‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde, 1891.

A review by Bonnie P.

Originally released as a novella in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared as a magazine serial over 13 chapters, though some of the content (around 500 words) was deleted by the publisher who feared the story was too controversial and immoral for public sensibilities! A full length novel was published the following year, also with much revision made by Wilde himself.

This cautionary tale involves Dorian Gray, a young man of unsurpassed beauty who comes to the attention of master painter, Basil Hallward who, infatuated with Dorian’s looks, convinces him to be his muse. While in the painter’s studio, Dorian meets Lord Henry ‘Harry’ Wotton, a rakish dandy who impresses and misleads Dorian into believing that beauty and self-gratification are the only worthy things pursuing in life. Dorian expresses his desire for the portrait to age instead of himself and is willing to sell his soul to ensure this happens.

Over the course of time, and further influenced by Harry and his hedonistic views, the portrait does indeed change as Dorian commits increasingly cruel and selfish acts. No longer able to look at the picture, Dorian locks it away in a room, revealing it only years later to Basil Hallward with fatal consequences.

Wilde does a great job of reflecting good and evil through his characters and scenery: Dorian’s dark nature is reflected beautifully in the descriptions of the seedy docklands and opium dens, yet conversely there are vivid accounts of flowers, gardens, nature, and the Arts. The book is full of witty dialect and wonderful characters, though my only criticism would be a lack of strong female leads (probably not surprising given the era?!). Thoroughly enjoyable.

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‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, 1981.

A review by John Cook.

I was happy to see this book listed for this month and set out to obtain a copy on my iPad. Though it didn’t seem too long, the epistolary format looked challenging, so I obtained a spoken version narrated by the author herself. The problem with that was it was timed at 7+ hours. I stayed with it and have to say that I appreciated the spoken version as it seemed to bring me so much closer to a situation and setting this reader needed to understand. I have had a similar experience in my contacts with Australia’s aboriginal people when compared with book learning.

This book has been heaped with laurels for both the written text and Speilberg’s interpretation. The characters are mostly totally alive in all their distinctiveness and variations. Celie, of course, is central and runs the risk of being ‘overloaded’ or ‘too good’, yet this never happens. Her responses to the situations in which she finds herself vary from rare immediate anger to a more likely slow-burning state but always tempered by a realistic resignation as to what is or might be possible and always understanding. Her initial letters are all addressed to her God signalling an acceptance of things that cannot be changed at that time along with a desire for both acceptance and change when possible. This is a classic balancing act for anyone living in a suppressed situation and typical of so many first nations people, especially women living under male control and this book has plenty to say on that issue.

As she moves through her life, it is fascinating to watch how her relationships sometimes reinforce this situation but others offer a chance for a degree of self-realisation. While God remains present (and male-dominated) even that relationship softens with time and the strengthening of a sense of self-worth. It is fascinating that Walker has managed to interweave so many strands including most aspects of feminism, racism, paternalism and male chauvinism, sexual abuse and discrimination, often oppositional aspects of personal and organised religiosity, social and political discrimination, and a layer of LGBT interest.

There are strong elements that question the God relationship throughout the book ranging from Celie’s constant reporting/questioning to its paired relationship with the slavery experience and exporting it back to the African locale. Some reviewers have not found this almost third of the book particularly interesting. I found it fascinating as it looked at the peculiarity of bringing some aspects (mixed) of the white man’s religion back to a culture with its own traditional ways under continuing attack, especially from economic exploitation. The continuing seeds of all sorts of discrimination can be seen in both cultures. On the other hand, the important effect of conventional church life is also mixed.

‘Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it.’

The book is populated with an array of mostly female characters who interact with Celie out of a range of familial, personal, and religious circumstances. Shug Avery, Sofia, and Squeak are very different personalities yet their interactions and mutual support is gradually fruitful as they deal with all kinds of pressures and often hurt. This is a book where a chart of relationships would be helpful.

It would be too easy to see this as a gloomy book but there is a great deal of finding lightness and humour in mostly simple lives. I will always retain the image of Miss Mille reversing her car after being taught by Sofia – funny but with all sorts of overtones with regard to the situation that brought them together,

Celie’s relationship with Shug is special in what it creates between the two women and how it affects Celie and Mister.

‘It don’t surprise me you love Shug Avery,” Albert tells Celie. “I have love Shug Avery all my life… I told Shug it was true that I beat his wife cause you was you and not her… some womens would have just love to hear they man say he beat his wife cause she wasn’t them. …But Shug spoke right up for you, Celie. She say, Albert, you been mistreating somebody I love. so as far as you concern, I’m gone.’

