“Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2014)

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“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”

When the weather gets gloomy and cold, it’s often best to take yourself off to somewhere warm, even if just in a book. I made my way El Paso, Texas in the 1980s to escape some of the British January chill. There, I found a story that was much more than I expected.

Angel Aristotle Mendoza – known as Ari – is in many ways your average fifteen-year-old, swallowed up by self-doubt, confusion and family troubles. His brother is in prison and his father is a Vietnam war veteran: neither of these things are ever discussed. At the local swimming pool one day, he meets Dante, a fellow Mexican-American teenager who teaches Ari to swim. Ari has never had a proper friend before, and the two are soon inseparable, spending all their time together laughing and playing games.

As Ari’s self-imposed walls begin to crumble, their bond seems unshakeable, and on one rainy summer’s day, Ari saves Dante’s life, breaking three of his limbs in the process. Unable to speak about his heroic act, Ari closes down again, and Dante has to move away to Chicago with his parents for the rest of the year. When he returns, however, both boys have been changed and they wonder if their friendship can continue as they change from boys to men…

A friend of mine recommended me this and said she loved it. I generally trust her opinion on books, so went for it and was very pleased I did. I’ve long struggled with getting into much young adult stuff, but there’s something quite wonderful and wise about this. The relationships between the boys and their parents are particularly endearing. Ari gets on with his mum, but struggles with his father who is clearly suffering from PTSD. The shadow of his brother hangs heavy over them all, and there isn’t even a picture of him up in the house. It’s almost as if he never existed, but Ari can’t open up the communication channels to ask why or even what he’s in prison for, as it all happened when he was very young. Dante, on the other hand, is an only child and has a very open and affectionate relationship with his parents, which Ari is jealous of.

A lot of emphasis is also played on the two boys identities as Mexicans. According to Wikipedia, 80.7% of the city’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, and given the city sits right on the Rio Grande with Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city, right on the other side, this is obviously an important aspect to them. Many of the other characters are also of Mexican extraction, allowing for a very diverse novel that paints a world that I’m not familiar with. Sáenz however builds a fascinating and beautiful little world, with characters who feel very real and good company. The relationship between Ari and Dante is, for the most part, kept somewhat ambigious. Ari is the sole narrator, but he’s so used to burying his feelings that he’s even capable of burying them from us.

A charming and beautiful novel about growing up and the hidden trauma that so many carry around with them.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

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“Still Life With Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins (1980)

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“If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.”

No, it hasn’t taken me eleven days to read a book, but I appreciate that the blog has been quiet for a while. Before the book I’m about to review, I also read Joined-Up Thinking by Stevyn Colgan which, while excellent, was a book of random trivia and difficult to review without merely repeating back all he’d written. There’s also been a lot of drinking and watching Christmas films going on – ’tis the season, after all. But I’m here now with one final pre-Christmas review, for one of the oddest books of the year.

Still Life With Woodpecker is inexplicable. Here, we meet Princess Leigh-Cheri, who is living with her parents in Seattle after they were kicked off of their European throne and sent to live in exile. Leigh-Cheri maintains an interest in environmentalism and being a good person, and seeks to attend Care Fest in Hawaii, to hear Ralph Nader speak and find out more about the state of the world. The king and queen allow it, providing she takes along their one remaining servant, Gulietta, an old woman who doesn’t speak any language understood by the family.

While in Hawaii, the centre where Care Fest is supposed to be held is bombed by the Woodpecker, an outlaw actually called Bernard Mickey Wrangle, who has been responsible for a spate of bombings over the last couple of decades, yet has never been caught. Leigh-Cheri performs a citizen’s arrest on him, but before she can turn him in, she finds herself falling in love with him, bonded primarily of the fact they both have bright red hair. The two swiftly fall into a heavily sexual relationship, and when Bernard is finally arrested for his crimes and sent to solitary confinement, Leigh-Cheri returns to Seattle to do exactly the same, locking herself away in an attic with no furniture and painted-over windows, where the considers a packet of Camel cigarettes and begins to philosophise over the nature of pyramids, choice, bombs and love…

Despite the weirdness of the plot that feels a bit like it was constructed from a random generator (and I don’t knock that because that’s pretty much exactly how my first novel came to be), it somehow all works and is above all hilariously funny. Robbins has a way with words, puns and bizarre similes that is on par with Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams and Tom Holt, and they don’t let up. It’s intelligent and bonkers in that perfect measure that’s so hard to do, and the surrealism is just spot on – weird but not so much that it overwhelms the story and takes over.

