Monday, 20 December 2021

What I'm reading: Another take on the plot to kill JFK

Perhaps taking a leaf from Stephen King, espionage writer Philip Kerr invites us back to the Kennedy era. The Shot starts with Jack beating Nixon in the election in November 1960, narrowly and – Kerr repeats an oft-told tale – with some help from the Mafia in the key state of Illinois.

A professional assassin (presidentially named Tom Jefferson) is hired by mobster Sam Giancana (who famously shared a girlfriend with JFK) to murder Fidel Castro, so that Cuba can revert to its previous Mob-dominated money-spinning status. But there are other pressures on Jefferson, and he diverts his attention to a plot to remove Kennedy before the inauguration.

Georgetown lay on his soul like a dead weight.” Philip Kerr, as we know from his WW2 and Cold War novels, has a neat way with words. His extended dialogue scenes reminded me of Robert Ludlum at his most prolix, but the assassination theme pulls the reader through the occasional slow patch. As with The Day of the Jackal, you think the end won’t spring any surprises – but it does!

Most conspiracy buffs believe that Cosa Nostra did play a key role in the events in Dallas in 1963; Oliver Stone’s movie JFK included this and several of the other scenarios in a mash-up of the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. The Shot offers one more tense, imaginative chapter to the Mythology of “Camelot”.

Friday, 10 December 2021

David at the movies: Gaga on overdrive


If you’re expecting the drama and pace of Ridley Scott’s The Gladiator, you may be in for a disappointment. Back in 1991, Scott directed Thelma and Louise, a dark study of two women on the road to self-destruction. House of Gucci gives us two hours and 38 minutes of Lady Gaga on a non-stop rampage.

As Patrizia, a girl from the slums who marries the heir to half the Gucci fashion house, Gaga is incandescent. She quickly insinuates her way into the life of Maurizio (Adam Driver), but it’s an uphill task to win over his father (Jeremy Irons) and his uncle (Al Pacino). One sly move at a time Patrizia and Maurizio steal the company from the rest of the family, running up vast debts in the process.

Gaga’s not the only one in overdrive: Al Pacino is back in his Scarface scenery-chewing mode. Jeremy Irons does an Italian accent so mellifluous that I half expected him to start singing ‘Volare’. The production values are off the scale, but the scenes of family showdowns and directors’ meetings are numbingly repetitious. The last half-hour is the most exciting, as the Patrizia-Maurizio marriage disintegrates, but the courtroom scenes, which might have made for the most engrossing chapter, are condensed to mere moments.

A woman near me was yawning. Can’t say I blame her.

Saturday, 4 December 2021

What I'm watching: Is crime drama getting too sick?

Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen & Laurence Fishburne


Clearly I’m very late catching up on this, the TV version of the crimes of Hannibal Lecter, our favourite cannibal. Three series – 39 episodes – of crime and punishment. Mostly crime. I found it terrifically watchable but deeply disturbing.

The credits tell us this is “based on characters from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris”, but the “Tooth Fairy”, the family-slayer from that book, doesn’t appear till the last few episodes of Series Three. The first thirty-plus hours introduce other killers, other crimes – and, of course, Hannibal whose crimes are sometimes attributed to others.

The ill-fated Florence detective and Mason Verger (and his sister) (from Harris’s third book) are featured, and there are scenes augmented from Hannibal Rising, Book Four – the “prequel”. Conspicuously absent is Clarice Starling and the whole storyline from Silence of the Lambs. Clarice is replaced by some new female characters, including Gillan Anderson as a shrink who is close to Hannibal and also close to psychosis herself.

The big liberty taken in this version is that Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) is working with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) at the FBI as a consultant; he’s also Will’s psychotherapist. We, the viewers, are shown his killer/cannibal side, but it takes a while for the others to catch on to the viper in their bosom. Will Graham bonds with Hannibal and learns what happens when the moth gets too close to the flame.

Production values are high and the cast, down to the supporting players, are all on top form. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is a lot creepier than Anthony Hopkins’s near-pantomime baddie. The screenwriters have pushed the envelope way beyond the Tooth Fairy (and even the absent Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs) to introduce their own bevy of serial slayers. Bryan Fuller is credited as creator/producer, so I guess this gore-fest is what he set out to achieve. One killer in the first series turns bodies and body parts into totem poles. This I found genuinely nauseating. This show takes us close to torture porn, of which we see increasing amounts on TV and in the cinema. I worry that this kind of thing gives nourishment to already sick minds.