‘After all the evil he done I know you wonder why I don’t hate him. I don’t hate him for two reasons. One, he love Shug. And two, Shug use to love him. Plus, look like he trying to make something out himself. I don’t mean just that he work and he clean up after himself and he appreciate some to the thing God was playful enough to make. I mean when you talk to him now he really listen, and one time, out of nowhere in the conversation us was having, he said Celie, I’m satisfied this the first time I ever live on Earth as a natural man.’

Things certainly improve in the last part of the book (they would need to) with a lot of reconciliation and acceptance. I did find the final stage with Mister’s changes something of a quandary. No one wants things to continue as they were but I found his change behaviour perhaps understandable in context and somewhat satisfying but still a little hard to accept when compared with some of what we have seen and heard of him.

‘He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He  of him Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.’


‘Man corrupts everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to go lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.

But this hard work, let me tell you. Man been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightning, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.’

With whatever flaws it might have, this is a great book that can teach a lot, certainly worthy of recommendation.

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‘Bath Haus’ by P J Vernon, 2021.

A Review by John Cook.

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. I enjoy a mystery but this is a Grade A page-turner that will hook you early on and keep you in a state of nervous anticipation to the end PLUS it is totally gay-themed. I defy anyone who has lived the gay or lesbian life not to be able to identify with some of the keenly sketched strata of this tale.

It is presented mostly in a series of sequential, eventually almost oppositional chapters, that view its progress from separate viewpoints. These belong to Oliver Park, a young recovering addict from Indiana with a decidedly mixed, if not dangerous, background who has escaped his past and lover to Washington D.C. . He is the live-in boyfriend (and maybe husband) of ten years senior Nathan Field, a successful top-level trauma surgeon with all the accoutrements of wealthy parents, style, savoir faire, and an historic Georgetown residence and everything that goes with it including the requisite dog. We have insecure immaturity living with somewhat controlling OCD maturity. Nathan plucks Oliver from rehab rather like a romantic prince (and we all know how that tends to end).

‘His Jag coupe was spanking new and flawlessly polished. When he opened the passenger door, I slipped into an envelope of hand-stitched leather and sandalwood. I’d stepped through a looking glass and the far side couldn’t be more different, more intoxicating. This man sliding into the driver’s seat couldn’t be any less like Hector.’

In a sliding doors moment, Oliver decides to play away at a local bathhouse called ‘Haus’. What he anticipates will be a little fun away from the nest which he is beginning to find somewhat confining and questioning whether that is what he really wants. He gets a lot more than what he thinks is going to be as a spot of kink with a handsome Scandinavian becomes a terrifying experience of near snuff murder by strangulation.

‘”I’m Kristian.” He whispers unfettered possibility into my ear: “I have a room”’

He escapes but with a sizable set of hand and finger marks on his neck which are going to bruise handsomely. He doesn’t want Nathan to know what transpired, so produces the cover lie of a mugging. He admits ..

‘When it comes to lying, there’s a golden rule: tell as much truth as you can. The truth is, after all, the easiest to remember. It’s the most consistent with inarguable fact. There are two inarguable facts in my situation. My bruised throat and our flooded bathroom. A traumatic event, the catalyst of both.’

From then on, things rapidly unravel with holes in his story widening and being hastily papered over and an increasingly concerned and curious Nathan who pretty much forces Oliver twice to report what has happened to Officer Henning (female). Lots of alarm bells are ringing with things only getting worse when it is clear that his attacker is now a stalker physically and electronically. The use of electronics is seamlessly and appropriately utilised throughout with Wi-Fi and satellite chasing integral to the conclusion.

From then on, we are treated to an excellent constantly escalating thriller that is laced with interesting aspects of gay life, relationships and culture, family, class and money dynamics, and substance abuse – mainly opiates and alcohol. I have always believed that the best non-mainstream relationships that endure do so because they are constructed from the inside out and that marriage, while a socially acceptable thing, isn’t really a necessity. Oliver and Nathan are a somewhat exaggerated example in this respect as the ‘M’ word is tossed around throughout the novel and never conclusively so, for me. Certainly Nathan’s parents are not on side.

‘”Please, you’re always so dramatic. If it’s worth keeping Oliver over, your father and I will support your decision.” She plays with her own ring like an eight-carat exclamation point. “Emotionally, that is.” “Did you practice this speech on the ride over, or does Joan Crawford just come naturally?”’

