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Richard Brown (Hove, E.Sussex, UK)
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Getting Off Clean
Getting Off Clean
by Timothy Murphy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.83

5.0 out of 5 stars A cut above the usual coming-of-age, coming-out story, 6 April 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Getting Off Clean (Paperback)
This is a cut above the usual coming-of-age, coming-out novel in the USA. It had me hooked from the beginning. The two main characters are both in their late teens, still at school, learning about themselves, about the powerful, truth-inducing, destructive, but ultimately life-shaping nature of love and sexual passion. They learn how being gay makes you distinctive, sets you apart from your friends, family and community, especially at the time this was set, in the mid 1980s, in a Massachusetts small town.

The two main characters make a dramatic contrast. The story's narrator, Eric, is the perfect student, bright, kind, motivated; he shows real literary skill, wins prizes, never gets into trouble, is the perfect son and brother. His lover, Brook, is something of a misfit, always getting thrown out of school, bitter, sarcastic, highly intelligent, rebellious, rich, with an unusual background. The bond between them is not primarily sexual - though the sex scenes are convincing if rather low key - it's elemental and irresistible, the kind that draws two people together regardless of the risks it entails; and the risks are high here, for the boys live in a very homophobic community: to come out is a courageous as well as a political act, one that is likely to lead to ostracism and violence and alienation within the family. This is illustrated poignantly in one scene where Eric, facing the fact for the first time that he's gay, is desperate to communicate it to someone, but each avenue is blocked to him; even writing it down in his notebook proves too risky for him, for fear that it might be discovered, and he has to hold the explosive truth inside him, waiting for it to detonate at a later time. Which it does, in a positive way, at the end when he makes a very public declaration of his homosexuality to the world. But not before he denies knowing his lover, who was getting beaten up by two thugs, for fear of being outed at a public meeting.

Their individual story is played out against a backdrop of racial tension in the town where they live, which is divided into the white middle-class, to which Eric belongs, and the Hispanic community who get blamed by the whites for the murder of a schoolgirl and for other crimes. Two kinds of discrimination overlap here, making the atmosphere more charged, and they come together in an impassioned essay Eric writes, while being stoned and just after he's had his first real sex with Brooks, which ironically wins first prize in a state-wide competition. The essay is over the top and rather absurd but his teachers and judges entirely miss this; it represents all that's admired about him - and it's this image he has to shatter if he is ever to realise himself as a gay man.

It's also a family story, which includes devoted parents, an older sister (and confidant) who is pregnant, unmarried, at nineteen, having a hard time with her boyfriend, whose violence forces her to go into hiding, and a younger sister who has Downs syndrome, and a grandmother who is losing her mind. The love between them all is palpable, without in the least being idealised or sentimental.

Not everything is perfect in this novel. Brooks is an enigmatic figure, more colourful and conflicted than Eric, but as we see the action only from Eric's point of view, he remains enigmatic. The novel could have been told in two first-person accounts to give us a better insight into Brooks' troubled heart and mind. And there's one scene, in which Eric is hiding under Brooks' bed while his lover, unaware of this, is making love to another guy on the bed above him, almost suffocating him - it verges of the farcical and doesn't seem quite credible.

A richly engaging novel full of good writing and dialogue, it shows no sign of being a first novel. It catches a time, a place, and two emerging gay characters with great sensitivity and understanding and with real dramatic tension.


brush & camera
brush & camera
by Douglas Simonson
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A glimpse into Douglas Simonson's inspirational male nude art, 3 April 2016
This review is from: brush & camera (Paperback)
I've long admired Douglas Simonson's art. He specialises in painting and drawing the young male nude, mostly those from Hawaii where he's lived since he was 19. Two books published in the 1980s, which I bought at the time, announced the beauty of his art, the fine pencil drawings, the vivid colours, the different painting styles, his use of crayon, etc. He was breaking new ground then, legitimising the male nude as an acceptable art form in the modern age; now, he has a website containing 2000 works (the note at the back of this book claims) and his fame is worldwide.

