Encapsulate the book in one sentence? A warm and quirky triumph-against-the-odds story stretching from outer space to the streets of Wigan.
Intriguing, tell me more. Tom Major, 40-something and convinced earth holds nothing for him, has accidentally ended up in a spaceship heading to be the first man on Mars. Trying to call his ex-wife, he instead connects to Ellie and James, a family in Wigan struggling to keep things together while their father is in jail and their grandmother Gladys goes slowly doolally.
Why this, why now? I was a big fan of David Barnett's Gideon Smith steampunk fantasy series (reviews here, here and here). The author pulled a reverse-Iain Banks and popped the M into his name for this non-SFF novel, and I picked up Calling Major Tom when it originally came out and had every intention to read it until I just... forgot. But I recently listened to the Graphic Audio adaptation of the first Gideon Smith which reminded me I also had Calling Major Tom as an audiobook -- and here we are.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Honestly, I loved this book. I wasn't sure I was going to; it's a genre I like but don't tend to read in, and I was vaguely worried it would feel like a formulaic 'feelgood' novel, or a cash-in on Bowie's death. But I really, genuinely, adored it. Whilst the 'tough older daughter holding down three jobs to keep working class family afloat' is something of a trope, the story barrels on through it; the Ormerod family are vivid, spiky and easy to root for - and refreshingly northern. As for their companion story, Major Tom up in space, the juxtaposition is potent, and his individual story carries surprising heft -- the slow unveiling of his backstory shades in his 'grumpy misanthrope' set-up with poignancy, and dots of motivation and resonance connect in surprising places as the story unfolds. Everyone's arc in the book feels earned, rather than plotted, which I guess is the difference between an calculated 'feelgood' story and one that actually, well, feels.
What surprises did it hold – if any? The Kirkus review of this book mentioned this recently, and whilst this may not sound like a recommendation for this book, honestly it is! Calling Major Tom features the best use of a fart joke for pathos since Shaun of the Dead. How's that for a pull quote?
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There's a wonderful moment later in the book when, about to step out of his shuttle and into open space, Tom Major sees something; the otherwise played-straight narrative tips briefly into something with a darker tinge of magic-realism and it totally clinched it on a book I was already loving. I can't say more for fear of spoiling it.
What do you mean, bad reviews? Because writers don't get to reply to their bad reviews themselves. Paraphrased from goodreads:
"Unlikely and difficult to believe."I mean, there's a healthy dose of coincidence happening, but this is fiction, and you are aware we've been able to go to space since 1961, right?
"It's just a saccharin feel good story about a poor working class teenage girl who hates society and endangers her own family because she thinks she's living in Victorian England." I would like to lightly mock this, but actually this particular comment irritates me enormously because it shows an astonishing lack of understanding of working class experience.
"The whole misanthrope in space is a red herring." A red herring from... what, exactly?
Is it available today? Out now from Trapeze/Orion in ebook, paperback and audiobook.
Misc notes: - I cannot stop calling this book Goodnight Major Tom. I've had to correct it each time. - Fantasy movie casting: Paddy Considine as Major Tom, that girl from Ackerley Bridge as Ellie, younger Emily Blunt as the PR woman. - I recall reading there was originally a scene in which Carrie Fisher calls the spaceship, that was removed when she died. I'm not sure if the Simon Cowell scene replaced it, and the Cowell scene is a gleefully funny replacement if so, but damn, I want to read the Carrie Fisher version.
Encapsulate the book in one sentence? I'd say it's the queer decopunk spy thriller you never knew you needed, but if you never knew you needed a queer decopunk spy thriller I'm not sure I trust you.
Intriguing, tell me more. Amberlough, a decadent city (think 1920s Berlin) threatened from without by the political rise of the One State Party, known as the Ospies. Embroiled in this powderkeg of change, Cyril DePaul, spymaster, and his lover Aristide Matricosta, cabaret star, smuggler, who dance between mutually conflicting interests and a complex but enduring connection.
Why this, why now? Amberlough has had a lot of hype for the last year, but it's actually taken a while for the book to reach the UK, and generally I try and avoid whatever book is in the current eye of the hype storm because it can almost never live up to it, and I really, really didn't want this book to be a disappointment.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Which it's not. Not in anyway. I absolutely loved the hell of out this book.
I really didn't know quite what to expect, despite the comparisons that I'd seen. There have been lines drawn to le Carre, which arise from the political intrigue, but the spycraft here isn't quite as involved; Cabaret and Isherwood have been thrown into the mix as well, and I can see where those came from, but Isherwood is a much more introverted writer. Amberlough sits somewhere between the two. It's powered by a tight espionage plot, a dramatic swirl of shifting allegiances, secrets kept and not kept, people playing games with people. But ultimately it's the story of the little people jockeying to survive being ground between the big wheels of politics and violence, and it's so ennervating to read that story with a queer romance as its beating, resonant heart.
