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A Few Old Book Reviews

Recently I was going through some old note books and discovered a few comments on books I’d read perhaps 20 years ago!

First, ‘Last Orders’ by Graham Swift, a book which focuses on the relationships and the death of Jack, just as he was about to retire from his butchers shop, his ‘adopted’ son, Vince, and undertaker Vic. The characters all have their own chapters which explore the past, their relationships and feelings, but the present day story is one of a group of men sprinkling Jack’s ashes in Margate. As a whole, the book is a bit difficult to follow and disjointed but I suspect this was due to the speed I was reading. Nevertheless, I didn’t really care about any of the characters, which is never a good sign, and I was glad when I got to the end. The only question I wanted answering was ‘what did Ray do?’ Did he give Amy his winnings so she could clear Jack’s debts. Did he get back with Amy years after their affair had ended? This book won the 1996 Booker Prize, so is obviously well-regarding, well-written and worthy, but it left me feeling like a philistine. Maybe this is a bloke’s book, but it definitely left me feeling cold and not all that keen to read another Graham Swift.

Next, just a few notes on ‘Fight Club’ by Chuck Palahniuk. I found it a really enjoyable book which included much of the dialogue that was used in the film – I always like it when an author does that! To me, he book had the same kind of feel as ‘Requiem for a Dream’ – not with regard to the drugs, but with regard to the dysfunctional relationships and psychological disturbances. I’d certainly consider reading it again, especially as it is so short. But, despite being short, a lot is packed in, and the split personality element seems easier to guess and understand in the novel as opposed to the film.

Next, a music book: ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer (The Show that Never Ends)’ by George Forrester, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew. This book is the first ever biography of ELP who reached a height with the 1973 high-concept album, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. They were a phenomenon till they split in the late 70s, and returned in the 90s. “Forrester, Hanson and Askew are acknowledged experts on ELP and after five years of research, they have produced a gripping and fascinating document of one of the great rock bands of the 70s. George Forrester also provides an erudite study of the band’s complex and challenging music.” This book begins with the childhoods of the members, takes in their musical history and moves towards the ups of the 1990s. There is also a large section of musical analysis track by track which reminded me of A level music as a lot of the analysis has a classical bar-by-bar breakdown. This whole book really re-encouraged a long-held interest in the band. Even though it is detailed, it isn’t dry or dull. I well remember the tiny room that was my teen bedroom, listening to ‘Karn Evil 9’ and feeling like nothing in the world had prepared me for the total madness, or later in life, listening to Greg Lake’s solo work and his quirky contributions to ‘Works’. Or even watching some huge Carl Palmer drum solo on the ‘Whistle Test’ (Old Grey). The music completely blew me away, and the book got me in the mood to dig out the vinyl again, so it must have been a good read!

I also, at the time of originally reading these books, had access to a large number of review copies, and one that stood out was a picture book of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ by Sergei Prokofiev (adapted by Migeulanxo Prado). There is such a bright quality of light to the pictures, wonderful facial expressions on the grandfather, Peter and even on the faces of the animals. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t much text. Surprisingly for me, I loved it nonetheless with all the vivid blood reds and the bright whites of the light and gunfire. The delightfully rustic look belies the strength – it doesn’t pull any punches, so has a macabre feel despite the mossy look to the pictures. Prado is famous Europe-wide for his ‘acerbically observant’ comedic stories and other graphic novels. Now one of Europe’s pre-eminent comic artists – versatile style-wise (from satire to realism, to black and white line art and the soft illustrations in this book). I loved this book. One for all the family.

One book I read that certainly wasn’t suitable for the youngest members of our family, was ‘Rebus: The Early Years’ by Ian Rankin. The collection included ‘Knots and Crosses’, ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Tooth and Nail’. This is quality crime fiction at its best. ‘Knots and Crosses’ tells the story of a murdered child. The crimes all lead up to Rebus’s daughter Samantha. ‘Hide and Seek’ is a tale of squats and drugs. In ‘Tooth and Nail’ Rebus is drafted down to London to find the Wolfman - a serial killer. The best part of the story is a chase in a judge’s car. He apprehended the car with the judge still in the back! Great dialogue and stories, and I would happily read this again.

Finally, and I know I’m not going to do this justice, ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco. At the time of reading I agreed with my work colleague Robin Butler on this point – that sometimes ‘cleverness’ gets in the way of narrative. I’ve tried to read the book on a number of occasions (and failed) and was always put off by the exposition and historical bumbling in the first chapter, but once I got into it, I enjoyed it greatly. Re-reading though, it doesn’t resonate in the same way. I know it is an epic novel, but I don’t think I’ll read it again.

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