Yes, I found the whole 39 episodes relentlessly compelling – apart from a few longueurs (Dancy’s breakdown is over-extended and Anderson’s character becomes tiresome). But I think it’s time we reappraised the current definition of what is classed as Suitable Viewing.

(I watched this on DVD, but it's also available on Amazon Prime)

Dinner at Hannibal's. Who's on the menu?

Friday, 26 November 2021

David at the Movies: Diana's not-so-merry Christmas


I wasn’t going to bother with this, since The Crown and all those documentaries have given us an overdose of Diana and the Princes, but Kristen Stewart has received such rave write-ups I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s a blistering performance that blows all the other versions of Diana out of the water. During three days over Christmas in Sandringham when her sons are about 10 and 8, Diana’s bulimia escalates into a full-blown breakdown. She has visions of Anne Boleyn, whose life as a royal bride famously didn’t end well.

Apart from the young princes and a starchy equerry played by a cadaverous-looking Timothy Spall, Stewart gets pretty well all the screen time. HMQ and Charles are almost background extras in this one-woman show. Sally Hawkins has a touching turn as a dresser with whom Diana is able to let her hair down.

We’ve gotten used to seeing Diana as petulant and put-upon. Steven Knight’s screenplay for Spencer amplifies her into a histrionic diva, prowling the corridors and pastures of Sandringham like Lucia Di Lammermoor. Kristen Stewart will surely pick up some awards, though Charles probably won’t suggest a DBE.

This is very much a ‘fantasia’ on the life of the People’s Princess. Worth seeing? Hmm, maybe wait till it’s on free-to-view.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

What I'm reading: A hustler's odyssey in pre-Aids America


John Rechy: 

Resuming my trawl through yesteryear gay fiction with this ‘classic’ from 1963, John Rechy’s chronicle – which we assume to be autobiographical – of a few months in the life of a nameless hustler haunting the cruising zones of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Mardi Gras New Orleans. It seems a bit dated today, but it’s one of the seminal books in the literary gay canon.

Rechy sets the tone on the opening page: “One-night sex and cigarette smoke and rooms squashed in by loneliness.” Every other chapter explores the life and mindset of a fellow hustler or one of the punters (“scores”), those men who are part predator and part prey. There is some humour, especially in the full-on Attitude of the camper gays and drag queens – the most extravagant of these are Miss Destiny, the self-crowned Queen of L.A.’s Pershing Square, and Chi-Chi, a mixed-up Muscle Mary in New Orleans. But for the most part the tone is unremittingly bleak. Sylvia, the bar-owner haunted by a guilty secret, is given more depth than many of the scores.

John Rechy
The narrator portrays himself as the macho street kid who’s only doing it for money but occasionally, with another hustler or one of the scores, he almost feels the tug of involvement. But that tug has to be resisted, because it would undermine his conviction that he isn’t really a fag. These are some of the book’s most revealing scenes. He never admits to love and only rarely to desire. Desperation is what drives the denizens of the Cities of Night onto “the lonely, crowded, electric streets.”

John Rechy creates a syntax of his own, routinely omitting the apostrophes in words like “isnt” and “dont”. Fragmented paragraphs bristle with dashes and ellipses (...). Past and present tenses are randomly mixed. He sandwiches words together to create a vivid new vocabulary: “nightworld”, “malehustler”, “sexhungry”. The hallucinatory writing recalls Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, so much so that I wonder if either of them contributed to the edit. The fractured narrative becomes repetitive, but there’s no denying the powerful impact of this nightmarish journey through the Gay Underworld. “We’re trying to swim in a river made for drowning.

the original 1960s cover

This is not an erotic novel. The sex between hustler and score is rarely described and never detailed. Rechy’s second novel – Numbers – and its successors were a lot more explicit, and he abandoned the zonked-out Beat-poetry style for the pared-down prose of Harold Robbins or Mickey Spillane.

