Book Review: School of Velocity

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin, is a story of music, love, and the abiding impact of close childhood friends. Told in the first person by fictional pianist Jan de Vries, it opens at a concert where he is struggling to hear the music he needs to play above the cacophony that pounds inside his head. Back in his apartment he packs a bag, not intending to return.

The reader is taken back to when Jan starts at his first arts school near his parents’ home in the Netherlands. Here he meets Dirk who proceeds to woo Jan’s girlfriend. Dirk is wild and dangerous, in thought and deed. The quiet and diligent young musician is lured inside the outrageous and confident boy’s web, and finds himself smitten.

Jan and Dirk become best friends, meeting after school and spending weekends together. As the school years pass they experiment with the pastimes many teenage boys brag of – alcohol, porn, drugs and sex. When they graduate they believe that glittering futures beckon. Although they will now continue their training in different countries, Jan is confident their closeness will endure.

Jan fills the gap created by Dirk’s absence with music, determined to fulfil his potential. Abroad Dirk becomes something of an enigma. When they meet again the balance of power has shifted, although Jan is unaware to what extent.

The writing is finely tuned and lyrical, presenting life with all its self-absorption and contradictions. Jan regards Dirk only in relation to himself, never considering the impact others have had along the way.

Jan’s development as a pianist is beautifully portrayed offering appreciation of the emotional depths music can provide for both player and listener. This depth is also present in the subtlety and insights of the prose. The story is captivating, affecting, a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Greatest Hits

“Larry knows what it is to lose oneself for hours – days, even – in the act of creation; and to only understand, when the mind and body are finally calm once more, what it is that has been created. What, in that act, the artist is trying to make sense of, even though no sense can ever truly be made of this dizzying, maddening, impossible, beautiful life; and, of course, of its culmination, its crescendo and its inevitable loss.”

Greatest Hits, by Laura Barnett, tells the story of fictional singer-songwriter, Cass Wheeler, from her childhood growing up the only child of a London vicar and his depressed wife, through her rise to the heady heights of international fame, and then to her retirement from the music scene following personal tragedy. Along the way are exhausting months on the road, abandoned friends, broken marriages, and the apparently requisite over-indulgence in drugs of all kinds.

The structure of the story is wrapped around a series of sixteen songs representing Wheeler’s life. The lyrics – written by the author and real life singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams – have been put to music and will be released as a studio album to coincide with the publication of the book. This is not the first time publishers have collaborated to create associated music – I am aware of singles from Fahrenheit Press and Orenda Books. It is still, however, an interesting idea.

The story is set over the course of a day as Wheeler decides on the tracks to be released from her back catalogue in a new album being planned to enable her to emerge from retirement. As each song is selected the timeline moves to describe the events that provided their inspiration. Hints are dropped in the contemporary setting and then explained in these flashbacks. With a cast of characters spanning more than six decades it took concentration to remember who was who between the time periods.

Although polished and fluid I was not fully engaged until near the end. The contemporary sections felt like interruptions in what was an otherwise compelling tale. I did question why anyone would want fame, something that Wheeler herself noted when she saw the life an old friend was leading. Much is made of how artistic creatives cannot stifle their urges, even those that carry risk of self-destruction.

There is a poignancy to any life story as, over time, family and friends will inevitably be lost to abandonment, disagreement, and death. Words will be spoken that cannot then be forgotten, resentments form that damage all involved. Wheeler makes choices, repeats mistakes, holds grudges and must live with the consequences. The depiction of her as a daughter – to both the women charged with her care – and then as a mother, made for interesting reading. There was little new in this but it was perceptively portrayed.

Wheeler’s life with its hurts and privileges is rendered to demonstrate that success happens moment by moment and can be measured in many ways. Even if not convinced by the construction, this tale is well written. I will listen out for the album when it too is released.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Book Review: How to Play the Piano

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How to Play the Piano, by concert pianist James Rhodes, is the first offering in Quercus’s new ‘The Little Book of Life Skills’ series. I received the book just before it was published six weeks ago and read it through almost immediately. I decided not to post my review until I had attempted to follow its instructions that I may report back on how effective they had been at teaching me to play Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major within the time period proscribed. In the interests of full disclosure I posted details of my musical background here. The key points are that I have never had a formal piano lesson but I did have some musical training on other instruments as a child.

