31/05/2020

Reading - May 2020

Q: 50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll: From Zeppelin to the Pistols ... Part Two: The '70s edited by Mark Blake (2004)
The next instalment of the Q special edition that I've had hanging around for nearly 16 years now is entertaining and interesting, but lacking in depth. The list of essential albums at the end is uneven and the whole thing suffers from the continuing delusion that punk was a major landmark rather than a minor diversion. Some articles focus on specific events while others are just generic, Sunday supplement fodder. Good pics though.
Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre (2007)
Read in a couple of sittings: just a great story and lots of black humour. Apparently Jack Parlabane has turned up in a later Chris Brookmyre book but I won't be bothering.
All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye by Christopher Brookmyre (2005)
One of my favourites; I love the way Brookmyre makes the implausible seem possible and even reasonable. Comfort reading, of course, largely because I can't be bothered to make the effort to try something new.
Guitar Magazine (June 2020 / Issue 381)
They seem to have lost the definitive and now just go by Guitar Magazine. Interesting interview with Chris Martin IV, the current CEO of the Martin guitar company; amazing to learn that they have grown from a near-nadir of a couple of thousand instruments a year in the early 80s, to over a hundred thousand today.
Where's There's A Will by Matt Beaumont (2007)
I came across Matt Beaumont's very funny first novel e around the time of its publication, while I was working in Edinburgh and buying loads of books on what I had left of my per diem. Thus it was his name that caught my attention at work's book exchange. This is a more conventional comic novel, where farcical disaster after disaster falls upon our well-meaning but hapless hero, only for it to all work out in the end. Along the way we have scheming multi-millionaires (who get their come-uppance, of course) and dead-end council estate urchins with hearts of gold and surprising hidden talents. And so on. After a slow start I finished it in an afternoon because I wanted to know how it all worked out.
Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett (1994)
"May you live in interesting times" is, of course, not an actual Chinese curse, but then this book is not mocking the actual country itself, but rather Western stereotypes of China. Maybe this is what Pratchett had in mind all along when he created Twoflower (in The Colour of Magic). As always, very inventive and Rincewind isn't as annoying as usual.

30/04/2020

Reading - April 2020

Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus (2012)
This positions itself as a look into how a previously unmusical 40-year-old manages to learn guitar, but actually it's more of a look into the science of learning and what it means to be "musical", with a little bit about why music exists anyway. If you came to this book expecting some enlightenment on how to get better, you would be disappointed - but you shouldn't be surprised. Marcus says he managed to become a competent amateur guitarist with about 18 months of perseverance and practice. The only big difference between him and other people of a similar age, I'd argue, is that he was in the fortunate position of being able to dedicate himself to guitar, at a time in life when most people have too many other commitments. And that's why it's difficult to learn new things once you're an adult.
The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Jem Roberts (2014)
My copy of Neil Gaiman's superb Don't Panic is pretty old and, having seen this book mentioned in a Register article about HHGTTG 42nd anniversary, I thought I'd get up-to-date. It made me realise I'm not actually that much of a fan: I love the original radio series, but the TV series is just OK, I think the books are poor and obviously rushed (Dirk Gently is much better), the film is mildly diverting and I only managed half an episode of the new radio series. There's plenty of interesting facts here, in particular about more recent developments (primarily the film, of course, and radio series' 3, 4 & 5), but overall, it's more information than I really needed. It's not helped by the fact that it's written by the kind of fan who thinks that all the jokes get funnier if they are incessantly repeated; in tone, it reminds me of The Fast Show's Colin Hunt
The Guitar Magazine (May 2020 / Issue 380)
The Dueling Machine by Ben Bova (1969)
I first read this in my early teens, borrowed from either the school or public library. It left a huge impression and I re-read the same copy several times, but then not again for a couple of decades, since, as a minor and probably largely forgotten SF work, it wasn't available anywhere. Finally, about 10 years ago, I found a copy second-hand. It's a slight novel, really only a heavily expanded short story, with a dictatorial villain clearly modelled closed on Hitler. But it has a satisfying conclusion and a tiny little romance in it too. Still one of my favourite books and I read it in about two hours on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Running Well by Sam Murphy & Sarah Connors (2008)
An excellent manual for running, which doesn't bother with too much of the motivational stuff (it assumes you want to run), but dives straight into pretty technical detail about running posture, technique and so on. It has useful sections on warm-ups, core exercises, and all different types of injuries and what to do about them. This is going to stay out for reference for some time, I think, now that I have (properly, this time, I hope) started running again.
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994)
I find myself somewhat disappointed in this Discworld installment, despite the presence of many rock references that I could spot myself (including a long-running gag that culminates in a corker at the end). Normally Pratchett is a master at bringing threads together from previous books, but the central premise here, of music that cannot die, seems to come out of nowhere. Obviously everything comes to a climax and then magically resets itself thanks to Death's super-powers. I did like the character of Susan Death though.