One word of caution. There is sex described in this novel that, I think, isn’t going to disturb any contemporary adult. However, there might be a need to caution some. I don’t think anyone reading this blog would be troubled. Sexual need and practice are a constant theme in this story. It does, after all, start with an attempted murder with the naked victim and perpetrator pinned against the wall in a bathhouse about to have anal sex.

Just when you thought you might have a grip on things, the author’s regular interpolations exploring Oliver’s youth, family life, and drug problems suddenly intrude as Hector,  his nemesis from his Indiana past, bursts into the narrative. Towards the end, a louche friend of Nathan’s also makes an appearance and the story moves to its denouement at the Kline family’s naturally opulent Charleston beach house.

There will be no spoilers here. I can simply say that it rated very highly as a page-turner for me. I have to confess to some sympathy and understanding for Oliver but he is a deeply insecure compulsive liar and needed to learn his lesson. Some may quibble occasionally with the plot, questioning its believability. However, this is not a Great Novel candidate just a damned good read.

Highly recommended. I hope the BCC library buys some copies soon – they have!

(BCC library has 0 copies but purchase granted)

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‘Anything But Fine’ By Tobias Madden, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

Author Tobias Madden has the right life/background to inform him for this YA novel set in his hometown of Ballarat. The central figure, Luca, is skilled as a dancer (as is the author) and has his life mapped out from his age (16) onward to the Australian Ballet School and who knows what more. He is gay with an understanding school teacher father but no longer a mother. His talent has obtained him a special private school education (not that he is particularly academic) and is out at school. All that rosiness disappears in a classic fall down some stairs causing multiple fractures. The prognosis is dire – an end to ballet and his hopes. Madden takes us into the private world of this teen as his world veers totally off the rails. The author may not have had the identical Luca experience but he has, like most physically intense performers or sports stars, had to realise that he has a life to explore after he can no longer depend on his talent to express himself and survive. This kind of mourning is so human and beautifully linked to Luca’s mourning father throughout the story.

‘You don’t have to do that,’ I say. ‘I didn’t mean any of what I said. I was just angry because . . . Everything is just . . .’ ‘I know, mate,’ he says. ‘I know. And I’m not saying I’m gonna chuck all of Mum’s clothes in a Salvo’s bin this afternoon. But I’m . . .’ He pauses and takes in a slow breath. ‘Dealing with it?’ He lets out a long sigh. ‘Dealing with it.’

I can scarcely remember what it was to be sixteen or how I talked to myself or others and have nil contemporary experience with that age group. However, I feel that Madden has probably accurately captured the speech and social media interactions to be expected. I can, however, remember the conflict between what I wanted to say and what was expected of me or what I allowed myself to say. The title points at what often lies behind teenage assurances that they are OK when they really mean ‘get off my back’. I found it to be believable, interesting, and enjoyable, at times quite funny.

This isn’t a great novel but is a very good one for its primary audience and adults who might sense the kind of angst being experienced by Luca as his Year 11 descends into total confusion and dismay as he transitions from a privileged education and justified hopes for a career in ballet to a local high school. Things at the school are ‘normal’-  just not privileged and with the sadly conventional prejudices of the day toward newbies, non-sporty types, LGBT of any type, and race and cultural differences.

Luca misses out on at least three of these criteria, so is relegated to the extreme outer where he nurses his misery. He eventually develops an association with three girls who are also on the outer and lunch together. One, Amina, comes from an Indonesian family and is a Hijab-wearing Muslim. She is very pretty and we are told her dress (and hair covering) is bright and attractive. She is also threateningly bright and driven. She takes Luca under her care, increasingly so in his weakest subjects (Maths and Psychology(!)).

Enter the Year 12 heart-throb love interest – Jason Tanaka-Jones (is there ever a nasty Jason?). As School Captain and rowing hottie (is there any other kind?), he is socially a top dog but none of that is much relevant for Luca who instantly falls in lust with him (love can and may come later). The problem is that as top dog Jason is surrounded by a coterie who embody everything Luca isn’t.

‘And as he turns away from the desk, my stomach does this sickening swoop. Holy shit. This boy is stunning. Like, forget the Nike catalogue, he should be in one of those cologne ads where the guy is half-naked and artfully dripping with water for no apparent reason. He has the most gorgeous tan skin, short jet-black hair, golden hazel eyes, and cheekbones the girls at ballet would literally kill for. And then there’s his lips. I mean, lips like that should be illegal. Or it should at least be illegal for them to not be kissing someone at all times.’

It all seems like just another piece of misery for lovelorn Luca and so things need to happen on all fronts for improvements for him. Predictably, events do come along both smooth and rough in school life, relationship life and home life (no spoilers here). It is all a bit of a fanciful tale but totally hopeful and always helpfully instructive.