One of the ongoing themes (aside from the difference between a criminal and an outlaw, or what is to be done about all the redheads) is the question of how love can be made to last. I’m certainly no expert on the topic, but Robbins does manage to wax somewhat poetically on the subject, pointing out the differences between lust and love, and even comes up with a half-decent and poignant explanation on what exactly it is that causes love to disappear from a relationship. It never gets too schmaltzy though, as it’s liberally peppered with incredibly graphic sex scenes that are almost hilarious in their construction and not in the least sexy.

Very weird, but hilarious and curiously moving.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

“The House Of Sleep” by Jonathan Coe (1997)

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house-sleep“It was their final quarrel, that much was clear.”

When I was in sixth form I studied Psychology, and one of the most interesting aspects of the course was the module on sleep. It turns out that no one really knows why we sleep, what purpose it serves, what dreams are, why they happen, or what benefit sleep has. For something so ubiquitous in our lives, it seems insane to think that we have never worked out what it’s for. In this novel, we explore some of the more unusual aspects of what is already a very unusual scenario.

Ashdown is a house for students. They come and go, but the bonds they form are deep and long-lasting. In one room is the narcoleptic Sarah, who has such vivid dreams that she is convinced that they happened for real, getting her into trouble with others, not least housemate Robert, who loves Sarah deeply and will apparently stop at nothing to win her love. Elsewhere in the house is Terry requires fourteen hours of sleep a night, and there’s also Gregory, a psychology student who aspires to greatness.

Twelve years later, Ashdown is now a sleep clinic, where Dr Gregory Dudden now studies and treats people who are struggling with narcolepsy, insomnia, sleeptalking, sleepwalking and a whole host of other conditions. But he’s not the only one that has returned, and soon it seems that these four are destined to be reunited at the house where they grew up, only to find that things are not quite as they were. Chapters alternate between their student days, and a time over a decade later where they’ve all grown up and, for a time, lost contact with one another. But secrets have lain dormant for years, and soon their lives are interconnected once more, whether they want them to be or not.

I feared when the novel began that it was going to be another one of those novels where an author attempts to show off his intelligence through the well-read, political, culturally-aware student characters. You know the sort. While there is a little of this from one character in particular (two if you count a character who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film), I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t going to just be world-weary students sitting round like they’d got everything figured out. Like all good books, it treads that fine like of being very funny, as well as breaking your heart a tiny bit too, all while making you want to turn the page and devour the next chapter.

Gregory Dudden is entirely unsympathetic, a scientist with a one-track-mind and an obsession that has got out of hand and led him down a very dark path indeed. Apparently disrespected by fellow students and then later by his staff, he seems to care little about what people actually think of him and so hasn’t realised what an insufferable, unpleasant, smug creep he is. Despite dating Sarah presumably because he was attracted to her, it later transpires he mostly bothers with her so he can study her condition, as well as indulge in a sexual game that only he enjoys that involves pressing down on her eyelids. This act scars her for life and has a strong impact on her future relationships and psychology.

The other characters are more pleasant, although all flawed in their own ways. Terry has gone from being someone who needs a lot of sleep to an insomniac, and like Gregory, has an obsession that has consumed much of his life, although he at least seems to be handling it slightly better. Sarah is perhaps the least flawed character, but even she seems able to act in spite and not really think through what she’s doing. Robert is kind, but needy and can’t accept that Sarah won’t ever love him. Her relationship with him at university has a huge impact on his future and his life is changed forever by her vivid dreams.

