“The Binding” by Bridget Collins (2019)

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“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

If it wasn’t obvious, I love books. They hold such power and mystery, each one containing a new world that we’re free to explore if only we open the covers. Sometimes they are magical, other times dangerous. Sometimes they’re to entertain, or to teach. They have all sorts of purposes. Perhaps their most powerful ability is that they can store our thoughts, but what if that could be abused?

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory.

This is a world where binders are employed to take memories from people, things they would rather forget, and store them into beautiful, unique books for safekeeping. But binders are not always trusted and some people disagree with what they do. Seredith is no exception, and when an angry group arrives on her doorstep, she and Emmett manage to chase them away but to the detriment of her health. But Emmett has another problem. Beneath Seredith’s house sits all the books she has ever bound, stored away so that the people can forget. Down here, however, Emmett makes a shocking discovery: one of the books has his name on it.

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. Lucian Darnay, his rival, is basically his antithesis. He is born of privilege and never had to work a day in his life, but lives in the shadow of his abusive father. Seredith is a wonderful creation, something like Minerva McGonagall, and I enjoyed her. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

The concept of binding is, of course, at the heart of the novel. One can see how it would be tempting to be bound. You could forget failed love affairs and embarrassing moments in society, but surely the point is that we are all better people because we can remember our flaws? At first, the characters we see who are being bound are doing it for important reasons, just once a lifetime, to banish something they cannot live with from their brain. It’s an act of self-care, in some ways. As it progresses, however, we see how people use and abuse this ability, such as the vile Piers Darnay who rapes his maids and then periodically has them bound again so he can read their thoughts and take advantage again without them knowing it’s not the first time. There is also a horrible trade in books, with people prepared to sell others memories. A lighter note is made that some people are now making up fake memories, called “novels”, but the characters can’t comprehend of someone who would willingly make up a tragedy and spend so much time in that head space.

A surprisingly beautiful and moving novel about what we are willing to sacrifice for our happy endings.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

Six of the Best … London bookshops

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London has an enormous literary history. From the days when Chaucer was pounding the streets, all the greats seem to have found their way here. Shakespeare had his theatre on the south bank. Dickens lived there and turned the city into a character of its own. Agatha Christie called it her home for much of her life, and along with many of the other detective writers of the era, founded a club for them to meet and socialise. To this day, it is an absolute haven for book lovers. I do apologise for the London-centric focus of this post, but I just felt I had to discuss the best bookshops in this great city.

The British Library is the beating heart of London’s literary body. By law, the library receives a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland, meaning mine are in there too, which is probably my proudest achievement. It also contains a very charming bookshop, but really this is just a bonus. All bibliophiles should stop in here, because their collection is remarkable. Where else can you see the Magna Carta, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s notes and Jane Austen’s writing desk?

Daunt Books gets an honourable mention, just for being so damn beautiful. There are a number of branches across London, but the first and most impressive is the Marylebone branch. Notable for its long oak galleries, large skylights and William Morris prints, it takes the breath away. It specialises in travel books, but caters to many other needs, too, and has in the last decade also begun publishing its own books. If it’s travel-based books you’re really after, however, I suggest Stanfords in Covent Garden, which will cater to your every whim.

I also can’t not mention Foyles, which to many people is the London bookshop, and the first place to stock my novel on its shelves. The company was founded in 1903, and gained a reputation for “anachronistic, eccentric and sometimes infuriating” methods of bookselling, but these have simply served to make it famous. The flagship store in on Charing Cross Road, but there are several smaller ones around the city. The most famous owner was Christina Foyle who had control of the company from 1945-99, implementing many of the wacky business practices that made it so notable, including the fact that customers had to queue three times to purchase anything because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash, not allowing orders to be taken over the phone, and the truly bizarre decision to shelve books by publisher rather than author or even title. Famously, in the 1980s, rival bookshop Dillons ran an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Foyled again? Try Dillons.”

