’12 Bytes : How Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Way We Live and Love’ by Jeanette Winterson, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

My only problem with this book is that the title does not quite match the content. Yes, it is an examination of past influences on the growth and development of the need for machine computation and its questioned further development. It is also, however, a series of largely focussed essays with linkages. Instead of having a strong single line of analysis, development, and (perhaps) prediction, it allows the reader to reflect on a series of influences. They are varied and will more or less have some familiarity for some readers. If there is a weakness, the sections tend to read as a series of university essays that have looked at resources (dear old Google), then loosely cobbled them with a general theme to develop a particular case. They are all appropriate and often, for me, remind me of aspects of these influences and in some cases did inform me anew.

I can instance a couple of examples. My background in Psychology (initially Educational) alerted me to the applied fruits of Behaviourism (I was a fan of Skinner and Arthur and Carolyn Staats) but became aware of its limitations and deficiencies just at the time when it was being heavily applied in classrooms with printed laboratory materials and eventually electronic devices capable of sizable storage and individualised responses. Those processes have become highly developed and sophisticated but the dangers remain to which Winterson points.

While on my way to visit China in September 1981, I stayed at the Mirimar Hotel which had introduced keyless room entry using magnetic cards which were rapidly gaining use in a variety of contexts. Many people, including hotel management, for economic reasons, thought it was a great idea. As a gay man in a time of paranoia, I realised that matching this facility with, perhaps, a foot sensor in the doorway would provide an ideal opportunity to record my comings and goings and with whom. My experience in China, at that same time, was much more primitive in terms of surveillance but has now risen to terrifying levels of sophistication and control which Winterson rightly references. Strangely, I would like to speculate on a war of ownership between the Chinese communist party and any AGL it might create.

Throughout the book were such moments of recognition and recall which might pass some by without more detailed consideration. The mention of Jerome Bruner on humans as toolmakers is something worthy of deep consideration which I had not previously considered concerning the growth and development of different sexes using and being used by the tools we make. The mention of John Wyndham dates us both a little but was, along with the well-trodden path of  Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley examined in ‘Frankissstein: A Love Story.’ – familiar but, again, quite pointed in relating to the thrust of the collection of essays.

The second last essay headed with my first Mac computer does pull these together somewhat combining examples of forward-thinking and prognosing with the continuing strand of women being ignored or suppressed. The last is a reflection on the human nature of love which by its very nature is ephemeral when contrasted with AI.

There were occasional odd weaknesses that caught my attention such as Pliny the Younger as a ‘Greek philosopher’. Gaius Caecilius Cilo or adopted as Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus was very definitely a minor aristocratic Roman though the writings of both his uncle and his own are worthy examples of the transfer of Greek scientific thinking into Roman culture. I  did enjoy her asides to which I am also prone. Always witty, pointed, and insightful.

Despite occasional hesitations, this was a worthwhile read. I might even know a bit more about Buddhism now.

BCC Library has 6 copies

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’12 Bytes: How artificial intelligence will change the way we live and love’ by Jeanette Winterson, 2021.

A review by Grant Agnew.

I read “12 Bytes” by Jeannette Winterson. It was disappointing. The twelve essays in the book are supposed to examine how artificial intelligence has affected us and where it might take us. The essays are light and conversational in tone, which was a welcome characteristic, but they aren’t substantial. They contain very little about the future; mostly, they are about the past and how women were oppressed in it.

That’s all true, and all very regrettable, but none of it was traced to its origins, when the things which Winterson complains about were often an improvement on what had applied before. The rules about women in Islam, for example, were a great advance on the situation of women in Arabia before Mohammed, yet are often the source of a lot of trouble in the world of today (especially in Arabia). Yet in the eighteenth century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote of how easy it was for her to go anywhere she liked in Ottoman Turkish Constantinople, on her own and in complete safety, once she was covered in a burka. She didn’t have such freedom back home in London, even though she was a duke’s daughter.

There is a real feminist issue here: it would be very useful to determine when, how and why what had been an improvement atrophied into a new oppression which was maintained for centuries, as that particular process shows every sign of repeating itself.

And if artificial intelligence is the threat which Winterson says it may be, then women in particular need to be wary of it. It is mostly created by men, therefore is based on men’s thought processes. Any oppression it generates may be impossible to break, even by men. But there is almost no consideration of this in the book. I thought that the conclusions which Winterson came to were trite.

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‘Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Future’ by Adam Zmith, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

Sniffing poppers (Amyl butyl, and isobutyl Nitrate) is not exactly a total taboo topic but it is certainly one that is most alive in the gay community with sales figures indicating that its use is ever more widespread especially among the younger (gay and straight) and those more sexually active. This has probably grown out of the fact its use is so closely allied with pleasurable activity and certainly sex – sometimes combined.

“Poppers suffused these artworks. According to Jack Fritscher, who edited Drummer magazine, “Skipper told me he used poppers while drawing and painting his erotic pictures with one hand and masturbating with the other. ‘Sniff. Have vision. Jerk. Jerk. Draw vision. Cum. Done”.

