Devil’s Way – Robert Bryndza (Raven Street Publishing 2023)

This is the first of the titles I highlighted in my “Looking Forward” post. Over three novels Robert Bryndza has established a very impressive crime series featuring Private Detective Kate Marshall and her assistant Tristan. Kate has moved on from her horrific back-story which featured in the first book “Nine Elms” and has settled to sleuthing in Devon whilst running a campsite she inherited in order to stay financially solvent.

After three books all of which felt quite different in tone to one another and which certainly displayed the author’s skills at crime writing he can’t be blamed for taking his foot off the gas a little with this 4th in the series and producing a solid, satisfactory work which is not as quite an exceptional read as the first three but would definitely be a fan-pleaser.

As in “Darkness Falls” the case here involves a long-time missing person.  Here it is a three year old boy who has been missing ten years by the time Kate and Tristan get the case from a grandmother desperate for closure.  The plot is not as rich nor as intense as in the other novels and the twists did not surprise me as much, in fact, unusually for me, I had things sorted fairly early on.  What still works well, and why this book was no way a disappointment to me is the relationship between Kate and Tristan.  Here Kate shows vulnerability with a near-fatal accident early on which switches the dynamic slightly between the two.  Aside from the case I just enjoy these lead characters and I’m sure there’s a lot more mileage in their detective work.

Devil’s Way was published on 12th January 2023 by Raven Street Publishing.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The New Life- Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

Here’s a book which was my last read of 2022 and which I loved so much that it just had to be in my Books Of The Year Top 10 even though it is not published until January 2023…

This extraordinary debut opens with a sex scene in a public place which instantly brought back the memory for me of watching the 1986 French film “Betty Blue” (although it’s known as a different title in France) at the cinema which also begins with a steamy sexual encounter going on.  It brought back the same sense of unease which filled the cinema as without any preamble and little context the description of the act become more shocking, more distancing and challenges the reader/viewer who begins to feel they are a voyeur.  It’s a device which obviously isn’t used that often (which was why a film I saw decades ago came to mind) and I can see why (surely even porn films have some build up to the act).

It materialises that, in this instance, this encounter is actually a dream experienced by John Addington, in the last years of the nineteenth century.  Addington, a middle-aged married man is obsessed by his sexuality.  His wife knows of homosexual encounters in his past and he struggles to channel these feelings into watching naked men swimming in the Serpentine until a meeting in Hyde Park causes him to confront his desires.

Alongside this narrative strand we meet Henry Ellis on his wedding day.  He is an advocate for change in Victorian society, both he and his wife-to-be believe in a New Life with greater freedoms.

I’m a sucker for Victorian-set novels especially when they highlight the double standard of the era and they trace along the darker sides which this novel certainly does.  The byline for the book on Amazon proclaims it – “A daring  new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England” and that pretty much fits the bill.

The benchmark I seem to always use for such novels is Michel Faber’s sublime “The Crimson Petal And The White”.  Does it match this book by conveying the feel of the time?  Does this feel authentic?  Is the author able to bring the characters and events to life?  In this case, this book is certainly comparable in terms of quality and also up there with other classics in this field -such as John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and Michael Cox’s “The Meaning Of Night”.  Also, like Faber’s work the subject matter and its handling means that it becomes a difficult book to recommend to all.  Looking back at my review of “The Crimson Petal..” I said “Reading groups will be divided because of the graphic elements.  The reader will know within the first pages whether they feel they will be able to accompany Sugar on her momentous journey.”  Substitute the character of Sugar for John Addington and it still feels apt.  This book is not as explicit but there is something about sex in Victorian settings which still shocks.

I didn’t know this until after reading the novel but it is very loosely based on John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis who collaborated on a book called “Sexual Inversion” as do the main characters here.  Written just as the Oscar Wilde scandal is kicking off there will be serious repercussions for our Addington and Ellis.

I loved the characterisation.  Addington tries the patience despite being a soul in  torment.  Ellis’ passivity will frustrate whilst their wives and lovers are richly drawn and add much to the depth of the novel and the issues raised here.  In one or two places the theories of the time clog the flow a little but I think that this is a very important addition to the genre of modern Victorian-set literature.  This is an outstanding literary debut from the former editor of the London Review Of Books.