Where is the heaviest concentration of bookshops in London, however? There are so many streets in the city dedicated to specific things – Denmark Street for music, Saville Row for high-end fashion, Hatton Garden for jewellery – there just has to be one for books. And there is. It’s called Cecil Court (informally dubbed “Booksellers’ Row”) and can be found near Leicester Square, linking St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross. A small street with Victorian fronted shops, it has existed since the seventeenth century, and now houses around twenty second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, . It holds another singularly cool claim to fame: Mozart lived there for four years.

The city has also seen the loss of some of its finest bookshops over the years. Murder One (1988-2009) was a shop specialising in “hard-to-find and collectable crime, mystery, romance and science fiction literature.” It was the first UK bookshop to specialise in crime and mystery, and was at its opening in 1988, the largest “genre” bookshop in Europe. It closed in 2009 when the owner retired, but still exists online as a mail order service. Elsewhere, we have lost Silver Moon Bookshop (a feminist bookshop that was later folded into Foyle’s), the Poetry Bookshop (1913-1926) which did exactly what it says on the tin and sold hand-coloured rhyme sheets for children, and Henderson’s, founded in 1909 and otherwise known as The Bomb Shop, that was known for selling and publishing radical left and anarchist writing. It’s sad to have lost so many specialists, but we’ve still got plenty to explore.

And so here are six of the best bookshops to visit London:

Skoob

If you like browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, then Skoob is for you. A basement shop near Russell Square, this paradise of the printed word houses over 55,000 uncatalogued books, meaning you never know what you’re going to stumble up against. Primarily it is a place for academic textbooks, but there is all manner of fiction here too, and I’ve spent a good deal of time browsing the shelves, especially those (pictured) dedicated to the famous orange paperbacks from Penguin. There’s also a section of their green paperbacks, all of which are crime novels. The Bloomsbury institution even offers its own gift vouchers, and promises that all books are priced at half (or less) of what they would be new. It’s a genuinely thrilling place to explore, right in the heart of that most literary corner of literary London.

Gay’s the Word

Speaking of Bloomsbury, we come to the most specialist shop on the list. Gay’s the Word is the only specialist LGBT bookshop in the whole of England. Founded in Marchmont Street in 1979 by gay socialist group, the Gay Icebreakers, the bookshop has since become a cultural cornerstone for London’s queer community. In 1984, Customs and Excise took it to be a porn store instead of a bookshop, and seized thousands of pounds worth of stock, including titles like The Joy of Gay Sex and works by Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. It was the meeting place for the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in 1984-5, who’s story is told in the amazing film Pride. The bookshop continues to go from strength to strength and is a vital stopping off point for anyone who wants to branch out from reading the same old straight, white men. Sitting on the shelves of this shop are many authors who have been sidelined, but are worth checking out.

Waterloo Bridge Book Market

You would imagine that a bookshop that is permanently outside would be a bad idea in Britain, given this country’s tendency to be somewhat wet, but an ingenious solution has been found that means this bookshop can open every day, whatever the weather: put it under a bridge. Open every day until seven (sometimes earlier in the winter) whatever the weather, despite being on the main thoroughfare of the Southbank, it has somehow remained one of London’s best open secrets. It has a wide range of paperbacks and hardbacks, including some collectables. There is something for everyone here, from children to crime nuts, romantics to fantasy lovers. as well as extras like beautiful book-based art prints. Like all good bookshops, the emphasis is on the shop’s browsability, a term I’ve just devised. It doesn’t matter how inclement the weather, if I’m in the area, I have to have a quick browse of the tables, and have picked up several rare and unusual books here.

Word on the Water

I only stumbled across Word on the Water last year and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before. It is one of the most unique bookshops in London as it is found on a barge. Before it acquired permanent mooring, it used to move to a different spot in the canals every two weeks, but it now has dropped anchor just behind Granary Square at King’s Cross for the foreseeable future. Founded in 2011, it is certainly one of London’s quirkiest bookshops and sells both new and used books. The roof of the barge has also become the perfect place for any number of events including interesting talks, live music, readings and poetry slams. It’s very quickly become one of my favourite places in London to spend time.