The novel does seem to rely rather heavily on coincidence, and a small cast of characters keep overlapping one another and finding themselves magnetically drawn to others who have links to their pasts and yet, somehow, it works. It makes sense. Besides, I can’t complain about that. My own novel relies extensively on coincidence for the later plot to work. So despite this minor niggle, I really enjoyed the story. The characters feel well-rounded and when it ended I found myself wishing that there was more. The ending is somehow bittersweet, and you can’t claim happy endings for everyone, but there’s definitely a sense of hope there.

A dream, rather than a nightmare.

“The Swimming-Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

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swimming-pool“I came home on the last train.”

I’ve never really understood what is meant by “literary fiction”. That is, I understand what books generally get classed as such, but I’ve never understood why. It feels snobbish, and implies a seriousness about the works that renders “genre fiction” – all the really good sci-fi, fantasy and crime – somehow beneath these “proper books”. I only mention this, because Alan Hollinghurst is one of those writers who is apparently writing literary fiction, and yet still seems accessible and good fun. I read The Line of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d pick him up again, and the fact that this title contains two of the places I most like to spend time, it felt like I was on to a winner.

Will Beckwith is young, gay, jobless and horny. Living off the vast wealth of his family and not bothering to make himself into a useful member of society, he spends every day swimming at the Corinthian Club and sleeping with the men and boys that he finds there. One day while potentially soliciting in some public toilets, he saves the life of an elderly peer who collapses. When he finds the man, Lord Nantwich, at his swimming club, he finds himself befriending the old man. But there is more to this than mere friendship, and Nantwich has a job in mind for young Will.

Nantwich wants someone to write his biography before he dies, and so hands off all his old diaries and notes to Will to read through and see if he’s up for the task. In between bedding his latest beau, the muscular and shy Phil, Will reads the old man’s diaries and finds himself coming up against some harsh truths about his privileged lifestyle.

Plotwise, the book is pretty slow going and things that seem to be leading somewhere have a habit of tailing off, which I suppose is much like life – you never get all the answers out here, but in books you tend to expect them. I liked the characters a lot from the off though. Will is attractive, slightly arrogant and apparently unable to learn from past lessons, but also human enough to be tolerable as a narrator, even if you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company. Because the story is seen through his eyes, many of the older gay men are painted with unfair descriptions and almost all come across as lecherous, past their prime and desperate. Will’s best friend James remains my favourite character, a rather sweet doctor who is insecure and seems to put up with a lot from Will, often getting little in return.

The book is deeply sexual in nature, dealing not just with changing (or rather, unchanging) attitudes to homosexuality, but also describing the acts that Will and his many partners perform during the course of the book. Sometimes these are brushed over, but other times they are very explicit. Oddly, and something I shamefully only seemed to realise towards the end of the book, there are no women in this book. I think you once get a phone conversation with Will’s sister, but otherwise I don’t recall there being a single female character. This seems to emphasise the fact that Will has eyes only for other men, and seems to live in a particular bubble, where everyone is gay and there’s no wider world to be seen. Will’s narrow way of looking around him almost proves to be ruinous – he is a man who sees only what he wants to see.

I found it an interesting read, with several parallels to My Policeman which I read last year, and it’s always shocking to be reminded of how society acted towards gay men only a few short decades ago. While occasionally a bit dry, Hollinghurst does have a wonderful turn of phrase. Two come to mind. In one, Will observes a street of people all doing such “nameable activities”, suggesting that they look like a picture designed to teach foreigners the basics of the English language. In another, after Will has been in a fight, the loss of one of his front teeth is said to make him look like a “defaced advertisement”. I’ll take many pages of dry discussion on old authors and changing room showers for lines like that.

“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde (2001)

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eyre“My father had a face that could stop a clock.”