Reading City of Night in the 1960s, it seemed exotically different and daring. London’s gay scene was a pale echo of New York’s; Piccadilly and Leicester Square never quite had the lurid tawdriness of 42nd Street or Times Square. A few pages from the end Rechy seems to foresee the rich harvest the Grim Reaper will gather from this relentlessly promiscuous community two decades later: “death lurking prematurely in a threatening black-out”. In 1963 John Rechy was a kind of “Pied Piper” figure, and as we know, the Piper – one way or another – has to be paid.

Thursday, 4 November 2021

David at the Movies: Feudal fighting in the far-distant future


This is a somewhat less chaotic adaptation of the epic novel by Frank Herbert, which I read in the 1960s but don’t remember well enough to help me through the labyrinthine plot. Set hundreds of years in the future in a distant galaxy, there is (there has to be) interplanetary war going on. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) arrives with his father on the colonised planet of Arrakis, which has a desert rich in a hallucinogenic spice worth more than gold. Others have eyes on this treasure. The natives of Arrakis are waiting for a messianic Mahdi – is it Paul?

There are wonderful sets and production values here, as (let’s be fair) there were in the David Lynch 1984 version. The CGI is, as it has to be, out of this world. It seems odd that even in this far future with amazing flying machines (I particularly liked the dragonfly helicopters), feudal hand-to-hand combat is still key to warfare. I came away with a feeling of Star Wars meets Kingdom of Heaven. I’m an admirer of Chalamet, but he rather lacks the charisma that Paul Atreides calls for.

The giant scenery-chewing worms are, once again, the real stars, though I still have a soft spot for those in 1989’s Tremors!

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

What I'm reading: An ending that will stay with you forever

DELIA OWENS: Where the Crawdads Sing

I’m a couple of years late reading this novel, which is surely set to become a modern classic. Aban-doned by her mother and her siblings, Kya Clark grows up in a shack in the North Carolina marshes with only her brutal alcoholic father for company until even he disappears. Scorned by almost all the townspeople, she gives up on school after just one day. A local boy teaches her to read; they both become experts on the flora and fauna of the swamp and the ocean. When the boy leaves to go to college, Kya replaces him in her affections with a rich-kid lothario who we know from the beginning is destined to die under mysterious circumstances.

Delia Owens brings the marshes and the creatures that live there vividly to life. She has a wonderful way with words: ‘Barkley Cove served its religion hard-boiled and deep fried.’ Inevitably, Where the Crawdads Sing brings echoes of other great writers from the Deep South, notably Harper Lee and Truman Capote. The rustic courtroom scenes have all the drama and tension of To Kill a Mockingbird.

More than once this heartbreaking story of love and loss brought tears to my eyes. The ending is one that will stay with you forever. This is without doubt one of the finest novels this century is likely to produce.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

LILLIAN AND THE ITALIANS: Two more reviews on my Blog Tour

Two five-star reviews I garnered during my US Blog Tour with Gay Book Promotions this week:


it was amazing

There’s something about this book that just feels beautifully crafted: the world building is careful, deliberate, and thorough: it brings to life a glittering picture of Italy in the 1960s and the complicated codes of conduct that regulate it. The characters too are finely drawn: they’re each so much more complicated than they might seem at first glance, and their stories unfold through a series of revelations and insights that makes them, and their experiences, feel nuanced and real. Lillian gets more and more compelling, the more time she spends on the page, and her search for her son is an exercise in love and growth that it’s impossible not to get caught up in. The Andrew we see through her eyes at first both is and is not the one she finds herself looking for as the story goes on, and that just adds to the overall sense that this is a journey worth going on.

An excellent, serious book with the beauty of Italy acting as backdrop to a story 
about the mafia and kidnappings, but more importantly about family and how 
we both know our family members and don't know them. There are excellent 
depictions of m/m and m/f relationships here. This is an author I want to read 
more of.

Friday, 8 October 2021

What I'm reading: Dublin life in 1950s and 80s


Julian Ryder, 18 in 1983, gay and with literary aspirations, relocates to Dublin and gets a job as a barman in Dolly Considine’s hotel. Dolly is firmly involved in Irish politics, where the issue of the day is Abortion Law Reform. A parallel story in the 1950s provides the background to Dolly inheriting the hotel and struggling to keep herself afloat. Times are hard in both eras, especially for unmarried mothers, but despite endless money worries people seem always to have the price of a Guinness.