The New Life will be published by Chatto and Windus on the 12th January.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Darkness Falls – Robert Bryndza (2021)

This is the third book in Robert Bryndza’s Kate Marshall series.  Last time round I praised what I saw developing into a high-quality crime series.  This standard has been maintained.

I do feel, however, that there is a distinct change of tone in this book.  First in the series, “Nine Elms” was (too?) grisly and I felt the author’s reining in on this a little for “Shadow Sands” made it stronger than the debut.  Third book in and we have a fairly standard mainstream crime work with little of what made the first two so unsettling.  Perhaps the author feels he has put Kate Marshall through the wringer enough and here places the focus on a well-structured highly readable whodunnit.

At the end of “Shadow Sands” Kate and colleague Tristan were contemplating starting a private detective agency.  This has come to pass but with jobs few and far between they are also running a camp site in their Devon location, assisted by Kate’s teenage son Jake.  A missing female journalist cold case could be their saviour and help her distraught mother get some closure.  It soon becomes clear that the journalist was working on a story which might have caused her demise and this may be linked to a serial killer preying on young gay men.

As in the previous novels the relationship between Kate and Tristan is very strong and the author is right to bring the young gay male research assistant into clearer focus in this.  There were a couple of questionable motives here which grated just slightly but the pace builds nicely for an exciting last third.

I liked the change of tone in this book, it makes both the author and the series unpredictable – we soon tire of series which become formulaic.  Maybe some who found the first novel too dark to get through might like to revisit this series at this point.  I don’t mind whether the author goes back along the darker routes of the predecessors for the 4th novel.  I just know I will be wanting to read it.

Darkness Falls was published in December 2021 by Sphere and will be published in paperback on 29th December 2022.  The next in the series “Devils Way” is due to be published in hardback/ebook editions on 12th January 2023.

Fire Island – Jack Parlett (2022)

In the nineteenth century it provided poetic inspiration for Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde reputedly visited.  In the 1930s it became the summer home for a trio of artists who some describe as “The Fire Island School Of Painting.”  Literary and artistic giants saw it as an escape to write or to party- Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward stayed here.  American poet Frank O’Hara was killed on the beach here.  Patricia Highsmith got drunk here.  David Hockney looked pale here, Derek Jarman made a short film, James Baldwin came to write (and felt out of place).  Perhaps the first example of gay pornography to filter into the mainstream was filmed here in 1971.  It developed into a symbol of hedonism where the landscape and fantastic views felt slightly at odds with the loud disco music from tea dances and cruising.  The Village People sang about it offering us a “funky weekend” as long as we “don’t go in the bushes.” Edmund White and Andrew Holleran used it as a setting to enrich their fiction.  AIDS decimated it, for a while it became a ghostly memorial with ashes of those taken sprinkled into the sea.  It became a film location in that first-wave of AIDS related films like “Parting Glances” (1986) and “Longtime Companion”(1989)- important movies which proved so difficult to watch.  It became once again part of the well-heeled gay circuit with accusations of elitism and poor inclusiveness and it has recently been the location in the available on Disney+ in the UK bright and brash gay rom-com “Fire Island” (2022).  I’ve always been fascinated by the contradictions of this place – Utopia for some, Hell for others.

This thin strip of land some 32 miles in length off the Long Island coast is perhaps the second most recognised gay location after The Stonewall Inn.  Its cultural and literary significance has lasted for decades and alongside the thousands that adored it there are detractors with very valid objections as well as confusingly detractors who also adored it- this is the enigma of Fire Island.

And the person who has decided to record this cultural and literary history in this new publication from Granta is a 30 year old British man.  This is a good idea, it gives a fresh perspective on an area bogged down in its own history and inconsistencies.  Jack Parlett visited first whilst researching the poet Frank O’ Hara who wrote, partied and died here.  Parlett experienced the same feelings of alienation and belonging which has affected so many of its visitors over the years and in this work subtitled “Love, loss and liberation in an American Paradise” he incorporates memoir to explain why.

