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Jeremy Walton (Sidmouth, UK)
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How to Be a Husband
How to Be a Husband
by Tim Dowling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mystery of marriage, 23 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: How to Be a Husband (Paperback)
I first came across Tim Dowling as the author of a hilarious piece describing how he came to join a "middle-aged man band" (the difference between which and a boy band being that "the biggest technical hitches come when no one remembers to bring reading glasses"). His wife was mentioned in passing as being openly alarmed that he might have been having a midlife crisis. In this book, she moves to centre stage as Dowling tries to describe what he's learnt about being a husband and father.

His tone is relentlessly self-deprecating (chapter 4, for example, is called "How to be wrong"), which probably isn't a bad thing when you're trying to deal with the give and take of a relationship, even if it's exaggerated for comic effect. For example, that chapter opens: "Take a moment to cast your eyes around my domain: this blasted promontory, wracked by foul winds, devoid of life, of cheer, of comfort. This is my special place - my fortress of solitude. I've been coming here on and off for the last twenty years. Welcome, my friend, to the moral high ground. [...] It's like a VIP room for idiots." [p57]. His ability to slip jokes like that in under the radar can cause the unsuspecting reader to suddenly snort with laughter. Here's another example [p82]:

"I hate having dinner parties," says my wife.
"You're not supposed to say that while everyone's still here," I say, indicating our guests.

In between the laughs however, there's some serious stuff about commitment, complements (and compliments), and the changing role of men in society (Dowling and his wife have three sons). It's not intended to be a how-to guide, but I learned a lot from it - perhaps you will too.


The Beginning of Spring
The Beginning of Spring
by Penelope Fitzgerald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Changing times, 15 Dec. 2014
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I first read about Penelope Fitzgerald in an essay by Julian Barnes (in his Through the Window collection), and, selecting more or less at random from her books, bought this novel for my daughter last Christmas. It's the odd tale of Frank Reid, an Englishman adrift in the rapidly changing setting of pre-revolutionary Moscow. As the story opens, Frank's wife has just run away without explanation, leaving him to look after their three children, and he's obliged to try and re-construct his relationships with his servants, colleagues, the expatriate community and various acquaintances. This is achieved (if that's the right word) with characteristically Russian misunderstandings, muddles and confusion - particularly when Frank's colleague inserts a young girl from the country (ostensibly to look after the children) into the household. It's a short book and an easy read, partly because of the deftly gentle touch of the author, her exactly visual description of a vanished city and time, and the occasional flashes of humour - e.g. "Frank had a room in a boarding house where the landlady, probably unintentionally, as it seemed to him, was gradually starving him to death" [p28].

And yet, I kept thinking of Sebastian Faulks' description of her novels as like being taken for a ride in a car whose structure and fittings all fill you with confidence, until someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window. There are lots of subtleties in the story which closely engage the reader's attention as they travel around Moscow with Frank and take part in his encounters with characters having a varying degree of trustworthiness. By the time you reach the end of the journey, you're not quite sure where you've been or how you ended up here, but you're sure it's been a worthwhile experience.


Bathed In Lightning: Bonus Chapters and Appendices: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
Bathed In Lightning: Bonus Chapters and Appendices: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
Price: £3.46

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Echoes from then, 28 Nov. 2014
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This ebook complements the print edition of Bathed in Lightning by collecting together supplementary material which would have made the physical version too big or expensive. The electronic version of Bathed In Lightning contains the text of the print edition followed by this supplementary material, so the present item is only of interest to people like me, who've already purchased the physical version and want more of this stimulating story.

It consists of four chapters relating to McLaughlin's pre-1969 work in London, three chapters which describe in detail the journey of the second and third incarnations of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and handy reference material for completists which includes a detailed discography and chronicle of gigs played. It's a mixed bag (whose contents could probably be read in more or less any order), but it does contain some extremely interesting stuff such as detailed accounts of the recording of the three albums from the latter part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's life: Apocalypse, Visions Of The Emerald Beyond and Inner Worlds.

