A year of books (October-December)

Books

Can you believe it? 2020 is over, and what a year!

No gigs since March, continuing to carry out my music therapy work in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, while the world is turned on it’s head… But there have been books. Previous installments of this series can be found here:

Even in my time not working, stuck at home, I feel like I’ve had less time to read (children take up your entire day if work doesn’t). So unlike some of my bibliophile friends, I’d sy I’ve read less in 2020, compared to previous years. Despite this, I’ve certainly enjoyed taking stock of every title I’ve read (with the exception of music therapy and psychotherapy books – I might provide some recommendations from those fields in a specialist interest article in the future). I well might continue this habit in 2021.

But for now, here are the non work-related titles I managed to read in the final quarter of 2020…

What we talk about when we talk about books: the history and future of reading by Leah Price (2019, Basic)

An interesting rebuttal to the common cries of “print is dead”, highlighting the ever-changing use of the book as an object and as an idea. The book is full of interesting information. For example, did you know that self-help books from local libraries are prescribed by the NHS in Wales to help treat depression? Price turns this tidbit into an entire chapter, although whether or not this needed an entire chapter is up for debate. The chapters feel like a compilation of essays which feel like they’ve been extended to make this ‘book worthy’. And for a book about the history and future of reading, padding out the chapters with repeated information feels like the author is doing her subject an injustice. This short book could have been even shorter, but less repetitive, and no less interesting as a result.

Finally, the middle ‘interleaf’ chapter uses the interesting device of running the text across both pages before starting a new line. This takes a little getting used to, not least because the text doesn’t always line up correctly between the left and right pages. Interesting, but perhaps only for skimming through.

Bue remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (2012, Gollancz)

I’ve read a few science fiction novels by Reynolds, such as the brilliant standalone book House of Sun’s. His experience before becoming a full-time author – namely his PhD in astrophysics and his work with the European Space Agency – mean that he can add an element of realism to what is obviously a fictional piece of work. Indeed, he has been quoted as saying he prefers to stick to writing about only the future technologies he believes to be possible (so light speed travel rarely makes an appearance in his work). This first novel in Reynold’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy sticks largely to that sensibility, while still encompassing some brilliantly fantastical elements such as off-world settlements and trans-human experimentation.

Set around a century or so into the future, the two main characters are brother and sister, heirs to a large family dynasty in Africa, now one of the world’s main centres of economic power. The death of their grandmother leads them on a trail away from Earth, to colonies on the Moon, as well as Mars and its two moons. Utopia, mystery and afrofuturism are combined in an intelligently written and well paced novel. I’ll be adding the next two novels in the series to my ever-expanding ‘to read’ pile…

The mirror and the light by Hilary Mantel (2020, Fourth Estate)

I’ve been waiting a while to read this, not least because the release of this novel, the final of Mantel’s ‘Cromwell Trilogy’, was pushed back more than once. But then, if the first two instalments of your historical fiction trilogy (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) both win the Booker Prize for fiction, you want to make sure the last book is the best it can be. I can confirm that this novel is as good as it’s two predecessors.

The first book looked at Thomas Cromwell’s rise to become the senior advisor of Henry VIII, the second continued his survival at the top while accruing further positions of high office. This final novel deals with the last four years of Cromwell’s life, starting at the exact moment Bring Up The Bodies ended – the beheading of Anne Boleyn. It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to say that Henry VIII turns on Cromwell – history suggests that he seems to do so on almost everyone around him, given enough time. Yet even though you might know (or could certainly guess) the ending, the journey there is so wonderfully written that you won’t mind. Mantel employs a [articular style of first person that can be a little difficult to get used to, but it’s worth persevering as it soon becomes normal, and fits the story (told from Cromwell’s perspective) perfectly.

The Mirror And The Light is a rich novel, full of detail, intrigue and a huge cast of characters. It marks a wonderful end to a fantastic trilogy of books. It remains to be seen if Mantel can get the ‘Booker hat-trick’ with this novel, but prizes aside, this book should be required reading for all fans of historical fiction, literary fiction, or indeed just good old-fashioned fiction.

