A.B. Gayle's Reviews > The Buckland-in-the-Vale and Sandstone Tor Gay Book Club

The Buckland-in-the-Vale and Sandstone Tor Gay Book Club by John  Wiltshire
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it was amazing

After a reread and loving it even more, I feel better equipped to share in more detail why I like this so much. I don't usually reveal plot in my reviews but will in this case, so beware. Many spoilers ahead.

The book starts off with the luridly, lycra-clad and openly gay school teacher, Rory, seeing a sign inviting people to the inaugural meeting of a gay book club.

Seeing he thought he was the only gay man in a quiet, country village on Dartmoor, he's overjoyed at the opportunity to meet other gay men. Not in a bar, where hooking up for sex is the major preoccupation, but discussing books! Because literature and books are Rory's passion.

It's not until the next chapter that we discover that it is actually a club devoted to reading gay books.

Thus we meet Gertrude who becomes another of John's classic characters, on par with Miles Toogood's grandmother and Babushka from his More Heat than the Sun series. All are fiercely independent elderly ladies who are much loved and respected by the main protagonists and their “adopted” children.

Gert, we discover much later, is single because she didn't know Adam's father, Brian, was himself gay. Back in those days they never mentioned or even envisaged such a thing. Men were “confirmed bachelors”.
“Perhaps I wouldn’t have wasted the best years of my life chasing you if they had. I’d have realised why you ran so fast.”
Brian stared at her for a long time but only replied calmly, “Perhaps I’d have known why I was running.”
So when she comes across some steamy gay novels while on holidays, she's fascinated and decides they're just the thing to brighten the lives of the “old dears” back home. From the titles, “Hard Ride” and “Deep Tunnel” we can assume the books are probably erotica or porn of the James Lear variety.
”Was it possible she had discovered something entirely new? Was she the only woman in the world who had read such a book and...Gertrude was thrown, which was a new occurrence for her. She'd been pretty sure of things for most of her eighty years. She wasn't convinced she liked this sensation of standing on the edge of something so tantalising and far beyond her expectations.
Gert and her companion, Ivy, have referred to themselves and their friends as the old dears for over forty years. According to the dedication these characters are inspired by women in a real book club who are friends (and possibly relatives) of the author. Mostly widows or spinsters, the old dears are asset rich, thanks to the growing value of their properties, but dirt poor. We discover later that one cannot afford to keep buying hearing aids and another uses an old push bike for balance instead of a walking frame.

It's through Gert's eyes that we meet the rest of the group: Constance, Jane, Ivy, Mary, Myrtle, Hilary and Thea. Each is a fabulous character in their own right. Whose strengths and weaknesses are well known to Gert as she has known them for so long.

Gert is an integral part of the story. She admits to herself that
she would not have wanted anyone to interfere with her unrequited courtship. Her time on Earth, with all its petty frustrations, had worked out for her as it had been ordained. It was wrong to interfere in other people’s affairs. Which was why she and the old dears were treading so carefully with Adam and Rory.
however, she is also very aware of the march of time.
Things seemed to be closing in on her, time running out, and she felt a frustrating imperative about opportunities slipping away. If only these young men, still in their twenties, could see how short life was, how few opportunities anyone had to simply live each day to the full.
Using devious tactics, one borrowed from Sun Tzu's “The Art of War” she does what she can to encourage a relationship between the two gay men who unexpectedly join their meeting. Because
Rory and Adam were the embodiment of gay book romance. They had the main necessary ingredient after all:mutual initial apathy
Mind you, this antipathy is not exclusive to gay romances. Think Elizabeth and Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”!

So, after an unfortunate start, she even sets up a sub group, with just the old dears called the Adam and Rory RPS Club (Real person slash for the uninitiated).

