Book Review: Ever Rest

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Ever Rest, by Roz Morris, tells the story of a popular rock music duo whose fame was immortalised when the lead singer fell to his death on Mount Everest. Twenty years later, those who were close to the pair at the height of their fame are still living with the issues this created.

It is common to read of badly behaved celebrities – of the drugs and casual sex that allegedly go hand in hand with the rock and roll lifestyle, and these do get a mention here. What comes across more clearly in this tale is the way successful artists are manipulated by those wishing to claim a slice of the pie for themselves. Fans, media and those operating in the wider industry feel a sense of ownership, forgetting that the stars are not just a product but also people with agency.

The musical duo called themselves the Ashbirds – a play on their names. They met as teenagers through their parents, who ran businesses in the small Shropshire town of Bonnet. Both left for London as soon as they felt able. Although friends of sorts, there was little love lost between the pair. Nevertheless, together they released songs that touched listeners at a visceral level.

Hugo was the creative talent but Ashten had the drive and charisma. When their albums started making waves and gaining airplay they acquired a team who took care of organisation and security. In the months before their attempt to climb Everest, Ashten took up with a new girlfriend, a dancer named Elza. Also in the mix was Robert, a session musician with aspirations that soared above his abilities.

Hugo was with Ashten when the latter perished on the mountain. As a result he gave up music, instead training to assist those in Nepal – climbing in an attempt to escape his demons. Elza became an artist, taking on commissions from businesses. Robert married Gina and made his living writing advertising jingles.

Over the years, as the bodies of men were discovered in the ice around Everest following thaws or avalanche, Hugo would be called to check if it was Ashten. These events pulled the survivors of Ashbirds closer together again. The old team would be brought in to provide protection from continued media interest. The fanbase would hold vigils, eager to claim a part of the musical legacy they felt belonged to them.

When Ari Markson, manager of Ashbirds, contacts Robert with the news that a backer has offered to fund a fourth album from the band, the musician is faced with a dilemma. He has over-egged his creative potential, claiming to have songs ready that he must now submit for consideration. All he has are those written decades ago with Ashten and subsequently rejected. When Hugo gets wind of what is going on, he steps in to ensure the Ashbirds name will not be tarnished by substandard output. Robert sways between the fear he is being treated as unfairly as twenty years ago and his wish to be involved in Hugo’s now much vaunted return.

Elza, meanwhile, has a new partner, Elliot, who prefers opera to pop music. Alongside the star struck fans who stoke the fires of artistic egos and those who support them, Elliot provides a reminder of how ridiculous and potentially damaging the worship of celebrity is.

There is a notable lack of trust between the characters, even the cohabiters. Those involved in creating the songs seek control, that they may reap the plaudits for themselves. It is about money but also admiration and the reflected glow of association. It is an indictment of the wider musical industry – creators and consumers.

I have detailed a few elements of plot above and always worry about spoiling a readers enjoyment turning the pages. I won’t remove anything, however, as the pleasure to be found in this book is the author’s style of storytelling. She writes with a light touch that belies the inherent skill, care and acuity. The writing flows at a comfortable pace. Tension builds to maintain engagement interspersed with well crafted character development. The human element is insightfully rendered, especially the misinterpretations of actions and intentions. The denouement provides a satisfying tying together of threads.

An enjoyable read that offers a fresh perspective on fame and those who make money from it. A reminder that a quiet life may bring more happiness than perceived success.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Piano Student

“Criminality and remorselessness are not prerequisites for making art, but sometimes art is created by the criminal and remorseless”

The Piano Student, by Lea Singer (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer), centres on an affair between one of the 20th century’s most celebrated pianists, Vladimir Horowitz, and his young male student, Nico Kaufmann, in the late 1930s. Based on unpublished letters by Horowitz to Kaufmann, the novel portrays the acclaimed musician’s duplicity and frustration due to his never publicly acknowledged homosexuality, and the resultant price paid by those close to him.

The story is structured as a conversation between two gentlemen in 1986. Reto Donati is frontrunner for the highest position on Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court. He is engaged to be married. The book opens with two men arriving at Donati’s house to administer a poison that will end his life, with consent. Donati has, however, changed his mind and fled. He seeks out a bar with a resident pianist in Zurich’s fourth district (Kreis 4). He needs someone to play Träumerei (Dreaming) by Schumann for him. After several fruitless searches he comes across Kaufmann, a one time local prodigy who never fulfilled his expected potential. The music is played and the two men leave the bar together. Recognising that Donati is in crisis, Kaufmann offers use of his guest room.

Träumerei is significant to both men. Over drinks they begin to share their histories. Both are homosexuals and grew up in a time when admitting to this would have resulted in ostracisation. When they hear on the radio that Horowitz is to perform in his home city, Moscow, for the first time in sixty-one years, Kaufmann is inspired to take a road trip with Donati during which he will tell of the affair he had with the renowned pianist. He can empathise with Donati’s misery and wishes to offer a distraction.

There is much dialogue in the ensuing tale. At times rereads of sections were required to work out who was speaking. The gentlemen travel in Kaufmann’s car with Donati driving. Over the coming days they visit places that were significant during the Kaufmann and Horowitz affair.

Horowitz was not long married when he was first introduced to the young piano student. His wife, Wanda, was the daughter of a famous conductor, Arturo Toscanini. The marriage was not a happy one and Horowitz was treated with disdain by Wanda’s family. Toscanini could not bear any man who displayed what he regarded as effeminate characteristics. When Wanda recognised what was going on between her husband and the handsome young Kaufmann she did what she could to keep them apart. This included alerting Kaufmann’s parents who he still lived with in Kreis 4. They demanded he seek psychiatric treatment in pursuit of a cure.