What surprises did it hold – if any? The speed with which the sharp, dangerous net of intrigue suddenly beings to close! The opening third is lightly played, the characters circling each other with (metaphorical) arched eyebrows, toying with each other, but just before the mid-section all the distant dangers begin to close in, and suddenly... everything is on fire. It's been some time since a book gripped me quite as hard in such a 100%-living-inside-this, if-you-hurt-my-favourite-characters-i-will-OH-too-late way.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There are two.
One is the ending; whether Amberlough ends as planned, or was tweaked to something that better segues into the sequels I don't know, but the denouement is unexpected, and powerful. But to say more would reveal too much.
This aside, the scene that stuck in my brain was one in which DePaul visits the Bee (the cabaret over which Aristide presides) with a colleague; he has to break up with Aristide, but cannot be seen with him alone, and so he foists his colleague upon him, achieving his goal without ever saying it aloud. It's a masterpiece of unspoken tensions and jibing agendas, and it's just wonderful.
Give me a good quote: There was the Aristide lying beside him in bed - the charming performer and monarch of the demimonde - and there was the other Aristide, the one he was supposed to arrest and interrogate. The one whose life and livelihood he was meant to raze.
The both knew where the boundaries lay. It was impossible to love someone when you spent your time digging at their secrets in the hope of undermining their career. And vice versa. But sudden this Cyril, his Cyril, was crying out in his sleep because the other Cyril was afraid.
He slid back beneath the covers. Wrapping himself around the fetal curve of Cyril's spine, Aristide slipped an arm into the divot of his waist, pulling him close.
What do you mean, bad reviews? Because writers don't get to reply to their bad reviews themselves. Paraphrased from goodreads:
"There wasn't enough detail about Amberlough. It's an invented city and I know nothing about it." Amberlough may be fictional, but Reader, may I introduce you to the concept of an 'analogue'?
"I didn't care about any of the politics because none of it was explain. Who are the Ospies anyway?" The Ospies may be fictional, but Reader, may I introduce you to the concept of 'allusion'? (In actual fact, these criticisms seem to come mainly from those who dnf-ed the book, and it is true that the first third of Amberlough doesn't particularly go out of its way to spoon-feed explanations of the politics or the characters' allegiances; the clear parallels to the rise of Nazi-ism in 1920s onwards Germany does half the work though. I did find myself a little at sea initially, but I've never been a fan of expositionary world-building, so I've never minded that feeling too much.)
"Aristide is a cliched gay character." NOW HOLD ON A F-ING MINUTE. Presumably because Aristide embodies numerous feminine, camp qualities? I applaud every effort to broaden the spectrum of gay representation but there is still a place for camp in that, especially when said character is aware of his own artifice and his own performance, when its use as a shield is explored, and when the very act of femininity in a man is a revolution in itself.
"I didn't care about Aristide and Cecil's romance." They are my precious babies, and you are wrong.
Is it available today? Out now from Tor Books, with sequel Armistice due imminently.
Encapsulate the book in one sentence? A love letter in a forgotten books leads a curious collector to a love story between two WW2 soldiers scattered through time.
Intriguing, tell me more. A bookseller discovers a love letter in the leaves of a book of poetry called 'Time Was' that slowly brings to light two lovers, Tom and Ben, who meet in World War II while one works in the science division, and the other works as an intelligence officer, and - through mysterious means - have found themselves separated throughout time.
Why this, why now? This was announced some time ago by its publishers Tor, and made a bit of a ripple through readers of queer sf, and I've been eagerly awaiting it since then.
What genre would you say it is? This is really possibly the most notable thing that should be addressed here. Tor pitched this as a queer love story across time - think perhaps a gay Time Traveller's Wife with a dash of war spirit. Quite a number of early reviewers on Goodreads seem to have have been quite attached to that, and as a result.. they're a bit disappointed. The book isn't really that at all: the love story is approached obliquely, fleetingly, pieced together by Emmett, the book dealer protagonist who stumbles on the mystery. And that's what this book is: a historical mystery, a book about the mechanics by which the story of a love affair is unearthed from history and pieced together, and it doesn't do this in a way that is either hand-holding or linear, so I can understand some of the negative goodreads reviews. Thing is - none of that expectation is the author's fault, and the flaw of any good review is reviewing the book you thought it would be. So take it as it is: a curious mystery that slowly reveals itself to have a poignant afterglow.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? I read it all in one go, and yes, it absolutely did. The writing is really quite beautiful - spare and understated in some moments, and packed with lush imagery in others; McDonald has an ability to conjure the texture of a setting in astonishingly vivid ways, from the tattered melting pot of the closed bookstore in Clapham that opens the story to the sickening horrors of Nanking. It packs in quite a number of side characters, vividly drawn in a short space of time, and imbues a sense of joy into the brief fragments of time in which the lovers Tom and Ben can be together. The beats of the mystery themselves are familiar, but McDonald gives them a fresh feeling with the elegance and immersiveness of his prose.