From the relaxed development of Cherry Grove with its communal mix of renters including families and lesbians and gay men to the growth of the more hedonistic, wealthy white gay male dominated area of The Pines (together with its cruising area The Meat Rack) Parlett effectively tracks developments and their significance in gay history and sensibilities.  There’s a potent mix of the literary and academic, the political and the positives and contradictions of this location.  It’s imbued with a nostalgia for past times – I found myself thinking I would have liked to have visited at that point in time, oh and at that point in time….which makes it an intoxicating subject for a historical examination.

I loved the idea of this book, I loved the British perspective which added another layer and Jack Parlett has handled his material well.  I might have liked visual representations for some of his references but a few seconds on Google will find things and no doubt saved the publishers from forking out for reproduction rights.

Fire Island was published in 2022 by Granta in the UK.

Hide – Matthew Griffin (2016)

This wasn’t really what I was expecting.  From the cover and from what I’d heard about this book I was anticipating a love story between two American men with a historical element which caused them to keep their love hidden within a tenderly written, possibly understated debut novel.

There wasn’t much of a historical element as this was old age breaking down the long-lasting relationship of Wendell and Frank in rural Virginia, two men who had rarely left the house they shared together in case people worked out their relationship.  When a health emergency hits Frank, Wendell claims he is his brother.

This is the tale of the deterioration of Frank’s health told in a first-person narrative by Wendell.  I can recognise the poignancy of these men and their hidden lives but I did have issues with the novel.  Firstly, it is without humour which, when the going is good made it a little dry and when things took a turn for the worse I was desperate for the author to introduce some lightness.  This is the second time I’ve thought this  recently, Andrew Holleran’s 2022 comeback novel “The Kingdom Of Sand” also featured the old age of gay men with the same relentlessly downbeat viewpoint.  Secondly, I felt their past needed more attention, we particularly learn very little about Wendell. I can understand this to a point as the title suggests, secrecy is paramount but it holds these characters at arm’s length.  Thirdly, Wendell is a taxidermist and we have some detailed accounts of his work which was really difficult reading for me, there was one section I had to scan rather than read and this is something I so rarely do. 

I toyed with a disappointed two star rating but then technically it works so well.  It is a well-crafted novel.  Matthew Griffin is a University Professor and graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and that proficiency shows.  There were quite a few moments when the present day was informed by the back story of the relationship explaining why they were reacting thus but I feel there was more opportunity to open up and give us more of these lives.  I’m sure this then would not have been the novel the author wanted to write but I personally think some more back-story on both individuals and their time together would have resonated with a wider audience and might have given a bit more balance to the air of despondency Griffin creates.

Hide was published by Bloomsbury in the UK in 2016.  I read the paperback edition from 2017.

All The Broken Places – John Boyne (Doubleday 2022)

A new John Boyne title is always a reading highlight for me.  I’ve read 7 of his up to now, 4 of which have ended up in my end of year Top 10s. I was both thrilled and made nervous by his decision to write a sequel to his most famous and my 2nd favourite of his, (“The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is probably still my most loved book of the 21st Century so far), “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) which I read in 2018 when it was runner up in my Books Of The Year to “The Count Of Monte Cristo.”

It is such an impressively self-contained piece that it seems an unlikely and perhaps unnecessary book to have a sequel.  In his Author’s Note John Boyne says he’s been mulling the idea over for years and the isolation of lockdown felt like the right time.  The question for me was, did I want to revisit these characters in another setting?

This is the first-person narrative of Gretel, the sister to Bruno, main character in “Striped Pyjamas” and it follows a dual narrative, one which moves through time from the end of World War II and one taking place in modern day London.  Here, Gretel is a sprightly 91 year old living in a smart apartment in Winterville Court, overlooking Hyde Park, the other narrative explores how Gretel has reached this point in her life.

Unsurprisingly, the central theme in the novel is guilt. Gretel has got to 91 living daily with her family’s involvement in the hostilities in the place Bruno thought was called “Out-With”.  The immediate post-war years saw a need for re-invention in different locations until she settles in London. 

