T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

Well Read Wednesday: Oscar by Jack Ladd

Although a relative newcomer to the m/m writing community, Jack Ladd has certainly hit the ground running. His first novel was the acclaimed Oscar Down Under which was a finalist in the 2017 Rainbow awards. Oscar is in fact a prequel to this tale and was written over an 18 month period, published online in fortnightly chapters.

This style of episodic publishing has worked for a great many very successful authors from Charles Dickens to Armistead Maupin. I see no reason why Jack Ladd should not emulate these great men although that is where any similarities end. Dickens may have tackled some difficult topics in his day but I fear that the world as described in the pages of Oscar might have him gathering up his Victorian sensibilities and running for the hills!

So, who is Oscar and what is this world of his?

Set in a not-so-distant past, in the final year of an all-boys high school in a small English town, this dark, contemporary erotic tale introduces Oscar, an eighteen-year-old publicly outed, shunned by his peers, abandoned by his mother and psychologically abused by his father.

However, as the cruel weeks pass, Oscar soon discovers that there are plenty of perks to being the only openly gay guy in school, even if he’d had no choice in the matter. Especially when Adam Stanmore, rugby captain and king of the playground, pops up on his MSN messenger.

As Oscar sets about a plan for revenge, refusing to let his tormentors get the better of him, the walls he builds not only protect him: they isolate him. Further and further he cuts himself off from the world in a bid to stay strong, but at what cost?

Based on true events, Oscar is an extremely graphic articulation of a generation growing up in a sexualised society. But with such a need and yearning for physical intimacy to allow him to feel anything at all, does he have any hope in love? And will he ever truly understand what it is?

I was gripped by the story right from the start. This is no light, fluffy read and if your stories require a ‘happy ever after’ ending I’m afraid that you will be disappointed. I urge you however not to dismiss is so easily. Whilst it may be a heart-rending, ball-wrenching story, it’s packed full of pathos and promise. Oscar himself is a well crafted character. With the level of honesty and realistic imagery throughout, it was no surprise to learn that the book is semi-autobiographical with Oscar’s adventures based on true life events.

The book may not be suitable for Young Adult readers (So much hot sex!) but I am certain that many young readers might would easily empathise with the troubled boy. As a much older reader I still found myself nodding in sad recognition of a good many parts of the tale. At the same time I also wanted to wrap Oscar up in a big paternal bearhug and let him feel loved.

I can’t wait to read Oscar Down Under and the author is also currently working on the third book in the series Oscar Bachelor of Arts which he is serialising on his website. I for one hope that young Mr Ladd has a good many tales still to tell.

Proud to be a Dreamspinner.

Over the past weeks and months, I’ve been a mostly passive observer while my publisher Dreamspinner Press has been going through a challenging time. As an unabashed advocate of the company I’ve been dismayed at the way in which so many people have taken to social media in order to elevate these challenges into a full-blown drama. We all know how much our wonderful community loves a good drama!

Wherever I see discord, I like to step back and look at the facts. Armed with what is known rather than what is surmised, or even fabricated, I try to be a voice of reason and to mediate on the subject. Looking at the strength of feelings being expressed in this matter, I have no doubt that my view will not be popular but I am always open to reasoned, fact-based debate.

Dreamspinner has been the flagship publisher in our genre for some years now. DSP has given so many authors, including myself, a great start in their writing careers. For the most successful, it has provided significant incomes too. From the very start I have been really impressed by the way the company has grown and developed. Dreamspinner has been a beacon of excellence and a source of income to authors, editors and cover artists alike.

The world of publishing has seen many challenges and if Dreamspinner is to survive in the current business climate, it must continue to adapt and evolve new processes and seek out new markets.

I am shocked at the way the community has appeared to turn on Dreamspinner like a pack of hyenas willing it’s demised so that they can feed. I have heard and read gossip, conjecture and complete untruths about what is going on. Most of this is from people who are not directly connected with the company. I have witnessed untruths being told and immediately verified by others who have no pertinent knowledge at all but are simply wanting to be seen as up to date with the cool gang!

