Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Soul Music – Terry Pratchett

Having just compared the previous book I read to this one, I thought I’d read this one again. Last time I read it was 15 years ago when I was in a band, so I thought it would be interesting to see if it was as good as I remembered.

It was probably better.

It’s also probably the most idolatrous thing I’ve ever read. That’s purely subjective – for other people, Shakespeare In Love might be more idolatrous, or Pride and Prejudice maybe, or Independence Day. Depends what you’re in danger of worshipping. Sex, love, relationships, the happy ever after. Or maybe freedom, or nationhood, or your particular way of life.

It struck me that actually most films and stories are a bit idolatrous – in that at the end of them, everything is happy because the characters have achieved something, something that we’re effectively asked to worship in the place of God. And perhaps the level to which a film or book really strikes a chord with us (or to which we fall in love with it, if you’re that way inclined) is a measure of how much it tempts us into idolatry? I’d kind of hope not, otherwise I shouldn’t be reading or watching films, let alone writing my own novels!

Buy that’s a scary thought and one I don’t really feel up to following through right now (I’m hoping I’m being OTT, but my heart’s not entirely in it). And I digress. Yes, reading this again it was as good as I remembered. Half the little song references I didn’t pick up on last time. And I still loved the hints about where the universe came from. One, two, one two three four – let there be rock. Now was it AC/DC who said that? Or was it Spinal Tap?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Naked – Kevin Brooks

Being in a band is pretty much the most exciting experience life has to offer. Why is it then that I’ve read so few books that adequately convey that? Perhaps I just read the wrong books. The only book I’ve come across that really gets the idea across was Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music – so nothing based in the real world. Until, that is, I spotted this book in Waterstones.

It looked promising – set in the long hot summer of 1976, the summer of punk before it made the mainstream. I think that must have been a very exciting time in music (I wasn’t old enough to appreciate it at the time). At least going by this book. It starts off with two of the main characters in school, and the main character – a girl (hoorah! A girl who plays a musical instrument rather than being the singer!) is asked to play bass in the band because the guy has seen her playing Debussy on the piano. (Quite realistic: bass is very easy to play but requires a good degree of musicality and understanding of harmony to play well). Which leads to the first really great scene: invited to a band practice and handed a bass when she has never played one before in her life, she starts by hitting the notes and playing a simple line until she really gets into it, then finally stops when her hand gets too sore. “You might want to stop shaking your hand like that,” a band member says. “You’re getting spots of blood all over the floor”. She’s got so into it she’s played until her fingers bled (quoting Bryan Adams) without even noticing. If you’ve never been in a band you may find that hard to believe, but trust me, that’s exactly what it’s like.

From that point I was hooked, as the characters finish the year at school (the bloke drops out) and get more and more involved in the band (and with each other – a relationship that is only touched upon and is a bit troubled). The story meanders a bit – the band sack their guitarist and need a new one, who turns out to be the key character in the book and yet only comes in a third of the way through – but the description of the gigs, the band, the early punk scene, it’s all pretty riveting.

I said before that I thought the story meandered a bit. Some key things only come in quite late on. Of course, life is like that, but you don’t necessarily expect it in a book. But that just makes the plot unpredictable; it doesn’t make it any less gripping.

This is still not the ultimate rock-and-roll novel – not quite. I don’t know whether that novel even exists yet. But other than Soul Music it’s the only novel I’ve ever felt accurately conveyed the experience of being in a band. And that made it a pretty excellent read.

Incidentally - if you know me and fancy borrowing any of the books I've read, just ask. Some of them I've borrowed, some I give away when I've finished reading them, the best ones I tend to keep. Always worth an ask.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Will you still love me tomorrow? – Claudia Carroll

I couldn’t miss reading this, even if only for the title.

I couldn’t quite get where the male character was coming from, nor did I find the descriptions of the cocaine-addict best friend’s behaviour entirely believable (which doesn’t mean it’s not accurate, real live doesn’t have to be believable). Other than those minor quibbles, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a marriage-in-trouble story, but it works better than some of the other such books I’ve read, I think because the main character actually has other big things in her life other than fretting about the state of her marriage (she’s an actress working on broadway).