My dilemma here, and I think this will be the case for many readers, is Gretel.  She is realistically rather than sympathetically drawn but I couldn’t help rooting for her and I struggled whether this was the right response, and this was likely to be the author’s intention.  Obviously she has got to an old age thousands were deprived of and there are some extraordinary moments in her past which will stop you in your tracks and will fundamentally change the way you feel about this character in “Striped Pyjamas” and Boyne does extremely well to also convey her effectively as an elderly woman still struggling after many decades to come to terms with her past.

Supporting characters do not seem as well drawn as in other of this author’s novels (especially in the contemporary section) but we are seeing them from Gretel’s perspective and words and she is very wrapped up in herself, so perhaps this is appropriate.  As “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” builds to a big twist there are a couple of those along the way for those readers looking for a big reveal.

I did enjoy this and wanted to know what was going on but my ongoing niggle as to whether a sequel was necessary was unresolved and so I take that as meaning that this book is not as Essential as “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”.  All of the now 8 Boyne works I have read have had something in them to enrich my life but this  for me does not quite make it into my Top 5 of his novels.  It is thought-provoking and at times really gripping but remains slightly in the shadow of his 2006 masterpiece.

All The Broken Places is published by Doubleday on September 15th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Whale Tattoo- Jon Ransom (2022)

This debut is published by The Muswell Press, an independent publishing house I’d not heard of before but a look at their catalogue shows they are putting out some very promising new material alongside fascinating Classic Crime list and a Queer Classics strand re-publishing out-of-print titles which deserve another airing.  So far so good!  They currently have a title “Scent” by Isabel Costello longlisted for the Polari Prize, the pre-eminent LGBTQ+ award and I can only think Ransom’s work must have been published after the cut-off date for 2022 as this would certainly seem to be worthy of consideration.

The novel hinges on a back-story event of a washed up whale on the Norfolk coast who Joe Gunner believes is an omen of further death which will haunt him.  I expected a ghostly, lyrical piece but this is a highly visceral read with lots of bodily fluids, copious amount of vomit and armpits and underpants which makes for a slightly uncomfortable highly sensory read (thank goodness a scratch and sniff version is not available!).  It’s dark, raw and relentlessly gritty as Joe returns home after a period of attempting to escape harsh realities.  One of the main sources of anguish, Tim Fysh, has married Dora yet wants to pick up with Joe where they left off.  It’s a tale of hurried encounters, of numbing lust, love and hate.  The river like the dying whale speaks to Joe taunting him for his return and his mistakes.

Its simmering power will continue to haunt me for some time although I would have relished a little more lightness.  Some plot turns surprised me and considering it is peopled with characters that were not always easy to care for I found myself driven to find out what would happen to them and the portrayal of this unsympathetic environment had a very hypnotic pull making this an impressive, unflinching debut.

The Whale Tattoo was published in paperback by Muswell Press on 3rd February 2022.

Possessed: The Life Of Joan Crawford – Donald Spoto (Hutchinson 2011)

Donald Spoto is a prolific American biographer who has written many Hollywood themed works, but also on the Royal Family and religious figures.  His first book, on Hitchcock, came out in 1976.  He is now in his eighties and living with his husband in Denmark.  There have only been a couple of works published since this biography, which is informed by his many years of experience of writing about the film industry.

Joan Crawford, known in her heyday as “The Movie Queen” has been much written about but views on her life and work took a different direction when disgruntled daughter Christina wrote “Mommie Dearest” (1978) which gained additional notoriety with the 1981 movie adaptation with such a sublimely over the top performance by Faye Dunaway (which she feels damaged her career) that it assured its place as one of the all-time cult films.

All this has not been good for Joan Crawford’s reputation.  It’s not been helped that her most remembered film now is the atypical Grand Guignol melodrama of “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” (1962) which pitched her against Bette Davis as battling siblings and which was not representative of her long career and prolific output.  Also, it was not helped by the only film roles available to her after this being mainly campy, low-budget efforts and not helped either by Shaun Considine’s 1989 “Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud” which looked at the relationship between the two stars in an unflattering light (incidentally one of my favourite biographies of all time).

