T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

Well Read Wednesday

Well Read Wednesday: The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

I was first attracted to this book by it’s setting in pre eruption Pompeii. I have a long held fascination with the place and it’s story so I absorb works of fiction and non-fiction relating to the town and it’s people. I must admit that this tale caught me unawares. I found The Wolf Den a compelling piece of historical fiction, but so much more since it is also a tale of despair and of hope, of power and it’s abuse, of love and hate, of beauty and brutality, of privilege and powerlessness, of female empowerment and female friendships. As the blurb tells us:

Sold by her mother. Enslaved in Pompeii’s brothel. Determined to survive.  Her name is Amara. Welcome to the Wolf Den…

Amara was once a beloved daughter, until her father’s death plunged her family into penury. Now, she is owned by a man she despises and lives as a slave in Pompeii’s infamous brothel, her only value the desire she can stir in others.

But Amara’s spirit is far from broken. Sharp, resourceful and surrounded by women whose humour and dreams she shares, Amara comes to realise that everything in this city has its price. But how much will her freedom cost?

The Wolf Den is the first in a trilogy of novels reimagining the long overlooked lives of women in Pompeii’s lupanar 

The author has cleverly engaged all the senses in telling this tale, describing the sights and sounds, smells and tastes and of course no description of a prostitute slave at work could avoid the sense of touch. For all the romanticism around our modern day view of Pompeii it is easy to forget what a seedy and unsanitory place it must have been.

I particularly liked the elements which clearly anchored the novel in time and place. Descriptions of the streets, buildings and frescoes were good but the wonderful courtyard gardens so beloved of the Roman elite were well researched too. It was also a nice touch bringing the real life Admiral Pliny into the story.

In this srongly character led tale, one of the saddest for me was the boy Paris. Born in the brothel to one of the slaves he is now also the property of the owner and is used by both paying customers and by the owner himself in a most casual and dehumanising way.

In many ways the world described in this book may seem entirely alien to us now, but I was left with the distinct feeling that if it was to be held up as a mirror to our modern world, we might be surprised at how little we have progressed.

I am certainly looking forward to the second book in the trilogy which is due for release in early 2022 and for which we are being enticed with the following details:-

The life of a courtesan in Pompeii is glittering, yet precarious….

Amara has escaped her life as a slave in the town’s most notorious brothel, but now her existence depends on the affections of her patron: a man she might not know as well as she once thought.

At night she dreams of the wolf den, still haunted by her past. Amara longs for the women she was forced to leave behind and worse, finds herself pursued by the man who once owned her. In order to be free, she will need to be as ruthless as he is.

Amara knows her existence in Pompeii is subject to Venus, the goddess of love. Yet finding love may prove to be the most dangerous act of all.

We return to Pompeii for the second instalment in Elodie Harper’s Wolf Den Trilogy, set in the town’s lupanar and reimagining the lives of women long overlooked.

Well Read Wednesday: The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

Regular readers of my ramblings will know that I love tales set in the wild and woolly West of England and most especially in Cornwall. It was a happy day recently when someone who’s literary tastes I respect, mentioned this quite unusual mystery tale The Feast written by Margaret Kennedy who was prolific and popular in her day. The  story was originally published in a shortened form called Never Look Back in a 1949 Ladies Home Journal magazine. The full version now entitled The Feast was Kennedy’s ninth novel published in 1950 and perhaps her most ingenious. Sadly the author’s fame, like so many others, faded and the book was ‘lost’ until Faber & Faber re-issued it earlier this year  with a new forward written by the Cornish writer and journalist Cathy Rentzenbrink. This new writing is a very worthy addition to the book but my word of caution here might be to read the book first, avoiding any spoilers. Then you should most definitely read the forward.

The sleeve notes set the scene for us: Cornwall, Midsummer 1947. Pendizack Manor Hotel has just been buried in the rubble of a collapsed cliff. Seven guests have perished, but what brought this strange assembly together for a moonlit feast before this Act of God – or Man? Over the week before the landslide, we meet the hotel guests in all their eccentric glory: the selfish aristocrat; slothful hotelier; snooping housekeeper; bereaved couple; bohemian authoress; and as friendships form and romances blossom, sins are revealed, and the cracks widen …

While I was waiting for my copy to arrive I read several reviews and realised that the book was often pitched to the contemporary market as the ideal staycation summer read, but in my opinion this greatly diminishes it and makes it sound like some lightweight easy read which it most certainly is not. The other surprising thing in many of the reviews was the omission of any mention of the Seven Deadly Sins which were the whole basis for the characters and the plot. It seems that as early as 1937 the author and a group of literary friends were discussing the notion of the Seven Deadly Sins. some suggested that seven authors should each write a story about the one of the sins, but Kennedy had a different, allegorical approach and instead bestowed one sin on each of the seven characters who were, after seven days together,  to die in the final catastrophe.

This is both a delightful, clever book and an utterly enrossing read. It is an artful character study with a morality tale and much social comedy at it’s heart. It is without doubt a dark psychological suspense novel which would be much enjoyed by readers of Agatha Christie or Daphne du Maurier.

Well worth reading!

Well Read Wednesday: The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne

This book has without doubt been one of the reading highlights of my year so far. Paula Byrne has put together a brilliant, intimate, warts-and-all biography of one of my favourite English novelists of the twentieth century. Much has been written about ‘Miss Pym’ but Byrne is the first to make full use of the extensive Pym archive of intimate letters, private diaries and novels to bring us an honest narrative of her life and work. Many regard her as one of the greatest chroniclers of the human heart and she has been described as a worthy successor to Jane Austen, yet her own life seems to have been so defined by rejection, both in love and in her writing.

Where to begin? I must declare a personal interest here because for me the story began in March 1982 when a friend lent me a copy of Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died. I fell in love with the story, the extraordinary characters and with the writing style. I wanted more and was happy to discover that there were already nine novels in print and since she was still publishing, over the next six years we were blessed with new books to enjoy. More on my interest later.

For Barbara, Life began in Oswestry in 1913. In 1931, she went to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford where women were very much in the minority. During this time she discovered sex, love, friendship, gay men and Germany, where she fell for a man who was close to Hitler. She used all of these experiences to provide the themes and characters for no less than twelve novels. We were allowed a view into the worlds of academic student life, spinster sisters, High Church Anglicanism and it’s priests, English rural life, London life, unrequited loves and powerful intimacies, all of which left their mark on a group of relatively humble people. The first novel Some Tame Gazelle was turned down by every publisher it was sent from 1935 until 1950 when it first appeared in print. Over the next decade there were several new books but publishers grew tired of her apparently ‘old fashioned’ style and she was dropped. The wilderness years were difficult but relationships prevailed and Pym was considered to be wonderful company with a sharp and very perceptive wit. During this time Barbara developed a deep friendship with the poet Philip Larkin who became her most ardent fan and champion. This and the support of the literary biographer Lord David Cecil led to a sudden revival of interest in her work starting with the publication of Quartet in Autumn in 1977 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Barbara’s work now enjoyed a true renaissance and we were lucky to be gifted with more wonderful novels although sadly, four of them were published posthumously since, after a long battle with cancer, Barbara Pym died in January 1980.

When writing a review of a biography it is difficult to avoid reviewing the life of the subject rather than the book itself. I could wax lyrically and long about ‘Miss Pym’ but if you want to learn more about her I would suggest Wikipedia for a quick biography and bibliography. Do read her books if they are your style. You might also take a look at the Barbara Pym Society where there is also a link to a wonderful YouTube video called Miss Pyms Day Out with Patricia Routledge in the title role.

