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Eric Beck Rubin – School Of Velocity

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The constant reprise.

Publisher: One (Pushkin Press)
Pages: 213
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-993-50629-1
First Published: 23rd August 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd August 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A conscientious piano student, Jan’s school life was changed by the arrival of Dirk, a boy who was here, there, and everywhere in every sense of the phrase. Previously unknown to the musician, Dirk’s presence shook Jan’s remaining years at school; the pair became best friends, complimenting each other’s personalities, and even exploring their advancing maturity together. But then Dirk leaves for college in America and Jan for university to further his piano studies. Contact dwindles and Jan believes Dirk no longer cares as much. The musician moves on as much as he can but as he ages, the ever-present music in his ears becomes more than just a nuisance.

This is a book for which it pays to explain more of the plot than usual. School Of Velocity is an epic story in a small package, a tale that emulates many great novels and ends on a literary high. The Financial Times has likened it to The Great Gatsby, the relationship between Nick and Jay, and they’re not far off. Dirk is a whirlwind compared to Jay, but the experience of the two books, the narrative style, and the overall product, is similar.

We could argue about whether the score was sacred or improvisation was allowed. Whether one plays in period or updates for the modern age. But if I was going to be a professional I would have to keep a professional’s schedule. No more poet waiting for his inspiration. Learn the section, choose an interpretation, stick with it, move to the next section. If I had imposed this routine on my student self, I would have rebelled. But as it became the outline of my daily life, and I added more pieces to my repertoire, and took on more work as a result, I found I liked it.

The major themes of the book are music and relationships. Rubin is very instructive and open about the music, detailing it to good extent and making it as easy to understand as he can for those not familiar with the terms; but the relationship he leaves entirely to you. Is Jan and Dirk’s connection one of friendship or one of user and supporter? Is there a romantic element? Is there an underlying aspect of distaste or dislike? Anything is possible; Rubin looks at every potentiality, sometimes through dialogue and other times through narrative, a short phrase or a gesture, employing nuance to study a situation in a way that makes the questions come to you seemingly without any help from the writer. Rubin’s style here often means that some of the story initially comes as a surprise, though on reflection you realise it was always there.

A lot of the success of the book is down to the reader being ahead of Jan in terms of knowing what’s going on. Jan talks a lot about things that make it obvious to you, the reader, what’s happening, or, at least, the possibilities of what’s happening, but due to a lack of belief in himself, often also a lack of confidence and a bit of a lack of self-worth, he doesn’t see it himself. In another novel this might be a drawback, the reader effectively waiting for the character to catch up, but here it’s a triumph. Jan’s inability to see what might be the case allows Rubin to explore the character’s mindset in detail for his audience.

This detailing races towards the second half as Jan’s mental state begins to fail him (the book is told in flashback so you know the mental changes will happen in advance). Again possibilities are abundant and again Rubin sorts through the chaff swiftly to show the reader what is behind it all.

Never letting up on letting the reader decide things for themselves, Rubin’s ending is open to interpretation which is in turn open to being called either a success or unsatisfactory. Suffice to say that if you’ve been enjoying the book – particularly a lot – then there’s more chance of you appreciating what the end result becomes. What you will likely do, regardless, is appreciate it.

School Of Velocity is in many ways an incredibly literary book. The characterisation, the attention to detail, the subtlety – but it’s also accessible otherwise. The characters, especially Dirk, can be irritating, most often when you’re trying to work out the relationship dynamic, and you may wonder at Jan’s inability to completely move on, but it’s written so well and with such good reason that it’s consistently hard to put it down.

And, as Jan finds, it’s hard to walk away from it all afterwards, remaining present in your mind for a while after it’s over. Great stuff.

I received this book for review.

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Sue Gee – Trio

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The healing powers of music.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 308
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63061-4
First Published: 16th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Margaret dies early in the marriage; Steven is devastated but knows he must keep going. One day his colleague at school invites him to a concert and though Steven has no knowledge of music he enjoys it, and comes to enjoy the company of his colleague’s childhood friend. His loss will always be with him but in Margot and her music he sees light ahead.

Trio is a book set in the couple of years prior to the Second World War that looks at sadness, tragedy, and the way we deal with it. A beautiful work of literary fiction, it’s full of originality and sports a lovely uniqueness.

And then the gas masks came. In every classroom, throughout the lunch hour, came the struggle to fit the things on, the coughing and heaving at the rubbery smell, the helpless laughter as the trunks were waved about; the trumpeting.
‘Look at you, Hindmarsh!’
‘Look at yourself, Potts. You look prehistoric.’
‘All right, boys, that’s enough.’

Gee’s been writing for years and it shows. Her writing style is rather like a script; the author includes description in the third person but will then switch to dialogue in a way that means you hear a lot more about the situation in a sort of faux first person. Many of the descriptions of thoughts turn out similarly. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes but it is something that everyone is likely to appreciate, at the very least. It’s a literary dialogue, at once between the author and her characters – rendering them in a realistic fashion – and also between the author and the reader, both a breaking of the fourth wall and a hiding behind it. It means that every single character who speaks – every pupil in Steven’s class who gets a mention – stays in mind as though they were all main characters.

