‘The Lady’s Guide To Petticoats and Piracy’ by Mackenzi Lee, 2018. A review by John Cook.

If there is one thing I have enjoyed in  Mackenzi Lee’s pair of YA books it has been the breezy humour that accompanies wild and improbable adventure. I am happy to report that the prescription remains substantially intact though with a caveat that may well be mine alone. An example of what I enjoy along with the plot lines that can be quite wild and wacky (dragon skin scales that could alter the direction of medicine) can be found in an incident late in this book when Monty (hero along with his boyf Percy in ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’ and a somewhat late entry in this offering) is mistakenly kicked in the crotch by his heroine sister Felicity’s pal Johanna.

‘Monty groans in affirmation, straightening slowly as if he were thawing out. He places his hands carefully over his most vulnerable areas, then says, “Miss Hoffman”. His voice is nearly as high as hers. “My complements to your cobbler. What are those shoes made of and from where exactly was it mined?”

Ouch! There is a lot of putting men in their place throughout this novel as the women (girls?) not only take the central roles in the story line but spend quite a lot of time ruminating over their 18th C places in society. Given the existence (and increasing awareness) of the somewhat later Ann Lister diaries, this is quite appropriate and should strike home (without being overly polemic) for many YA and adult readers. My only small gripe is that it all seemed to take up rather a lot of space early in the tale as the author was also spending energy on establishing Felicity’s life after the earlier adventure in which her intellect and insight were regularly hinted and she now finds denied. This is a book (like its predecessor) of 440+ pages which I (perhaps mistakenly) would have thought a bit long for a YA audience. I feel it is more so in this case than the earlier. There are times when detail might be of interest but some could have been sacrificed in the interests of a snappier read.

The key is the continuing desire of Felicity to build on her constant reading of medical texts to obtain a place in a formal medical teaching facility. She is going to have a hard time with that and her struggle and resolution is the bare bones of the story. “Every time I blink or breathe or twitch or stretch, every time I feel pain or awake or alive, I want to know why” – “Half my heart is this hunger.”

The piratical theme continues and slowly blossoms at the conclusion in the person of Sim the darkly mysterious Algerian piratical woman who is woven intricately into the story. Johanna Hoffman is a childhood friend of Felicity who has grown apart from her over Johanna’s apparently more conventional female behaviours and fondness for dress (especially). She also has a strong scientific interest in the natural world perhaps inherited from her adventurer-scientist mother. There is a deal of discussion between Felicity and Johanna about how their lives seem to be developing and what they truly want for themselves.

The hunt for dragon scales also introduces considerations of health care, medication and its sourcing and control and prices. It is intriguing that Lee manages to weave these du jour health interests into an antique tale with a literally fabulous conclusion.

I don’t wish to telegraph much of the meandering but highly enjoyable plot which can be savoured along the way and the rushing conclusion is very much in Mackenzi Lee style. I accept the fruit of the discussions and decision-making along the way but I reserve my conclusion that it all needed a bit more editing. I shall enjoy hearing from the female members of my group in this respect and will accept a cuffing of the ears but hopefully not the treatment mentioned above doled out by Miss Hoffman.

Perhaps there will be further adventures ahead for the fearless four – or is that now five?

(BCC library has 10 copies)

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‘Vigil’ By Angela Slatter, 2016. A review by John Cook.

As I have admitted previously, I am not a keen fan of fantasy, so it was a warm recommendation from a group member that encouraged me to put ‘Vigil’ on my reading list. It has not converted me as I found some drawbacks in the book, but it was not without its pleasures.

The analytical part of my mind and the nature of this group was attracted to the viewpoint of the narrator. Verity Fassbinder lives in the middle of two worlds – the normal and the Weyrd especially as she was born from both. This is not unlike the experience of many gay writers who use their sense of apartness and observational position to advantage to describe and commentate. The book is well set in Brisbane (a surprise) and benefits from echoes of familiarity and identification. This is not tiresomely detailed as the locales while specific are fantasised in ways that are appropriate – who hasn’t had interesting experiences of old West End housing and its odd coffee shops while the Kangaroo Point Cliffs and St Mary’s church are also utilised. On the other hand, I found the naming of characters off-putting at times.

