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?