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Amazir by Tom Gamble

Plus a FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY – read (or skip …) to the end for details.

Amazir Most years, the announcement of the shortlist for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year award generates little more than a sedate ripple of interest in the media. This year, however, when the identities of the six shortlisted authors were revealed, the Press Association’s Wire service spread the news around the world and within hours people in the most remote corners of the globe knew that one of the shortlistees was – shock-horror – A MAN. Yes, one of those people who buy their shirts by collar size and can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want the offside rule explained to them.

Amazir – A Novel of Morocco was written by former soldier, businessman and (briefly) rough-sleeper Tom Gamble.

Curious to see if the male approach to writing romances differed from the female one, Moira got her hands on a copy, then compared notes with Jay Benedict, one of the judges of this year’s award …

~~~ : oOo :~~~

MB: As a bit of an intro – Amazir is – very basically – the story of two men, an American and an Englishman, who first meet in Gibraltar in 1938. The Englishman, Harry Summerfield, is en route for Spain to fight in the Civil War but is talked out of it by the American – Jim Wilding – and travels with him to Morocco instead, where they part company. At this point, an enigmatic Moroccan named Abrach enters Summerfield’s life, engaging him to write love letters to a French schoolgirl – à la Cyrano de Bergerac. That young woman – Jeanne – is the pivot around whom the entire novel turns; the focus of the attentions of Summerfield, Wilding and Abrach.

The very first thing that hit me about Amazir was how atmospheric it was … Morocco is conjured up so evocatively that you can almost smell it and taste it.

JB: I liked this book a lot. I hitch-hiked across Morocco in 1968 – rucksack on my back, sleeping on hotel roofs for 10 centimes, staring at the stars, drinking all that delicious mint tea with giant rocks of sugar in tall glasses … I too hung out with the Berbers in the Atlas mountains for a while and was also rounded up and thrown into prison for the weekend in Tangiers when Hassan II was de passage. When Summerfield gets rounded up by the French colonial police and beaten up, the exact same thing happened to me, only by the Arab police, in my case. A bit like the Belgians in the Congo, the French passed on all their worse traits to their Arab brothers. In other words the sins of the parents were definitely passed onto their children. We were left in an open courtyard for the weekend to freeze at night and bake during the day, with no food and no explanation other than the King didn’t want to see any ‘hippie’ foreigners on the street, despite the fact that we were all wearing djellabahs and trying desperately to blend in.  Much like Summerfield in the book, round about page 71, it painfully didn’t work!

That entire description in the book pretty much happened to me:  the anger, the violence, the Gendarmes demanding ’Papiers!’.  “The smell of eau de Cologne and sweat wafting from khaki uniforms….”  I was transported right back there. The historical accuracy, the French language and Arab culture all ring true.

MB: I thought that was probably the case – it all ‘felt’ right, even though I’ve never set foot in North Africa. I was also very impressed by his handle on colonialism, and the extraordinary (to us) mind set of the colonial ‘masters’ who didn’t see anything wrong in treating the native inhabitants like second-class citizens in their own country. And the book isn’t just set in the approach to the Second World War, it’s also set just 15 years before Morocco finally gained its independence. All of which makes a slightly unusual setting for a ‘romance’ – although I’m not really sure the term fits the book that comfortably. It’s written mostly from Summerfield’s perspective – we see the world through his eyes for a good part of the time – and given the fact that the author knows quite lot about being an Englishman in Morocco himself that’s not too surprising. But it took me a while to adjust to it – the male character/s being more prominent (and I have to say more convincing) than the female ones, which veered very slightly towards – not quite caricature, more – I don’t know. I think I felt they were just slightly sketchy. But then, probably, a man reading a romance written by a woman feels the same way about the male characters in those?

JB: He writes sex very well though. Warm bellies pressed against groins, noble erections, at the same time making analogies with water coming to the boil as the Gendarmes are knocking at his door once more.  The reader is kept on his toes at all times: it’s romance but mixed with action/adventure, which in my mind makes it different. It’s certainly a lot more graphic than any of the other romantic novels I’ve read of late, and that’s definitely male.  It’s not gratuitous and overdone but just right, sensitive even.

