T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

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: Notes From an Exhibition

I have just finished reading Notes From an Exhibition by Patrick Gale. I laughed. I cried. I loved it! This now ranks high on my list of all time favourite novels. Strangely this is the second time in as many weeks that I felt this way about a book and guess what, the other one – A Place Called Winter was written by the very same author! So here I am after a long hiatus, compelled to restart this blog series if for no other reason than to my belief that everyone needs a little Patrick Gale in their lives.

I am both shocked and ashamed that I’d not read any of Patrick’s work before. Indeed, although I’d come across his name before but the label ‘Britain’s best gay author’ had kinda put me off. Yes I am an author and yes I am gay, but in the case of Mr. Gale, the label does not do justice to his talent. Patrick is a damned good author, certainly one of Britain’s best, who just happens to be gay. The difference may be subtle but it is important. Now that I have ‘discovered’ this writing genius I must apologise for coming late to the table.


OK back to the book and lets start with the blurb from the back of my copy:

 Celebrated artist Rachel Kelly dies alone in her Penzance studio, after decades of struggling with the creative highs and devastating lows that have coloured her life. Her family gathers, each of them searching for answers. They reflect on lives shaped by the enigmatic Rachel – as artist, wife and mother – and on the ambiguous legacies she leaves them, of talent, torment and transcendent love.

Those of us who have suffered the indignity of summarising their much loved novel into a book blurb know just how poor a picture it can paint of the work contained therein. This is no exception because it is the vaguest description of a story which needs to be read in it’s entirety to appreciate it’s breadth and depth as a novel. The title is a brilliant peg on which to hang this tale as each new chapter begins with a descriptive card as attached to each work in an art exhibition. Themes of family, of relationships, of religion, of the cruel effects of bi-polar disorder. Against the backdrop of the beautiful far south-west of Cornwall we read about this set of incredibly well crafted characters and about the world of the arts in this very special place. Yes Patrick includes gay characters but as my own readers will know, it’s the inclusion of powerful women which bring the story to life. Too many ‘gay writers’ spend little time on them or simply leave them out. I learned this lesson whilst reading the novels of the incomparable Armistead Maupin. I was not entirely surprised to learn that Patrick Gale has written a book about that same author who I hold as my hero/mentor when it comes to writing about the lives of gay men!

I could ramble on and on here about the book but I don’t want to spoil any of it for you including the beautifully poignant ending. I urge you all to read this wonderful novel but in the meantime, should you need any more persuading, please follow the link to the description and reviews on Patrick Gale’s own excellent website.


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: The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco

I was prompted to write this not in the first place by a book I am reading, but by the first episode of a new TV Drama series. I watched this on BBC Two last Friday night and I was hurled back in time 35 years to my first reading of the book itself. I have to say that the series looks as if it may remain even more faithful to the book that the wonderful  1986 movie version with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. Umberto Eco‘s classic medieval murder mystery has remained ever since that first reading, one of my all time favourite novels. The book Il nome della rosa was written in 1980 and translated into English in 1983 by William Weaver and The Name of The Rose was released in paperback in 1984. My much loved copy is shown here.

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, “The Name of the Rose” is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

Such was the blurb but it hardly scratches the surface of Eco’s debut novel. The writer was a professor of semiotics so it should not be any great surprise that the book is sometimes wordy, but always intelligent and a very clever, partial fictionalization, full of linguistic ambiguity.  The story works on a great many levels according to the interest of the reader, in the way that it creates a world enriched by several layers of meaning. What do I mean by that? Well let’s take a look at the name of the central character William of Baskerville. His style of deduction in solving the murders is very similar to that of Sherlock Holmes and as detectives they both work according to the principle of Ockham’s Razor which is the idea that one should always accept as most likely the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts. William of Ockham lived during the time in which the novel is set. Right at the beginning of the novel, young Adso‘s description of his master in the beginning of the book resembles, almost word for word, Dr. Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes when he first makes his acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet. So we may take William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and deduce William of Baskerville.

Some of the other characters in the story are true historical figures e.g. Bernard Gui, Ubertino of Casale and the Minorite Michael of Cesena, although Eco’s characterization of them is not always historically accurate.

Brother William’s young apprentice, Adso of Melk, is the narrator of this book so his name does not escape complex origins either. Adso is among other things a pun on Simplicio from Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue; Adso deriving from “ad Simplicio” (“to Simplicio”). Adso’s putative place of origin, Melk, is the site of a famous medieval library, at Melk Abbey. His name also of course echoes the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson (omitting the first and last letters, and with “t” and “d” being phonetically similar).

