Real Life – Brandon Taylor (2020) – A Booker Shortlist Novel

Arguably the most significant sentence in this American author’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut is:

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty.”

This does seem to be the driving force behind this novel.  Wallace is a black gay student who has achieved against the odds stacked against him and is in the fourth year of a biochemistry degree at a Midwestern University.  He has only one friend within the lab where he works all day with microscopic worms, the rest either question his place on the course or set out to sabotage him.

I’m not really sure what work is going on in the lab or why.  Taylor is unafraid of technical detail and the scientific writing is actually very involving but the main focus of the novel is set over a weekend where Wallace questions his own future and has some leisure time to spend with a set of friends who mostly study on similar courses.

Wallace’s father had died some weeks before a fact which he has neglected to tell anyone and over the course of this weekend his revelation leads him to grow intimate with a straight white boy in a relationship which seems toxic from the off.  Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.  It is superbly written and I was involved throughout but the knife edge these individuals live on where spite and aggression is never too far away occasionally felt tiresome and it was this which stopped me giving the book 5 stars.  I know the author was probably intending to show how these kind of micro-aggressions can build up and overwhelm but I think a little more lightness and humour would have been appreciated and made this impressive debut superb.  If the college days are the best of their lives I would be fascinated to see how the characters were coping fifteen years on.  The other two Booker longlisted novels I have read this year (also debuts) “Who They Was” and “How Much Of These Hills Is Gold” have not made it onto the shortlist so the author is to be congratulated on achieving this in a very unpredictable awards year.

Real Life was published in 2020 in the UK by Daunt Books.

Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (2019) – A Real Life Review

In the UK Dustin Lance Black is best known for being the husband of Olympic diver and national treasure Tom Daley but anyone expecting this memoir to be an examination of their relationship is going to be disappointed.  Tom barely features (although his importance in Black’s life is both acknowledged and shines through).  The author who won an Oscar for his screenplay “Milk” in 2009 even pushes himself and his career left of centre as this memoir has a different principal character- his mother Rose Anne.

Hers is a story of survival through sheer determination.  She contracted polio as an infant and spent her whole childhood in hospitals, away from home, defying doctors and not allowing anything to limit her life choices.  Medical opinion said childbirth would kill her yet she had three sons and Dustin (Lance to friends and family) certainly inherited similar drive.  Mother found support in the strong community of the Mormon Church but by the age of six, young Lance knew his sexuality would cause a major conflict which he truly believed their relationship would never recover from.

The author’s drive led him to a highly promising film career and that Oscar for “Milk” (If you have never seen this film it is magnificent) yet he eschews this to devote time to activism, becoming one of the leading players in overturning California’s discriminatory gay marriage ruling, developing from a chronically shy, almost mute introverted child to speaking on huge public platforms and dealing with threats and bigotry.

But it is the relationship between mother and son which sparked a whole range of emotions in me – at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.  Time moves on and the boy turns into a man but there’s still the pull of family and mother and it is recorded in a strikingly honest way.  If this was a novel I’d really be praising the author in his skill at getting us to really know the characters.  I have read some memoirs with no great sense of even the person writing it but this is certainly not the case here.

I think it is hard for us Brits to understand the pull of religions like The Church Of The Latter Day Saints in parts of America and some of the workings of the US legal system seem bewildering but the rest of the world is now well used to being bewildered by America.

I thought this was a marvellous book, a little intense and very thorough but I would imagine that would match the nature of the author pretty well.  It is written with great sensitivity and his desire to introduce his mother to the world demands a large readership.  I don’t think this book has yet got the attention it deserves.  Its nature suggests a lasting classic which should continue to inspire generations.  It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize (as have a number of the books I have read “”Life As A Unicorn” (retitled since I read it) and “The Confessions of Frannie Langton for first book awards and “This Brutal House” in the main category alongside this book).  This is an award to celebrate the best in LGBTQ+ writings and “Mama’s Boy” would be a very deserving winner.

Mama’s Boy was published in 2019 by John Murray.

A Saint From Texas – Edmund White (Bloomsbury 2020)

saintfromtexas

In my review of Edmund White’s memoir “City Boy” (2009) I wrote “I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away”.  I did really enjoy that book and also highlighted his 2000 novel “A Married Man” as my favourite of his fiction.  I appreciated that he has made an enormous contribution to gay-themed literature but also wrote “he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth, perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.”  I did qualify this by saying I had not read everything by him but that was how I was feeling back in 2018 when I read “City Boy”.

That does not mean I was not excited by the prospect of a new novel, his 14th, published in the year he turned 80.  It was a surprise and not what I was expecting from him at all.