Of course for the full wonderful story this book itself is a masterpiece. The Adventures of Miss Barbera Pym is a scholarly, fair, honest and sympathetic account of the writer and her work. Paula Byrne gives us 614 pages of biography followed by another 72 pages of itemised notes and index! There are so many facets to Pym that are laid bare for us here. We are given insights into the best and worst of the writing and publishing world. We share intimate details of passions, loves and relationships. We also get a behind the scenes look at a particular slice of English life during the mid-twentieth century.

For me, the book has been a powerful reminder of why I read and loved every one of the novels all those years ago. Barbara Pym was one of the handful of authors who through their own writing style, gave me ‘permision’ to write the things I wanted to write about. For that I will be eternally grateful.

WELL READ WEDNESDAY- THE LAST STARGAZERS: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers

In this wonderful book, astronomer Emily Levesque ably tells the story of the modern-day star-gazers who appear like the characters in a sweeping tale of narrative science. This may be a nonfiction book but it tells it’s decades long story in a most engaging and personal way. In my last WRW blog I reviewed a geology book and described my own geeky passion for the subject matter. This volume is just the same, for astronomy has been another love of mine since childhood. Living through the era of Sir Patrick Moore, Prof. Carl Sagan and the NASA moon landings was more than enough to have me looking skyward from an early age. I was alway fascinated by the long history of astronomy from the earliest star gazers of pre-history through centuries of observing by men and women of science who strove to explain our place in the endless universe.

The Last Stargazers focusses on the development of astronomy during the authors own lifetime. I have long admired astronomers for the work that they do and the discoveries they have made. This book was like a paradigm shift where the astronomers are lovingly shown as a special breed of people who have endured much hardship in order to make those discoveries. It is obvious these days that the best telescopes need to be located in the highest and remotest of places but how many of us have ever stopped to think about what that meant for the astronomers and technicians who had to go there? This is where the narrative delivers wonderful anecdotes about real people in remote locations having to cope with variable weather and intrusive wildlife. How many of us have ever walked out of an office and met a large wild bear coming down the corridor towards us? How would you feel about sharing the telescope with large and dangerous tarantulas who used it to shelter in, or, having the telescope shot by a marauding colleague waving a handgun?

Levesques delivers her tale in a way which superbly blends the work and the discoveries made with the romance and enthusiasm of the people doing it. It is a book of emotions too. I have hinted at some of the dangers but how about the fear of sometimes being solely responsible for a multi million pound piece of kit? The reverse of this were beautiful moments such as sharing glorious  sunsets with fluffy local viscacha on a Chilean summit. It seems that these little creatures would stand and gaze at the spectacle alongside their visiting humans. The part of that story which struck me the most was not the behaviour of the animals but that this was one of many examples of astronomers who often seemed to take their coffee breaks standing outside their observatories looking up at the night sky. Clearly for them, the awe and wonder of the firmament was not lost while fixating on a specific red dwarf star or black hole.

As the title suggests, Levesque is describing a very drastic change in the way that astronomy is done. The romantic days of remotely situated, large optical telescopes staffed by scientists, gradually gave way to technicians monitoring the screens displaying data from large radio dishes. As computer monitoring and control developed, things changed again so that astronomers did not need to leave their offices. We are shown a glimpse of the future and the possibility of using off world telescopes. Hubble paved the way and there have been others. Today, as I write this, we finally have a launch date for the long delayed but much heralded James Webb space telescope (18th Dec 2021).

Beneath the romance there have been many difficulties to overcome. Not least of these was the long fight for equality which Levesque and her female peers had to endure, but at least in that they have made huge advances. There is also the fundamental question of why we should invest millions in gazing at the stars when our own planet is in trouble? I know that it is an over used phrase, but for me it is all about human endeavour just as are so many other forms of ‘blue-sky thinking’. Levesque does not claim a definitive answer but the one she gives is good enough, “we don’t know exactly why, but we must.”

You’ve probably guessed by now that I have loved every page of this book. I was left feeling warm from it’s telling but also slightly sad and had to give myself a little time to dwell on the reason for this. I have read other books recently ( e.g. Christopher Wanjek’s SPACEFARERS) and have been left feeling really frustrated that we as an intelligent race are not much further ahead in space exploration. It has been over fifty years since men first walked on the moon so why has progress beyond that been so slow? I have come to the conclusion that whilst we may blame politics or finances, the root cause goes deeper. Since ancient times, humanity looked up at the stars and they wondered, they marvelled and they asked questions. People across the Earth learned the patterns and changes in the night sky because that knowledge was essential to tribal migration, to food production and was the means by which explorers navigated our world. As soon as the majority of people had moved to urban living there was less need to look up and once we introduced electric lighting there was less to see in the night sky anyway. We have lost the sense of wonder and the need to explore. We are so busy asking questions about today that we have stopped asking the important questions about tomorrow, about all our tomorrows. We need to go out into the countryside and look up. We need to start dreaming again.

Well Read Wednesday – Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds.

To describe Helen Gordon’s book as a Geology text, a Science book, a History book or an introduction to Earth Sciences would all be accurate but none of those do justice to the scope and style of its content. This was a lucky find whilst browsing the shelves of my local indie bookshop and it was the title and cover together which made me pick it up. I made a quick scan of the chapter headings and read a few passages, and immediately I knew that I needed to read the book. As the sleeve notes tell us, ‘The story of the Earth is written into our landscape: it’s there in the curves of hills, the colours of stone, surprising eruptions of vegetation. Wanting a fresh perspective on her own life, the writer Helen Gordon set out to read that epic narrative. Her odyssey takes her from the secret fossils of London to the 3-billion-year-old rocks of the Scottish Highlands, and from a state-of-the-art earthquake monitoring system in California to one of the world’s most dangerous volcanic complexes, hidden beneath the green hills of Naples. At every step, she finds that the apparently solid ground beneath our feet isn’t quite as it seems’.

Let me explain my somewhat biased interest. As a teenager I was a geology nerd. My secondary school was run by Dominican nuns and one of them, dear Sister Agatha, taught geology as an ‘O’ level subject. She won me over big time. Subsequent field trips to Cornwall also turned me into a collector of minerals and I then got to study geology to degree level in Plymouth. So the scene was set and for all of my life since then, I’ve maintained a strong fascination for the subject; for rocks, minerals, fossils and for shapes in the landscape. I will return to that latter part later in the post.

There have always been barriers between disciples of the subject and the rest of humanity. Not least of these is the idea and structure of Deep Time itself. Geologists speak of time not in days or weeks, not in years or decades, not even in centuries. Instead they speak in terms of epochs and eons, thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of years. These passionate men and women are looking at the history of our planet, looking at its long past. giving meaning to its present and somewhat scarily, laying out its future, with or without humanity. This book has a philosophy and it lays out a brand of existentialism which accepts that our planet will probably outlive our civilisation.

