The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021)

Anyone looking for the best, most versatile author of our times?  Here’s a suggestion – John Boyne, and I’m making this claim after only reading 7 of his 21 books.  There’s two timeless classics in his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and this novel become the 5th of his five star reads, alongside “A Ladder To The Sky” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain”.  When he has missed out on a 5* rating his work is also extraordinary, the tightly structured stylistically so impressive “A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom” and his 2019 YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica”, with its focus on the family of a transgender teen which I found “marvellously empathic” but it missed out on 5* because I didn’t feel totally convinced by the main characters’ family set-up and felt it lacked some of the subtletly of his best work.  My reviews for all of these titles can be found by following the links on this site.

What I did not appreciate was the fuss “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica” caused in the months after I read it.  An interview with Boyne in last week’s Guardian (17/07/21) details this with backlash against it leading to online harassment, misrepresentation, death threats and a period of depression for the author.  It also, far more positively, sowed the seeds for this, his latest novel for adults.

I cannot remember laughing out loud so much at a novel since another Irish author Paul Murray’s “The Mark And The Void” from 2015 and like that novel the humour is rooted very much in the present making it a book for 2021.  Already, I’m acknowledging this may not have the longevity of his greatest work but it warrants five stars for the sheer enjoyment it gave me.

And yes, there is going to be some controversy again over this.  At the centre is social media and the effects this has on one notable family, the Cleverleys.  Father George is a BBC light entertainment staple, a chat-show host famous for many years (I’ve already seen Graham Norton praising this work and jokingly wanting to make clear this character is not based on him), his wife Beverley, a best-selling romantic novelist who now provides the ideas which are written up by a ghost-writer, who is herself celebrated enough to be having an affair with her Ukranian “Strictly Come Dancing” partner, a man who has spread his charms amongst the next generation of the Cleverley family; Nelson, in therapy and only able to cope with social interactions whilst wearing a uniform; Elizabeth, an online troll who gave me a great number of laugh out loud moments and Nelson, a teenage extortionist.  They inhabit a world where the number of likes on your social media is what validates you as a person.  Modern life is a minefield for this family and things soon go wrong with attempts to escape situations only making it worse.  John Boyne is happy to tread on everyone’s toes using real-life celebrities to add to the humour. 

This is a work of satirical fiction and is not intended to be factual” states the publisher’s note at the beginning but satire is often not funny (as anyone attempting to watch the Britbox “Spitting Image” reboot will testify) but here it is.  Another trap for the comic novel is that the humour often wanes before the mid-way point but Boyne is able to sustain it for the length of his work (only in a couple of places does the pace falter and that is occasionally due to over-reiteration which the author needs to employ to ensure we, as readers, are keeping up) and too often the humour in books becomes predictable whereas here I had no idea where this book was going which was a joy in itself.

Maybe some people will be upset by this and some people deserve to be upset by this but I think John Boyne has written a great comic novel of our time and which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in.

The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday on August 5th 2021. Many thanks to Lilly and the team at Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

The Promise – Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus 2021)

The me of 16 years ago read this South African author’s breakthrough novel which had been shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.  I had to check back through my records to see that in the winter of 2005 I quite enjoyed “The Good Doctor”, his tale of a remote rural hospital and thought it well-written but I felt it had failed to draw me in and my verdict was that it was unexceptional.  To be honest, I had forgotten all about this opinion when I was invited by the publishers to review his latest title.  I was assured a novel “confident, deft and quietly powerful” and “literary fiction at its finest”.  I was intrigued.

If “The Good Doctor” failed to draw me in 16 years ago then things were soon put right with this.  I was very involved early on and it is the self-assurance of the writing and his handling of life-changing events which kept me hooked.  The Swart family live on a farm outside Pretoria and we visit them at various moments in their lives.  It is the tale of four deaths and the coming together of those left. Linking these occasions is a promise 13 year old Amor believes she has heard her father making to her dying mother, a promise which is denied, ignored or postponed for decades due to circumstances within the country and within the family.  The strength is in the characterisation and interactions between the family members. The tragic trigger points which cause the reunions roll back the preceding years with great economy and truth by the author.  I loved the structure of this novel, some demises are tragic, some violent, some tragi-comic but all imbued with a sense of South African history which is extremely effective.  There is an appealing calmness which runs alongside the tragedies.  It makes me think that the older me might have a greater appreciation of  “The Good Doctor” and I would be very interested in discovering more work (Galgut’s published oeuvre consists of novels, short story collections and plays) by this author.