Verity has a role as a kind of investigator and trouble-shooter that keeps her balancing influences for good and evil as she seeks to locate a child that is representative of the often extreme nature of the differences between her two worlds. In fact, with human-like malevolent influences largely emerging from the Weyrd world of shape shifting individuals, sirens, angels and even a golem, the child becomes a focal point for a chain of events potentially leading to Armageddon.

Verity, as an investigator, has useful contacts and sources for her bridging existence. Her dual birth inheritances did not endow her with more monstrous weirdness, but did provide her with heightened physical strength which a narrative aid at times though she uses a knife with skill and is familiar  with tasers. She is en passage from a Weyrd relationship to one with the long suffering normal, David.

There is no shortage of action in what is essentially a detective noir and I enjoyed a lot of the description, the wry dry comments and some of the dialogue which can be quite snappy. However, I had problems with the pacing of the piece. There were quite a lot of individuals, with intertwining plot lines. I found myself wandering at times and wishing for a more direct narrative line and more of the set piece occasions such as the action beneath the Chelmer mansion, the alternative Weyrd City Hall and especially the events at and below St Mary’s.

I shall now keep my eyes wide open in my travels around my home town looking for traces of the Weyrd when enjoying a meal at West End.

(BCC Library has 50 copies)

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‘Boy Erased’ by Garrard Conley, 2016. A review by John Cook.

  Image result for boy erased movie

This book had me doubting my anticipations at several points. It is now two years old, has garnered a range of plaudits and is on the verge of its release (November) as a substantial movie with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Conley’s parents and Oz boy Joel Edgerton as screenplay author, Director and playing the role of John Smid, the fundamentalist Svengali who sincerely believes he can put gay young men back on the pathway to Christian heterosexuality in his highly ironic program ‘Love in Action’.

(http://www.universalpictures.com.au/micro/boy-erased)

Perhaps I had anticipated a young man (Garrard Conley) dragged into the clutches of a vicious, threatening bunch of crazy fundamentalists who would subject the protagonist (it is a memoir) to all kinds demented procedures which would prove physically and emotionally damaging but from which he would emerge triumphant. Not quite that, it turned out.

It is undoubtedly a passionate and heartfelt piece of writing that fell down in a couple of respects for me. Conley is looking back of the past yet does not use an entirely sequential approach. This causes some disjointedness and focus of events that seem relatively unrelated. The reader has to appreciate the depth of his commitment to the rural Arkansas environment in which he was raised by (in their own way) his loving parents (the mother more than the father). The father is a self-made man’s man whose great focus in life is to be an ordained church preacher who will be required to abjure homosexuality as Satan’s work. This is a huge problem for him and his everyday world.

The problem is that they are wall-eyed fundamentalists whose beliefs are being challenged by the son’s forced coming out. All fundamentalists, in my experience, are basically frightened heavily defensive people who have found a measure of certainty in their beliefs which are beyond challenge and demand certain behaviours (especially witnessing) or the to-be-feared exclusion. They will try all sorts of strategies to deflect challenges ranging from doing deals to muting an issue, enforced conversion processes and exclusion. They do a deal with Garrard guaranteeing him educational support if he submits to attending a twelve-stem program which employs the conventional basis of the traditional approach mixed with some heavy handed psychological abuse and endless quantities of biblical quotes (though that can descend into  ‘mine is better than yours’ silliness). It is giving away nothing to assume that Conley is going to break away in the process. It is a matter of when and how only.

One of my key problems for me in this book is that I seem to have had an easier time of leaving behind such religious convictions and their repressions and I found Conley’s agonisings more annoying than interesting though they do have to be complex. But then, chacun a son expérience. Along the way Garrard meets individuals and experiences about which I would have liked to know more such as his initial ‘rape’ and the negro couple he met along the way. The latter third of the book speeds up and the Epilogue is a ‘must’. One section that staggered me was the visit to see Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of Christ’. Given the response of so many and the fact that it has garnered a box office of $US611.9 million, it is frankly frightening. Conventional sex porn has a large audience, but it is amazing that the audience for religious horror porn amongst all varieties of fundamentalists is so great. It is depressing. I will attend the movie to see what Joel Edgerton makes of the story and how he handles the characters of the parents who are not demons but interesting frail humans wanting to be loving but trapped by a reality they cannot wish away, However, the advance reviews are not entirely promising.

(BCC library has 6 copies and 1 ebook)

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‘A Ladder To The Sky’ by John Boyne, 2018. A review by John Cook.

