Monthly Archives: April 2013

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World: A Review

 

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At the beginning of Janet E. Cameron’s book, Cinnamon Toast and The End of the World, Stephen Shulevitz’s world as he knows it comes to an end. He’s reached the sudden realisation that he’s in love with his best buddy, Mark, and that he desperately wants to kiss him.

This is a ‘coming out’ novel. You know from the opening scene that Stephen will have to overcome a series of emotional obstacles before eventually coming to terms with his sexuality; that towards the end he’s going to tell Mark that he fancies him, for better or worse; and that there’s going to be some deep issues with Stephen’s parents that he’s going to have to sort out along the way. There’ll probably be a story arc featuring Stephen’s close female friend too. As with any romance novel, where the two paramours are introduced in the opening chapter and you know that on the very last page they will get together, the table is set for a three-course meal you’ve consumed several versions of before.

The desire to keep reading a novel in such a well-trodden genre is founded in questions about how the journey will unfold, and the mark of success is whether it keeps the reader questioning.

Luckily Cameron knows how to keep the questions popping up. She’s a talented writer, and the journey she takes us on is always pleasurable, sometimes moving, and has a lyrical literary style that separates it from the masses of ‘coming out’ fiction that litter the queer cannon. It also dares, at times, to jumble up the equation and come up with different answers, as in a later reunion scene between Stephen and his absent, drop-out Dad, Stanley, in which a lesser novelist would have given her readers warm, fuzzy emotional resolution.

Before any conclusion is reached, Stanley says: “I think this conversation has run its course.” Stephen, instead of getting his father to say he loves him, is left in confusion, and Cameron resists any urge to move Stanley centre stage again for the tying up of loose ends.

The tale is set in 1987, mostly in the small Canadian town of Riverside, where boredom rather than outright prejudice drives the violent motivations of its teenage population. Cameron clearly loves the eighties. The book is filled with playful cultural references to the era. When Stephen contemplates suicide, he does so through the filter of watching an umpteenth Friday The 13th sequel. At the inevitably excruciating prom, he dances with rebellious abandonment to Aha’s The Sun Always Shines on TV.

He may be surrounded by stalwarts of the genre – the best girlfriend (Lana) who secretly fancies him, the ambivalent but unavailable love interest, the school bullies – but its in her depiction of supporting characters, like Lana’s immigrant father, Mr. Kovalenko (“a look on his face like he’d been chewing old sardines”), and Stephen’s fleeting, sexually gluttonous girlfriend, Tina Thompson, with her “muscular tongue”, that Cameron really lights up. Stephen himself is a sharply drawn protagonist, his teenage view of the world suitably cynical, but underlined with almost poetic, acute observation.

Towards the end the inevitable happens, and as Stephen’s orientation becomes known to his peers, he becomes more and more vulnerable. Cameron isn’t afraid to shift the lighthearted tone of the first half of the novel into much darker territory, and during the penultimate, chaotic scene between Stephen and Mark, you begin to think this might not turn out the way all ‘coming out’ novels turn out, after all.

You’ll have to read the book to find out if it does, but in the meantime I’m taking bets that Cameron’s second novel will leave the ‘coming out’ genre behind. She’s simply a writer, a good one, who likes to tell a cracking story. That this story is about a gay boy finding himself is incidental.

How The President Got ABBA Tickets

There’s another story doing the rounds about Abba reuniting, with Agnetha rowing in to say she wouldn’t be adverse to doing a charity concert. In Knowing Me Knowing You, they reunite to do a concert for Unicef, and my characters all go to Stockholm for the concert of a lifetime. Writing it was like writing a dream come true for me. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was see ABBA in concert. The nearest I ever got was going to ABBA: The Movie in the Savoy Cinema in Sligo, Ireland on a rainy summer’s night, but even then my excitement was so much, I could hardly eat the whole day beforehand. (I guess that’s called the ABBA diet.)

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ABBA came to Ireland in 1979, when I wasn’t nearly old enough to go to a concert, so my parents wouldn’t hear of it. And anyway, the tickets sold out instantly and then became like gold dust. On the day they played, the then President of Ireland, Patrick Hillery, went on the most popular radio show of the time, The Gay Byrne Show, and appealed for tickets so his daughter could go to the show. She had a pair by 5pm.