Spoto believes we have it wrong.  He feels much of “Mommie Dearest” was invented and goes to some lengths to disprove the notorious “wire coat hanger” incident and believes there wasn’t much rivalry between Crawford and Davis.  Such perceptions have clouded Spoto’s subject who he believes is one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses (she was certainly one of the most popular). He states:

“She was a recognizably human and passionate woman who entertained millions; she made egregious mistakes and learnt from them; and she always had a legion of friends and countless admirers.”

Spoto’s own aim in this work is to play down the sensational aspects and highlight the career, focusing in on the films (70 of her 87 films still exist in some form).

Part of Joan Crawford’s long-lasting success was in her talent for reinvention as well as that, in a time of aloof glamour, (such as Garbo and Dietrich) she represented the accessible and hard-working, acknowledging the poverty she had escaped from and was in touch with her fans.  She did this by communicating with them to an extent which borders on the unique.  Spoto wrote to her when he was 11 and got a reply.  I have, in my possession, a letter from 1964 thanking a fan for a Christmas card.  This was a conscious move which assured her longevity and support, even at times when she was labelled “box office poison” by movie magazines.  She always befriended crew and had high expectations of the productions she worked on and yet the reputation we have been left of her was that she was a nightmare to work with.

I think probably the truth, as much as we’ll ever know it now that few from that time are still around is somewhere between Spoto’s underplaying and Christina’s monstrous recreation.  I did enjoy reading about her films in Spoto’s accounts but his wish to sweep the bitching under the carpet can trip him up.  He says no actors ever refused to work with her but had earlier stated that Spencer Tracy turned down the opportunity to work with her a second time.  The filming of the western “Johnny Guitar” (1954) is the stuff of movie legend with sparks blazing between Crawford and co-star Mercedes McCambridge.  Spoto is keen to acknowledge alcoholic McCambridge’s bad behaviour and tends to let Crawford off the hook slightly, despite her shredding her co-star’s costumes and prompting the director to say about her; “As a human being, Miss Crawford is a very great actress.

I don’t want to come across as if I’m disappointed by Spoto’s measured appraisal of her career.  I’m fascinated by Crawford as an actress and disappointed that the number of films that still get shown and/or are readily available feels limited compared to other less significant actresses of her era.  I do think she was very much of her time and the type of material chosen for her has not dated so well.  She was a terrific movie star whose lasting popularity in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s show she was sublimely good at what she did and I welcomed Donald Spoto’s rebalancing of her life and career.  I suspect, however, that I’m more likely to return to Shaun Considine’s gleeful mauling as my definitive work.

Possessed: The Life Of Joan Crawford was published in 2011 by Hutchinson.

Rainbow Milk- Paul Mendez (2020)

I have at last got round to a book I highlighted in my annual “What I Should Have Read” post back at the end of 2020.  Excellent reviews on publication and fulsome praise by Bernardine Evaristo on the teatime Richard & Judy Bookclub during lockdown had me eagerly anticipating and I bought the paperback the day it was published.  That was February 2021 and inexplicably it just stayed on the shelf.  I was beginning to think it might not live up to my long-held expectations and that may have been the reason I was choosing other titles.  The recent series of BBC’s book show “Between The Covers” saw more praise from author and comedian Deborah Frances-White who described it as “so beautiful, so literary” when selecting it as her favourite book pick.  This made me realise I had procrastinated for too long.

I knew the outline for this book, Jesse, a young black male from the Midlands who has grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped because of rumours about his sexuality and flees to London and becomes a sex worker.  I knew it would be edgy, explicit, and that debut author Paul Mendez enjoyed  proclamations that an important new British voice had arrived with his writing which was said to have a strong autobiographical element.

This only goes someway.  It actually begins in the 1950s with recent immigrants Norman and Claudette and their two small children discovering the British dream they’d been tempted by wasn’t quite true and with Norman becoming unwell Charlotte was having to hold down two jobs while he looked after the children.  Jesse’s story begins 50 pages in and it is not clear for a considerable time how the two strands connect.

