“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.

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“How Not To Be A Boy” by Robert Webb (2017)

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“If I get this right, Tess Rampling will definitely want to have sex with me.”

Over the last few years I’ve read a number of books with a “how to” premise. In theory, I now know how to find love in a bookshop, how to talk to girls at parties, and how to stop time. Before beginning this blog I even read a book called How To Bag a Jabberwock, just in case one ever reared its head across the hills of southern England. But now it’s time to turn the concept on it’s head. It’s time to learn how not to be a boy.

Robert Webb is, in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men working in television today. Peep Show is incredible, and whenever he pops up on a panel show – which is much less often than his comedy sidekick David Mitchell – it’s always a delight. His life, however, was not always so cheerful. Webb struggled from a young age with society’s expectations. Boys weren’t supposed to cry, or talk about their emotions. Men were meant to like football and beer, and not take themselves too seriously. Therapy was for girls, boys were meant to be brave, and it certainly wasn’t OK to fall in love with other boys. Before he was even eighteen, he had to deal with an abusive father, the death of his mother, and people who expected him to be something he didn’t want to be.

In his memoirs, he explores his life through the lens of gender stereotypes and explains how toxic the culture of masculinity is. There’s a reason that so many men kill themselves, and maybe having hundreds of relationship books published that treat men and women as two different species hasn’t really helped humanity. As Webb grows and explores both his internal and external worlds, he discovers love, hope, tragedy, comedy, loss, battles he never asked to be involved in, and William Wordsworth. Determined and precocious from a young age, he decides that if he has any hope of being happy, he needs to be famous and that involves getting into the Cambridge Footlights.

The topics of gender, sexuality and the stereotypes surrounding each seem to be on the mind of the zeitgeist quite a lot. I think part of this has come from the fact that mental health has also become a huge topic, and it has revealed the startling statistics behind suicide, depression and anxiety. Men are told, generally, from an early age that it’s “unmanly” to express their feelings, and so they get bottled up and often converted into anger. Webb frequently points out throughout the book that the emotions that he – or any of the men he knows – display are quickly transmuted into anger and, sometimes, violence. Indeed, the phrase “man up” is surely soon to be retired. The book is a refreshing breath of air in its openness of the topic.

Not only is it one of the Very Important Books for today’s society (see also, Animal by Sara Pascoe and Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig) it’s also very moving and very funny. Webb has overcome things I can only imagine to become who he is. He is frank and honest about his life and the decisions he’s made within it. He is incredibly candid regarding his relationships, sexuality and failings, and it makes him all the more likeable.

As someone who, like Webb, struggled with the concept of masculinity, this book is a tonic and vital. I was a kid who cried a lot. I cry less now, but for years I didn’t cry at all. I’ve always been more comfortable with girls and women as my friends, have no interest in football, have always loved books, and was never particularly bothered about what other boys thought of me at school. It’s important, I feel, for people to know that the gender stereotypes are rubbish. Women are strong, men like pink, and both can be utterly useless at expressing their feelings. This is important not only for the next generation coming up and their descendants, but also for those who have been struggling with unfounded expectations for so long. A really wonderful book.

“No-One Ever Has Sex On A Tuesday” by Tracy Bloom (2014)

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(Incorrect.)

“There are those who get to choose the father of their child and those who don’t.”

It’s easy to be conned into buying a book if it’s got a silly title. There was something weirdly captivating about this one. I even ignored the unusual grammatical choice, but that alone should have clued me in to the fact that I was about to embark on something ludicrous. If Bridget Jones’s Diary is the Waitrose of this genre, then No-One Ever Has Sex on a Tuesday is Lidl.

Our heroine, Katy Chapman (the budget Bridget), is in something of a pickle. She’s pregnant, and she’s pretty sure that the father is her casual boyfriend Ben, who is a bit of a lad and eight years younger than her. However, there’s a slim chance that the father could be Matthew, her teenage ex who she had a one night stand with at a school reunion. After that incident, they vowed not to see one another again, but when they both turn up in the same antenatal class, they have to face facts.

Katy tries to keep their former dalliance a secret from Ben, while Matthew attempts the same with his wife Alison, who is now pregnant after a long time struggling with fertility issues. Secrets, of course, do not stay hidden in literature, and soon the truth begins to spill out as the births get nearer, with potentially disastrous consequences.

So, we’re supposed to be on the side of Katy, but from the moment she sleeps with Matthew behind Ben’s back, my sympathy for her vanished. She spends the rest of the novel hoping that her secret is contained, but it feels like something too big to be swept under the rug. She is selfish and doesn’t seem to give much thought to anyone else’s feelings, least of all Ben or Alison. Matthew, in turn, is somewhat misogynistic and while at first he’s determined not to ruin his stability with Alison, by the end he’s all but ready to drop Alison and believes that Katy wants him back immediately. He can’t understand that times have changed and he has other responsibilities now.

This is to say nothing of the supporting cast. Ben is so wrapped up in his own feelings that he absconds on a stag do instead of being with his girlfriend. The character of Daniel, Katy’s best friend, is a walking stereotype and almost offensive in the portrayal of gay men, with his dialogue so camp it may as well be written in pink glitter. He, too, is far too concerned with how the birth will affect him, despite him really having no part in it whatsoever. He also throws the most inappropriate baby shower in history. Alison is perhaps the only character I have even a smidgen of sympathy for as she has apparently no clue all this drama is going on around her, but even she’s not an especially pleasant person.

The plot is relatively straightforward and doesn’t meander too much, but there’s a lot of emphasis on how funny everyone is being, and how hilarious their pranks and jokes are. If you have to signpost the humour, then it’s not there. There’s also the “hysterical” character known only as Braindead, who is supposedly Ben’s comic foil, and so stupid it’s apparently a wonder he manages to get out of bed in the morning without suffocating himself with the pillow. There are some very staged scenes where trivial things have to happen to move the story along, such as when Matthew spills coffee on himself in front of Ben, and has to remove his shirt, thus revealing that he has the same tattoo on his hip as Katy.

