Posted in reviews

‘Fool’s Errand’ by Louis Bayard

The first of the holiday reads…

Fool\'s ErrandGorgeous, just gorgeous! This book is warm, funny, lively, involving and, er, did I mention gorgeous?

It tells the story of Patrick, a gay man living in Washington DC who falls asleep at a friend’s house and sees the man of his dreams. But has he dreamt ‘Scottie’ (so called because he was wearing a cranberry Shetland jumper) or does he really exist? Patrick sets off on a quest to find Scottie again and embarks on a crazy carousel ride of broken relationships, broken down cars, new friendships, new directions, and ultimate happiness – with a houseful of rats and a dog thrown in for good measure.

Bayard’s writing is sheer joy. The words flow so skillfully that you’re hardly aware of them as you immerse yourself in Patrick’s ever-so kooky world. It’s a real slice of life, too, full of intricate detail and the sort of ruefully amusing everyday disasters that happen (all too often) to us all. I didn’t often laugh out loud, but there was hardly a page where I didn’t smile at something. And the romance, unexpected in a book written by a man, is believable and very, very sweet.

If I had to grumble about anything I’d say Patrick’s change of heart at the end is a little too sudden and unexplained. But that’s only a niggle in a simply wonderful book. This is only Bayard’s first novel. I can’t recommend it enough and will definitely be on the lookout for more.

Posted in reviews

‘Love is a Four Letter Word’ by Claire Calman

I have to admit to struggling with this book. It started off quite well – very much chick-lit, but snappy and smart and quite true-to-life. The heroine moved to a new area and the details of the house move were straight out of real life, with mishaps galore and boxes that gradually migrated around the house without ever being unpacked. And the heroine’s run-ins with a truly dreadful mother were priceless.

But oh dear, as soon as the love interest was introduced it turned into yet another (yawn) romance novel. The hero was a complete block and I couldn’t get the least bit worked up about the ‘will they won’t they’ nature of their relationship. Added to that, the most important thing in the heroine’s life was whether/when she would next have sex – but surely women these days think about more than that?

Some of the plot devices were decidedly old. I mean, come on, can’t the writer think of anything more original to keep hero and heroine apart, than heroine seeing nappies in hero’s shopping trolley at the supermarket? *rolls eyes* I saw through that one in about 5 seconds flat and I can’t believe everyone else won’t do the same.

As a first novel it wasn’t bad, but too often it read as though it was written by numbers, or as a response to a writing tutorial. You know – the tutor tells the author she needs conflict between heroine and her parents, so she puts in conflict. Then the tutor tells her the hero should be a new man, so she writes that in too. It’s all very well, but the characters then come across as a writing exercise rather than as real people, and all the dramatic tension is lost because you just can’t care about them.

I’m beginning to see why She Magazine was giving the book away free. Reading it straight after Patrick Gale was not a particularly happy contrast.

Posted in reviews

‘Rough Music’ by Patrick Gale

rough musicIt’s always very satisfying when you find a totally ‘new’ author you’d never even heard of before, read one of their books and love it, because it opens up a whole new world of books to grab from the library or buy. And at this point I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to my friend Fennie for telling me about Patrick Gale, because this is exactly what happened to me when I read this book.

To put it briefly, I couldn’t put the thing down. I read and read and read, stayed up far too late at night, and finished the whole thing in two days flat, which is quite incredible for me.

So, what makes it so gripping? In a word, characters. Nice, everyday, engaging, likeable, real characters, who jump off the page and take up residence in your living room, so vividly do they come across.

This doesn’t mean the book is light and fluffy. The sections dealing with the hero’s mother’s illness and gradual deterioration with Alzheimer’s are both true to life and harrowing, and there’s also a doomed love affair and family problems and rifts galore. Overall, though, the feel is surprisingly upbeat and the resolution for the hero is nicely satisfying.

The early part of the novel is set around Wandsworth prison and is apparently the closest thing to autobiography Gale has yet written. It also involves a character based on Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, who influences future events in the hero’s life to a surprising degree.

I can’t praise the book or the writer enough and will definitely be on the lookout for more of his titles to devour.

Posted in reviews

‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx

the shipping newsEvery now and again a book comes along that’s a real classic and this is one of ’em – sheer brilliance inside a dust jacket. And yet I very nearly didn’t read it at all.

Partly this was due to the style of the prose which is light, impressionistic, and full of partial sentences and dense Newfoundland dialect, making it quite hard to understand. Even more, it was due to the nature of the main character, Quoyle, an ugly and uninspired hulk of a man who is less a hero than a bag-pudding of faults and neuroses. I may not want all my heroes to be tall, dark and lantern-jawed but it is nice to find they have some redeeming features, and in the first few chapters Quoyle has none.

Until one particular incident, when his ex-wife takes their children and he sets off in dogged pursuit. I suddenly realised that he is a real person after all and that deep down he’s even quite likeable, and I began to turn the pages more quickly. And I’m very, very glad I did because this book is quite simply wonderful. The characters are beautifully drawn, their day-to-day lives and relationships fascinating enough to keep the reader hooked, and the descriptions of the Newfoundland scenery and way of life are stunning. I read the book as though I was there, sitting in the newspaper office with Quoyle, or eating strange fish dishes in the local cafeteria, or out in a fishing boat on the stormy sea. When I finished, it was quite a lurch to come back to the real world outside the pages of Proulx’s book.

