Reading - October 2013

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (2012)
100 Great Guitars edited by Owen Bailey (2013)
Get Fit Running by Owen Barder (2005)
The Week (5 October 2013 / Issue 940)
Build Your Own Electric Guitar by Paul Balmer (2013)
The Week (12 October / Issue 941)
Guitarist (November 2013 / Issue 374)
The Week (19 October / Issue 942)
Build Your Own Electric Guitar by Martin Oakham (2006)
The Italian Next Door by Anna Cleary (2011)
I wanted a sweet romance but I got a ho-hum Riva pot-boiler with a pathetic heroine and the occasional eye-wateringly clumsy simile: something about being attracted to the hero "like a fridge magnet" sticks in the mind.
The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan (1995)
The Week (26 October / Issue 943)
How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (2003) [read to Z]
Good fun for children of all ages; a strong story and funny characters.
Guitarist Guide To Effects Pedals edited by Owen Bailey (2013)
Some useful information about types of effects, how to combine them and how to build a pedalboard, then a very dangerous (to my wallet) run down of the "best" 101 effects pedals ever. MXR Carbon Copy on its way ...
No Holds Barred by Cara Summers (2012)
Thriller/romance cross, with plenty of suspense, quite a lot of sex and little romance. No real character development but at least the heroine wasn't a complete wimp.


The Demon-Haunted World

Science As A Candle In The Dark
Carl Sagan

I am so relieved to have finally finished this book - it's taken me over twelve years. I have started it regularly about once a year, but never made it past the first few chapters. It's not that I don't agree with the subject matter: I couldn't agree with it more; the absolute necessity of continued investment in science and scientific approaches, not just to technology but to life, religion, politics, education and everything else. It's vitally important that we equip our people and our children with the ability to distinguish between science and pseudo-science, between fact and fiction, and to question what they are told.

Unfortunately, the book itself is much, much too long and needlessly repetitive. It's audience is not - or shouldn't be - people like me. I don't need Sagan telling me, at length, that there are a host of plausible, rational, earthly explanations for the host of "alien abduction" claims. It needs to grab the doubters of science, the gullible, the blinkered. They're not going to read such a long book. It's arguable whether they would pick up anything that challenges their preconceptions, but if they do it needs to be short and to the point.


Build Your Own Electric Guitar

Martin Oakham

Contrary to the identically titled Haynes manual, this book really does cover building your guitar from raw blocks of wood (although it does assume someone else has cut the tree down for you). From that point it has detailed steps of just about everything you need to do, including clear, colour photos nearly all of them. In this respect it would be, I expect, an extremely valuable guide to have around.

I have only a couple of minor gripes: firstly, it goes from start to finish with one guitar, a bolt-on (neck) with two humbuckers, and although there a couple of pages on different construction methods, it isn't much. Secondly, it makes a tiny, passing reference to finishing the body and neck. Granted this is a fairly specialised subject but you can't leave the wood untreated. Still, a superb companion piece to the other books I already have.


Build Your Own Electric Guitar

Paul Balmer

I've been planning on building my own electric for over a decade now. I still haven't managed it, but I feel like I'm getting closer to having the time and space. So I've been stocking up on some more books about guitars. Plus I like books about guitars anyway.

I've read the Haynes Fender Stratocaster Manual and I really like the format - nicely bound, good quality pages, plenty of big, colour pictures. I also love the way that Haynes have so imaginatively branched out from automative manuals (there's even a Wallace & Gromit Cracking Contraptions Manual!)

The format hasn't changed here, and there's lots of interesting detail. I particularly like the in-depth look at "Red Special", the guitar made by the godfather of all home builders, the awesome Brian May (who also provides a foreword). There's a section on installing a piezo bridge - not that I expect to do this ever, but it's nice to know. The book is well structured and the illustrations are very clear - always a bonus, since I've seen too many fuzzy, monochromatic pictures that tell you nothing.

However, this book is not really about building an electric guitar. It's about assembling a Strat. No other types of guitars are covered, and in any case the sample guitars are assembled from ready made bodies and necks. Now, this is an excellent way of starting, and I'm sure my first guitar will be made like this, so in that respect this is a very useful book. But there's a lot more to building an electric guitar than that. So this doesn't really replace the classic of the genre, Melvyn Hiscock's "Make Your Own Electric Guitar" (which also has an introduction from Dr. May).

Other gripes? The binding, while excellent quality, means that the book doesn't stay open by itself, which would be a pain if you wanted both hands free to actually do some work on a guitar. And finally, why oh why does it persistently refer to "S-type" guitars throughout? Myriad other books have no problem referring to Strats, Stratocasters, Teles and many other trademarked instruments without having to resort to such footling around. Call a spade a spade and a Strat a Strat! A minor but persistently annoying aspect of a generally good book.


