T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

Well Read Wednesday

Well Read Wednesday: The Twelve Caesars

Something a bit different this time, but since I read as much non-fiction work as I do fiction I thought it time that was represented here. How did I come to be reading Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars just now? The book is a famous Roman text originally called De Vita Caesarum—translated as The Life of the Caesars, although a more common English title is The Lives of the Twelve Caesars or simply The Twelve Caesars and it was probably written during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian by the historian and biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. Although I’ve known of the text for many years I must admit that I was swayed by the notoriety of the work and dismissed it as so much Roman Imperial ‘Fake News’. I was wrong.

Whilst watching a recent re-run of Alistair Sook’s BBC series The Treasures of Ancient Rome I was surprised to see him clutching a copy of this book as he guided us through said treasures and even referring directly to it in positive terms. Since I am currently doing some background research into the latter part of the first century AD I decided to swallow my pride and ordered a copy. The two Emperors I was most interested in were Vespasian and Titus so that’s where I started. Still concerned about the integrity of ‘Suet’s’ accounts I appealed to a higher authority and asked Professor Mary Beard who I am lucky to count as a friend. Indeed Mary happened to be writing a piece on Seutonius for the TLS and she enlightened me by describing it an analysis of dynasty and succession rather than a collection of the individual biographies for Julius CaesarAugustusTiberiusCaligulaClaudiusNeroGalbaOthoVitelliusVespasianTitus and Domitian. I dutifully took a deep breath and went back to the beginning but I am glad that I did. Mine is the Penguin Classics copy of the popular Robert Graves translation, revised and annotated by the American James Rives. The introductory material is well worth reading in order to establish a context for what follows.

Through his friendship with Pliny the Younger, Seutonius came to the attention of, firstly, the Emperor Trajan, whom he served as secretary of studies and director of Imperial archives, then later under Hadrian, he became the Emperor’s secretary. As such he had all the access needed to study in great detail the lives of his subjects. Yes, if you want scandal and headline fodder it is there in abundance. Suetonius was the first to publicly describe Julius Caesar’s epilepsy. We are still shocked at the apparent debauchery of Tiberius having little boys in his pool nibbling at his genitals or the outrageous behaviour (madness?)of Caligula with his sisters etc. That aside Seutonius had no axe to grind and he appears to have been a very serious and thorough scholar.

It is in the succession of each in turn that we find the real sadness and drama of the reign of the Caesars. The transition of power was never straight forward, often bloody and always more complex than we might imagine. I get the feeling that life at the top was mostly short, often lonely and always viewed over the shoulder. I have been left with a feeling of considerable sadness for most of the twelve principle characters but a far better understanding of each of them as men. If, like me you were put off by the bad press of the past, but you have any interest in this period of history I urge you to give the book a whirl.

As a footnote, The Twelve Caesars posed a question relevant to the contemporary arguments about imperialism and statues. Our visual knowledge of the ancient Romans relies heavily on statues, particularly on the thousands of marble busts which have survived. The men were in their own time the very worst of empire builders and en-slavers of ‘foreigners’.  Should we consign them to the vaults or even to the hammer for that? Maybe history has something to teach us after all?


Well Read Wednesday: Normal People

With all the hype around the currently playing tv series, I’m sure that many of you will have had an instant emotional response one way or another, to my choice of book to review this week. Sally Rooney’s book generated both high praise and low disdain just as the tv show seems to be doing and I must admit that although I’ve had the book in my posession for some time, a certain level of hyperbole prevented me from opening it. I was mistaken.

At the time of writing, BBC One is half-way through the series so I promise, no spoilers. The series is faithful to the multi-award winning book for the most part although the endings are not quite the same and I suspect this is to leave the way open for a second series even though Rooney herself has no plans to write one.

As a romance writer myself I am wary of reading within the genre where possible oversaturation leads to formulaic story-lines and flat characterisations. Normal People avoids the trap and refreshes the genre beautifully, tenderly, intelligently. If there is one issue that this old man has with the story, it’s the occasional urge to bash the characters heads together and knock some sense into the pair of them! That however would be grossly unfair and it would destroy the choreography of their journey together.

Connell and Marianne are teenagers in the same small town of Carricklea, County Sligo in the west of Ireland. Their story begins in  that time of economic depression following the “Celtic Tiger” boom. Marianne is from a rich family  and is intimidating, a loner and outcast in her final year at school and Connell is the son of their cleaner (a young single mother), and a popular star of the school football team. Both are very intelligent and they strike up an awkward but riveting conversation which is the start of their clandestine relationship. Connell hides the relationship from his friends through a sense of shame. Marianne persuades Connell to follow her to Trinity College in Dublin, where most of the rest of the story is set over a four year period. At Trinity their roles are reversed with Marianne finding friends quickly but Connell finds it hard to fit in due to class snobbery. They do reconcile and weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout the university years.