As well as being part The Go-Between (think Joseph Losey…) and part Cyrano he’s also part Laurence of Arabia;  he goes native, and you sort of go with it.  There’s nothing else he can do after all when he gets taken hostage. Think John Macarthy, Terry Waite etc … they came back full of compassion. Summerfield has a lot of character development;  his relationship with Jeanne   changes through the book and he finds the adult in himself – which is, after all, what was missing in the beginning, and was indeed noted after their first exchange. This is terrific stuff.

If anything, it goes on too long with endless description of the Atlas Mountains in all their seasons especially towards the end.  He needed a good editor to make it a tighter narrative. It was too long rather like Passage to India. You know, once you climax you don’t need the extra 100 pages ….

MB: So to speak … Well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree about the sex. I didn’t think it was written badly by any means, but I did slightly question his understanding of the female sexual response. At least once, I found myself thinking “You what? However did THAT happen?” – and he really, really needs to find a few more words to describe the relevant anatomical ‘bits’ – he used the phrase ‘his sex’ and ‘her sex’ over and over and over again. It all got a bit monotonous for this reader. But you’re right that it wasn’t gratuitous – it was plot-driven – and I’ve certainly read a lot worse. It’s interesting though, that it worked for you and not for me … Almost certainly a result of it having been written by a man, I suspect.

Completely agree that the book needed a good editor, though. I felt it would have benefited from being about 50 pages shorter. It wasn’t that the descriptions were badly done – quite the opposite – but they slowed the narrative. When you really wanted to know what happened next you were ploughing through yet another description of the scenery – which is a shame, because the narrative itself cracks along at a tremendous pace, and unusually – perhaps again because it was written by a man – I wasn’t at all sure where it was headed, who was going to survive, who was going to die messily and whether anyone at all was going to get to live happily ever after. It didn’t quite fit the standard ‘romance’ format. I liked that. And I particularly liked the character development – the way Summerfield and Jeanne’s feelings for each other subtly shifted through the course of the book – and the growth of his understanding of, and respect for, the Berbers – it was almost another love story in its own right.

And running through it all, of course, is a fascinating but grim bit of history – the view of the war from North Africa – the fall of France, the Vichy government – De Gaulle in exile. All terrifically well done.

JB: Speaking of grim history I can’t help but noticing that the missions civilizatrices the French and English and every other colonial power ever embarked on leave nothing but confusion in the end. The English in India for example, I mentioned the Belgians earlier – and the French in Viet-Nam/Algeria/Morrocco,  etc.  Their collective legacy usually left a worse one in place. The late 60s was no better than the 1940s as I recall.  Gamble really captures that WW2 chaos brilliantly and to me the characters ring true right down to Jeanne’s petty bourgeois parents and all those Berbers in the mountains. The only let down, we’re agreed, is in the editing – but we disagree about “the rise and fall of her ribs and the inexorable synchronicity of their movements”?  Great read all the same.

MB:  I don’t think there’s anything I could possibly add to that …

Beautiful Books.  2010.  ISBN: 978-1905636976.  538pp.

GIVEAWAY:  For a chance to win a copy of Amazir (and make up your own mind about all that ‘inexorable synchronicity’ …) just post a comment, asking to be entered in the draw. The winner will be the first name out of the hat on Wednesday the 11th of May.

(The eventual winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2011 was Jojo Moyes’ The Last Letter from Your Lover – and you can read Jay’s review of it HERE.)

22 comments on “Amazir by Tom Gamble

  1. Kate Lace
    May 4, 2011

    Have to disagree with you about this book. I found the interest of 3 grown men in young Jeanne all a bit tacky and I never really liked any of the blokes so it made it hard for me to care about the outcome. I too have been to Morocco – without the added bonus of being arrested – and thought his descriptions atmospheric. Do agree about the need for a tough edit, though. It really did drag in places! As I’ve read it, I’ll pass on being entered for the draw

  2. Gemma Sidney
    May 4, 2011

    Sounds like an interesting book, please enter me in the draw! Thanks in advance.

  3. Hilary
    May 4, 2011

    It does sound rather like a book that bears out that splendid line (from Dr Johnson? Must check – he gets the blame for a lot of smart one liners): ‘Read your work through very carefully, and if you come upon a passage that you think remarkably fine, strike it out.” However, I’m delighted that the RNA Pure Passion award casts its net for romantic fiction so wide.

