2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Faggots – Larry Kramer

Genre: LGBT,  Modern Classic

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1978

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fred Lemish is about to be forty. He is growing tired of the constant round of parties, clubs, dancing and fucking that occupies his life when he is not working. He is in love with Dinky Adams – as is most of New York, it transpires – and is desperate for his return so that he can cement their relationship. The novel describes the gay scene in New York and on Fire Island with no holds barred. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition.

On the front of my copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer, it proclaims that the book will be “disturbing, enlightening, compassionate, explicit, uninhibited, outrageous…” It then goes not to say that no one can be neutral about it. I admit, I thought this sounded a bit over the top. However, as I read I realised all these things were true. Especially that last bit. Faggots, it seems, is a book you either love or you hate.

The novel captures a moment in gay history when sodomy laws in the USA had been revoked in a lot of states and gay men were tasting more freedom than previous generations but before AIDS devastated the gay community. Sex is everywhere, male bodies are on display and I lost count of the different types of drugs that were mentioned. It describes unbridled hedonism. There is a lot of sex in this novel. Some of it is very funny and some of it is very kinky. Certainly, it is easy to appreciate the sense of freedom  – what else was there to do but have sex. There was no need to settle down or have a relationship. Why do that, when there are all these beautiful bodies?

Fred Lemish wants more. He is in love with Dinky Adams. At the beginning of the novel, he is out of town and Fred is waiting for his return as he hopes it will be the start of a proper relationship. However, the reader soon realises that Dinky is much in demand- every other character seems to be also waiting for his return. We quickly realise Fred is heading for a fall. Fred is definitely ready to settle down. He wants more than just sex and bodies. In some ways, he is like Gatsby – in love with love as much as the completely inappropriate object of his affections. Dinky does not want to settle down and Fred is left alone again at the end.

The novel this most reminds me of is Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance – another novel from 1978 with Gatsby overtones. Both novels critique the narrowness of the perceptions of what gay life could be within this scene. They also both show the interchangeability of bodies and the hollowness of relating only to the physical. Winnie Heinz – also known as The Winston Man, model for Winston Cigarettes takes a fall from a parapet while in a drug addled state and dies when he hits the dancefloor; his place is quickly taken by a younger, fitter version.

It may be for this reason that Kramer has so many characters in this novel. There are dozens and dozens of men, some given little more than a paragraph, some mentioned but not fleshed out and some returned to again and again. It was difficult to keep track of who was who, who’d had who and what everyone’s particular fetish was. Even Fred has trouble keeping track of who he has slept with. Even when he has noted that a man was hot and he would like to see them again, he can’t remember his name. He had spent a year with “a faceless group of sex objects.”

It is this endless list of characters and the overly convoluted state of Kramer’s sentences that stopped this from getting 5 out of 5. Nevertheless, an enjoyable, completely uninhibited read. Not for the faint hearted.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Contact – Carl Sagan

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Structure: Third person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1985

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer who has dedicated her life to the discovery of alien life. When radio-telescopes at the Project Argus pick up an unusual signal, she realises that this may be the message everyone has been waiting for.

Well, this was certainly an interesting read. Being written by an actual scientist made it quite different from any other science fiction I’ve read. (I’ve never been so glad to be reading something on my kindle. I had to keep looking up scientific terms.) It was also much less figurative than most novels. It was very focused and very unemotional. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It was very enjoyable but although there was some love interest for Ellie and somethings outside of the science were mentioned but they were not focused on and sometimes it felt like Sagan had forgotten about these elements. It was a little like reading a documentary about something that hadn’t happened yet. It was probably the most level headed novel I’ve ever read.

The story starts in Ellie’s childhood. She is an exceptionally gifted child, already curious about all things science. Sagan takes us through her school and university career as she becomes more and more interested in the possibility of a message from outer space. This leads her to the Argus Project and the unusual signal.

It becomes clear that the signal is the instructions for the building of a machine. Sagan takes the reader through the various arguments against building it – it could be a Trojan horse or it could be a doomsday machine. We get various religious arguments which are all given a respect I would have found it hard to give.

