Tag Archives: fiction

It could never happen…

Could it?  After all, police officers are there to uphold the law, not bend it to their own devices or desires.  However, the more often I read about cases like this, where an undercover officer had a relationship with a woman, whilst operating undercover using an assumed identity, the more I realise that that ain’t necessarily so.

100NecessitysDoorAnd this is exactly the sort of background I was thinking of when I wrote Necessity’s Door, just over three years ago now.  Back then, details about cases like this were only just beginning to creep out of the woodwork, but they were there if you knew where to look.  I didn’t reproduce them exactly (my hero is gay, where this case involves a heterosexual relationship) but they provided suitable inspiration for all sorts of ‘what if’ scenarios involving undercover police and just how far they would/should go to maintain their cover.

Including, it seems, lying to the people they were sleeping with about the fact that they were police.

It all goes to show that however outlandish a writer’s plots, real life almost always manages to be another shade darker, and to surprise us in all sorts of ways.

If you’d like to read Necessity’s Door for yourselves and see where I took the inspiration and ran off with it to, then it’s still available as an e-book on Amazon US or UK.  Happy reading, and don’t forget – however unlikely it sounds, the book is based on fact!

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‘Boulevard’ by Jim Grimsley

boulevard

Boulevard

Don’t you just hate it when you find a book with a cover so awful that you very nearly don’t read it at all? This happened with ‘Boulevard’ – the copy I picked up in the library had a photo of a young man on the front that was so ‘blond brain-dead Eighties porno-flick twink’ that I was embarrassed to take the book to the desk. In the end I sandwiched it between two duller tomes and got it home, and found that the contents are nothing like the cover.

Yes, this is a book that skirts around the sleazier aspects of queer life, but it’s so much more than porn. Yes, the hero could probably be described as a twink, but he isn’t blond and he certainly isn’t stupid.

‘Boulevard’ is set in New Orleans in the pre-AIDS 1970s, and tells the story of Newell, a young man from the sticks who’s come to the city for a job, some excitement, but mostly to find himself. At first he struggles – no job means no money, no money means nowhere to live, no fixed address means no job. But then he’s drawn to an adult bookstore in the gay quarter of town and finds work there, and his life starts to fall into place. He meets a wide variety of characters – ageing queen Henry, tragic transsexual Miss Sophia, druggie Mark, dangerous Jack – who open his eyes to the gay lifestyle and to his own burgeoning sexuality.

My eyes were also opened the more I read. By the time I discovered gay fiction AIDS was a permanent and tragic fixture in the world, and I was startled by the element of ‘gay abandon’ in these mens’ lives. The endless round of night-clubs and bars, the casual sex, the movie-booths at the back of the bookstore with their constant couplings (and treblings and quadruplings by the sound of it) – the gay world was clearly a very different place back then.  As an inexperienced virgin Newell allows himself to be drawn into this colourful but seedy world, but he’s tougher than he first appears and can take care of himself.

Grimsley’s writing is amazing. In any other context this would be called literature; the fact that he’s writing about sleaze doesn’t detract from the elegance and sheer cleverness of his prose. The book’s structure, though, is odd, and it’s debatable whether this is a novel at all, or a collection of linked short stories. It consists of several separate sections, each a different length and each told from a different point of view. The first and longest, which takes us through Newell’s early days in the city and his search for work and a place to live, is easily the most engaging. After that the sections centre round some of the book’s other characters – people who are important to Newell or that he comes into contact with on a daily basis – but Newell himself is often only mentioned in passing. The penultimate section is, to be honest, a complete dog’s breakfast of head-hopping from one character to another, as the action heats up towards the climax and is seen in different ways by different people at the same time. I found this section particularly confusing as it’s not always clear where the switch is and who’s actually ‘speaking’. The only way to tell is by subtle changes in the style of the narrative.

