Despite everything being pretty terrifying outside, we're in a pretty golden age when it comes to conversations about sexuality and gender. Growing up in the 90's and early noughties, finding books I could relate to as a gay kid was really bloody hard. Prior to online shopping being much of a thing, I didn't dare ask in bookshops for books that had gay themes - so I was left with occasional glances at a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover (which, heterosexual sex scenes aside, is really quite dull) to fulfill initial curiosity - and it was only through chance that I discovered Patrick Gale, who was the first author whose works I truly fell in love with, and who allowed me to discover a positive life for those of alternative sexualities, outside of the small town in which I grew up.
Thankfully, with the rise in popularity of Young Adult fiction today, there is a huge amount of material out there which allows young people to explore and discover different sexualities and gender identities - and I can't think of a better example than Heartstopper by Alice Oseman.
Back in 2016 (4 years ago, when we could do things like see friends and go to the pub. Ah...), Alice Oseman began writing Heartstopper as a web comic. Skip forward to 2018, and Heartstopper began becoming available in Graphic Novel form - with volume 3 released earlier this year.
Heartstopper is the tale of Charlie and Nick - two boys at the same school. They've never met, until the two are forced to sit together in class - and, from there, romance grows... Over the three volumes that are out so far, you watch the boys grow together, meet their friends, families and teachers, and genuinely feel part of their lives. It's rare that I become quite so invested in fictional characters, but there's something very real about Charlie and Nick that sucks you in, and I can't deny that I feel a real sense of connection with this tale of gay love at school - I was in the closet for most of my time at school but certainly felt the pangs of adolescent love.
Whilst some of you may roll your eyes at the fact that this is another love story about two cisgendered white guys - the accompanying cast are varied, diverse, and fully fleshed out, with a whole range of subplots that are massively entertaining, but also completely relevant to what young people are, I believe, going through today - although I should point out that it's going on for 15 years since I was in school!
These books are gorgeous - beautifully drawn and it's clear that creator Alice Oseman has a huge amount of love for these characters - they first appeared in her novel Solitaire. which I've not read but is very much top of my pile! I'm excited and cautious about Charlie and Nick's future - I know wherever they go, they'll be dealt with huge amounts of care, but also huge amounts of truth - so I have a distinct feeling it's not going to be plain sailing for them...
Check out Heartstopper on Alice Oseman's website to see where you can read it, and where you can grab a copy, and enjoy. I certainly did.
It's a tricky time for everyone at the moment - and as a book fan it's hard to ignore quite how much Covid-19 has thrown the publishing world into disarray - publishing dates are being postponed, many independent bookshops have closed completely during this time, and a lot of people, myself included, struggled to concentrate on reading in this time of immense change and uncertainty. But, things are going to continue as they are for quite some time, and now my mental state has just about adjusted to our "new normal", I wanted to take a look at a book that came out on the 19th of March - so pretty much as all of this kicked off. It's a brilliant read that deserves to be shared - so let me tell you a little bit about it.
Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, appears hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise. Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy, or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend - the list of stars whose careers burned bright, long before the Age of Television, is extensive and thrillingly varied.
Greg Jenner is a historian, broadcaster, author, and an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he does occasional teaching. I've been listening to Greg Jenner for a while now, as his BBC Comedy podcast "You're Dead to Me" has proved hugely eye-opening and exciting both for history buffs like me, and for friends who perhaps haven't been so keen on history in the past. The podcast allows anyone to discover fascinating facts about historical figures - but the way it's set up means that those who maybe got put off history after a bored teacher repeated dates to them ad infinitum, will hopefully have a new interest sparked by the compelling way in which the tales are told.
Telling people's stories in a compelling fashion is clearly something that Jenner excels at - and in Dead Famous he's able to combine an overarcing study of the way celebrity has grown and changed over the centuries, with intimate glimpses into the lives of those who have been raised up and celebrated for a huge variety of reasons - both good and bad.
Jenner is the historical consultant to the brilliant Horrible Histories tv show, and it's clear that he has a telent for comedy as well as history, with witty asides peppered throughout the book. It works well - this is clearly a hugely well researched piece of work, but the warmth and humour ensures that it doesn't read like a dry textbook - it has a clear focus, and the compellingly human lives that Jenner resurrects on these pages ensure that it's a page turner - he skillfully weaves fascinating facts throughout every single page, leaving me with a long sheet of people I'm keen to do more research on.
Books that combine history with humour can, in my experience, occasionally err on the side of cruelty - poking fun at the figures they reference in order to entertain readers. That certainly isn't the case here - Jenner allows fact to speak for itself with little room for harsh judgements - and that ensures that Dead Famous is a compelling piece of social history that educates just as much as it entertains - it's one of the best history books I've read in some time.