The Promise will be published in the UK by  Chatto & Windus on 17th June 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. The Kindle/ebook edition is published by Vintage Digital.

Yes, Daddy – Jonathan Parks-Ramage (HMH Books 2021)

I’m a sucker for any title marketed as “Modern Gothic” and I was also tempted into reading this book as the author and I share an unusual surname.  He is no relation, however, this is an intriguing debut from an author from Los Angeles.  At times I thought it was stunningly powerful and gripping but for me it ran out of steam meaning I finished the book feeling a little flat from an author with so much potential.

This is the tale of Jonah, an aspiring playwright who sets his sights on seducing an older, successful dramatist who then finds he gets considerably more than he bargained for.  As a character his motives are often very questionable which is no bad thing (see John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky”, for example, for another ruthless lead ) but some readers’ responses to this book may be affected by his limited likeability.

We begin at a trial so we know from the start that something has gone awry in their relationship, there’s an early twist and then a shuffle back in time to relate the whole story in a first-person narrative by the ambitious, emotionally damaged younger man.  It’s not that long before it gets really good, at a point where Jonah feels woozy at a dinner party and although there’s not a hint of demonic possession here the tension of the writing and the surface of respectability hiding much darkness reminded me of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, a book I love.

There are many plot turns along the way but the last third feels as if the build-up dissipates greatly to find an acceptable resolution and I rather think that this resolution might feel more acceptable to an American audience.

There are issues raised which are relevant to the #MeToo campaign and LGBT considerations here given a powerful, fresh dimension and I’m not sure how Parks-Ramage could have otherwise found his way out of the plot he has weaved but I feel he might have let his dramatic peaks appear too early in the narrative denying me the really splendid reading experience I thought I was going to get with this book.

Yes, Daddy was published on 18th May 2021 by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta (2019) – A Rainbow Read

This is another welcome addition to the canon of LGBT+ literature for young adults which feels like it is meant to last for more than the current generation discovering it.  The author’s unique selling point here is that he has produced a verse novel, now this might sound off-putting, but actually makes the work really accessible.  It’s written plainly, no meanings hidden behind poetic language, in fact, many readers might not realise they are reading verse at all, but will be drawn in by the movement and rhythm of the piece. The varied lay-out of the book is also impressive.

This is the fictional tale of Michael, who with his Black Jamaican/Greek-Cypriot heritage feels that he is a different person for different members of the family.  This is a boy who yearns for a Barbie for his 6th birthday and as a teenager adopts another persona, The Black Flamingo, to reinforce his sense of identity in a sheen of fabulousness.  Within Atta’s vibrant language we have the tale of a boy growing up, his London childhood, his school days and a move to Brighton University exploring aspects of himself; his black culture, his Greek-Cypriot identity, his sexuality and finding answers through the medium of drag.

To read this is also to become involved in the history which has helped Michael accept himself and at one point he thanks the performers and activists who mean much to him.  This is the second time I’ve seen this done recently- Robert Jones Jnr in his outstanding “The Prophets” has hundreds of acknowledgements but Michael’s list has a British bias and I would hope that those reading this would find out more about the names they are not familiar with.

Dean Atta has published critically acclaimed adult poetry with themes of race, gender and self-development which are all relevant here.  The Independent On Sunday featured him amongst their list of the most influential LGBT+ people in the UK.  This feels a highly significant work from him which will continue to enhance his reputation.  It should feature prominently in YA reading lists.  I really enjoyed being drawn into Michael’s world.

The Black Flamingo was published  in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 2019 and in paperback in March 2020.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out – Jeremy Atherton Lin (Granta 2021)- A Rainbow Read

I really liked the premise of this non-fiction work.  Jeremy Atherton Lin explores, largely via memoir, the significance of the gay bar in the forging of the LGBTQ+ community, bringing with it a sense of belonging.  At a time when bars and pubs and nightclubs have greatly diminished in number and where the survival of those left is threatened by extended lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions it is important that we recognise these venues as part of our LGBTQ+ history, our present and hopefully, our future.

The author focuses on those places he knows well beginning in more or less present day South London, moving to the Los Angeles of his college days, back to London where he meets his long-term partner, referred to as Famous Blue Raincoat, to San Francisco where the two set up home together returning to London once civil partnerships becomes legal here, with a brief sojourn to the bars of Blackpool.

