T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

Well Read Wednesday

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.

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.