Again, I am not up to speed on the details of teen life and behaviour and accept that Madden has probably got it right when it comes to two teens having a night away together (parent-approved) and general social behaviour, including those massive birthday parties that are reported at times in the press or TV.

The links between Luca’s life, Amina, and Luca’s father are neatly explored with common threads. Amina is a key character and serves to remind the reader of the importance of diversity in so many respects – and not just religion.

“And I know that’s not the same as people saying Amina doesn’t belong here just because of what she believes in–and I guess I’ll never really understand what that feels like–but the point is, we both get treated like we’re different. Bad different. And that is not okay. Because Amina is literally the nicest person I’ve ever met and she deserves to be treated like nothing less than a fucking queen.”

As I indicated initially, Madden, who came from Ballarat once performed on stage (and a cruise ship) in musicals. He is now happily married and living in Sydney as an author and editor of short stories with a focus on the digital. He has a massage qualification but that might no longer be an earner for him. Perhaps Luca could consider it as a backstop.

(BCC library has it on order,  7 holds)

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‘A Beautiful Crime: A Novel’ by Christopher Bollen, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

Confession. I love a good heist story or a clever con especially when it is at least vaguely moral. Patricia Highsmith (a favourite of mine) explored this territory with characters who were distinctly edgy and quite amoral at times. She also explored more than a hint of homosexuality at times. Bollen, an already proven novelist,  has followed in that tradition with a decidedly gay offering which was very enjoyable without the top drawer plotting skills and extreme edginess of Highsmith. It is still a quite engrossing read.

Nick Brink and Clay Guilloroy are two young men, both with yawning gaps of dissatisfaction, who want to get on with savouring the better things of life. Clay, as an African American, has proved himself skilled and very personable. In parallel, Nick has managed to attach himself as receptionist/assistant to an older NY silver appraiser while Clay has a slightly more skilled job with caring for an eccentric aesthete who has died of AIDS (Freddy Van der Haar). A number of things bind them together. They both seem to find older men OK (Hooray!), they do manage to meet and enjoy one another’s sexual company, they both want to improve their station and chances in life, and a con would be fun, adventurous, and profitable especially if it can also be payback for perceived wrongs.

The other thing that binds them together is the city of Venice. The mention of that place can produce responses ranging from raves to yawns and is certainly well-embedded in most people’s consciousness whether they have visited it or not. Realising this, Bellon, who had a youthful experience at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum as an intern uses this as a twofold platform. He has Clay serve the same experience but be cheated of a promotion through the wiles of a ‘typical’ self-made millionaire Richard Forsyth West, who obsessively wants to drape himself in the possessions of an older, now fallen, Dutch New York family whether it be their homes or their silver collection. He also wants to be known as a private restorer of faded Venetian glories. He is a rather Trumpian character, very sure of his manipulative commercial skills but rather thinner in the aesthetic areas he has adopted. His family and paid supporters including the rather hunky Battista (who just might be available) are a bit more knowledgeable.

Venice with its sometimes fading glories and overwhelmed tourism is very much centre stage in this book, whether dwelling on the familiar locations, buildings, paintings, food, etc.  joins forces with those who want to reduce the cruise ships and depopulation of the city at the hands of AirB&B. In fact, he uses this finally to  demonise millionaire West as a secretive developer. If you haven’t been to Venice, I am sure that you must have some acquaintance with its glories, so most of the descriptions are quite palatable.

The link between Clay and Nick is initially sexual. However, Clay, who has a large debt owing to a morally ‘good’ decision he has made, also has access to his dead lover’s leftover family items of silver (they are truly leftovers, even fake). He realises that Nick, who is a relatively unskilled lover/employee of Ari who does have high credibility as an assessor of antique silver, could claim at least surface knowledge and a business card that links him to the business.

The cons take two forms. Clay positions himself in the tawdry half of a Venetian palazzo part-owned by his dead lover while West lives the high life in his refurbished half of the same building. Nick is to arrive in Venice and ‘accidentally’ encounter West for whom he can cagily value the silver items for sale benefitting the two young men (West is too sure of himself to have them properly assessed with a second opinion). Things go very well but there are going to be problems. The second form appears after the relative success of the first and the emergence of the ‘greed’ virus. The pair decide that the decaying side of the palazzo could be sold to West for millions if fake documents proving that Freddy’s sister no longer had a claim could be obtained (fortuitously, that option is readily available). No more spoilers from me as things rush to a conclusion.

