30/11/2018

Reading - November 2018

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (2007)
A very nicely concise synthesis of what is known about William Shakespeare, without scholarly pretension or unnecessary speculation - but also, oddly, without much sense of what makes him so revered. Perhaps that's taken for granted.
1971: Never A Dull Moment by David Hepworth (2016)
I really like this book but it reads like Hepworth talks, which doesn't work quite as well on the page. Oddly, having listened to a sample of the audio book - read by the author himself - it sounds stilted by comparison with his usual fast-talking, sardonic style. So it is that contentious statements, which come across in broadcast as being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, tend towards boorishly arrogant in written form. This goes double for the central theme, that 1971 was "Rock's Golden Year". David Hepworth turned 21 in 1971. I turned 21 in 1990; I think you could write an equivalent book about the latter year and make the same claims for things that "changed musical history".
Nothing Is Real by David Hepworth (2018)
If the subtitle - The Beatles Were Underrated And Other Sweeping Statements About Pop - shows a certain self-conscious flippancy, then little of the text exhibits it, to its detriment, I think. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the primacy of pop music over any attempts to intellectualise it, but some of the aforementioned "sweeping statements" put entertainment value over accuracy. Still, it's nice to have some of Hepworth's pieces for The Word magazine in book form (particularly since I was forced to get rid of my magazine collection last year); and in fact, I could have done with more - this is a surprisingly and disappointingly slim book. Maybe he's holding some over for Volume 2.
Kill Your Friends by John Niven (2008)
The selling point for this book is the outrageous language and situations; extravagant sex, lorry-loads of drugs and a tiny bit of rock'n'roll. Funny, but a bit too in love with its own shock value and a bit light on actual plot. The characterisation is vivid but somewhat one-dimensional, although if some of the characters are cliches that's possibly because they are in real life too. It's a satire, obviously, and so - I hope - exaggerated for effect, although I fear not as much as I wish.
The Guitar Magazine (December 2018 / Vol 30 No 03)
Never Say No To A Rock Star by Glenn Berger (2016)
An insider's look into the studio life in 1970's New York. Berger gives a good sense of the madness of the life as well as, unusually in books on this subject, the sheer amount of hard work being a studio engineer. Sure, working a tape machine isn't exactly mining coal but it's technical, exacting and draining. The book interleaves stories of stars with the author's love affair with recording music. Entertaining but if I'm honest, I could have done with a little less of his own story.
The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)
A highly readable and compelling thriller. Whether it's believable is perhaps a different matter. The picture Forsyth paints of the Soviets, in particular, is probably coloured by his own political convictions - although it does ring true - and in particular his portrayal of the Labour Party as being on the verge of takeover by the hard left, which sounds more like a paranoid right wing delusion. What is indisputable is that although this was published a year after the 1983 election, it correctly predicted when the next would be, which is interesting. Maybe Margaret Thatcher was a fan.
The Case Of The Restless Redhead by Erle Stanley Gardner (1954)
I used to read the Perry Mason mysteries a lot when I was in my teens. I'm not entirely sure why - they are formulaic, hopelessly dated - in fairness, this one's 65 years old! - and hard to believe. Nevertheless, as combination whodunnit and courtroom drama, this is easy to read and is ideal bedtime reading.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018)
They say "write what you know", and Helen Hoang has surely followed this advice. So in this sweet romance, we have a heroine who is autistic (as is Hoang), and a hero of Vietnamese descent (as is Hoang). Both of these unusual elements add to the story; I was concerned that having an autistic central character would be a bit gimmicky, but as a device to analyse love, it works really well, because she needs everything explained to her. It helps that the main personalities work well and that the story, although fairly conventional in romance terms, feels realistic, with convincing secondary characters. I enjoyed it very much and read it very quickly, which is always a good sign!