The twist at the end is clever, and I’m still not entirely sure I know exactly what happened, but I don’t mind because it fits perfectly with the nature of the book, and the lifestyle and setting it describes. And that setting is every bit as important as the characters. The spirit of New Orleans, with its constant rain, its gleaming reflective pavements, its beautiful old buildings and its air of gentle decay, shines off the pages every bit as much as Newell’s pretty face. What a pity the publisher didn’t put something of that on the front cover instead.

~~~~~

First published in Forbidden Fruit magazine.

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‘Time and Place’ by Alan Sheridan

Okay, I’ll admit it – this book had me baffled. It was billed as a fictionalised biography based on the diaries of a real-life actor, Mark Sheridan, as written by his descendant Alan Sheridan, but I have to admit I couldn’t tell if this was the case, or if it was really just a novel in disguise, so skilfully was it written.

The story was told in first person as though by Mark himself, almost-but-not-quite in the form of a diary of his experiences in the acting world, and earlier as the son of a diplomat based in China and Russia in the late nineteenth century. Much of the book (biography? novel?) was set in Peking and St Petersburg, with lengthy travelogue-style descriptions of both cities, as well as lengthy but slightly less orthodox descriptions of Mark’s many encounters with men. His essays on the usefulness of public conveniences as pick-up joints at a time when homosexuality was still expressly forbidden across most of Europe were quite an eye-opener!

The sense of place, then, was beautifully suggested. I felt I knew the avenues of Paris, the canals and underground toilets of St Petersburg, and the compounds and back streets of Peking, and that I was there with Mark as he explored, rutted, and trod the boards.

Where I was less convinced was with Sheridan’s handling of the time-scales involved. The book (novel? biography?) opens in the early twentieth century with Mark as a fully fledged actor but soon skips back to China and Russia of the 1890s when he was still a child, and from then on it leap-frogs backwards and forwards from the 1920s to the 1900s to the 1890s in a endless and bewildering series of flashbacks. Each section was complete in itself and each one nicely presented the time in which it was set, but I soon found my head was spinning and any continuity of narrative was hopelessly lost.

This applied to the central relationship as well. When we first met Mark he was living with another actor, the young Esmé, but their meeting wasn’t described until at least two-thirds of the way through the novel, after a series of other affairs, some earlier and some later. Even then the description of what must have been a life-changing event was curiously flat, and the same applied to many of the other encounters with men, be they political dialogues with diplomats or mutual masturbation sessions with rough trade. I never got the feeling that I knew the characters half so well as the places they visited.

Overall I found the book rather like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts. Beautiful scenery does not a novel make, and once I’d waded through several hundred pages of constantly-switching time and place, I struggled to finish the book.

Originally published at Speak Its Name.

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‘Haweswater’ by Sarah Hall

haweswaterI bought this book just before we went on holiday to the Lake District, because it happens to be set in… the Lake District! There’s a lovely sepia photo of a lakeland scene on the cover, and the story it tells is one of human drama and tragedy in the 1930s, when the Manchester City Waterworks bought and flooded an entire lakeland valley, Mardale, to create a massive reservoir for their city. This forced many farming families off their own land and drowned an entire village which had existed for many hundreds of years. ‘Haweswater’ concentrates on one particular family in the valley, the Lightburns – farmer Sam, Ella his wife, and their children Janet and Isaac. Janet is the book’s main protagonist, who grows up to be a bit of a ‘wild child’ and has a stormy relationship with Jack, the man sent by the MCW to break the news to the local community.

The book has already won at least one international award, and every last review quoted on the cover uses words like ‘striking’ and ‘brilliant’ and ‘original’. Which is all true – it is brilliant and it’s certainly original. The trouble is, it’s also difficult, uncomfortable writing that really isn’t very likeable. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t need a book to be the written equivalent of Mantovani in order to enjoy it. In fact, I quite like a challenge. But there are times when that challenge feels as if it’s an end in its own right and that’s very much the case here.