Despite Deborah Frances-White’s TV recommendation I was still surprised by how well rounded and literary this debut is.  It increasingly reminded me of the best work of Booker Prize winning Alan Hollinghurst.  Yes, it is explicit and I hope that the details of how the young Jesse makes his money to survive in London will not deter readers because this is just one element of a story which amazingly given the subject matter is full of hope and life-affirming.

Mendez handles language very well and there is a multi-sensory richness to his work.  He uses two potential pitfalls well.  He’s not afraid of dialect, especially in the early scenes where Jamaica meets Black Country.  At one point a French character is introduced and whilst reading a lengthy explanation from her I wondered if Mendez was just pushing this a little too far but her role in the novel is brief.  The other thing which he does well which is not always a success in fiction is rooting in its time through the use of many music references.  The sound of the Sugababes, turn of the Millennium R&B and hiphop and earlier bands such as Joy Division permeate and enhance this novel. This is a very strong, confident debut and I hope that given the two years since publication that Paul Mendez will soon be ready with something else to further boost his reputation. 

Rainbow Milk was published in 2020 by Dialogue Books   

The Kingdom Of Sand – Andrew Holleran (Jonathan Cape 2022)

Andrew Holleran’s 1978 debut “Dancer From The Dance” was amongst the first prominent novels written from the gay male experience which infiltrated the mainstream.  I read it probably before I was ready for it and it’s a novel I thought I would revisit one day as it is now established within the gay writing canon and is pretty rare as it was both written and set in the hedonistic post-Stonewall pre-AIDS era.   

In a career where publications have been sporadic I was surprised by the news of this his 5th novel and was very interested to explore this writer’s perspectives 44 years on from that debut.  I cannot fault the quality of the writing but from my personal standpoint this is one of the most depressing books I have ever read.

It is a raw, brutally honest study of gay men, loneliness and death.  This is the generation who survived the epidemic which emerged a few years after Holleran’s debut and here they are decades on being snuffed out one by one in barren, lonely lives in small town America.

The starting point is the narrator’s invitation from his sister to spend Christmas with her.  This would mean a departure from his rituals and routines he carries out in his dead parents’ house to which he has returned and cannot move on from.  The novel is a meditation on getting old, of still not being able to fit in, of loneliness and a paranoid fear of the future for that can only involve greater isolation, sickness and death.  Much of it features the slow demise of the narrator’s friend, Earl, ten years his senior and surviving to get through his pile of old movie DVDs whilst being observed closely by the narrator for parallels to his own situation and what this would mean for him in the not too distant future.

There’s no real physical decline in the narrator.  His home environment has shrunk him to a fearful shadow roaming the streets at night, even though he has friends, seems to regularly travel to Washington and still functions as a sexual being but for him his outlook is totally bleak.

Such nihilistic writing might have really appealed were I not on the wrong side of 50.  There’s too many nerves being touched and too much triggering going on for this to be anything but a difficult read. There’s also the issue of lightness and shade.  There’s little lightness here, where there is humour it is so black it actually drags the reader down further rather than providing relief.  Writers like Douglas Stuart have very successfully shown huge ability recently in making difficult subjects not only readable but very entertaining.  There’s a balance to be struck, I feel, but Holleran does not permit this here.  I’m wondering if this could at least be partly down to the difference between American and British viewpoints where we have a tendency to seek for humour in the darkest times.  I can’t just say this book is not for me and leave it at that because this book is exactly for me, but like when I read “Dancer From The Dance” all those years ago, I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

However, all this being said there are very important issues Holleran raises here and he is doing so in a style which will linger on in the reader’s mind and his writing is engrossing and actually really quite seductive (okay, it can be repetitive but I’m putting this down to emphasis).  It is no way a disappointment and has the potential to garner much critical praise and win awards but it is just very difficult to see things laid so bare and I felt quite relieved when I finished this book.

The Kingdom Of Sand is published on 9th June 2022 in the UK by Jonathan Cape.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.