‘Where the Trees Were’ By Inga Simpson, 2016. A review by John Cook.

  trees.jpg

There was so much to enjoy in this book, I feel a little guilty about my reservations that follow. It is in many ways a straightforward piece. The author tells an extended coming of age story (1987 on the banks of the Lachlan River to 2004 in the Public Service jungle of Canberra) initially focusing on young protagonist Jayne and her country pals who enjoy playing together in their bush riverside environment. There is plenty of potential to pursue their development through their teen and early adult years and this is largely well and sensitively done considering their differences (Ian is at least importantly part aboriginal, something not clarified until later in the piece) and the accidental, social and economic pressures they will confront.

A key circumstance that binds these children together is their discovery of a glade of old Aboriginal carved trees that are at least part memorials (Ian’s ancestry?). This bond of discovery and its challenge is an interesting insight into the attitudes of many Europeans toward manifestations of traditional culture when it is perceived as a threat (land claims) and destruction. I have been privy to a wide range of views on this topic from people of all ages over the years (some very surprising) and those developed by the young people in this case were hopeful.

The tale is presented in chapters that alternate between 1987 and 2004 when Jayne has (perhaps) found her niche as an Art Historian Curator at the National Museum, and has been offered a redundancy package when she also makes a discovery that could open up a new career direction for her. She has also discovered and pursued her lesbian nature with mixed success, but has now found Sarah who is becoming more deeply involved in her National Security work in the Defence Department and may be pulling away from their relationship. Both characters are at tipping points and the matter of aborglyphs (those carved tree trunks) intrudes as a chance to compensate for the loss of those destroyed on the banks of the Lachlan. A chain of events is set in place that ends on the last pages rather weakly while the Jayne and Sarah do seem to find their feet in charting futures for both.

I must say I have never seen carvings such as those described nor heard of them and that was an interesting learning experience for me. Inga Simpson comes from the Wiradjuri country being described and has great awareness, interest and delight in bringing it alive. I do remember seeing tree burials on display in the old Queensland museum and was disturbed by them as a youngster. I am a 100% city boy but did holiday on my uncle’s orchards at Stanthorpe picking fruit and spending time with my cousins, so I responded well to the detailed descriptions of the bush, bird and animal environment (no one can forget their yabbying days) along with those wonderful farm cooked meals and generally a kid’s life on a farm. However, some might find them rather extended as I found the detail of Canberra cycling paths and cafes.

As I indicated initially, there was almost too much of a good thing when it comes to detailed description which some would enjoy more than others though with a lack of strong character and plot developments. The notion of reclaiming Aboriginal artefacts is (and remains) a strong plot possibility in itself as is that of Canberran aid machinations and the impact of Public Service life on the servants themselves. Overall well done and an easy pleasant read that I am happy to recommend with minor caveats.

 (BCC library has 21 copies, eAudiobook, 3 Dyslexia Font Edition, 5 mp3 sound recording)

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‘Ironbark’ by Jay Carmichael, 2018. A review by John Cook.

This is a fine piece of Australian writing on a most worthwhile subject – a young man in late adolescence living in a country town who feels same-sex attraction but lives in an environment that heavily suppresses its expression. That might sound like a cliché but this book is far from that. While almost totally internally expressed, it presents a surprisingly objective representation of nearly all the characters, their feelings and behaviours. What gives the book colour is how young Markus operates in this environment and especially his yearnings for the lost Grayson. For me, an equal standout was the author’s description and use of the environment. The community described seems trapped in its physical depression and inability to escape and this is mirrored in the battle in Markus’ mind and his occasional self-harm.

The coach gives a pre-game speech: grit, determination, teamwork. An’ piss orf if yer not up fer it! The team, two by two, leave the shed and heads out onto the foggy field. The silence has a sound: hushed static, as if tuning in for signs of life. The fog means most can’t see the scratches running tracks up Markus’s arms or the callouses from the sewing needle criss-crossing his thighs. No doubt, someone caught sight of them back in the change room. None said a word.’