Last time out I complained he was too academic and technical and yet the reason I struggled to engage with this novel was because it felt trivial and slight.  There’s just no pleasing some people!  I also had my ongoing issue with empathy and really only one of the characters came alive for me.

This is the tale of identical Texan twin sisters Yvonne and Yvette (called Why-vonne and Why-vette by their family).  Born in 1938 and brought up by their recently rich father (Texan oil wells) and money-grasping stepmother the girls go in very separate directions- Yvonne to a life of prestige in Paris where she marries a Baron and Yvette to a convent in Colombia.  From here we encounter Yvette mainly through the letters to her sister (whose first-person narration we are reading) yet it is the nun whose character seems the most richly drawn to me.  A “miracle” in her youth and her piety promotes her as a potential candidate for a sainthood yet she struggles with denying her physical longings.  There’s no self-denial for Yvonne and she is soon taking a lover capitalising on the unlikelihood of divorce amongst the notable families of France.

My main issue is that Yvonne’s narration feels very much on one level.  Reading on a Kindle at one point I accidentally jumped a considerable distance in the book and it was quite some time before I noticed and returned to my original place.

I had hoped that this was the great Edmund White novel which I have been expecting, especially through reading his non-fiction.  I’m sure he has a truly great novel in him but this is not it.  I’m beginning to think that maybe I have missed it, that this greatness is contained in one of the earlier novels I have not got round to yet.  I do have his 1973 debut “Forgetting Elena” on my shelves- I recently bought a copy after hearing very good things about it.  I will let you know….

threestars

A Saint From Texas is published in the UK on August 4th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

How It All Blew Up – Arvin Ahmadi (Hot Key 2020) – A Young Adult Fiction Review

young adult

blewup

This is Arvin Ahmadi’s third novel for the young adult market and the one he says is the most personal.  An Iranian family have an argument on a plane coming from Italy and are taken for interrogation when they land in their American homeland.  This is the story, largely from the interrogation room of what they were doing in Italy and what the argument was all about.

Amir is a seemingly quite well off 18 year old who is reluctant to share his sexuality with his Muslim family.  When a homophobic bully plans to out him Amir runs away and spends a summer in Rome where he learns a lot about himself and the importance of family.

The plot is simple yet very effective.  Some of the texts intended to support the young adult LGBTQ+ market feature characters who overpower the work.  I did not feel this about Amir who seems very authentic and would appeal (rather than intimidate) those who are experiencing similar issues.  He is, however, extremely fortunate in the choices he makes and the people he meets.  This could have been a very different story from the life-enhancing tale that Ahmadi relates.

The oral tradition of story-telling is, we are told on a number of occasions in this book, very important in Iranian culture and it feels appropriate that Amir gets his chance to relate his experiences in this way even if it is to a largely silent interrogation officer.  There are a lot of issues here from the Muslim’s family viewpoint towards homosexuality and self-esteem issues to the fine line that needs to be trodden to prevent motives being misjudged.  These are all handled well written in a very likeable account of a memorable summer.

I’ve sometimes been a little wary of the YA titles I’ve recommended probably because the world has moved on so much since I was a young adult but I know that I would have loved this book in my teenage years and I think there is a large audience out here for this.  It has a wider than young adult appeal and many firmly into adulthood would find  it an involving and satisfying read.

four-star

How It All Blew Up will be published in the UK by Hot Key on 22nd September 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein – Peter Ackroyd (2008)

frankenstein

This book pushes Peter Ackroyd above Charles Dickens to become my second most read author of the last 25 years. (Christopher Fowler is a few books ahead of these). Ackroyd’s work spans both fiction and non-fiction.  His best as far as I am concerned is his mammoth, superbly researched “London: A Biography” (2000) (My Book Of The Year in 2002) with other titles “Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem” (1994), “The House Of Doctor Dee” (1993) and non-fiction works such as “The Life Of Thomas More” (1998) and “Albion” (2004) all featuring strongly in my end of year Top 10’s in the year I read them.  I do tend to favour him as a non-fiction writer as some of his novels haven’t really blown me away.  In fact the one I liked the least was the work which made his name “Hawksmoor” which I was disappointed in when I read it in 1998.

“The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein” is a reimagining of the classic horror story.  The titular narrator is Swiss who comes to Oxford to study and there meets Percy Bysshe Shelley whom he follows to London.  It’s a time of scientific study and intellectual debate and Frankenstein becomes obsessed by the possibility of reanimating a corpse.  This mixture of a fictional character amongst real lives feels a little odd on this occasion.  At one point Frankenstein is staying with Lord Byron, and both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley (his actual creator) at the time when they decide to tell each other ghost stories from which the seeds of Mary Shelley’s novel were sown.