Indeed, this is not a novel about the divide between science and religion but is one in which the two are brought closely together. When the machine is built, the five top scientists from around the world are sent away in it and they are presented with a vision of the person they loved most in the world who explain to them about a universal message that is written in the physics of the universe. Ellie is told to look in pi but other scientists receive slightly different information. This final message brings together science and religion rather than driving them apart. God is given a scientific explanation.

I really enjoyed this novel. It was exciting. It showed what might happen if we received a message from intelligent aliens. (Although given the current governments in charge, I very much doubt such a calm response might occur these days.) Ellie was an engaging main character who neglected her family and lover due to her dedication to science. Sometimes it felt that Sagan neglected elements of the narrative for the same reasons but overall I would definitely recommend.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge – The Return of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

Genre: British Detective, Classics, Short Stories

Narrative Style: First person, 

Rating: 4/5

Published:1904

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Sherlock Holmes has been missing, presumed dead, after his encounter with Moriaty on the Reichenbach Falls. In the first story of this collection, he reappears, much to the surprise of Watson, his trusty sidekick. Together, they solve five more mysteries of varying degrees of complication. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

Overall, I did enjoy this book but as always, whenever I read a Sherlock Holmes story, I have to overcome my irritation with the main character. Holmes is infuriatingly intelligent, able to spot things that most normal people don’t and always about three leaps ahead of everyone else. Unlike Watson, I don’t find these attractive attributes. I much prefer my detectives to be fallible – to be more human, in fact. But once you get over that – and Watson’s adoration which is also a little annoying – there is much to enjoy here.

The first story – which heralded Holmes reappearance – was perhaps the least satisfying. Holmes has information that Watson, Lestrade and the reader could not know. All that is left if for the reader is to admire Holmes’ abilities. Not much fun, to be honest.

The other four stories in this collection are all much more interesting and allow the reader to stretch their own powers of deduction a bit more. Indeed, I even worked out what one of the mysteries was. (Incidentally, I’m never sure if this pleases me or not. It shouldn’t be too easy to work out, nor too difficult. It’s a fine line or maybe I’m just difficult to please.)

The most enjoyable story was probably Black Peter. It was suitably twisty, it involved a policeman who jumped in the wrong direction, murder by harpoon and lots of cleverness from Sherlock including running through a pig with a harpoon to see how much strength it took.

Overall, I’m not a huge fan of short stories but they work nicely with detective stories. Obviously, if you have a full on police inquiry, you need a full novel but the quirky, interesting mysteries presented here are just complicated enough to sustain about 25 pages of text.

Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – G – Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Genre: Scottish Fiction, Allegory, Metafiction

Narrative Style: Non chronological, Third Person

Published: 1981

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lanark can’t remember who he is or anything about his past. His most recent memory is a train journey which has brought him to Unthank, a place where the sun barely rises. He longs for the sunshine. He meets a group of people but is unable to connect with them. He longs for love but is unable to find it. Is there any way he can escape from Unthank?

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge

I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. In fact, for quite a bit, I thought this would be a five star read. I really enjoyed the first three books but then it felt as though it was never going to end. Maybe that was Gray’s problem – he couldn’t figure out how to finish things off.

The novel starts with Book Three and Lanark’s arrival in Unthank on a train. Anything before that is a mystery to him. Unthank is a land of darkness – the hours of sunshine are getting less and less. There is an entertaining episode where Lanark goes to register so he can get money which is Kafkaesque in its pillorying of bureaucracy. There are swipes at the authorial process when Lanark is encouraged to write by Sludden, one of a group of people who lounge around in a cafe all day, and then, after a painstaking description of the writing process, is told that what he has written is no good.

It is clear that Unthank is some sort of punishment – hell, maybe – for an incident in Lanark’s life before. This is supported by the fact that Lanark keeps asking women if he killed them. This becomes even more apparent when Lanark starts to develop dragonhide. (Other characters have equally weird ailments such as eyes or mouths all over their bodies.) He then finds himself in the Institute where once cured, he is made to become a doctor and cure others of the same ailment. When he manages to save a woman, he is given the chance to speak to an oracle and find out about his life before.