    Fascinating to have Jay’s viewpoint on the Morocco setting, from one with that first hand experience – and also to have a male perspective on the impact of the sex scenes, followed as night follows day by a – let’s say – an alternative female viewpoint. I’m interested as it’s not common to hear from a man how authentic the writing about sex seem to him.

    Great, lively double act review – thank you!

  4. rosyb
    May 4, 2011

    It sounds like a book with lots of added extra themes and not cliched ones which is refreshing. However, Jay, how can you possibly think the terms:
    “‘his sex’ and ‘her sex’ ” ok for sex scenes? Those terms just make me squirm. Surely noone in real life uses them, do they? Whatever way you go – more blunt anglosaxon or more…err…poetic – there can be no excuse for the his n hers “sexes”. Surely?

    Fun piece. The thing about whether men can write women and women men believably fascinates me. We must do another piece on that sometime.

  5. Linda B
    May 4, 2011

    Very interesting dialog about what sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the giveaway.

    May 4, 2011

    Well Rosy, there is a bit of his and hers ‘sex’ in the book but you can also find the ‘C’ word if that suits your blunt anglo-saxon side a liitle better on page 257. There’s also poetic,”She came with a cry like a note of music and called out his name..” It’s not Henry Miller or Frank Harris but he’s writing in a romantic/adventure setting and I think on the whole,which I know can sometimes be an awkward place, he hits the right notes.

  7. Moira
    May 4, 2011

    A BIT of his and her ‘sex’? A BIT?! Be grateful that my copy of the book is somewhere between houses at the moment, or I’d jolly well get it out and spend the rest of the evening counting the occurrences … And yes, I really can be that much of an anorak. Hmmph.

    I suppose it’s actually a bit of a back-handed compliment. If I hadn’t enjoyed it so much that I read it in a very short space of time (it’s a chunky book and I despatched it in about 5 days of evening-and-train-journey-only reading) the repetition might not have been so obvious.

    Picking up on Catherine’s comments – I can’t honestly say I ever really viewed it that way at all – a young girl and three predatory older men – I thought it was a bit more subtle than that. The relationships came about naturally as a result of the story … And while I didn’t exactly warm to either Summerfield or Wilding (neither of whom exactly fit the ‘romantic hero’ mould), I did find them interesting and well-drawn characters and wanted to know how it would end for them. Perhaps it’s because – as I said in the review – I didn’t really view the book as a ‘romance’ … and in some ways, what was going on around them was more interesting than they were themselves – for me at least.

    I’d also like to hear from anyone who’s been to Morocco and HASN’T been arrested …

  8. kirstyjane
    May 4, 2011

    While I will – and I’m sorry to say this – probably avoid this book like the plague, I LOVE this review.

  9. JoV
    May 4, 2011

    I’m a Moroccan lit aficionado also because my extended family are Moroccan. Finished reading “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles last week and wouldn’t mind to be included for the draw.

    Thanks for hosting this.

  10. Jackie
    May 4, 2011

    I really must take umbrage at the idea of graphic sex scenes being due to a male author. Have you not read Nora Roberts? Pick up just about any of her novels & you’ll find very graphic descriptions of sex scenes. And as far as I know, none of her women have climaxed in a manner resembling elephants as the “musical note” quote reminds me of.
    This review was entertaining, as I knew it would be and leaves me curious about how I’d respond to the story. I really like the cover, it’s quite atmospheric.

  11. annebrooke
    May 4, 2011

    Oh, lordy – great review, but the musical orgasm?!? The mind – and everything else indeed – boggles 🙂 I think I might try for “Nessun Dorma” the next time I …. um, sorry, maybe I’ll stop right there!!


  12. Moira
    May 4, 2011

    Ah no, Jax … I think you’ve misinterpreted what was said. No-one was implying that the graphic sex was a result of the gender of the author – modern romantic fiction is more and more likely to leave very little to the imagination, whatever the arrangement of the author’s chromosomes. We were actually bickering (everso slightly) over the WAY it was written. What’s interesting is that it worked for Jay and not so well for me – and that probably IS a result of Tom being Tom and not Tamsin. It stands to reason that men and women are likely to ‘write’ sex in slightly different ways.