The book is steeped in research, though never in such a way to be obtrusive. The history of Shingle Street, I discovered with some internet-black-hole searching afterwards, is bizarre, and is expertly drawn into this story for McDonald's own purposes, but it's not only this central element - there is a panoply of small details enriching the story, from the facts of war down to references that made a local to Manchester such as I smile knowingly.
What surprises did it hold – if any? Having settled into the story as a mystery, rather than a love story across boundaries, I found myself quite disarmed by the poignance of the ending as it pulls together various disparate threads to beautiful, and rather sad, effect.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? It is a small moment amongst many perhaps more grandiose or haunting, but the scene that stuck in the memory is between the lovers, operating the lighting of a pantomime staged by the regiment. Shielded by the glare of the light, the pair engage in some surreptitious naughtiness, and this small moment is nervous, exciting, and - to a writer and reader bored of seeing queer narratives either absurdly over-sexed or neutered of sexuality at all - perfectly evoked.
Give me a quote: Vapor trails in the sky, the nightly flicker of anti-aircraft fire, rumors of barges missing along the coast of Holland, Kriegsmarine minesweepers probing the Channel's defenses. This is the invasion coast.
I like it better empty. Emptied. When I came here as a boy, when I wandered and met and learned from E.L., I saw their faces pressed to these same windows, frowning out. Who was on their land, in their view, on their horizon. Suspicious, possessive people. Sandings people. A landscape of grey resentments and long grudges. Gone now. Moved out. Fuck them. This is mine now.
Encapsulate the book in one sentence? The queer life and times of the disparate people of a London street.
Intriguing, tell me more. On the day Concord Webster turns eighteen, the man a few doors down known as the Devil dies, and Concord is surprised to discover that his mother owns a key to his house. Curious, he goes to the local witch/midwife Mama Zepp who tells him the stories of the many people who've lived on the street, their loves, betrayals, and queer secrets.
Why this, why now? I've been eyeing In The Eyes of Mr Fury for some time - since it was first announced as one of Valancourt's re-releases - as so much about it seems calculated to appeal to my particular sensibilities. In the meantime, I devoured all of Philip Ridley's movies (discovering to my surprise that he is the man behind Heartless, a particular favourite of mind that I hadn't connected the dots to) and read Crocodilia, a vivid, wildly charged little book that I adored. And so it seemed I couldn't put off Mr Fury for any longer.
What genre would you say it is? In this iteration (this version is an extended 'author's preferred' version to the original publication) it is an intimate queer magic realist epic, an interconnected tapestry of stories invested with a rich sense of myth and tragedy. At times grounded in the drudgery of day-to-day life and at times leaping in flights of evocative fancy, it tells the hidden stories of a set of characters from diverse parts of the queer spectrum over several decades and generations.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? I devoured it, and yes: it did work for me. It worked for me in a way few books have in years, and leapfrogged straight into my favourites list. Put simply: this book is stunning. The characters are richly detailed, living breathing people lovingly rendered through the slow unfolding of the many secret lives of the Street. If the occasional sense that there really are an absurd amount of homosexuals in this Street arises, it can be forgiven by the self-conscious sense of narrative, and by it's underlying themes of queer chosen family (whether implicit or explicit) flocking together and what Mr Fury magnificently succeeds at is evoking that sense so particular to the queer experience of weaving legend of out of one's own stories. The magic realist elements (which I gather from the back matter are predominantly the elements added to the narrative) feed this sense of tragedy and joy, of stories being written from the texture of lives, with perfect precision.