In this book he sets out to give us an insight into how his art work develops. He prefers to work from photographs of his models - eight of whom are featured here - which he can digitally change to suit his artistic purpose, rather than use live models. For each picture in this glossy, large format book he provides the photograph that inspired it, allowing us to compare the two. Thus we not only have the beauty of the art work, we also see the beauty of the model in life. We see how Simonson uses his art to transform the photographic image into something that expresses his relationship to the model and his way of seeing the male form. There is a good sample of his different styles, demonstrating his versatility, and a few textual notes are like asides from the artist.

It's a lovely book, though I felt the pictures he has chosen don't always match the quality of the art work on display in the two earlier books mentioned, 'Hawaii' (GMP 1986) or 'Islanders' (GMP 1989).


The Dark Clue
The Dark Clue
by James Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Something of a damp squib, 3 April 2016
This review is from: The Dark Clue (Paperback)
I love reading the best of Victorian sensation fiction (Wilkie Colins, Mary Braddon, etc) and their modern equivalents (Charles Palliser), and I'm also interested in Turner, the artist, the life of which this book purports to explore, so I picked up this book with high expectations. But like several other reviewers I was disappointed. It promised much and was laid out with considerable skill, but it failed to catch fire until almost the end. Two characters are borrowed from Colins's 'The Woman in White', Walter and Marion, though this seems arbitrary, and they are commissioned to write a biography of Turner. The book is about their researches, what they discover, and the deleterious effect it has on them both. Much of the book is made up of interviews with characters who once knew Turner, but little seems to emerge from these, and it becomes a tedious device. Gradually we discover that Turner was a secretive character who led a sort of double life, keeping his affairs, journeys, business, addresses private; his sex life (he never married) seemed to consist of a mistress and visits to prostitutes, one or more of whom were underage; and his paintings may or may not have contained esoteric symbols hinting at a darker life. All this would have been shocking to the Victorians, and ruined his career, if it became public, but to modern readers it's tame stuff. Perhaps stronger meat is the incestuous relationship that develops between Walter and Marion, but we are insufficiently prepared for this and it doesn't quite convince. There's an attempt to suggest that the researches corrupted both Walter and Marion, bringing out hidden darker selves, but again this did not really come off. Towards the end we discover that there might have been an ulterior motive for the commission to write the book, that Walter and Marion were set up, as it were, but by then I for one no longer cared. It's a pity, because Wilson shows considerable skill in imitating the form of the sensation novel, using letters, diaries, journals etc to tell his story, as Colins was famous for doing. Perhaps his mistake was to choose Turner for his subject, thereby putting too great a restraint on his imagination, lacking the drama, suspense, menace, secrets, deadly deceptions, helpless heroines, that are the life-blood of the form.


Anna of all the Russias: The Life of a Poet under Stalin: A Life of Anna Akhmatova
Anna of all the Russias: The Life of a Poet under Stalin: A Life of Anna Akhmatova
by Elaine Feinstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A very Russian life, 29 Mar. 2016
Given that Anna Akhmatova is such a major 20th century poet, it's surprising how relatively neglected she's been in the UK, at least in terms of a comprehensive biography. Hers was an iconic life: it says so much about the repressive history of Russia in the 20th century and the often heroic stance writers and artists like her had to take against an over-bearing and murderous state. This is the chronicle of the life of a much-loved poet, told with poise, and a quiet but intense identification with its subject - Feinstein herself being a notable poet as well as a biographer and novelist - who was feted in her time and especially in the last decade of her life, yet who lived for much of it in in poverty, under extreme privation, itinerant, suffering serious ill-health, persecuted, barely avoiding incarceration by the State. She was married three times, but none of the marriages lasted: one husband was executed, another often bullied her. Her third husband, Punin, may have been insensitive to her needs at times, but he remained a lifelong friend. She had, perforce, to live with his ex-wife and daughter, who became her family and who cared for her, though they did not always give her the respect she deserved.