Now we are given Books One and Two – the life of Lanark before Unthank when he was Duncan Thaw. The style changes here. We are now given a – mostly – realistic portrait of a Scottish childhood and young adulthood. Thaw has always wanted to draw but finds he is thwarted in many ways. His parents want him to get a more sensible job. The focus is on money and living the same life that everybody else does which Thaw does not want. Even when he eventually gets to art college, he finds it provincial and depressing, pushing him towards a teaching career he does not want.

Thaw is prone to fits of depression, illness and hallucination. During one of these times, he may have killed a woman. As a result, he kills himself and this is how he has ended up in Unthank. Now, he is given the opportunity to leave the Institute and find a better future for himself and the woman he saved. But before any of that, he must return to Unthank.

This is where it started to go wrong for me. The allegory became increasingly complicated as did the satirising of bureaucracy. There were unending obstacles for Lanark. It ceased to be funny and clever, becoming annoying and increasingly post-modern. There is a section where Lanark meets the author of the novel and they argue over what the end of the novel should be. Included in this section are a series of footnotes giving all the other writers that have influenced the story, seemingly trying to head off any potential critics who pointed out allusions. All very clever, but not much fun to read.

By the end of this novel, I didn’t mind how it ended, just that it did. I was quite sympathetic towards Lanark in the beginning; by the end I was just hoping for his death and for it to be over.

Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Paris Echo – Sebastian Faulks

Genre: Literary fiction, History, The effect of war

Narrative Style: two first person narrators

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Two very different visitors to Paris meet and end up sharing a house. Hannah is in Paris to research life for women during Paris’ occupation during the second world war. Tariq runs away from home to try and find some information about his mother who was French. They both come to a greater understanding of themselves through their interaction with the city. 

Writing Challenges: Alphabet Soup: Author Challenge

This didn’t grab me. A while ago, I decided that I ought to read more by authors where I’d read one book which I’d really enjoyed. About fifteen years ago, I read Birdsong. I don’t know why that didn’t lead me to read more of Faulks’  novels then. Anyway, hence reading Paris Echo.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this novel – about history and its ongoing effect on the present, about personal and political views of events and about our sense of self. In fact, the transcriptions of the interviews with French women who lived through occupation were probably the most interesting part of this novel and I found myself wishing it was more straightforward historical fiction. I would definitely have been interested in reading more about these women.

The main problem is that the two main characters never came alive for me. Neither of them really convinced. It also seemed unlikely that Hannah would have just opened her door to Tariq. A lot of interesting things happen to Tariq – he sometimes feels like he is watching himself from the outside, he meets a woman who may or may not be a ghost – a woman he has seen in a vintage photo shown to him by Hannah. But he isn’t really all that interesting and at the end of the novel, he is back home with the same girlfriend, taking up his life with no real changes. He has learned things and is perhaps more observant but his basic character is unchanging.

Hannah is even less convincing. It seems that Faulks feels for her. He describes her vulnerability well but she doesn’t have much else going for her. She has been scarred by a a relationship ten years earlier and while she eventually feels strong enough to start a new relationship, it isn’t entirely obvious why this has happened.

So not exactly successful but definitely interesting. And it did make me think. Also, it reminded me of a period in history I would like to know more about. And that is always a good thing.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Survivor – Chuck Palahniuk

Genre: Satirical, anti-heroes

Narrative Style: Stream of consciousness, First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1999

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: We meet Tender Branson as he has just hijacked a plane and is telling the sorry tale of his life to the black box recorder. He has let the crew and passengers go and has the length of time it takes for the fuel to run out to tell us of his life. What follows is a tragic tale of manipulation, fame, murder and suicide.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This is a very strange book. I had some idea what to expect – I’ve read Fight Club and Choke – but even so this is an odd read. For a start, it is numbered backwards and the chapters run down to one which makes it difficult to judge exactly where you are in the book. It also gives the feeling of running to a huge event which is apt given that we are waiting for the plane that Tender has hijacked to run out of fuel and crash.

We are thrown into the middle of Tender’s story with little context and at first it is a little confusing. Tender works as a servant and we gather that this is the fate of the majority of young people in the Creedish cult. They are sold as servants. allowed out into the outside world only because they’ve been convinced to never have sex by means not explained until near the end.