The narrative has no flow to it, either in terms of chronology or language. The early part of the book skips about from one disconnected scene to another, changing characters, changing point of view, and committing the supposedly cardinal sin of starting with the main character’s birth. Yes, it builds back story, but it’s also something of a wade since the real action doesn’t start until about a third of the way through. On top of that, whole sections are written in the style of a report. One chapter begins, “It was customary for the members of the Mardale Women’s Institute to meet in each other’s homes every other week…” and rather than working information into the narrative, gives a potted history of the local WI in a couple of paragraphs of what anyone else would call an ‘info dump’. If that’s not ‘tell not show’ I don’t know what is.

The only way I can describe the language is ‘spiky’. It’s like a piece of modern art – all angles and straight lines and stop-and-start. Some of the imagery is staggering, but too often it’s swallowed up in its own cleverness, as though the whole thing was an exercise in creative writing rather than flowing from the writer’s heart. There are way too many trendy devices, such as using partial sentences (“Soft, breezy May of this land-altering year in Mardale.”), using a dash rather than quote marks to indicate speech, and writing the northern dialect phonetically. All these are unnecessary, come across as pretentious, and get horribly in the way of the story. Never using the word ‘said’ may be an interesting exercise for a college class, but in the middle of a novel it makes it hard to work out who’s speaking, especially in long exchanges of dialogue or where there’s more than two characters talking. And the phonetics are quite simply baffling, even to a reader who grew up in the north of England. Do we really need every instance of ‘right’ to be spelt ‘reet’, or ‘take’ to be ‘tek’? Isn’t it already obvious that northern people speak that way, without ramming it down the reader’s throat? It gives rise to lines of dialogue like:

Cy, cy, gan ower bridge;

Yan or two.  A week, mebbi less.  Best git yer breeches out, lass;

Tek it off. Get on, gaily lad.

All of which is exhausting, and desperately unlovely to read.  A skilled author should be able to suggest dialect without having to (quite literally) spell it out.

The characters are every bit as unlikeable as the prose, and felt stage-managed into ciphers for particular themes rather than being allowed to develop as human, believable people in their own right. Janet’s mother in particular is clearly meant to represent the anger and religious zeal of the local people in their fight against the reservoir, and comes off the page as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. And a bit of a stereotype, if truth be told. How many times have we seen embittered northern battle-axe farmers’ wives in tv dramas over the years? Weren’t any of them kind, or friendly, or well-read?

Janet herself is like a 1960s hippie or an outcast from Greenham Common, hanging about the hills in little more than a cotton dress and wellies, visiting the local pub with the men, and generally acting in a way that would have been wholly unacceptable at the time. I found it almost impossible to believe that her decent, God-fearing father or her Puritanical mother would have allowed her that much freedom to roam, or that the community as a whole wouldn’t have cold-shouldered her if she’d really behaved that way. My mother grew up in a northern city at about the same time, and there was no way she would have been allowed to mooch about outdoors alone without being labelled as ‘no better than she ought to be’.  Once again, it felt as though the character only existed in order to carry out the tasks assigned to her by the author. She didn’t feel real.

And as for the local artist who’s written in simply to introduce the ‘hero’, Jack, and promptly vanishes again as though the waters of Haweswater had closed above his head, the less said about using him as a device the better.

If I sound cross, it’s because I am, a little. I get so tired of critics falling on books and praising them for their brilliance, only to find that the same books are virtually unreadable. I had high hopes of this one, which has a setting I love and a story that should have been fascinating. Told in a more traditional format, with believable characters, a workable chronology to build the tension of unfolding events, and the skill to immerse the reader in the story, it could have been gripping. As it is, the author is so busy being clever that the poignant human drama she’s supposed to be telling us about gets lost in the noise. And I paid £8 for a book I can’t even read.

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‘The Whaleboat House’ by Mark Mills

I read Mills’ ‘The Savage Garden’ last year and thoroughly enjoyed it (a garden *and* a mystery – what’s not to like *g*) so when I saw another title by the same author I grabbed it.  Oddly, it isn’t a follow-up; ‘The Whaleboat House’ is actually his first novel, republished under a different title.  I can only assume that it didn’t do terribly well first time round, but they re-released it when ‘Savage Garden’ proved more successful.