Rather than try to sketch out a particular place, Carmichael presents it initially in a kind of generic environment that could be any country town experiencing contemporary struggles and problems. He then adds patches of detail and colour about Narioka that are moving and, at times, intense. This awareness of environment, animals, birds, even vegetation is highlighted by their often careful description with latin genus terminology. I did not find this a problem but some might if they cannot find a justification for it.

A lot centres, as it would for such a young man, on home and its strengths and problems, likewise school and employment prospects, life with friends and especially the local AFL club and frequent return to the local pool (full and empty). I felt the author showed real skill in presenting the shifting focus and motivations of a young man living in this context. The tale works largely backwards and around the death of Grayson and we are only gradually made aware of its occurrence and centrality to Markus’ thinking and behaviour.

There is no doubt that some people may not like the prose style of the novel which violates some conventions around quotations etc but I did not find this a deal breaker. After some initial hesitation, I tuned into its mood and gradual development and found that it had me in thrall by the last third.

I have to recommend it as a sincere, thoughtful modern interior representation of the mind of a contemporary young man living the life of Markus.

(BCC library has 5 copies + ebook)

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‘The Apology’ by Ross Watkins, 2018. A review by John Cook.

Ross Watkin is a known quantity as an academic (PhD) in Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast and having illustrated and published books for children and adults. He was promoting this book in Brisbane on Aug 29 2018 at the Mt Gravatt BCC library and I was present.

The starting point for this book is the nightmare of all gays and lesbians in teaching positions – an allegation of sexual impropriety. Reviewers have likened this starting point and the treatment which follows to ‘The Slap’ – something with which I agree and disagree. The basic structure may be similar but I found the treatment closer and somewhat more interesting and less sensationalist. Certainly as the title indicates, it is less the initial allegation that is the focus rather the process of reactions and possibility of forgiveness and apology.

That focus remains mostly within the confines of one extended family and there is quite a variety of themes and aspects of human behaviour exposed. This, for me, bordered on being a fault as it felt a little like too many were being squeezed in. On the other hand, most often there is good reason for them to be present for their explanatory power – a good example being the treatment of arson.

Adrian Pomery is the recipient of the allegation and what flows is entirely predictable. He turns to his family and detective brother for help and support and while it is available, there are other problems and ‘skeletons’ that complicate the process. Certainly there is little black and white here, rather gradations of motive and involvement that are well and sensitively pursued. Apart from the student making the allegation, there is the treatment of the school setting and Adrian’s family including wives and children including one young trans – it was at this point I felt a little cluttered by this element though it was carefully explored.

As the title indicates, there is an apology to be made but the development keeps the reader guessing as to whose it will be. I thought this was a key strength of the book as it kept me guessing as to what the resolution, if any, might be. The writing is well-paced and enjoyable, easy to read and reflective of its time, place and persons represented. I liked phrases such a school being  ‘full of bullshit artists in blazers’.

The highlight for me was the sensitive treatment of the boy who makes the allegation. More of us need to be prepared to go beyond such allegations and the pain they undoubtedly generate to explore where they might be coming from. Forgiveness might be too much to ask for at a given point in time, but understanding is something for which we can all strive.

(BCC library has 15 copies)

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‘Jack of Hearts (and other parts)’ by Lev AC Rosen, 2018. A review by John Cook.

I usually enjoy my excursions into young adult fiction and this was no exception. As an aside, I am so glad that this book has been published and that BCC library has 5 copies which I hope will be used very heavily.  As a teen, I had no access to lending libraries much less books of this nature and I would certainly recommend it. That doesn’t mean that some faint hearts might dislike it and want it removed (certainly Israel Folau) because it is confronting about teen sexuality. It is certainly there and the central character flaunts it and his school peers enlarge upon it with gossip. However, the book includes some of the most direct plain speaking thoughtful advice for teens (mostly gay but bi and straight as well) that I have encountered.