Right from the start I was in love with the author’s style and it was no surprise to find that she teaches writing at university. This is no boring textbook, but it has a narrative flow and is an utterly readable tale full of wonderful characters and settings which any novelist would be happy to turn out. This is quite a story to tell and it needs a narrator like this to draw the threads of the narrative together. The main reason for this is that the individual characters each tend to have focussed on only one small part of the whole. As a science, geology is subdivided into areas such as geomorphology, petrology, mineralogy, paleontology, stratigraphy,  crystallography, vulcanology, seismology, the list goes on. Even within those areas there can be multiple specialisms and the author has done a grand job of shining her spotlight on those who have defined and in many cases fought to label for example, their own colour coded period on the table of deep time. I have always marvelled at that specificity of study, and not only in geology. As the author so aptly puts it in Chapter ten:

I’m fascinated by people who devote their lives to one subset of knowledge, whose thinking becomes deep rather than broad, who come to know the world through the prism of baking, say, or car engines.What are the random quirks of fate, the pragmatic or romantic impulses, the formative experiences that cause people to specialise in one area rather than another? Why does a doctor choose to become an authority on the liver, heart or colon? Why does a geologist turn to the Cambrian, the Permian or the Triassic?

After the scene-setting first chapter, the rest of the book is divided into three main sections. The first of these, maybe unsurprisingly, is entitled Rocks and Ice and Gordon walks us through the relevant processes, the laying down of sediments, the formation of rocks and the history of the battle to date the layers. The real drama came with the development of a whole new sub-set of geology, namely plate tectonics. This was still relatively new when I was studying for my degree.

The second section of the book is called Plants and Creatures and it opens with one of my favourite chapters called Ammonite. Here we not only delve into the fascinating world of fossils but we meet the extraordinary Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning and we are reminded not just of the history of the fossil record but of the still very pertinent subject of women in STEM careers. Being a rock hound I’ve always had but a sketchy overview of the whole subject of paleontology. The second chapter in the section brought me face to face with a new piece of learning and the new (to me) subject of palaeobotany. Yes, I knew that plant life started as a green slime which became moss and then plants followed by trees. The length of time that this took is itself a staggering example of a deep time process. What brought me up short was the realisation that I had never considered how the moss ever learned to defy gravity and climb vertically to become an  upstanding plant. Even more unbelievable was the awesome mix of physics, botany and natural engineering that produced trees. This is why for me, the subject still has an awe and wonder about it .

Next comes the essential chapter on dinosaurs including the notion of the ‘Jurassic Park Effect’ which inspired many youngsters to study the subject. Dinosaurs, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are probably the ‘poster-boy’ topics in geology and Gordon gives them all a fair airing.

The final section is called Man-Made which looks at another of my pet interests, that of Urban Geology. Here we see how rocks have become part of our urban furniture and using examples in London and Naples, Italy, we see how the marbles, limestones and granites that cover so many major buildings are a portal to many past worlds. Having  succeeded in grounding our existence firmly in the context of deep geological time Gordon then brings up the ongoing debate about whether humanity has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Man-made climate change in terms of deep time, may prove to be a short-time event. In order to consider a deep future, we are introduced to the question of nuclear waste storage here Gordon expertly explains the existential crisis which that presents.

To me, this book is technically brilliant (the 270 footnotes testify to the rigour of the research done) and it is beautifully readable. I have always been haunted by the memory of standing in a steep river valley on the north Cornish coast and describing the story of the landscape to my companion at the time. He said that my knowledge was impressive, but did I not worry that knowing about the rocks and processes detracted from the beauty of the place? To me, the opposite was true, and in Helen Gordon I believe I may have found a kindred spirit for in the final chapter she wrote this:

There’s a pleasure in knowing the names of these things. It’s not about a need to categorise the world, sectioning it into little boxes. And clearly you don’t have to know the names of  rocks- or trees or plants or birds – in order to enjoy a landscape. But if you do have this information, something changes about the way that you exist in that space. A named landscape thickens. It’s to do with history and context but also, I think, with the quality of attention. To assign something its name, you need to take the time to pick out identifying features. You look for longer. And the more you know, the more things stop being a backdrop – blurred, indistinguishable, hurried over – and become somehow more present in the view, more insistently themselves, the way a familiar face stands out in a crowd.

This has undoubtedly been my best non-fiction read in a very long time. If the thought of touching  four billion year-old rocks in Canada thrills you, or recognising a particular fossil on a polished stone building fascia then this book is for you.

Deep Time Amazon Link

Helen Gordon Twitter: @helenlpgordon

My Email: tj@tjmasters.com

Twitter: @TJMasters & @timorahilly

Well Read Wednesday The Lockdown Reader 5 The Featured Author List: Patrick Gale

Now we come to a very particular pile of books which I read during 2020. Yes, I’ve already covered the novels I’ve read in a previous post but I also devoured no less than twelve titles by the same author namely Patrick Gale. For those who may not know Patrick, lets take a look at the man himself first. Born on the Isle of Wight in 1962 Patrick spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, where his father was governor. Most of Patrick’s youth was spent living in Winchester, but he graduated in English from New College, Oxford in 1983. Patrick now lives on a farm near Land’s End, Cornwall with his partner, sculptor Aiden Hicks.  As a passionate gardener, cook, and cellist Patrick also makes time to chair the North Cornwall Book Festival each October. I first encountered Patrick as the author of the Emmy Award winning TV mini-series Man in an Orange Shirt which was first broadcast in the summer of 2017. I resolved to read some of his work but life interfered for a couple of years and the t0-be-read pile just kept growing until I saw the author in conversation with my good friend Mary Beard. Her Front Row Late, TV series had morphed into Lockdown Culture and we saw Mary in remote conversation with several cultural icons of which Patrick Gale was one. I already had one of his books in that afore mentioned pile and so I started to read A Place Called Winter.

Over subsequent months I read many of Patrick’s works and have yet to read one that I have not loved from beginning to end. It would be crazy to think that I could write a dozen or so full book reviews in one blog post so I will openly cheat by giving you book blurbs for some, with short comments for all of them from me.

1) I think that the reason I began with A Place Called Winter is that it had been shortlisted for the Costa prize soon after publication in 2015. This book sang to me. Everything that I look for in a novel was there and as such it has set a benchmark for my own writing aspirations. This is a great love story inhabited by wonderful characters who develop real relationships in gloriously detailed settings. I was also pleased to see that just like other gay writers whom I truly admire, this author had written strong female characters into the tale. I am so pleased that as I read Patrick’s other works I found that this was a positive thread through all of them.

A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.

Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.

In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.

2) My next foray into Patrick’s work was his most recent book, the 2018 Take Nothing With You which became his fourth Sunday Times Best Seller. This book resonated with so much from my own past with a previous long term partner who had been an organ scholar at Bristol’s Clifton College. Music plays a really important part in the author’s life and so it is a recurring theme in many of his books.

Take Nothing With You is a sad-funny comedy of resilience and survival. Fifty-something Eustace, a gay Londoner of leisure, realises in the same week that he has fallen hopelessly in love with a man he has yet to meet in the flesh, and that he has cancer of the thyroid. While being given radioactive iodine therapy, which involves spending a little over 24 hours in a lead-lined hospital suite wearing only disposable clothes and with no possessions he doesn’t mind leaving behind, he listens to hour on hour of cello music recorded for him by his best mate, Naomi. This sets his memories circling back to the 1970s and his eccentric boyhood and adolescence in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare, and how his life was transfigured and his family’s stability shattered, by the decision to attend a recital by the glamorous cellist, Carla Gold.

3) Notes from an Exhibition (2007) was my next read and I have already posted a review about this novel in July 2019. I loved the way each chapter was indeed curated like the pictures in an art exhibition, with different character points of view in many of them. A huge attraction for me was the beautiful Cornish setting for much of the story.

