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 text 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.

Unicorn – Amrou Al-Kadhi (4th Estate 2019) – A Real Life Review

realives

unicorn2

Subtitled “The Memoir Of A Muslim Drag Queen” this book will be unlike anything that you’ve read before. It’s an extraordinarily unflinching account of a search for acceptance from an individual hunting for answers at odds with practically all aspects of life and the crushing need to find a place to fit in.

The title refers to a tattoo Amrou Al-Kadhi had inked because “ they are the ultimate outsiders, destined to gallop alone. They share the body of a horse and are similar in form, but are of a different nature, almost able to belong in an equine herd, but utterly conspicuous and irrefutably other.” This fits in with the author’s self- perceptions exactly as well as the unicorn being “also a symbol of pride, of a creative flaunting its difference without shame.” I’d be hard put to think of a more fitting image in any book this year.

I’ve read a lot of coming out tales and accounts of individuals feeling out of sync with society. Amrou Al-Kadhi has battled with issues of sexuality, gender (preferring to be referred to as “they”), family, religion, drugs, mental health issues and OCD and I’ve probably not covered all of them. If this sounds depressing, wrong, the result is an uplifting extraordinary read.

As a young boy in Dubai and then Bahrain Amrou was totally obsessed with his mother and would do literally anything to keep her attention, which provides the first of the book’s many jaw-dropping moments. His behaviour, perceived as feminine, damaged the relationship with his father and an early declaration of his sexuality cemented that sense of rejection as it was so at odds with the family’s view of Islam. A move to the UK saw Amrou obsessively adopting the new Western culture and a determination to succeed in a manner which could only reinforce his sense of isolation.

This desperate striving for academic achievement led to time at Eton (which was equally miserable) and Cambridge University where the formation of a drag night and then a troupe of performers provided both a reason for being as well as bringing all the underlying tensions up to the surface.

This is Amrou’s first book but there is a background in writing and direction in film work, unsurprisingly, as Amrou is a born story-teller who can vividly recreate events that are often painfully honest in every muscle-clenching detail. It’s a journey towards accepting the self and also beginning to acknowledge situations from other’s points of view. At one point this is likened to quantum physics and parallel events which is a little over my head but allows the author to make some sense from the life story. As a writer, there is definite talent and the emotional intelligence with which difficult issues are conveyed shows great potential for future work. It’s touching, very powerful, outrageous, laugh out loud funny and extremely sad. As a read it both shocked and entertained. Whatever Amrou might have felt at the time the life experiences are almost certainly not unique but they have never been aired in this way before. The search for love, especially within the family and the potential catastrophic pitfalls when this is not forthcoming are expertly expressed. The subtitle, appropriate as it is, might suggest something different but this is a thoughtful, learned, literary work.

fourstars

Unicorn was published by 4th Estate on 3rd October 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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cassara

I feel like I’m on familiar ground here. Since publication I’ve been aware of this title and was delighted to see it chosen as an end of year pick by Cathy @ 746 Books as featured in my “Looking Around…” post in January. Familiar because this is the third work I have experienced this year that has taken as its source the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, which I have also re-watched this year and which once again blew me away (it’s on Netflix). Actually, it may very well be the 4th because the whole set-up of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is indebted to the 1980’s New York Drag Balls scene which is the subject of this documentary but more explicitly this year we’ve had the Ryan Murphy TV series “Pose” which aired on BBC2 to much acclaim. British author Niven Govinden’s take on this with his 2019 novel “This Brutal House” and now American author Cassara’s debut which was published last year.

Comparisons are inevitable especially as the source material and all of the off-shoots have so far all impressed. Govinden’s novel had as its centre a silent protest against official incompetence in a narrative stream of great energy and rhythm in what was very much a literary take where the plot was less essential than the language and its cast of characters seeking their own family groupings for support and safety. This is also very much the case in “Pose”, character led with great performances and an unprecedented visibility of trans actors but had the Drag Balls themselves more as its focus.

Cassara has focused even closer on the characters, here, the real-life House Of Xtravaganza family, mothered by Angel and comprising of runaways; her lover Hector, transsexual Venus, “banjee boys” Daniel and Juanito and the older observer Dorian, characterisation which will feel familiar to those who have watched “Paris Is Burning” from where their stories are developed.

“The House Of Impossible Beauties” has a wider chronological spread from 1976-1993 which for gay New Yorkers means it has an essentially epic sweep featuring a remarkable period of their history. This encompasses the defining of identity in the hedonistic days of disco, to the forging of their own groupings through the “families” and Drag Balls in the early 80’s leading to a move towards their own self and society’s acceptance and having that shattered through the years of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath.

I think the subjects Cassara deals with are always going to draw me in. This novel is sparky, touching, funny, fiery and yet becomes increasingly tinged with the inevitability of tragedy. Cassara has both followed the plotlines of the Xtravaganzas as featured in “Paris Is Burning” and broadened their existence with his fictional twists. Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter. That is why, like “Pose” this is an important piece of work, which in terms of the journey the author puts the reader through does outshine the slightly later-to-be published “This Brutal House”. For this reason I am awarding it five stars but take note, this is enough now. No more Drag Balls or “Paris Is Burning” inspirations for a while. I am very happy having this novel, “Pose” and “This Brutal House” all representing this era because they are all high quality works, let’s not oversaturate this particular market.

fivestars

The House Of Impossible Beauties was published by Oneworld in 2018.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape 2019) – A Rainbow Read

 

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ocean vuong

Thirty-one year old Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-born poet who moved to Connecticut with his extended family whilst still a toddler. Dyslexic, gay and agoraphobic his first collection of poems which explored some of these areas together with his experience of being from a background influenced by traumatic experiences was entitled “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” and achieved huge critical acclaim including the TS Eliot Prize in 2017.

Vuong has decided to follow this up with an autobiographical novel focusing on his childhood which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.

Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son it is with the grandmother and grandson where the heart of this novel really lies.

The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and  herding buffalos plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.

This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.

fourstars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape in June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.