The book opens with advice on how to master a piece of music. It is important to take things slowly and to practice regularly. To play the piano it is necessary to be able to read music, and to understand the correlation between the symbols on a musical score and a piano’s keys. Explaining this vital information takes up about half the book. It is then time to start to play.

A copy of the score is included and may be cut out or scanned. A few annotations have been added which are pointed out as progress is made.

The importance of correct fingering is explained. To navigate a keyboard smoothly this is a necessary skill to master. Timing is also important and to demonstrate this, and to give some idea of the sound being aimed for, the reader is directed to a series of short videos the author has posted at http://www.jamesrhodes.tv  I found these helpful.

The next twenty pages take the reader through the score, two bars at a time, explaining the tricky sections and offering advice on how to move the piece along. Getting through this section took me about four weeks. I was diligent with my practice, although I may have averaged closer to half an hour, five days a week rather than the three quarters of an hour, six days a week suggested. As much as anything I found the muscles in my hands would start to ache after this length of time and wanted to maintain my enjoyment even if it was to the detriment of the musical skill I could aquire.

Having more or less mastered the notes, albeit at quite a slow pace, there is then a chapter on performance and instruction on how to use the piano pedals. I found this tricky. Remembering the pedal affected my concentration on the notes and I struggled to play without mistakes. I also wished to add the suggested interpretation which, again, led me to flounder on the bars where notes move between octaves and fingering positions must be changed. The author suggested that, having played through the piece so many times, the score would no longer be required. My memory does not work in this way and I continued to need the score in front of me in order to play.

There is a lot to take in and remember but the book is clear in its instruction and eager to remind the reader that they started out unable to play the piano. To be able to get through the piece, even if not to as high a standard as desired, is very pleasing.

The final chapter offers a pat on the back and suggests some other pieces that the reader may wish to tackle should they choose to continue their musical journey. Using the advice gleaned from this book I can see that this is possible. I now feel that I have learned to play this particular piece, which is satisfying. It has also been a lot of fun.

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An example of how it should sound: Prelude No 1 in C Major by J.S. Bach, BWV 846 | The Well-Tempered Clavier

And my less than perfect performance, affected by knowing I was being recorded, although the mistakes and hesitations are still typical when I play.

 

Thanks to my younger son for jumping the hoops needed to get my mobile recording onto YouTube – the only way I could think of to share the results of my 6 week challenge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.

Book Review: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

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The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr, is the fictional memoir of an octogenarian musician who has lived through two world wars and across four continents. It is a stunning example of writing that touches the soul, beautiful and haunting in its resonance. The understated emotion which simmers beneath the surface is all the more powerful for being recounted in modulated, demure textures and tones.

Lena Gaunt is an only child, born to wealthy, Australian parents in 1910 Singapore. She is shipped off to board at a school near Perth when only four years old, a beloved uncle helping to make her time there more bearable, that and her love of music. At her school, where she remained until she was sixteen, she learned to play piano and then cello. She eschewed friendship for her art at which she excelled.

By the time her father recalled her to the family home this had been relocated to Malaya. Lena soon grew bored with the refined and proper life she was expected to live. When her father discovered how she secretly coped with her boredom he raged at the potential shame and banished her.

Lena moved to Sydney where she met other artists and their patrons, including a professor who had invented a new type of musical instrument, the theremin. Lena fell in love with this avant-garde device, playing it at private parties, small gatherings and then at larger venues as her skill and fame grew. Her early success was, however, short lived. She moved to New Zealand with her lover, and then back to Australia where she saw out the years of the Second World War.

In the fifties there was renewed interest in her theremin playing and she traveled between Europe and America, not returning to Australia until she was in her sixties. After a twenty year hiatus she was invited to perform at a festival close to her home. In the audience was a film maker who approached her with a view to making a documentary of her life. Despite her reservations Lena agreed and it is this process around which her memoir, this story, is written.