Her poetry is intimately connected to her personal life, the autobiographical sources of it barely disguised, but the work of all great poets take on a universal dimension. The State recognised this and banned publication of her works for two lengthy periods. They also persecuted her son Lev who was imprisoned for years just because he was her son. Already bitter towards her because she did not bring him up (his grandmother did), theirs was a difficult relationship and caused much suffering. She had influential friends - Pasternak, Mandelstam, Brodsky among them - and many lovers; she always needed the support of others both practical and emotional, and several women, notably Lydia Chukovskaya, were devoted to her care. In the last decade of her life, when her collected works were at last published in Russia, and her status was acknowledged, she had a quartet of young male poets to support her too.

It's a story of poetic fame and greatness overcoming huge difficulties - loneliness, poverty, state repression. Her stoicism and courage - she was in Leningrad at the time of the siege, before being airlifted to Tashkent - was evident to all. Her beauty, poise, her special spirit, was commented on by all who admired her. Though she had a her critics, though her son might bitterly disagree, in many ways her life was an exemplary one, and Feinstein brings this out in a book that pays due tribute to her subject in a well informed, unsentimental way. Indeed, she's to be congratulated on the wide use of her sources - journals, letters, interviews - to create a well-balanced picture of an extraordinary life.


Royal Highness
Royal Highness
by Thomas Mann
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.95

4.0 out of 5 stars A study of a minor monarchy - with some unusual, anti-romantic elements, 25 Mar. 2016
This review is from: Royal Highness (Paperback)
Written when Mann was in his early thirties, this is a relatively early work, foreshadowing more substantial and better known works. It portrays a monarchy in a small, impoverished German state in the late 19th century, affectionately rather than satirically or critically. It has the trappings of a Romance, in that the popular heir apparent, Klaus Heinrich, woos a rich American heiress, Imma Spoelmann, who has settled in the country with her super-rich father, but, the romance is very restrained, the emotional level kept cool. Not a lot happens, at least in dramatic terms. It might be more of a comedy if the main characters - apart from the prince, who is rather ordinary - were not so odd. The prince's brother Albrecht, for instance, detests his position of ruler so much, he retires into gloomy celibacy, in a grim palace, all but handing over the reigns to his younger brother; his role in the story is oddly redundant. Imma's companion is a Countess who has wrecked her life and who is constantly on the edge of insanity, her hallucination indicative of a repressed homosexuality. Klaus's stern and beloved tutor, commits suicide over a professional slight. Even the Spoelmann's collie is a nervous wreck. And Imma herself is more interested in algebra than love or finding a husband suited to her exalted view of herself - she is frequently described as staring with big eyes, wagging her head. But she is the most interesting character in the book, in that she is not portrayed as a simpering heroine but a feminist fore-runner, an intellectual not swayed by the beauty or wiles of men.

The first half of the book describes Klaus's upbringing, school days, his being tutored for his royal role, his time in the army, during which nothing exceptional happens: he shows only superficial accomplishments. The second half deals with the courtship. They meet, significantly in a hospital laboratory, where science and the poor state of the people, are demonstrated before their eyes - nothing romantic about that! Imma refuses to take him seriously as a suitor, despite his position and his popularity with the Court, the Government and the People, because she lacks 'confidence' in him. She explains that he is so absorbed in the 'fiction', the pomp and theatre of his role, there is no genuine Klaus she can relate to. Accepting the justice of this, he explains that his role is to be like a fairy prince embodying the hopes and wishes and romance in the people's sentimental hearts; he wonders how he can develop a self to which she can have confidence in. The solution is essentially at one with Mann's anti-romantic approach: Klaus gets interested in the economics of the State, studies the subject, finds he has a flare for it, and inducts Imma into its mysteries, her interest in mathematics an obvious help. Thus confidence in Klaus grows and the book ends rather lamely with the wedding of lineage and heritage on the one hand (Klaus) with money and new genes (Imma) on the other.

