2021 in books (April – June)

Books

Where does the time go?

The last few months have been incredibly busy. Live performances might still be few and far between (only one so far this year) but upcoming changes to my music therapy work have kept me in the office more than usual. I found myself lacking the energy or will to read at times, but lie most things in life, this too passed…

Here are the books I did manage to read in the last three months. They’re a bit of a mixed bag. More than ever, they made me think about other books I’ve read, some of which I have recommended below at appropriate points. Let’s dive in…

A moveable feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964, Vintage)

Hemingway’s account of his time in Paris, from around 1920-1926, was written in the last years of his life, at a distance of over three decades. It gives some insight into his method of working, at least at the time, as well as his opinions on other famous figures whom he came into contact with, including Scott F. Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach (proprietor of the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Paris’ Left Banke).

This memoir is an interesting dive into one period of the life of a man considered to be one of the Great American Novelists. It paints a strong picture of the streets and scenes of the City of Light during the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’. However, don’t rely on it as a guide book. Almost a century on, Paris has changed, making this book of short, descriptive chapters something of a time capsule.

This book is one of many I’ve read about Paris, the ‘City of Light’. Despite their proximity to Britain and the intertwining histories of both nations, there’s so much to be learned from looking into the past of one of the UK’s closest neighbours. Other books on France and Paris which might be worth your time:

  • For a more up to date and light-hearted look at France’s wonderful capital, try Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke. Chapters are divided by subject such as food, addrosiments, apartments and the Parisiennes themselves, all from the loving but bemused perspective of a Brit who has lived there for years (2011, Black Swan)
  • The Little Pleasures of Paris, meanwhile, is more of a small coffee-table book. Author Leslie Jonath divides the things she adores about the City of Light into four sections; one for each season. Each entry is short, but accompanied by beautifully chic illustrations by Lizzie Stewart (2016, Chronicle)
  • Jeremy Mercer’s Bedbugs and Baguettes is partly the memoirs of his time in Paris, and partly the history of where he ends up staying, the famous Left Banke bookshop Shakespeare & Co (named after the original shop, which had closed years before), as well as its colourful owner, George. One for bibliophiles (2007, Magna)
  • For a more general overview of the nation’s history, Modern France by Jonathan Fenby offers a fascinating insight into the how France got to where it is now, starting with the revolution of 1789 (2015, Simon and Schuster)

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2013, Transworld)

Loaned to me by a friend, this fast-paced thriller is the debut novel of the screenwriter behind Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, Payback and From Hell, among many others. Two quotes from John Le Carre and Raymond Chandler at the preface of this book highlight Hayes’ influences in the world of espionage and detective fiction. View these alongside the many Clancy/Grisham style thrillers (which often end up being remade into the sort of film he’d write the screenplay for) and you have the measure of this novel.

Saying that, this is a good book. It’s 888 pages are divided into four parts, each of which is made up of short chapters that left me wanting to read ‘just one more’ before setting the book down for the night. Part one features a lot of flashback or scene-setting chapters that initially made me wonder exactly where this book was going. However, Hayes does a good job of tying up pretty much every thread in this novel. Very little is remains a mystery by the end of the book. If that’s something you like to see in your thrillers, give this book a go. Don’t expect a deep examination into the soul of humanity, or even genuine development of any of the side characters (or even the main protagonist narrating in first-person, for that matter). But be assured that the story is gripping.

Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson (2016, Vintage)

Another Shakespeare adaptation, this time retelling The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a challenging antagonist for modern audiences uncomfortable (and rightly so) with the antisemitism throughout the Bard’s original play. Jacobson won the Man Booker prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, a novel which explores the author’s experience as a British Jew (you can read my short review for that book here), but has also written on heroes from Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps this reimagining of Shylock was the next logical step?

As you may have read previously, I had mixed feelings about The Finkler Question, and this novel leaves me with a similar feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s an interesting concept and a good story with lovely, funny moments in it, but overall, it felt like it wasn’t quite good enough. Fans of Jacobson will love this book, but it’s not high on my list of recommendations.

England’s forgotten past by Richard Tames (2010, Thames & Hudson)

The full title of this small (185 pages), fact-filled book is almost a chapter in itself: England’s forgotten past: the unsung heroes & heroines, valiant Kings, great battles & other generally overlooked episodes in our nation’s glorious history. It’s eight chapters are subdivided further, with various ‘fact boxes’ and illustrations along the way. As well as bringing lesser known characters and events from English history to light, Tames also sets the record straight on some common misconceptions. Worth a read for the casual history fan, although it’s brevity might make one feel as if they are reading a collection of factoids, such as those published by the BBC factual/comedy quiz QI (or Quite Interesting, to give the show’s full title).

Publisher Thames & Hudson have a wealth of interesting titles which, similarly to England’s Forgotten Past, offer brief glimpses into less well-examined areas of history. Of those I have read (and there several more on my ‘to buy list), personal favourites include:

  • Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day, also by Tames (2018), looks at the alehouses and streetlife of London during the Bard’s lifetime. Taking in everyone from “courtiers to cut-throats” and of course, the dramatists and actors who were Shakespeare’s colleagues and contemporaries, we get the interesting perspective of medieval history from street level
  • Histories of Nations: how their identities were forged (Ed. Peter Furtado, 2012) features contributions from numerous writers, usually focusing on one small facet of a country’s history and how it helped create, or reflects, the nation we might recognise today
  • The Great Cities in History (Ed. John Jules Norwich, 2009) is another brilliant collection of short essays by various writers. Divided into four parts (ancient, medieval, early modern & modern), each chapter focuses on a city in its heyday, from Thebes in the Golden Age of Egypt to present day Shanghai as “China’s Super-City”
  • Finally, History Day By Day (Peter Furtado, 2019) is a collection of quotes from history for every day of the year. The 366 voices compiled range from Joan of Arc to JFK, and Galileo to Gandhi, bringing history to life through the words of those who lived it

The algebraist by Iain M. Banks (2004, Orbit)

Banks was well known for holding down two slightly different fiction writing careers: ‘regular’ fiction such as debut novel The Wasp Factory as Iain Banks, and science fiction with the middle initial ‘M’. Most of his sci-fi output was his epic & complex Culture series. But this novel is one of his few standalone sci-fi stories.

Having read most of the Culture novels, I knew roughly what to expect and everything which makes that series so popular is present here, except for artificial intelligence (which is illegal in this story). Instead we get a very descriptive sort-of thriller inside a space opera, centered around varying species of life: the “quick”, who’ve only been round for mere thousands of years such as us, and the “slow” – jellyfish-like creatures inhabiting gas giants and almost as old as the galaxy itself. If you can get on board with that concept and the speculation which comes with it, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. I can see similarities between this and I Am Pilgrim, although this sci-fi novel has considerably longer chapters and isn’t quite as quick a read.

So there we are for now. As always, get in touch with your own thoughts and recommendations for future reading. I’ve had some great book chats with a few folk since I started cataloguing my ‘fun reading’ and my list of books to read is getting longer every week.

I’m already into the books which will be featured next time. Expect music, history, travel and an extraordinary adventure in search of a good coffee…

Mundane Science Fiction – taking the fantasy out of the future

Books

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts are firmly in the Music or Music Therapy camps. However, I do occasionally venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books (you can see the latest of my quarterly book reviews here).

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full Mundane Manifesto blog, (which can be found here), a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The Beatles, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘removing the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!

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!