31/03/2020

Reading - March 2020

Back Story by David Mitchell (2012)
I have no particular interest in David Mitchell and so I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (ex-library stock, £1, bargain! ... actually maybe that's why). Anyway, I'm pleased I did. In between mildly entertaining musings about a variety of subjects inspired by his daily walk, he tells his life story and reveals that, rather than being the young fogey he sometimes comes across as on panel shows (or possibly as well as), he has been pretty single-minded in his pursuit of a career in TV comedy. It's pretty much all he's done, mundane placeholder jobs aside. He writes exactly as he sounds, and it's an interesting read. I just wish the front photo wasn't quite so off-puttingly larger than life. I found myself leaving the book face-down most of the time!
The Guitar Magazine (April 2020 / Issue 379)
The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr & George Spafford (2014)
DevOps gets lots of mentions around work, but I haven't read anything about it really, until now. This is a novelised description of the issues DevOps is supposed to solve and how it does that (it reminds me, in principle, of The One Minute Manager). A few chapters in, I wasn't sure I was going to carry on; it's all a bit too close to situations I've been in, with ludicrously unrealistic demands and politics galore. But it's a well-told story, and I wanted to know how it worked out (and whether the horrible marketing VP was got rid of!). I have a feeling the story wouldn't be of much interest to anyone outside the industry, but there's plenty to learn here if you do work in it. Thanks to James for the lend!
Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Having recently watched the new film, I felt it necessary to reacquaint myself with the source material (the language gets to you after a while). It is, of course, lovely, and has much more depth that can be fitted into a two hour film (which, while visually stunning, gets many things wrong). Now I'm seeing if I can persuade K to read it.
Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett (1993)
A "police procedural", according to the man himself, albeit with the usual Discworld idiosyncrasies and pin-sharp observations of certain character types. I last read this two years ago and I know it well, so wasn't sure if I might have overdone it, even if it is the next in sequence. But I enjoyed it just as much as ever. A very good entry point into the Discworld canon, imho.

29/02/2020

Reading - February 2020

The Rainmaker by John Grisham (1995)
Still my favourite novel of Grisham's, probably just because it's a great David versus Goliath story, lots of justice being served to idiots and crooks. The romantic interest is nice, but a little cliched and she's a bit too perfect - and why is she so immediately interested in our handsome lawyer? Anyway, a bit of a fantasy in many respects but no less enjoyable for it.
A Cure For Gravity by Joe Jackson (1999)
A straight-forward, no messing autobiography of Joe's life from childhood to his first album. I wasn't there but my guess would be that this is as accurate a portrait of the life of a gigging musician in the 70s as any.  Readable, honest and enjoyable. It sent me back to his first two albums (Look Sharp & I'm The Man) which I first bought in the mod-80s (on vinyl) and still own - excellent albums both, by the way.
Guitar Magazine (March 2020 / Issue 378)
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (1992)
In later books Pratchett became very satirical but in his earlier books  he just seemed to be going for funny and entertaining, which of course he was - with occasional satirical side-swipes (e.g. Pyramids). However, here, in the 13th Discworld novel, the humour is definitely aimed at a specific target - in this case, religion, and the things people do in its name. I didn't find the characters very engaging and so it's not one of my favourites of his, but it's still a good plot and contains some amusing scenes, particularly the ones involving the Ephebian philosophers. And of course it's probably the only book ever to have had an audio codec named after one of its characters! [While I was researching Small Gods, prior to writing this review, I was very happy to discover the Annotated Pratchett File, and I'll try and remember it for all future Pratchett books I read.]
Lords & Ladies by Terry Pratchett (1992)
Next up in the Discworld series (I really am reading other books too) is this, a nice riff on fairies, elves and a little dash of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As is often the case, I didn't feel like I really understood what was going on towards the end, but it all works out, of course. Enjoyable, and I like Granny Weatherwax, so all fine by me, but the ending did a feel a bit like "and then a miracle occurred" (or, in this case, Granny Weatherwax decided to actually do some magic).
The Book Of The Year 2019 by No Such Thing As A Fish (2019)
Jolly good fun for dipping into (over breakfast, usually) and some laugh-out-loud facts, although actually I can't remember any right now. I've also been listening to their podcast a bit over the last month or so, and that's like the book - a nice way of filling in moments (in my case, my short drive to work) with something that's not too taxing. Dispensable but fun.