Klaus was born with a foreshortened arm and a withered hand. Not a great deal is made of this: is it a Freudian symbol, some hint at homosexuality, an indication of a spiritual or royal malaise? Whichever, it seems rather gratuitous. On the wider question of why Mann chose to write such an approving portrait of a monarchy, albeit one struggling to survive in the face of the modern world, eschewing the many opportunities he had for satire and criticism, for exploring republican and other points of view, is not clear. It's a charming historical story, light-weight apart from the oddity and gloominess of some of its characters, old fashioned and formal, it's ultimate purpose unclear.


Waverley: or, 'Tis sixty years since Folio Society
Waverley: or, 'Tis sixty years since Folio Society
by Walter Scott
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars ... of Scott's first novel is surely one of the best ways of reading it, 21 Mar. 2016
This handsome illustrated edition of Scott's first novel is surely one of the best ways of reading it. If the design and feel of the page is good, so much the better for the text. I've struggled with Scott's novels before, finding their narrative interest patchy, their dialect off-putting, their pace slow, so I was more than pleasantly surprised to find how good this one is from cover to cover, with barely a boring passage anywhere. Admittedly, it does start slowly and for the first 80 pages I was wondering whether it was going to be worth it. But in a late passage in the book Scott likens his narrative method to rolling a rock down a hill, slow moving at first, gathering speed, heat and danger as it progresses.

It's interesting that his hero is an English nobleman, not a Scottish one, that the tale of the 1745 insurrection is told exclusively from his point of view; in doing this, Scott can have it both ways, satisfying Scottish nationalists by heroic descriptions of battles and local heroes, yet not alienating his English readers. Edward Waverley is a likeable, admirable figure, always acting on best principles if not always in full control of his impulses or destiny. He is the calm, cool contrast to the fiery Fergus and the regal Fiona, who are at the heart of the rebellion, at least in this novel. Women are either pretty, saintly, regal, good servants or hags in this novel, it's the men - in a variety of types, heroes, fiercely loyal soldiers, upright noblemen, with only the occasional villain - who stride these pages, and it's very much an action-centred, masculine tale. What distinguishes it from a host of others, of course, is the magisterial prose: the sentences are rich in vocabulary, highly varied and complex, fluent, utterly assured, studded with dialect and verse and other languages, requiring much concentration, yet for all that remaining optimistic in tone and always readable.

If you haven't read Scott, this is the novel to start with.


Saplings (Persephone Classics)
Saplings (Persephone Classics)
by Noel Streatfeild
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A senstive exploration of a war time English family, 14 Mar. 2016
This fine novel, published in 1945, explores in a highly sensitive way the effects of war on a very English middle-class, privileged family, the Wiltshires. Streatfeild is best known for 'Ballet Shoes' and her children's books, but she wrote many adult novels; Persephone is to be congratulated for giving this one another outing. The family consists of Lena, a somewhat fragile and wayward mother, Alex, a considerate father, and their four children, Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday (why would anyone chose to call their child a day of the week?). The first part of the book creates a picture of an almost idealised family, holidaying by the sea, supported by a devoted Nannie, Ruth a governess and servants. The children have wise and adoring grandparents who live in luxury. It's almost too good to be true (and a reminder of a past age, the language and attitudes of the time caught perfectly, though seeming quaint to us today).

Tragedy strikes with the death of the father, and thereafter the novel plots the disintegration, the slow splitting of the family against a background of war on the home front with rationing, bombs, and evacuees. Lena slides into alcoholism and has a breakdown. The children are sent to boarding schools and are farmed out to various aunts. Tony suffers a deep trauma related to his father's death and the eldest, Laurel, has a long-lasting problem fitting it and being liked at school. All the children suffer in their own way from loss of love, security and a sense of their place in the world - with the possible exception of Kim, an extrovert, confident in his ability to project himself and get what he wants. Streatfield's intuitive understanding of the children's psychology is impressive and the chief purpose of the book; she is never sentimental, her eye is clear and uncomplicated.