16/11/2018

II (Föllakzoid)

Föllakzoid
2013

Since I already have a couple of Neu! albums, I'm not sure I need this. It's fairly generic trance-rock/krautrock of the kind that's huge fun to play - and fun to listen to under the right circumstances. There's not a lot of variation between tracks though, nor much variation or dynamics in the tracks themselves - although, to be fair, that's not the point of this kind of music.

Great cover though.

11/11/2018

Irish Tour

Rory Gallagher
1974

Driving blues-rock in excelsis

Rory Gallagher is a bit of a cult favourite amongst guitarists, partly for his superb blues soloing and tone, and partly for his astonishingly battered '61 Strat, which looks like it's been soaked in acid and left in a peat bog for a year. That's the guitar he's playing on this live album (at least according to the footage I've seen), and the sound is legendary enough to have inspired both a replica of that guitar and a set of reproduction pickups named after the album.

To love this album you have to love the blues. I've always liked good tunes and when that can be married with stellar guitar playing then so much the better, like "The Thrill Is Gone", "All Your Love" or "Bad To The Bone", all clearly blues or blues-inspired. And of course you can't ignore the fact that the blues underpins huge swathes of classic rock.

Given the choice, though, I'll take the tune and leave the guitar, because the alternative is almost always dull, and sadly too much of Irish Tour falls into this category. It's probably a different prospect when you're there and the room is rocking, but at home, only a few tracks emerge out of the generic blues-rock on offer.

By far my favourite, and the reason I got the album in the first place, is "Walk On Hot Coals". The first part of the track is a pretty generic but energetic 12-bar boogie that lights up when it swerves in the chorus to an F/Em/D progression. Then in the second half of the track there's an extended instrumental workout over this section, which has superb dynamics and some staggering playing. If we could lose the organ solo I'd be even happier.

I also like "Tattoo'd Lady", an up-tempo number that sounds like Disraeli Gears-era Cream, complete with a decent tune (no idea what he's singing about though); and "A Million Miles Away", a slower, soulful track with an interesting, albeit slightly over-long, solo. The rest just blurs into one for me, though, with nothing standing out.

All that said, Rory's playing is never less than excellent and as a memento of a much-loved rocker in his prime, you can't do better.

31/10/2018

Reading - October 2018

The Return of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (1959)
More of the short stories, maybe a little broader this time, but inventive and funny enough to keep what is basically a single joke going. I think this is the first of these books that I ever read (a long time ago), and it reminds me of my Grandma.
The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Foryth (1971)
A superb story, immaculately told. The detail has its precedent in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, but surpasses even that, and surely influenced people like Tom Clancy.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 30 No 02)
The Player Of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)
One of my favourite books; by parts funny, thrilling, gruesome and sweet, it's not too long but satisfyingly complex. The universe it depicts is so convincingly and completely described that it almost disappears; there's nothing jarring because it's all so consistent. Fantastically imaginative and involving.
The Business by Iain Banks (1999)
This is probably the third time I've read this, and I still find it disappointing. I think I was hoping I'd missed something, but it feels like a book written because a book was contractually required rather than because it was a story that needed to be told. It doesn't have any particularly interesting ideas - the central theme of "The Business", some ancient, semi-secretive, globe-straddling organisation, is an obvious and dull one - and the plot meanders a little. Ultimately, I didn't really care about the characters so, although it's perfectly readable, I just felt a bit unimpressed.
Are You Dave Gorman? by Dave Gorman & Danny Wallace (2001)
I really like both knowing that this is a real story but also the way it's been slightly massaged to make the telling better, and the way it switches between the two authors' viewpoints is very effective. Obviously each character in the book is somewhat exaggerated, but I hope Dave Gorman's blindly optimistic, insensitive character isn't real - I felt very sorry for Danny Wallace for most of the book. Still, funny. Also, I know (of) a Dave Gorman where I work - sadly, he doesn't feature in the book as far as I can tell.