Also, there has been a history of proscription that has seen the brown bottles above and below the  counter and sometimes the subject of zealous police raids. I willingly confess that it has been part of my sex life dating back to visits to Sydney (long ago) when the original ampoules were still available from known chemists. The experience was simultaneously the act of being aberrant, possibly criminal, and yet also commercial.

I also have had experience in dealing with volatile substance abuse ranging from petrol, glues, sprays, and various industrial processes including dry cleaning and printing. I can honestly say that I did use poppers while researching the full range of these other substances. This leads me to my main content criticism of Zmith’s book and research (of all kinds). Most of these substances will not damage too much with very occasional exposure unless there is an underlying predisposition to a negative outcome. However, regular and prolonged use definitely increases the possibility of problems occurring. In the case of poppers, this has tended to be more among younger clubbers who inhale often and deeply during a long dance session. A similar pattern in prolonged sex would have been more unlikely in the past but the kind of ice-fuelled 3-4 day sessions that occur often at least weekly in more recent times could generate some possibility of organ damage. I don’t think Zmith gave this appropriate coverage.

Enough of that. I still praise this book as a largely readable overview of the origins, uses (legit and less so), and commercial and legal-political involvement of popper use. I don’t think too many of the millions (?) of users over the years would have much bothered to know. They existed, were available at a price (outrageous), and had the desired effect – end of story. The background information and history, however intriguing and interesting, is only part of what this book is about.

Adam Zmith reveals the long history of the quick rush from sniffing poppers. He seems young with most of his credits in writing and internet activity, podcasts, etc occurring in the last ten years. He is definitely a contemporary activist. His output can easily be researched on the net where he has a substantial presence and is moving more and more to be an independent voice.

Zmith commences his exploration often within his own (very familiar) teenage experiences as a ‘bator’ and his later varied experiences as an isolate who eventually made contact with a larger community which  he explores.

“These exchanges were recorded in ink in the phoneroom at Gay Switchboard in 1975. Perhaps this moment was when gay men began to divide themselves into those who pursued pleasure and those who pursued marriage.”

As such, he puts forward (often at some length) a series of proposals that are a blend of science and philosophy that are a call to create a re-examination of the nature of pleasure (gay or otherwise) that is unlimited by the historic constraints of the past.

 “If this book is a plea for anything, it is for pleasure–for the time and space to dream about it, to plan for it, to experience it.”

and

“This chapter itself is an exercise in doing the same. It is not a prediction of the future; it is a way of imagining a future.”

He particularly has an interest in all forms of gay literature with a preference for Sci-Fi (Star Trek alert) arguing that a more inclusive concept of pleasure and sexuality can be found there. I found some of this interesting, but somewhat remote from my experiences and perhaps over-long toward the end.


It is definitely worth a look if the library ever gets a copy. It may bring back all sorts of memories from the past along with some confused notions of solidarity.

BCC Library has 0 copies – I wonder why.

There are plenty of internet views related to this book. Just two of them are ..

https://touch.facebook.com/GladDay/videos/book-launch-deep-sniff-a-history-of-poppers-and-queer-futures/1246756369144816/?m_entstream_source=timeline

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‘Razorblade Tears’ by S A Cosby, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

I found this to be a challenging read, certainly not because of the author’s undoubted skill and easy readability which makes it a best-selling page-turner – rather for reasons of its cultural and social background which I will raise later.

The author has already established prize-winning credibility with “Blacktop Wasteland” a violent noir and  that taps into common American themes that relate to the underdog generally and Virginian blacks especially. His prose is interesting in being readable and absorbing with a mixture of deft touches in locale descriptions and similar skill in presenting the language and idiom of his characters. His focus in his own words is “the holy trinity of southern fiction is race, class, and sex.”

This novel combines two timeless themes – the fruits of family discord – and a need for vengeance (or perhaps vigilantism in the face of apparent official disinterest). The possibly unique overlay is to introduce an overarching LGBTQI theme – oddly enough with only one live representative of those categories in the book

Two young gay men who have had a rocky family history of non-acceptance succeed in their lives, find one another, marry and have a much-loved surrogate daughter. Isiah and Derek are also a mixed-race pair, black and white. Both have a background of family rejection especially from their fathers and others in their local community. The flashpoint occurs when they are effectively executed in front of a local wine store and, as there was no robbery etc, police seem unable to progress in determining the who, what, and why of the situation. Similarly, we never do really much acquaint ourselves with these two men as persons.

The fathers of the two, Ike and Buddy Lee, are suitably shocked and devastated by the event and one takes in his granddaughter Arianne. Both are revealed to be somewhat torn and conflicted by the inexplicable murders compounded by their fractured relationships with their sons over their emerging sexuality and pathway into a legal marriage. Ike has done time for what he considers honourable gang-related violence. He has since largely rehabilitated and runs a successful landscaping business (important for many plot-related reasons). Buddy Lee has likewise had a chequered life with alcohol problems and a fractured relationship that has led to his typical run-down trailer existence. A plot eruption occurs when a call from the local cemetery alerts one of them to the fact that the joint tombstone of their sons has been smashed and graffitied with anti-gay slogans (this event recurs with interest later in the story).