Unfortunately, I am very aware of Highsmith and her plotting skills and my beloved Dexter’s tortured morality and I am afraid that Bollen does not achieve their standards. Nick and Clay stand out but most of the others are water coloured though Dulles Hawke is suitably grimy. I found the plotting increasingly laden with too much coincidence while the final phase was quite unbelievable though opportunistic for any further developments.

It is a very good read and quite possibly a candidate for screenplay treatment when cinema recovers. It could go over very well indeed.

BCC Library has 5 copies

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‘Moonflower Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

Still waters run deep – it’s an old saw but never truer in the hands of a master mystery writer and that is what we have here. Anthony Horowitz is a Lord of his craft with credits for  Foyles’s War, Midsomer Murders, and the YA Alex Rider spy thrillers. There are also his ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes mystery ‘The House of Silk’ and a similar ‘new’ book of the James Bond mysteries ‘Trigger Mortis’ which features an outspoken gay character.  In September 2018, this column published my notes on his  ‘Magpie Murders’ which was a major success. As his TV credits indicate, he is at his best with a traditional English setting though not necessarily so in time. As my initial comment indicates, he rejoices in taking a contemporary setting, often comfortable and calm, and driving a shaft deep that overturns all sorts of hidden ‘goings-on’ that provide a basis for multitudes of red herrings. He has one other characteristic that some might enjoy, others frustrate, and others choose to ignore – his love of puzzles especially of the word and letter kind. Names are anagrams for references for within and without the storyline. In this case, one key reference is hidden in plain sight and only observant readers will pick up on its centrality until at the Agatha Christie-style conclusion.

A major peculiarity of this book is the that it contains within it an almost parallel twin. The link lies in the storyline with Susan Ryeland. She oversaw the publishing of a series of detective stories by a German-Jewish refugee Atticus Pünd (read Poirot) and has more or less retired to run a not entirely successful hotel in Greece with her handsome and dashing lover, Andreas. Eight years previously the murder of Frank Parris took place in a 5 star Suffolk hotel with the subsequent 25-year conviction of the resident Romanian born maintenance man, Stefan Codrescu. This occurred on the night before the wedding day of Cecily, daughter of the owners, uppity Lawrence and Pauline Treherne,  with understandable disturbance and upset. Later, Alan Conway, the gay author of the Pünd mysteries, stayed at that hotel, investigated and wrote a book that may contain hints that someone else was guilty of the murder. Cecily reads the book, understands what was hidden in plain sight, but then disappears (possibly dead) leaving her parents aware that a solution to all may lie in the book in question,  ‘Atticus Pünd Takes a Case’. They contact Susan as they know she edited and collaborated with Pünd and offer her £10,00 to return to the hotel and search for clues. She does so for the money but also to settle her commitment to Andreas and their way of life.

Depending on formats, the book presents as 300+ pages up to 600 – mine was 570 – so this is a lengthy book. The author spends time initially on getting the story moving and scene-setting in and around Branlow Hall with a cast of interesting characters who begin to reveal the depths below the oh-so English countryside serenity as Susan, detective-like, visits, questions and collects observations in her notebook.

Since the Pünd book is central to what is happening, Horowitz simply inserts its full text as the second third of this story. Readers can therefore dig for themselves into the parallels and similarities and speculate on what Conway intended and what Susan is finding and intuiting. Pre-warned of Horowitz’s predilection for puzzles and anagrams, then you can have lots of fun at second-guessing – and good luck to you! As I indicated, you might not even bother to try this and it is still a good read. The final section is the gradual closing in and group reveal so beloved of this genre. Nevertheless, I found some of the coincidences to be a bit far-fetched but that is often part of the fun in a mystery. It is undeniably long but I suspect few will be turned off by that factor alone.

I am certainly not going to be a spoiler except to point that predictably all will be revealed and good things will come to some and just deserts to others. There is plenty of anxiety, heart-searching, cruel and understanding emotions and good old sex involved which raises the subject of treatment of homosexual relationships. There is no hiding from the fact that there is some dirty linen from the gay relationships side, but there is plenty from the straights as well. Despite some criticisms, I find it true to life and prefer to see the aspect of the consequences of sexual and class discrimination at work.

As a personal aside, I allowed myself to be a little confused by the flower illustration used for each chapter heading. This would seem to be a Moonflower as indicated by the title – it is a South American vine that has a sweet smell, flowers by night, but is toxic. I don’t know if it is cultivated regularly in England but is a good symbol for the double layer of beauty and decay portrayed in the book. Queenslanders, like I, are familiar with the identical Angel’s trumpet tree (Datura) which looks very similar and has the same characteristics – just another dead end for my search for hints and clues.