The author has set himself a challenge in this debut novel, juggling a large and vivid cast of characters through haphazard time shifts. His writing is invigor-ating, with occasional echoes of James Joyce and more than a few touches of ‘blarney’. There are some engagingly comic gay sex scenes, although one of them ends in fatality. An abortion scene makes for a tough read.

Eamon Somers is a member of my Gay Authors Workshop. He has published Dolly Considine’s Hotel through ‘crowd-funding’ with Unbound. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

David at the Movies: 007 - Worth waiting for?



So – was it worth the 18-month wait? No Time To Die is very much a sequel to Spectre but it also comes with echoes of several other Bonds, including the Lazenby one and You Only Live Twice, which had the creepiest Blofeld (Donald Pleasence).

No Time To Die starts like a Jason Bourne, with our hero enjoying a Caribbean retire-ment with his latest and possibly greatest lady-love, Madeleine (Lea Seydoux), who like James has childhood emotional scars. Bond’s old CIA chum Felix Leiter (who’s been played by almost as many actors as 007 and survived death and amputation) sets him back on the trail of SPECTRE. A visit to Vesper’s grave in Matera, southern Italy (where Mel Gibson filmed his crucifixion movie), pits Bond against a fresh bunch of killers.

The chase is back on. Blofeld (Christoph Waltz gets little more than a cameo) is in jail in England, but there’s a new criminal mastermind at large, Safin (Rami Malek with some Phantom of the Opera scars), who’s got his hands on a killer virus (here’s an echo of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). To say any more would start me on Spoilers.

I hate to say this, but like Connery and Moore, Daniel Craig has ended up showing his age and his weariness with the franchise, although he still cuts the mustard in both the fights and love scenes. Ralph Fiennes looks a bit bored as M. Ben Wishaw gets good screen time as Q, but Miss Moneypenny (Noamie Harris) has been short-changed by the scriptwriters.

At two and three-quarter hours, this is the longest Bond – too long by at least those 45 minutes. The plot is a bit of a mish-mash, and there are some daft CGI gadgets (not quite as daft as the invisible car, but close enough). After all the movies in which 007 has been pitted against Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Safin rather makes him redundant here. In the repetitive shoot-out sequences Bond kills someone with every shot while the enemies always miss. This ‘superhero’ 007 is somewhat out of kilter with the romantically vulnerable Bond, which has been – and still is – the best element of Daniel Craig’s stewardship of the role.

The hallmark of Craig’s movies has been the combi-nation of  spectacular set pieces and elegiac climaxes, and this one very much delivers both of those elements. What next, and who next? I guess we must once more wait and see. To answer my opening question: Yes, No Time To Die was worth waiting for.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

What I'm reading: The very best of English writing


Eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong takes a job with MI5 in 1940, typing up tedious transcriptions of the monitored conversations of Nazi sympathizers. She also infiltrates their ranks as a ‘fifth columnist’. It takes her a while to realize that one of her team is a double agent and even longer to do something about it. The operation leads, more or less accidentally, to two murders.

A decade later, Juliet is a junior producer with children’s radio at the BBC. An anonymous letter threatens consequences from past events. As more of that past is revealed, Transcription acquires increasing hallmarks of a spy thriller, although the author’s sprightly prose means that comedy overtones accompany even death and burials. “They were at a loose end without a funeral tea to go to. Poor Joan didn’t seem entirely dead without a glass of sherry and a slice of Dundee cake to send her across the Styx.

As in Atkinson’s previous novels, the writing is crisp and witty, often aphoristic, with pleasing echoes of the late great Muriel Spark and even Alan Bennett. The ending – and a fascinating Author’s Note – provides a splendid surprise and a resonance with one of history’s greatest spy scandals. Kate Atkinson is without doubt one of our finest current writers.

Monday, 6 September 2021

What I'm reading: Looking for sanctuary


This reads like a “companion piece” to The Boy from Aleppo, which I reviewed at the beginning of this year. The Beekeeper is, if anything, even more heartbreaking.