I suppose the big thing on which this kind of story stands and falls is whether the final resolution is believable. It’s always an issue I suppose in this type of book – how can the author conjure up and convey a marriage that’s so dysfunctional it’s obviously in trouble, and yet somehow rescue it at the end of the book (oops, spoilers …) There’s no magic moment in this book at which the characters suddenly decide they loved one another all along. Rather the realization comes bit by bit and in a quite credible way.

Although of course there was the sting in the tail that in real like I know they’d be in even more trouble a few months down the line, since at the end she finds herself pregnant … I wonder why that’s put in, perhaps because of some ridiculously naïve idea that having a child is the seal that makes a marriage permanent. Just don’t go there …

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Lord of the Flies - William Golding

I think it's no mean feat that I managed to go through school and get to the age of forty without reading this. I'd heard of it, of course. It was a recommended book at school (where I was into more lowbrow reading), it had featured on several quizzes (piggy's glasses couldn't have lit the fire because he's short-sighted and hence the lenses were concave, not convex), and it had been mentioned on Open Book (Radio 4) as an example of a book that had been made or saved by its editing. I knew the basic premise and story; I was aware too that it was considered the seminal work by an author who won the Nobel Prize for literature. So apparently it was pretty great. One thing that surprised me about this, then, was that actually, were I to try, I could easily pick a lot of faults in it. But I'm not going to, I'd rather think about what makes this book so allegedly great.

What it offers is a view of the nature of humanity and society. It's an extremely bleak view perhaps, but one I'm very comfortable with. Romans 3:23, as any good evangelical knows, says that "all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God". And of course it's not just evangelicals, and it's no coincidence - Golding was a convinced Catholic so his view of humanity would have had the same basis as mine.

The other thing that is obvious from the book is that Golding's view of children. He sees them not as innocent until corrupted by society, but as wild and needing to be civilized. Perhaps he had in mind the doctrine of original sin. Certainly, as a teacher, it's no surprise that he came to this view of children - he should know! It is however a view largely at odds with our current culture which (in my opinion) seems almost to idolize children.

One thing that's hard to tell with a book like this is what the world was like, what the prevailing attitudes of society were like, before it was written. Although I managed not to read this until I was forty, I live in a world and country where that's actually quite unusual, and most people have grown up with Lord of the Flies - if not having actually read it, at least they might have seen the film (I haven't). Has this book actually changed the attitudes of society? Has it influenced our understanding of "the human condition"? That might seem a heavy burden to lay on a humble novel, but if it hasn't - this book that has been so widely hailed and read - then what hope is there for any novel to achieve anything?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Do You Remember The First Time – Jenny Colgan

‘This is not my beautiful house ... my God, how did I get here?’ – Talking heads, ‘Once in a Lifetime’, misquoted.

It’s a common feeling among people of a certain age – my age, or that of Flora, the main character in this book (ok, that’s about a ten-years span but still …) To feel that life has somehow got away from you, that it’s become fixed in a whole bunch of ways you’re not sure you’re happy with. Flora’s response is familiar too: ‘I wish I was seventeen again.’ To be able to go back to when life was still unwritten, to a simpler and better time, or to do it all again, and differently this time. It’s a classic question. If you could have it all again, go back to when you were sixteen or seventeen or whatever age it is for you and do things differently – what would you change? Or would you, as the song says, do it all again?

There have been times when I’ve had the same thought – wished I could be sixteen again. If you knew me when I was sixteen then you may or may not understand why! And that’s what interested me about the premise of this book. It’s something I’ve thought about far too much to be honest, because in reality it’s futile and arguably destructive. To quote another song – this is the life you have, this is the life you live. As it says in Ecclesiates, “Do not say, Why were the old days better than these? For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (7:10).

And the book? Well, it takes an interesting twist on the theme. After her wish, Flora is suddenly seventeen again – but not in her own past, she’s still in the present, in a life that therefore she does not know. Only her close friends even know her from her life before, and of them, only her parents have been dragged back in age with her. And she’s been jumped back just a month, so she has a convenient length of history to re-live before the event that prompted her wish, and which no doubt will bring her back – somehow. And then when she gets back to her own life and time, she’ll be living in a different world, a world changed by her actions during her month, which of course makes for a nice satisfying conclusion.