There are also a host of adults within the wider family, as well as cousins, the aunts taking prominence. Streatfield doesn't have the space to fully develop their characters and life-histories, but she sketches them in brilliantly. The aunts come off worse: Aunt Lindsey, an egoistic novelist, is an emotional monster; Aunt Dot is meddlesome; Aunt Sylvia is downtrodden, in awe of her impercipient vicar husband; Aunt Selina lives vicariously through her children's artistic achievements; and the female teachers lack insight. The men, by comparison, are much more in tune with the children's needs, which makes this refreshingly different from many family narratives: Alex, supremely, the lynchpin of the family; Uncle John, and Walter, Lena's American lover, who both take a shine to Laurel; Grandpa, the perfect grandfather, there to effect a rescue when all else in the family have failed. There are exceptions to this pattern, notably Nannie, silent and stoic, and Ruth the governess (who possibly stands in for Streatfield herself) who keeps a keen, benign eye on the four children even though she's off doing war work; and Charles, the man Lena eventually marries, who is a domestic bully. And then there are the teams of servants in the various houses, all of whom are given their little space. To keep this large cast clearly delineated is a real achievement: Streatfield moves the focus around with an unerring eye for what's important, and in unpretentious, sensitive language, she shines the light where it's needed.

The afterword by Dr Jeremy Holmes is a useful and acute analysis of the book. He emphasises the Bowlby-era nature of the author's psychological insights, pointing out how loss of love and security affects confidence and identity, how seemingly small psychological bruises can develop into major traumas. The most affecting example of this is Tony's mistaken belief that he could have helped save his father's life, based on hearing a tap-tapping in the ruins of their bombed-out home.

An absorbing novel of family life where the vital lives of the children are foregrounded, the effects of adult actions, often apparently of little importance, on the children's vulnerable mental and emotional well-being clearly shown. As a study of childhood it's persuasive and quietly moving.


A Shameful Revenge
A Shameful Revenge
by Maria De Zayas
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing, early feminist morality tales, 8 Mar. 2016
This review is from: A Shameful Revenge (Hardcover)
I did not know what to expect when I picked up these 17th century morality tales; they were written by an educated Spanish woman who was much respected by her peers. They are full of dramatic, gothic extravagance reminiscent of Baccaccio's tales and of the gothic novels of Mrs Radcliffe, but with one marked difference - Zayas was an early feminist. Most of the women in these stories are cruelly and unjustly treated by their husbands and lovers; most are innocent of the charges against them (though there are exceptions to this, notably in the last story but one), and all the stories revolve around the concept of honour. If that is brought into doubt then all hell breaks loose - these stories are full of blood-thirsty murders (Zayas is very inventive in this respect), wanton cruelty, incarcerations (one woman is bricked up for six years, another is locked up in a cupboard and let out only at mealtimes, to drink water out of her supposed lover's skull); despair and disgrace is everywhere in her universe. Zayas takes the view that fate is cruel, especially to women, that most men are deeply corrupt, that love is treacherous, that affairs and marriages are inherently dangerous. Somehow she makes such strong material engrossing and entertaining, as is the way with the best storytellers.


It Goes with the Territory: Memoir of a Poet
It Goes with the Territory: Memoir of a Poet
by Elaine Feinstein
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating memoir, 1 Mar. 2016
Elaine Feinstein is one of those writers who have mastered several literary forms, as a novelist (15 novels to date), a poet (19 collections), a distinguished translator (particularly of the poems of Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva), a biographer, a playwright, and now the memoir. Memoir as a form is more fluid, more selective, than the traditional autobiography - more suitable for her intimate, searching look back at her long and successful life - and she handles it with confidence and honesty. She writes with ease, fluency and a richness of tone that keeps you turning the page; perhaps her skills as a novelist and poet and biographer combine here to draw you into her world. Yet she does not let you get too close - this is not a transcribed diary with everything laid bare - she touches upon subjects, people, places, events, trips abroad (there are many of these) with the concision and brevity of poetry, and then moves on, coming back when she needs to to update the story, creating a mosaic of a life that one can only admire for its vivacity, achievement and fortitude.