One of the fathers uses this to draw in the other into a need to investigate for themselves what circumstances in their sons’ lives might have led to their deaths especially a mysterious ‘Tangerine’. The reader is then treated to a long trail of amateur investigations coupled with anguished re-assessments of their father-son relationships and occasional incidents that highlight the origins and practice of sexuality-based hatred and discrimination.

The fathers’ methods are certainly not conventional and are a mixture of their growing resentment and anger over their sons’ death with a similar mixture of gut reactions with occasional more thoughtful plans. The point is that just about everything they do results in mayhem of the first order. There is no holding back as weapons to hand and firearms are regularly used to deadly effect. Much to my disappointment, I found myself drawn into much of this though the detailed nature of firearms use and eventually a fertiliser bomb (Timothy McVeigh anyone?) is entered into with what might almost be taken as gusto. The ever-gory conclusion was almost inevitably a fairy story that I found frankly unconvincing.

I indicated earlier that I was discomforted by this tale. This is because I have long been aware of this tendency in American culture to see oneself as let down and disappointed by an authority that may even have managed to ally itself with all kinds of malfeasance. This can, perhaps, be traced to early elements in that culture exacerbated by lawlessness in a rapidly-expanding society, then lauded in stories, film, and TV. It has almost certainly taken root in a deal of contemporary ‘refusenik’ American culture that focuses on a loose alliance of established populist political interests and anti-Vaxxers as a symptom of an aggrieved sense of loss needing to be corrected which exists in all levels of society and at any cost.

Part of the justification for the mayhem is that the two ‘heroes’ are dealing with high-level corruption linked to a mindlessly vicious motorcycle gang. This all reaches a crescendo which I have no intention of spoiling except to comment that it is all a bit conventional if bloody. This leads me to my very personal concerns about this book. I know and understand that there are plenty of other countries that have concerns about the failure of conventional law and order mechanisms up to the point of discrimination and that there are many who feel that they are unrecognised if not deliberately ignored and unfranchised. This has long been a theme in many aspects of American story-telling with the individual often being left to seek redress for themselves in movies and TV. My own pet hate, in this regard, has been what I call the ‘John Wayne’ syndrome which is a poisonous mixture of this characteristic and easy patriarchalism.

While Jerry Bruckheimer has optioned the story for Paramount doubtless based on the action, bloodletting, and perceived political acceptability of revenging the wrongs wrought on LGBTQI individuals, I find it skates perilously close to the exploitation of those very interests. I can only hope I am not being precious. You can make your own decision.

BCC Library has 10 copies

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‘7 1/2’ by Christos Tsiolkas, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

This is Christos Tsiolkos’ seventh novel, many of which have been successfully filmed. That is not surprising given his admitted deep love of the screen from childhood onward and when younger working for a film library. Each book has usually been marked with a clear focus on specific issues such as politics, sociology, religion, sexuality etc and each with strong visual elements. The one for which I have been waiting to see in film treatment is ‘Damascus’, which was reviewed on this blog. I would certainly look forward to it. This new offering is quite different in that Tsiolkos states he wants a new focus, that of ‘Beauty’ rejecting those employed previously. You can make of the Fellini-esque title with obvious parallels to this work.

He can now be described as a highly successful as author, screenplay writer and film critic. At 56, he is continues to accumulate plaudits and prizes, the most recent being the $60,000 Melbourne Prize for literature. It is hardly surprising that he increasingly self-evaluates and can be quite harsh in rejecting themes and interests explored in his past work and focuses on how Beauty and Art are created especially by him.

“Our literature of the last half-century has been the babblings from the university. There is much I love in that chatter: incisiveness, interrogation, the engagement with reckoning. But not its arrogance, not its moral certitude, not its self-righteousness, not its smugness and not its masochism.”

“Art is akin to alchemy. An improbable undertaking. Some claim that inspiration comes in a moment, bestowed by the gods, perhaps, or springing forth from a dream. Others appeal to the merit of craft, and they suggest that only labour results in artistic revelation. This tug of war between dedication and chance, akin to that perpetual struggle between nature and nurture, will never reach a truce.”

While I enjoyed so much of this new work, it is still often simultaneously highly visual and filmic, which he admits and describes quite clearly. Yet, at the same time, I found the complexity of the structure and intrusiveness of his lengthy musings and rationalisations unlike his previous novels and hard to imagine even as a voiceover. Considering his ‘novel within the outer novel shell’, he says …

“’Sweet Thing’ will never be a movie. However, imagining it as such is the closest I have come in my life to thinking as a film director, envisaging the opening long shot of the father and the son on the roof, the screen bisected into the green of the land and the blue of the ocean. It is a scene that I have cut and re-cut until I know every cascade of light, every shift in point of view; when the camera needs to be still and when the camera is in motion. And that vision is difficult to forsake.”