Hatchards

In Britain, you know somewhere is going to excel in quality when it’s used by the Royal Family. Founded in 1797, and trading from the same location since 1801, it claims to be the UK’s oldest bookshop. It holds three Royal Warrants, a sure sign of its quality. There is something about the shop and its decor that sends you back in time, despite the modern books on the shelves. It is a haven of peace in Piccadilly, and hosts regular signings and events with authors. It is the kind of place where you get the sense the booksellers really have read everything on sale. If you head a few paces down the road, you come to the final entry on our list.

Waterstones Piccadilly

Given the sheer number of bookshops in London, it might seem odd to then pick the market leader for this list instead of a small independent, but I’m afraid I simply can’t go without mentioning it. This is the bookshop in London I have spent the most time in, and is an absolute haven for any bookworm. It is reputedly the largest bookshop in Europe, and it has the statistics to back it up. 200,000 titles are sold across six floors and eight miles of shelving. Along with the books, it also contains two cafes, a bar, and a Russian Bookshop. Housed inside a 1930s art deco building that is Grade I listed, it’s the kind of building, like the Natural History Museum, that would look great whatever you put in it.

There are, of course, numerous other branches of Waterstones in the city, each with their own quirks. The Tottenham Court Road branch is the “hipster” cousin, with exposed walls and pipes, as well as one of the funniest business-based Twitter accounts ever. The Gower Street branch is another one that stretches over five floors, and has reading nooks, skeletons manning one of the tills, and an art gallery. In the Bromley store, you’ll find a lot of events catering for children, and the Islington branch has its own fish tank. Tim Waterstone, the company’s founder, said he wanted to create a company that was big but felt small, with very knowledgeable staff, comfortable surroundings, and masses of choice. I think we all agree that he’s done that. Of course we must support the independent shops, but there is something  magical about Waterstones that has ensured its survival and success.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“The Last Romeo” by Justin Myers (2018)

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“I felt disoriented, and a bit peaky.”

The vast majority of my friends are coupled up, co-habiting and/or married now, so as one of the few singletons they know, any movements in my (by choice non-existent) love life are keenly dissected. They are amused by things like Tinder, having never had to use it, and freely admit that if they were suddenly single again, they’d have no idea how to meet someone new. The dating scene has changed rapidly in the last few years. Internet dating became the norm, and then apps took over again. We swipe and decide it doesn’t matter if we reject that face, because here come fifty more. You’d think we’d all be bored of it all by now, but no, people want to keep talking about love and dating like it’s shameful to want to be single.

Celebrity journalist James is thirty-four and his six-year relationship with the gym worshipping Adam has just ended. He moves into a new flat and nurses his pride, not helped by the fact he hates his job and his best friend has just announced she’s off to Russia for a new job. Before she leaves, however, she encourages him to get back on the dating scene, which he does, recording the details of all the dates in an anonymous blog, One More Romeo.

As James meets a plethora of attractive, strange or just inappropriate men, the blog begins to gain traction and he’s soon got a small but devoted following and a chance to write a column for a big magazine. Naturally, it all goes tits up when he tells his followers about his night with a closeted Olympian and the post goes viral. Now finding himself in the middle of a social media shit storm, James begins to wonder if he can ever get back his old life and undo the damage…

This is one of those books where the main character just lacks something. He seems almost too good to be true, constantly described by others as nice and handsome and kind, but a lot of the things that prove it take place off the page, so it’s very much a catalogue of informed traits. What we see of him is quite shallow, vain, desperate and nasty. He doesn’t think about what he’s doing and becomes entirely selfish. He gets worse from there on in, arguing with his Olympian beau about why he should come out and not listening to the other side, and neglecting his godsons and friends to the point of injury and forgetting birthdays. Although the main premise is about him being two characters, it seems a bit too literal at times. His personality jars and the two halves don’t quite fit together. It’s perhaps an idealised version of what the author wishes his life was like. The secondary characters have a bit of fun to themselves, but no real agency, most of them existing solely for James to bounce his dialogue off.