31/01/2020

Reading - January 2020

All The Best Lines by George Tiffin (2019)
A book dedicated to the unsung heroes of film, the scriptwriters. Fundamentally a (big) selection of choice quotes from famous films, interleaved with short essays about various aspects of the industry. Plenty of interest, and brilliant to dip into. This was a very welcome Secret Santa gift from someone at work - I could make a guess who but whoever it was chose very well. Thank you if you're reading!
How To Be An F1 Driver by Jenson Button (2019)
Reading this book is a bit like just listening to Jenson chat away about things. Although there's something of a structure to it, the style is very conversational - in fact, I suspect that it was actually "written" by Jenson talking away at someone and then having it transcribed. Normally I'd expect the subsequent editing to formalise the style somewhat, but here most of the colloquialisms are left in place, so there's plenty of sentences such as "He came out and I'm like, 'You're wearing that?'" (not an actual sentence from the book). I found this a bit wearing after a while. Still, an enjoyable and easy read, and I still have a lot of time for him.
Guitar Magazine (Feb 2020 / Issue 377)
The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard & Spencer Johnson (1982)
I was reminded about this management classic when a colleague (hi James!) showed me The Phoenix Project, which is a novelised guide to DevOps. Similarly, this is a story of how a young man discovers the secrets of good management. Unlike the more recent book, this is nice and short - although, given the subject, it would be shooting itself in the foot if it wasn't. The lessons are easy to learn, and valuable I think, but probably harder to apply. In that sense, it's a bit simplistic. But it makes you think, and that's no bad thing.
How To by Randall Munroe (2019)
xkcd author's third proper book (fourth if you count xkcd: volume 0) is a collection of articles about how to do various activities - how to dig a hole, how to throw things - all taken to ridiculous extremes. Each article is a bit like an extended xkcd web-comic, where, rather than just the punchline, Randall explains his thought processes in getting there. The appeal of this, and of xkcd, is his endearing literal-mindedness: if we're asking how to move fast, how fast? Why not faster? and so on. Really good fun and deserves an audience much wider than his current reader base (although that will probably be enough to generate plenty of sales anyway).
A Fabulous Creation by David Hepworth (2019)
Now that music magazines are less of a viable commercial concern, David Hepworth seems to have hit on a niche in books: music nostalgia. This is the third book in which he claims, at unnecessary length, that things aren't what they used to be: first, it was music in general (downhill since 1971 apparently); next it was rock stars (today's stars not a patch on the real thing, you know); here it's the way we consume music (soulless compared to vinyl, of course). I don't buy the central argument, which is that real albums only exist on vinyl, and the subtitle ("How the LP saved our lives") is a ridiculous claim. Once again we have the essay per year structure, which doesn't really lend itself to an extended, reasoned argument - so what we get is basically another history of the seventies from a slightly different angle. Hepworth's writing seems to be getting more stilted over time too, with shorter and shorter sentences, which is a very identifiable style but doesn't flow well on the page. As a result of all of this, I found the book hard to get on with. By far the best part of the book is the appendix, in which he gives short reviews of a handful of records for each year covered in the main body; all masterpieces of concision and opinion.