I loved that Adam and Rory were accepted so unequivocally. There was no resentment at these two men turning up. They were welcomed with open arms because, after all, don't gay men have a right to be part of a club that discusses books about them?
Gertrude had not expected her book club to do much more than pass a few winter's evenings for her ladies in pleasant company, sharing a newfound delight in theoretical men and their intriguing love lives. She'd had no idea that two characters would literally walk off the pages and come to her first meeting. Todd and Brad and Danny and Jimmy and all of her favourites mixed up and even prettier, yet solid and in the flesh, and she had literally bumped into them as they'd hovered in the doorway like the helpess creatures they were.
From then on, seating arrangements, cups of tea and biscuits were skilfully brought in to achieve certain results. Because
Oh, what delicate, shy, creations they were, men, when you got beneath the leather and the strut. She'd actually smelt the fear.
What hope did Adam and Rory have?

Rory, “the very pretty one” identifies strongly with Hugh Dancy and Grigg, the character he played in the film The Jane Austen Book Club. Rory loves books with a passion and longs for a bookworthy romance. He wants his Heathcliff (Wuthering Heigts), his Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd) ”whenever you look up there I shall be—and whenever I look up, there will be you.” He knows that life is not like a romance book, but he fervently wishes it was.

For years, he'd dreamed of being a teacher and sharing his love of books with children. However, he is quickly becoming disillusioned with his career.
Teaching English to Year Ten wasn’t fun. Not difficult, merely…lacklustre. The Department for Education had apparently decided anything intellectual and actually related to an education in English literature was too fraught with cultural elitism to attempt. The set book this year, consequently, was a gang-related graphic novel. Year Ten enjoyed colouring in the pictures though.
Added to this is his inability to understand or cope with another teacher, Lexi.

While the book is very funny in places, I didn't laugh at Lexi, and I don't think the reader is meant to. I've decided I must still be stuck in the second tier of feminism as described in this article. I also think that you can stand up for your rights without impugning those of others or being downright hostile to the opposite gender. My attitude is always that no one has the right to be rude. Old, young, male, female, fat, skinny, rich or poor. So when Lexi said things like this:
Rory nodded and debated volunteering to carry her heavy book bag for her. Sometimes she accepted these offers gracefully, but sometimes he got a lecture on insidious male benevolent sexism, and she would accuse him of thinking of her as incompetent or needing his protection.
and from her partner, Susan
he was nothing more than a biological accident. When his stunned expression had been mistaken for defiance, Susan had added that in her opinion he was a walking, talking deficiency disease. Lexi had saved him by explaining he was gay.
Yet, knowing he was gay, Lexi still shamed him into handing out pamphlets entitled “Our Culture Perpetuates Violence Against Women” and “Male Violence on the Increase” while during Rape Culture awareness Day at the school he had to stand under a banner proclaiming “Violent-Masculinity and Victim Blaming”. Her style of rabid feminism is not shared by all females, as evidenced in this article

Her rudeness extended to belittlement of him for daring to be skinny.
She was particularly vocal about thin privilege (#thinprivilege), which she accused him of daily, citing many examples of how he shamed those who were obviously equally fit and healthy but nevertheless discriminated against in the workplace by virtue of being fortunate enough to be fat.
and
she commented on his cycling shorts. They were oppressive apparently, and it was thoughtless of him to parade around in them, given they only made such attire for skinny people.
It's interesting comparing her to his treatment of Peyton and Miles in More Heat than the Sun series. Both characters are overweight, but neither use this as an excuse for anything and neither are ever rude.

Lexi, on first meeting Adam, the other MC, immediately launches into an aggressive diatribe on the way women should be able to serve on the front lines in the army regardless of the fact that they do not share a male's physical capabilities. According to her, the rules should be changed to suit them. She doesn't get Adam's sarcasm in wondering whether the rules of engagement will also change to match it.

Ah, Adam. If ever there was an anti hero it's him. He starts out by insulting Rory when they first meet, inadvertantly punches him at the first book club meeting and then, at every opportunity tries to prove to him that getting involved in a relationship with him would be a BAD IDEA. He doesn't do romantic, He isn't nice. He's only interested in sex. And Rory should look elsewhere.

