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David Gee (Sussex, UK)

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Panic
Panic
Price: £4.94

4.0 out of 5 stars Inside the mind of a paedophile, 22 July 2014
This review is from: Panic (Kindle Edition)
US publishers Valancourt Books have set out to revive neglected novels from both sides of the Atlantic. After seeing my review of Colin Spencer's recent volume of memoirs they invited me to review PANIC, his highly acclaimed and deeply weird novel set in 1960s Brighton. This short book (160 pages) is centred on a grief-stricken father whose young daughter was murdered a year ago. Rod Johnson now haunts Brighton's seedier streets and pubs, hoping to find a clue that will lead him to Lucy's killer.

The story is narrated in successive chapters by Rod, by his 'damaged' girlfriend Emma and by her creepy uncle Woody. With the disappearance of Madeleine McCann seven years ago still in the news, together with revelations about predatory priests and celebrities, it's a bold gesture by the publishers to reprint a book that attempts to get inside the head of a child-molester, which is what Spencer does in two very disturbing chapters. But I guess LOLITA would not be an easy read today, if it ever was.

I'm a big admirer of Mr Spencer. I rate THE TYRANNY OF LOVE, the second in his quartet A GENERATION, one of the greatest modern 'relationship' novels, up there with James Baldwin's ANOTHER COUNTRY and John Updike's COUPLES. I'm not sure how I missed PANIC when it came out in 1971. In the early chapters his characters all seem to be speak with a rather similar 'voice'. In the Introduction he admits to an influence by Faulkner, but what I picked up were echoes of Forster, which makes the back-story seem more Edwardian than post-war. The shorter chapters in the second half are more dynamic, and the climactic confession scene is another gruelling read. The subject matter makes this book as 'challenging' for the reader as it must have been for the author.

[Reviewer is the author of THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS]


Doctor Sleep (Shining Book 2)
Doctor Sleep (Shining Book 2)
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.27

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More House of Hammer than vintage King, 23 Jun 2014
I broke off the book I was reading (and the one I was writing!) to read this, the keenly anticipated sequel to THE SHINING. Sorry to report that it was a bit (not too much) of a disappointment.

Mr King begins by telling us what happened to Danny Torrance and his mom immediately after they fled the Overlook Hotel. Then we jump forward a couple of decades to find that Dan is now a dropout and an alcoholic like his dad. He drifts into a small town in New England and into Rivington House, a home for the old and the demented. Dan still has the 'shining' - 'his terrible privilege", the author calls it - which means he sees flashbacks of the lives of the patients he is looking after. And he is able to help them make a calm and fearless crossing from this world to the next.

Dan's life is about to intersect - psychically rather than physically at first - with that of ten-year-old Abra, a girl with even greater powers than his. Dan is still haunted by the ghosts from The Overlook, and both he and Abra see visions that no ordinary mortal expects to see. Over the next three years their lives will intersect - psychically and physically - with the True Knot, a group of ancient marauders who scour the country in a convoy of RVs looking for kids like Abra; they rejuvenate themselves by feeding off the Shining which they call 'steam'. The process by which they extract 'steam' from children makes this a more than usually gruesome read.

DOCTOR SLEEP revisits themes from previous novels, not just THE SHINING: ghosts, vampires, telekinesis. The yuck factor occasionally overtakes the scare factor; I began to find the 'mind-games' a bit tiresome, and the ending is more House of Hammer than vintage King. But, as always in a Stephen King, every single character is vividly brought to life. He truly is another Dickens or Victor Hugo. And he can turn a wonderful phrase: watching a sunset through a gap in the mountains, "it was as if God was holding His breath."

In the Afterword he outlines his mission statement: "telling a kick-ass story." Which he what he has done in over 50 books. Almost all of them have been good; some not just great horror stories but great books. THE SHINING, of course, was one of the greatest. DOCTOR SLEEP is not such a ground-breaking contribution to the horror genre, but it's vivid, intense and fairly disturbing.

[Reviewer is the author of THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS]


A Boy's Own Story (Picador Books)
A Boy's Own Story (Picador Books)
by Edmund White
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The only gay in the village, 23 May 2014
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First published in 1983, the opening volume of Edmund White's three-part autobiographical novel sequence made its way onto my re-reading list after an article in POLARI, the gay online magazine. This novel in the form of a memoir deals with the 1950s boyhood of his unnamed protagonist, watching his parent' marriage dissolve, moving from the country to the city with his mother and sister, beginning to discover a love of books and realizing that he is gay. The narrator is a hopeless romantic: after some experimental sex with a fellow teenager "I'd already imagined him as a sort of husband." And yet whilst still in his teens he buys his first hustler.