Nuri Ibrahim is the beekeeper in war-torn Syria. His wife, Afra, a gifted artist, has been blinded in an explosion which killed their only son. Vandals have destroyed Nuri’s beehives. His partner has fled to England with his family and urges Nuri and Afra to join them. They have enough funds to pay people smugglers if they can reach a transit point. They flee by road to Turkey and then by boat to a Greek island. Nuri is haunted by a boy they meet – and lose – along the way, a boy the same age as their son. They also cross paths with other refugees from many lands, all desperate to reach a place of sanctuary.

Alternate chapters show them being “processed” for asylum on the UK south coast, so we know they will reach safety. Their treatment by those who process them is chaotic but humane.

Christy Lefteri worked with a refugee centre in Athens and has constructed this novel out of the stories of the people she met there. She writes with a vivid, simple clarity; “inside the person you know, there is a person you do not know.” There must be hundreds – thousands – of stories as harsh and as poignant as this, people who were born at the wrong time in the wrong place. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is as profoundly moving as Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. 

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

What I'm reading: Lesbian lives - joys and disappointments

 V G LEE: Oh You Pretty Thing

A collection of lesbian short stories would not be my usual choice of holiday reading, but I enjoyed this selection immensely. Valerie Lee is a member of Gay Authors Workshop, one of our most talented members, I have to say. Several of her stories feature women who married men before they realized they preferred the company of women. Lesbians with straight women friends is another recurring theme, which generates some crisp comedy, like Deirdre in the final story: ‘I am not a lesbian, but I’m open to temptation.

V.G.Lee’s ladies live ordinary lives. They experience small joys, small slights, small disappointments. In the title story, a novella, Julie’s marriage disintegrates slowly and cruelly. In another ironically titled novella, The Time of Their Lives, Cathy remembers her vile father: “We needed the handprints he’d left across our lives to fade”; she more fondly recalls a lesbian aunt who danced in and out of her nieces’ lives and left an indelibly glamorous wake.

These are fiercely honest stories written in a crystal clear prose. This is very, very fine writing.

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

What I'm reading: Life-saving and life-affirming


If you work hard enough and believe enough, any dream can come true,’ says Noel Fitzpatrick in this eloquent autobiography, a motto which has served him well. Relentlessly bullied at school, he took refuge in dreams of becoming a vet, dreams that were magnificently fulfilled. Growing up on a sheep farm in Ireland, he suffered an early heartbreak when two newly-born lambs froze to death. But this tragedy, an everyday occurrence in the lives of farm folk, launched him on a journey that led to the surgical and prosthetic ‘miracles’ that he now produces almost routinely at his practice in the Surrey Hills.

It has been an arduous journey that would have defeated lesser men. Decades of intense study, years of surgery small and major, months of pressuring banks into lending him the funds to create and expand his amazing facility Fitzpatrick Referrals, which TV viewers have come to cherish through a dozen series of the The Supervet.

The detail he provides of his long apprentice-ship and the philosophy that drives him is lightened by the stories of the animals he (almost always) saves and the people he befriends. His writing is gloriously Victorian at times: ‘February frost had starched the fields in silent rigidity’ – and that’s only on page 3.

‘The love of an animal makes us the very best we can be,’ he says in the final chapter – a sentiment we can all endorse, I’m sure. A man who has dedicated himself to saving lives has written a life-affirming book.

Thursday, 19 August 2021

What I'm reading: The battle for first-century Jerusalem

SUSIE HELME: The Lost Wisdom of the Magi

Sophia, a Persian Jew in first-century Babylon, grows up with a fascination for the magical formulae on cuneiform tablets that date back to the Biblical Flood. Running away from an arranged marriage, she joins a caravan of Nabatean nomads and travels to Petra and Jericho and eventually to Jerusalem, where the Zealots are rebelling against the Roman occupiers. She falls in love with a freed Greek slave and together they join the endless, hopeless fight for liberation from tyranny.

Susie Helme has clearly done a prodigious amount of research. The Lost Wisdom of the Magi is written in modern English, but it’s full of vivid detail of the customs and rituals of the ancient tribes, their miraculous cures and secret texts. There are many Messiahs (including the One we all know), battles and sieges, exorcisms and spells – Sophia interprets dreams and even masters the art of shape-shifting. This is a rich mix of history, legend and fiction. I was frequently reminded of the late great Mary Renault, whose thrilling reconstruction of the life and times of Alexander the Great I relished decades ago. The Lost Wisdom of the Magi will surely bring similar pleasure to today’s historical romance readers. 