This all comes about as we read about the happily partnered author (Tsiolkos himself) who goes into isolation to write a book at a NSW South Coast beachside location (almost certainly Narooma where he and his partner do actually holiday). This means that his descriptions of that space are personal and very responsive to its beauty and the people he largely briefly sees only. His only regular contacts are one local female friend and calls from his lover back in Melbourne. This and other locations are peppered with flashback memories on his emerging sexuality in his Melbourne Greek community, much of which mixes his thoughts and his keen eye for locations superbly. He certainly had me reflecting on my own passage through those years. Things regularly trigger this. When admiring at a young surfer (no shortage of those) and reflecting on his own aging …

“My glance has to be furtive. To let my stare linger for too long will betray the wantonness of my desire. This is the reality of homosexuality that all the rhetoric of liberation and the assertion of equality can never undo: that when confronted with the magnificence of heterosexual masculinity and beauty, the homosexual must submit. Even raging against the desire, perverting it, mocking it and wanting to destroy it, what traverses the rage or the perversion, the mockery or the resistance, is the indubitable power of the desired male.”

The book being written within is entitled ‘Sweet Thing’ and is full of reminiscences of the immediate past viewed from the point of view of an American-born porn star Paul (now retired from the persona of a real Porn ‘star’) and his once prostitute wife Jenna (now also retired) who have carved out an ideal Northern Rivers lifestyle. They also have a son, Aiden, who reads like the typical laid back young men I have seen in those beach communities. In a movie-style feint, Paul, the father, receives an offer of US$180,000 if he will fly all-expenses paid to LA and spend a few nights with an older wealthy man who has fallen badly for his old porn persona. The family agrees that the money would be welcome for their battered roof and all give their blessing to the enterprise which becomes a major strand in the novel.  I found this component absorbing and certainly potentially filmic almost like a ‘traditional’ Tsiolkos novel in its own right.

“If a film, I would cut to the writer of the letter, a man called Jackson, an ageing but still attractive and flamboyant queen, the tight curls of his once-black hair looking like they have been powdered with fine ash. He would be reciting the letter straight to camera, so we hear his voice and his intentions. If a play, the actor would appear on stage as Paul and Jenna are cast in half-shadow. And if a novel or a story, I would include the letter in the text, but in between the paragraphs—at suggestive moments—I would have the narrator indicate something of what Jenna or Paul are thinking as they read it.”

On balance, I can accept quite a lot of Tsiolkos’ intense self-examination which clearly rests on his own knowledge and experience but it does seem extended at times while his prose is lightly peppered with word usage that I found somewhat forced. I would like  to conclude with two fine descriptive passages.

“I watch the forests and the farmlands, those patches of concentrated green and tame yellow, go by. I follow the serpentine winding of the peninsula and cross the bridge over the Tuross River. The water is still; the narrowing band of white silt forms the firmest of borders. A flock of white cockatoos tear across the sky, heading into the inland forest. And then, moments later, a diagonal of black cockatoos follows until, in a moment of splendid riposte and a miracle of shared instinct, the black birds abruptly change direction and sweep up the river towards the sea.”

“The tide is out, and the mangroves rise craggy and knitted from the muddy embankment. The water’s surface is a clear jade; underneath, the shadows of the oyster beds are visible. The fierce sunlight bounds off the girders and the upper rails of the bridge. And the infinite ocean is an azure glory. As the sun cradles all this aspect, at the edge of my vision is the verdant frame of the eucalypts and forest she-oaks. The world is as beautiful as I have ever witnessed it. I offer one more silent thanks.”

Perhaps by presenting this range of tales sometimes paralleled, sometimes nested within one another is successful in presenting his thoughts on the nature of different kinds of beauty, Tsiolkas succeeds. You must read and make up your own mind.

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‘Growing up Queer in Australia’ by Benjamin Law (Ed.), 2019.

A review by John Cook.

While there has been an increasing number of gay and autobiographical works from the end of WWII (like David Kopay), the first clear ‘coming out’ novel for me that had a sense of direct purpose in claiming this experience that I can remember was David Rees’ ‘The Milkman’s on his way’ (1982). Since then, this has become a well-populated field especially with collections of voices providing individual illuminations on this common theme for LGBTQIA persons in all their diversity, locality and backgrounds.

Is there need for another? Of course there is. Each cohort in time needs to be able to dig into and explore the theme of self-identification, discovery and self ownership – seeing what coming out means for them and how it relates to the experiences of others in different times and places. In a multi-cultural and refugee society such as Australia now definitely has become, there is a further urgent need.