Flashbacks to his childhood give his early years some of the magic of (oh dear) a fairy-tale. A beautifully written chapter about summer camp morphs delectably from the pastoral to the erotic. There's a pleasing humour in his effort to impress a glamorous jock at high school: Tommy wants help in a debate on Sartre's philosophy but our hero is privately contemplating more mundane issues - 'How low should I let my jeans ride?' The book's long final chapter, in a boarding school, introduces a few more interesting characters, including a priggish priest and a disturbed, disturbing boy who thinks and dresses like a Nazi. In the last few pages this rambling character study springs some surprises of the kind associated with a more conventionally plotted novel; I would have preferred the whole book to have this degree of structure.

White's theme is, essentially, the experience of growing up 'different' in a world where everyone else is fitting in, but he clearly set out to craft a literary masterpiece, a book about tormented youth that would out-Salinger Salinger. Noticeably under the influence of several French writers (Gide, Cocteau, Genet - even Proust), White writes a rich florid prose that is often glorious to read but occasionally hard to digest. 'I was living in shadow between two radiances, the mythic past and the mythic future'; is a sentence like that meant to be satirical, or is it merely pretentious? Tough call. There are scenes that go on too long, and scenes, like the one in a brothel, that aren't long enough. The best scenes are those with touches of humour and the moments when his hero has an Everyman obstacle to surmount that echoes the times when the average 'middle-brow' gay reader may have felt that he was the only gay in the village.

After the 'break-through' gay novels of the 1960s - THE CITY AND THE PILLAR, CITY OF NIGHT, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN - A BOY'S OWN STORY belongs to a different canon. Despite a handful of not-too-coy, not-too-lurid sex-scenes White's book has a lot more style than substance. Can a book be too literary? If the author was trying to be America's answer to Genet and Gide, he certainly landed on target with A BOY'S OWN STORY. A book to admire rather than one to savour and enjoy.

[REviewer is the author of THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS]


André & Oscar
André & Oscar
by Jonathan Fryer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A shared taste for rent-boys, 5 April 2014
This review is from: André & Oscar (Paperback)
Not a recent book (published in 1997) but one I've only just caught up with. Jonathan Fryer has written a short and entertaining study of the friendship between Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide. They first met in 1891 when Wilde wowed literary Paris on an early visit, even before his first play (LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN) took London by storm.

The pair were friends but never, we're told, lovers. They both liked younger men or in Gide's case young boys. He hung out with pre-adolescent boys on extended holidays in North Africa (much as gays still do today!). Fryer thinks that his relations with these youngsters were probably platonic, adoration rather than molestation, but he was lucky not to have suffered a greater shame than Wilde.

The rise and fall of Oscar Wilde is an oft-told tale, but Fryer's very readable style and admirable economy of words offers a enjoyable 'overflight' of the familiar ground of Oscar's fatal friendships with Alfred Douglas and the Piccadilly rent-boys they shared. He quotes Wilde's most painful letter from Reading Gaol to his old chum Robbie Ross: "I curse myself night and day for my folly in allowing him [Bosie] to dominate my life." And yet he resumed this dangerous liaison after his release, causing Constance, his wife, to cut off the allowance she was generously paying him. He died, as we know, penuriously, losing the battle with the wallpaper in a Parisian hotel.

Gide's story may be less familiar. He seems to have been massively up himself, as we would say today but, like Oscar, he was a prolific letter-writer and a sharp observer of humankind. After his first meeting with Lord Alfred in wintry Algiers in 1895, Gide described him in letters to his mother as 'Byronic [and] devoured by an unhealthy thirst for infamy'. With considerable prescience he also writes: 'If Wilde's plays in London didn't run for 300 performances, and if the Prince of Wales didn't attend his first nights, he would be in prison, and Lord Douglas [sic] as well'. There's an element of hypocrisy in all this: Andre was only too keen to have some of Bosie's teenage Arab rent-boys passed on to him.

Gide married his adored cousin Madeleine: a sexless and ultimately loveless union. Over time he came to treat her as shabbily as Oscar did Constance, flagrantly pursuing rent-boys on the streets of Paris and even fathering a child with a mistress. It was easy 120 years ago - it still is - for a woman to marry a man not knowing he was actually gay. Wilde and Gide's treatment of their wives would be deemed marital cruelty today.