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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 with the exception of 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 totally 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 an 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 his involve his taking advantages 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 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 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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‘Take Nothing With You’ by Patrick Gale, 2018. A review by John Cook.

This book exemplifies why I am such a fan of Patrick Gale. There is always so much talent expressed in such subtle and gentle ways with flashes of sheer brilliance. Even the title is so clever leading the reader to think about issues of values in their life and mortality. In fact, it is a pointer to the key event that sparks this reminiscence of one gay man’s life.

Eustace, a quietly successful developer and ex-banker has had surgery for his thyroid cancer and now has to experience a form of therapy which involves ingesting a radioactive iodine isotope pill and then being sequestered in a lead lined room for 24 hours. As everything in that room becomes radioactive waste, he is told that he should take nothing with him that cannot be left behind. He does take an mp3 player stocked with cello music played by a close female friend and he can see the outside world through a window. The scene is set from his condition to look back on his life and the key to so much lies with that cello music – so Patrick Gale! My book cover fitted the tone of the tale beautifully with Eustace on his way exiting right in a rather bleak setting, cello case on his back – “It was quite heavy but the weightiness was part of the adult burden he was to take on.”

This raises a caveat in that some small awareness and enjoyment of classical stringed music is an advantage in understanding and identifying with this story. I will be interested to hear from someone who lacks this entirely. I suspect there is enough in what the growing Eustace tells us of his love of music and how it moulds his life to satisfy most. I found internet listings that can point any interested reader to recordings of the pieces mentioned. While there are the to-be-expected gentle colourings of life in the backwater Weston-super-Mare, there are also skilful portraits of his family and their travails and personal and sexual developments, their rather odd home context, and his smallish circle of friends that gradually expands with his musical life into heroes such as Carla Gold his Cello guru and inspiration and the legendary Jean Curwen with her Scottish border cello school that operates a little like a musical boot camp. It is no secret that there is a deal of Gale’s own life in many details.

There is so much to enjoy along the way in this tale but I particularly remember Chapter 6 for its gentle treatment of life for a young teen in a large house full of old folk (including his own family) run by his odd parents. Chapter 11 is a delightful insight into a young to-be-gay boy finding his way through the thicket of  ‘official’ sex education and his individual gropings(?). Wonderful stuff.

The central key to Eustace’s life is his discovery that he has musical and mathematical talents (a common combination) and he needs to explore just how much his musical skills can be developed and to what conclusion. We have a beautifully sketched series of events as his growing personality, sexuality and musical talent are intertwined with the intensity that teens experience.

It is obvious from what I have indicated above that Eustace doesn’t achieve all that he had hoped though he is clearly formed by his experiences along the way. The conversation he has with his father on which way his future might go after so much angst is very Gale in its sheer understatement.

‘Do you still want to go there full time instead of the sixth form?’

‘Do you know? I don’t think I do. Not any more.’

‘That’s a pity, isn’t it?’

‘It is. And it isn’t.’  (My italics)

(I have recently reviewed ‘Boy Erased’ and the movie version is currently playing. Gale is au courant with an episode of a religious fundamentalist kidnapping in order to ‘normalise’ Eustace’s sexuality.)

Highly recommended.

(BCC library has 15 copies)

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‘English Animals’ by Laura Kaye, 2016. A review by John Cook.

Image result for english animals laura kaye

I must in all honesty declare that I found this to be a peculiar book probably by my own fault. This first novel by Laura Kaye has a number of interesting premises. It is the story of a 19 year old young woman who has departed Slovakia (we are later treated to some of its wartime history) under something of a cloud. She has discovered her lesbian nature as has her family and she needs to relocate her life. Her ability to do so under European Community provisions is of interest (I have read novels that touch on this phenomenon in Britain especially among Poles). This highlights the clashes and misunderstandings that have occurred in all levels of British society underpinning the Brexit phenomenon.

The author has also decided to use the business of taxidermy throughout which could be clever with all sorts of potential analogies about human and animal natures, surface appearances and in depth and the kinds of social settings we create (like the ironic ones Mirka creates and sells to London wannabe cognoscenti). One could play a lot with a title like ‘English Animals’.

The scene is set largely in and around a not quite crumbling country house with all the usual patrimony hangovers and the desperate need to maintain what is fast being lost. Its keepers are a couple (the Parkers (ironic?)) who are classics of their type locked into a marriage that is partly passionately romantic, partly alcoholic, partly indifference and largely selfish.

