Merivel: A man of his time, by Rose Tremain

What better way to break a blogging hiatus than with Rose Tremain’s newest, wonderfully rich and gloriously intelligent novel – Merivel: A Man of his Time (Chatto & Windus).

Tremain returns to the characters, setting and time period of Restoration, her Booker-Short-listed novel of 1989. Having survived the Great Fire, Sir Robert Merivel lives in ease and relative luxury at Bidnold Manor in Norfolk, the estate gifted to him by King Charles II. It is now 1683 and he is provoked into activity with news that his daughter Margaret is leaving. He realises that life is passing him by.

The novel is shot through with self-deprecating irony and is Bunyanesque in style and structure: the action moves from “The Great Enormity” into “Captivity”, strengthened by the “Great Consolation” and through the “Great Transition”. The discovery of “The Wedge”, Merivel’s autobiography, forgotten beneath his mattress for nearly twenty years, usefully introduces his back story, as well as providing a link to his soul quest. He uses it to reflect on his earlier life of debauchery and deceit and to reveal his self-delusion. He travels to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles in an attempt to bring vitality and interest to his life but ends up living like a pauper within the Royal household. His journey is fraught with real and metaphorical dangers and he returns to London transporting a bear he names Clarendon. He reads Montaigne and Descartes and discusses Newtonian physics, William Harvey, and bemoans his “tendency to hypothesise” with amateur chemist, Madame Louise de Flamanville.

He plans to move to Switzerland but Merivel is drawn back to London to the dying King’s bedside where Time catches up with him. Can he change? The Wheel of Fortune turns full circle. He is older and wiser – Bidnold and the wider social and political climate have changed too.

Funny and wise; humane, Tremain pricks our social conscience as she did in Restoration. Merivel is a joy to read. It’s rich with intelligent insight into seventeenth-century history that gives it a texture beyond mere storytelling.

Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson spoke at the W&A conference last week – spoke so engagingly and movingly about the writing process and the process of getting a manuscript into her agent’s hands and then into print, that I needed to read it. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending on a review copy so promptly. 

It answers the question so often asked about why we go to book events – it’s because writers are thinkers. We engage with their thoughts and then want to read and digest how these are manifest on the page.

In this case, the book lives up to expectations and judging by the reviews and ratings on Good Reads it causes readers to think and reflect.

I reviewed it for We Love this Book (below) but the word count limit meant I had to leave out a lot I wanted to say about it – it’s about mothers and daughters, about being lost and finding yourself, about how we make up our lives and ourselves from those around us and from our family. But it also makes political points about cultural tourism and cultural engagements that are little more than surface dressings. Joinson is particularly good at giving her characters strong voices through their language choice, especially Eva, the protagonist, who has a very vivid imagination.  Read it, think about it. Even if you hate fractured narratives you can take it apart to see how Joinson cleverly puts it all together.

A flavour of the wonderful imagery:

The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. [p. 5]

As you can tell – it’s highly recommended!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)

ISBN 9781408825143, Hardback, £12.99

Straddling present-day England and Victorian China, Suzanne Joinson’s glorious debut switches easily between lives and times, between the immediacy of unbelieving missionary Evangeline [Eva] English’s first person journal disguised as ‘Notes’ towards her guidebook for lady travellers, and a third person narrator who charts the journey of another lost soul, Frieda Blakeman, who travels both to uncover the truth of Irene Guy, her mysterious benefactor, and, like Eva, to find herself.

Blind to cultural ‘difference’, zealous Millicent has a method of Christian conversion she calls ‘gossiping the gospel’ which leads Eva and her too-trusting sister Lizzie, who records everything on her Leica camera, into a danger from which neither passages from Bunyan and the Bible, nor unhelpful traveller guides, such as Burton and Shaw, can save them.