Our own Benjamin Law has seized upon the opportunity to edit just such a resource (and very pleasurable read it is too) for our times. I have to comment on this still relatively young man’s talent seen in his book and magazine publications, the delightful TV adaptation of his ‘Family Law’ and current presentation of his new TV series ‘Waltzing the Dragon’ on SBS. He is a formidable talent and we can look for a great deal more in acquainting Australians with their past, present and future riches of diversity of all kinds.

This book is largely composed of contributions from an amazingly wide variety of individuals whose backgrounds and experiences straddle the globe with all aspects of that long acronym covered. There is a listing at the rear and most have some kind of writing or public presentation background. This is a strength and a minor weakness as presumably this made it easier for Law to obtain his material. On the other hand, I would have liked some more to have come from different backgrounds even if he had to dig deeper to obtain use pliers to get the goods.

The literary quality is a little variable as is the length of the pieces though some are quite outstanding. I have my favourites that really left me sometimes gobsmacked, sometime joyful and laughing, sometimes thoughtful and condensed. I don’t want to name names but I am supplying some quotes in enjoyed (I had more but lost them in my note taker). I hope I didn’t over do the copyright limits on fair quoting.

“You can raise an entire nation of children on nothing but heterosexual imagery, and the result will still be a bunch of queer kids in there among that hetero-majority. We’ve given censorship a red-hot go as a means of preventing homosexuality and yet, even with all that straight kissing up there on the screen, there are still boys who want to kiss other boys, girls who want to kiss other girls, along with all those kids who suspect that the label ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ doesn’t quite fit them like it seemingly does everyone else. By keeping these children in the dark we don’t protect them–we just keep them in the dark.”

“Once you have kids your identity changes, you are no longer a red-hot sex-bitch lesbian; you are a parent in a very straight world. When we enrolled the kids in preschool, we said that we were a two-mummy family. The worker wrote that we were Mormon. Somehow that was a more logical leap than lesbians.”

 “The girls would stop to eye me before going back to listing their top ten euphemisms for menstruation. For my part, I would resist the urge to flick their trainer bra straps until their backs bled in tandem with their vaginas.”

“And often you will find yourself wondering where it’s all going and what it all means. There won’t be a stretch of ocean on the entire east coast that you don’t search for answers, nor a pillowcase dry from the heavy tears you’ll shed, and in those times I urge you to wrap your arms around yourself and breathe into the chaos of it all. Because time will pass no matter how much you wish for it to remain static, and the ones you love will grow old, and they will leave you on this wretched earth without their light and their loving pokes and prods; and when you’re stuck to the ceiling, bone-chilled from the injustice of being human, wishing you could find a place to scream and scream until your throat resigns, just remember that the sun rises  every morning, and it will warm your skin, and – I say this to make sure someone has said it to you – it will always get better. You will be okay. And when you finally see those you loved so deeply, whose best and worst you took to proudly build yourself, whose love defined this huge life of yours, in whatever way it happens, you’ll have such an almighty story to tell them. Trust me. “

A Big recommendation for this collection. It should be in every library in the land and especially school libraries.

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‘Merciless Gods’ By Christos Tsiolkas, 2014.

A review by John Cook.

I wrote a note on this book some years ago but have taken the opportunity to reconsider it for the next QRG meeting.

Anyone who wants to do a deep dive on this book and Tsiolkas’ work to that point can read the Sydney Review of Books review by Andrew McCann. I apologise if his careful thoughts have been absorbed in any way into what I have to say. It can be found at ..

The QRG group is well aware of ‘Loaded’ and its movie version ‘Head On’, ‘The Jesus Man’ (less well known), ‘Dead Europe’ and its film adaptation, ‘The Slap’ with an Australian TV adaptation and an NBC version followed by ‘Barracuda’ with similar media treatment. His latest book, ‘71/2’ has been recently published and I have offered my view on it to the group.

‘Merciless Gods’ is a collection of 15 short stories. Not all the material is new with 8 of the items previously published though many in small circulation magazines over 20 years. The stories vary in intensity and readability (one lost me almost entirely) but the usual Tsiolkas focus is still present as he exercises his themes of family and others relationships, love, growing old and death with an overlay of race relations and religion. The potential turmoil of a gay existence within an immigrant culture is also never far from his story-telling.

I particularly enjoyed ‘Merciless Gods’, ‘Saturn Return’ and ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’ (almost a novella) and ‘The T-Shirt with a Fist on it’ but I think I most enjoyed ‘Porn’ 1, 2 and 3. These three relative rarities examine the awkward but well-known reality of pornography making from a series of different perspectives (the mother, the bystander, the participant, the user). There is nothing didactic in them but I found them deeply touching and insightful.

Possibly T-shirt is amongst the most readable as there is relatively little ‘Tsiolkian’ in-your-face writing as it follows two older lesbians on a Middle East tour to sites in Jordan. The women are challenged several times by clashes between their US same-sex experiences, their desire to be culturally sensitive when travelling and a concluding reality check leading to a peaceful resolution. I must confess to having trod the exact same path in Jordan and other Middle East countries and was probably less shocked by their social and sexual reality and enjoyed this telling.