When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies raving in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind her paintings of genius – but she leaves also a legacy of secrets and emotional damage it will take months to unravel.

Patrick Gale’s novel is the story of a woman he has called “my most frightening mother to date”. She’s a genius, a loving wife and parent, a faithful friend but she’s also tormented by bi-polar disorder and driven by an artistic compulsion – often barely distinguishable from her mental illness – to damage all who try to love and protect her.

Notes from an Exhibition takes its title from the information cards displayed beside works of art in a gallery or museum. Each chapter in the novel begins with a different example, all of them referring Kelly’s art or possessions. We never see examples of her work but it is described in detail and a cumulative effect of the novel is the reader’s sense that they are walking around a retrospective of her art.

Each chapter reflects in some way the object or art work that the curatorial voice describes at its outset, sometimes directly, sometimes in some enigmatic way. There’s a sense that the curator’s notes give us the official version, the art gives us another and the piece of narrative that follows yet another. The messy, human truth lies somewhere in between all three.

Roughly half of the chapters are told from Rachel’s viewpoint and these form the novel’s backbone, portraying key episodes in her life that take us to Penzance , to New York and to Toronto , from an idyllic afternoon on a Cornish beach to a nightmarish spell on a psychiatric ward. Interleaved with her story, however, are the stories of her sister, her husband and her four children, each of them giving a different perspective on this extraordinary woman, each of them seen both in youth and in adulthood.

What emerges is the intensely dramatic and complex history of one woman and her almost inhuman dedication to art but also a moving portrait of her marriage to a longsuffering Quaker English teacher and a study of the way her ambiguous gifts wreck emotional havoc within her family even after her death.

Drawing on the West Cornish settings Patrick Gale knows so well, it will please fans of his earlier Cornish novel, Rough Music, not merely in its depiction of a troubled family but in the exciting way it leads its reader to play detective with the assortment of narrative evidence laid before them.

4) The quality of that novel and the mention of it following in the wake of an earlier Cornish tale then led me to read Rough Music (2000). Again the trope about growing up gay in a very straight world resonated deeply for me, as did the wonderful Cornish setting since this had also formed the backdrop of what I think of as my own “coming out years”.

For his fortieth birthday, a gay bookseller is given a holiday in a seaside cottage in North Cornwall. He takes his parents, who need the break because the mother has early onset Alzheimers, his nephews and his married lover, who just happens to be his brother-in-law.

Meanwhile, back in 1968, the forty-something governor of Wandsworth Prison also takes his wife and small boy on holiday to Cornwall full of good intentions about the quality time he intends to enjoy with them.

But then his charismatic American brother-in-law shows up with his bolshie tomboy daughter and there’s a break-out at the prison and everything goes horribly awry. As the two holidays fall apart in a welter of truth telling and bad behaviour, the stories unfold around one another, the novel builds to a double climax and we come to understand that we are seeing the same family at two different points in its history.

But what terrible thing happened back in the sixties to make them the way they are in the present? Deeply personal, Patrick’s most overtly autobiographical novel to date, Rough Music’s unsparing portrayal of the painful realities of being a gay child (at whatever age), of unrequited married love, of losing one’s mind, made this the novel with which he has found thousands of new readers.

After having devoured these four wonderful novels I then decided to do something I’d not done for many years. I definitely wanted more of this author’s work, but I also wanted to track his journey as a writer and so I started to read all of his published books in chronological order of publication. Not wanting to add several thousand more words to this blog post I am going to simply list the next eight works that I read, with a very brief word on each of them apart from the last one which has left me reeling and full of emotion about a period from my own past.

5) The Aerodynamics of Pork (1985) was Patrick’s first novel and was written as a way of subverting the recently launched Betty Trask prize, which was then solely for romantic fiction. The blurb on The author’s own website describes the book as:

Confident and energetic as novels can only be when the writer has no sense of a public, The Aerodynamics of Pork is now often dismissed by its author as seeming overwritten and under-edited but it remains a cult favourite with his following. 

I loved it but as someone who views his own first novel in exactly the same way, I wonder if he cringes about it as much as I do when I read mine?

6) Ease (1985) was the second novel but published in the same year. I have to say that we are dragged through the narrative at a rate of knots but as a collection of varied character studies this book is a great read.

7) Kansas in August (1987) The title is not the setting for this story but is of course a musical reference which if you are a gay man of a certain age, you will already be hearing inside your head! This was the last of Patrick’s so called Bayswater novels and revolves around the musical-obsessed Hilary Metcalfe who is abandoned by his lover Rufus on his birthday. Hilary gets drunk and on the way home he discovers a baby which he brings back to his flat above a corner shop – as you do! I found the whole thing very poignant and very funny.

8) Facing the Tank (1988) I am a great fan of stories set in chintzy Middle England and this one is a hilarious nod to those. I suspect the fictional cathedral city of Barrowcester is a reflection of Patrick’s formative years in Winchester and it is all the richer for that.

9) Little Bits of Baby (1989) This is an unashamedly romantic novel but at the same time full of the wit and dark humour that I am coming to like so much in Patrick’s writing. As for the central character Robin, I just wanted to give him a huge hug!

10) The Cat Sanctuary (1990) after facing some criticism over the predominance of gay male characters in previous novels, in this tale Patrick deftly transports us back to Cornwall and drops us into a strongly matriarchal community. This patchwork quilt of characters and their relationships is at least as well written as any previous ones and I for one found the story telling both moving and beautiful.

If the next story is anything to go by then Patrick is a consummate writer of the short story form and I really wish it were a form both encouraged and supported by more publishers.

11) Caesar’s Wife (1991) At first this story confused me because it was published under the title Secret Lives along with novels by two friends of his. It has however been reissued in 2018 in the volume Three Decades of Stories along with many other short works of his that I am now impatient to read. Caesar’s Wife is a well structured tapestry of rich characters who prove to us that the course of true love never does run easily.

Okay we have come to the last novel of Patrick’s which I read last year. if there is a novel which marks the authors coming of age in writing then this is the one for me. I found everything before this to be superbly well crafted, but this is the one which on a personal level spoke to me most loudly and clearly.

12) The Facts of Life (1995) was an astonishingly moving tale especially in the latter part where it is set so deeply in the AIDS crisis of the 80’s. As someone who lived through that wholly unforgettable time and watched friends and lovers dying around me – even in my arms, it resonated deeply. I found myself at various points either unable to stop reading, or at other times having to stop and close the book because it had moved me so much. I recognised in the story telling, the same sense of survivors guilt that I have lived with for all these years. For me the pain was eased with the onset of treatments which now mean that so many people can live long and healthy lives with the virus. I am sure that I am not the only gay man in the current crisis who has wondered why, if we can develop so many Covid vaccines in less than a year, why are we still waiting after 40 years for an effective HIV vaccine? I will leave that question out there and return to this wonderful book.

Edward Pepper is an exile, saved from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport as a child, ostracised in England as a German Jew, then cut off still further by developing TB. He is saved, in every sense, by Sally, the doctor who becomes his wife.

Thanks to their unmarried benefactors, they set up home in The Roundel, an octagonal house always inherited by women, where she supports him as he struggles to make a living as a composer. But Sally’s strength of character cannot protect him from his past or from the predatory interest of Myra Toye, an actress he encounters while working at a film studio.