There is another 1985. In this one, literature and art are revered in the way that sport and religion are in our world. Criminals have turned their attentions to literary forgeries and art theft. Here, Richard III is performed with audience participation, Baconists go door-to-door insisting that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, and the truly dedicated have all changed their names to that of their favourite poet.

But because this is Jasper Fforde, there’s far more going on than just that. This is a world where time travel exists, vampires and werewolves stalk the streets, home-cloning kits have ensured that everyone has a pet dodo, the Crimean War is still raging, and a corporation called Goliath has a finger in every pie. Even then, I’m still simplifying. I’ve had to jump right in though because this world has been built so wonderfully from the bottom up, that I really have to try and stress what magic is going on in here.

Our heroine is Thursday Next, a literary detective (or LiteraTec) who has just been temporarily promoted. From her lowly position in SpecOps 27, she has been called upon to assist SO5, a department so shady that no one’s quite sure what they do. But this time they’re after Acheron Hades, one of the most evil men in the world; a man who does evil acts just for the sheer joy of doing them. He has no motive, he just wants the world to suffer. As a former student of his, Thursday is able to identify him, as everyone else is having trouble on that front. While Hades appears human, he has a number of particular powers, such as the ability to convince people he’s not there, to hear his name whispered from a thousand yards away, and to be undamaged by bullets.

Thursday’s uncle, the genius but forgetful scientist Mycroft Next, has just invented another wonderful device, the Prose Portal. It allows people to travel in and out of fiction and explore their favourite tales first hand. But such a device, in the wrong hands, would prove very dangerous indeed, and with both Goliath and Acheron Hades after it, Mycroft is in serious danger. When Hades traps Mycroft’s wife Polly inside a Wordsworth poem, he then sets about killing a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, demanding a ransom before he does any more damage. After all, Chuzzlewit is one thing – people will get over a missing lodger. But Hades has set his sights on bigger targets, and when he kidnaps Jane Eyre from her own novel, only Thursday is brave enough to step inside the novel and put right what went wrong…

This was the first Fforde book I read, and indeed the first one published, and it won me over immediately. I don’t actually know how or why it took me so long to get round to him. The idea of being able to leap in and out of fiction is heaven to me, and it gets explored in far more depth in the upcoming installments. It’s hilarious, smart, original and everything that a good book should be. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m about to start off on some wild fanboying.

eyre 2Thursday Next is one of my favourite protagonists ever. Thirty-six years old, she seems different to so many heroes who have gone before her. She’s remarkably ordinary, a former soldier who suffered great loss in the Crimean War ten years before and is still struggling to get over it. Her biggest regret is losing her ex-lover, Landen Parke-Laine, and when he makes a reappearance in her life, she wants to set things right. Although some people probably complain that giving such an “action woman” a love story seems like it’s pigeon-holing women and saying they all want the same thing, I disagree. I’m against tacked-on love stories, but here it seems fitting. Besides, this isn’t Thursday risking it all for a man she’s just met – she and Landen have history. It never claims that this is what all women want, just what Thursday needs to be happy.

The extended cast are all wonderful. Acheron Hades is a great villain, although not my favourite in the Thursday Next series – she’s yet to come – and Thursday’s family are hilarious, not least the absent-minded Mycroft, and her time-travelling father, who has been scrubbed from history by his former colleagues after he went rougue in the Chronoguard (the department that cleans up messes in time) but still pops in to see his daughter from time to time. The other members of the SO departments including Spike Stoker, Bowden Cable, Braxon Hicks and Victor Analogy are also all superb, if only for their wonderful names – Fforde likes a name that serves as a pun. We also get to meet the cast of Jane Eyre, who are all too aware that they’re in a story. While Fforde resists giving Jane herself too many lines (he apparently didn’t want to mess too much with her out of respect), we do get to know Rochester very well.