Frieda is unhappy with her job of making cultural connections across the globe and of her affair with married bicycle-shop owner Nathaniel. She finds Tayeb, a homeless, jobless, illegal immigrant fromYemen, asleep outside her front door and together they piece together her fragmented life. In their pairing, Joinson adds a further layer of complication to the tale.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is compelling and vividly realised through unforgettable characterisation and skilful plotting. Leitmotifs, such as birds, bones, and milk weave through strong imagery to create an original story about ‘the layering of different selves that create a life.’

*Cross-posted from We Love this Book

Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 [pt. 2]

A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’  ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake… 

Part 2

Bloomsbury’s best selling Christmas book of 2011 was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vegetarian cookbook titled River Cottage Veg Every Day which sold over 10000 copies. Impressive. Kerry Wilkinson – self-published author of the hugely popular Jessica Daniel police crime series, sold over 300000 copies of his books, including his debut, Locked In, over the final quarter of 2011, without the benefit or need for a large publicity department, print reviews, agent, or connections across the publishing world.

How did he do it? Does this mean writers don’t need an agent or a publisher?

Kerry took us through the process of uploading his book to Amazon and shared details of how he maximised sales so that readers read his books and come back for more.

When he’d completed his first novel, Locked In, he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ going through the hoops of the traditional route to publication. He self-edited it. He researched how books are sold and worked out where and when to sell it to maximise sales. Knowing that over the Christmas period new Kindle owners would be looking for books, he chose this time to upload and to promote his books. More than that – he sought out readers and reading groups. He joined reader forums to talk about books – to talk about his books. He knows how to cross-promote and he promoted his upcoming book along with his current title.

Here are Kerry’s Tips for selling books:

Write what you want to write. Kerry writes for himself but he writes what people like to read. He tapped into a ready market with the crime genre.

Don’t bother about other writers – connecting with your reader is the single most important thing that a writer can do.

Pay attention to forward advertising – Kerry promoted his next book in each new book – this is something he thinks traditional publishers should do.

Contrary to ‘received opinion’ on ‘platform building’ and online presence, Kerry doesn’t spend a lot of his time blogging and talking about writing. He does interact with readers on reader forums.

Start your ebook immediately with page one – don’t copy traditionally published books which aren’t designed for ebook reading.  A more exciting opening will create a more exciting taster or ‘sample’ that readers can click through on Amazon before buying and lead to more sales.

Get the pricing right. Kerry’s first book sold for £1. His third book sells for £3.

Make a simple cover for your book. Photoshop is easy and makes an effective cover. Don’t overload it with a fussy image or too many words.

Create a simple website that’s uncluttered. Include key information in bold – when the next book is coming out, what it’s about, how much it costs and where to buy it. Include a link to Amazon.

Kerry’s mantra is – Think like a reader.

Kerry told us he writes every day. Interestingly, he still has a day job and more interestingly, he’s signed a publishing contract with a mainstream publisher: see his very frank Q&A with Sam Missingham in FutureBook [29/12/11] where he describes how he was contacted by agents after he’d sold thousands of books and where he also explains why he’s gone down the traditional route.

The final session of the day was an agent panel. Rachel Calder was joined by Patrick Walsh of Conville and Walsh and Lucy Luck of Lucy Luck Associates.

All agreed it was difficult to get published with an agent, that it was difficult to land an agent but that it was equally difficult to be published without an agent.

Confused?

Here’s the statistics they shared:

Sayle Literary Agency receives around 60-80 unsolicited submissions a week, from these they will sign up 3 or 4 new writers per year

Lucy Luck receives around 50 unsolicited submissions a week, from these she might sign up ten writers, and from these, 3 or 4 a year will sign a publishing contract

Conville and Walsh receive around 4000 unsolicited manuscripts a year, around 100 are ‘treated’ or developed, and from these, around 7 are sold on to publishers

They talked about how the acquisition process has changed in recent years so that the editorial decisions now include the whole company, including, marketing, publicity and sales departments. Publishers pay less than previous years and the editorial balance has moved to agents who now spend a lot of time developing manuscripts before taking them to market.