The story ‘Sticks, Stones’ follows a similar pattern between mother and adolescent son which is eventually somewhat resolved after an outbreak of hostilities..

“Mong. Mong. Mong. Maco. Nigger, slope, bitch and cunt and slut and fag and poofter and dyke. He did not trust their ease with words that hurt so much. She refused to believe thet they had been exorcised of their venom and their cruelty.”

Some, I know, find it hard to accept the harshness of what Tsiolkas seems determined to push into our faces, but I mostly found these stories stimulating and daring, not something to be turned away from. His skill is admirable and I believe it is a worthwhile enterprise to accept these confrontations.

McCann reflects on what Tsiolkas does to his readers ..

“Moments such as this distil Tsiolkas’ moral and political vision to its essence. The merciless gods of his fiction are the personal gods that determine our identities, whose outward manifestations – family, race, religion, class, ideology, nationality – are often inherited and inescapable. They are gods we do not choose to believe in, but they define us nevertheless. Their wrath is provoked when a well-aimed blow hits its target, strikes at a character’s core sense of self. The concept of blasphemy is, in this sense, more than an aesthetic strategy for Tsiolkas; it goes to the heart of his view of humanity.”

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“Dark Secrets: The True Story of Murder in HMAS Australia” by Robert Hadler, 2020.

A review by Grant.

I’ve just finished reading “Dark Secrets: The Ture Story of Murder in (sic) HMAS Australia”, by Robert Hadler.  In March 1942 a stoker was stabbed on the RAN’s flagship while it was in the Coral Sea, and he later died in the ship’s sickbay.  Two other stokers were convicted of murder, and this book is the story of the murder, the court martial and what followed.

No motive for the killing was ever officially put forward.  However, there was a hearsay statement that the two alleged killers were gay, part of an alleged group of gays working in the ship’s boiler room, and that the victim had threatened to expose them.  This story never came out; there was no scandal.  Instead, there was a naval court martial on board the Australia while it was in New Caledonia.  The two alleged perpetrators were found guilty and sentenced to death.  This was quickly commuted to life imprisonment, and led to eight years of campaigning for their release, accompanied by endless bureaucratic and political argument.  Eventually the two were released in 1950.  One of them got married a week later; the other apparently had straight relationships for the rest of his life.

What made the case interesting for Australian history is the death sentence — this case became the Australian Navy’s equivalent of the Breaker Morant case. When the war against Germany started in 1939, the government of Robert Menzies simply handed the RAN to the British — our ships were made part of the British Navy and were also made subject to the British Navy’s discipline and law.  But by the start of the war against Japan, the Menzies government had been replaced by the Labor government of John Curtin and his Attorney-General H.V. Evatt, both of whom were furious to find that Australia could not control its own navy for the purpose of defending Australia. Curtin’s Labor government was also against the death penalty, and in this case the government would not have allowed it to be carried out under Australian naval law. 

The only thing to be done immediately was to make a formal petition to the King for mercy — not even the Governor-General would do, presumably because he could only work within Australian law.  Mercy was given, but this formal detail absolutely spurred the government on.  Curtin and Evatt set out to enforce the acceptance of the Statute Of Westminster.  This was a formal offer of legal independence from Britain to the major dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand), which had been made in 1931.   But before the Scullin Labor government of 1931 could accept the Statute, it was defeated in an election by the UAP government led by Labor renegade Joe Lyons and his Attorney-General Menzies.  This government absolutely refused to accept the Statute on the grounds that doing so would break up the British Empire. When Joe Lyons died in 1939 shortly before the war broke out and was replaced by Menzies, Australia was still legally a colony.  That’s how and why Menzies could give away the RAN so casually, without ever thinking that at some point in a war, Australia might need to have full control over its own forces and resources.

Under the Labor government of Curtin and Evatt, Australia adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1942 by way of an Act of the Federal Parliament.  Menzies and the UAP fought it tooth and nail, for the same silly non-reason as before — if Australia took legal independence, the British Empire would break up.  They seem not to have noticed that the Statute was actually offered to the Dominions by the British themselves, as a way of keeping the Empire together after the Chanak Crisis of 1922 had threatened to make everyone re-fight the Gallipoli campaign.   The Acceptance Act did pass eventually, however,  and the British Empire did not break up on the spot, not even though the commencement of the Acceptance Act was backdated to just before the start of the war in 1939.   

The RAN tried to take no notice.  It’s true that in 1942 and 1943 both Australia and its Navy had more to worry about than the fate of just two junior sailors, but legally, the decision of the court martial was flawed.  Through bureaucratic wheeling and dealing and some general obstruction the RAN tried to keep the stokers in prison forever, only to fail eventually.  The two were released in 1950.  Menzies was once again Prime Minister by then, but he made no attempt to reverse matters.  He also did not cancel acceptance of the Statute of Westminster.