This book is strongest when it is dealing with history.  Initially, we are plunged graphically into the sleaze of the cruising bars in Vauxhall and then on to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, an institution for generations, which does deserve its own thorough examination and the author does well to bring this extraordinary venue to life.  I used to frequent it regularly over 30 years ago and memories and the unique feel of the place is evoked by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s writing.

The focus on all the bars is great, I enjoyed the author’s perception of them at the time when he was frequenting them.  It is no fault of his, obviously, but you often get the sense that he has missed the boat, time-wise.  The LA of his college days is a pale shadow of its heyday, ravaged by the decimation of the gay population through AIDS and in most of the other areas he is visiting places past their prime.  This is due to chronology but in many ways it feels typical of the gay bar set-up, on a quiet night there will always be someone to tell you how busy it was the night before!

The author broadens his focus to encompass, well everything, and this is where the book slips for me.  He has much to say about the gay experience and it is extremely worth saying but it’s a scattergun approach of digressions and the books loses the structure I was enjoying so much initially.  It becomes a mish-mash of history, of gay culture, of memoir, of essay.  I would have got more out of the memoir aspect if I felt I knew more about the author and Famous but I was kept very much at arm’s length, which for biography doesn’t work that well for me.

 I do think that there is a tremendous book hidden in here with some extremely quotable passages which sum up the gay nightlife experience better than I’ve ever read.  Here are a couple of examples:

“It dawned on me that many of the people we used to know to say hello to we never really knew.  We just enjoyed recognizing faces.”

“Gays can relax in a gay bar, people will say, but I went out for the tension in the room.

“We once flattered ourselves that all popular culture was subversively designed to amuse gay men.  It’s become apparent gay men are there to make popular culture amusing to everybody else”.

And with February’s LGBT+ History Month just behind us he quotes Michael Warner from “The Trouble With Normal” (1999), which is another reminder why our stories still need to be told;

“In the queer world memory is very fragile.  You don’t learn from your parents how the gay world is structured.  So there’s not a whole lot of intergenerational transfer.”

I think that this is a significant work but for me it was a little overpowering in its structure, the many elements did not mesh as well as I had hoped, so it just misses out on being a book I would want to keep on my bookshelves.  Just occasionally I wonder if I am too harsh in my judgements and that time will see a book linger in my memory, displaying a lasting power that I had not anticipated.  This might be one such book where I could become convinced to revise my opinion.  The audience for it is niche but that audience would certainly be drawn in by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s attack and relish of his subject.

Gay Bar was published by Granta on 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (2020) – A Rainbow Read

With February being LGBT+ History Month in the UK it is still important that stories are being heard.  Coming out tales and the path to self-acceptance still have a fairly essential part to play for each new generation and in recent years we have seen accounts from those under-represented whose lives and backgrounds add a different dimension.  Some very welcome additions to this genre of writing have come from the Muslim community with 2019’s award winning “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi and now this account subtitled “A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” by LGBT+ activist and top criminal barrister Mohsin Zaidi. This is another of the titles that I have now got round to from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post.

The most striking thing about the author is his tenacity and ability to never give up when the odds are very much stacked against him.  From a devout Shia Islam background with Pakistani parents and growing up in Walthamstow he showed early educational promise. As his family was unable to navigate the private school system he found himself in a secondary school where achievement was denigrated by his peers but somehow ended up as the first person from his school to go to Oxford University, studying Law.  There this East London Pakistani boy floundered amongst the rich and privileged before finding his own tribe – a group of friends who had some idea of where he had come from and who he was but they did not know the secret that he thought he would never be able to reveal, that he was gay.

For Mohsin, having the family find out would bring shame and probable disowning with his family’s disgrace spreading out into their wider community even affecting his younger brothers’ marriage prospects.  In order to function he has to shift away from his family’s values and religious beliefs to find his true self before opening himself back up to the cataclysm he believed was waiting for him should his sexuality be revealed.

It’s an incredibly difficult option, especially given the closeness of the relationship with his family which he at one point describes in a really effective metaphor. “Baby carriers provide the option of placing the infant so that he or she faces the parent or looks out, facing the world.  I imagined that most parents would choose to let their child see the world, whereas mine preferred I see only them.”

We know from the subtitle that there will be some movement towards resolution but it takes years and when it does come in some powerful scenes which signpost the way I found myself misting up.

I do feel that Mohsin Zaidi has fitted so much into his 35 years that there is a tendency at time to skim over the surface.  There are points in the book where I wanted more detail which would help us to really connect with the man/boy behind the situations.  I could tell here was a logical brain used to laying out the facts as befitting his professional status and his is a very welcome voice in British gay writing.