Thursday, 12 August 2021

David at the movies: Matt Damon as the dogged father of a teenage murderer



A change of pace for Matt Damon in this low-key drama shot mainly in Marseille. Damon plays Bill Baker, an Oklahoma construction worker whose teenage daughter is halfway through a ten-year sentence in France for the murder of her lesbian lover. Bill goes to visit her in Marseille and stays on to try and find the Algerian boy she says was the real killer. Speaking almost no French, he befriends a single-parent French-woman who acts as his interpreter. She and her adorable little daughter become a second family to Bill.

The story seems to draw on the case of the American student convicted of a murder in Italy some years ago. Damon, beefed up and bearded, sheds all his usual glamour and fully disappears into the role of the father doggedly trying to prove his daughter’s innocence and “adopting” a second child along the way. There’s a plot twist which slightly stretches credibility, but the ending is gratifyingly unsentimental. A small movie on a big theme and a cast who are all emotionally engaging and utterly believable.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

What I'm reading: Thrilling evocation of 1950s Britain



Set in the 1950s, this is the story of the tumultuous girlhood of Harmony, known as ‘Harry’, daughter of Ellen Loveridge and her Gypsy husband Sam, whose courtship and marriage Katie Hutton brought to us in last year’s The Gypsy Bride. Sam is the foreman on a hop farm in Kent, where Harry is violently assaulted one summer in her teens. Made of strong stuff like her mother, Harry puts this outrage behind her and fulfils her promising academic career with a scholarship to Nottingham University, where she is courted by two men, one a glamorous French teacher, the other a factory hand with aspirations of his own.

Like its predecessor, The Gypsy’s Daughter brings strong echoes of Thomas Hardy and even – with its Nottinghamshire miners who talk in dialect – of D.H. Lawrence, no less. The family saga morphs into high drama when Harry attracts what we now call a stalker, and there is a powerful climactic chapter in the Old Bailey. Like Melvyn Bragg, Katie Hutton convincingly and vividly brings the ‘classic’ literary traditions of bygone times into the postwar era, with its huge change in fashion and customs and values. Her characters – and the events that shape their lives – tug at your heartstrings. This is an immensely satisfying read.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

What I'm reading: Echoes of Le Carré

Charles Cumming: BOX 88

BOX 88 is an ultra-secret Anglo-American spy agency that operates beyond the remit of MI6 and the CIA. In 1989 at the age of 18 Lachlan Kite was recruited because his best friend’s father was hosting an Iranian power-broker suspected of links to those behind the Lockerbie bombing. Kite and his pal were guests at the villa in France where the Iranian would be staying. BOX 88 gave the teenager a crash course in espionage tradecraft: dead-letter boxes and hidden microphones.

In 2020 Kite is kidnapped and his pregnant wife taken hostage by another group of Iranians who want to know the truth about the events of that summer in France. Kite and Isobel’s lives will depend on his ability to dissimulate.

Not for the first time Charles Cumming sets his sights on John Le Carré territory: the “nitty-gritty” of intelligence work that relies on deception more than on Jason Bourne heroics. The bulk of this 480-page novel consists of conversations in which Kite pretends to be just a horny schoolboy (1989) and an outraged ordinary citizen (2020). Only towards the end do a few bullets fly.

This is surely much closer to the real secret world than a James Bond caper or a Mission Impossible. BOX 88 is a tense read, very well crafted. Mr Cumming is definitely going places!

Thursday, 15 July 2021

What I'm reading: Texting and sexting

 Soulla Christodoulou: ALEXANDER AND MARIA

Alexander, a care worker in Inverness whose twenty-year marriage has gone sour, starts a relationship on Twitter with Maria, a divorcee in London who works in PR and writes so-far-unpublished novels. They both bring ‘baggage’ with them: Alexander suffers from cerebral palsy; Maria has a troubled-teen daughter. They share a love of poetry which elevates their tweets above the mundane and makes them feel they are made for each other. Texting escalates to ‘sexting’ and the two plan a rendezvous in London.