Basically what we have here is a fairly straightforward horror-tinged thriller which will seem familiar to readers because of its strong place in our popular culture.  I’ve never actually got round to reading “Frankenstein” so I’m not sure how close to the source material this goes but all of us will know about the experimentation and that if a corpse is actually brought back to life it is not going to be happy and it is not going to end well.

I think it’s the concept of this novel rather than its actual story-telling which stopped me being totally captivated by it.  Frankenstein’s account is well written and it’s a pacy narrative.  The sense of dread is conveyed well and London, as in a number of Ackroyd’s works, is a fairly vibrant character in itself.  It has whetted my appetite to wanting to find out more about Mr & Mrs Shelley and when I get round to the original novel (this is something I have always planned to do) this may be worth re-reading to compare the two.  On this reading it just misses out on being something special.

threestars

The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein was published by Chatto & Windus in 2008.  I read the 2009 Vintage paperback edition.

Box Hill- Adam Mars- Jones (2020)

box hill

1975- A Bank Holiday weekend and Colin, the narrator, is spending his 18th birthday at Box Hill, near Leatherhead Surrey.  He’s got there on the back of his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s motorbike.  He has been taken out for the day because his mum is in hospital and he has had a row with his Dad.  Box Hill is a meeting place for leather- clad motorcyclists and whilst on a walk Colin trips over the feet of Ray and from that point on his life is changed.

This was a title I highlighted as one I wanted to read in my post which looked forward to 2020 publications (I’m doing rather well with these having now read 50%).  A copy I ordered from Waterstones went astray in the post and so I purchased it on Kindle.  (It was later returned to Waterstones who were very good at reimbursing me).  That did mean I missed out on the physical sensation of the classy blue-covered Fitzcarraldo edition (I had been wanting to read one of this independent publisher’s books for a while because there is something very impressive in their stark appearance).  This is obviously a publishing house who really wants the content of the book to do the talking.  If you are not sure what I am talking about have a look at their website to see what I mean. It is pushing this to call it a novel.  At 128 pages in the paperback edition it is no more than a novella which I read in a couple of sittings.

I’m not sure what I was expecting having never read Mars-Jones before but I was surprised how accessible this work was.  I think I was expecting it to be somewhat literary and impenetrable.  It is written in a highly endearing chatty style which looks back on the events of 1975 from a viewpoint of almost a quarter of a century.  The author has subtitled this “A Story Of Low Self-Esteem” and this is certainly the case as the narrator enters a relationship where he is certainly subservient and has little real knowledge about the life of his partner.  If this might seem far-fetched consider Colin’s youth leading him not knowing what to expect; the age difference between them and the 1975 setting where to live as a gay man was very different to how it is nowadays actually makes it chillingly plausible.

Colin is happy to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor by the side of his lover’s bed and never questions any actions or strange behaviours because he does not know any different.  This is a love story but to our modern eyes it is disturbing especially when  Colin becomes a mascot for the motorcycling group and wholly accepts behaviour which would nowadays be considered abusive but for him it is a great romance.

I really liked how this was written.  I liked the details which cause the narrator to step back from the past.  There’s lots of little asides- an incident with alcohol causes him to look back to childhood Christmases with his parents and their tipple of choice, advocaat.  So as their child is not left out he is given a glass but his is custard.  A small moment which I felt said a lot about this character.

I was never less than intrigued by this story.  My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed and here I would have liked the plot to be fleshed out into greater length.  There was certainly enough material here for this to have happened and especially as I was enjoying the writing so much.  Some of Adam Mars-Jones’ other fiction is quite substantial so now I feel I’ve dipped into his writing and been enthralled that I would benefit from exploring further.

four-star

Box Hill was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2020.

Camp- L C Rosen (Penguin 2020) – A Young Adult Fiction Review

young adult

camp

A quick return to the world of L C Rosen. I read “Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts)” because I had this lined up for a pre-publication review. I did enjoy his YA debut but I had reservations. I felt a mismatch between the characters and important issues they raise with the plot which felt a little lacklustre in comparison. I think because of this and the focus on sex that it came across as somewhat brittle and what I felt was lacking was, on reflection, warmth. I mentioned at the end of my review that I felt Rosen had the writing talent to redress the balance a bit and that he has certainly done with his latest which is full of warmth and has a big, pounding romantic heart at its centre.