Yet despite all this, we keep seeing signs that this is all surface bluster. Underneath he's yearning for a connection as much as Rory is. Gert sees through his bluster immediately, because she knows about his tragic past. She doesn't know the full extent of the tragedies however and the self blame he is heaping on himself.

Adam left the army because of this tragic incident and is deliberately rejecting all the things that reminds him of his time there. After years of inspection and maintaining rigorous standards, he deliberately doesn't clean the house and takes no care in his appearance. But he's finding it difficult
Step by step, he’d decoupled himself from the army and all it had meant to him. A conscious survival mechanism to turn from something he could no longer have to something he needed to become: squalor in the house, foulness of mood, existing on anger and self-pity.
...But it was so hard to let go, to be so much less than he had once been. To be so diminished.
He likes to think he's a bad ass and then does things like this:
Unwilling to disturb his father by dragging three very reluctant collies back out to the yard, he gave them each a pat and tickle of rebuke then left them to it.
and he takes an instant liking to Charles, the frail husband of one of the old dears whose acting abilities are called into play one day
He lifted the old man, making a small joke about them having to stop meeting like this and tucked him in securely.
and it's not just the males he helps. When he comes across Fat Sam, the pet he had left behind
Adam put his hands on either side of the old dog’s face and felt an emotion so overwhelming he thought he might cry. He covered by gently play wrestling the silky ears.
But Rory is incensed that Adam left Fat Sam behind when he left Sandhurst. In fact, he discovers that
Being with Adam was like rolling in barbed wire—extremely uncomfortable yet increasingly entangling. Struggle for your life, or stay still and twist in the wind, either way there seemed no escape.
Because, even though they both know it will probably end in tears (for different reasons) they're drawn to one another. True humor occurs when Gert and the old dears try to help but often end up hindering their inevitable coming together.

But the old dears stick with both the book club and their efforts to get the two together. Rory suggests different books for their reading and they indulge him by agreeing. First off, Brokeback Mountain (which they found too short and wanted a happy ending) then a fictitious series which they loved, starring a librarian, Andrew French, and a homophobic detective called Jack (obviously based on Josh Lanyon's Adrien English!).

Adam, obviously uncomfortable at the similarities between him and Jake had been scathing of the series and after Adam's inexcusable behaviour at Sandhurst, Rory also rejects the series as "silly and unrealistic" and suggests instead they read The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren as the ending was much more realistic.
The (old dears were) willing to take his recommendations, of course, and lovely Andrew and amusing Jack were therefore put to one side.
But death intervened and securing their future became paramount.

How this was achieved was probably more for literary suspense than fulfilling a feminist agenda, but it had the added benefit of leaving them with cash for possible future health issues rather than once again being asset rich and cash poor.

There's no doubt that Adam and Rory wouldn't have got together without the intervention of the old dears, but I loved the way there was no intrusive or insensitive manipulation. If any happened, it was inadvertant and forgiven because Adam and Rory knew they meant well and wanted only the best for them. Everything was done through understanding of what makes people tick. Of seeing what was unsaid as well as what was said. Of treating people with respect for what they did rather than what they demanded. And if Adam or Rory fucked up and acted badly, then they tried to discover why.

The writing is a delight as usual. Sometimes his books need to be read twice to enure you haven't missed things. This time, although there's a trademark John Wiltshire dog, it's really the old dears who steal the book. Especially as they espouse that great British tradition of self deprecation and the ability to laugh at their problems.

More importantly, the financial security and support of Adam and Rory as a team, has left the old dears in a position to add another type of distraction to fill their days. The Buckland-in-the-Vale and Sandstone Tor Murder-Mystery Club

I'm really looking forward to reading that.
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Brigitte Great review. You totally nailed it.


A.B. Gayle Thanks, Brigitte.


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