This is very much a love story for the times we live in. Aside from Alexander’s disability these are two very ordinary people whose online romance may or may not be the start of something bigger and better than they’ve experienced before. Soulla Christodoulou writes a well-paced story in a lean contemporary prose that brings her characters vividly and appealingly to life. There are scenes that teeter on the edge of Fifty Shades-style raunchiness, but the author stays – just – below the crossover line between erotica and porn. A fine and intense romance. 

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

David at the movies: Noises that kill


Two years after Part One, the sequel begins with a flashback to the day the aliens arrived, with stormclouds like those that heralded invasion in Independence Day. So we see Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) fleeing the creatures with all her family. Then we resume where Part One ended, with the survivors – Evelyn and the two teenagers, plus the baby – looking for a new place to stay. They shelter in a derelict factory with Emmett (Cillian Murphy), an ex-cop. A radio station signal suggests that there may be others still alive, but finding them in a world terrorized by the killer critters is not going to be easy. Any loud sound – and especially a scream – brings predatory monsters.

Obviously, the inspired nerve-shredding originality of the original movie is no longer fresh, but the script and the direction are just as tight. The cast are in fine form, especially Regan (Millicent Simmonds), the deaf daughter with superhero bravado. Not quite as many jumpy moments as Part One, but there's enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

David (finally) at the movies: Love in the time of dementia


My first visit to the cinema in 18 months, and what a magnificent movie to return to. Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), partners for twenty years, take their RV to the English Lake District for a reunion with Sam’s family and to revisit the place where they first declared their love for each other. Tusker has been diagnosed with dementia and has already lost chunks of his memory; neither of them looks forward to what the future holds.

This is a movie in a minor key (Sam is a concert pianist) that makes a major impact. Within its brief timeframe we are shown everything that these two middle-aged guys mean to each other and the relentless cruelty of the illness that will destroy their quiet companionable life together. The script is delicately underwritten, the direction and cinematography are ace, the performances perfectly spot on. If dementia hadn’t won an Oscar this year, Firth and Tucci would surely be a shoo-in next year – hopefully they will.

This is not the first movie to deal with the heartache of dementia; it will not be the last. I cannot recall that any of them has been a dud, but this one is outstanding. I had tears in my eyes all through it.

Thursday, 24 June 2021


Newhaven author David Gee is in print with Lillian And The Italians, published by The Conrad Press, Canterbury at £9.99 paperback, £3.99 Kindle, available from Amazon and bookshops – a book about second chances.

By Phil Hewitt

David Gee is the pen-name of David Helsdon, aged 78. He says: “I set out to write a novel in which a widow gets a second bite of the cherry.

“Searching for her wayward son Andrew in the summer of 1966, Lillian Rutherford, a 50-year-old widow from Hastings, goes to Venice, where she meets the ex-gigolo who has shared the last four years of Andrew’s life. His revelations about Andrew’s bisexuality shock her.

“Going on to Amalfi, she meets Prince Massimo Monfalcone, whose playboy son has disappeared with Andrew.

“Massimo distracts Lillian with his life story: his first wife was murdered in a Sicilian blood-feud; his second wife killed herself because of his infidelity. As they wait for news of their sons, a bond grows between Lillian and the prince. A different world – a different life – opens up for her. Is she ready for this?

“The book will, I hope, appeal to women of all ages. Lillian learns in Venice that her son has had male as well as female lovers, so I hope this will draw in LGBT readers. Prince Massimo’s life includes 50 years of Mafia history, so maybe fans of The Godfather – and movie producers! – will be attracted.

Lillian and the Italians is a book for women who worry that their lives will flatline after their children – or their husbands – leave home.

“I promised my mother years ago that I would write a novel in which an English widow finds romance and adventure in Italy. Lillian’s girlhood and a late-term miscarriage are taken from my mother’s life story, although she was widowed at an earlier age and fate did not bring her a Sicilian prince; Alzheimer’s took her down a different road. Lillian and the Italians is the life she should have had.

“My mother accompanied me on some of my research trips to Venice, Amalfi and Sicily. The first draft of the book was largely written on location, in cafes and bars and sitting on church steps.

“I started it in 1976 but then my job took me overseas and I didn’t finish it until the 1990s. I’ve had to overcome a surprising amount of resistance from editors and literary agents to a book with a heroine aged fifty; they prefer a book with a sexy young bimbo!