Years later Edward’s grandson and granddaughter work out a drama of their own when he falls in love and develops AIDS in one fell swoop and she feels compelled to rebuild her life around the precious years that remain of his. Patterns repeat themselves with subtle alterations and once again Edward must face the pain of a survivor’s guilt.

Legendary Chatto and Windus editor, Carmen Callil had suggested Patrick could at once stretch his technique with a longer literary form and indulge his fascination with intimate relationships by turning his hand to a family saga. This was the result: three generations of a family working out their loves and recriminations in a strange country house in the Cambridgeshire fens. Continuing to inhabit the dark areas that seemed to erupt into Gale’s work with The Cat Sanctuary, The Facts of Life is not without humour, but it’s a humour deeply rooted in and enriched by a knowledge of human pain. The Roundel is closely modelled on A La Ronde, an extraordinary house near Exmouth now opened to the public by the National Trust but which Patrick had the good fortune to be shown around when it was still owned by the last of the many female generations to had exclusive use of it.

Until I read The Facts of Life, my hero of the gay literary genre was most definitely Armistead Maupin. Now I have to put Patrick Gale right up there beside him and I am impatient to read the rest of the back catalogue. Of course I hope that there will be more new novels and if Man in an Orange Shirt is anything to go by lets have more TV scripts too! For full details of all of Patrick Gale’s books go to his website at https://galewarning.org/

I hope that these last five blog posts have not just shown you my personal reading habits but have introduced you to some new titles or new authors that you might take a closer look at. Lockdown is still very much with us and my  current ‘to-be-read’ pile seems bigger than ever. I will be back with more recommendations but do stay safe and keep reading!

Well Read Wednesday The Lockdown Reader 4 The Reference Books.

The third pile of books may be the smallest of the four but it is one of the most important. For a searcher of knowledge, or for an author, there must always be the reference books which you will never read from cover to cover but you will pick up when you need to check something, or you may treat them as some sort of box of delights that you dip into when the brain needs a little recreation. I have not included the obvious everyday reference books I use like dictionaries, thesaurus or books of quotations. I have also chosen not to include the many gardening books that I refer to from time to time. So, what are we left with?

First of all is one of those brain fodder choices and it is the biggest volume with the longest title. The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullmans His Dark Materials by Laurie Frost. This remarkable book contains in-depth, chapter-referenced sections on characters, places, creatures, sciences, languages, and so much more. It is recognised as the official, and definitive, reference guide to Pullman’s original trilogy: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Even the great man himself says “I know I’ve returned to it frequently. And I know I’ll continue to do so.” What better affirmation is there? Every time I dive into it I experience a lightbulb moment or two. If you liked Pullmans books you will love this.

I am a big fan of the ‘…….For Dummies’ series especially when using a new item of intricate software. Two of these have featured highly this last year. First is Scrivener For Dummies by Gwen Hernandez. Now Scrivener itself is an awesome piece of software for authors. Whether you’re a meticulous planner, a seat-of-the-pants writer, or something in between, this software package provides a range of tools for every stage of the writing process. The term ‘essential’ is often over used in regards to software but this time it really does apply. The book shows you from how to customize project templates to compiling your project for print and e-book formats. To aid workflow it shows you how to set up project and document targets and minimize distractions to keep you on track and on deadline. It explains how to storyboard with the corkboard, how to create collections such as research materials, character profiles etc, and even how to use automated backups to protect your hard work along the way.

The second of these was Instagram For Dummies by Jennifer Herman. Now I am not aiming for glory as an Instagram influencer but I do want to use it in a structured way. This book gives you tips for creating great Instagram images, personalizing your posts, building and connecting with the Instagram community, and working with Stories and IGTV. This book could be the difference between you being a slave to Social Media or getting it to work for you.

The next book is one that I happened across in my much loved coffee shop. Sawday’s The Extra Mile: Delicious Alternatives to Motorway Services by Laura Collacott and Alastair Sawday This book does exactly what it says on the cover and is packed full of alternatives to the bland and pricey motorway services. Whether its a village pub, coffee shop or garden centre teashop I for one can’t wait to start travelling again so that I can try out more of the gems hidden in this guide.

My most outlandish reference book of 2020 was undoubtedly The Encyclopedia Of Unusual Sex Practices  by Brenda Love Packed with more astonishing facts than one might ever have imagined, or, maybe one might!  This is a unique and very comprehensive guide to human sexual expression, from the mildly kinky to the truly bizarre is presented in standard alphabetical order we explore everything from Acrophilia (being sexually aroused by heights) to Zelophilia (being aroused by jealousy) via a veritable litany of arcane pursuits which can sometimes be repellent, sometimes stimulating – but always absolutely fascinating.

Finally, a book which I now buy every year. It is The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2020 by Lia Leendertz Here I shall turn to the book’s own blurb to try and summarize it’s usefulness. The Almanac reinvents the tradition of the rural almanac for a new audience. It gives you the tools and inspiration you need to celebrate, mark and appreciate each month of the year in your own particular way. Divided into the 12 months, a set of tables each month gives it the feel and weight of a traditional almanac, providing practical information that gives access to the outdoors and the seasons, perfect for expeditions, meteor-spotting nights and beach holidays. There are also features on each month’s unique nature, such as the meteor shower of the month, beehive behaviour, folklore and stories, seasonal recipes and charts tracking moon phases and tides.

Many of you will know my habit of referring on social media etc. to seasonal events and to help this I refer to the almanac all year long, revisiting it again and again, and have already started following the 2021 edition.

That’s it for now but coming up next is the pile of novels by Patrick Gale which have given me the most reading joy during the lockdown.

Well Read Wednesday The Lockdown Reader 3 The General Fiction List

Today’s adventure into the pile of books I’ve read this year looks at the novels, but as mentioned in Part 1, my fiction reading is divided into two lists. Today I will take you through the stand alone novels which have kept me entertained. The second list which will follow in part 5, covers the many novels written by the same author Patrick Gale.

Lets get started with two novels which I’ve already reviewed in earlier blog posts and so will only mention briefly here. First there was the hilarious High Fire by Eóin ColferI have been a big fan of his internationally bestselling Artemis Fowl series so this, the author’s first adult fantasy novel was long awaited. Colfer did not disappoint and the book is a is a hilarious but unlikely, high-octane adventure about a vodka-drinking, Flashdance-loving dragon who’s been hiding away from the world – and any potential pitch-fork and torch-carrying mobs – in a Louisiana bayou.

The second of these previously reviewed books is the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney. This was a Number One Sunday Times Bestseller, the winner of the Costa Novel Award 2018 and also spawned one of the best television series of this year. Two young teens from the west of Ireland meet at school, but then they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin. The connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how one person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. You have to avoid the feeling that they both need their heads banged together, or at least for someone to sit them down and tell them that they are profoundly in love, but maybe it works all the better for that.