Dave Brubeck: a life in time by Philip Clark (2020, Headline)

This newly-released biography of the famous jazz performer and composer was a Christmas present, and as a result, I haven’t finished it yet! However, although I’m only a third of the way in, I’m finding it an absorbing read so far. I believe fans of the jazz genre would be similarly interested in this book, which shows how much more there is to Brubeck beyond his most famous piece, Take Five. Sometimes dismissed in the past by jazz lovers who prefer who improvisation of bebop legends Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and so on, Clark’s tome will help with the current restoration of reputation Brubeck (or rather his life and body of work) is currently experiencing. Brubeck was an devotee to music as an art form, and a lifelong anti-racist. Given the circumstances we find currently ourselves in, a renewed respect for Brubeck couldn’t come at a better time. I’m looking forward to quickly finishing this book in the first few days of 2021.

So there you have it. That’s around twenty books I’ve read in 2020 (that aren’t related to music therapy). Having counted them up, it definitely feels like less than a typical year – but then, 2020 has been a far from typical year!

As always, I’d love to hear what all of you are currently reading, as well as your thoughts on any of the titles I’have mentioned in these summaries.

Happy new year and happy reading!

A year of books (July – September)

Books

It’s hard to believe that we’re in the final three months of the year. What a year it’s been! I’m sure no one could have reliably predicted the majority of changes which most of us have had to undergo, hopefully on a temporary basis, because of this pandemic. I hoped that it might offer more time to get through my oft-mentioned (and ever increasing) ‘to read’ pile. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life doesn’t always go the way you expect it to.

Still, there has been some reading since the last installment (which you can read about here), and here is a brief review of it…

The Italians by John Hooper (2015, Penguin)

An affectionate and sometimes amusing look at the characteristics common to Italians, and why that might be the case. Hooper also reiterates that Italy is a relatively new country (as a unified whole), and spends almost as much time highlighting what separates Italians from different regions; north and south; Romans and Sicilians; mountain dwellers and those who reside by the country’s ample coastline, and so on. Hooper regularly interjects anecdotes from his extensive time living and working in Italy as a journalist. These passages give the book a greater cohesion, in that the presumed reader (and Englishman) sees the situations unfold through the eyes of the author, and with similar inherent sensibilities. However, Hooper restrains himself from writing this as a straightforward memoir, which I expect that has increased it’s potential readership.

I read this book during lockdown in England. Of course, Italy had imposed one of the most stringent lockdowns of any country in the world, and the Italians have seemingly been obedient and compliant. This seemed to go against one of the common reoccurring themes in Hooper’s observations; that Italians will regularly bend the rules to suit their needs or preferences. The reports I was hearing on the news in 2020 didn’t sit with this assessment, until I considered another of the books themes – the emphasis and commitment Italians place on family. From this angle, undertaking the strictest measures, which seemed like virtual home arrest to some, made sense, as it gave your elderly relatives a fighting chance of making it through this madness alive. And that, argues Hooper five years before any of this was upon us, is a key characteristic of Italians. Recommended for anyone with an interest in staying in Italy for longer than an average-length holiday.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (2010, Bloomsbury)

Jacobson’s 2010 comic novel about three male friends – two of them Jewish and a third man who suddenly feels that he might be, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2010. This sudden interest in the religion of his friends is the author’s way of examining the universal themes of life and society. It is amusing in places, and the characters are interesting and well-written. Yet I certainly wasn’t gripped by it as much as I had been led to believe the reviewers who had gushed over this novel upon it’s release. Humorous and touching, yes, but also confused in places, and ultimately, slightly underwhelming.

Athelstan by Tom Holland (2016, Penguin)

A recent addition to the Penguin Monarchs series (that is, books on British monarchs published by Penguin books, although there’s a pun about Emporer Penguins in there somewhere), this book examines one of the lesser-known pre-1066 Kings (who wasn’t Alfred the Great).

I enjoy Holland’s writing, having read several of his books previously – in particular, I thoroughly recommend Rubicon, about the last gasp of the Roman Republic. At 160 pages, this is a quick read, but it covers what is known about Athelstan, from the few sources available. Personally, I’m pleased that Holland resisted the temptation to pad the book out with unnecessary additional information or unfounded presumptions.

Utopia for realists by Rutger Bregman (2016, Bloomsbury)

Alternate subtitles for this book, depending on country of publication, include and how we can get there (UK) and the slightly less pithy sounding the case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek (Holland). Although the latter of these two subtitles is somewhat unwieldly, it must be said that it up this book’s subject matter much more effectively. The book originated as a series of articles for the Dutch online news site De Correspondent by Bregman, a popular historian, and was later complied and translated. It has quickly became a bestseller, which ringing endorsements from a wide range of economists and politicians across the world.