I enjoyed reading it, although I'd characterize it as even more specialized than the physical book, and I don't think you could really read this without having read that first.


No Beethoven: An Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report
No Beethoven: An Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report
by Peter Erskine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.95

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars And then, 24 Nov. 2014
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Peter Erskine joined Weather Report as their drummer for 1979's Mr. Gone, and stayed with them for four years which many view as that stimulating band's finest hour. This period forms the central focus of his memoir - in particular his relationship with Joe Zawinul, the irascible, creative leader of the band. In an illuminating anecdote, this begins with Zawinul asking Erskine what music he was listening to during their first flight to Japan, and responding with a robust, magisterial dismissal when Erskine told him. Later on, after Erskine describes playing on Joni Mitchell's Mingus album, he reveals that she'd wanted Weather Report to back her on the subsequent tour (documented on the great Shadows and Light set), only for Zawinul to scotch the idea with the immortal comment "We ain't no f*****g LA Express" (an unflattering reference to her backing band on her earlier Miles Of Aisles tour).

The book is packed with such anecdotes and insights from Erskine's life and playing career with Weather Report, Mitchell (he also played on her orchestral albums Both Sides Now), and other luminaries such as Steely Dan (he drummed on their 1993 tour, partly documented on their Alive In America), Steps Ahead, Diana Krall, Kenny Wheeler (for example, on his interesting Music For Large And Small Ensembles), Elvis Costello (on North) and many others. For a fan of this music such as I, it's all fascinating stuff, and Erskine comes across as a gracious, grounded individual who takes care to acknowledge the contributions and skills of his colleagues, teachers and students, and only rarely allows any personal criticisms of individuals to slip out. A pleasant, entertaining read, which is strongly recommended.


Cross Channel
Cross Channel
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Crossed channels, 24 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Cross Channel (Paperback)
Published in 1996, this was the first volume of short stories from Julian Barnes. Its theme is the relationship between Britain and France, as illustrated by the attempts of English people to engage with their nearest neighbours. They're viewed in a variety of situations which range from building a railway in mid-nineteenth century Northern France, through visiting the military graveyards in mourning for a brother killed on the Somme, to taking part in the Tour de France. It's a diverting collection which I originally read when it was first published, and pulled off the shelf to re-read on a trip to Paris last week. As he effortlessly switches between times and voices, the author's writing is - as always - of a very high standard: ironic, perceptive and tender.

Of the stories presented here, I found the casual violence and desecration of the foreigners in "Dragons", and the attempt to subtly draw out some underlying themes in the closing "Tunnel" to be the most effective, but all are entertaining and cleverly assembled. Barnes had already touched on his theme of Anglo-French relations in his breakthrough novel Flaubert's Parrot, and would return to this topic in his non-fiction collection Something to Declare, but this little book contains many cross-cultural delights and insights that make it worth (re)reading.


Bathed in Lightning: John Mclaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
Bathed in Lightning: John Mclaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
by Colin Harper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.95

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tomorrow's story not the same, 14 Nov. 2014
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In spite of being a long-standing fan of guitarist John McLaughlin, I had only a hazy idea of what he'd been doing before the day he flew to America for the first time on February 16, 1969. It's better known that he'd made the trip at the invitation of drummer Tony Williams, who wanted him to play in a trio with organist Larry Young, and that Tony took John to visit his boss Miles Davis the next day. In the course of their conversation, Davis asked him to come along to the recording session for (what turned out to be his ground-breaking) In A Silent Way album. From that point on, it seems, McLaughlin was set on a musical journey of dazzling variety and virtuosity: playing on Davis's Bitches Brew and A Tribute To Jack Johnson albums, forming bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti, creating guitar concertos such as Thieves And Poets, playing with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia in The Guitar Trio, and creating electrifying music with a variety of bands, including The Free Spirits, The Heart Of Things and The Fourth Dimension. He's still going strong at the age of 72; the last-named is his current group, whom I'll be seeing at the London Jazz Festival next week.