The premise is perhaps a little contrived, but let’s face it, it’s not supposed to be realistic, and any novel is allowed one “gimme” as they say, even if in this case it’s a fairly elaborate one. Other stories I’ve come across have used one of two approaches: either going back in time in your own body (hot tub time machine – yes, I know, I was on a plane) or being rejuvenated in an otherwise unchanged world and time (17 again – ditto).

I did enjoy the book, and on the whole found the conclusion satisfying (apart from her giving up maths and taking art – which touches on a very unhelpful gender model which I think needs desperately to be undermined, not reinforced, at every opportunity). But the fact remains that the whole theme of “what I were seventeen again” isn’t a helpful one. What struck me around the time I read this, after a recent night / day dream on the theme was – if, were I to go back those twenty-something years, I could go back and change my life – why can’t I change my life in the same ways now? That is probably a more constructive question.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Good, The Bad and The Dumped – Jenny Colgan

This book surprised me, and in a good way.

A few minor quibbles first. The blurb on the back I found a bit misleading, because the implication is that she goes off tracking down her exes after her current bf breaks off the engagement, but in reality the order of events and causality is rather different. Secondly, I don’t like books where the main conflict is basically caused by the MC (who is invariably female – helpful gender stereotyping be damned) is TDTL (Too Dumb To Live). And finally, relationship problems that stem only from the characters not communicating and thinking the worst of each other by default don’t make a good story (how ever realistic that might be).

The good news is that none of those three things come close to spoiling this book. Yes, FMC Posy does have the odd TDTL tendency (with a name like that, how could she not?) But she also has bigger and more credible problems. When her boyfriend proposes to her, she is struck by a sudden uncertainty – is this really the man she wants to marry, or just the person in whom she’s taken refuge after a previous disastrous relationship? This causes her to undertake a mission to seek out her three significant exes (there’s always three, aren’t there? Not counting Jacob Marley, of course).

This I found both believable and interesting. Likewise the furtive manner in which she goes about it, which ultimately leads to catastrophic misunderstanding with her fiancé. At which point the book touches on the other major pitfall, where I was willing her to just try to explain to him what she’s doing. To be fair, with hindsight, maybe it’s understandable that she can’t, but I didn’t feel that when I was reading it.

The three exes are for me the best bit of the book, as she goes through a process of coming to terms with who she is and where she is that finally takes her to the wedding of a man whose name she has not even been able to pronounce since their break-up. Once we get on to exes two and three the book’s structure beds down too, and the way we learn about each in turn makes sense. (I felt towards the start there were slabs of backstory I wasn’t quite ready for).

It’s only after Posy has confronted ex number three that the book veers off course, as having realized that her (by now ex-) fiancé is after all the man for her, Posy is put off telling him this by another stupid misunderstanding until a somewhat overdone romantic meeting with champagne in the rain. A few chapters here I think could have been cut, but given what preceded it I was willing to plod through them. And finally we get a happy ending.

Another staple in chic lit (a term which, as I’ve commented before, I do not use in a derogatory way) is Posy’s pair of bizarre friends Leah and (her sister) Fleur. Although very funny, they both turn out to have a little more depth when needed, and I liked in particular the touch of Leah, forever wearing insane extreme fashion clothing, designing for Posy a tasteful, simple, and brilliant wedding dress.

Then there’s the story of Posy’s parents, which is key to her character but feels a little stereotyped (parents divorced, dad remarried and estranged, but turns out not to be such a bad guy after all – could be a lot worse). I guess for the author this is a key theme of the book, but for me the most interesting bit was the way Posy has been affected by her own relationships and how she needs to somehow put each of them, and the expectations they have left her with, behind her in order to accept the man who has proposed to her.

And that is why I liked this book.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How To Train Your Dragon – Cressida Cowell

It’s good to have a vague idea what your children are reading.

I quite liked this. It’s funny, but it does vaguely show some good examples about friendship and the value of sticking up for people when it isn’t convenient to do so. And obviously I respond to the fact that Hiccup (the main character) is regarded as "useless" but in the end saves the day by being sensitive and intelligent - pretty much the opposite of everything I disliked about Forrest Gump.

It does make me wonder though to what extent even at this age range books are already being squeezed into moulds aimed at a male or female market. Yes, it’s good to have books that boys might want to read, but it’s good too for boys to realize that being a man means more than just fighting stuff.

Mind you, what would I know about that?