The Wolf in Winter

The Wolf in Winter (Charlie Parker, #12)The Wolf in Winter by John Connolly

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

All the Charlie Parker thrillers have had a similar pattern of late: standalone thrillers, with the detective and Angel and Louis almost tangential characters, the former studiously hard-assed and doomed, and the latter like a Laurel and Hardy pairing for some often much-needed comic relief (though this time around we get Jewish jokes as well as the inevitable gay jokes).

Then there are a few bones tossed in to appease the overall story arc. The latter has increasingly taken the rather Dickensian form of characters defined by their names: the Collector, the Travelling Man, the Hollow Men, the Believers. And now, with The Wolf in Winter, we have the Green Man, the Radix malorum (the ‘root of all evil’), the Long Ride and the Backers. Oh, and let us not forget the Principal Backer.

I think Connolly himself has a sense of how ridiculous this is all becoming, with him thanking his Constant Readers “for continuing to read these odd little books.” The problem for him and his publisher is that, although there is a central protagonist, this is not a series like Jeffrey Deaver (having said that, there is a moment towards the end, especially with the reappearance of a key character, the identity of which I will not divulge, where I thought Connolly was parodying the pairing of Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs.)

It is almost impossible for the casual reader to jump in at, say, this point of the series. I mean, it is hard enough for the dedicated fan to keep track of all the breakaway factions and things that go bump-in-the-night. In terms of the latter: much has been made of Connolly’s ‘literary’ fusion of the hardboiled detective novel with supernatural elements. However, I have always thought that Charlie Parker is hugely indebted to Chris Carter’s Frank Black from Millennium. And, frankly, the Charlie Parker books stopped being truly original or even remotely unsettling since The Killing Kind.

What dismayed me so much about The Wolf in Winter – and it is a much better book, in fact, than The Burning Soul or The Wrath of Angels – is that Connolly seems to have botched a perfectly legitimate end game to his series. If he is trying to have his cake and eat it – by which I mean place Charlie Parker entirely in the shadows – and yet carry on with Louis and Angel as main protagonists … that would be a disaster, I think.

So while the ending of The Wolf in Winter is ‘reader-friendly’, I felt it subverted a much bleaker conclusion. The book kind of idles along for almost two-thirds, then takes a sudden dip into an unexpected darkness that Connolly, unfortunately, does not take advantage of.

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The Machine

The MachineThe Machine by James Smythe

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There are two novels here, bumping against and getting in the way of each other, the one great and the other not so good. The great novel is a quite wonderful dystopia focusing on a UK ravaged by climate change, with the focus on deteriorating social cohesiveness and increasing anarchy as a result.

The not-so-great novel is a muddled psychological study of the impact of technology on human relations, which quickly devolves into a rather icky horror story that skips over the science in favour of lurid thrills and scares.

Given that the world depicted by Smythe is so constrained by the problems of climate change and crumbling social order, I found it difficult to comprehend how such a society could develop a technology as advanced as the Machine. Or what purpose it could serve.

And what is this war that the protagonist returns from so ravaged by? I think Iraq is mentioned vaguely at one point – it might have made more sense if the war had been of galactic origin, to be honest, with maybe the Machine a spoil of this interstellar conflict.

And what exactly does the Machine do? I am still unsure, having finished the novel. A lot of reviews point to Frankenstein as an exemplar, but this is much more a zombie novel. I thought the bits alluding to a separate consciousness or dimensionality of the Machine, such as when Beth peers inside its workings and only sees endless darkness, was an attempt to elevate the novel to Lovecraftian mystery, but this is so disconnected from the main narrative that it hardly registers.

I also did not understand Beth’s connection to her abusive husband, and why she would want to resurrect him in the first place. Of course, the meta-ending throws everything that has transpired into question (this is not a spoiler, actually), but it turns out to be far more of a cop-out than the hard-boiled ending demanded by the initial rather straightforward narrative.

Ultimately this is a curious blend of Ballardian dystopic ennui and Stephen King gross-out horror that does not quite gel, and is quite emotionless to boot, and consequently more heavy-handed and distasteful than effective and fashionably depraved.

Still, Smythe is clearly a talented and adventurous writer, and I will definitely be on the lookout for his other books to see how he has evolved and matured.

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Eminent Outlaws

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed AmericaEminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What makes this history of gay literature so effective is Christopher Bram’s cogent and effective commentary on books, people and events. At the beginning he says he excluded his own oeuvre as this would have been self-serving; this made me wonder if he simply balked at turning his kiss-and-tell approach on his own role in this narrative. However, it was only towards the end that I realised, and appreciated, what Bram has done: he is the proverbial Greek chorus, elucidating, championing, lambasting, praising (and even excoriating).