Recommended and good luck with your clue hunting.

(BCC Library has 63 copies!)

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Book Reviews by Grant H.

‘Not Quite Straight’ by Jeffrey Smart

“The Platoon Commander” by John O’Halloran

“The End of Men” by Christina Sweeney-Baird

“The Nancys” by R.W.R McDonald

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Crossing By Pajtim Statovci, David Hackton (Translation from Finnish), 2016-19.

A review by John Cook.

I have no one to assure me that this translation from the original Finnish is good except for the awards and praise it has garnered. Like-wise the published translation has been honoured and reads well, in fact, at times, very well indeed. I have not read the author’s ‘My Cat Yugoslavia’ about a similar gay Kosovo refugee individual who lives an outcast life in Finland with a boa constrictor in his flat along with an irascible, homophobic cat. This is a writer who is quite at home teasing at the understandings of his readers. As a consequence, while some may delight in his work, others will hate it while others (me) fluctuate from some appreciation and enjoyment to puzzlement and active dislike.

‘Crossing’ is certainly appropriately named as there are several layers of crossing involved. Physically, Bujar’s family have moved from Kosovar to Albania and we are treated to the miseries of that previously hermit country after the departure of Hoxha. The descriptions of life at that time are genuinely moving especially as they affect the physical lives and mental welfare of those around the narrator. On the other hand, I found his descriptions of how people survive through all kinds of larceny and find some simple comforts inspiring. So many people in European nations had similar experiences after the fall of the Soviet empire.

Bujar and his trans pal, Agim, want to escape to what they see as a better prospect in Italy. They manage to obtain a boat and undertake the journey (crossing) which lands Bujar in Italy which also sees him as an unwanted refugee always with hoped-for prospects being damned and denied. There are further crossings as he tries his luck in other countries including Spain, Germany, and the US, and finally to Finland from where he writes. He is chameleon-like in his changes and often self-servingly duplicitous in each persona yet often realistic in his choices, arguing that Finland has better social and educational organisations. While understanding his motives in looking for an environment in which he can comfortably live with who he believes he is, he managed to alienate me at times. His character has been described as Ripley-like but leaves the reader with more insight while Ripley was always mostly unlikeable.

The other principal crossing is with Bujar himself as he tries to settle on what his sexuality is while also cross-dressing himself. Here he is asked the question by Tanja in Helsinki.

‘I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” she says after a short silence. We continue along the shoreline and up a small hill, at the end of which stands a giant white ship that looks like a snow castle that will soon melt with the spring.

 “Yes?”  

“Are you …,” she begins. “Gay?”

My teeth start to ache in the frozen wind, my chest tight, as if an iron hoop were wrapped around it. I don’t know whether I’m gay or straight, I feel like saying. I want to tell her I’ve never thought that I might like men who like men, only men who like women and who could therefore never like me, but I’ve been with women too, and I want to tell her that I find it impossible “impossible to become aroused, but I have still had sex with both men and women when the men and women in my life have wanted it. “Yes,” I reply. “Among other things.”

She laughs brightly and I smile, too, as I glance at her, the deep dimples on her cheeks and her dazzling white teeth glimmering like untouched snow.

“I know what you mean,” she says, and leads us to a park on a hill opposite the harbor.’

Tanja, herself a mysterious and dramatic character seems typical of the Helsinki phase of the novel as I found myself pulled to and fro in trying to understand her character and eventual demise. Like Agim, Bujar seems to absorb elements from her into his development. This is counterpoised with Bujar’s attempt at a national talent contest. I didn’t know whether to be lost in his turmoil or simply find it comedy noir.

I have known only a few people who experienced the deconstruction of Yugoslavia and few are as distracted as the narrator presents. I do, however, recognise a gloomy inward questioning that does seem common.

Bujar on crossing and surviving.

“you can’t imagine how terrible it is when you can’t speak the language, you can’t talk to anybody or tell them what you’re feeling and still you want them to accept you, and how horrible it is to watch as other people simply get on with their lives while you are stuck, wrapped in see-through plastic, in the wrong language, the wrong skin, you can’t imagine how shameful it feels though there’s nothing you can do about it, and how infuriating that shame can be, so infuriating that you feel like bashing your head against the wall and knocking over statues, punching someone in the face and stealing their handbag, because you are too helpless to do anything else.”