Sadness informs most every part of this book. It’s everywhere but Gee never lets it burden the text itself, meaning that whilst this book may be triggering if you’ve recently lost a loved one, it’s not a book you’ll need to avoid for long. But whilst not burdening the text, Gee never covers up, showing how sadness carries on, lingers far longer than our speaking of it shows. In this way she demonstrates how that point wherein society says ‘okay, enough moping now’ shouldn’t be taken as wholly as we often do – everyone suffers losses and it’s okay to refer to it in the future.

There are various tragedies: Steven’s loss of Margaret, a person’s ‘loss’ of the friend they are in love with (twice over in this case), the way a rebuff of affections can lead to awful conclusions. Many of the losses are connected but few are vocalised. Gee uses a bit of mystery in order to explain certain emotions – they aren’t mysteries you need to work out as it’s pretty clear who is who and what is what, it’s that the emotions need to be hidden between the characters because of a feeling of shame or worry that is down to their situation, their relation to one another, and the time in which they are living.

The book is fantastic right up until the last couple of dozen pages. Everything ebbs along and you’re ready for the inevitable start of the war and in seeing where it takes the characters and then suddenly you’re pulled forward to our present day. There is no conclusion to Steven and his friends’ stories, instead you move on to the latter years of Steven and Margot’s son, a person you’d not met. Why this was done is not clear – presumably it was so that we could learn the outcome of everyone’s lives, but this is small compensation; the information could have been provided in an epilogue or, because there’s really only one character you ‘need’ to hear about, communicated naturally at the end.

As for the musical episodes they are mainly good, if a bit overwritten. Steven’s lack of knowledge means that Gee goes into a lot of detail, romanticising the sounds and effects of music; when it’s part of the subtext it’s glorious. The trio of the title don’t quite make the book what it is – that’s Steven’s role – but they play their part; it’s more that they’re the ones through whom people are connected.

Trio is difficult to put down. It’s a gorgeous escape back in time that for all its – needed – sadness, is gripping. The end does come out of left field but the overall product is wonderful.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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James Rhodes – Instrumental

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Instru, mental (health), and music.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 264
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11337-9
First Published: 28th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 20th October 2015
Rating: 5/5

On paper, James Rhodes had a privileged childhood. He went to posh prep schools and later to Harrow. In reality, his first years were marred by sexual abuse. Now a fairly successful pianist, Rhodes looks back on his past, the multiple mental illnesses he developed that stifled any happiness and success for a long while and saw him hospitalised, and at the way classical music saved him.

How much can a 38 year old say that is worthy of a memoir? In this case, a lot. Rhodes’ book is one of suffering, of healing (somewhat – this book is realistic), of music, and in many ways advice, all compiled into chapters that begin with a look at the mental health of a particular composer and a suggestion for a musical interlude.

Rhodes is modest, very humble, and what makes the book so successful is that whilst he is privileged and can name drop like the best (he went to school with Benedict Cumberbatch, for example) there is a very true feeling throughout that he believes it. This is not to say that it’s good to read about someone who had everything and is suffering – do not take my meaning the wrong way – it is to say that Rhodes’ place in the world means he’s truly in the middle, having had a lot but being right on a level with your average Joe. And he has had advantages, that’s true, but his has not been a simple journey of boom, healed, and then success.

And he writes with a particular honesty. There is the frankness in what Rhodes says; he speaks openly and harshly without going into too much detail for his own piece of mind. His prose is casual and welcoming, simple yet literary. He swears as he talks, casually, often, but sometimes because it is an effective way to explain a feeling.

Rhodes gives advice on some subjects, for example his advice on relationships (which I’ll point out is short in case it sounds like this is a self-help book – it’s not) that he has learned from the way he sees and deals with his own. He offers a lot of his opinion on how the classical music industry should change (this part is a little preachy but no less worthy). What he doesn’t advise on, however, is self-harm, drug use, suicide. Rhodes, though still falling back occasionally, has made his peace with many of the things he’s done in his life but says that people need to be careful with their support. In fact what he says is that we need to stop judging and worrying about and medicating those who self-harm and think of suicide. He shows how what others saw as support hindered him from healing. As far as the book’s importance in a general sense, this information is perhaps the most compelling reason for reading it.

Rhodes writes as much for those who haven’t had his experience as for those who have. He’s showing hope whilst remaining realistic, he shows that there are amazing ways out whilst showing that some are just average. And all through it is his self-effacing view of himself that wins you over because you can see how much good he is doing and you hope that he sees it himself.

I said above that Rhodes is preachy on the subject of music. His opinions themselves aren’t but do seem so when he speaks about music being the last art to have a strict classic genre and forgets books, and one hopes he knows of a previous attempt (successful in many cases) to bring children to classical music – The Magical Music Box magazine of the 90s. Rhodes makes a strong case that is absolutely fair – one hopes he succeeds in bridging the divide between the general populous and the elitism in the genre. Just one nitpick: he rules out contemporary classical music, stating that by all means a musician should play a new piece of music but that it won’t ever rival the old masters. The issue is that in making people, young people who don’t fit the stereotype of hoity toity classical music rah rahs, interested in it, is going to result in some of those people being inspired to create some themselves. To restrict such growth would be to come full circle and limit classical music to the old posh listeners.

Instrumental is important; it should to be read, it needs to be discussed. It needs to be read all the more so because of the ridiculous law suit raised to attempt to stop it being published which led to Rhodes being unable to talk about his abuse, just as he was unable to as a child. Writing it might just be the most important thing the pianist has ever done.

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