If it sounds like your cup of tea, - grab a copy where you can, and check out "You're Dead to Me" whereever you get your podcasts. The author has also just started a history podcast called Homeschool History that aims to get children interested in history during this rather difficult time - if you're in the UK it should be available on the BBC Sounds App.
Poland, 1980. Anxious, disillusioned Ludwik Glowacki, soon to graduate university, has been sent along with the rest of his class to an agricultural camp. Here he meets Janusz, and together they spend a dreamlike summer swimming in secluded lakes, reading forbidden books - and falling in love.
But with summer over, the two are sent back to Warsaw, and to the harsh realities of life under the Party. Exiled from paradise, Ludwik and Janusz must decide how they will survive, but their different choices risk tearing them apart.
Author Tomasz Jedrowski was born in West Germany to Polish parents, and studied law at Cambridge and the Universite de Paris. He currently lives in France. Swimming in the Dark is his first novel, and my god - what a novel it is!
James Baldwin's sublime Giovanni's Room is a key touchstone of this novel, and the two share a lot - not only themes of queer love and escape, but both are exquisetely beautiful reads full of desire, discovery, and the bittersweet pain of first love.
Whilst the Gay love story is what drew me to pick this book up, the setting is just as fascinating - taking place in Poland in 1980, and allowing the reader a glimpse into the beginnings of the turmoil that, 9 years later, saw the Polish Worker's Party fall and Poland move into a full market economy.
I like to think my historical knowledge is pretty good, but I'm woefully under informed when it comes to Poland, so it was fascinating to have such an in-depth glimpse into the country's past. In terms of tone and setting I was reminded a little of An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson - one of my favourite books of 2019, and one that also deals with a gay love story under an opressive regime. However my knowledge of german history is decent, so that book was perhaps slightly less enlightening for me on that front - whereas Swimming in the Dark genuinely opened my eyes and has made me interested in the Poland of the mid to late twentieth century, helped hugely, I imagine, by the fact that the author was born to Polish parents who I imagine would have had first hand knowledge of some of the events and situations described in the book.
Jedrowski's prose truly envelops you in the story - I felt the warm summer haze of the initial chapters turn into the cold grey later in the book, and as a Gay man myself, I felt the emotional heart of this story incredibly deeply. I grew up under a far more accepting government in nineties england, but the themes that are explored here were easily related to stuff I went through as a teenager and a young adult, and, I imagine are fairly universal. I think I fell in love with Tomasz almost as much as Ludwik did - and that's a mark of how emotionally honest the author is in his writing.
My only real gripe with this book was that it wasn't longer - but that's a gripe that comes from pure selfishness - in truth it's a well balanced tale that's told with great care. I won't forget it in a hurry, and I'm eager to see what the author does next - he's certainly one to watch for me, and Swimming in the Dark is one of my favourite reads of 2020.
Does Magic Exist?
Charlie Watson thinks it does and he wants to tell you all about it. Before he was famous, Charlie Watson decided to write a book to share with the world everything he knew about Magic. This is that book. You will discover why Charlie always wears a Top Hat, why his house is full of Rabbits, how Magic Wands are made, how the Universe began, and much, much more. Plus, for the first time, Charlie tells of the strange events that led him from England to the Arctic, to perform the Extraordinary Feat that made him famouse, and he finally reveals whether that Extraordinary Feat was Magic or whether it was just a trick.
Author Mike Russell was born in 1973. As a child he enjoyed daydreaming, art, and writing strange stories, and as an adult he enjoys daydreaming, art, and writing strange stories...
His books have been described as Strange Fiction, Weird Fiction, Weird Lit, Surrealism, Magic Realism, Fantasy Fiction...but he just likes to call them Strange Books.
Mike is a full time author, and grows his own potatoes
Magic tells the story of Charlie Watson - a famous magician who has finally decided to tell all about his relationship and history with Magic. Famous for an incident in the Arctic, he regales the reader with tales of the first magician, an upside down top-hat, and a glimpse behind the scenes in a wand factory.
Charlie encounters magic, love and mystery throughout, and he speaks to the readers with an open, friendly voice that kept me engaged throughout. There are various twists and turns throughout, and Charlie is a handy guide through them for the reader - he's a hugely engaging character, and his distinct voice rings clear throughout.
In keeping with Mike Russell's previous work, and with the ethos of his publishing line, this truly is a Strange Book - but that strangeness is combined with heart and humour - quirky characterisation and an intriguing plot ensure that "Magic" is certainly strange - but also hugely readable and extremely enjoyable.
Strange Books are a beacon of individuality in the publishing world - long may that continue!