There are a number of strands interwoven quite neatly. Jack Rothman is a 17 year old florid gay teen who enjoys his appearance and his growing sexuality about which he is mostly realistic. He has a small close group of pals, Latinax Jenna (look it up, it’s a youth gender neutral thing) and Ben a somewhat tubby, hairy African-American who is a bit unsure of his looks and is talented at creating clothing. They attend a good quality NY high school so there is opportunity there to develop identity theme plots. Jack’s single Mum is a surgeon who works odd hours but is supportive without smothering. Jack has discovered that while taking a cigarette break in the boy’s loos that he can overhear a group of regular girls gossiping nearby and he features in their chat regularly.

Jack’s life is interrupted when he starts receiving notes folded as origami on special pink paper. The content of the notes rapidly becomes more and more unbalanced, obsessive and threatening. Jack and his pals have to do something but are convinced that most authority figures are not to be trusted to be helpful and so they must detect the stalker and put things to right. On its own, this is a classic teen mystery detective plot line however, this group uses the internet, phones and messaging to a considerable extent. What could be more contemporary than a deranged stalker?

Jenna has a blog (off campus to the relief of school authorities) but much favoured by the students. Given Jack’s notoriety, she convinces Jack to respond to teen agony aunt letters focussing mostly on their sexual awareness and practices. I think this is one of the strongest parts of the book. The questions are good, wide-ranging and appropriate for a student population. Jack’s responses are sensible, quite wise and peppered with frank statements and asides that some might find objectionable. I thought they were engaging and exactly the sort of thing that teens would identify with and enjoy. I can think of plenty of adults who need to read them here and now. This is a great strength of the book. Here is an extract – you are warned …

Dear Jack of Hearts,

My boyfriend really wants to do anal. We’ve been together for a few months, and I totally love him, and it’s not like we’re virgins. But I’m nervous about the buttsex. Does it hurt? Is it even fun for girls? Should I do it just to make him happy?

 

Dear His Anaconda Want,

 My first time getting it in the butt was kind of weird. I think it’s going to be weird for everyone’s first time, though. I was a freshman, and it was winter break, right before everyone left on vacation—a big holiday blowout party. There was this senior from another school, and we were drinking and flirting, and eventually we took off together. His parents were home, and my mom was home, so he got us a room at a hotel nearby. Ordered up some champagne to be fancy. Now, before this, I’d sucked my share of dicks and had gotten plenty of blowjobs, handjobs, every kind of job, but the only buttsex I’d had was with this junior who was in love with my cock and he’d just   hopped aboard. And he’d taken control then. Total bossy bottom. I’d pretty much just laid back and enjoyed. So, as far as I knew, anal was pretty easy—like porn easy.

Anyway, so this senior (I’m not naming names) and I are having fun, kissing and sucking and 69ing and what have you, and then he says to me, “I want to fuck that pretty little ass of yours.” And I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve never done that before.” And he smirked and said, “Sure, right.” And I said, “No, really.” “Well, I paid for the hotel room,” he said, “so let’s use it. I’ll take it easy on you.” But it was pretty clear he didn’t believe I was an anal virgin.

So he bends me over the bed and drizzles some lube on my ass. I made him wear a condom, of course. And he starts pushing it in. And WOW, that hurts. I tell him to stop, it hurts, and he says he’ll go slower. I say okay because he’s already in, and I’m thinking, I’m gay, so this is something I have to learn how to do, right? So he slows down and pushes in, and eventually it starts to feel good—like, really good. He’s hitting the right spot, nerve endings are all aglow.

Eventually he finishes and pulls out, and the condom, of course, is covered in shit. And he gets mad  at me, like it’s my fault. I didn’t know about how to clean up down there. He makes me take the crap-covered condom off him and flush it, and then he showers alone. When he gets out of the shower he frowns at me and goes, “You’re still here?”