Next came Tin Man which had sat in my to-be-read pile for way too long. Sarah Winman crafted a wonderful story but to describe it as a love story would not do it justice. In essence this is the tale of two boys, Ellis and Michael who are inseparable. The boys become men and then Annie walks into their lives and changes both nothing and everything. If that has you intrigued then good. Go and read it because you will not regret it and you will understand why this book was Shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award. Lets stick with women writers for the moment since this gives me a chance to mention in passing, how modern women authors are toppling the classic white male authors from their literary perches! My next choice therefore is the remarkable Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. This novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, but it came to my attention when it featured on BBC Two’s Between the Covers. I shall steal in part from the book blurb to describe the story in which lovers Rachel and Eliza are planning their future together. One night in bed Rachel wakes up terrified and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there. Rachel is certain; Eliza, a scientist, is sceptical. Suddenly their entire relationship is called into question. What follows is a uniquely imaginative sequence of interlinked stories ranging across time, place and perspective to form a sparkling philosophical tale of love, lost and found across the universe. For those who like their storytelling peppered with a good dose of philosophy ( I do ever since Sophies World) then I really do recommend this highly imaginative novel. Of course among women writers, few can match the success of Margaret Attwood who this year brought everything that the fans of The Handmaids Tale had waited so long for. The sequel appeared in the form of The Testaments and was not only an instant best seller but won the Booker Prize. The scarily familiar Republic of Gilead is now starting to rot from within. At this crucial moment, two girls with radically different experiences of the regime come face to face with the legendary, ruthless Aunt Lydia. But how far will each go for what she believes? The story draws us uncomfortably in but I warn you it may leave you in tears by the end.

My next book is a slight cheat in this list. It’s not a novel but a biographical essay, I have snuck it in here because it is written by one of my favourite novelists, Irishman Colm Tóibin and it’s subject is a woman who was one of the architects of the great Irish Literary Revival, Lady Augusta Gregory. Called Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, this essay gives us a beautiful insight into the life of the outspoken Irishwoman. In his inimitable and sensitive way Tóibin delivers to us, this remarkable figure in Celtic history, she was married to an MP and land-owner, yet retained an unprecedented independence of both thought and deed, actively championing causes close to her heart. At once conservative and radical in her beliefs, she saw no conflict in idealizing and mythologizing the Irish peasantry, for example, while her landlord husband introduced legislation that would, in part, lead to the widespread misery, poverty and starvation of the Great Famine. Nevertheless, as founder of Dublin’s famous  Abbey Theatre, an outspoken opponent of censorship, and mentor, muse, and mother-figure to W. B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory played a pivotal role in shaping Irish literary and dramatic history. Perhaps the surprise nugget in this tale is that, despite her parents’ early predictions of spinsterhood, she was no matronly figure, engaging in a passionate affair while newly-wedded and, as she approached sixty, falling for a man almost twenty years her junior.

Next comes a tale of Deep England. In Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers, we find ourselves in Edmundsbury, a small town in the east of England where fear and loathing are on the rise. Brexit has happened and the ramifications are real. This is a not so unfamiliar England where a grass-roots, right-wing political party ‘England Always’ is fomenting hatred. The residents of a failing housing estate are being cleared from their homes. A multinational tech company is making inroads into the infrastructure. The real fun starts with a controversial tweet; a series of ill-judged think pieces and a riot of opinions – suddenly Edmundsbury is no longer the peaceful town it had always imagined itself to be. We are face to face with new technologies and the realisation that the interests they serve are maybe not so new. This is clever satire, rich with irony which manages to be both very funny and very profound.

From contemporary Britain we now travel back in time to Ancient Greece and the second of Stephen Fry‘s books on the Greek Myths. Heroes: The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retoldWhether you are familiar with these age old tales or not, few mere mortals have ever embarked on such bold and heart-stirring adventures, overcome myriad monstrous perils, or outwitted scheming vengeful gods, quite as stylishly and triumphantly as Greek heroes both good and bad.

Next we turn from myth to magic with The Ocean at the End of the Lane by the Master storyteller Neil Gaiman. I found this book to be a wonderful fantasy but at the same time a dissection of childhood memories and how they can and do effect our adult lives. I was doubly pleased that my edition is beautifully illustrated throughout by the very talented Elise Hurst.

Now any book which mentions a library in the title usually grabs my attention. In the case of Matt Haig‘s The Midnight Library there was so much hype around it’s publication that I was wary. Then the Sunday Times Bestseller List was topped, as was The New York Times list. Once again it was a pick on BBC Two’s Between The Covers book club which grabbed my attention so I ordered it. I loved it. The premise of the story is brilliantly simple. Apparently between life and death there is a library. When suicidal Nora Seed finds herself in the Midnight Library, she has a chance to make things right. Up until now, her life has been full of misery and regret. She feels she has let everyone down, including herself. But things are about to change. The books in the Midnight Library enable Nora to live as if she had done things differently. With the help of an old friend, she can now undo every one of her regrets as she tries to work out her perfect ‘if only’ life. But things aren’t always what she imagined they’d be,. Of course that perfect life is not always so perfect and soon her choices place the library and herself in extreme danger. Before time runs out, she must answer the ultimate question: what is the best way to live? For me some of the outcomes were predictable but what I loved most of all was the notion that books have the power to change lives and that second chances are always there for the taking.

With so many great new finds this year there has been little time to reread any old favourites. Two notable exceptions were the books in Anne Rice‘s Wolf Gift Chronicles The Wolf Gift and The Wolves of Midwinter. In these books Rice has delivered her slant on the werewolf myth in just the same way that she built a new architecture for the vampire legend. In the first book we meet journalist Reuben Golding visiting the extraordinary, grand mansion of Nideck Point to write an article about it. He is shown around by it’s current utterly captivating occupant. Following a brutal attack the owner is murdered and Reuben finds himself changing. His hair is longer, his skin is more sensitive and he can hear things he never could before. Now in a choice between man or monster, he must confront the beast within him or lose himself completely. The book is full of the kind of rich detail in setting, characterisation and world building which makes Anne Rice one of my most favourite authors.

The Wolf Gift however is only a grand preface to the glorious second novel, The Wolves of Midwinter. Here again I shall turn to the book blurb to summarise this tale:

“It is the beginning of December and it is cold and grey outside. In the stately flickering hearths of Nideck Point, oak fires are burning. The Morphenkinder are busy getting ready for the ancient pagan feast of midwinter. Everyone is invited, including some of their own who do not wish them well. Reuben, the newest of the Morphenkinder, is struggling with his new existence as a Man Wolf, struggling to learn to control his desires and bloodthirsty urges. His pure, luminous girlfriend Laura seems all set to join him in this new way of life, but Reuben is not at all certain he will love her if she becomes as he is. Beyond the mansion, the forest echoes with howling winds, which carry with them tales of a strange nether world, and of spirits centuries old who possess their own fantastical ancient histories and taunt with their dark, magical powers. As preparations for the feast gather pace, destiny continues to hound Reuben, not least in the form of a strange, tormented ghost who appears at the window, unable to speak. But he is not alone: before the festivities are over, choices must be made choices which will decide the fate of the Morphenkinder for ever.”  If you loved The Vampire Chronicles you will love these books too.

I will end this list with a book that stands out as one of the most extraordinary that I’ve read this year

I have long admired the now world famous Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis who in Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present delivers science fiction, Utopian vision, socialism and green politics. This is no naïve Utopian tale but one set in an alternative near future  where we are asked to think what might have happened if Occupy and Extinction Rebellion had actually won. There are no banks. No stock market. No tech giants. No billionaires. Capitalism has gone as we know it. The author is to my mind a modern day reincarnation of a classical Greek Hero. His description of the other world is utterly compelling and believable but of course having wooed us with it’s appeal, he also leads us to the point where we start to ask if this is what we really want. Here I remind you of my musings on The Midnight Library and its second chances. The grass may often look greener on the other side of the fence but isn’t it really only greener on whichever side of the fence that you mow it?

 

Coming soon The Lockdown Reader 4 The Reference books.