Generally though, I wasn’t entirely put off by it. The jokes are thick and fast and Myers has an astounding way with metaphor and analogy that I’m actually a bit jealous of. His descriptions of people are witty and they usually feel solid enough, even if their personality lacks. There are also a couple of moments where he so accurately nails what it’s like to be single in today’s society – such as feeling like you’re always intruding on other people’s times – that my heart hurt. It also has some interesting stuff to say about coming out, and in general with how we identify. It is, really, a book about who we are and the face we choose to show the world. Anonymity may have some benefits, but there are drawbacks too. The same is shown to be true of fame. The Internet has allowed us to throw even more masks on, hiding behind cartoon avatars, Instagram filters and witty bios.

Although I’m sure some people would argue it does nothing to work against stereotypes that pervade regarding gay men, in general it’s not a bad book. I think its heart is in the right place, even if James’s isn’t, and there are some decent lessons to be learnt here if you choose to acknowledge them.

“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!

“Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You” by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2015)

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“4 Conflicting Parts of Himself Darren Jacobs Attempts to Ignore as He Tries to Ask a Particular Eleventh-Grade Girl for a Really Big Favor on Friday, April 25, at 10:38 a.m.”

I’m one of those people who loves lists. I write lists for everything – books I’ve read, films I need to watch, things to buy, errands to run. I’m also one of those who adds things to lists just to cross them off to make myself look productive. Every list I write begins “Write list”, simply so I can cross that off immediately. However, I can’t say that it had ever crossed my mind to write a novel entirely in lists. It’s too late now anyway – Todd Hasak-Lowy has beaten me to it.

Darren Jacobs is your average, awkward fifteen-year-old living in Chicago. He’s had a terrible year, with his parents divorcing, his brother moving away to university, and his best friend leaving the state. He’s also still hopelessly single. Things reach a head when Darren learns that the reason for his parents divorce is that his father is gay. Unwilling to deal with the fallout, or put up with the long drive to Ann Arbor to visit his brother Nate with his dad, Darren instead approaches one of the cool girls at school, Zoey Lovell, and asks if she’ll give him a ride to the bus station so he can go alone.

It’s only when the bus stops along the route that Darren discovers Zoey came along too, and the two unlikely companions find themselves with Darren’s cool brother Nate exploring the drug-laden world of university. Darren isn’t sure if Zoey is now is girlfriend, or even if she wants to be, and when she disappears, he starts to wonder if any of it ever happened. That one daring weekend, however, will have consequences for everyone that make it clear it really unfolded…

Were it not for the unique style of this novel, I think I would have been far less generous in my thoughts about it. Without the structure of everything being written in lists, it’s your classic “awkward American teenager meets a manic pixie dream girl and joins a band” sort of thing, although not without charm. Zoey doesn’t interest me much as we’ve seen her type too many times before, but I am fond of the Jacobs family, particularly Nate, the older brother. Yes, he’s something of a cliche too, but I find him and his relationship with Darren particularly engaging. I can’t recall off the top of my head many stories that focus on sibling relationships – and even fewer on positive ones – so that makes a nice change.

The novel’s real charm, of course, comes from the unique trait of it being written solely in lists. They run the gamut of listing emotions, memories, dialogue and reasons for things happening to simply rings of a telephone, fingers, letters and items in a bag. One page simply has “5 Months That Have Passed” and listing them, rather than just saying “Five months passed…”, another lists “8 Best Things Darren Ever Built out of Legos, in Chronological Order”. In this style, we jump back and forth through the timeline and learn about Darren and his world in an interesting, if somewhat academic way. It’s very easy to read though, and while I’m not sure it would work for most genres or stories, it fits perfectly here. The lists themselves are not referenced until towards the end when there is a comment about whether the lists we give ourselves in life are good or bad, so even though the book is entirely lists, they never feel intrusive.

An intriguing take on story structure that saves and enhances a tale we’ve, admittedly, probably read before.

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

“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 Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

 

“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.

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