T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

Well Read Wednesday: Middle England by Jonathan Coe

I love it when a writer I respect sings the praises of a book and I am led to discover a new author and their work. This happened recently when I heard about Middle England. I read it, loved it, then wondered how I’d not heard of Jonathan Coe before!

Beginning eight years ago on the outskirts of Birmingham, where car factories have been replaced by Poundland, and London, where frenzied riots give way to Olympic fever, Middle England follows a brilliantly vivid cast of characters through a time of immense change.

There are newlyweds Ian and Sophie, who disagree about the future of the country and, possibly, the future of their relationship; Doug, the political commentator who writes impassioned columns about austerity from his Chelsea townhouse, and his radical teenage daughter who will stop at nothing in her quest for social justice; Benjamin Trotter, who embarks on an apparently doomed new career in middle age, and his father Colin, whose last wish is to vote in the European referendum. And within all these lives is the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.

Even if you are suffering Brexit burnout, you should find a little more space in the ‘B’ file for this wonderful, witty, light, insightful, incisive, state of the nation novel. In fact if you are suffering Brexit burnout, you need this book. This novel looks at the changes this country has witnessed over the last decade and lays bare the effects of those changes upon the big themes like family, love, politics, people and literature.

The book is inhabited by a wonderful cast of characters and through their lives we cry, we rage, we laugh both at them and with them and at times we not sagely. Always there is wit, laugh out loud outrageous wit. The writer in me loved the hilarious editing of Benjamin’s book. As for the sex in the wardrobe scene, well……

I am happy to see that this is the third outing for this bunch of characters so I am looking forward to reading both The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle

Well Read Wednesday: Morning

Morning has always been my favourite time of day and so the premise of this quirky little book drew me in and I am so glad that it did. Morning, written by author and food journalist Allan Jenkins is his “manifesto for morning”.

There is an energy in the earlier hours, an awareness I enjoy. In today’s world we tend to wake as late as we can, timed to when we have to work. But we don’t need to chase the day.’

In Morning, Allan Jenkins shows how getting up earlier even once a week or month can free us to be more imaginative, to maybe read, to walk, to write. He talks to other early risers such as Jamie Oliver and Samuel West, to poets and painters. We hear from a neuroscientist about sleep, a philosopher about dawn, a fisherman about light. Allan wakes early, he listens, he looks. He introduces us to a secret world.

This is a celebration of dawn and morning: the best time of day.

In essence the book is an intimate diary taking us through a year of the author’s mornings. This is also where the writing is at it’s best, especially when marvelling at the slowly waking natural world. Since many of these morning begin in pre-dawn darkness, he listens for sounds around him including naturally the increasing birdsong. the next sense to be engaged is that of sight as it records the first gentle diluting blackness and the coming of colour with the dawn’s early light. Movements are noticed and even the fragrances of morning. One of the things I loved was the recording of the very subtle changes which heralded each new season.

This is writing with all of the senses engaged and presented in short poetic bursts. It is a mindful journey through the quiet hours when day replaces night.

For many of those interviewed, including the author, the early start provides a golden period to do those things for which they have no time in their busy lives.

I love it when a book like this crosses paths with my own experience. Having thought of myself as something of an insomniac I have adjusted my bedtimes to encompass to shorter periods of sleep. The author briefly mentions this and it appears that throughout history, there have been numerous accounts of segmented sleep, from medical texts, to court records and diaries, and even in African and South American tribes, with a common reference to “first” and “second” sleep. There is strong evidence from studies carried out which suggest bi-phasic sleep is a natural process with a biological basis.

Reading this great little book has inspired me to to examine my relationship with sleep more closely and maybe to question the bedtime rules which we have all accepted as the norm.

Well Read Wednesday: Novacene

James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis and the greatest environmental thinker of our time, has produced an astounding new theory about future of life on Earth. For many, this week’s choice of book will simply be reflection of my nerdy side. I am old enough to remember reading Gaia: A new look at life on Earth by Lovelock back in 1979 and being completely enthralled by it. The hypotheses had been around for a few years and was causing ructions both inside and outside the scientific community. What struck me most of all was that it was not necessary to believe every word of it but that the world needed brilliant blue-sky thinkers like Lovelock to challenge our thinking. Over the years Lovelock and others modified and refined the theory, making it more and more understandable and believable. Now, on his 100th birthday, this remarkable man has once again challenged our thinking.

With this new work, Novacene, The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, James Lovelock avoids the popular belief that the robots are coming to get us. I have railed against that particular Science Fiction trope ever since the HAL 9000 uttered the famous words I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that, way back in 1969! In this excellent little book (160pp) we are given a prophetic look at a future in which humans and artificial intelligence together will help the Earth itself to survive. He argues that the Anthropocene—the age in which humans acquired planetary-scale technologies—is, after 300 years, coming to an end. A new age—the Novacene—has already begun.

In the Novacene, new beings will emerge from existing artificial intelligence systems. They will think 10,000 times faster than we do and they will regard us as we now regard plants. But this will not be the cruel, violent machine takeover of the planet imagined by science fiction. These hyperintelligent beings will be as dependent on the health of the planet as we are. They will need the planetary cooling system of Gaia to defend them from the increasing heat of the sun as much as we do. And Gaia depends on organic life. We will be partners in this project.

It is crucial, Lovelock argues, that the intelligence of Earth survives and prospers. He does not think there are intelligent aliens, so we are the only beings capable of understanding the cosmos. Perhaps, he speculates, the Novacene could even be the beginning of a process that will finally lead to intelligence suffusing the entire cosmos. At the age of 100, James Lovelock has produced the most important and compelling work of his life.

Again, this is an hypothesis and must be read as such. Novacene is a very readable book and a welcome breath of optimism at a time of fears and uncertainties. As for James Lovelock, I believe he has more than earned his place not only as one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time but as one of the true elders of the human tribe.

 

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.