The text centres on the three polices highlighted in the original subtitle, along with the principle that ideas can change the world, according to Bregman, who states “people are the motors of history and ideas the motors of people”. Of course, there are many who have said that Bergman strays into idealism, and it will certainly prove more popular with readers of a more left-leaning political persuasion. But Bergman is only aiming to issue a challenge, or a promise, of what could be possible but I doubt if the title Utopia for Idealists would have sold quite as well. A manifesto for a brighter future? Maybe not by itself, but a good place to start.

Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson (1971, Cassell)

In the afterword section of the book, Robinson recounts his inspiration for writing the story. He read a former R.A.F. pilot describe the tactic of the world’s first fighter pilots during WWI as “to sneak in unobserved behind his opponent and then shoot him in the back”. Hardly the cavaliers of the clouds they have often been immortalized as in tales such as the Biggles series, amongst many others.

This Booker Prize shortlisted book paints it’s fictitious characters in a more truthful light, based on the diaries and letters of real WWI pilots. The book was met with anger from veterans of the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner to the Royal Air Force) when it was first released, but reading it in 2020, it feels much less controversial now – the idea of a ‘lovely war’ has remained a 20th century concept – but the story is no less gripping for that fact. At just over two hundred pages, it’s a relatively fast read, but I found that the story stayed with me long after I had replaced the book on the shelf.

The next and final installment of this series (due in late December) will feature two novels I have been looking forward to reading. You can also expect updates on some upcoming studio dates and an in-depth review of a new guitar built for me recently. Until next time…

A year of books (Apr-Jun)

Books

It’s been three months since my last article on the books I am reading in 2020 (which you can read here). At the end of March, the UK was officially in lockdown, and throughout April many of us got used to new ways of working (or not working), as well as working out what to do with the extra time spent at home. At times, it felt like I was trying to make time for reading – but that’s a story for another blog. Suffice to say, I haven’t gotten through anywhere near as much of my to-read pile as I would have liked. Indeed, it has taken me over a month just to finish writing and editing this article!

As promised, I aim to log and write very brief reviews of every book (fiction & non-fiction) which I have read this year. The only exception to this is the academic texts I have to research as part of my work as a music therapist (which has partly continued during lockdown through working online). These books and papers will only appeal to a small audience, so it makes sense to create a specialist article to discuss them at a later date. For now, here are the books I have managed to read in the last three months:

The age of genius: the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern mind by Professor AC Grayling (2016, Bloomsbury)

The title might seem like a mouthful, but the premise is simple: Philosopher-historian Grayling puts forth the argument that the seventeenth century (i.e. the 1600’s) was the ‘epoch’ in human history in which we (or rather the leading minds of the day) began moving away from what we now call superstition, and finding confidence in scientific inquiry separate to religious belief. Grayling believes that this is what made us modern humans. His argument is compelling and very well written, with scores of examples. However, a book with so much detail obviously means many references are fleeting, and surely many more are (for any number of reasons) omitted altogether.

This book is worth looking into if the subject even remotely interests you. It’s surprisingly accessible and doesn’t get too weighed down in any particular area for too long, although that is also a downside for many. Would-be scholars to this subject should view this book as a primer, before moving onto the texts which have greater detail on certain areas – Galileo, The Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, to name just a few – without the overall breadth Grayling is able to present here. Those looking for an introduction to philosophy would be best served by some of Grayling’s other excellent books on the subject.

Shakespeare for grown-ups: everything you need to know about the bard by E. Foley & B. Coates (2015, Penguin)

Written by the two in-house editors behind Penguin’s Homework For Grown-ups, this book offers a light-hearted and accessible look into the greatest (or at least most famous) playwright of all time. Filled with fascinating historical and contextual nuggets, no portion of this book is overlong, and serves equally well as a reference for fans of the Bard, as well as ‘cheat sheet’ for newbies. Among the many useful sections it covers are guides to the language (including examples of the many, many words and phrases coined by Shakespeare, which are still in common use today) and a very brief overview of each play, reduced to a handful of lines in one section for super-quick, and rather pithy) reference. The larger sections examine examples of Shakespeare’s, comedies, histories, tragedies and poetry, highlighting key themes and use of language. The authors are good at reminding the reader about what an Elizabethan audience would have understood or expected from the performances of these plays too, which is particularly useful when things appear a trifle anachronistic to modern readers and audiences. By no means the final word on Shakespeare, but a great place to start for many, and a welcome addition to the collection of more committed fans.