    But I don’t want to harp on about it … because there’s so much more to the book than that – although I agree with Rosy that it’s an interesting area to explore.

  13. Jackie
    May 4, 2011

    But Jay says “It’s certainly a lot more graphic than any of the romantic novels I’ve read of late and that’s definitely male.”

    May 5, 2011

    I think we’re getting off the main point. The book is a great ‘read’. Yes, we can nit pick about the sexual content, the editing of the book etc… The fact is,Amazir is a totally plausible story, set in exotic Marocco not some sinister conspiracy against women in general and some vile ‘ménage a quatre’…We’re getting way off beam here. It’s a character driven piece up to a point so there are several narratives to follow,which makes it layered and more complex than the norm, then the narrative gets overtaken by events beyond their control ie WW2 and this is where the story gets more graphic but in every sense, the kidnapping, the change in character to all of them, the sex included, but I’m talking degrees here, not Nora Roberts etc…The book in no way resembles Sexus Plexus and Nexus.The ‘sex’ is part of a much greater story let’s not get bogged down in semantics.Actually better still, read the book!

  15. Alison M.
    May 6, 2011

    I’m game to give it a go, so please enter me in the draw.

  16. elizabethashworth
    May 6, 2011

    Yes, I will read this book. The entertaining review from Jay and Moira (what a double act!) and the following comments have made me want to read it for myself and make up my own mind. Please put my name down for the prize draw.

  17. Nikki
    May 8, 2011

    This review made me grin, so for that reason alone I’m interested in reading this. I love a book that has a real sense of atmosphere and a true sense of place.

  18. jenged
    May 8, 2011

    Altho’ I don’t think the books going to be as entertaining as the review I’d like to be entered for the drawer please, if you ship to the US. You two are a great double act but I’m not sure which is the straightman!

  19. Moira
    May 8, 2011

    Jenged – we certainly will ship to the US and, indeed, to anywhere else that’ll let us through the door – and you’ve been duly entered into the draw.

    As to which of us is the straight man – ¿Quién sabe?

    May 9, 2011

    A double act, also known as a comedy duo, is a comic pairing in which humor is derived from the uneven relationship between two partners, usually of the same gender, age, ethnic origin and profession.None of which apply to either Moira or myself
    Most often, however, the humor in a double act comes from the way the two personalities play off each other rather than the individuals themselves- In many successful acts the roles are interchangeable.That’s my take on it anyway!

  21. Moira
    May 12, 2011

    No, of COURSE I didn’t forget about the draw. I mean, would I?

    AND THE WINNER IS (pause for drum roll and fanfare …) – Alison M!.

    Congratulations – and commiserations to everyone else – I’m emailing you for your contact details.

  22. Tom Gamble
    May 20, 2011

    Hello there, thought I’d add a second male voice to that of Jay’s! This is interesting debate and surprising to me given that I thought most of it would centre around the political, cultural and religious issues involved in the book – which just goes to show that when it comes to the crunch us humans tend to focus on the things that really matter! For the sex (should I say “love”?) scenes in the book, I suppose I wanted to be truthful when writing Amazir. Truthful from both a male perspective and also from a female perspective. Sex is one of life’s greater gifts and it reaches a highpoint of spirituality when deep and altruistic love comes into play. Having talked to many women friends and exchanged views on the subject, I wanted Jeanne, the KC, to break with “what one is allowed to say” and what actually occurs – i.e. when a woman truly loves, she actually loves totally, carnally, blindly and truthfully. There’s a lot of deep-rooted instinct in our hearts and bodies that we’re still, in the 21st century (!!) hiding the truth from. As for Raja, the second female “love” in the book, I wanted to show how a northern African approach to love/sex was different, a little like the West’s in the past – time and protocol and sparring just as important in the build up as the act itself. But “sex isn’t (almost) everything”, as Jay points out. Amazir’s not “romantic fiction” as such, I don’t think. The only way of knowing….read it! By the way – an original review, lively and fun. The constructive criticism I’ve picked up is a gift for the next book! Thanks. PS: I’d forgotten there was a “musical” orgasm in there – are you sure?

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