I hope it fares better second time around because it’s a fantastic book.  Set on Long Island, it involves the death of a beautiful young socialite, and the search for truth by the fisherman who finds her body.  There are twists and turns galore, but this is no ordinary murder mystery.  Every last detail of the Long Islanders’ intensely rural way of life is lovingly recreated, as is the tension between the early settlers and the new influx of wealthy incomers which provides an atmospheric backdrop to the events of the story.  I’ve never visited Long Island so I don’t know how authentic Mills’ descriptions and characterisations are, but he’s clearly done his homework (in spades) and the result comes across as entirely genuine and very gripping. 

The mystery is almost the least important part of the book, but it works very well and keeps the reader guessing pretty much up to the last page.  I hesitate to mention red herrings in a book about fishermen *g* but there are plenty, as well as a couple of neat twists, one of which I saw coming and the other I didn’t.

My only real complaint is about the use of American spellings and terminology throughout, and I admit this is rather a gray area.  The book is after all set in America with American characters, and to have them using British English would be wrong.  On the other hand, it’s written by a British author and has been published in Britain for a British audience – and in that case, the use of American spellings does look a little odd.

This was never enough to distract me from turning the pages with rapidly increasing speed.  Once I’d finished the book I felt bereft and even now, several weeks later, I still miss it and want to crawl back into the fascinating world Mills has created inside his pages.  I’m hoping there’ll be a third novel very soon.

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‘In the Company of the Courtesan’ by Sarah Dunant

courtesan I first came across this author when a friend gave me her first novel, ‘Birth of Venus’, for Christmas. Straight away I loved her style of writing, but in that case found the story a little too tragic. Thankfully, ‘Courtesan’ has none of the same aching sense of sadness and wasted lives, being a bawdy, boisterous romp set in the high-class brothels of sixteenth century Venice.

Dunant’s writing is every bit as vivid in this as her previous book. The sights, sounds and smells of late Medieval Europe come bouncing off the page and the whole world is brought to life so skillfully that you never really see it as ‘history’, just as people living in their own world in their own way. The characters too are engaging; the book is told (mostly) from the point of view of Bucino, a dwarf who acts as pimp to his lady, Fiammetta. He’s slightly gruff and occasionally neurotic but his flaws give him a wonderfully human personality and he really is the driving force of the book. Other characters are seen through his eyes which perhaps distances them slightly from the reader but brings him to life even more.

My only real criticism of the book is the tense. It’s all written in first person present tense (‘I do this, then I say that’) which I found quite intrusive at times. It adds to the drama in the more dramatic scenes, but elsewhere it just seems to get in the way of the story. And there is one section, towards the beginning of the book where Bucino and Fiammetta arrive in Venice for the first time, which is suddenly told in third person omniscient, as though seen through the eyes of the city herself. That really did jolt me outside the story, and the device is never repeated. It would perhaps have been better to use the same style at the beginning of each new section, to show that it was there to achieve a specific effect, rather than just being a mistake.

However, that’s a small quibble in a very entertaining and informative book. You only have to look at the impressive bibliography at the end to see that Dunant has done simply heaps of research and it really shows. Not that she ever drops lumps of factual information into the narrative in the way some writers do – it’s more just that she uses the information to build up an entirely convincing, warm, and realistic backdrop to an entertaining story.

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‘Death of a Monk’ by Alon Hilu

death of a monkFinding this book at all was something of a happy accident, since I’d never even heard of the author, let alone the title. This isn’t really surprising as Hilu is an Israeli writer and Death of a Monk was translated from Hebrew by an American scholar. Browsing the shelves of an Aladdin’s cave of a second-hand book shop in London’s Soho district, I thought the title looked intriguing and pulled the book out for a closer look. Straight away the blurb caught my eye, with various euphemisms for gay content: ‘close friendship with another boy’, ‘all is not as it seems’, ‘ill-advised relationship’. I sometimes think we slash-lovers have to develop a special radar to spot these codes!

