A(nother) Review: The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

Last week, I got up on my little soapbox and had a rant about diversity in commercial fiction, so this week I decided to try and remedy the situation by picking up a VERY GAY book – one which struggled to get published, a victim of the type of behaviour I detailed at the end of the last blog post, people saying ‘It’s just not commercial enough.’

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain was published following a campaign through Unbound – a publisher where each book is crowdfunded. If enough people want to read it, the book will be published.

 

Any book that gets published through Unbound HAS to be commercial, because it starts off life by making money from people before the book is even available.

 

Cain’s novel was Unbound’s fasted crowdfunded novel ever – proving that an audience existed.

 

The Madonna of Bolton tells the life of Charlie Matthews, from young boy to adulthood. It’s a story about a gay boy from Bolton who struggles not really with his sexuality, but with other people’s acceptance of it. His family and schoolfriends, particularly.

 

Like most gay men, Charlie projects a lot of his insecurities onto those around him and sees slights and takes offence when there is none to be taken. He’s very real.

 

The book is quite white and doesn’t feature sexualities other than gay men. White gay men are perhaps a minority that have experienced the most progress over the last few years, the most representation in media, even if it is cliched at times. At least it’s there. It’s a step along a long path.

 

So, why am I celebrating this? What makes this any different to The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne or the upcoming Patrick Gale Take Nothing With You?

 

All three of those novels tell the story of young, white men and their struggles growing up gay. The difference between them and Cain’s is the tone.

 

I loved all three of those books (particularly Gale’s) – but they all take themselves quite seriously. There is humour in them, of course, but they tend to dwell on the more serious elements of their stories.

 

The Madonna of Bolton is funny. Throughout. Intentionally. I lost count of the amount of times I laughed while reading it. Cain certainly has a gift for slipping a gag into the story, a skill which more accomplished writers struggle with.

 

It helps his characters, both our lead Charlie and his surrounding friends seem more real. Look around at your friends, your colleagues. They’re not all wringing their hands constantly, worrying about the bad things that are happening  to them. Even at their lowest, they’re cracking jokes, enjoying themselves, even if it is just a façade they’re putting on.

 

That’s not to say Cain avoids the serious bits of life. The book builds to several dramatic moments and a few personal epiphanies from Charlie which may well bring a tear to your eye. He definitely evolves over the course of the book, and he takes the reader with him. We want him to succeed in life, we want him to have a happy ending.

 

If this was a story about a woman, written by a woman, there’d be no question of this of having ever ended up on Unbound. Traditional publishers would have snapped it up and it would be all over every retailer, in all the supermarkets.

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain, published by Unbound is available now.

My Top 10 Books of 2017

It has become tradition at this time of year – well, I did it last year, and I’m doing it again this – for me to tell you my top 10 favourite books of the year.

 

There are literally hundreds of books published every week, and that’s just those from James Patterson, so the thirty or so books I’ve ready this year don’t even cut a small dent in that pile.

 

I like to think that I have some expertise at picking out good books, the cream of that large crop, so this stuff here really should be the creamiest cream at the top of the croppiest crop. I’ve possibly let that analogy run away with me.

 

In November, I ran a tournament on Twitter to find the best book of 2017 – Now, Twitter wouldn’t let me vote in my own poll, so this is where I get my say.

 

Matt Haig won with How to Stop Time while Adam Kay came second with This is Going to Hurt – will they appear in my Top 10 (Spoiler: They do) and if so, where will they appear?

 

There’s only one way to find out.

 

=10. Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth – Frank Cottrell Boyce

 

Each time I read a book, I record a score out of ten across various categories – at the end of the year, I sort that list and present it in reverse order here. The list is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.

 

Sputnik – a book for kids – is a slightly surprising entry to the list, but the truth is, this story is a fun romp (I got to use the word “romp” in my original review and dammit, I’m using it again now), it’s a little cartoonish in place, but it tells a nice tale with more than a hint of pathos.

 

=10. Animal – Sara Pascoe

 

Coming in in joint tenth position, and therefore making this year’s list a Top 11, is Sara Pascoe with her autobiography of what it means to be a woman. Not only did I learn more about the female body than I ever cared to, but her powerful chapter on consent takes on a new relevance following recent news stories…

 

9. Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks

 

Who knew the man could write as well as everything else he can do? This anthology of short stories from THE Tom Hanks is a great collection of tales all loosely connected by, of all things, typewriters. Crossing genres and time periods, these are nice bursts of fiction for everyone.