It’s summer camp for a group of LGBTQ+ teens, a time when they can be themselves, only this year main character Randy is going to be someone else, all in the pursuit of love. Since last year he has reinvented himself as Del, a sporty outgoing guy, to attract Hudson, a boy he has been besotted with for years who hasn’t given as much as a second look to musical theatre loving, nail polish wearing, fan snapping Randy. Del gets his friends in on the plan and decides to skip theatre for outdoor pursuits and attempts to reel Hudson in by being someone he’s not. It’s not going to go smoothly.

Why I’m giving this novel a bigger thumbs up than the celebrated “Jack Of Hearts” is here there are issues that all teens would need to consider but they more naturally evolve from the mix of characters. I felt last time having Jack as a sex advice blogger meant the issues came from outside through his column. I think it works better here and as a result I found myself really caring for this group of teens. There is a bit of an obsession with nail polish as a means of expression (is that a thing teens feel?) but this does shift away from the sex obsessions in the last novel which occasionally felt like it was teetering towards a dark place. Not that there isn’t sex here, it just feels more natural and considered in this environment. And I did love the environment. Last time round I said I’d turn down any offers to relive my teenage years in a NY high school like Jack’s but I’d certainly be happy spending time at Camp Outland. It is a pleasure to read YA novels of this quality and L C Rosen should certainly widen his readership with this.

four-star

Camp is published in the UK by Penguin on May 28th. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts) – L C Rosen (Penguin 2018) – A Young Adult Fiction Review

young adult

jackofhearts

Now this is a tricky one. Many parents flicking through this after finding it on a young teen’s bookshelf would be horrified by its so casual attitude to sex in its many forms. It may indeed reach a new level of frankness in the YA fiction market because it’s not really about anything else. The sex is not integral to the plot the sex is the plot and I can imagine some parents of teens not wanting their offspring to read this. I think if I had read it as an adolescent it might have scared the living daylights out of me- so forthright are the main characters, but, let’s face it, times have moved on enough for Penguin to recognise this American work as worth publishing over here. It cannot hide its American origins and some may be consoled into considering that it’s not like this over here but it does deal with issues that all teens will face at some point.

Whereas a quick flick through may leave some horrified a close read reveals something much more significant between these covers – a work which certainly does not dumb down a myriad of issues and presents them in a very balanced, thoughtful way, which is surely just how we would like our teenagers to be.

Jack is a 17 year old pupil in a NY private school. As a flamboyant gay youth he finds himself at the centre of gossip and rumour amongst a set of children who already seem extremely liberal to British eyes. This encourages his friend Jenna to get him to write a sex advice column for her blog. That puts him into some conflict with the school administration and also results in him being a target for an infatuated schoolmate who begins to leave pink origami love letters in his locker. Jack’s range of experience seems extraordinary for one so young, the advice he gives in his column is reasoned and occasionally balanced by other characters (an ex of Jack’s berates him as he feels his promiscuity is pandering to those who wish to stereotype the gay students in the school) but I think they can strain on plausibility (are teenage high school children concerned about S&M?). This element of the narrative may rankle more if the over-riding message wasn’t that we should all be the type of person that we want to be or as Jack puts it in typical fashion; “It’s about making sure everyone around me sparkles with their own shade of glitter, that they feel as amazing as I do.”

 The author also had initial concerns about his material as he explains the genesis of this work in the Acknowledgements written in “a loud authentic voice that a lot of people don’t want young adult readers to hear.” That voice is Jack’s.

I have no issue with the voice nor characterisation and I’m sure everyone reading this (even the YA market it is meant for) will be occasionally shocked and feeling a tad uncomfortable but I think it’s a shame that the actual narrative drive- who is sending the love notes- feels a little trivial in the company of these characters. What makes me slightly uncomfortable is that Jack, who seems superficially at ease with himself, is at such a loss with this, showing a gulf between his physical and emotional maturity which makes me wonder if he should be giving it all away as freely as he does. If the author is meaning to convey this I wish it was made a little more explicit. It’s also annoying how long the characters take to choose their outfits!

This is a next level up from another YA novel I read not too long ago published 10 years ago “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” by John Green & David Levithan and there are similarities between Jack and the character of Tiny Cooper in that novel, both are positive, unapologetic, larger than life representations but with Jack we certainly feel we have moved on a decade. I personally think I would feel more at home in Tiny Cooper’s world from that novel than I would do in Jack’s. If anyone offers me a chance to relive my teenage years in a present day NY high school I would turn them down flat but it was fascinating spending time in this company. I have L C Rosen’s latest novel “Camp” lined up for a read. I wonder if in his second YA novel he will get a stronger balance between plot and issues. He certainly has the potential and writing skills to do so.

threestars

Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts) was published by Penguin in the UK in October 2018.