Let me make my feelings clear: Firstly, I believe that Dreamspinner may have become a victim of its own considerable success. Secondly, I believe that if any company is capable of riding the current challenges, Dreamspinner is. Third and finally I honestly believe that if Dreamspinner fails, then it will mark the end of our genre as we know it.

If we do not give DSP the time, trust and support which it needs right now, we will all be losers in the end. Contrary to popular belief, DSP is still accepting manuscripts, still producing books and yes, it is still paying its authors including interest paid on all delayed payments. What puzzles me most about the negative chatter is that very little of it comes from current DSP authors. I’ve read way too many posts which include the phrase “I have friends who are authors” causing me to wonder why such people are qualified to comment at all.

Every current DSP author receives a detailed weekly update from the company. Progress is detailed and challenges made transparent every Tuesday without fail. At the end of each update, authors are invited to question the senior staff about any issues and their direct emails are given. The update ends with a note to say that none of the information is copyright and that PDF copies are available to share. It puzzles me that there is still talk of poor communication when actually the opposite is true.

If you’ve not deserted me yet, then here is my voice of reason for what it’s worth. Dreamspinner Press is clearly working really hard to rise above its current challenges. If you have a specific question or an issue, then the first port of call should be the company and not social media. In a very competitive commercial climate, any serious company must keep some of its processes under wraps for fear of attack or advantage given to other companies. We should not be demanding information which company may not be able to give. The unfair negativity and idle chatter doing the rounds at the moment is likely to become self-fulfilling. If the company were to fail now, I have no doubt that the blame could be laid at the feet of the ‘neggies’.

WE need Dreamspinner Press because it is the only company presently capable of guiding us into the future of the genre, whether we are directly connected to it or not. On the other hand, Dreamspinner needs us too to let’s show some faith and let those who have nothing good to say, just say nothing.

#ProudtobeaDreamspinner

T.J. Masters.

Well Read Wednesday: Wordy by Simon Schama

Sounding off on high art, low appetite and the power of memory

This episode of Well Read Wednesday is my first non-fiction selection in the series. To think of this book as a typical non-fiction read however would be to do it a massive injustice. For all lovers of books, essays, literature and above all of words, Wordy is a genuine treasure trove. Sir Simon Schama is a true renaissance man who has chosen fifty essays, mostly from his weekly articles in the Financial Times, covering a broad palette of colourful content.

I like to think that my command of the English language is quite good and that my personal lexicon allows me to find words for most occasions. With Wordy however, I challenge anyone to tumble far into its pages without firing up their preferred online dictionary. Every page is a logophiles paradise and yet Schama has a rhythmic, if rambunctious style which carries us along from one wordy nugget to the next.

Maybe I should let him tell us about the book before I get too carried away by this perambulating polymath:

Wordy is about the intoxication of writing; my sense of playful versatility; different voices for different matters: the polemical voice for political columns; the sharp-eyed descriptive take for profiles; poetic precision in grappling with the hard task of translating art into words; lyrical recall for memory pieces. And informing everything a rich sense of the human comedy and the ways it plays through historical time.

It’s also a reflection on writers who have been shamelessly gloried in verbal abundance; the performing tumble of language – those who have especially inspired me – Dickens and Melville; Joyce and Marquez.

In May of this year I made a long overdue pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye for the annual literary festival. I was there to support Prof. Mary Beard, who was recording a live episode of BBC Two’s wonderful Front Row Late panel show. The illustrious panel included Simon Schama and a regular on the show, the historian and TV presenter David Olusoga. These three had, not long ago, delivered the extraordinary Civilisations reboot series where Schama had written and presented five of the nine episodes. I had also recently been both informed and moved by his extraordinary documentary series The Story of the Jews. Following the recording I was lucky enough to spend some time with these charming people and of course I couldn’t resist getting the great man to sign my freshly purchased copy of Wordy.