30/09/2018

Reading - September 2018

A Blink Of The Screen by Terry Pratchett (2012)
A collection of short stories, from juvenilia to miscellanea; inevitably something of a mixed bag, but readable nonetheless. The Discworld pieces are the best, of course.
The Economist (September 1st-7th 2018)
The Economist (September 8th-14th 2018)
The Vinyl Detective: The Run-out Groove by Andrew Cartmel (2017)
I loved Written In Dead Wax and so when I found out there was a second book in the series I was very keen to read it (and very obliged to my friend Nat again, who lent it to me). However, this one has taken me much longer to finish. I think this is partly because it is, in essence, very similar to the first one, and reading it so soon afterwards meant that it had lost some of it novelty. Another part, I think, is that one of the characters has the same surname as me, which is hardly a common one, and every time I came across it, it brought me up short and somehow made it harder to enjoy. There's a third book, but I think I'll give it a few months before I read it.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 30 No 01)
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (1987)
Douglas Adams is of course primarily famous for The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and primarily that from the books. So I've always found it slightly ironic that the H2G2 books are themselves not very good. For me, they bear too many marks of having been manhandled from the original concept - the radio series - into book form. Adams could write though, as this, the first Dirk Gently novel, shows. Chock-full of interesting ideas as usual, but all now within a coherent, satisfying structure.
The Sacred Art Of Stealing by Christopher Brookmyre (2002)
Just a really good story.
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (Volume 1) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (2004)
The film of this is superb and so I was moved to find the original source material - but I have to say, I'm disappointed. Partly this is because I don't really get graphic novels. Maybe I'm reading it in the wrong way, but as a story, this is barely enough to get your teeth into - it took me about twenty minutes to read. Given that it's a graphic novel, perhaps I should spend more time looking at the pictures; but they're so simple that I can't see that they add much more. Still, as an item of interest because of the film, it's interesting: partly because of how much has made it into the film, and partly by how closely the scenes, and indeed characters, match the original drawings. Except, oddly, Scott Pilgrim himself, who doesn't look anything like Michael Cera.
The Education Of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (1937)
I was surprised to find out how old this book is - but despite what might today be considered rather broad stereotyping of other nationalities, there is little in it to date it.  The endless manglings of  the English language are very amusing and the characterisations of immigrants are fond, as would be expected from a man who was one himself.

31/08/2018

Reading - August 2018

The Chandler's Ford Story by Barbara Hillier & Gerald Ponting (2005)
Short history of the town, but then the place is not particularly old. At one point it says that "generations of schoolchildren" have been told how the body of King William II, also known as William Rufus, was carried up our road on its way to Winchester. But, given that the oldest school was established in 1881, it can't have been more than four or five generations. Interesting if you live here though!
The Economist (4 August 2018)
Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson (1984)
Short, but informative and useful. Bryson explains in clear, non-technical terms how phrases and words should be used. He's broadly in favour of retaining words that provide useful distinctions, even if those are minor. He also points out that language changes, and so it would be interesting to consider how it has changed since this book was written. For example, under "data", he notes that the "shift is clearly in the direction of treating data as a singular", which is clearly now true; although I was amused to notice that The Economist still treats it as plural, and sounds silly for doing so.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 20 No 12)
Marshall's new Origin amps, Lowden's GL-10 electric guitar.
Cider With Roadies by Stuart Maconie (2003)
For some reason I had it in my head that I hadn't read this for years, and reading it again didn't make me change that opinion. But according to my records it was only four years ago. Although I enjoyed the book (again), it clearly isn't that memorable!
The Economist (11 August 2018)
Brother Ray by Ray Charles & David Ritz (1978 / 2004)
The first time I read this, it was a copy borrowed from the Central Library in Manchester, and someone had laboriously gone through the entire book and carefully scribbled out every single swear word or offensive (to them) phrase. Given the way the book is written, which is very much in Ray Charles's own voice, this meant there were barely any pages left untouched by the mystery censor. Nevertheless, it didn't take away from the story, which is superbly enjoyable; so it has been a real pleasure to come back to it thirty years later - this time, thankfully, in unsullied form. It really is a remarkable story, even if the author is perhaps liable to painting himself in a favourable light, and entertainingly told.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (2003)
Part diatribe against lax punctuation, part guide to improving it, and nicely light in tone. I think my job - writing code - gives me a preference for precision in language and so this book appeals to the pedant in me.
The Economist (18 August 2018)
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
Having enjoyed the film, despite its differences to the book (watching on an enormo-screen in 3D probably helped), and then again on DVD recently, I thought I should revisit the novel for the first time in a couple of years. Still great, more satisfyingly retro and geeky than the ever-so-slightly generic film, and obviously with both a good and romantic ending.
The Economist (25 August 2018)
Reel History: The World According To The Movies by Alex von Tunzelmann (2015)
An amusing and insightful, if necessarily somewhat selective, wonder through the history books as perceived via the lens of Hollywood. Obviously showing up the more egregious lies and mistakes is way more fun, but one is left with the view that most historical films are mainly complete rubbish. Also, I don't think she likes Mel Gibson much.