This story has its luridly exciting moments and is fired by political passion.  It has the moving determination of the two stokers’ families to help them, and the cold, stark tragedy for the victim’s family.  Unfortunately, even though the author is well aware of the important place all this has in Australian history, the book tells the story in a dull, pedestrian fashion which is plain boring.  The book was also not well edited.  There is the silly mistake in the title.  In the text there is an annoying number of silly typos, and some sloppy, childish mistakes too.  A certain woman’s weekly wage in Sydney during the 1930s is given as £3.50, a figure which never existed in Australia and which didn’t exist in Britain until 1971.  The railway distance from Sydney Central to Emu Plains is said to be 60 miles, which it certainly is not — it’s 55km, or 36 miles (at 60 miles = 96km from Sydney Central, a train is at Lawson, well and truly up in the Blue Mountains).  The author is completely ignorant of how the Pacific war was turned around — in his list of important Allied victories, he doesn’t mention the decisive ones at Midway, Kokoda and the Bismarck Sea.  Overall, this book could easily have been a lot better.

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‘Blackmail, My Love’ by Katie Gilmartin, 2014.

A review by John Cook.

This story is set in 1951 San Francisco was too early for even me to have any engagement with the gay world of that time. Author, Katie Gilmartin, however, has considerable academic historic and research capability in that time – and it shows. On the one hand, it certainly rings true in the light of all I have read, heard, or experienced, On the other, the author might have fallen in love with her sources to the point that the worthy material might overwhelm the narrative and the wide range of characters might be a little hard to remember and organize. That is an embarrassment of riches and not something about which I am inclined to complain. In more recent times, Gilmartin has segued into the art world especially printmaking and this book is generously illustrated with examples of this skill (linocuts mostly). This was a joy for me as I grew up in a world where a lot of publications used a variety of print forms and my earliest British books used woodcuts that are still in my memory. The prints here have been carefully selected and do a fine job of highlighting the noir mood at key points.

Blackmail has a long history in the gay world with the infamous Henry Du Pré Labouchere amendment which entrapped Oscar Wilde known for many years as ‘The Blackmailers Charter’ and the long list of novels, plays, and films that have explored its implications. San Francisco, with its long history of matching louche club and bar atmosphere and police and bar corruption, welcomed many post-WWII service personnel and boomed. Unfortunately, so did the corruption and mayhem. This was a time when futures were being formulated ranging from the ‘respectable’ law reform approach typified by the Mattachine Society to the ‘let’s have it on’ approach that later was highlighted by Stonewall. This book has elements of both but is realistic in focussing on the damage done by legal discrimination and the corruption of both sides of the situation resulting in death, mutilation, and the destruction of otherwise happy lifestyles and future prospects.

The author has created a brother and sister, Jimmy and Josephine/Joe O’Connor. The gay older brother arrives via the familiar armed services/police route complete with family rejection. He loses contact with his lesbian sister who idolises him and she goes West to find out what has happened to him when he makes no contact over her birthday. To improve her chances of inquiry, Josephine changes hair, clothing, etc to become the male Jo, moves into her brother’s ratty apartment, and begins to explore his friends, contacts, and social environment (clubs, taverns, and bars).

The story does become somewhat complicated as different strands compete for the reader’s attention. There is a deal of time given to Jo’s physical changes and her growing social and sexual life (at least one long sexual interaction thoroughly explored). We are treated via the narration to a lot of her ruminations over society at that time and her reactions to other’s social and moral adjustments (including religion). There are a wide variety of characters thrown up and explored, all contributing depth to the story, just occasionally a bit hard to remember. The quality of description of time, place, and action is superb, almost certainly partly the fruits of her academic research work amongst those who survived. It sometimes encapsulated the mood and tone beautifully. Joe observes two bent police collect their payoff money and order free drinks in ‘their’ glasses kept separately behind the bar. They leave and …

“The tall cop slid it into his breast pocket, then ordered two beers. The taller cop pointed to a spot high on the wall and said loudly,

“Our glasses.”

The bartender reached for two tumblers set apart on the top shelf and poured their drinks. The room was subdued and tense while they drank. Then they swaggered out like they’d swaggered in.

The entire place exhaled as the bartender bellowed, “Time to wash ‘our glasses;” and a stampede ensued.

By the time I reached the alley a crowd circled the two tumblers sitting on the pavement. I peered between shoulders. Six men, flies unzipped, peed into the glasses as urine spilled over like frothy champagne.”

Sounds like Brisbane some time ago.

Our comfortably cross-dressing Jo explores her feelings and thoughts about her sexuality which is gradually resolved. She meets a lot of diverse people, hears a lot of stories and becomes closely involved in all aspects of  this ‘demi-mondaine’ life while always pursuing her desire to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance and help out those she encounters along the way. She meets a dubious French Duchess at a costume party who predicts the never-ending essence of what is now Trumpism in American society…

“And in love, as well,” the duchess added. “Everyone was sleeping with everyone, everyone tried everything – why not? We were all after love in all its forms!” Her face clouded, and she sighed deeply, “la société américaine is in the dark ages here, ‘époque médiévale. Herds of sheep fearing those who have frightening masks put over their faces, and esteeming those who promise to protect them from the boogeymen. There are populaces around the globe clamoring for democracy, and here you have it–and you would rather find a fasciste to follow! Zut alors-this is a party, and I have become morose” she amended apologetically. “Please forgive me.” Turning to Tiny she smiled and cried, “Come, we’ll find you a trumpet,” then carried her off toward the band.”