 

8. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

 

I read this one late last December, and it immediately jumped to the top of my ‘one to watch’ list for 2017, staying there for some time. Schmidt takes the familiar – or indeed, not so familiar – tale of Lizzie Borden and transplants the reader right into that creep house in Massachusetts. The writing is so vivid, so visceral you can actually feel the thickness of the air as you read. Definitely one of the best books of recent times.

 

=5. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

 

This one stays with you. And not just me – it made it to the semi finals of the twitter tournament. The character of Eleanor Oliphant is bizarre, unique. She stands out for being a one-off, but in a way, she is so easily identifiable. We are all outsiders looking to connect, but Eleanor’s tale quickly veers from quirky to tragic, and takes the unsuspecting reader along with it.

 

Despite that, I will remember this book mostly because every time I try to write about it, every autocorrect known to man wants to call it Eleanor Elephant.

 

=5. This is Going to Hurt – Adam Kay

 

The second of three books in joint fifth position is the runner up of our twitter vote. This often hilarious insight into the life of a junior doctor gives the reader a fresh perspective of a job coloured by what we see on the news and on Holby City. Like many of the other books on the list, the serious turn at the end packs a real punch.

 

There’s also a fucking fuckload of swearing in it.

 

=5. How to Stop Time – Matt Haig

 

One of the books I’ve not stopped banging on about this year, and the winner of our twitter poll makes it to (joint) fifth in my personal top 10. I said during the poll that I couldn’t pick between this and Adam Kay, so I’m mildly amused to discover I scored them exactly the same.

 

How To Stop Time takes a corker of a concept – a man who ages at a much slower rate than the rest of us – he’s four hundred, looks forty – and runs with it, using the man’s condition as a metaphor for depression.

 

He also calls the American President a motherfucker.

 

4. The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst

 

So what on earth could beat Matt Haig? I’m a sucker for a gay love saga and Alan Hollinghurst doesn’t disappoint with his latest. The opening half of the book, exploring the viewpoints of Freddie Green and a young Johnny Sparsholt are worth the entrance fee alone. The ending doesn’t quite hold up compared to the first half, but that’s a little like saying Romeo and Juliet isn’t as good as Macbeth.

 

3. The One – John Marrs

 

Proving that it’s not all about the heavy literary scene, this thriller from John Marrs was a bit of a surprise to me at the beginning of the year. I like a thriller as much as the next person, but they can be a little throwaway at times. Not this one. A unique concept linking five separate stories that forces us to question the true nature of love.

 

2. The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

 

Similar in a way to the Alan Hollinghurst, Boyne charts the history of gay rights through Ireland through the history of one man. By investing in the one character, though, it just heightens the emotional impact, and the ending hits just the right note, managing to bring a year or to the eye.

 

 

 

So the winner.

 

 

If you’ve been paying attention throughout this year, this will come as no surprise to you.

 

 

 

1. Tin Man – Sarah Winman

 

Heartbreaking. Joyous. Triumphant. An exploration of life and love and grief. This book has become part of me since I read it in one sitting earlier this year. I still occasionally hug my copy of it, just to make myself feel better.

 

If you haven’t read it… well, I shan’t talk to you until you do.

 

 

 

All of these books are available now – and I’ve managed to cross quite a broad list this year. Christmas is coming – so consider this your wish list – or a gift guide for the literary lover in your life.

 

I’ll be back at the end of December with a short round-up of the books I’m most excited about for 2018…

A Twitter poll BUT for books? Why not?

It’s that time of the year again where I’m so busy I don’t get a chance to read. It’s a come a bit earlier this year – so in a desperate bid for some content, I thought about what I might be able to cobble together in less than an hour…

 

So, here it is!

 

Taking inspiration from Richard Osman’s ‘World Cup of…’ series of Twitter polls (and now a book!) – here’s a tournament especially for book lovers – to find Twitter’s Best Book of 2017.

 

The Rules? There are always rules!

 

  • Unlike Fight Club… everyone talks about Book Club – share your votes and tell us all why!
  • The 32 titles in contention have all been published in either paperback or hardback since 26th December 2017 and have had some sort of impact on the literary landscape this year.
  • They’ve all been picked by me (with a couple of suggestions from others) – they’re either my favourite books of the last year – or particularly notable titles. If you think I’ve missed something… hey, run your own poll.