“I’ve started a follow-on novel in which Lillian’s son’s life intersects with a hotel owner from Hastings in Spain in 1968, the year of student protests in Europe and anti-war protests in the US. Hopefully it will soon be possible to fly to Spain for some location research. For now I’m relying on memories of my first visit to Benidorm in the 1960s when Benidorm had had an unfinished promenade and very little highrise – not the Benidorm we know today.”

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Friday, 18 June 2021

What I'm reading: Retribution and romance in modern-day India

ANIL NIJHAWAN: A cobra's bite doesn't hurt

Told in the first-person, this is the story of Kalu, a fatherless boy in twenty-first-century India abandoned by his mother. After a brutal orphanage childhood he falls in, like Oliver Twist, with a pick-pocketing gang in Bangalore. Then he escapes to Kolkata and a more independent life, still stealing but making new friends, including a higher-caste sweetheart and an elderly teacher to whom Kalu plays Cupid, attempting to reunite him with a youthful love lost to time and circumstance.

As well as romance, the novel contains some grim retributive violence. Echoes of Dickensian London abound, not just in the criminal underworld but with the unsparing portrayal of the harshness of life for India’s dispossessed. The writing is contemporary, with a lot of profanity, but the dynamic pace makes for an unputdownable if harrowing read.

Friday, 4 June 2021

LILLIAN's BlogTour hits the USA

Thursday, 3 June 2021

What I'm reading: Space opera with echoes of DUNE

Elaine Graham-Leigh: THE CADUCA

It’s been a while since I read any science fiction or fantasy. I have fond memories of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series and also John Norman’s naughty un-PC Gor chronicles. Now Elaine Graham-Leigh has taken me to another vividly realized corner of the universe.

Centuries into the future and many millions of miles across our galaxy, the planet Benan Ty is an Earth-colony ruled by a not-quite-benevolent dictator. The ViaVera guerrillas are trying to launch an insurrection. And the galaxy’s most powerful nation, the blue-skinned Chi!me (that rogue exclamation mark is the author’s, not mine!), send an untested female envoy, Quila, to broker a peace deal. Fate crosses Quila’s path with that of Terise, a woman at the heart of ViaVera. Oppression and betrayal generate tension throughout this epic story. The messianic figure of the ‘Caduca’ provides a faint hope for the very distant future.

Colonial power versus revolution: this is as much a major backdrop to sci-fi as it has been to the annals of our own planet. I sometimes felt that the Vietnam War was being re-orchestrated in all its grim glory. Elaine Graham-Leigh gives her faraway colony and her two female protagonists a rich and believable history. There are echoes of Frank Herbert’s magisterial Dune saga, which sets Graham-Leigh up there with the giants of the genre.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

What I'm reading: Dark deeds at the Vatican

Daniel Silva: THE ORDER

We’ve met Pope Paul VII before: Daniel Silva’s fictional successor to John Paul II, he has survived several assaults on the Vatican, all thwarted by Israeli master-spy Gabriel Allon. Holidaying in Venice when His Holiness dies of a supposed stroke, Gabriel is invited to investigate the possibility that the pontiff was murdered by enemies within the Church who are plotting to manipulate the conclave that will elect his successor. A secret gospel has been discovered in the archives which could undermine Catholicism’s foundations.

There are brief excursions to Florence, Zurich and Hitler’s old “roost” in Berchtesgaden, but most of the action takes place in Rome where a right-wing coup threatens not just the papacy, but the governments of Italy and other EU states. “The backbiting bureaucrats of the Curia” are disturbingly credible. Silva reminds us that the Vatican has a dismal history with the Jewish nation, dating all the way back to the crucifixion of Christ. Let’s not forget that Pius XII cosied up to Mussolini and Hitler and avoided harsh condemnation of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Pope John Paul I: was he murdered?
Alternative gospels and dark doings in the Holy See have provided fodder for historians and many other writers of fiction (including Dan Brown – twice!). There was much speculation that John Paul I, Pope for only 33 days in 1978, was murdered by rogue cardinals; this theory provided part of the plot of Francis Ford Coppola’s third Godfather movie.

Outlandish as it ought to be, The Order has the ring of believability; it’s almost as pacy as a Bond film. This is the most enthralling thriller I’ve read since Gabriel Allon’s previous misadventure and is unlikely to be equalled until his next one.