31/12/2019

Reading - December 2019

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1992)
The twelfth Discworld novel and the first in my "start from the beginning" initiative that I hadn't read before (at least, as far as I remember). I'm not sure why not - Granny Weatherwax is my favourite Discworld character, and this is great, with some nice riffs on fairy stories and how they work. Good stuff.
Why Running Matters by Ian Mortimer (2019)
Imagine Alain de Botton wrote a running diary; well, this is what you'd get. Each of Mortimer's run through the year, primarily 5k parkruns, gets a chapter and a musing on what he felt this particular event had taught him - not just, or even much, about running, but about life. It's a really good read, ideal for bedtime, with short chapters and an engaging style. It has reminded me - again - that I need to restart running soon.
The Guitar Magazine (Jan 2020 / Issue 376)
"Gear of the Decade" issue, with some obvious choices (TC Ditto, Kemper) and some less so (Novo Serus & Fender Vintera Jazzmaster - why two very similar offsets? Whither Relish or similar?)
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (2013)
A highly readable pop-science intro to materials science with a pleasingly punning title and the somewhat longer subtitle of "The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape our Man-Made World". Miodownik selects ten materials the pervade our modern world and describes how they came to be, illustrating how completely synthetic nearly everything we are surrounded by is: in the words of Peter Gabriel's sublime "Mercy Street" (inspired by the poetry of Anne Sexton): "all of the buildings, all of the cars, were once just a dream in somebody's head".
Crossroads by Mark Radcliffe (2019)
This is an odd book. The concept is simple: each of the 25 chapters is a short essay about a crossroads or important moment in pop/rock music's history, written in Radcliffe's unique voice and containing multiple diversions and asides. It reads very much as he talks on the radio, which is no bad thing, since it means that entertainment and amusement is never far away. On the radio, though, it's the music that provides most of the entertainment and the "talking in between the records" (as he has previously described his job) is a nice leavening. Here, the talking is all you get and it's a bit much after a while. It doesn't help that the chapters are in no obvious order, which means the book has no obvious beginning or end and just becomes a collection of pieces. Not unpleasant by any means but hardly essential reading.
The Time Traveller's Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer (2017)
This is an easy book to admire but a hard one to love. The concept is brilliant, as shown on the two previous books (to medieval and Elizabethan England respectively) but, as before, I struggled with it. There's so much detail here and even if it is presented in an easily digestible form, it's still a lot to take in. Mortimer's keen to emphasise that, despite what seem to be substantial differences, people are still the same regardless of what era they lived in, which is correct of course. It's the differences that strike home though.

30/11/2019

Reading - November 2019

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
A seminal novel, which for some reason I don't appear to have read for over 10 years. I keep recommending it to B (who would love it), and I finally thought I should probably remind myself what's in it. It's surprisingly pedestrian in places, with a lot of exposition via the device of an AI librarian to explain the somewhat involved background, which involves Sumerian religion and draws an analogy to programming. It's all quite involved and probably presented in unnecessary depth for the purposes of the plot, but it's characteristic of Stephenson. Once we get past the background, we can enjoy the pre-Internet "Metaverse" (clearly influential on subsequent developments) and the thriller aspects, although I'm a bit hazy about what actually was being fought over. Still, a great read.
The Guitar Magazine (Dec 2019 / Issue 375)
Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams (2019)
Found in the book exchange at work. A sweet chick-lit romcom where the man and woman don't actually meet properly until the final pages, and alternately narrated from his and her perspectives. Nice, with a few awkward scenes but a pleasant enough cast of characters and a very romantic ending.
How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg (2014)
This is one of those books I've been quoting at people for the whole time I've been reading it. It's mostly about statistics and how it applies to real life - whether that it's analysing how lotteries work or how votes can be counted in elections (as an aside, a subject nicely summarised here) - but also on lots of other subjects. It's needed quite a lot of thinking about at times as the maths and concepts are pretty involved, but it's written in an engaging, if somewhat wordy, style. Very enjoyable.
From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming (1957)
A silver lining of being ill is getting to read more. I was listening to a John Barry collection and Matt Monroe's theme song to the film came on. I hadn't read the book in ages, I was feeling like something simple, and so I grabbed it off the shelf. The edition I have is the film tie-in, from 1963, and belonged to my parents (before I took it), and I particularly like it because the photo of Daniela Bianchi on the cover looks a lot like Alison, a girl I was at school with. Anyway, the book itself is excellent - dated, of course, but it is over 60 years old, and it has a lot more references to sex than I expected or remembered. A good read.
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett (1991)
For some reason I remember the ending of this book very clearly, even though I'm not sure I follow it very well. Something about a city spawning itself due to all the unspent life-force lingering around, due to Death taking a holiday. Jolly fun etc.