Anyway, here’s my advice to you: Make sure you want to do it, ’cause it’s going to be uncomfortable at first, for sure. But it can be fun, too—even if you don’t have a prostate, there are nerve endings and pressure. Just make sure you’ve taken a shit beforehand and cleaned after—preferably with soap and water in the shower. ’Cause if you gotta go while he’s inside you, it’s going to come out gross. When you’re ready to get fucked, use lots of lube. A finger first. Go slow. Make sure he’s still focused on keeping you turned on, too. It helps if you start out riding him, facing forward—then you have more control over how deep he goes, and you can still communicate what you need. Once he’s in you, tell him to just stay there for a while so you can get used to it, then when you give the okay, he can slowly start fucking you. If you don’t like it, tell him to stop. If you decide to switch holes, use a fresh condom. And be prepared—sometimes shit just happens. But if you take it slow, it can be really great.

That extract has made this a long note, so I won’t say much more except to point out that Jack’s column is totally supportive of his peers who decide for themselves that they want to delay interpersonal sexual activity for later when they are ready.

A wonderfully diverse work that has interests and pleasures squarely aimed at its audiences, its sole understandable weakness being its rather specialised location in a liberal New York where is author lives with his husband and very small cat.

(BCC library has 5 copies)

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‘My Brother’s Name is Jessica’ by John Boyle, 2019. A review by John Cook.

I must confess to some trepidation (or at least caution) in penning this report. I was initially attracted to the book by the author whose work I have always enjoyed, while the title implied that transitioning in a family context would be highlighted in a young adult (largely) publication. Before I had a chance to read it, I became aware of a substantial controversy arising particularly from trans persons, their families and supporters arguing that the book was badly misdirected (even dangerous) and did not respect the position and experience of so many trans persons. Some have even refused to read it arguing that the claimed misappropriate titling and those expressed opinions were sufficient to put them off.

I have read it and it was a reasonably fast read as the central character voice Sam Waver is 13-14 throughout and I am sorely lacking in how 14 year olds think today. As a book, I found the tone a little odd which might be linked to the author’s desire to have it viewed from that very adolescent viewpoint. Some of the characterisations are rather thin and comic-like, especially the upwardly bound (obsessive?) deeply conservative parents – the constantly calculating wife being hot on the trail of the role of Prime Minister. When I use that word ‘comic’, I do so with two meanings. There were smiles for me at times that arose largely from comic absurdities, teenage angst and odd aunts but I also feel that this book could have been presented better as a graphic novel. It seems to have fallen between two stools and was possibly lacking for that.

The basic plot is simple enough. Sam lives a comfortable enough life within usual teen concerns with the before mentioned ‘well-intentioned’ but very job focused parents (pretty typical for many today). His elder brother Jason is appropriately golden with all the physical and social gifts a 16-17 year old boy could presumably desire and Sam worships him. In a key scene, suspicions are realised when Jason tells his deliberately assembled family that he has always felt as a girl, that his feelings and beliefs are  dominating him and he seeks their support and understanding as Jessica. It doesn’t happen and events spiral at school, in the home and on the media scene to create very real tensions from which Jason (now Jessica) initially finds little enough support and understanding (his father even considers electroshock treatment!). The conclusion is dramatic, not unanticipated and somewhat forced involving a response from Jessica that explains the extreme ire of trans persons and supporters – no spoiler here.

I found this to be a flawed work for the reasons indicated above but would not put off anyone reading it. I think adolescents reading it would need to be able to debrief and talk through the issues raised in more depth if read as a starter. One key complaint is that we don’t get to see and feel enough from Jessica’s point of view and I have to agree with that. Treating both Sam and Jessica’s experience might have needed more work and pruning that would be difficult in this young adult genre and should perhaps be tackled in a longer, more complex work.

I do recommend it as an ‘initiator’ that might encourage readers of all ages to look more carefully and deeply at how they feel and respond to transitioning persons of all ages.