Jonathan Fryer has clearly done scrupulous research, but he is not overawed by the eminence of the writers he is exhuming and avails himself of a few opportunities to take the piss. Of Oscar's own account of the 'frenzy' with which he completed the writing of his banned play SALOME after listening to a gypsy band on a Parisian boulevard, the biographer comments: "Like many of Oscar's stories, this is entertaining nonsense." He reminds us of Wilde's famous pronouncement (to Gide in Algiers) that "he had put his genius into his life but only his talent into his works."

Was Oscar Wilde a genius? Clearly he was a gifted playwright, but his comedies are not in the same league as Shakespeare's. You could make a case for Moliere and Coward being just as brilliant satirists of their times, even Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn, but do any of them deserve to be called geniuses? Genius is a word we should perhaps use more sparingly.

Gide lived twice as long as Wilde, dying at 82 in 1951. After selling his daring novels and travel books in pitifully small quantities for many years, he finally broke through to the big time and was even awarded a Nobel Prize. Oscar won no prizes and was awarded only infamy, but his plays have already given him a degree of immortality - something that may not happen to Monsieur Gide.

[Reviewer is the author of THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS]


Dominion
Dominion
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2.0 out of 5 stars Britain under Nazi rule (no, not Mrs Thatcher!), 14 Mar 2014
This review is from: Dominion (Paperback)
A theme that gets picked up every few years: Britain lost the Second World War. In C.J. Sansom's take on this spooky fantasy, our government signed a peace treaty with the Germans in May 1940 - a surrender in all but name - after the Dunkirk retreat. Twelve years later, as the main story begins, Beaverbrook has succeeded Lloyd George as prime minister. That lovable old rogue Oswald Mosley is Home Secretary and every-body's favourite Enoch Powell is also in the Cabinet. So far, so nightmarish!

Churchill is in hiding. The good news from Germany is that Hitler is in the terminal phase of Parkinson's, but the rivals to succeed him are flexing their muscles. Halfway through the book (a daunting 700 pages) Parliament begins the deportation of British Jews, previously spared the unknown fate of Jews from Germany and the East.

The main characters in Sansom's story are an English scientist with mental problems whose brother has imparted a terrible secret from the USA; a civil servant at the Foreign Office who is secretly helping the Resistance; and a Gestapo officer who has made a career of hunting down hidden Jews and is now charged with fighting the Resistance.

There are some blood-chilling scenes of round-ups and beatings. A sense of doom hangs over the book. The Resistance seems to be sporadic and rudderless. Where I think DOMINION fails is in being too long and too slow, with repetitious scenes at the civil servant's home and in the mental hospital. Only after 400 pages does the scientist escape from his incarceration. Then we get some eerie chapters as he and his liberators go on the run in London during the famous Great Smog of 1952, leading to an exciting (if slightly preposterous) denouement on a Sussex beach (less than 5 miles from where I'm writing this review!). Churchill finally makes a brief appearance. I think we needed to see more of Winston and maybe something of Adolph: there are no live scenes from Berlin, only reports of Hitler's decline and fall. The terrible secret from America is all too predictable.

Robert Harris's stellar career as a novelist began with FATHERLAND, another scary view of a Nazified Britain. Harris's book was shorter and punchier than Sansom's. I very much admired WINTER IN MADRID, Sansom's Spanish Civil War novel a few years ago. I don't read his Shardlake books: I'm 'Tudored out'. It's clear that the author put an immense amount of thought and research into DOMINION, but sadly I found it to be a disappointing read: turgid and poorly paced.


Backing Into Light I: My Father's Son
Backing Into Light I: My Father's Son
by Colin Spencer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.74

4.0 out of 5 stars A failed marriage under a searing spotlight, 5 Feb 2014
Colin Spencer, now in his seventies, is best known for his cookery books and a long-running food column in the Guardian, but back in the 1960s he was a leading novelist and playwright, much admired - especially by me. His quartet A GENERATION is one of the finest novel sequences of modern times and I would rate THE TYRANNY OF LOVE (Part Two of the quartet) as one of the best novels written in my lifetime. Bisexuality is a major theme in the quartet and Spencer's handling of this prickly subject is as good as James Baldwin's in ANOTHER COUNTRY, one of the most significant novels of the 20th century.

Subtitled "My Father's Son", BACKING INTO LIGHT is a short autobiography, highly 'confessional' in the style of Alan Bennett's diaries, filled with vivid family members - not just Spencer's loud brutish father and long-suffering religious mother, but aunts and uncles and neighbours - and his dad's mistresses, openly paraded before the family. Spencer had a love/hate relationship with his dad but, as the subtitle implies, he acknowledges how much he takes after him. He says that they came close to killing each other at different times (and once, curiously, he almost murdered his adored mother).