“But how can you go about starting over, working in a language you don’t understand? What is the best first step? How can you establish a relationship with someone if you want to deny your past, your nationality, if you don’t want to tell anyone anything about yourself if what you most want to do is forget where you’ve come from, wipe your past away like a smudge of dirt from a shoe? In a situation like that, what choices do you have?”

Bujar on ultimate questions.

“I sit opposite him in a large leather chair and think about all the things I could tell him about what it feels like to be me, that it feels like everything and nothing, like a slit throat, shoulders stiffened with cramping muscles, the pounding of my heart when I place my left ear against the pillow, almost as though I can’t find my own pulse, as though I’m a mere cameo in my own story, as though I’m in a constant struggle with myself whenever I have to move from one place to the next or talk to other people. And that sensation is always present; there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about it, about how inevitable it is that all life will eventually end. It is everywhere, in the pauses in my speech, between the words in the books I read—it is wherever I experience life, for wherever there is life there is the promise that at some point that life will cease to exist.”

There is a lot here which some may find confusing and even poorly constructed. I found enough pearls to consider reading about that cat.

(BCC library has 1 copy, so sad)

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‘A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of secrets, lies and family love’ by Mohsin Zaidi, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

This book has been widely supported and praised for all the right reasons which I will try to touch upon though, for me, there is a central continuing issue which I usually find despairing yet a book like this has to bring some hope – that is the paralyzing power of organized religion both institutionally and at the personal level.

We believe life is a test but if God is all-knowing then what is the point because he knows what choices you’re going to make before you’ve made them, before you’re even born! AND THIS IS NO CHOICE!’

Mohsin Zaidi belongs to a group now well-known (though not always in-depth) – British Pakistanis with all the racist overtones that come with that patch. It is humbling to see someone who has suffered that continuing lash yet who meets it and is determined to work against it. His parents came to England for the usual reasons of gaining improved chances for their children mostly, less so themselves. Young Mohsin grows up with the usual anti-Pakistani prejudices to confront and the need to satisfy his parents’ expectations educationally but with one extra layer – his growing awareness of his gay sexual orientation which he has to keep internal and secretive as it violates all of those barriers of influence. The sheer oddness of this is highlighted as he watches episodes of ‘Will and Grace’ with his Mum who is a fan. It is fascinating to consider this at so many levels as each responds to the personalities, humour, and social and economic representations.

What Mohsin conveys superbly to the reader is the deep and prolonged emotional angst he suffers as he tries so desperately to be dutiful. That is such a keyword. It is usually a much-admired character aspect in everyone from the Queen of England to the citizen who masks up and accepts all kinds of Covid restrictions. In the case of Mohsin, he wants most of the things a growing boy seeks while also wanting to fulfill parental desires for him to do well and grow into a successful professional and father of children who can grow up in the same social and religious cocoon. This is not to say that the growing boy is not aware of others who are a little more tolerant – his adored Uncle Tier and the eventual support of his younger siblings.

With some rough patches along the way including his failure to enter a Grammar school (blame Mum) and other school-related difficulties, he eventually gains access to an Oxford college where he has further problems with substance abuse before graduating into a top-level solicitor position and eventual transition to being a barrister (whew!). In recent times, he has become a Governor of his old school and a board member of Stonewall, and now a freshman author. His own graduation from High School was somewhat different,

‘As the mostly black and brown sixteen-year-olds turned our backs to the school that had raised us, in the car park we were greeted by police officers. So this was the first day of the rest of our lives. A trap. We were stopped and searched by white officers who looked for weapons that we might use to hurt each other.’

This kind of racism persists for him all his life including inside the gay scene itself with its own kind of judgement and careless discrimination. The English class system also has to be negotiated especially as an Oxford student. (while familiar with University high jinks, I had never heard of the wondrously named Piers Gaveston ball). Moshin tries in most situations to be understanding in his portrayals, so there is little demonisation here. He says in an interview.

‘The most difficult part was making sure I was being fair, because it’s obviously a book that’s authored by me, but it’s not just about me,’ he says. ‘It’s so steeped in my family and I wanted to convey how hard it was for me, but also how hard it was for them. I was trying to tread that line between showing the reader how they made me feel without vilifying them.’

There is a lot of detail here for a relatively young life and I occasionally felt myself becoming exasperated with his constant being pulled to and fro, then I would remind myself of how he had been trapped by love and expectations and that overwhelming sense of duty and I soldiered on with him to a somewhat lighter and more productive conclusion as he demonstrates what is possible by way of commitment and understanding.

‘For gays, I was too Muslim. For Muslims, I was too gay. For whites, I was too brown, and for my family, I was too white. It was time to create a space where I could just be myself. And to do that, I had to bite the bullet and move out of the house because it no longer felt like a home.’