On the subject of how being a gay outlaw meshed with religious beliefs, the author offers a conversation about an uncle Terrance that very closely describes the values of a dear (now departed) religious friend of mind confronted with the same division (Hi Terry!) …

“When Lucille continued, her voice was soft, more tentative, “About this God thing. I don’t know any more about it than anyone else. We’re plunked down in a mystery, and if we didn’t know it before, the war made clear that those in charge don’t know any more than the rest of us.

I had an uncle, my Uncle Terrance, who was a traveling preacher. He was also a drinker, a gambler, and a womanizer, but he always repented in time for Sunday morning’s sermon. He said his own shortcomings in the sin department helped him better understand his flock. I don’t think he was a bad man or even a bad preacher. I think he was simply just as kind, generous, and forgiving toward himself as he was toward everyone else. So when he sinned, he brushed himself off, repented, and started over again. Doing this weekly didn’t seem to trouble him.” In the dim light, Lucille looked older, probably closer to her age. To me she was luminous.

“Uncle Terrance was my primary authority on the subject of God. When I was very young I asked him what God looked like. We were out on the front porch. He leaned back in his chair, chewing on some tobacco, and said, ‘Well, that’s a mighty fine question, Lucy, fine.

The Bible tells us God created us in his image. So he must look a lot like us. But I’m here to tell you something else. I think we also created him in our image. We think of all the attributes that are good and fine, all the things we would like to be, and that’s what we make God out to be. A finer version of ourself. And then that’s what we strive for, what we strive to be ourselves. So build yourself a beautiful God to guide you.”

Notwithstanding what I have seen as some of its weaknesses, this is a fine absorbing read that entertains while quietly educating the reader on the past and continuing strands of the gay and lesbian life. Warmly recommended.

(BCC library has 4 copies)

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‘Codename Villanelle’ by Luke Jennings, 2016.

A review by John Cook.

I confess to not being a James Bond fan. My preference lies with a good heist movie whether things ago awry or not. I enjoy sensing motivation and some complication which I don’t find in the Bond series and very little so in this evidently successful book which is a compilation of related stories with the added frisson of some lesbian sex. I must say I was disappointed in this respect also as I finished ‘Blackmail, My Love’ immediately before this where I thought this element was beautifully expressed. I do, however, like to hear about exotic locations and some details of lavish lifestyles but only up till the point where boredom and disinterest set in and this happened also with this book. A better example of this would be Shanghai and the French concession which I have known. Jennings is clearly an experienced and successful author with varied offerings that often encompass his interests in dance and intelligence work. I would not describe this book as soft sex and violence porn-oriented but perhaps the original three kindle stories were originally written with a view to being seen on a screen which was realised  with “Killing Eve’. I listened to the book narrated by Laura Kidman who did a good job with atmosphere and accents.

The antagonist and protagonist are both women drawn as almost polar opposites. Oxana Vorontsova while studying linguistics (helpful for her future employ and the title of this book) is ‘blackmailed’ after a family vengeance killing into becoming an assassin (Villanelle) for a mysterious, wealthy, powerful consortium called ‘The Twelve’ (conspiracy anyone?). Its motives are unknown but has a clear agenda to eliminate opposition or tedious human difficulties. Her ‘work’ takes her around the world at a moment’s notice where she efficiently murders with clear descriptions of her weapons of choice ranging from a variety of firearms to a cai dao. There is never going to be much sympathy evoked with her character but I detected virtually none. Eve Polastri is something in British intelligence which is described as being somewhat more bumbling, inefficient and underfunded than the darkside – a familiar theme over the years as in the Turing episode. Of course, this approach will win, as it always does, while Eve does seem a bit more dimensional along with her long-suffering husband Niko (my personal favourite).

The two are not only in opposition, obsession begins to loom especially on the part of Eve who does seem, at least, to show concern for her partner and relationship. With Villanelle, it all seems inevitable both in action and motivation to the easily guessed conclusion. The unusual title leads to lots of guesses starting from the name of a perfume to the structure of the books and or the repetitive elements of the narrative. Your guess is as good as mine. Jennings is certainly a very competent writer, easy to read with the alternations between pointedly scenic passages and deadly action well done and even occasion humour.

The action jumps around the world with occasional flashes of locale interest with essential the same event being repeated. While I see this as competent work with interesting plot mechanisms, I found it lacking in even the smallest amounts of empathy I would have preferred.

(BCC library has 2 copies, 95 Mp3)

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