. I’ve done this by creating a tag in Goodreads that I add to books from the service that I finish. It also really helped with writing this post!

Covers of Left-Handed Death, The Case of the Famished Parson, He Dies and Makes No Sign and The Colour of Murder

Next a quick primer for those who don’t know: how does Kindle Unlimited (KU) work? Well it’s a bit like a library – you can borrow up to ten books at a time from the included titles. And it’s super easy to know which titles are include because if you’re in the programme it’ll prioritise the option to read with Kindle Unlimited over the option to buy, and if you’re not in the programme it’ll be asking you if you want to read it for free by starting a trial. Once you’ve finished a book, you return it – and if you’re at the limit it’ll then let you borrow another one. If you belong to a library that does ebook loans via Libby this may sound familiar to you, but the difference is that the loans don’t have an expiry (you’ve got them til you give it back) and when you do give it back, it disapears from your Kindle completely – unlike libby loans which stay there and just tell you the loan has ended if you try to read it after the end of your loan.

Covers of Answer in the Negative, Murder in the Mill-Race and the Case of the Demented Spiv

So, how have I got on? So far (with about a week to go of the trial) Kindle Unlimited I’ve read 23 books and threehave them have been written about in Book of the Week posts (Murder by Matchlight – which also is about KU title Murder in the Mill Race), Answer in the Negative and Case of a Demented Spiv). I’ve also binged on a couple of series from Beth Byers – one of which I’m sure I’ll get around to writing about at some point soon. But it is a bit of a process of trial and error. Some of the stuff is really good, some of it is… less so. I’ve had a few total failures, but I’ve got better at working out from the description whether things are going to work for me or not.

Collage of my current KU titles

My perception before I tried the service was that it was mostly authors that I’d never heard over but there are some big names available – the Harry Potter books are currently in KU.  However I’ve found it’s particularly good for finding and trying forgotten Golden-Age Crime writers – as you may have noticed from the BotW. I’ve also found its handy to check back regularly to see if titles by authors you like have gone in (or out) of the programme. For example there is a different selection of George Bellairs novels available this week than there was last time I checked, there’s a  Molly Thynne novel now that wasn’t there when I checked when I returned the one I read last week. There’s a Rhys Bowen standalone novel currently available and there’s a rotating selection of British Library Crime Classics books available. I have had less sucess so far with romance and non-fiction, but perhaps that’s because I’ve read less of them using KU so far so the algorhythm isn’t suggesting the right things to me.

I still haven’t quite decided if I’m going to pay for it monthly – and if I do i’ll have to keep it under review to make sure I’m using it enough, because goodness knows I already have a lot of books to read, but I’ve enjoyed it while I’ve had it. If you’ve got KU, please put your recommendations in the comments!

Happy Reading!