My friend, John, who lived in Limerick (I didn’t know him at the time, we only met as adults) remembers this, and remembers how disgusted he was, that the President would be able to use his power to get tickets like that, and when you think about it, Mr Hillery was being very cheeky indeed.

I hope his daughter enjoyed the show. And maybe, if Bjorn, Benny Agnetha and Frida ever get back on a stage together, myself and John can go and see them play!

Gone Tabloid: The Shock of My Name in the Headlines

I thought I knew a fair bit about the media industry. After all, I’ve been magazine editing for 13 years now, and I know a good story when I see one. Over those years I’ve often been asked to go on TV, radio and in print to talk about gay rights issues, and the one proviso I always gave was that I don’t talk about my personal life. The reason for this is I have a son, and I felt a responsibility to keep his life out of it, since he had no choice in the matter.

My son’s grown up now, and he lives abroad, plus he’s totally comfortable with me talking about him, so when The John Murray Show on RTE Radio One asked me to come on and talk about my new novel, Knowing Me Knowing You, and at the same time tell the nation what it’s like being a gay dad, how it all happened, and what my relationships with my son and his mother were like, I said yes. I was reluctant – my book is mainstream commercial fiction featuring heterosexual characters, and no gay dads,  but i understand that personal stories are interesting to listeners, and I felt ready to tell my story.

The show was broadcast on Monday, and right after it the RTE press office contacted me to say The Daily Mirror were interested in running a story, based on the interview. Then The Irish Sun called me and said they’d like to run a story too. I said yes, although again with trepidation. There was little I could do about it – my interview was public property. I asked both the Mirror and The Sun to print a photo of my book cover with their pieces and left them to it.

The stories appeared yesterday. The copy stuck to the tone of my interview, which was an honest account of how I came to have a child, the process of coming out as gay, how my child’s mother took the news, and how we have managed to bring our son up together but apart, the very best we could. 

But the headlines were a different story.

‘I TOLD HER I WAS GAY BUT WE HAD A BABY ANYWAY’ shouted The Mirror.

‘GAY DAD PACT HIS BAGS DAY SON TURNED 1’ said The Sun – http://tinyurl.com/c7c2kz8

I know a headline is there to make a reader read the story, but still I was shocked at the negative slant in the headlines about my own life. They don’t reflect the truth of the story at all, and there’s a kind of homophobia to them, a suggestion of irresponsibility coupled with the word ‘gay’ that, for all my knowledge of the tabloid papers and their sexually prurient slant, I was not expecting. I guess, when it’s your life, you can’t imagine it framed in any other way.

God only knows what it must be like to be famous and see this kind of stuff every day!

Anyway, my publishers are delighted. Both papers printed the book’s cover so it should help sales. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, folks?

Review of The Red House by Mark Haddon

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Although I wasn’t a huge fan of The Curious Incident, I loved Mark Haddon’s second adult novel, A Spot of Bother. I think he is brilliant at writing the dynamics of family, the mixture of love, resentment, competition, annoyance and friendship that comes with having parents and siblings. While A Spot of Bother was quite comedic, and very moving, in its exploration of the breakdown of a parent and its effect on his wife and children, The Red House is a much darker take on family dynamics. But it’s nonetheless gripping and beautifully written.

An estranged brother and sister, Angela and Richard, go on holidays together in rural Wales with their respective families after the death of their mother, and the story unfolds over a week staying in The Red House.

The younger characters come across as the most interesting, particularly the 16 year-old self-serving, calculating bully Melissa, and catastrophically confused Jesus-freak Daisy, who is the same age. The relationship that develops between the two, who have only met each other for the first time is much more the excruciating heart of this book than the one between Angela and Richard.

Whereas A Spot of Bother ended with a sense of resolution, by the time the book ends, the two families go their separate ways and few conclusions have been come to, except maybe for Daisy who has come to a moment of self-realisation.

Hovering over this book is the imagined ghost of Angela’s stillborn first child, Karen, and she makes for a genuinely creepy presence, even if she ends up being the glue that just may hold this disparate group of people together.

A fine read, full of wonderful literary tricks and quirks, but I’m a sucker for resolution, so it left me feeling a little frustrated. But then again, family is like that. The relationships go on, and while there may be moments of clarity, there is rarely resolution.