‘When he’d tried to whisper to me I’d slapped him down. When he’d sought my attention I’d called him a jinn, or the devil, I hated myself that much. The boy had wounds that had dried and scarred. Wounds that kept healing because he refused to die, because his life force was stronger than mine, because he was made of the truth. Any light in my life came from him. I offered my hand. I would not mistreat him any more. He took it. I told him I was scared too. ‘Layla …’ I guided him out of the dungeon and brought him into the world and set him free. ‘I’m gay.’’

This is not a grim book, there is pain but there is hope and freedom, even humour. One passage I found myself cheering over was when his misguided father brings in a local ‘expert’ (the wonderfully named Dr. Saab) who can cure homosexuality with prayer supplication and snake oil (nothing specifically Muslin or Pakistani about that!) and Mohsin deals with him superbly. The passage is a key point in the tale warmly recommended. I offer only one short passage.

‘‘Are you gay?’ I asked.

‘What? Am I what?’ He was incredulous.

‘Are you gay?’ I repeated.

‘You have no manners whatsoever!’

‘I apologise,’ I said. ‘Now answer the question. I’ve answered your questions. Are you gay?’

‘Of course not! You stupid boy.’

I had hit a nerve. ‘OK. So then you don’t know, do you?’

‘Know what?’ He was confused.

‘You can’t possibly know whether these people who claim to be cured are lying to you because you aren’t gay yourself. I am gay and I can tell you that it can’t be cured.’ By now, I was feeling a mixture of anger and exasperation. ‘What your ‘patients’ tell you is almost certainly only what they want you to hear because it is what they want their families to hear.’’

Warmly recommended for all. I would like to leave you with the man speaking for himself.

(BCC library has 0 copies, but I have recommended its purchase and it  is now on order as at 06-08-2021.)

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A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne, 2018.

A Review by John Cook.

This book needs to be approached with the understanding that Boyne seems to enjoy the saga approach with different viewpoints illuminating different segments of the tale and in different locations including Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, and Madrid in this instance. That is certainly the format employed in the case of this work and can be a little problematic initially as the reader struggles to see where things are going as differing viewpoints gradually reiterate the same pattern of personally indifferent behaviour beneath apparent attractiveness.

It seems like an in-house book as it is bedded firmly in the world of writing and publishing showing the good, bad, and ugly of that world from the learning phase through to the publicity and prize-winning trail. Despite that focus, there is (probably mercifully) not a detailed examination of the actual writing process except for inspiration – without which there is nothing. I confess to a professional interest in the Psychology of Creativity and was bound to be interested in an individual who has real problems in seeking starting points. Combine this with an eventually psychopathic need to publish with the usual accompanying capacity for lying and manipulation and you have the basis of the tale of Maurice Swift as he seeks his ladder to the sky. He is a lifelong wannabe who parlays his considerable assets (great good looks and a deft line in human interactions) into gaining the critical sources he needs to get started and employ his writing talents to extend and modify what he has obtained.

His path is neither smooth nor always easy and is marked, from the beginning, by sexual exploitation. The first two clear examples of this involve his taking advantage of older homosexual men attracted by his good looks and apparent interest (moderns would describe this as phishing). He gives little enough in return for the devotion that ends in tragedy and uses his ‘conquests’ as stepping stones in his quest for glory. This is even the case of his heterosexual adventures and the birth of his son (no spoilers here). In fact, Maurice emerges as someone curiously uninterested in the physical nature of sexual contact only interested in what benefit he can obtain from it. Needless to say, things don’t always go to plan and there is a gradual decay in Maurice’s powers and ability to ensnare and profit with a final highly ironic comeuppance. His physical condition likewise decays accelerated by his use of alcohol. All told, an interesting, disturbing, and unlovely character that can almost generate a little sympathy for his frustrations – almost but never quite!

There are several sections of varying interest and quality but I must confess I found the first and last most satisfying. The initial tale centres around Erick Achermann and his mistaken frustrated love for the handsome Oskar Gött which ends in the utmost tragedy – almost a complete tale in itself. The final segment sees the noose tightening with the alert reader sensing what is happening and gradually being aware of both side’s experiences. There is one section of unalloyed delight when Maurice is an accompanying guest at Gore Vidal’s cliffhanger home La Rondinaia (now on sale for £20,000,000). He meets his match in a context that is rich in language and sexual tension.

This is an at times uneven tale of a very unlovely individual. Don’t be put off, however, as it develops into quite a page-turner which I can recommend.

(BCC library has 10 copies)

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