Simon Schama is indeed a polymath, equally at home writing about art, literature, politics or history. He is an art historian, social commentator, academic historian, teacher, journalist and as a columnist he writes for many of the world’s leading newspapers, magazines and periodicals. Whatever the subject, this collection of essays is incisive and thought provoking whilst always being witty and wonderfully eloquent.

One section of the book which took me by surprise was the final group of six essays on the subject of food. Is there no end to this man’s interests?

Thankfully the whole collection is divided into manageable sections, otherwise I fear there is a very real danger that the reader could be drawn into a “just one more page.” scenario which could have you drowning in an ocean of wordiness! It is a great book to visit and revisit. I will certainly return to some parts of it again. In the meanwhile I am left with the feeling that I have been duped by a very clever irony. The author’s theme throughout the book seems to be a march against a hyped up, high brow notion of art, literature and of course, words. To use his own words they are  “….not so much dithyrambically wordy as just prolix.” Of course what he actually achieves is a wonderful celebration of those very same things in his uniquely eloquent and wordy style.

Well Read Wednesday: King Perry

If I am to make these posts a regular thing then they will cover a wide spectrum of books both fiction and non-fiction. Today’s selection is King Perry by Edmond Manning and comes from the m/m fiction genre in which I write. The book was recommended to me by dear friends which is always a worry, but in this case they proved that they know my reading tastes very well.

So what is the story about?

In a trendy San Francisco art gallery, out-of-towner Vin Vanbly witnesses an act of compassion that compels him to make investment banker Perry Mangin a mysterious offer: in exchange for a weekend of complete submission, Vin will restore Perry’s “kingship” and transform him into the man he was always meant to be. Despite intense reservations, Perry agrees, setting in motion a chain of events that will test the limits of his body, seduce his senses, and fray his every nerve, (perhaps occasionally breaking the law) while Vin guides him toward his destiny as ‘the one true king.’ Even as Perry rediscovers old grief and new joys within himself, Vin and his shadowy motivations remain enigmas: who is this off-beat stranger guiding them from danger to hilarity to danger? To emerge triumphant, Perry must overcome the greatest challenge alone: embracing his devastating past. But can he succeed by Sunday’s sunrise deadline? How can he possibly evolve from an ordinary investment banker into King Perry?

This book has taken me by surprise. I must admit that I may not have picked it up myself and indeed I struggled with the opening chapters.The tale was just too improbable and the characters too disparate. Vin appears to us as some well-intentioned madman. Perry on the other hand is a typical San Francisco investment banker living in his own safe bubble of boring existence. Vin is determined to burst that bubble but Perry has no idea what he has agreed to for the weekend. Did he in fact agree to it at all?

The whole endeavour is risky, some of it even illegal, but the execution of the plan is quite magical and beautifully written. The author is a fine wordsmith who can generate strong emotions with a simple, well crafted sentence. One moment I would laugh out loud and the next I was fighting back the tears. The duck was a brilliant comedy device but at the other extreme, the scene with a cello was one of the most moving and romantic I’ve ever read.

Vin himself seems uncertain about his own ability to break down Perry’s defences and at times we wonder if he is in fact going to break Perry the man instead. Of course the potential rewards for freeing the man from himself appear to be worth the risk. There is also lots of very hot sex along the way!

This story has so much to teach us about ourselves. The best fun is to be had outside our own safe comfortable bubble. The experience may be risky, but then love itself is risky and cannot thrive enclosed in a bubble. It takes great courage and also a real measure of vulnerability to accept unconditional love. Thith ‘kingship’ comes a new self-awareness and a powerful sense of achievement. It also brings with it a responsibility to share the rebirth with others.

King Perry was the first in a series of books called ‘The Lost and Founds’ and I look forward to reading them all in time.

 

Well Read Wednesday: The Binding

Welcome to the second of my new Well Read Wednesday series of personal book reviews. This week I have chosen another novel which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The Binding

by Bridget Collins

I will admit that it was the beautiful cover of this book which initially grabbed my attention. When I saw the author’s name I recognised the writer of some great stories for Young Adults and so I read the blurb and was hooked. There were two reasons for this. Firstly it sounded like an unusual tale with a great premise. Secondly this is the author’s first foray into writing for an adult readership.

Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to start an apprenticeship with a Bookbinder not far away. The elderly and mysterious Seredith is a woman who, like her profession, arouses fear, superstition and prejudice, but neither Emmett, nor his parents can afford to refuse her summons.

Emmett leaves home, and Seredith begins to teach him the craft of hand-making beautiful volumes but along the way he learns that all the books contain real memories taken from real people to be sealed forever in the pages of the precious books. If you want to forget something, a binder can help you. If there are memories that need erasing the binder can assist. Your past can be stored away safely in a book and you will never again remember your secret, however terrible it might be.

These volumes are stored away in a vault beneath Seredith’s workshop. Row upon row of memories meticulously kept and recorded. One day however, Emmett discovers that one of the books has his name on it. What should he do?

Of course with this mysterious craft comes great responsibility an there are some unscrupulous practitioners who do not live by Serediths moral code. Books are sold and traded purely as a form of salacious entertainment.

To see this simply as a book about books is to do it a grave injustice. At its heart is a love story between two idealistic young men. There is tension, humour, pathos, horror and romance between its covers. If I have any reservations about the storyline it is that the early hints of mystery and magic are forgotten once the fires of romance have been ignited. Latent talents or special powers are suggested for Emmett but then discarded.

For all that, the story delivers strong themes and deep, emotional characterisations. As a writer well versed in teenage angst, the author can be forgiven for writing a lead couple who are both angsty and full on. Abusive fathers, exploitative employers, soul searching about soul stealing, it’s all here in a beautiful immersive story.

I loved it and heartily recommend it as a great read.

 

Well Read Wednesday: The Warlow Experiment

This is the first of a new series of blog posts in the form of Book reviews. Always a passionate and avid reader I tend to have strong opinions about the many and varied books I read but so far have written very few book reviews. Well read Wednesday will give me the chance to tell you about what I like to read but also give me some much needed experience of writing reviews.

The Warlow Experiment

by Alix Nathan

Having just finished this extraordinary book I believe it will appeal to all who love a great story, well crafted with strong characters, firmly bedded in it’s social and historical setting.

Herbert Powyss lives on a small estate in the Welsh Marches, with enough time and income to pursue a gentleman’s fashionable cultivation of exotic plants and trees. But he longs to make his mark in the field of science – something consequential enough to present to the Royal Society in London.

He hits on a radical experiment in isolation: for seven years a subject will inhabit three rooms in the cellar of the manor house, fitted out with books, paintings and even a chamber organ. Meals will arrive thrice daily via a dumbwaiter. The solitude will be totally unrelieved by any social contact; the subject will keep a diary of his daily thoughts and actions. The pay? Fifty pounds per annum, for life.

Only one man is desperate enough to apply for the job: John Warlow, a semi-literate labourer with a wife and six children to provide for. The experiment, a classic Enlightenment exercise gone more than a little mad, will have unforeseen consequences for all included. In this seductive tale of self-delusion and obsession, Alix Nathan has created an utterly transporting historical novel which is both elegant and unforgettably sinister.

I found the characters to be strong and utterly believable. The author has brilliantly captured the nature of the opposing dynamics of the major characters. The social strictures of the master and servant, the male subjugation of the female characters, the complete absence of empathy and the selfish reach for aggrandisement are all laid out for us.

The novel successfully blends fine historical detail with keen psychological observations, especially mental fragility, misogyny, compassion and  failed altruism. While set in the age of European enlightenment, with the French Revolution and Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man featuring in the background, the story also speaks to us in the present.

If you need your stories with a happy ever after ending then this may not be for you, but you are missing out! In fact the ending is as dramatic as anything else in this tale and since it was difficult to put down, the ending came all too soon.

 

 

Monday Motivation: Who do you want to be?