British Steel

Judas Priest

From what little I know about Judas Priest (and I tried not to prejudice myself before listening by reading lots), they mark a junction between "rock" and "metal". Certainly you can hear both in the music on British Steel. "Living After Midnight", for example, could be Whitesnake - a big, stadium-friendly anthem about staying up all night (like a proper grown up and everything!), with big chorused guitars and a medium widdly but forgettable solo. On the other hand, opener "Rapid Fire" is, appropriately, a very fast metal chug, and much more interesting.

I think the real point here is that this album significantly pre-dates both the stadium rock of Bon Jovi or any other hair metal bands, and the more thrashy bands like Megadeath, Anthrax and so on. So although this album might sound slightly dated now, it was clearly very influential. And if that's so, I'm just grateful that it was tracks like these that proved so, rather than the, frankly, over-pompous "Red, White & Blue" or the comedy lyrics of "The Rage" (no surprise to find that singer Rob Halford came out many years later).

I'm no expert on all these micro-genres, because I find metal in general a bit juvenile. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of loud guitars, but metal's posturing, "attitude" and shrieking puts me off. British Steel, though, is surprisingly listenable. The songs mostly have memorable tunes you can sing along with, and Halford mostly stays in a lower range (although he can hit the high notes too), which I definitely prefer. The twin guitars of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing are big, crunchy and wild. Good fun for a while, but probably superseded by later artists.


Get Fit Running

Owen Barder

This is a short version of a longer book, Running For Fitness, which is rather nicely available for free online. I'm not even a beginner yet, but this strikes me as a good guide for a beginner. It's short and easy to digest; it has detailed suggested training programmes, including a "getting started from nothing" that covers the first six months; and it discusses elements of training programmes and nutrition.

I could have used more detail on some aspects, particularly how to combine running with other activities; for example, I would like to include swimming in my routine rather than just running, and so some information about how that might affect the routines would be useful. However, I'm sure I can work this out for myself over time.


100 Great Guitars

Owen Bailey (editor)

A Guitarist special edition, this occupies a curious position half way between a magazine and a book. It's more of a keeper than the monthly version (not that I throw mine away, ever) but still has adverts.

I rather like the fact that it's titled as a selection of great guitars rather than claiming to be a definitive list, which is of course impossible. All the usual suspects are present, plus a few more recent and unusual choices. Obviously we'd expect to see several versions of Strats, Teles and Les Pauls, but I was pleased to see it includes those as functional as my main guitar, a Gordon Smith GS2-60, as well as some more outlandish choices, like the astonishing Gus G1 Purple Special.

The photography is superb throughout and really has made me think of which guitars I still "need": possibly a Gibson 339, ideally and Explorer, possibly a Dan Armstrong Plexi ... hmmm ...



R.J. Palacio

B was given this by his reading group at the local library; he enjoyed it and I thought I'd find out what he was reading. I was slightly concerned, because a (somewhat lazy) review on the cover compares it with Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, which I don't consider to be a children's book. However, this is; older children, certainly, but still simplistic enough to be understood.

That's not to say it's a simple book, or even that it's been written down. It's a good story, well told. I thought the use of different view points was excellent, and I cared about the characters. The turnaround is a little sudden and the ending somewhat clich├ęd, but it's a happy ending and I like those.


A Donny Hathaway Collection

Donny Hathaway

I'm a bit of a snob about compilation albums1. Most artists recording after about 1970 conceived their albums as complete artistic statements, or at least they aspired to, and a compilation tramples all over that. It's like taking your favourite bits from all of Picasso's paintings and making a collage of them. It might be striking, but it won't be a coherent whole.

Of course, my view is probably hopelessly outdated in this era of downloading individual tracks. The kids are busy creating their own unique compilations and not giving a monkey's about the artistic compromise involved. And, truth to tell, compilations have always had a place. My first Bowie album was ChangesOneBowie, on cassette, and the 13 year old me loved it without worrying about what sense it made. I have all the proper albums now, of course, but it served a purpose as an introduction.

I heard about Donny Hathaway on the Great Album Showdown, when Martin Freeman and Danny Baker competed to out-enthuse each other over one of Hathaway's albums. I'm pretty well read about music (albeit less so about black music), but his name wasn't one that instantly rang a bell. So when I came across this compilation for pennies on our shopping trip, it seemed a good opportunity.

As it turned out, I already owned some of these songs: "Where Is The Love" and "Back Together Again", wonderfully harmonised duets with Roberta Flack, both appear on Flack's Softly With These Songs (yes, yes, a compilation), which I've owned for years. Hathaway's solo material is generally much slower and deliciously moody: I particularly like "Giving Up" and "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know", both of which have a real late night, soulful, mournfulness that you can just wallow in. His voice is a classic soul/gospel instrument, reminiscent at times of Stevie Wonder ("The Ghetto" in particular reminds me of Wonder's "Living In The City" - no bad thing).

Donny Hathaway only recorded four albums, including one of duets with Roberta Flack, and so having had my introduction - and thoroughly appreciated it, too - I will definitely be going for the proper albums now. Anyone want a third hand compilation?

1 Note for non-British English speakers: in this context, "a bit" means "a lot". For further education about understanding British English phrasing, see this handy guide.