That said, nothing about the blurb or the cover prepared me for this book. The artwork and the quotes, including one calling the work ‘gleefully bawdy’ from The Tablet, led me to expect a Gordon Merrick-style romp, but the book is much, much more than that. It tells the story, in his own words, of Aslan Farhi, a young Jewish man growing up in 1840s Damascus, whose actions led to a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community who were accused of murdering a Christian monk.

Heavily based on fact, the book brings to life a period of history I knew nothing about. Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Damascus had come under the rule of the rebel, Christian, Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali. In the century before the foundation of the Israeli state when Jews were still scattered across the Middle East, Moslems, Christians and Jews lived cheek-by-jowl in the city, each with their own ‘quarter’ but mingling on a daily basis. Under the surface, though, the old tensions still ran deep and when the monk Tomaso and his manservant disappeared, it led to claims and counter-claims, betrayals and accusations, between and even within the various faiths.

The most noticeable thing about the book is its style. Hilu uses florid, almost poetic language. Here in the West writers are told not to let their voice get in the way of the story, yet Hilu does just that. Every noun has at least one adjective, tenses switch with confusing regularity, and Aslan himself hops between first and third person point of view, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. And oh! – those sentences! Some of them go on for years! Take this, for example:

And lo, in spite of his great weakness, when he takes notice of our sudden appearance at the door Alexis rises to his feet and greets us warmly, and he surprises Aslan by remembering his name, and their earlier embrace remains fresh in his memory, and after receiving us with a bright countenance he turns, suddenly outraged, his hands grasping a chair in his path, and asks Mahmoud why those men accused of Tomaso’s murder have not yet been hanged, why they are still contaminating this beautiful God-given earth with their tainted breath, for indeed their disgraceful, evil holiday is nigh upon them and their unleavened bread has been baked in preparation for the Seder night, drops of the murdered Tomaso’s blood concealed between its rows to satisfy their savage cravings, and he pounds the chair with a trembling hand, loses his balance and tumbles to the centre of the holy room, and now he pummels the chapel floor so that Jesus and Mary, sculpted into the wall above him, can witness his fury and the war he is waging.

Phew! That may be the longest sentence in the book (or even in existence) but it’s not the only example. Towards the end I was starting to find it tiresome and to wish that Hilu would just ’shut up and get on with it’ as the story of the libel unfolded. There are even frequent authorly interruptions of the ‘dear reader’ kind. These are explained at the end, in a neat twist, but I couldn’t help thinking the explanation would have been helpful earlier on. The style does, though, give the book a lyrical, almost biblical feel and some of the imagery is stunning:

…I thought about those persons I was leaving behind, and they are now buried in the pages of this book, alive one minute and frozen the next, trapped inside a short description, a fistful of words, their fate bound and sealed until a reader brings them to life….

Homosexuality forms an ongoing theme, as Aslan struggles to come to terms with his ‘different’ nature, his forced marriage, his distaste for his wife and his attraction to other men. His confusion – even fear – is strongly portrayed, at times bordering on melodrama, but I think that’s necessary to explain some of his more extreme actions. He’s a man in torment from the first pages of the book. There are sex scenes and some of these are surprisingly explicit for a mainstream book – the author isn’t afraid of calling a testicle a testicle. They are, however, always couched in the same very poetic language.

Overall, Death of a Monk is a strange book, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. It throws light on a fascinating episode in history, and not just on the ‘Damascus Blood Libel’ itself but also on a Middle Eastern way of life which has probably vanished for ever. It’s entertaining, it’s earthy, it contains flashes of gallows humour, and above all it’s a compelling read. The style may be peculiar at times, at least to our eyes, but I believe it adds to the atmosphere. The translator has done an excellent job maintaining Hilu’s authorial voice; lose that and it would be like rewriting the Song of Solomon as a particularly tedious newspaper report!

(Originally posted on Speak Its Name)

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