The Last Romeo – Justin Myers (2018) – A Rainbow Read

rainbow

lastromeo

I’d missed out on this debut 2018 publication until I saw it recommended in a LGBTQ+ Book List. I looked for it in my local Waterstones, couldn’t find it, and then five minutes later spotted a pristine copy in an Oxfam bookshop. If I was still wavering, not sure if it was my kind of thing, I was propelled towards the till by on-cover recommendations by Jill Mansell and Adam Kay, author of “This Is Going To Hurt” (my most visited review of 2019) who describes it as “Funny, clever and warm.”

It spent a short time on my bookshelves and hadn’t even featured on my up and coming reads list until after reading the powerful “Another Country” in the first week of Coronavirus lockdown I decided the reads I had lined up might be too demanding for my current state of mind and anxiety levels and what I actually needed was something “funny, clever and warm”. This book virtually leapt into my arms off the bookshelf.

This was a perfect read in troubled times where most of the world is unable to go out of their houses at present. In those now far-off seeming pre-Corona days I might have just been a tad scathing on what is a gay male slant on Chick-Lit (Dick-Lit? is than an actual term? It certainly came into my mind whilst reading this) but its heart is certainly in the right place and it fulfilled my reading needs perfectly.

After a break-up from a six year relationship with a controlling partner, 34 year old James decides to plunge back into single life and record his dates on a blog in which he anonymously rates and reviews hook-ups until he finds true love again – his “last Romeo”. James works on a gossip magazine and tries to keep his work and blog separate but soon finds the blog begins to overshadow his work, his life and relationships with others. James is a typical hero for this kind of novel, flawed and prone to jumping in feet first and with a blinkered tendency to see the world primarily from his point of view. He’s very much a modern metropolitan man and Justin Myers works a bit of magic in making him likeable and relatable. Without this, the book will fail. James certainly does try the readers’ patience with his inability to empathise with others but it does set up amusing situations. The narrative switches from first person to examples of James’ blog posts in which this unreliable narrator becomes further unreliable.

Journalist Justin Myers set up his own anonymous dating blog in a career trajectory not too unlike his main character which led to this first novel so he does know what he is talking about when he sets James up into various predicaments. It can only work from a gay male perspective, transferring this into chick-lit with a female character would resonate in a very different way, but with a list of questions for reading groups at the back of the paperback publishers Piatkus are pushing for a wider audience. It felt like a breath of fresh air in my reading schedule and I now feel I can go back to my planned list of less fun fare with my anxiety levels lowered. Just what the doctor would have ordered if it was possible to get an appointment!

four-star

The Last Romeo was published by Piatkus in 2018.

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (2020)

swimming

The first of the books I highlighted as those I wanted to look out for in 2020 is this debut written in English by a German born author with Polish heritage. It is an impressively written tale of the relationship between two young men set in Poland during the late 70’s/early 80’s at a time of great unrest.

The pair meet at a summer work camp picking beetroots and the development of this blossoming connection is handled very effectively. Behind much of this lies another book, “Giovanni’s Room” by black American author James Baldwin,  a suppressed text which main character and narrator Ludwik glues between the covers of another publication becoming the link which forges he and Janusz closer together. (Incidentally in a recent Guardian interview with Sara Collins of Costa winning “Confessions Of Frannie Langton” fame she praises Baldwin’s work as her choice for most under-rated novel calling it a “perfect love story.” I’ve been thinking for a time that I should re-read this and this book has further convinced me that I should do so.) In the novel Ludwik is researching the author for his doctorate and in fact just a couple of years after this novel was set I was doing the same for my degree dissertation. Ludwik faces the additional difficulties of a system where who you know is important in his quest to get his academic work off the ground.

The relationship is threatened by the atmosphere in Poland and the political differences between the two men. The whole narrative is directed towards Janusz as an explanation behind the actions and feelings Ludwik had at the time which he could not express to him face to face. The difficulties of dealing with same sex attraction at different times and places appears in many novels I have read but I feel that these stories need telling and retelling and this literary work is a very welcome addition to this.

My slight quibble is to do with the number of chance encounters the two men seem to have but maybe when attraction is that strong they can’t avoid the pull of fate that places them in similar locations at the same time. Well written and a strong debut, it had the feel of Andre Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” which became an Oscar winning film, especially stylistically in this book’s more languid moments but I think I may have enjoyed Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel slightly more.

fourstars

Swimming In The Dark is published by Bloomsbury on February 6th 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.