He writes in the Acknowledgements:

Without being aware of it, I spent much of my life preparing to write this book. I came of age during a remarkable period of American history – the Sixties and Seventies – reading many of the novels, poems, and plays discussed here when they first came out.

The book is divided into five parts: the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s and after. In each part, Bram examines the major writers and works of the time period, together with an incisive analysis of the cultural context. However, the parts are not discontinuous, with Bram telling a seamless story, with characters moving into the wings when new ones take the stage, and then reappearing when their own stories intersect with those of others.

This makes for a surprisingly incestuous and ribald narrative, as many of the writers and personalities here were either involved with each other romantically and/or professionally, or were engaged in protracted intrigues, catfights, literary and/or personal feuds (this is particularly true of the 1950s to 1960s, when giants like Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and James Baldwin bestrode the literary landscape). Bram is not afraid to step into the fray with his own (often droll and acerbic) observations.

He writes:

This is not an all-inclusive, definitive literary history. I do not include everyone of value or importance. Nor am I putting together a canon of must-read writers. I am writing a large-scale cultural narrative, and I include chiefly those authors who help me tell that story – and who offer the liveliest tales.

Bram also adds: “The story of these men has never been told as a single narrative before, which is surprising.” And what a story it is, chockablock with epiphanies and tragedies, comedy and melancholy, eroticism and anger. I was shocked at what the nascent gay community faced in the 1950s and 1960s in particular. (One has to bear in mind that homosexuality was only declassified as a psychological disorder in the US in 1973.)

However, this is by no means a grim book. Bram humanises all the writers, playwrights and poets he describes, warts and all (some with more warts than others, of course), and places them in their socio-cultural context, as well as considering their overall role and status in the overall evolution of gay literature (even though Bram shies away from using the ‘c’ word, the aggregate effect here is to produce something of a gay canon, which is by no means a bad thing for new gay people to discover, or older ones to revisit).

My only quibble is that the part dealing with the 1990s and beyond is the sketchiest section of a very full and nuanced book. Bram does touch briefly on the end of the gay midlist after 2008, and the uncertainty introduced by ebooks, but points to the plethora of small presses, blogs and independent publishers in the 2000s, and the quantity and quality of extraordinary LGBT literature that continues to be written, published and, most importantly, read.

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By Blood We Live

By Blood We LiveBy Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Transcendent, gore-soaked third volume in Glen Duncan’s werewolf/vampire series is a magnificent conclusion, but also takes the series to a whole new level. Duncan takes a bit of a risk here in that he slows his breakneck plot down with the introduction of the 20 000-year on-again, off-again love affair between Remshi and Vali, and the couple’s mysterious link to Talulla.

However, it is a risk that pays off handsomely, with Duncan pouring some of his most incandescent writing into the tale of these star-crossed lovers. Twilight, True Blood, Anne Rice, all take note: this is how you do inter-species romance properly, with sufficient gravitas and eroticism, but also a healthy meta-appreciation of the absurdity of the genre’s constraints, so you are able to transcend them.

We also have the successor to the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP), the Catholic Church’s Militi Christi vigilante hit squad thrown into the heady brew of the plot, plus the mysterious Olek secreted away in a converted ashram in India, convinced he has found the ultimate cure for what ails a fallen world.

If you have not read Duncan before, this is definitely not the place to start – best begin with The Last Werewolf. For the up-to-date reader, Duncan does subtly reiterate some plot arcs of the preceding two novels at crucial points. Given the gonzo, Grand Guignol way the plot erupted in Talulla Rising, I left scratching my head as to how Duncan would resolve the mess in the third volume. Suffice it to say, he is in total control of his material here.

Technically, Duncan is a master of both splatter and psychological horror. There are jaw-dropping set pieces here of quite stunning depravity, and then long lyrical stretches of painful beauty. I especially loved the way he works Robert Browning into the plot, which of course will be familiar to fans of Stephen King, but Duncan’s take on the Childe Roland story is much deeper that what King attempted with his Dark Tower series.

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Transcendence

Aside

TranscendentalTranscendental by James Edwin Gunn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is great when an author has fun with a book, because that energy often gets transmitted to the reader. Transcendental is an infectiously joyous riff on the possibilities of SF. James Gunn is not only in total control of his material here, but is absolutely up-to-date with the latest genre predilections. One would expect no less from a Grand Master, of course.