Most New Year’s resolutions are about things, changes or achievements. More money, less weight, healthier body, new car etc. These goals are often woolly, lacking in the kind of definition which will make them achievable. What we need is a clear vision of the end goal. For many people, the simplest visualisation might be a photograph of the new car or the holiday destination. These visual aids are very useful, but there is another, sure fire way of fixing your end goal in your head.

Rather than focussing on an object, it is far more powerful if you can visualise yourself at the end of your journey. What will it feel like when you are driving that new car? What will you look like when you have lost all that weight, or got that holiday sun tan? How will you look and feel when you are holding your newly published book in your hands?

There are many visualisation exercises to be found online but essentially you need to do two things. First of all, REFLECT. Don’t dwell on the past year or your past life too much. Future success will depend on the decisions you make now, not anything that has happened in the past. What you should do is to reflect on who you are now, and where you are now. Once you have established these things you have a clear starting point from which to set your compass and stride into the future.

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you are going, so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction. -Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The second essential task is to look at who you want to be. Picture yourself as you will be when you reach your goal. What will you look like? How will you feel? Put as much effort into this as you can. Paint the picture as clearly as you can and reinforce it with all the relevant feelings and senses you can think of. Emotions, colours, smells, tastes, sounds, relationships etc.

I dream my painting and then I paint my dream – Vincent van Gogh

Having reflected on who you are, and visualised who you want to be, have confidence in yourself and get started. Check in regularly on your vision of who you will be. Anytime that indecision sticks its nose in, use this vision to remind yourself why the future you is so much better than the current one.

Of course your progress needs to be measurable. Unless it is recorded and specific milestones reached along the way, it will be very difficult to keep faith in the journey. In the next post I will take a look at using diaries or journals to measure the path.

January Resolutions and February Solutions

How was the New Year for you? Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? How are they all going? We are already way past the point at which, statistically, most people start to forget all those easily made promises. Stop smoking, lose weight, get fit, join a gym, have a dry January and this year of course we also had all those attempts at Veganuary too. We do it to ourselves every year. There is a great rush of enthusiasm to change our lives for the better. We’re filled with idealism about the future, but…..

By the end of January we will have had a few setbacks, yet the enthusiasm will linger on. By Easter we will have lost the motivation and forgotten those hastily made resolutions completely. We will find all sorts of ways in which the events in our lives have worn down our optimism and derailed all our positively made plans.

So, February is here and we return to the mediocrity of last year and the year before. Despair will grow as the year progresses and then in December we will have another burst of hope and begin the cycle all over again. Sounds a bit futile and depressing, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be so. We need not be worn down by the constant drip of indifference.

I dislike the term ‘resolution’ because it reeks of inevitable failure. If there are things you don’t like about yourself or your life now then any number of resolutions will not be enough to create lasting change. I am setting serious goals for myself this year and feeling passionate about them. With this new blog series I will show you how to set achievable goals and be motivated by them, and I’ll share the tools which I find useful. They’re not for everybody, but they can be used by anybody.

Join me on the journey, and regardless of all the crazy ‘stuff’ going on in the big wide world,  set uncertainty and procrastination aside and lets start to make a difference in our own lives. We’re already a whole month into the New Year so there’s no time to waste. Starting on Monday I will post another blog in this series where we can look at the most important aspect of planning. We jump forward to the end of the year and try to visualise who you want to be, where you want to be and what you want to be doing.

Community? What Community?

I first encountered the m/m community of readers, writers, publishers etc. a little over four years ago. I was enthralled by the fact that everyone was so warm and welcoming. Writers who, on the face of it were competitors, appeared to be the best of buddies and generally supportive of each other. It was a bit of a culture shock to discover that the majority of the community were women, both readers and writers. I welcomed the inclusivity of it all and I am happy to say that I have made some wonderful friends in the group.

Recent events have tarnished that point of view. We have endured dramas coming along one after another: catfishing, women writers, male writers, book piracy, LGBTQI rights, trolling and back-stabbing. At present the community sucks. I sometimes wonder how we have the hypocrisy to call ourselves a community at all.