Born in Lancashire, she was brought up in Leicester, felt closer to her enterprising father than her mother, did well at school despite her humble origins, and found herself at Cambridge, at Newnham. Later, she lived in many different houses in Cambridge with her husband Arnold, a distinguished scientist, and her three sons, all of who turned out to be highly talented, while she developed her career as a writer and lecturer. She met with early success; in the process she built up a large network of colleagues and friends, many of them writers, some who have become household names: Joseph Brodsky, Donald Davie, Margaret Drabble, Carol Anne Duffy, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Ginsburg, Miroslav Holub, Ted and Olwyn Hughes, RuthPadel, Jean Rhys, Michel Schmidt... the list is endless. It indicates not only how well regarded she was, but how much she operated at the centre of literary life in the UK and elsewhere. And that's one of the values of this memoir, it gives us something of the history of its times, what life was like for a writer, a female one at that, and Jewish, in the UK post the second world war. Given all her achievements, it's a wonder she's not even better known than she is.

A theme running through her book is the nature of her long 40 + years of marriage. She married a scientist who seldom seemed to appreciate either the nature or the quality of her work, though he did have flashes of insight, and this must have been an abiding disappointment for Elaine. He was often needy and seemed to think - like Mr Ramsey in 'To the Lighthouse' - that his wife owed him more attention than she had time to give. But his own wide circle of friends, colleagues and admirers brought her into contact with many people distinguished in science who enriched her life. Arnold suffered from severe bouts of ill-health, particularly towards the end of his life, and also from depression. A crisis occurred well into the marriage when Elaine discovered he was having an affair with a much younger woman who bore his child. This put their bond under severe strain but it proved strong enough for them to survive it. She unfolds all this without self-pity or bitterness, her warm understanding of humanity, and the needs of her family, carrying her through. She herself, it seems, was never tempted into an affair, or if she was she does not mention it.

Another strand is the nature of her Jewishness, the forms of which she did not practice, but which nevertheless influenced her life. She felt the weight of her ancestry and the memories of her ancestors - at one point the whole family visit a former concentration camp where some of them perished. She visited Israel many times and engaged with many Jewish writers. She had international status and was asked to lecture and read at conferences all over the world, including Russia and the countries of Easten Europe. Indeed, one wonders how she fitted it all in and still managed to be a prolific author.

A fascinating and highly readable memoir by a remarkable woman.


Dream Life (Stonewall Inn Editions (Paperback))
Dream Life (Stonewall Inn Editions (Paperback))
by Bo Huston
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.32

4.0 out of 5 stars Transgressive and quietly challenging, 29 Feb. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Two classic novels haunt this tale of the sexual and emotional relationship between a fourteen year old boy, Jed, and his 33 year old private tutor Holly: 'Death in Venice' which the author quotes from at least three times, and 'Lolita', the latter because of an older man's attraction to a pubescent child and the journey they take together across America. It can be seen as a contemporary riff on these two classics of forbidden desire, in that Bo Huston makes the relationship sexually explicit and then takes it further by making Holly Jed's pimp. The two speak in their own words in alternative first-person narratives, so Jed's viewpoint is clearly and directly given, and, if we are to believe him, he takes having sex with a variety of men, some of whom have eccentric tastes, confidently in his stride. He's being exploited here, but he's at least half aware of it; because they are mutually dependent on each other, he accepts the situation.

The story reminds me that novels are not moral tracts (as Oscar Wilde pointed out at his trial over a century ago), nor are they blueprints for action; their task is to explore the 'what ifs...?' of life. They also have unique opportunities to explore the emotional and psychological damage caused by following certain paths, such as underage sex and the experience of being a very young rent boy, and it's here that I think the author sidesteps the issue. He presents rather than analyses; though he does take a swipe at those who would condemn Holly's relationship with Jed, not altogether convincingly. It's an explosive subject and Huston handles it with more skill than sensitivity perhaps. As Jed tires of his life with Holly as a rent boy, he splits off, aged fifteen, to start a life of independence. We wonder what will become of him and what effect his year 'on the run' with Holly has had on him in the long-term.

This novel was reissued as a Stonewall Inn Edition, giving it something of the status of a gay classic. It's well-written, transgressive, quietly challenging, and tackles a subject that most gay authors would shy away from.


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