 

 

Well Read Wednesday: The Lockdown Reader 2 The Non-fiction list.

Welcome to part 2 of this exposé on my lockdown reading habits and here as promised is a guide to the non-fiction books I’ve been reading this year to feed my life-long hunger for knowledge, skills and culture. I was surprised at the number of books which qualified and so my comments about each of them will have to be brief. The list has also been divided into three distinct groups as suggested by the image above so first of all lets take a look at the upstanding group in the middle.

1. Various Topics.

This first group vary in subject matter although I did consider a further sub-division for the ancient history books but the links were more fuzzy than that. First we have the unexpected best seller from last Christmas, Charlie Mackesy‘s runaway The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. This beautiful volume of gentle cartoon images and their attendant words could easily have fitted in the fiction list but I found the pages to be thoughtful, inspirational but never preaching. This is surely a self help-book of the most gentle kind.

Next is Mary Beard‘s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. A comprehensive, but far from being a dry academic telling of the history of the first millennium of ancient Rome. It takes us from the mythical Romulus and Remus in the 8th Century BCE to 212 CE when Roman citizenship was given to every free inhabitant of the empire by Caracalla. SPQR stands for the phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, meaning “The Senate and People of Rome.

Professor Beard was the reason that I chose the next book, on a chance visit to the London Review Bookshop just across the road from the British Museum. Four in a Bed is a small slim volume containing writings on the subject of sex from the pages of The London Review of Books. Eleven authors deal with this diverse subject matter, but for me the most heroic is the recollection by Mary Beard from her graduate student days, of her own rape. The article morphs into an analysis of rape which in Mary’s unique style does not tip-toe through the matter!

Swinging back to ancient Rome, I wanted a guide book in advance of a plan to be in Rome for the Ides of March this year. Covid put paid to that trip, but the book proved to be an excellent reminder of sites visited many years ago. I heartily recommend Strolling Through Rome by Mario Erasmo for anyone in need of a handy guide to the eternal city. Before parting from the topic of Ancient Rome lets take a look at the much vilified classical text The Twelve Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, better known simply as Suetonius, or perhaps unsurprisingly by classicists, even more simply as Suet! I had always been led to believe that this set of biographies was so much ‘fake news’. For a fuller account of how I came to change that view and see it as a peek under the petticoats of a great dynasty, take a peek at the blog post I wrote back in August .

This year my garden has been my therapist and I have read many articles on the benefits of gardening and the great outdoors for both mental and physical well-being. For me, the outstanding piece of writing on the subject this year has been Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent.  This book is a touching memoir, botanical history and biography, which examines how bringing a little bit of the outside in can help us find our feet in a world spinning far too fast. It is a joy to read. Staying for a moment with the theme of self preservation, another form of therapy for me has always been cooking and in particular baking. Aside from the ubiquitous banana loaf, one of the cool bakes this year has been the sourdough loaf. For some, the kitchen is a place of mystery, but few things are more likely to reduce a baker to hushed tones that the mystery that is sourdough. In this wonderful little book (with a big title) How to Raise a Loaf and Fall in Love with Sourdough, baker Roly Allen beautifully explores the myth and magic from that alien living creature known as the starter, to the final glorious loaf.

Okay we’re down to the last two books in this group. First is Dr. Michael Mosley‘s Fast Asleep:How to Get a Really Good Night’s Rest. Another subject on which so much has been written lately. If you want a readable account of the science and a host of helpful tips on this topical subject, this is a good place to start. Finally another unexpectedly good read. All That Remains: A Life in Death, by leading professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology, Dame Sue Black. Death and dead bodies are a part of everyday life for this amazing woman. One of my Happiest memories from that magical part of this year pre Covid, was a late-night trip to BBC Broadcasting House where I was a regular attendee at the live broadcasts of Mary Beard’s Cultural chat show Front Row Late. This was the last night of the series and one of the guests was Sue Black. After the show I found myself glass in hand, sitting between the two Dames, Mary and Sue. This highly intelligent and articulate Scottish scientist turned out to also be utterly charming and friendly and I left the gathering determined that I should read her book. I am genuinely glad that I did and I urge anyone with interests in death, forensics, detective/murder stories, professional glass ceilings or even Sottish academia to do the same.

2.Reading and Writing.

The second pile covers two of my favourite subjects. The first and arguably best known of these is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Few books have sat in my To-Be-Read pile as long as this has. The book describes King’s experiences as a writer and delivers his advice for aspiring writers. I loved reading about his experience, but reading his advice reminded me that many writers believe that their way is the right way and possibly the only way. Similarly On Writers and Writing comes from Margaret Attwood, an author who needs little introduction. Edited from a series of lectures, the author examines the role of the writer? Prophet? High Priest of Art? Court Jester? Or witness to the real world? Looking back on her own childhood and the development of her writing career, Attwood examines the metaphors which writers of fiction and poetry have used to explain, or excuse, their activities. It is an easy but very insightful read.

The next three books take an altogether more analytical look at the process of writing. In The Science of Story Telling, Will Storr  reminds us how much storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human. In this thought-provoking book, Storr demonstrates how master storytellers manipulate and compel us, leading us on a journey from the Hebrew scriptures to Mr Men, from Booker Prize-winning literature to box set TV. The author applies dazzling psychological research and cutting-edge neuroscience to the foundations of our myths and archetypes, he shows how we can use these tools to tell better stories and make sense of our chaotic modern world. I found it a really fascinating read. Next is Writing a Novel by Richard Skinner. This author believes it is the duty of a novelist to bring our whole selves to the page; to write from the gut, not the head, to find your story, not force it; to meet your reader in a spirit of openness. In this very readable book, Skinner offers up frameworks, strategies and stimuli to help you meet that duty, drawing on his deep experience as one of the UK’s leading creative writing teachers. He covers the essentials – narrators, characters and settings  with charm and rigour. This book is definitely not a set of instructions: it is a way of thinking, a conversation, a relationship in itself and I highly recommend it. The last of the three ‘how to’ books is First You Write a Sentence, by Joe Moran. To quote from the blurb, “Using minimal technical terms, First You Write a Sentence is his unpedantic but authoritative explanation of how the most ordinary words can be turned into verbal constellations of extraordinary grace. Using sources ranging from the Bible and Shakespeare to George Orwell and Maggie Nelson, and scientific studies of what can best fire the reader’s mind, he shows how we can all write in a way that is clear, compelling and alive.” I loved it and if any writer (or reader) wants one book to help them in their craft let it be this one. The final entry in this category is Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter by Frank Furedi. This author is a cultural and social historian who delivers an eclectic and entirely original history of reading. The very act of reading and the choice of reading material endow individuals with an identity that possesses great symbolic significance. This book explores the changing meanings attributed to the act of reading. Although it has an historical perspective, the book`s focus is very much on the culture of reading that prevails in the 21st Century. Furedi argues vigorously for the restoration of the art of reading, declaring it every bit as important as the art of writing. I could never disagree with that.