Such attitudes towards homosexuals are distressing to consider. Men married to allay suspicion, thereby condemning wives to unfulfilling existences. What comes to the fore though is the wider cruelties inflicted by the successful artists pressurised by society to live this way. Their actions may be born of frustration but are exacerbated by temperament. Sublime art can be created by those with dark hearts.

In his early years, Horowitz had experienced life under communist Russia. His affluent family had lost their standing and possessions, forced to move to a cramped apartment and carry out assigned work. Their son escaped the Soviet Union and met with rapturous success. Horowitz’s father was allowed one visit to hear him play, and on return sent to a Gulag. Horowitz was suspicious of any who tried to het close to him – including Kaufmann – questioning motive. He was volatile and demanding, voyeuristic in his attention to the details of Kaufmann’s other assignations.

The buildup to the Second World War is in the background of this story and offers timely threads. German Jews were escaping over the border but many in Switzerland resented their growing presence. The wealthy continued to attend concerts and travel around European cultural centres, the prospect of war regarded as an inconvenience.

Through his connection to Horowitz, Kaufmann met many of the revered classical musicians of the day. Whatever they suspected of the relationship, it was never acknowledged.

Donati shares with Kaufmann his own love story, also kept secret for the sake of his career.

“Was he crying at the thought of everything he’s done?
I’d say more likely at the thought of everything he hasn’t done.”

The writing offers a slow build, taking some time before the reader is in tune with the cadence. There is then a fascinating and always engaging middle section offering emotional resonance. By the time the final silence falls my very soul and heart were vibrating. The power of the story is unexpected with an intensely satisfying denouement. A haunting and at times heartbreaking read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Turnaround who distribute for the publisher, New Vessel Press, within the UK.  

Book Review: Take Nothing With You

Take Nothing With You, by Patrick Gale, tells the story of a teenage boy growing up in Weston-super-Mare, England. Eustace lives with his parents in a large property they run as an old people’s home, those in their care including two of Eustace’s grandparents. As an only child who does not enjoy sport he feels a misfit amongst his peers at school. He has one good friend, Vernon, whose home life is also unusual. Vernon finds solace in books. Eustace discovers his passion is music. Many of the characters introduced are artists of various disciplines.

The boys attend a fee paying school despite the fact Eustace’s family are not particularly wealthy. As Eustace approaches puberty he realises that he is attracted to boys more than girls.

The story begins with Eustace in his fifties, now comfortably off and living in London but facing a health scare. The narrative moves between this time frame and his adolescence.

A great deal of detail is provided of a teenage boy discovering and exploring his sexuality. It is, quite literally, a messy business. To counter this there is the beauty of the classical music. Some knowledge and interest in making music may help in enjoying the tale.

The author writes skilfully and the story flows. It was not, however, appealing enough for me. The plot arc was of interest but not the unremitting detail provided of sexual encounters and also musical technique. While wanting to know the outcome of the various crises introduced – including around parents, their problems with themselves and what their offspring were becoming – there were sections of description I would have preferred not to have had to wade through in order to find out what happened next.

I enjoyed the author’s previous book. This one did not engage.

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

Book Review: The Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, by Robert Hainault, is a work of fiction presented in thirty chapters framed by an aria. The musical work that inspired this structure was written for harpsichord by JS Bach in 1741. It was named for one of the composer’s pupils at this time who, at fourteen years of age was already an accomplished keyboardist.

The story’s protagonist is a harpsichord teacher named William Goldberg who, following a successful public recital in London, is persuaded by a lecherous stranger, Jack Borge, to take his talented young student on a concert tour of Poland. The boy, Daniel, is fourteen years old, although the mannerisms attributed to him appear more fitting of a younger child. He is gauche and malleable, easily led by the men despite his obvious discomfort at their actions.

Daniel’s mother trusts William to look after her son and he eagerly takes on the role of father figure on the tour. He hopes that Daniel may achieve the success that eluded him and that, as his teacher, he may bask in the boy’s reflected glory.

Jack Borge is a repulsive character. He is prurient and ill-mannered, making frequent inappropriate observations about Daniel and William. He plies them with drink and tries to take them to clubs where young boys are paid for sexual favours. When left alone, William takes Daniel for gelatinos, the sweetness and innocence of the treat offering a contrast to the disturbing imagery of the time spent with Jack.

The tour of Poland does not go as planned, although William appears first oblivious and then undeterred. The longer he spends with Daniel the less he can countenance being deprived of the boy’s company. He grows jealous when Daniel shows any interest in girls. The reader is left to interpret what is happening, the gradual contamination of the disturbing suggestions.

Like the music, the plot soars and crashes, wave after wave of beauty and melancholy. In a programme note the author explains:

The forms, figures, styles, moods and overall architecture of the piece have been integrated into the novel according to a system of symbols, puns, references, ciphers and plot points that comprise a musicological companion to the Bach.

Although competently written and offering an intriguing structure I found this book troubling. The thoughts and actions were too raw and unpleasant, what is pure overwhelmed by the grotesque.

The sexual fantasies involving a child brought to mind Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, indeed the book is referenced. However, this tale offers less subtlety, the transformation an intriguing puzzle but too sordid for my tastes. There is much about the content that is clever but I was overwhelmed by horror at the abuse described. It may be ‘daring’ and ‘phantasmagorical’, but was not enjoyable to read.

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

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.