With such linguistic riches dripping from every page, this is also rollicking good story. With it’s wonderfully elegant descriptions of monastic architecture and it’s love of beautiful illuminated manuscripts Eco probably gets as close to an accurate portrayal of life in a late medieval scholarly Italian monastery as any modern writer could. Is it any wonder then, that The Name of The Rose has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling books ever published.

Maybe you can tell by now that I am a little in love with this book. When The Folio Society issued its beautiful Limited edition I had to add it to my collection of most treasured books. Oh, yes I will still be watching every episode of the new tv series.

If you want to know a bit more about the story, here is a fuller synopsis copied with grateful thanks from Wikipedia:

In 1327, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice travelling under his protection, arrive at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological disputation. This abbey is being used as neutral ground in a dispute between Pope John XXII, and the Franciscans, who are suspected of heresy.

The monastery is disturbed by the death of Adelmo of Otranto, an illuminator revered for his illustrations. Adelmo was skilled at comical artwork, especially concerning religious matters. William is tasked by the monastery’s abbot, Abo of Fossanova, to investigate the death, and he has a debate with one of the oldest monks in the abbey, Jorge of Burgos, about the theological meaning of laughter, which Jorge despises.

The next day, a scholar of Aristotle and translator of Greek and Arabic, Venantius of Salvemec, is found dead in a vat of pig’s blood. Previously, William and Adso had been prohibited from entering the labyrinthine library by the librarian Malachi of Hildesheim, so they penetrate the labyrinth, discovering that there must be a hidden room, entitled the finis Africae. Benno of Uppsala, a rhetoric scholar, reveals to William that Malachi, and his assistant Berengar of Arundel, had a homosexual relationship, until Berengar seduced Adelmo, who committed suicide out of conflicting religious shame. The only other monks who knew about the indiscretions were Jorge and Venantius.

By the day after, Berengar has gone missing, which puts pressure onto William. William learns of how Salvatore of Montferrat, and Remigio of Varagine, two cellarer monks, had a history with the Dulcinian heretics. Meanwhile, Adso is seduced by a peasant girl, with whom he has his first sexual experience. After confessing to William, Adso is absolved, although he still feels guilty. Severinus of Sankt Wendel, the herbalist, tells William that Venantius’s body had black stains on the tongue and fingers, which suggests poison. William and Adso penetrate the library once more, discovering that Venantius had a book stolen from him, which they pursue.

On the fourth day, Berengar is found drowned in a bath, although he bears stains similar to those of Venantius. Bernard Gui, a member of the Inquisition, arrives to search for the murderer via papal deduction. Due to this arrival, Gui arrests the peasant girl Adso loved, as well as Salvatore, accusing them both of heresy.

Remigio is interrogated by Gui, who scares him into revealing his heretic past, as well as falsely confessing to the crimes of the Abbey. Severinus then is found dead in his room, to which Jorge responds by leading a sermon about the coming of the Antichrist.

Malachi returns to the early sermon that day near death, and his final words concern scorpions. Nicholas of Morimondo, the glazier, tells William that whoever is the librarian would then become the Abbot, and with new light, William goes to the library to search for evidence. The Abbot is distraught that William has not solved the crime, and that the Inquisition is undermining him, so he fires William. That night, William and Adso penetrate the library once more in search of the finis Africae.

William and Adso discover Jorge waiting for them in the forbidden room. He says that he has been masterminding the Abbey for years, and his last victim is the Abbot himself, who has been trapped in a secret passage of the library. The Abbot suffocates, and Jorge tells them that Venantius’s hidden book was Aristotle’s Second Poetics, which speaks of the virtues of laughter, something Jorge despises. Jorge put poison on the pages on the book, knowing that a reader would have to lick his fingers to turn them. Venantius was translating the book and died. Berengar found the body and disposed of it in pig’s blood, fearing exposure, before reading the book himself and dying. Malachi was convinced by Jorge to retrieve the book, which was stashed with Severinus, so he kills Severinus and retrieves the book, before getting curious and dying as well.

All of the murders time out with the Seven Trumpets, which call for objects falling from the sky (Adelmo threw himself from a tower), pools of blood, poison from water, bashing of the stars (Severinus was killed with his head bashed in with a celestial orb), scorpions, locusts, and fire. Jorge consumes the book’s poisoned pages and uses Adso’s lantern to start a fire, which burns down the library. As the fire spreads to the rest of the abbey, William laments his failure. Confused and defeated, William and Adso escape the abbey. Years later, Adso, now aged, returns to the ruins of the abbey and collects books that were salvaged from the fire, creating a lesser library.

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.


T.J. Masters.