The prose mirrors the character of the protagonist; it is, after all, written in her voice. Lena is self contained, fluid and refined, but with a simmering passion and internal disregard for convention. She requires privacy and space in which to live beyond the petty constraints imposed by:

“the workaday world with its morals and strictures, its curtain twitching and mouth pursing”

Although her colourful exploits are recounted in this tale it is the feeling and effect rather than the detail that lingers. There are smooth cadences, soaring crescendos, necessary recovery, all wrapped up around a life lived:

“out of sight of conservative eyes and minds of grey people”

There is triumph and tragedy, her experiences described as sounds:

“the sounds around me, reflected, refracted. These sounds had depth behind them and raw salt rubbed through them”

The only jarring note in this symphony of a life was Trix who came across as brash beside Lena’s outward finesse. Perhaps it was Trix’s term of endearment for Lena, the condescending ‘doll’, which particularly grated on my contemporary ears. Lena’s potential seemed diminished while with Trix, although the former may have considered this a price worth paying.

Despite the chain smoking, heavy drinking and casual drug use, the stench of degeneracy is avoided. Lena relishes the plaudits her talent brings but shows little concern for the expectations of others when in private. She finds beauty in the shore and in the power of her chosen art. Her ability to accept hardship as part and parcel of a life lived makes this an uplifting read despite the pathos.

The writing is as close to a beautiful piece of music as I have encountered. I drank in the words, was moved to rapture and tears, and felt sated. I could listen in my heart again and again. Read this book and be filled.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Aardvark Bureau.

 

Book Review: The Last Days of Disco

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The Last Days of Disco, by David F. Ross, is a nostalgic romp through a town in working class Scotland in 1982. Margaret Thatcher is in power and unemployment is high but for the small time crooks, the long time residents and the emerging youth, life remains largely introverted. Fashion sense may have lost its way but in the pubs and clubs around which local society revolves family, friends and music reign supreme.

The protagonists of this tale are Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller; best mates, about to finish school and with little idea what to do with their lives. They decide to try their hands as mobile DJs, thereby invoking the wrath of a local mobster, Fat Franny Duncan, who sees their endeavour as a threat to his own tiny empire. A motley crew of characters are drawn in to the turf wars that develop, each adding humour and pathos to the plot.

The comedy is schoolboy level with much being made of cock size, farts and the titillation created by female body parts. All of this is in keeping with the times.

The pathos is more thought provoking. Bobby’s brother Gary has recently joined the army and is called to serve in the Falkland’s conflict, bringing home the reality of war. Decades old family secrets bubble to the surface. The young people may dream but few have managed to move on from the lives expected of them.

The author has created a big hearted story which pulls no punches in the evocation of the times. The soundtrack keeps it upbeat as do the descriptions of clothes, place and attitudes; we really did dress like that. Despite many of the characters shortcomings it is hard not to wish them well.

I read the book in a day, the narrative bringing back memories, a realisation of what is lost and how far we have come. I will dig out my vinyls and re-listen to those songs. The hairstyles and outfits are best forgotten.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books. 

Book Review: The Chimes

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The Chimes, by Anna Smaill, is unlike any book I have read before. Using the language of music it tells the tale of a dystopian world where information is shared through snatches of melody and the written word is banned. Each day is modulated by collective music making, much of it overseen by a ruling Order. A life of repetition is required to keep people grounded and functioning as most personal memories are lost over the course of a few days.

The protagonist, Simon, makes his way to London following the deaths of his parents. With the help of items that he keeps in his memory bag he remembers snatches of his former life but struggles to make sense of the reason he has made the journey from family farm to city. He ekes out a rough existence as a member of a pact whose leader tries to probe for the few memories which Simon can recall. Such interest in the before goes against everything that society has been conditioned to accept. It is considered blasphony.

It took me some time to immerse myself in the story. However, once I had got used to the strange use of words and the references to items I would recognise, I was gripped. The language is not difficult but it is original.

It is interesting to consider the role that memory has in day to day life: its removal minimises grief; change is easier to accept when it quickly becomes all that is known; occupations are necessary as without them skills are forgotten and people are at risk of becoming memorylost, unhinged on the margins of a society which thrives on order.