This book does an invaluable job by filling in the gaps in this story, and shows that - whilst he appears to have 'risen without trace' - his appearance in the spotlight was the result of an immense amount of hard work and dues-paying on the London club circuit and session scene over a period of about ten years. In addition, it follows his career closely through his creation of the immensely powerful and pioneering Mahavishnu Orchestra, its fragmentation and re-formation in subsequent line-ups, and comes to a close when he's on the brink of dissolving it completely in order to form a completely different band. This was Shakti, which played acoustic Indian classical music (as opposed to the electric fusion of rock and jazz which was the stock in trade of the Mahavishnu Orchestra).

I greatly enjoyed this book. It's a hefty volume of nearly 500 pages (moreover, supplementary material has been hived off into an ebook), crammed with detail and anecdote which paints a vivid picture of how quickly the London music business was changing in the 1960's, and McLaughlin's adventures in the midst of it, along with colleagues such as Georgie Fame, Jimmy Page, Ronnie Scott, Brian Auger, Danny Thompson and Big Jim Sullivan. This is a period which is rapidly receding over the horizon, and many of its denizens - most recently, Jack Bruce - have passed on, so establishing its history is a significant task which the author has accomplished skillfully. Other strands in the story include McLaughlin's spirituality, and there is a lot of new information here about McLaughlin's relationship with Sri Chinmoy, who was his guru for a few years. Finally, the author has unearthed some personal details about this enigmatic man (including his marriages) who appears to have given his life over to his music. What he's been able to create and share with us is of the utmost importance, but the glimpses of the personal sacrifices and efforts he's had to make along the way make that appear still more valuable.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 27, 2015 12:35 PM GMT


Beware of Pity (B-Format Paperback)
Beware of Pity (B-Format Paperback)
by Stefan Zweig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Relentless and gripping, 24 Oct. 2014
This is "the most exciting book I've ever read", says author Anthony Beevor on its front cover, but reading the description of the plot on its reverse makes you wonder about the breadth of his reading experience: does he really rate a story about a young cavalry officer at the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who inadvertently commits a faux pas in the home of a rich landowner as more gripping than - oh, I don't know - Dean Koontz's The Husband? At first glance, it looks like an unfair contest: for example, this book contains no kidnaps, snipers, doublecrossing, murder or car chases. But the unsuspecting reader is soon sucked into an emotional maelstrom as the repercussions of an innocuous act are relentlessly worked out throughout the course of this story. Striving to remain true to his sense of honour and human kindness (which veers towards the pity warned about by the title), the protagonist tries to do the right thing at each turn, but has to battle with forces beyond his control, including a youthful naivety and the powerful longings of others.

Reading this tale, which was Zweig's only full-length novel, published in 1939, I was reminded of the harrowing The Good Soldier, which appeared fourteen years previously, or the compulsive and heartbreaking House Of Sand And Fog - another story in which chaos and tragedy are engendered in spite of all the good intentions of the characters. This is the sort of book which - as the preface says - has "the power to make one put one's free hand over one's mouth as one reads" [p14], and if you find yourself (as I did) groaning with frustration that the characters remain deaf to your muttered good advice and warnings about their actions, then you too will have fallen under its extraordinary spell.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 4, 2014 3:57 PM GMT


Shampoo Planet
Shampoo Planet
by Douglas Coupland
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Smart and well-groomed, 6 Oct. 2014
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This review is from: Shampoo Planet (Paperback)
I've read almost all Douglas Coupland's novels more or less in the order of their publication, but had inadvertently omitted this, his second. (Looking at some of the reviews in here, others appear to have missed it as well - perhaps it's been overshadowed by its predecessor, the classic Generation X.) Picking it up to read today is like stepping back in time; it was written in 1992 - that is, before the rise of the Internet - which, since it's a story which builds on teen culture, fashion and consumerism, makes it feel like it comes from another era.