At it’s most simple, this is a highly perceptive, nuanced and emotionally honest tale of two mismatched lovers who share a profound understanding of each other but whose love is tried on the battlefield of class, power and the falsehoods that each one chooses to believe. The story is universally accessible but will I’m sure be held to account by many who for whatever reason choose to distance themselves from the reality of the longing, the depth of the intimacy or the vulnerability of the characters. That said it would be a mistake to think of the relationship as simple. In places it is quite dark and demands compassion from the reader such as in dealing with Connell’s depression and his escape into writing – fellow writers will smile at Rooney’s witty comments here regarding the literary world. Also there is Marianne’s masochistic streak and her attraction to sadistic, bullying characters. I was impressed that the characters did not shy away from these deep personal issues, nor did they make a big deal out of them. Just like two normal people.

Well Read Wednesday: High Fire by Eoin Colfer

It’s been a while since I posted on here but the if there is one great outcome to the Covid-19 lockdown it’s all this extra reading time! As usual, my reading has been eclectic to say the least but my first choice for this blog series comes from the Irish author Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer who is perhaps best known for his YA fantasy series about the boy genius Artemis Fowl.  I am always hesitant when Young Adult writers decide to step up to write their ‘adult’ book because the quality and skills do not always step up with them. Having said that, there have in recent years been a good few who have managed it well. J.K. Rowling, Patrick Ness, Bridget Collins (I reviewed The Binding ) are some of my favourites. To that list I now add Eoin Colfer’s Adult Fantasy story High Fire.

From the internationally bestselling author of the Artemis Fowl series: Eoin Colfer’s first adult fantasy novel is a hilarious, high-octane adventure about a vodka-drinking, Flashdance-loving dragon who’s been hiding out from the world – and potential torch-carrying mobs – in a Louisiana bayou . . . until his peaceful world’s turned upside down by a well-intentioned but wild Cajun tearaway and the crooked (and heavily armed) law officer who wants him dead.

Squib Moreau may be swamp-wild, but his intentions are (generally) good: he really wants to be a supportive son to his hard-working momma Elodie. But sometimes life gets in the way – like when Fake Daddy walked out on them leaving a ton of debt, or when crooked Constable Regence Hooke got to thinking pretty Elodie Moreau was just the gal for him . . .

An apprenticeship with the local moonshine runner, servicing the bayou, looks like the only way to pay off the family debts and maybe get Squib and his momma a place in town, far from Constable Hooke’s unwanted courtship and Fake Daddy’s reputation.

Unfortunately for Squib, Hooke has his own eye on that very same stretch of bayou – and neither of them have taken into account the fire-breathing dragon hiding out in the Louisiana swamp . . .

For Squib Moreau, Regence Hooke and Vern, aka Lord Highfire of Highfire Eyrie, life is never going to be the same again.

Traditionally – at least in my experience, fictional dragons fall into one of three categories: Either they are hugely destructive as in The Hobbit’s Smaug or as in Game of Thrones. Or, the marvelous benign characters of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels.The third option are the cute and playful types such as Pete’s Dragon. Colfers Vern is however none of these. The curmudgeonly old guy is a character so well crafted that he is a joy to read and yes the book had me laughing out loud in places. The Louisiana swamps are a gift of a setting and whilst the other humans of the tale seem at times too easily accepting of a dragon in their back yard, it is a necessary plot lubricant. I loved the story, the setting and the characters and heartily recommend it as a great read.

Eoin Colfer was born in Wexford on the South-East coast of Ireland in 1965, where he and his four brothers were brought up by his father (an elementary school teacher, historian and artist of note) and mother (a drama teacher). He first developed an interest in writing in primary (elementary) school with gripping Viking stories inspired by history he was learning in school at the time!

After leaving school he got his degree from Dublin university and qualified as a primary school teacher, returning to work in Wexford. He married in 1991 and he and his wife spent about 4 years between 1992 and 1996 working in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Italy. His first book, Benny and Omar, was published in 1998, based on his experiences in Tunisia; it has since been translated into many languages. A sequel followed in 1999, followed by some other books (see below). Then in 2001 the first Artemis Fowl book was published and he was able to resign from teaching and concentrate fully on writing.

He says, “I will keep writing until people stop reading or I run out of ideas. Hopefully neither of these will happen anytime soon. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.

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: 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.

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.