We are supposed to be a community of writers and readers brought together by creativity and craft. I love the fact that social media has closed the distance, allowing our readers to interact with us, but expectations need to be managed. Writers need to write and we all have our own styles, our own values and beliefs and they should not be held to ransom or publicly trashed by readers who have a different set of beliefs or expectations. In my experience it is not uncommon to read a book that does not grab me in the way that others might. I do however, appreciate that there will be other readers out there who may love it. I simply close the book, chalk it up to experience and seek another author who may be writing what I want to read.

Even in our little community there are as many different styles of writer as there are readers picking up their books. We don’t have to love each other’s work but the least we can do is respect it and appreciate our shared endeavour. Surely the idea of a community is that a group of disparate individuals can come together in mutual respect and support for each other regardless of individual styles or circumstances? When you are aspiring or struggling, you need the group. When you are successful, the group needs you.

The biggest issues appear to be those outside the realms of the craft. The world in general has been brainwashed to accept dumbed down politics which includes bigotry, intolerance, bullying and the cult of personality. Our small world reflects that and I fear that the actions of a minority will tear apart all that is good about our community.

Wow, I hear you say. Tim is turning into the classic grumpy old man. Well yes, I may be, but somebody needs to stick their head above the parapet. I do not rant without reason and I am driven by two principles. Firstly I believe in the famous words of Edmund Burke:

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’

I cannot stand by and do nothing while our community destroys itself. Secondly, and to support that stance, I turn to the words of the poet Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

So forgive me while I rage!

The m/m genre is being hijacked by sexual politics. In our rush to highlight and to defend the rights of each sub-group, we are losing sight of the real goal of equality. There can be no place for homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, ageism or any of the other prejudices which we see every day, even in our own community! In a misguided attempt at defending their own particular in-group, I fear that some of us end up expressing the kinds of prejudiced views we are surely trying to stamp out.

 As a gay man I have spent the last 45 years struggling against homophobia, misunderstanding, bullying and even physical attacks, but always with the same goal in mind: equal rights. Not equal rights as a gay man, but equal rights as a human being. There is a fundamental difference here. I am not a man who identifies as gay. That suggests some choice in the matter. I am a gay man who identifies as human. I just want to be equal.

It is my belief that in our struggle to be identified under one letter of the alphabet or another, we actually compartmentalise ourselves and fragment our power. Of course that causes a problem for our allies. It’s quite clear that bigotry is alive and kicking in our community just as it is in the world at large. If you wish to be part of a community then you must respect the whole community.  An ally of one part of the group must be an ally of all. The goal for all must be equality for all. Equal human rights. We cannot pick and choose which flavours we like from the sweetie jar, or which are our favourite letters of the alphabet. By definition, the politics of equality must be about global equality.

And by the way, respect for the rights of others needs to start with respect for ourselves. Anyone who posts licentious images of men’s sexual organs or of men having sex together is no ally of gay men! We may write about such things in the context of a story but the posting of graphic images is insulting to the imagination of our readers and offensive to a great many gay men. You would not tolerate such sexualising of women so when did it become okay to do it to us? The same goes for anyone who delivers salacious accounts of their own sexual activities. Where is your self respect? It used to be said that those who boasted of their sexual encounters probably weren’t getting any, while those who were getting it didn’t have the time to talk about it.

Our community has a unique opportunity to be a beacon of excellence for equality and creativity. Of course we should discuss the politics but that needs to be done in a climate of mutual respect and understanding. There is always a place for debate and discourse in civilised society when empathy and understanding replace aggression and offensive language. Maybe we need a mission statement or a manifesto and if anyone has any ideas along those lines I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, lets play nicely. Lets be open to tolerance and inclusion. It’s time to grow up kids! Let’s show the world how it’s done.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: Two

The Work of Christmas

The poem When the song of the angels is stilled has long been a favourite of mine for this time of year. It was written by Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981) who was an influential African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. It’s from The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations published in 1985.  Looking back on this year, these words have never been more apt, never been so needed.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

The verses have been set to music by the American composer Elizabeth Alexander and you can find many recordings of it on YouTube