That said, I enjoyed reading this tale of smart, well-groomed Tyler Johnson as he strove to come of age in an undistinguished, decaying American town, with his loving but eccentric family and his witty, flawed friends (both invariant features in much of Coupland's fiction), his neat, clever girlfriend and the emotional fall-out from his summer's trip to Europe. The use of paired adjectives in this sentence echoes Coupland's descriptive style as well - you sometimes feel that his books would be halved in length if his editor capriciously disallowed the use of simile (e.g., "the Pacific sunset [...] like shrink-wrapped, exotic vegetables", "a feeling at once destructive, romantic and grand - like falling into a swimming pool dressed in a tuxedo" [both on p5]). This story has rather more character development than some of his others (or at least, as far as I can remember), and I was pleased to fill in this gap in my experience of his canon.


The Night Manager
The Night Manager
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback

88 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Back in the night, 9 Sept. 2014
This review is from: The Night Manager (Paperback)
I first read this spy novel in 1993 shortly after its publication, and have re-read it many times since then - most recently last week. It's probably my favourite le Carré book (and I've read all of them), blending a gripping, original plot with deftly-drawn characters and dialogue which resonates in the mind so precisely you can practically hear the voices in your head. Take, for example, this initial exchange [p24] between the two protagonists, which quickly tells you a great deal about who they are, and the differences between them:

"I'm Dicky Roper," a lazy voice announced as the hand closed round Jonathan's, and briefly owned it. "My chaps booked some rooms here. Rather a lot of 'em. How d'you do?" Belgravia slur, the proletarian accent of the vastly rich. They had entered each other's private space.

"How very good to see you, Mr Roper," Jonathan murmured, English voice to English voice. "Welcome back, sir, and poor you, what a perfectly ghastly journey you must have had. Wasn't it rather heroic to venture aloft at all? No one else has, I can tell you. My name's Pine, I'm the night manager."

The story is about Pine's penetration of Roper's luxurious, nefarious world as the latter engineers an enormous deal involving drugs, arms, investment bankers and corrupt UK and US officials. Themes that run through the story include sacrifice, honour, courage, love and (as is de rigeur with this author) betrayal. But the delight for the reader (especially the re-reader) comes in picking out eye-catching examples of the writing: a landscape is "dour and blowy like Scotland with the lights on", "shoeless" pelicans sit "like feathery old bombing planes that might never bomb again", the noise made by a well-fed government minister is "a kind of slurrying grunt", and Pine's spymaster describes himself as "the other kind of Yorkshireman". Just perfect.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 12, 2016 5:28 PM BST


John Peel
John Peel
by Mick Wall
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pickin' the blues, 3 Sept. 2014
This review is from: John Peel (Paperback)
For a certain sort of person (usually, but not invariably, male), John Peel seemed to lead the perfect life: being given records for free, being paid for playing them, living contentedly in the country with a happy family, sounding like a normal, modest person. His untimely death in 2004 brought forth tributes from the musicians he'd discovered, and his countless listeners. And this book.

The first part is an brisk canter through Peel's life, including his lengthy career at BBC Radio 1 which was built around his late-night programme featuring an eclectic playlist and live sessions from bands which had taken his fancy. The second part is made up of the aforementioned tributes, whilst the third part is a listing of Peel's so-called Festive Fifties (his annual countdown of listeners' favourite records of the year).

Inclusion of this list might look like padding in a hastily put-together book published shortly after Peel's death, but reading through it gives a good sense of the breadth and depth of the music Peel introduced his listeners to - from Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" (probably the most well-known rock song of all time, which topped the 1976 countdown), through "How Soon Is Now?" by The Smiths (number 1 in 1984), to lesser-known songs such as "I Don't Have Time To Stand Here With You Fighting About The Size Of My Dick", by Ballboy (which squeaked in at number 49 in 2004). In today's connected world, it's perhaps becoming harder to remember how a single radio DJ could be so pivotal in discovering and sharing new music like this; this book helps to do that.


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