 

The list in full (in alphabetical order)

 

  1. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  2. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  3. Origin by Dan Brown
  4. What Happened by Hilary Clinton
  5. The Party by Elizabeth Day
  6. The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
  7. The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
  8. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
  9. Creakers by Tom Fletcher
  10. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  11. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
  12. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
  13. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
  14. The Dry by Jane Harper
  15. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
  16. The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
  17. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  18. Need You Dead by Peter James
  19. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
  20. Sirens by Joseph Knox
  21. A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre
  22. Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land
  23. The One by John Marrs
  24. Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
  25. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
  26. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  27. The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
  29. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  30. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
  31. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
  32. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

 

Voting in the first round starts today (now!) over on my Twitter (@alexjcall) – get voting! The top two from each round will go through to the quarter finals!

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Way back, in the mists of time, at least as far back as 2004, I started working in a bookstore.

 

Me back then very different to me now. I was taking the path of least resistance. I could have ended up working anywhere, but as chance would have it… there were books.

 

I’d always liked reading, and I’d always wanted to write, but I didn’t love them then. They weren’t my passion.

 

There were a handful of books that put me on the path to where I am now, one of which was Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It was one of the first ‘adult’ books I’d ever read. There was swearing and drugs and – gosh – even gay sex!

 

It was a coming of age novel, both for the characters and for me, so going back this year to read my first Hollinghurst since that day (for some reason The Stranger’s Child) completely passed me by) was very nostalgic.

 

While The Line of Beauty was very much a piece about being gay in the 80’s, The Sparsholt Affair is similar to John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisibile Furies as it explores the changing face of what it means to be gay across the years, starting during the second world war.

 

The book is rich with characters and we follow many of them from youth right through to death. The book is primarily told from the point of view of Johnny – although there are often guest POV’s – notably that of Freddie Green who carries the narrative throughout the 1940 section, a time when Johnny isn’t alive.

 

It all begins when Freddie and his friend Evert Dax spot the mysterious and beautiful David Sparsholt, a newcomer to Oxford in 1940 and a character that links all the others together, although we as a reader never seem to spend much time with him.

 

There are four distinct sections of this book – two of them work incredibly well, while the others are great pieces of writing, but don’t quite match up to the beginning of the book.

 

The first section is a powerful and erotic exploration of infatuation, and Hollinghurst’s writing is so vivid that I actually came away a little bit in love with David Sparsholt.

 

Fast forward a few years and our second section explores the life of the adolescent Johnny, a fourteen year old who is discovering his sexuality. The writing is equally engaging and will resonate with any gay man who was once fourteen years old.

 

As Johnny gets older, I started to become less affected with the book, the characters – so many characters – started to become less like real people and more like characters from a novel. Perhaps that was because he started to live a life that I couldn’t as easily identify with.

 

However, in his years as a younger man we watch him deal with his own infatuation, a nice juxtaposition to the 1940 section. Johnny is able to be more open, but he is seemingly much less successful. This is underscored by the object of his affections being in a relationship with the much older Evert Dax, the focal point of the 1940 years.

 

In Johnny’s later life, things seemed a little less tight, a bit meandering, but again, that may have been intentional as Johnny’s life seems to be headed in the same meandering direction.

 

The ending is… an ending. I’m not sure you could say it was a happy ending, or even a sad ending, but it’s definitely a nice point to end the novel.

 

I’m not sure what it says though. Was this a story about David Sparsholt? If so, making him absent for large swathes of the book seems a mistake. His arrival back on the scene in later years seems to promise answers and actually got me quite emotional at times, but because we don’t see things through his point of view, we don’t actually witness what was – to me – one of the more crucial scenes of the book.

 

The ending as it is, makes us reflect on the life of David Sparsholt, how things have changed and how they could have been so different… but again, it’s slightly undersold by his lack of presence in later pages.

 

The David Sparsholt we see at the end of the book is a completely different man to the one I became infatuated with in 1940 to the point it’s hard for me to connect the two men.

 

I loved this book, and I’m only being so critical because it was so nearly perfect, it was just lacking a little something extra towards the end.

 

However, I’d buy a thousand copies of this just to read the first half over and over again.

 

The Sparsholt Affair is published by Picador and is available now.