3. Queer Studies.

The final pile are the books I read in order to immerse myself in the culture of which I am very much a part. I may have lived through and experienced the coming of age of the LGBTQ+ movement but I still like to read other accounts and study other points of view relating to those times. The Velvet Rage: Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs PhD argues that today’s gay man enjoys unprecedented, hard-won social acceptance but serious problems still exist. Substance abuse, depression, suicide, and sex addiction among gay men are at an all-time high, causing many to ask, “Are we really better off?” The book draws on contemporary research and the authors personal story to passionately describe the stages of a gay man’s journey out of shame and offers practical and inspired strategies to stop the cycle of avoidance and self-defeating behaviour. Updated to reflect the effects of the many recent social, cultural, and political changes, The Velvet Rage is an empowering book that has already changed the public discourse on gay culture and helped shape the identity of an entire generation of gay men. In a similar vein comes Matthew Todd‘s, Straight Jacket: Overcoming Society’s Legacy of Gay Shame. This is part memoir and part ground-breaking polemic, Straight Jacket looks beneath the shiny façade of contemporary gay culture and asks if gay people are as happy as they could be – and if not, why not? Even Sir Elton John declared that it should be read by every gay man on the planet!

Next is a classic book from 1996 which I chose to revisit after replacing my long lost copy. PWA: Looking AIDS in the Face, by Oscar Moore is actually a compilation of  the author’s column in the Guardian newspaper which gave us moving and informative insights into what it’s like to live with the physical deterioration that AIDS inevitably brings. Humane and witty and written with a tough-minded, dry humour, PWA (Person With AIDS) proved to be a comfort to people, whether touched by illness or not. Parts of this book and the memories it awoke reduced me to tears again.

Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel follows on in some ways from the first two books but it asks what it means to be gay in the era of same-sex marriage and equal rights? More than four decades after the start of the gay liberation movement, lesbians and gay men can legally marry, adopt children, and enjoy the same rights and respect as heterosexuals, or can they? Another great, thought provoking read. Continuing with the idea that the fight is not over, United Queerdom by Dan Glass tells us that injustice is rife and LGBT+ inequality remains. Complete LGBT+ liberation means housing rights, universal healthcare, economic freedom and so much more. Although many people believe queers are now free and should behave, assimilate and become palatable, this activist, author shows that the fight is far from over. My last look at this history came in the form of a great little book which I found when the author appeared at last year’s Hay Literary Festival while I was there. From Prejudice to Pride: A History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lamé is a visual feast, filled with photographs documenting LGBTQ+ life from the past and present, and from around the world. Lamé looks at the rise and achievements of the LGBTQ+ movement and the different communities, pioneers and stories of heartbreak and courage that have marched alongside it.

Chance discoveries are matched only by books given as gifts by dear friends. One such was Queer Magic by Tomás Prower. Just as the cover tells us this is a tour of LGBTQ+ spirituality and culture from around the world. Not a book I might have picked up myself but I am so grateful that I was given it because it is a truly fascinating book which delivers great insights into queer relationships and spiritual practices from different historical eras and regions of the world.

The last two books in this pile and in this blog are related to one of my areas of experience, interest and research. First is The Leathermans Protocol Handbook by John D. Weal. Much has been talked about and even fantasised about over many years regarding the protocols and the ‘Old Guard’ but it has rarely been written about. Part of the reason for this is that when Larry Townsend wrote The Leatherman’s Handbook in 1972 most people read it and thought “job done”. However good the handbook was, everyone (including Larry) knew that there were other points of view. This book was published in 2010 and here again the author tells us that it is not the bible of protocols but rather it is a document of his personal journey as a ‘collared’ boy through the latter days of the Old Guard. Much of this history has sadly been lost during the era of HIV, HEP C and Crystal Meth. This book is a fascinating and valuable part of our history recording times which have started to fade. Just a year earlier another book added to the record of those times and experiences. Ask The Man Who Owns Him: The Real Lives of Gay Masters and slaves by david stein and David Schachter (the use of upper case or not is intentional here for a reason) This book does exactly what it says and records, as interviews, the real lives of sixteen Master and slave couples from America and Canada. For those who are used to the BDSM relationships found in erotic fiction this will be a complete surprise since there are no stereotypes here! This again is not the whole story but is a damned big part of it and the book should be read by anyone seeking either the lifestyle or the truth about it.

Wow! That’s over 2.5k words I hadn’t expected to write but I am glad I did.

Next, in Part 3 I will cover the stack of general fiction read this year.

 

 

Well Read Wednesday: The Lockdown Reader

Many of you have been asking about the Well Read Wednesday blog. There is no clear answer since reading has been an ever increasing part of my life during both lockdowns, but for whatever reasons, writing has not. Time to remedy that, but maybe not quite as before.

The Corona Virus Pandemic has changed our world in so many ways but those changes are not all negative. For each of the past few years it seems that some naysayer or other has been ready to jump up and tell us that books are on the way out, that nobody has time to read any more and that the novel is dead. Not this year it isn’t! It is true that trends have come and gone. First it was the rise of the Kindle (other e-readers are available)and yes for sure nobody could have predicted the rapid rise of the e-book. Despite the dire warnings however, traditional book sales have continued to rise year on year. This year of course, the rule book was tossed, book sales have increased dramatically and in order to feed our increasing appetite, publishers have rolled out ever more material for us to consume.

The torrent of new books is not all bad either and as we fell in love with fiction again, so we have been spoilt for choice with many great new novels feeding our imaginations. It’s true that a handful of authors resorted to tales set in Covid times. Most noteworthy is probably Ali Smith’s Summer which is the fourth of her seasonal quartet and which looks at an England divided deeply by Brexit when Covid strikes. It appears however that what we really needed was a prescription for a large dose of good old fashioned story telling. Not old fashioned in every sense however, because we have also witnessed a much greater diversity among authors which has been reflected in the range and quality of the writing.

Everyone’s reading list is a very personal thing, but since many of the books I read often come as recommended by others, I present my choices in the hope that others may be helped or inspired in their choices. My reading list has always been varied and the ‘to be read’ pile is always way to big. Split between both fiction and non-fiction, the latter feeds my desire for life-long-learning and also fuels the research for my own writing. In fiction I need to have two essential elements present. First it needs to be a great story intelligently told. Secondly the story needs to be populated by believable, well formed characters. Beyond these basic needs, a book will usually appeal because of its setting either in time or place, or it may simply come highly recommended by somebody whose tastes I respect. Of course another important trigger for me maybe that the story comes from an author whose work I admire.

All of these things have occurred this year and I have read some really good books and some quite extraordinary ones. Between now and Christmas I will share my reading list with you through these blog posts and each one will address a particular pile of books. Non-Fiction is divided between those books which I’ve read for betterment and those which have joined my reference collection. These are not for cover to cover consumption but rather for dipping into as needed. The fiction group will also be divided into two piles for a very particular reason. Firstly there are the individual stories, none of which disappointed. Then there is the pile which has given me the most joy during the second half of this year. These are all by the same author who I regret to say I have come to very late in the day. Back in August I wrote about my discovery of the works of Patrick Gale. I read A Place Called Winter and then Notes From An Exhibition. I was hooked! I then chose a path I’d not taken for many years and set out to read Patrick’s back catalogue in order of Publication. For this reason my list of Patrick Gale books read so far, deserves it’s own pile.

My book reading is also supplemented with regular magazines and periodicals since by the very nature of their publication, they deliver more contemporary information and trends than long-in-production books can do. Once I have covered all that material dear readers, I may look forward to the New Year and take a peak at that ever growing pile of ‘books to be read’. There will also be some news on my own writing/publication plans. I can only use the garden as my excuse for so long and with that put to bed for the Winter, it’s time to get back to the planting of new words!

Coming soon: The Lockdown Reader Pt2 – The Non-Fiction list