What surprises did it hold – if any? From what I'd already encountered of Philip Ridley's work I'd expected a work evocative of the power of desire, with all the traps and frustrations and exhilarations incumbent with that. Mr Fury delivers on this, but I'd also expected a dose of cynicism alongside; Crocodilia, for example, is ultimately about stripping away the illusions and delusions of desire. But while Mr Fury never shies away from the pathos of desires kept long-secret, it is also pointedly a celebration of queer lives, and it ends on an unashamedly triumphant and decidedly romantic note.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There are so many beautiful moments within this, but the particular moment that stood out to me is the arrival of the grandfather in the balloon. A seemingly throwaway anecdote from earlier in the book about an ancestor who sailed away on a hot air balloon never to be seen again returns near the close on a moonlit night just in time to present a utopian vision of the world as it should be to our erstwhile Concord; it's a genius moment, both illusory and defiant, and I shall present some of it below:
Give me a good quote: 'That's it?! That's all that bothers her?! Jumping jellybeans, what's wrong with people on this tiny and far too watery planet?! I don't understand them... I just don't understand...' He took a deep breath. 'So far - in my lifetime alone - this overmoist blue globe has experienced Jack the Ripper, the San Francisco earthquake, the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of the Somme, mustard gas, the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, concentration camps, atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firestorm of Dresden, the Blitz on London, countless terrorist attacks, assassinations, revolutions, massacres, murders, as well as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches, floods, droughts, not to mention diphtheria, polio, cancer, Alzheimer's, as well as numerous collisions with meteors, the largest of which - in Tunguska, Russia - destroyed nearly eight hundred square miles of forest - and yet, despite all this constant death, suffering and heartache - when we all know our own life and the lives of those we love and cherish could be taken from us at any moment without rhyme or reason - we are still bothered if two people of the same sex fall in love with each other.'
Is it available today? Valancourt have re-released the book with the updated and expanded text from the author, which you can find here. Bonus: beautiful hardback with signed art card available!
Encapsulate the book in one sentence? "I refuse to become the gay superhero known as Disco."
Intriguing, tell me more. Kieran is a bit psychic, a bit psychokinetic, and a lot gay. There's a right-wing religious nut attacked Pride events, and Kieran's not having any of that. Kieran really loves Pride.
Personal Choice, Book-Pot, Re-read...? Personal choice. Bold Strokes sent me it to review about ::mumble:: years ago and I sorta forgot. Since then I've read a whole bunch of short fiction by Burgoine and become a fan. (I cannot rave enough about Psychometry of Snow.) I suspect the key to his fiction is in the restorative power of hairy men and cake, and I approve of that. Anyways, I figured it was about damn time I read Light.
What genre would you say it is? Technically it's a superhero origin story. It'd be quite easy to compare this to Perry Moore's Hero because we're pretty light on queer superhero stories to pick from, but the similarities are only superficial. Hero is all about adolescent rites and spandex costumes; Light is somewhere between paranormal adventure and gay romance. With some leather sexiness.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Read it in two days! And yes, it really did work for me. Burgoine has an undisputeable talent for writing light, funny and sweet that doesn't merge into meaningless fluff, and the book is nicely balanced between the romance and the telekinetic-superhero plot stuff so neither feel like window-dressing for the other. The dialogue is witty, the central relationship entertaining and believable, and the underlying menace of the religiously-motivated hate does hold quite poignant weight. Plus, bonus points for a novel that completely captures what I love about Pride events (i.e. community, belonging and inclusivity.)
What surprises did it hold – if any? I'm all for coming-of-age and coming-out stories, but it was surprisingly refreshing to read something where the main character was 100% okay with being gay, and so was his family. Not in an unrealistic shiny-happy-people way either, just different things to worry about. It was also much funnier than I expected. (That sounds like a back-handed compliment but isn't. Back-handed I mean. It is a compliment.)
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There are a few slivers of scenes of the young Kieran with his mother. Superhero origin stories are pretty brimming with dead parents, but Light makes the glimpses of this we get delicate and sad, and they are still moments in amongst the fast rush of the rest of the book that really sets off the whole thing.
Give me a good quote: Never gives me the time of day, and this twink gets his attention? Typical. I bristled. I am not a twink. I have black hair, and there's scruff on my chest, and quite frankly, twinks don't have thighs or calves like mine. So there. I glared at the bar guy, who had no idea we were having an argument and didn't seem to care that I was winning.
What do you mean, bad reviews? I like reading bad reviews of books I like. A few complaints from goodreads:
"Why'd it have to be fade-to-black sex." I wouldn't have complained either way, but I quite liked the sexy bit in the middle. There is such a thing as an overdose of cock, you know.
"Stereotype fag-hag 'hey-bitch' friendship with female character." I have many female friends. Some of the friendships are in that vein. Stereotypes do actually exist! There was a multitude of non-stereotypical characters to offset.
"He gave up his secret identity a bit quick to a guy he'd only just met." Got me on that one, to be fair. I didn't really mind. Given there's an in-the-closet parallel going on here, it kinda fit for him to be out-and-proud.
"That apostrophe in 'Nathan is ridiculous." How about the other 80,000 words in the book though? (Oh, he didn't like those either.)
"It's clearly the first in a series." Good point. WHERE'S MY SEQUEL?
Is it available today? Bold Strokes Books. Online in all the usual venues, and I've spotted it in a couple of indie bookstores in the UK; can't speak for the rest of the world but your local indie will be able to order it.