(BCC library has 10 copies)

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‘Diary of a Drag Queen’ By Crystal Rasmussen, 2019. A review by John Cook.

The author’s birth name is Tom Rasmussen, product of an English midlands working class life, secondary school and university education who has cobbled together a living largely from writing, but also music as part of a group (‘Denim’) and overall by projecting their (author’s preferred gender descriptor) drag queen persona. I am woefully ignorant of drag lifestyles apart from entertainers seen at gay pubs and some stories retailed to me by a friend who had lived in a shared environment not unlike that described by Crystal. I thought the writing was quite good apart from some occasional repetition with the space taken from Crystal to reflect on their youthful experiences and searching for answers and a way of life compatible with their gradual emergence. As such, I praise it as an intelligent, thoughtful piece of extended introspection leavened with lots of humorous and intentionally shocking anecdotes. The author has been a long-term real-life diarist and is not short of material.

On his process ..

By putting things into words you allow yourself a moment to take your mess and tidy it up – not that I give a shit about tidiness – but over years writing to myself has allowed me to solidify my identity, explore my opinions, relieve my heart of its lonely aches and untie the tangled knots of worry in my stomach.

On the drag life negative and positive and sometimes violent ..

And, while I downed their amazing Riesling, all I could do was cement my position as the evening’s entertainment by rolling out much-censored stories of drag, which would be met with gasps and ‘fascinating!’ or ‘what a fabulous friend you have, Cora!’, said as though they’d found a rare jewel and stepped in dog shit at the same time.

So I was in the shop over the road from our new house, and I overheard a kid, tugging their mum’s skirt, querying: ‘Mummy, what’s wrong with that boy? He’s wearing a dress!’ It cut deep. It cut real deep. It cut even deeper when she replied, ‘Oh honey, he’s obviously just very unwell.’ All I wanted was pitta and taramasalata and instead I got diagnosed by a mother and a sweet babe. I turned around, removed my Gucci sunglasses like a character from Dynasty and responded: ‘I’m beautiful!’

And there, on a concrete island in the centre of the dual carriageway, he stared me square in the eyes, and said ‘thank you’, in absolute earnest, for saving his life. Relieved, heart still shaking my oesophagus, I went to respond, at which point he, looking me square in the eye, recoiled a fist and punched me so hard in the face I heard my nose crack and my brain bounce around my skull like a jar of pickles being shaken. My sight disappeared and I was floored, my mouth filled by blood coursing from some unknown location on my face.

On being understood and maybe appreciated ..

And while drag is probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on, the fuss is about more than just fun. It’s about love – for yourself, for your siblings. It’s about giving back to people, and saving a bit for yourself. It’s about being the most glorious person in the room, while pulling everyone up to your level. It’s about proving that, while you might be an outcast, you’re quicker, cooler, funnier than the people on the inside. It’s about proving that being a misfit is the best place to be. It’s about showing there’s hope, and that happiness and power aren’t the stronghold of those in power. We have it, so much of it, in abundance. And we actually deserve it. I decided to email my editor most of these ramblings, and she replied: ‘Yeah cool can pay u £ 45 for 1000 words?’ Gorj! So glad years of my life spent thinking is worth £ 45! At least my Ubers for tomorrow night are covered.

On the sexual side of their drag life (and there is always a hungering for relationship connection) ..