It transpires that Tender is a survivor of the mass suicide that has killed the rest of the cult. Even those who are already out in the world have been trained to obey this call to heaven so eventually Tender is the only one left. At this point, he comes to the attention of The Agent and is thrust into the limelight – once they have made him camera ready, of course.

Palahniuk takes aim at the media industry as they completely take over Tender’s life, treating him like a product rather than a person. He is consistently manipulated throughout the novel – first by the Creedish church and then by The Agent who has already planned out his entire life before he  even meets Tender. He was just waiting for the right body to put before the cameras.  The take down is savage and I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Tender especially when he is eventually rescued by his twin brother, Adam and his friend Fertility Hollis. Stripped bare of all routines, not being told what to do, he is unable to cope. He has been told what to do his whole life. Even when it comes  to hijacking the plane, Fertility has to push him in the right direction.

This was a very enjoyable read. It is easy to get used to the stream of consciousness style and the characters were well-drawn and interesting. The ending is open-ended so it is possible to believe in a happy ending should you want to. It is darkly funny in places, as you might expect from the writer of Fight Club but ultimately I felt a lot of sadness when reading it.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

 

Genre: Magic Realism, South American Literature

Narrative Style: A series of stories told by Eva to her lover

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1989

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Eva’s lover demands that she tell him a story that she has never told anyone before. The stories mix the real and the fantastic and cover revenge, love, obsession and much more. 

Reading Challenges: Alphabet Soup 2020 – Author Edition

It’s been a long time since I read Eva Luna – about 25 years as I was at university – but I remember that I really enjoyed it. I’m not sure why this book has languished on the shelf got quite so long. Possibly because I’m not a huge fan of short stories.

As you might expect, these stories slip easily between reality and fantasy. Ghosts and miracles happen in the same way that ordinary every day things happen. Allende’s prose is rich and poetic and the stories are not reigned in by the constraints of prose. They are poetic in their nature.

There are many themes touched on here but the main thing I came away with was the power of love in the face of the worst situations. There is something hopeful and encouraging about these stories even when they are talking about the worst atrocities committed by man.

My favourite stories are’ Two Words’ and ‘Our Secret.’ ‘Two Words’ which tells of Belisa Crepusculario who learns that she has power over words and uses this power to sell words to people. When she is kidnapped by the Colonel, he tells her he wants to be president. She sells him the words to say but also gives him a bonus ‘Two Words’ for his exclusive use. With these words, she binds the Colonel to her and he becomes unable to think of anyone else. ‘Our Secret’ tells the story of  the story of a couple who cannot truly know each other until they have shared the secret traumas of their lives under the Chilean dictatorship.

Some of the stories are erotic like ‘Toad’s Mouth’ which tells of a  Hermelinda and her erotic games or ‘Wicked Girl’ which tells of a young girl’s sexual awakening and the effect it has on her mother’s lover. Others, like the final story ‘And of Clay we are Created’ are tragic and sad. All are unusual and exciting.

My only problem is one with short story collections in general and that is I like to get my teeth into stories, get to know characters. Here, whenever I felt like I was interested in a character, the story changed.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

Genre: Fantasy, Magic

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1968

Synopsis: Sparrowhawk is set to become one of the most powerful wizards in Earthsea. He has natural talent and it isn’t long before he comes to the attention of the other wizards. Taken away as an apprentice to Ogion, he is impatient for power and accidentally evokes a shadow creature that will haunt him forever. The rest of the novel covers his quest to rid the world of this evil. 

Reading challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition.

This really wasn’t for me. I gave it three out of five because it really isn’t badly written but it didn’t grab me at all. I think I was expecting it to be more science fiction and less magic based fantasy – not a genre I particularly like. It’s also a bit boy’s own for my taste – boy does quest at expense of everything else in his life is not something that is interesting to me.

To be fair, at first I thought it might be okay. Sparrowhawk (or Duny as he is originally called) has a natural talent for magic and is taught as much as he can be by his aunt. When his village is threatened by a neighbouring tribe, he manages to save them by conjuring a magical fog. This was quite exciting and well written. Even Sparrowhawk’s school days were quite exciting with rivalries with other wizards, one of which nearly leads to his death.