It’s probably the fourth time I’ve read this book now – Rowling is probably the only author I’ve re-read more than Fforde – and every time I find something new in it; a joke I’ve missed, or some foreshadowing I ignored. Despite Jane Eyre being a key plot point in the book, this is the first time I’ve read The Eyre Affair after reading the original text, and while I loved it more than enough before, it makes it even better afterwards, to see Thursday skulking around the novel. Besides, at one point Thursday does explain the plot for Bowden Cable, so even those who haven’t read it can follow along. It’s such a clever concept, and Fforde does it with such skill that it’s a wonder this book isn’t better known. In some ways, I wish everyone knew about it, but in others, I like having a smaller, select group who seem to worship it.

The book has many lessons in it about the importance of literature, and love, but above all it’s consistently creative and plays with your expectations. Fforde has performed a miracle here, and throws so much into it that you race through wondering how all the plot threads will join up, if even at all. By the end, though, you can’t help be satisfied. Plus, it’s the only book I’ve ever read that successfully manages a car chase – they’re much easier in films.

It’s a must read for any lovers of literature at all, but in particular those with a love of the Brontës. After all, as Thursday herself says, “Governments and fashions come and go, but Jane Eyre is for all time.”

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King (1982)

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Get a move on!

Get a move on!

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I’ve only read Stephen King once before and I rather enjoyed it. His huge tome Under The Dome has been sat on my shelf for years, but I’ve yet to work up the courage or upper body strength to read it. Instead, I thought I’d turn to his supposed magnum opus, the Dark Tower series, picking up the first installment, The Gunslinger, that had just been updated with new text and information to make it work better with the later books in the series. Not really knowing what to expect, I took the plunge.

In this novel – actually five shorter stories taped together – we meet Roland, the gunslinger, who is travelling across a vast, seemingly endless, featureless desert. With only a worn out mule and his guns for company, the gunslinger is on the trail of the man in black, although why we are not immediately told.

The gunslinger meets a few people in the desert, living nomadic lives, and tells stories of how he got to be where he is. He talks of the last town he left, Tull, where he killed every person in the town after they went mad and believed him to be a demon. He then meets Jake, a small boy who is all alone, and the gunslinger takes him along on his journey, although his motives may not be as kind as they first seem. Time passes strangely in the desert and while they’ve no idea how long they’ve been travelling for, the gap between the gunslinger and the man in black grows ever smaller, and it starts to look like maybe he even wants to be caught…

Frankly, I didn’t get it. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, but I didn’t get it. Long-winded to a fault, with characters that never particularly shone for me, I found the book uninteresting and somewhat dull. For a book that is meant to be the best thing one has written, it’s a disappointment. Perhaps part of that is because I expected it to be scary – that’s what Stephen King is meant to be about, after all, but aside from it being a little creepy in places, it really doesn’t frighten. I also never understood particularly where or when it’s meant to be set. Jake seems to remember modern day New York, but the gunslinger has very little concept of machines. There’s a suggestion that it’s all taking place thousands of years after our time, or perhaps in an alternate timeline. They know the song “Hey Jude”, and there’s a scene that proves it’s Earth that we’re residing on, but it all seems disjointed. I’m sure that’s how it’s meant to be, but I was too busy trying to get all that straight in my head to focus on the plot some of the time.

The man in black, when we finally meet him, is something of a let down. Supposedly the embodiment of evil, I wasn’t too fussed by him, although perhaps that’s just because by the end I was simply reading it to finish it. The gunslinger in turn is somewhat distant and none too exciting as a main character. He has a single-minded determination and while he’s shown to be able to show emotions, it feels a little forced and heavy-handed in its demonstration.

I think all in all my feeling is one of frustration. I had built it up in my head and King failed to deliver. I should really have known that I wasn’t going to be fully into this. After all, this is his attempt at doing what Tolkien did by building a huge, sprawling epic with its own history and culture, and I could never get into The Lord of the Rings either. I’m not saying King is a bad writer – the man is a huge success and I’ve liked other things he’s done – but this time I really have to just hold my hands up and say that I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

The gunslinger may one day reach the Dark Tower, but I doubt I will be alongside him when he does.

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