The story of Simon’s emergence and his acceptance of the role that he is being asked to play follows a well worn path of dystopian fiction. However, the creative use of sound and music adds distinction.

The writing is crafted and orchestrated with a deft touch that holds the reader’s attention. I was eager to know how it was all going to end. I was not disappointed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.

 

Tired but happy

For a few days at the end of last week and the beginning of this week I have had a carpenter in the house doing the structural work in my remodelled book room. I knew that he had done some good work for a few friends in the village and came recommended. He turned out to be a quiet, tidy and competent worker so no problem to have around. I still found that I couldn’t relax.

My days tend to vary depending on what I need to do that day and what I feel like doing when I wake up. I realise that I am incredibly lucky to have this flexibility. With someone around I started to fall into more of a routine. I would try to get out each day to walk or swim, but when I was at home I would shut myself away for much of the time he was around. A lot of dust was being generated by the work, which was a good enough excuse to limit my attempts at housework. I found myself spending even more time than usual on line.

And then this stage of the work was completed. I am delighted with the result, and suddenly find myself with a vast amount of tasks that need doing all at once. Not only does the entire house need to be cleared of a thick layer of dust, but all the displaced furniture needs to be sorted and moved. The bookshelves that had been in the room that is being worked on were to go in my elder son’s room; my daughter was to get his bookshelf along with their younger brother’s. We are redoing my daughter’s room so space needed to be made for her new bed by dismantling her old one and moving her desk. As each piece of furniture is moved, the dust and cobwebs that lurk behind need to be cleared and cleaned.

I spent yesterday afternoon cleaning the book room and moving furniture back into it. My children have instructed me to start calling this the library, which I find rather pretentious but will acquiesce as it is quite amusing given it’s size. It now contains two comfy armchairs with a cushioned footstool between them and two little tables at the side of each for my coffee or wine glass. The room also contains my desk and our piano, thus providing my perfect environment: books, writing, music. As no shelves have yet been fitted in the structure built to support them it does not yet actually contain any books. Hopefully this will be rectified later this week when the carpenter hopes to deliver the shelves he is currently making to fit.

I have been hassling my daughter to clear out her room so that I can get it sorted ready for the new bed to be delivered at the end of the week. Last night she completed this task so, today, I started to take things apart and move things around. The shifting and cleaning was hard work; no need to visit the gym today. In between pulling large items of furniture around and apart I was carrying armload after armload of books downstairs ready to be sorted and placed on our new shelves when they are delivered. I nearly ran out of rags wiping down walls and skirting boards that had been unseen for years.

Having got my daughter’s room looking pleasingly clean and tidy I moved into my elder son’s room. All I needed to do here was move one tall bookshelf out and two in; these were very heavy to shift. He will need to sort through his own things before the room can be properly cleaned. It would be nice to think that he will do this quickly but we shall see.

My younger son’s room did not take long to sort out as it is small and never seems to get into the same mess as his brother’s, probably because he spends so much of his time on his computer. I was able to move everything out, clean and replace in just over an hour. By then though, I was feeling the effects of my busy day.

I still have the study to sort and the rest of the house to clear of dust. I dislike having jobs hanging over me but realise that there is only so much that can be achieved in one day. When I was younger I would just go at a list of tasks until they were complete, sometimes working into the night. These days my mind is willing but my body cannot cope. I need to prioritise and delegate; the latter is no bad thing.

I can understand that the children do not relish the task of sorting and tidying their rooms, but they do like the finished result. If I can get them to act before things get too out of hand then the results are more likely to be pleasing for all. They know where they have put their belongings so can find them again; I can get in to clean without having to step over random piles of stuff.

I am writing this from my desk in my (a’hem) library. I am going to enjoy having this space. I suspect that it will take me some time to get the books in place once the shelves are in, but what a fabulous room it will be. I must make sure not to become too antisocial. Perhaps I should allow a family member to sit on that second armchair rather than the pleasing collection of old teddy bears who already look so at home.

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