At times he can really hit home with a couple of sentences and I am going to leave the last words to him which makes for sobering reading and explains once again why our stories and LGBT+ History Month are so important.  Commenting on reports that the perpetrator of the 2016 Orlando gay bar shootings which killed 49 had pledged allegiance to ISIS prior to the event and was motivated by his disgust of his own sexual urges Mohsin says: “I had felt this hatred once.  Maybe if we weren’t raised to hate ourselves it would be easier not to hate the world.”

A Dutiful Boy was published in hardback by Square Peg in 2020.

No Shame – Tom Allen (2020)

One of the titles I focused on in my What I Should Have Read in 2020 post, I have now got round to it and it certainly met my expectations.

I’ve always been very impressed by Tom Allen.  A couple of years back he performed locally at what we thought was an absolute bargain price compared to many comedians who show up at our local theatre.  Having really enjoyed the show my partner posted positive comments on social media whilst sat in the pub afterwards.  By the time we got home he’d had a personal message from Tom thanking him for coming and for saying he’d enjoyed it- how nice was that!

Since then Tom has become a more regular face on TV.  I particularly enjoy him on “Bake Off’s Extra Slice” and “Bake Off: The Professionals”.  Over the Christmas period there was a new Channel 4 show “Tom Allen Goes To Town”, was one of three comedians locked overnight in Hamleys and co-presented a festive Bake Off. 

He has written a memoir which is of a much higher quality than many celebrity biographies.  The reason for this is partly his natural wit and aptitude at handling his material but also the focus he places on shame, which does influence his stand-up work and has had a significant effect on his life and mental health.  This gives his writing a sense of purpose and development.

Like Will Young in his “To Be A Gay Man” also published in 2020 much of this shame is linked to sexuality but it is also about the fear of standing out. His upbringing in Bromley, South East London where nobody seems to want to stand out holds an influence here, but, as so often happens, not wanting to stand out is what causes him to stand out.  His well-spoken, clear diction is at odds with his family and his neighbourhood, nobody seems to know where that has come from; as a teenager he dresses as a Victorian dandy and there is a wonderful story as to how he opts to deal with homophobic name-calling by doing something theatrical for a PTA event at school in Year 8 which he hopes will make him seem more cool but chooses an Alan Bennett monologue as famously performed by Julie Walters playing an actress on a porn set which becomes even more inappropriate when he does it in a ballgown.

Tom is so good at recreating these “shameful” moments of his life that you laugh with him, never at him.  If you have seen his stand-up routine some of the material will be familiar, for example, his childhood experiences at Bromley Leisure Centre was a highly memorable part of the stand-up show I’ve seen performed but it is great to have it again here and the familiarity had me laughing in anticipation as much as at the events.

This is thoroughly entertaining with serious points to make.  Tom is a product of an educational system tainted by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government Section 28 ruling and as a youth grappling with sexuality his sense of being an outsider was reinforced directly because of this.  It takes years for Tom to begin to accept himself and this growth is catalogued in a well-written, funny, significant text.

No Shame was published in 2020 in hardback in the UK by Hodder Studio.

100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic 2021)

And here it is, nice and early this year, my first five star read of 2021.  To be honest I am not all that surprised I loved this book.  I highlighted it as one of the books I wanted to read this year and it’s a book by an author whose collection of short stories “Lot” won the Dylan Thomas Prize and which I rated four stars, acknowledging the potential.

This debut novel is even better.  It is the story of a male couple, Benson, who is black and Mike of Japanese heritage living in Houston.  Their relationship is somewhat rocky and not helped by Mike’s mother arriving from Tokyo for an extended stay on the same day Mike flies to Osaka to connect with the dying father who had deserted the family.  We get two first-person narratives from Benson, sandwiched between is Mike’s experiences in Japan.

Benson is left to forge a relationship with a woman he has never met as they bond over cooking, attempting to find common ground as they share the apartment whilst Mike helps out at his father’s bar, which is his potential inheritance.  The couple’s relationship is tested.

I was drawn in by these characters and their families.  I found children’s day-care worker Benson was especially vividly drawn, Mike seems more elusive which makes some of his actions questionable (including the desertion of his mother which is central to the plot).  It is less spikey than the short-story collection and provoked a real emotional response from me.  It feels modern, is well-written and has provided an early reading highlight for 2021.

Memorial is published in hardback by Atlantic Books in January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.