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.

Lot- Bryan Washington (2019)

This critically acclaimed collection of linked short stories is the winner of the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize (given to the best work by a writer under the age of forty), was a New York Times Top 10 Book Of The Year and was publicly lauded by Barack Obama.  I don’t often seek out the short story format in my reading choices but I do have Washington’s debut novel “Memorial” due out in the UK in early 2021 on my reading schedule and I was interested in finding out more about this writer before I begin his novel and short stories are often a good way to get to know a writer.

In “Lot” we have 13 stories ranging from 3 pages in length to around 30 pages for the collection’s closer “Elgin”.  All are set in regions of urban Houston, which is where the author resides.  The majority of them feature the same characters at different parts of their lives, a narrator Nicolas, his brother Javi and sister Jan and their parents, a Latino father and Black mother. The family run a restaurant and the young Nicolas is coming to terms with his sexuality in a very macho culture. 

Occasionally the stories stray away from this family grouping.  One I found very involving was the more mystical “Bayou” where a couple of teens discover a creature of legend – the Chupacabra and see it as a potential means of escape from their existence and also the equally impressive “Waugh” where a young street hustler finds his own way out and attempts to save a recently diagnosed HIV+ friend.  Looking for escape is a common theme but most often the characters are so embroiled in their everyday existence that they do not take it.

This is a selection of powerful, often brutal stories which certainly have me looking forward to reading Washington’s debut novel.

“Lot” was published in 2019.  I read the 2020 Atlantic paperback edition.

To Be A Gay Man – Will Young (2020) – A Real Life Review

I am a big Will Young fan.  A quick scan down my 100 Essential CD lists would illustrate this with his “From Now On” at #52, “Friday’s Child at #54 and “The Hits” compilation at #58.  He is somebody who I have written about a lot and who over the last 18 years has established himself as a significant national figure and especially within the cultural history of British LGBTQ+ issues.  This book is an inevitable choice for me to want to read soon after publication.

Some may be surprised by Will’s unflinchingly honest, forthright tone in this book but those of us who have listened to the “Homosapiens” podcast which he started with friend Chris Sweeney (I’ve gone through every edition with Will and Chris, the current series sees Will on sabbatical with Alan Cummings now alongside Chris) will be aware that the issues raised in this book are of great importance to the author.

Will has been upfront in the past about mental health issues and here deals with the notion of “gay shame” which for most of his life has overwhelmed him, threatening his ability to function.  Will very impressively explains the ways this becomes internalised, often at a very young age, in LGBTQ+ individuals and offers his strategies he has over time employed to help.

I did start off being slightly puzzled as to the extent of Will’s agonies over gay shame.  I am older than him and closer to the time when being gay was still considered a crime in the UK and grew up in a time when the only visible people who may have felt like I did (although this was never acknowledged by them at the time) were the camp comedians such as Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd, none of whom were especially good candidates for the title of role model.  This history of LGBTQ+ culture is very well accounted for in Paul Flynn’s 2017 “Good As You”, my review of which can be read here.

In fact, it was really only when Russell Davies’ “Queer As Folk” was aired and Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will himself conquering the first season of “Pop Idol” that gay men could recognise something of themselves being portrayed.  Although Will seemed at the time an ideal, positive role model he was still grappling with the issues and shame of being gay which had been projected upon him by society and as a visible representation of a gay man he suffered considerable shocking homophobia from members of the public and in the media.  Will is right to air these here including the DJ Chris Moyles, the Mail Newspaper and correct once again to revisit the Mail’s hateful inclusion of an article on the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which is the reason why I will never pick up a copy of that newspaper again.  Incidentally, those most likely to suffer homophobia are young straight men who often in the form of “banter” have to face more putdowns and questioning of their sexuality than their gay male counterparts.

As well as being an honest and sensitive work this is extremely thought-provoking.  It made me wish I was part of an LGBTQ+ book group (or in fact any book group could valuably discuss this) to further explore the issues raised as it would be fascinating to hear others’ perspectives in the safe environment that such a group should provide. I may not have agreed with everything Will raises here but there is no doubt how his personal issues regarding being a gay man have caused a considerable struggle and his willingness to air these issues to help others is to be highly commended.

To Be A Gay Man was published in September 2020 by Virgin Books.

Shadow Sands – Robert Bryndza (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

I really enjoyed Robert Bryndza’s fairly grisly “Nine Elms” earlier this year and so was really looking forward to the second in his series featuring ex DC Kate Marshall, now working as a university lecturer and her assistant, Tristan.

At the end of the last novel it looked like a career change may have been in the offing with the duo moving on to private investigations but here two years later both are still at the university.

A new case is triggered when Kate, out diving with her teenage son in a reservoir near her home in Devon, encounters the corpse of a young man.  Initial post-mortem reports seem implausible and the youth’s mother gets in contact to get Kate to carry out her own investigations.  Alongside this we get more insight into the two lead characters who Bryndza is fleshing out nicely, especially the very appealing Tristan in this novel and their working relationship shows much potential for the future.

This is a strong crime novel.  Last time round I felt Bryndza was hovering too closely towards the horror of torture and abduction and said of it; “That’s quite a lot of evil for one book and it might be a little full on for the times we are living now.”  I do think here the author has reined it in a bit.  It’s still admittedly a dark tale with some difficult scenes to read but it feels less over the top and this lighter touch has made for a second in the series novel which is even stronger than the debut.

At the novel’s satisfactory conclusion Kate announces her intention to give up academia for private detective work.  Whether this happens remains to be seen but I am certainly looking forward to more cases for her and Tristan.  This is a strong partnership in what is developing into a high-quality crime series.

Shadow Sands will be published by Sphere on 3rd November.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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 kinds 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.