I decided to wallpaper over my emotions, doing what so many of my queer peers do in times of loneliness, and turned to Grindr: the home of muscular torso pics, the graveyard of emotional intimacy. …

Every dark room is the same. Not architecturally, or in terms of the clientele, but every single memory I have of being in a dark room may as well be the same one. It’s quiet –quiet enough to hear an orchestra of groans and moans and whispers and, if you’re lucky and listen hard enough, the pattering of a really vigorous hand job. You can also always hear the faint throb of Kylie or house music. It’s initially a daunting prospect: upon entry, a sea of shadowed bodies in various states of undress and pleasure greets you; some people on their knees, some in a circle looking down at one hard-working blowjobber sucking eight to ten dicks, some sitting on dicks, some fucking the person sitting on their dick. Until you’re inside it, it all appears as one big, beating mass of flesh: pulsating with an intimidating, arousing mix of shame and sex and pleasure and power. Once you’re in it, it’s like being absorbed into a sponge or being on a water slide: you lose all idea of space and time and dimension, and spend hours being carried around the room, from dick to dick, without even realising it. It’s not uncommon to suck nigh on thirty dicks and not say a single hello. Sometimes, on the other hand, you connect with one person so intensely that you spend the whole night together, talking, kissing, maybe having sex, and feeling like you’re going to run away together, like someone finally ‘gets you’. In hindsight all of those guys were just very heavily on drugs. But it was nice while it lasted

I apologise for using so much of the original material but I think one needs to appreciate how strongly this is a life of such difficulties, successes and disappointments revealed with candour and some enjoyable wit. It is all there lived in glorious technicolour and smellovision (he has a poo fetish). If you don’t like it and find it either offensive or over self-focussed, I am sorry but it is a journey I recommend.

 (BCC library has 0 copies)

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‘Leading Men’ By Christopher Castellani, 2019. A review by John Cook.

 

This faction piece of writing has been very well reviewed by many but I must admit I had some problems with it. It has its complexities with the principal figures of Tennessee Williams and his long term lover, secretary, factotum Frank Merlo surrounded by real people (Truman Capote) and invented figures from their golden productive years (1947-63) in numbers of exotic locations as well as their US home bases with quite a lot of time shifting as well. Onto this, Castellani has grafted an imaginary character (Anja, a desperately wannabe actress who eventually makes it via largely art movies with echoes of people like Bergman and Ullman) that grew out of a real-life Mother-daughter pairing encountered by Williams in Italy.

I found this sizable intrusion the weakest part of the book though Anja (with her confusing mother Anna) did serve as a good character foil and was used to add depth to Franks’ characterisation. Other characters including a minor American novelist and the son of his lover Sandro really didn’t interest me much and served only as foils when required (a gruesome death bed scene) to give Frank cause to examine his relationship with Tennessee.

The majority of the locations (sometimes very well described) were evocative for me which aided in stimulating my interest but would be less so for many though they are often well known in film. The abrupt time and place shifts I also found unfortunate. There are plenty of references to Williams writings and their relative successes and many failures as well as some brief insights into his methods.

For me, this was something of a meditation on the nature of differing queer relationships at the time described well before any dreaming of gay marriage obviously its greatest depth in exploring the William/Merlo relationship, its inequities and how it might have functioned for them. The final section at Frank’s death bed is not the least saccharine as it could have been and was much more powerful that the fatuous play inserted earlier which fails to touch on the usual nature of William’s writing at its best.

Tennessee’s name for Frank was ‘little horse’ which was both descriptive and ironic as it related to their sex life. Frank once described his occupation as “I sleep with Mr. Williams” while Williams wrote at the conclusion of poem about Merlo, his working class army veteran wrestler lover…

Mignon he is or mignonette

avec les yeux plus grands que lui.

My name for him is Little Horse.

I wish he had a name for me.

I will be interested in other’s opinions about Castellani’s prose which I sometimes enjoyed as he described the people, clothes, food, drinks, mood, partying and whoring of the time and place of the setting but only occasionally so. I found myself drifting away with overlong passages of musing and had to remind myself what was going on or check back. The scene of attempted cannibalism and rape of two women simply did not work for me though it was probably an attempt to channel Williams’ at times over-heated writings. The sex is unabashed.

Please don’t let me put you off reading this work entirely. There is a great deal to enjoy here in exploring this fascinating pair, their lifestyle and their milieu and also to ponder the questions raised about the many relationships presented.

BCC has 5 Copies

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