It is really the second half of the novel – which focuses on the chase after the evil shadow that Sparrowhawk has accidentally unleashed on the world. A lot of the time Sparrowhawk is alone and at sea – not very exciting to be honest. After all the chasing and running, you might hope that the final confrontation between man and shadow would be exciting but even that was anti-climatic.

I know that this is children’s literature and maybe I am too old to appreciate the innocence of this tale. I did find the ideas of good and evil simplistic as was the final solution to merge with the  shadow. It could be considered a bildungsroman with Sparrowhawk learning what it means to be a man in his world but because I found the story so unexciting, I didn’t really feel like Sparrowhawk developed all that much.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James

Genre: British Detective

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 2/5 

Format: Paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Six years after Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are preparing for their annual ball when Captain Denny’s body is found in the woods at Pemberley. The ball is cancelled and the Darcys and Bingleys are plunged into a murder mystery.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge 

Well, this was disappointing. I thought that it was an interesting idea and I like P. D. James so it seemed like a good idea. But I didn’t realise that it was going to be written in a similar style to Austen’s – not something I’m massively fond of at the best of times. Well, this book was not the best of times.

While I wouldn’t say that I was a massive fan of Austen, reading this made me realise exactly how good she actually was. James’ prose has none of the refinement of Austen’s. In fact, it was leaden and had no sparkle. It was tedious to read and I felt little compulsion to finish this book. It also had none of the excitement of James’ usual storytelling and style. It was like the worst of both worlds.

Even worse, the characters of Darcy and Elizabeth were thin and underdeveloped. James completely sucked the life out of them. Even Wickham, who should be the most interesting character in this little tale, seems flat and lifeless. None of the characters were what they were in Pride and Prejudice.

Finally, the plot, for a large part of this novel, is just not very exciting. The hints that are dropped are obvious and so the big reveal is not surprising. I wasn’t all that interested in what the results were anyway. I was just glad that it was over.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Boy21 – Matthew Quick

Genre: Young adult, Mental Illness, Family

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: For Finley and his girlfriend, Erin, basketball is everything. It is their ticket out of their downbeat neighbourhood and they spend long hours training together. When Finley’s coach asks him to look after Russ, a much sought after basketball player who has suffered such a severe trauma he has retreated into the persona Boy21, things change for him completely. Both boys are forced to face up to the tragedy in their lives. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge

I admit I bought this specially for this challenge, having no Q authors on my shelves – either physical or kindle. I’d seen the film of Silver Linings Playbook so I’m not sure why I didn’t pick that. This sounded interesting but unfortunately didn’t live up to its potential.

Finley is an interesting narrator and his family relations were convincing in their detail. Life was difficult for Finley, living in a rough neighbourhood, having to look after his disabled, alcoholic Grandfather while his father worked night shift and getting picked on for being the only white person on the school basketball team but as long as he was able to play and spend time with Erin, he was fine. So far so good, I thought. The scene was successfully set.

However, when Russ – Boy21 – is introduced into the story, things become less convincing. His persona didn’t really ring true. Although, undoubtedly, people do retreat into fantasy – in this case, believing they are from outer space – in order to avoid very real tragedy, I just couldn’t quite believe in Russ. Similarly when he recovers after starting to play basketball again, it just feels too easy.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story was the friendship between Finley and Russ, both of whom have suffered from tragedy. However, it is suddenly cut off as Finley is given a chance to escape but he will never be able to return to Belmont. I felt this was a shame and made the novel seem a bit pointless.

At the beginning of the novel, we are told that Finley’s mother is dead and that no one talks about it. Hints are made about the Irish mafia throughout the novel, particularly after Erin is involved in a hit and run accident that stops her from playing basketball. When the full story is revealed it is little wonder that Finley never wanted to talk about it but it does come quite late in the story and with little to really prepare the reader for what was to come. After Finley and Russ reveal the details of the violent acts in their lives, their usefulness to each other is clearly over as Quick then allows Finley the escape he was always wanted. Again, it felt too easy and unrealistic.

Overall, I did feel compelled to read on and it was an interesting story and I suppose for a younger audience, it was perhaps more important to have an optimistic ending rather than a realistic one but ultimately, I fell it didn’t quite ring true.