His unruly family life provided a rich seam which he mined for his fiction. For an admirer of his novels it's fascinating to learn the story behind his books: not many authors are as candid as this. But the rumbustious comic tone that underscores his quartet is conspicuously lacking here. This is almost a 'misery memoir': his home life was unbearably wretched, he was unhappy at school, dropped out of art college, came close to a nervous breakdown during National Service - woe upon woe. Only when his sex life gets going in his twenties does he start to enjoy himself. As a successful writer and artist he meets some seriously fascinating people: Forster, L.P. Hartley, Rattigan, Diana Athill.

Becoming the 'toy-boy' of John Lehmann, editor of the prestigious London Review, gave his writing (and artistic) career a serious boost, but he was lucky enough to have publishers beating a trail to his door, something which today mostly happens to celebrities from non-literary fields. He ends this memoir without explaining why his projected quartet became a 'sequence' and then fizzled out after VICTIMS OF LOVE (1978), which clearly did not complete the saga of Matthew and Sundy Simpson. In a throw-away line he says that Reg, the bisexual husband of Sundy (and lover of Matthew) is based on a schoolfriend, but the character reads like another side of the author who is surely both Matthew and Reg. It would be great if writing this autobiography could 'unlock' whatever it is that held Colin Spencer back from continuing with his towering novel sequence. Cookery's gain was very much literature's loss.

He's very honest about his bisexuality.Sexually and emotionally he was always drawn to both men and women. His marriage to a girl he'd loved since their schooldays was a wretched failure and his description of their parting and divorce is one of the most bitter I've ever seen. He has had an amazing number of lovers, male and female, but the disintegration of his marriage hangs over this bitter memoir like a black cloud.

Back when he was a novelist he alternated the volumes of A GENERATION with some zany comic novels and zanier plays. Gore Vidal famously did the same thing but Vidal's writing, even at its most satirical and vitriolic, was always tightly controlled. Spencer's writing - and his life - has been mercurial, volcanic. If you think bisexuals have twice as much fun as 'normal' people, think again: they have twice as much anguish.

[Reviewer is the author of THE BEXHILL BEXHILL CRISIS]


Heat Lightning (Virgil Flowers 2)
Heat Lightning (Virgil Flowers 2)
by John Sandford
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Sandford calls for back-up, 24 Jan 2014
I read - and very much admired - the first half-dozen of John Sandford's 'PREY' novels, featuring Minneapolis detective Lucas Davenport. HEAT LIGHTNING is the second in a new series starring Virgil Flowers, one of the homicide detectives working for Davenport. It's a grim and harrowing case.

Two bodies have been found on veterans' memorials in two towns in Minnesota, both shot with the same gun and each with a lemon in his mouth. Then there's a third killing, and a fourth. What links the victims is an atrocity they were involved in during a 'scavenging' exercise as the US forces were pulling out of Vietnam. Virgil meets up with a beautiful Vietnamese woman and finds himself thinking, 'If Jesus Christ had a girlfriend, that's what she'd be like.' Naughty Virgil.

The investigation has many twists and turns and moves from a Native American reservation to an isolated cabin in woods across the river from Canada. There are a couple of Rambo-esque shoot-outs. This is a pacy story, told in Sandford's familiar crisp economical style.

Except that, in the introduction, the author acknowledges the help of - he calls him a 'cooperator'. Mr Sandford has gone down the path trodden by James Patterson and Clive Cussler and many others. Would Dickens be doing this if he was alive today - or Anthony Trollope? (Actually Joanna Trollope has just done a new version of SENSE & SENSIBILITY, so apparently no doors remain closed.) Picasso and Warhohl had factories churning out 'product', so I suppose it's okay for writers to do it too. But, much as I enjoyed HEAT LIGHTNING, I feel somehow 'short-changed'. Or perhaps I'm just jealous that my own books aren't sufficiently in demand to call for back-up!

[Reviewer is the author of SHAIKH-DOWN]


Somewhere Towards the End
Somewhere Towards the End
by Diana Athill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars A feisty old lady of letters, 4 Jan 2014
This award-winning autobiography came my way from a ladyfriend. But for her I might have missed a great literary treat. Published when the author was 89, this is Diana Athill's sixth book of memoirs. In other volumes she covered her 50-year career in publishing, working with Andre Deutsch and dealing with authors such as Roth, Updike, Mailer and Jean Rhys.