Mirka seems to literally drift into this potential morass from her previous job and relationship almost unthinkingly accepting the employment provision that ‘she is not squeamish about touching dead animals’ which she falsely interprets as cooking. From this point into well over half the book I had problems. This is a first person narrative from Mirka’s viewpoint and the author felt the need for her to be presented exactly as she might have thought and spoken. It is, in that sense, probably well done, but I found it increasingly irritating to read at that level of surface simplicity and only very occasional flashes of insight into her situation.

Accepting that proviso, the author manages to limn the locale, the house, the work shed, the fields and a couple of local pubs and we gradually become aware of Mirka’s increased feelings for Sophie and perhaps Richard. The reader is aware that an interesting set of relationships might be developing and they are. It is at this point only that things became more engaging for me. The dynamic between the three becomes richer and more interesting and the reader can like/dislike the events as one chooses. There is background relating to Sophie’s unlikeable father, huntin’ and shootin’, some closer individuals (the murky David and weak Celia), and the local pubs which are also class stratified.

The resolution to Mirka’s situation is telegraphed reasonably early and seems potentially satisfying with more wide open possibilities. The reader is left hoping that Mirka has learned something and might be a bit more self-aware in the future. In praise of the book, it is possible to say that while so many of the characters are largely incapable of any awareness of the future much less responding effectively, Mirka has a chance.

(52 copies + audiobook in BCC Lib)

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‘A Natural’ by Ross Raisin, 2017. A review by John Cook.

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Ross Raisin is quite a talent who clearly relishes the ‘under’ side of life as in his previous books. The title of this work can be seen in that vein as it telegraphs an interest-grabbing duality. It is common enough to talk about a talented person (sport, arts etc) as being ‘a natural’. Less likely, though equally real, we have all asked ourselves how ‘natural’ is our homosexuality? Raisin has drawn these two themes together in the conventionally unlikely theatre of English professional football. Anyone who looks at the number of professional players who have outed themselves in that context realises that either this is the perfect selection process for heterosexuality or there are lot of deeply closeted players. There have been a few including one tragic example (Justinus Soni “Justin” Fashanu) and publicly stated messages of support (rainbow laces) but almost no one has ventured out.

I am very ignorant of soccer (age showing again) except in my very early childhood though I have had friends deeply embedded in the game as organisers, fans and fathers or sons of players. Likewise, I am entirely ignorant of the overall processes of talent location, training, payment and general living conditions of the full range of players at all levels but especially in the British scene. Most of us are familiar with the publicity that surrounds the ethereal upper echelons of the game (same with most sports) and WAGS (there is one minor one that plays a key role in this story) but would be totally ignorant of the bottom feeders striving at the lower club levels to find their way to glory and some measure of economic success. 

Raisin places Tom Pearman in exactly that context. He is a 19 year old with a record of youth attainment and experience of the football ‘schooling’ system. His family and friends live his experiences with and through him. He is playing at the bottom level of the League (literally) and wants powerfully to advance his career. His life is built totally on developing his body and skills to that end. He presents a little differently as he is more carefully considered individual, somewhat interior and reflective of what he experiences around himself. There is a reason for this as he begins to gradually realise the growth of feelings in himself for other men, experiencing the full range of responses to those feelings which become ever more pronounced engendering fear and an uneven determination to suppress them. As a ‘natural’ homosexual he fails and, as his career passes through highs and lows, he gradually develops a relationship which is going to present him with terrifying prospects and a powerful need to interrogate himself on what role his homosexuality has to play in the life he has set out to pursue. Sorry, you will have to read to get the details and the outcome.

I found the book a little difficult initially to get into as Raisin provides an incredible (but entirely believable) amount of detail about this young man’s daily life and routines and the club and family life that surrounds him. This can be difficult to accept (some might even reject the book on those grounds) but I gradually warmed to wanting to know and feel more and more of this situation that mixed the conventional and apart world of his sport. There is nothing here that is remotely sensational but all entirely believable. There are some weak points in the plotting that emerge late in this book but I do not include the conclusion in that assessment. Again, some might find it a little weak and understated but I found it very powerful in its simplicity and inevitability.

I warmly recommend this book as an eye-opener to a world about which I knew almost nothing and as a meditation on the continuing resistance of so much sport to the involvement of gay men and women.

(9 copies in BCC Lib)

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