31/07/2018

Reading - July 2018

But Seriously by John McEnroe (2017)
Brief - I read it in just over a day - but entertaining, this isn't a start-to-finish story of McEnroe's life, but rather a set of chapters about different aspects of it. Although primarily focused on his post-retirement activities (for his time as a player, see Serious), he nevertheless also goes back to talk a bit about how he was as a person back then and how it affected him now. The book skilfully conveys McEnroe's personality while still managing to flow well from section to section, which I assume is down to some (unaccredited) professional writing help. There's nothing earth-shattering here (he's a bit rude about the BBC's revamping of the Wimbledon highlights show in 2015, albeit entirely with reason) but enough spice to make it worth reading.
The Secrets Of Love & Lust by Simon Andeae (1998)
This somewhat over-salaciously titled book is - as indicated by its its less sensational but more accurate previous title of Anatomy Of Desire: The Science And Psychology Of Sex, Love And Marriage - not a manual or guide, but instead, a pop-science summary of sexology. That is, why do humans indulge in sex and relationships, not how. It's also very interesting. If you take the scientifically orthodox view that all behaviours are the product of millions of years of evolution, then they all have a "purpose" that must lead back to reproductive success; so what is the purpose of love, lust, orgasms or sexual enjoyment? The book attempts to answer these questions in a reasonably concise way. The author also has some scathing words for how societies, religion more specifically and Christianity in particular have attempted to co-opt, divert or pervert these natural forces that they see as a threat.
Dead Famous by Ben Elton (2001)
It's interesting to compare this novel with another that sends up reality TV, Christopher Brookmyre's  A Snowball In Hell (2008). In both cases they take the idea to a logical satirical conclusion, namely murder, live on telly; but while Brookmyre invents his own shows, Elton appears to have just ripped off Big Brother, lock, stock and barrel. And this is my main problem with Ben Elton - too much of his humour just hits painfully obvious targets, using cliched characters. The narration is uneven too, switching erratically between viewpoints from paragraph to paragraph. Nevertheless, as a story, I found it very readable and I really wanted to know whodunnit, so credit where it's due.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 11)
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (2004)
I'd heard about this book a while ago and even contemplated reading it once or twice before, but this time when I saw it on the shelf at our book exchange, it seemed like the right time to take the plunge. I'm pleased I did; it's a gentle, sweet and amusing vignette of a year in the lives of five friends who decide to form an all-Austen, all-the-time book club. While that seems like a limited idea for a discussion group, it's an ideal setup for a novel that needs a defined end. We learn about the backgrounds of all the characters, who are well-observed and interesting, and see them change over the duration. It's all unremarkable but engaging - just like Jane Austen's books, of course.
Boiling A Frog by Christopher Brookmyre (2000)
Chosen as a reliably good read when I was in an unimaginative mood. Good fun as ever.