In this short volume, Athill looks back through a long life and a fairly long list of lovers. She never married after an early 'disappointment' and admits that she often had trouble with fidelity. She takes 'the French view' that 'infidelity is acceptable if it is conducted properly.' Several of her lovers were black, which must have been eyebrow-raising in 1950s London - in some circles it still is. A West Indian lover stayed on as her flatmate for years after their affair ended.

This is more like a collection of linked essays. She writes about art, gardening, television (which she's not keen on), children (also not keen on) and, of course, about books. Having edited contemporary authors for decades at Deutsch, she has now taken against modern novels which 'still focus mainly on the love lives of the kind of women I see around me all the time.' I know people who share her distaste for modern fiction and only read biographies. Reading Athill, I can see why.

A convinced atheist, she loves medieval religious art and the Bible (for its language). The most haunting chapters are where she writes about death, about dying and the care of the dying. Writing about her 95-year-old mother's death she glides into 'a kind of poem', which is clear and calm and perfectly poignant. Recalling her brother's happy last days and anticipating her own, she writes that death is 'simply what one must pay for what one has enjoyed'.

Here and there I found her intense introspection a tad wearisome, although she takes herself to task for a complacency that verges on smugness. 'I can speak only for, and to, the lucky,' she says. Her honesty, especially about her love life, is almost brutal. Her prose style belongs to the age of the great writers she worked with: complex sentences but never pretentious, beautifully honed.

She is now 96 and living in a care home. Whether there will be a seventh volume of memoirs we must wait and see. She doesn't believe in an afterlife, but I have a feeling that if she crosses over and discovers that there is one, she will find a way to tell us about her disgruntlement - or perhaps her joy.

[Reviewer is the author of THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS]


The Carrier Bag: and Other Stories
The Carrier Bag: and Other Stories
by Prof. John Dixon
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Not-so-ordinary people, 26 Nov 2013
There are pleasing echoes of National Treasure Alan Bennett in several of the stories in this lively collection.

I particularly liked the first story - 'Across the Corridor - and Down a Bit' - in which a retired secretary goes on holiday to Malta with her ex-boss and slowly comes to realize that he is not quite the man she thought she knew. In similar vein 'Well Our Feeble Frame' finds Alison on a coach tour in Jordan, an independent-minded woman who becomes the bane of her fellow-travellers' trip.

Monty Python fans will especially enjoy 'The Untoward Invention', a splendidly surreal tale of a sewage worker whose newly invented ray-gun presents the Prime Minister with a huge moral dilemma. The title story, which won a competition in Bridport and high praise from Margaret Drabble, has a group of yuppies at a wine bar snobbishly dissecting a shabbily-dressed man with a carrier bag.

'Little Gems' is a Talking Heads-style monologue by a mother who is more interested in her own creature comforts than in the ups-and-downs of her daughters' lives. The final story - 'Inconsequences' - is the diary of a Victor Meldrew-like office-worker going quietly and spectacularly off his trolley.

If these stories have a common theme it is that ordinary-looking folk may not be as ordinary as they look. I hope they reach a wide readership.

[Reviewer is the author of THE DROPOUT]


Waiting for Sunrise
Waiting for Sunrise
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly dull read from a good writer, 9 Nov 2013
This review is from: Waiting for Sunrise (Paperback)
There may be something wrong with me as a reader! This book opens with two-and-a-half pages of gushing plaudits from newspaper reviewers but I thought it was ploddingly dull. Off to a bad start: the paperback is poorly manufactured with an inadequate "gutter" - the text almost disappears into the binding. The narration keeps switching between first and third person, another vexation.

Lysander Rief, a rising young English stage actor, is in Vienna in the summer of 1913, seeing an analyst about what we would now call 'sexual dysfunction'. An affair with another patient gets him into a scrape from which the British embassy has to rescue him. A year later, in wartime London, he is asked by military intelligence service to help them uncover a 'mole'. A mission to Geneva ends dangerously.

Apart from a couple of scenes the plot meanders along slowly and comes to a low-key resolution. In the Vienna chapters I was reminded of Isherwood's Berlin: matter-of-fact portraits of Lysander's landlady and fellow lodgers, then his affair with Hettie, a would-be 'adventuress' with a whiff of Sally Bowles about her. The theme of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary times evokes (deliberately?) the bygone age of tales like THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS and Bulldog Drummond. I began to wonder if this is a fictionalized biography of someone the author knows. It needed a lot more editing to pare down the 'waffle' and crank up the pace.

Boyd is the latest author to be passed the 'torch' of James Bond. I hope his 007 adventure will be more like RESTLESS, the best of his recent books, and not as pedestrian as WAITING FOR SUNRISE.

[Reviewer is the author of SHAIKH-DOWN]


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