Ultimately, the book struggles under its own delusions of being much funnier and more original than it really is. The writing itself is fine, but the humour is forced and there isn’t a single person here I’d go out of my way to save from walking into traffic. And yet, inexplicably, there are over 1,000 five-star reviews of the book on Amazon. Since the sequel has less than 100 reviews in total, I sense something afoot here, but that may just be in my head.

I’m not disparaging “chick lit”, as I think there’s quite a lot of it that’s very good, but this isn’t one to go for. Lisa Jewell, Alexandra Potter and Veronica Henry would all serve you better. I’m not carrying on with this series.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Nina Is Not OK” by Shappi Khorsandi (2016)

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“The burly bouncer was holding me by the scruff of the neck.”

I like a drink. A lot of my friends like a drink. We are, however, generally capable of knowing when we’ve had enough. We don’t drink to black out, but whether that’s down to our age (hangovers are much worse in your late twenties than they were at university) and/or an inbuilt sense of responsibility, I won’t state here. However, in Nina is Not OK, the first novel by the phenomenal British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, we meet a girl who definitely doesn’t know when to quit.

As the story opens, Nina is being kicked out of a nightclub where she has been engaging in, let’s say, a public display of sexual activity. Followed out by the man involved and one of his friends, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi holding her knickers. Things don’t get any better from here. Still smarting from the sudden departure of her boyfriend Jamie, she is unable to remember quite what happened on this night. Knowing something bad did, however, she seeks to block any ideas out from her mind, sending her into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and sleeping with whoever comes her way.

Amongst all this, she discovers that her friend Zoe is now dating the guy she met at the club, her mum and stepdad are planning on moving to Germany, Jamie isn’t replying to any of her messages, she’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, and her exams are creeping ever nearer. Things reach a head, however, when she tries to hit on her best friend’s dad. Rehab seems to be the only option, but even that isn’t going to be the end of all the drama…

I find myself deeply conflicted about the character of Nina for much of the novel. The trouble is, she reminds me quite a lot of a girl I knew at school. She was perpetually drunk, sleeping with inappropriate characters, and generally struggling to keep her life together. But we were all seventeen – as Nina is in this book – and what on earth do we know about helping keep one another sane? She moved away eventually – none of us had been able to cope with her – and I happen to know that she is now healthy and happy elsewhere. This whole thing makes the character far more real and less of a stereotype than Nina may appear to others. However, the girl I knew didn’t quite go as far as this, and her life wasn’t quite as much of a soap opera. I did, however, find myself sympathising more with her friends and family who had to put up with her drunken antics than I did Nina herself though.

It wasn’t until later in the book when the truth comes out that I began to feel sorry for her. I found it hard to have any sympathy for her as she seems to be willfully destroying her own life, and because the incident from the opening chapter is left vague, I seemed to forget about its severity. She goes through a lot, and Khorsandi handles it all with compassion and skill. The characters are vibrant and real, if not always particularly pleasant, and there are some horrible but vital truths about our society and its treatment of men and women, rape victims and alcoholism. The scenes set in rehab are tragic and bring home the reality of the situation for many people.

It’s a dark and brave novel full of heart and horror. Emotional doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m a big fan of Khorsandi’s comedy, and I always turn to a novel by a celebrity with trepidation as I’ve been burnt before, but this one came highly recommended, and I’m pleased to say that she’s written a wonderful, if shocking, novel.

“Vox” by Nicholson Baker (1992)

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“What are you wearing?”

I last stumbled into a Nicholson Baker novel two years ago, and admired The Mezzanine for its ability to hold together a clever and engaging narrative, despite the entire story taking place on one escalator journey. I don’t know if Baker picks small moments for all his stories, but he has done it again here. This time, we’re spending the entire novel in one phone call.

Two strangers are among the people who have called a sex chat line and, liking the sound of one another’s voices, they switch to a private chat line to get to know one another better. There, instead of launching into phone sex, they find themselves opening up, talking about past sexual experiences but also leading into conversations about wallpaper, circuses, tights, car washes, spontaneous human combustion and what to do with a fork when it gets damaged in the dishwasher. As their conversation becomes more and more intimate, it becomes more exciting, and it seems soon that they’ve both found something unexpected.

So, it’s obviously all about people on a sex line, and so I was expecting something sexy. Mostly though, it didn’t happen. I wasn’t seeking out a thrill from the book, but I thought it might be a bit full on. The characters talk openly about masturbation, sex and people they’ve had sex with, as well as describing in great detail several fantasies they have. There’s actually something oddly innocent about the whole thing. Towards the end though, it becomes incredibly explicit and phone sex is in full flow, which suddenly came as a surprise after so long.

Our strangers are engaging people though, both perhaps a little unused to these phone lines, or particularly meeting someone on them they have a genuine connection with. Baker’s command of the dialogue – and the book is mostly dialogue with only a couple of “he said”/”she said” tags – is wonderful and it feels very realistic, with them restarting sentences, repeating themselves, and stringing their thoughts together in long, pauseless streams, providing the reader with sentences sometimes a page or more long.

Did it turn me on? Actually, yes, a bit. No, I’m not going anymore specific than that, but it’s a really quite remarkable novella with in unusual form. There’s no real story, nothing much happens, but you grow to feel for the characters fairly quickly and it moves you in a way I can’t precisely put words to. Definitely one to check out.

As a final fun fact, it’s a book that gained notoriety after Bill Clinton received a copy while he was President from a young, up-and-coming intern called Monica. I wonder what happened to her…

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“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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