Having said that: Gunn’s writing is concise to the point of being rather bare-bones workmanlike. This could put some people off, as the clipped, almost brusque style does take some getting used to. However, once you are into the flow of the story, this is hardly noticeable. It is also very funny in places, and there are a lot of nuggets for the dedicated SF reader to ferret out.

The story is deceptively simple: an oddball menagerie of alien species, including a token human (the fly in the galactic ointment as it were) gather on a planet called Terminal to catch a space elevator to the waiting spaceship Geoffrey, tasked to hunt down a piece of technology known colloquially as the Transcendental Machine.

This could tip the balance of power in the civilised galaxy if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Needless to say, all of the representatives, or pilgrims, in keeping with the Chaucer motif (one of the many allusions that Gunn seeds his novel with), think they are the Chosen Species.

The book opens with a bang, literally, as the station where the pilgrims gather are attacked. From this breathless opening, Gunn accelerates smoothly into a fantastic SF thriller. The narrative is interspersed with each of the alien travellers recounting their origin story, and why transcendence is the prerogative of their species.

A lot of the reviews I have read give the impression that, as a result, Transcendental is merely a series of short stories strung together like beads, the string being the spaceship Geoffrey and its quest. This could not be further from the truth. Each of the stories not only gives us the back story of the storyteller, but also adds much depth and nuance to the general plot.

Gunn’s inventiveness in these sections is incredible, giving voice to a disparate range of aliens, from a plant-like to a bird-like creature, and yet another entirely self-contained in a coffin-like box on treads.

There are many surprise twists and turns, with a nail-biting build-up to a fantastic ending. I suspect this ending could prove divisive, but I thought it a lovely bow out. That there is scope for a sequel is wonderful; let us just hope Gunn does not keep us waiting as long again as we had to for this new novel.

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The Lost Library

The Lost Library: Gay Fiction RediscoveredThe Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered by Tom Cardamone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what a fantastic tribute to the power of literature to broaden people’s minds and to inspire and change lives.

What struck me again and again was how so many of these gay authors, writing about literature that had a seminal impact on them, recounted how encountering a specific book in a bookshop, library or even garage sale at a specific time had a crucial effect on their socio-sexual development and identity.

I wonder if this is something we have lost in the age of ebooks: that sense of walking into a library or bookshop, the smell of the stacks, the reverent silence, and the incredible sense of discovery and empowerment when you find a particular book that seems to speak to you directly in a language you understand.

Of course, ebooks have also revolutionised both publishing and reading in that a lot of out-of-print titles can be revived economically for a new generation of readers. The Lost Library clearly represents a vanguard of this movement.

Indeed, the book ends with Philip Clark’s ‘A History of the Reprinting of Gay Novels’, which recounts how specialist presses and dedicated small publishers have revived some of the out-of-print authors celebrated in Cardamone’s book.

What also struck me was the incredible depth and range of gay literature. I was astounded to learn that “travel writer Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870) is generally considered the earliest example of a consciously gay novel.”

Many of the themes we take so for granted today, such as the coming-out novel, were pioneered by writers who were generally well ahead of their time, and who wrote and published in very difficult cultural and political climates. There were gay novels written in the time of WWII and the Vietnam War; the first YA novel saw the light of day in the 1960s.

This is by no means a comprehensive history of gaylit. What Cardamone does instead is stitch together a living document from other writers’ experiences and memories. This is an incredible read, alive and rich in the best possible way. May this book itself never be lost.

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Right and wrong

What's Wrong with Homosexuality? (Philosophy in Action)What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? by John Corvino

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am a bit ambivalent about this book: if the aim is to win over the right-wing minded, then I think John Corvino’s slightly supercilious and mildly condescending tone (bear in mind this is solely my impression) could be off-putting, while I think other people might wish for some more depth and less jokes (not all work; some are real clunkers).

What this book does highlight quite starkly is the dearth of proper research and scientific study, both academic, psychological and sociological, into all matters gay. What I also found quite jaw-dropping is the number of prominent people in the US, from the church to politicians, scientists and academics, who spout a variety of anti-gay dribble.

I think the title of the book could be different, because it casts Corvino’s argument in the light of apologia. Should gay people go cap in hand to the straight community and ask for forgiveness and tolerance? I am from a generation more likely to say fuck them.

However, Corvino does play a significant role in not only bringing disparate factions together, but getting them to debate gay issues intelligently and (somewhat) dispassionately. This book is invaluable in that it is a good primer of current thinking about gay issues, and Corvino provides a good reading list and ample references. Well worth reading and digesting.

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