The book’s been made into a film starring Kevin Spacey, which I’ve never managed to see. I have no idea if it does Proulx’s writing justice or not but I’ll be looking out for it for sure.

Posted in reviews

‘From Blue to Black’ by Joel Lane

from blue to black 

The title of this book is wonderfully appropriate, both in its suggestion of the book’s noir genre and in its reflection of the incredible monochromatic atmosphere Joel Lane conjures up.

Because there is almost no colour in his narrative. Everything described is either black, white or in endless shades of gray, with only the occasional explosion of vivid colour (a pink sunset, a blaze of orange fire) to break the monotony. But this isn’t a criticism, since the device captures the mood of the novel to perfection. Its prose may be colour-less but it’s never colourless.

The main character, David, himself lives a colourless life, playing bass in a band and drifting through the suburbs and bars of Birmingham, footloose but hardly fancy-free. Until he meets Karl, the tortured genius lead-singer, and falls in love. Karl brings colour to David’s life, but it’s colour of a strange, dark sort, all dark tones and heavy shadows. Because Karl is a manic depressive and a burgeoning alcoholic, and in trying to destroy himself he begins to take David down with him.

The ensuing relationship between the two men, told in the context of the rise and fall of an eighties indie rock band, is an emotional roller-coaster and the book packs a powerful punch, so much so that I was emotionally black and blue by the end. Happily-ever-after this book emphatically ain’t.

Every nuance of language is masterly. The pared down narrative flows from the dingy back streets of Birmingham to the dingier backstages and bars of a rock tour via the dark, even nightmarish landscapes of a depressive’s mind. The descriptions are vivid and sometimes shocking, the action tense, and there is an eerie, ghostlike quality to some of the scenes.

‘From Blue to Black’ is not a book to cosy up with. It lacks any kind of a happy ending, its characters are sometimes aggravating, sometimes downright unlikeable and the downward spiral of destruction is relentless. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Yes, I was exhausted by the time I’d finished it, but I felt that I’d read something worthwhile, something different from the endless array of bright romances and glitzy thrillers that fill the bookshop shelves. Black and blue it might be, but it’s also extremely good.


This article first appeared in Forbidden Fruit.

Posted in reviews

‘The Linguist’ by Sebastian Beaumont

the linguistThis book sounded absolutely wonderful when I first picked it up off the library shelf. “A chilling story of the aftermath of a love triangle and the complexities of self discovery, therapy and reconciliation”, it beguilingly said. Or how about, “Howard, 32, a translator, interpreter and prostitute, fell in love with Corinne. Her husband Matthew fell in love with Howard.” And that was just the first few lines of blurb. How could I resist?

Unfortunately, to me at least, the book didn’t live up to its billing. The triangle only appears in flashback, since the book is set at the time of Matthew’s illness and subsequent death. This means that all the action is in the past, and Beaumont adds to the effect by using a ‘reportage’ style past tense which gives rise to passages such as, “They’d often conducted long conversations. On one occasion, they discussed Erich Fromm’s philosophy and he’d laughed about how completely Matthew was subscribing to irrational workaholism….”. It’s dry, it’s distancing, it’s dull – yet this is supposed to be two vibrant characters caught up in a passionate love affair. It’s also horribly ‘tell not show’. Imagine the same passage done in real time, in dialogue, with Howard teasing Corinne about her husband’s workaholism and Corinne laughing…. It could all have been so different, and so much more involving.

The whole tone of the writing seemed overly dry and cautious to me. What little dialogue there was seemed to be used to speak the author’s thoughts rather than to develop the characters or give any real indication of their daily conversations. When was the last time you heard a woman saying “If only love could be as rational as that….”, for example? The fact that the dialogue is “murmured’ doesn’t help; I’ve yet to meet a woman who murmurs, except perhaps in her sleep.

That was another niggle, if a rather more minor one – there seemed to be too much use of recurring ‘prop’ or ‘buzz’ words which neither the author nor the editor had spotted. Characters murmured their lines on every other page, and the word ‘institutional’ was used three times to describe furniture or settings in the space of a few pages. It’s minor stuff, yes, but it was irritating enough to take this reader outside the story.

The biggest surprise of all was the lack of gay content. This is a book written by a gay man, published by Gay Men’s Press and stacked in the gay and lesbian section at the library. Yet the only reference to homosexuality was Matthew’s reported love for Howard, which was only reported and never described or displayed. True, Matthew had a boyfriend who appeared briefly in the pages and seemed never to be referred to again. True, Howard mentioned a homosexual encounter from his time as a prostitute—but it was a passing reference used to explain why he didn’t like men. And the much-hyped love triangle trumpeted on the cover was merely a straight man falling in love with a married woman, with all the consequences that brings. I found myself longing for Matthew to make a pass, or Howard to realise that he’d fallen for the wrong one, but no—the situation remained the same from page one to the book’s bitter end.

An end, sadly, I have to admit I never actually reached. I read the first few chapters with growing disillusionment and boredom, then flipped ahead to see what happened next. When I found that the only ‘self-discovery’ Howard made was that Corinne killed herself, I gave up. I have a weakness for gay writing, and gay romance in particular, and I badly wanted to like this book, especially after the build-up on the cover. But it wasn’t to be. In the end I cast it aside and took up Armistead Maupin instead, and you know what? I couldn’t find it in me to care!


This article first appeared in Velvet Mafia