The Ickabog by JK Rowling (2020, online at theickabog.com; print publication on 10th November 2020 by Hachette)

Based on a story JK Rowling used to tell her children, years before the publication (and phenomenal success) of her Harry Potter series and wider franchise, The Ickabog is a fairy tale brought into the public eye, it seems, because of the COVID19 pandemic. A chapter or two was released every week between March and July this year, seemingly as a distraction for people during lockdown. However, Rowling has stated that a print version of the book will be released in November this year, with some of the proceeds going towards a charity helping young people affected by the pandemic. Cynics might argue that it takes attention away from the negative press Rowling has received this year for her personal views on certain subjects, but a good deed is still a good deed. And anyway, what about the story?

Th story is the form of a fable, told by an omnipotent narrator, about a fictional country with a weak and vain king, whose closest advisors manipulate in an increasingly elaborate version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, with a strong dash of the legend of The Lambton Worm (an ancient local tale of an apparently un-killable dragon-like creature which stole sheep from a town in the far north of England) thrown into the mix. The 60 chapters of the story move fast, taking in various characters and sweeping across the entire fictional land, as well as a timescale of around a decade, without feeling too rushed – at least for the most part. The ending is both unexpected and rather typical of Rowling’s more famous work, but doesn’t quite wrap up the character arcs in a satisfying way, save a bittersweet epilogue involving the first characters mentioned in the book.

The Ickabog is a quick read, once the installments were available. It was rather interesting reading a serialised story, the way many famous works, such as those by Dickens, first appeared. It is written, like most of Rowling’s books, for children, and uses easy language with little in the way of hidden themes. In fact, my biggest problem with the book was the lack of subtlety altogether – Rowling tells you everything, including in one particularly frustrating instance, what four different characters (most of them minor) or thinking, without feeling the need to back any of these pronouncements up with dialogue or actions by the characters – this person loves that person because Rowling says so, and that has to be good enough. I understand that this is a story aimed at younger readers, but credit them with some insight!

Life by Keith Richards with James Fox (2010, Little, Brown & Company)

The back cover of this autobiography reads: “This is the life. Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it”. Perhaps the contributions from journalist Fox helped fill the gaps in the extraordinary life and career of one of rock’s least likely survivors. ‘Keef’ is one of the founders and driving force behind The Rolling Stones, as well as it’s main songwriter with frontman Mick Jagger, a partnership equally famous for it’s stories of hellraising over the years. The book covers everything you’d hope for – the music, the drugs, the women, his relationship with Jagger over the years, as well as numerous stories from the early days of The Stones and through their classic albums (and some of the many well-known faces they’ve encountered on the way).

At times, this book felt a little bit like an extension of the Stones Brand, and Fox has certainly steered these memoirs into something more coherent, but the book is no less enjoyable for these factors. It’s a funny and insightful read, and will definitely appeal to fans of the band, as well as those with even a smidgeon of interest. My advice would be to buy the paperback, as the hardback (as is often the way, especially with biographies) takes up a fair amount of shelf space!

Bring up the bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012, Fourth Estate)

This one was a re-read. I first read Bring up the bodies a few years ago, having come late to the party – a theatre and TV adaptation of this book, and it’s predecessor, Wolf Hall (2009), had already been produced by the time I started reading Mantel’s ‘Thomas Cromwell Trilogy’. I loved the writing in both books, especially how Mantel fleshed out the life of a prominent historical character, of whom so little biographical information remains. Both books won the Booker Prize for fiction for Mantel (the first time a female writer has ever won the award twice). The long-awaited final installment, The Mirror and the light, was finally released this year, and has already been added to the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize – could it be an unprecedented third win for Mantel (and the trilogy)?

Before starting The Mirror and the light, I decided to refresh my memory and immerse myself in Cromwell’s world once again – not least because I have heard that the third book picks up the story precisely from where this one ends. The story was just as wonderful to read for the second time as the first. Now, with my appetite well and truly whetted, I have made my transition from Bring up the bodies to The Mirror and the light just as June slipped into July, so expect my review on this final installment in my next blog in this series…

Any others?

As I mentioned at the start of this article, I have dipped into a few academic texts as part of my work. I’ve also been reading plenty of magazines and periodicals, which I have listed in a separate article that you can read here.

What have you guys been reading? Drop me a comment and let me know!