Often, a conversation around the edges of a book result in exciting things. All of the agents agreed they will work to develop a manuscript with a writer whose voice they consider has potential. Lucy Luck gave the example of her client, Catherine  O’Flynn, with whom she worked to bring out her prize-winning first book, What Was Lost. A willingness to take criticism is a key attribute in an unpublished writer.

– Patrick Walsh is convinced that ‘cream always rises to the top’.

A lively closing Q&A ensued where delegates queried the different agents on the best way of maximising success with their submissions. While they repeated most of what Cressida Downing said in the morning session on how to submit ‘properly’ by following the guidelines on their websites, there were also smaller points worth highlighting:

Don’t call or write in advance of sending a manuscript to query whether they’ll accept it – just submit

Research agents carefully so that your manuscript ‘fits’ their current titles and author list

Your covering letter should be short and to the point and personal to the agent

Never use the term ‘peruse’ and never call your book a ‘fiction novel’

A ‘platform’ or blog can help an agent to decide but on its own it won’t make an agent sign up and is more useful for non-fiction writers and projects

FSG is ‘fantastic for the whole publishing industry’ and shows the disconnect between what people want to read and what agents & publishers want to publish. It’s a ‘win-win’ situation and while writers and literary editors are ‘snotty’  it doesn’t diminish the benefit it has brought to publishing. It’s a ‘black swan’ event.

The main thing all of the agents look for in a manuscript is a strong writing voice.

So there you have it – write what you want to read, take time over your submission package,  or self-publish. It’s up to you.

I approached the ‘How to Get Published’ conference with scepticism – was it a way of making money from writers who haven’t yet landed a publishing contract or agent? Will I learn anything useful I can pass on to writers and that I can use when submitting my own writing? Is there any point in listening to a different writer’s journey to publication which will probably not replicate mine? On balance, yes, it was really useful and worth the round-trip from Scotland to London. There are countless self-help books on creative writing and how to submit your manuscript – you’ve read them all and so have I, but nothing quite matches hearing it first hand combined with the opportunity of speaking directly to experts and those who work in the industry – especially when that advice is realistic and backed by evidence.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for conference hosting and organising.

– link back to Pt.1

Review: Finding Soutbek, by Karen Jennings

Finding Soutbek, by Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press)  ISBN: 978-1-907320-20-0

Finding Soutbek is a wise and troubling story about the burden of history that asks whether it’s possible for a nation to transition from social, political and cultural separation into a democratic and fair society. In this debut novel, Karen Jennings merges diverse voices representing the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to expose the stark contrasts and divisions of the post-Apartheid generation living on South Africa’s western coast.

The setting is a fictional town split into two communities separated by a dry riverbed, separated geographically but also by race (the lower towners are white), by class (the upper towners are fishermen – the lower towners are wealthy farmers and city workers), and by wealth (the lower town is filled with holiday homes and “retired couples come to live out their days with a sea view”). As the story begins, fire sweeps through the upper town, destroying homes and possessions. A storm sweeps in behind, leaving the upper towners homeless and destitute, reliant on the goodwill and kindness of the lower towners. Cape Town is too far away; the government will only send food when they have none. With much hand-wringing, and after a week of families sleeping on the beach and in the abandoned fish factory, the town’s first “colored mayor”, Pieter Fortuin, provides temporary shelter in the “brand new” town hall in lower town.

Jennings draws out the inequalities and injustices subtly, with quiet power and deep humanity through an assured control of the narrative. Structured in layers, the story of contemporary Soutbek is related in parallel with extracts from its past through lengthy quotations from New Monomotapa: The History of the Soutbek Region, recently published in a flurry of media attention. The mayor had collaborated with retired academic Terence Pearson to compile the book from recently discovered diaries of a seventeenth-century Dutch explorer named Pieter van Meerman, in which he suggests that the early settlers founded a utopian society at Soutbek; “the birthplace of assimilation and integration”. Fortuin hopes that “The History” will bring prosperity back to Soutbek and provide an inheritance that his son will be proud of, while “the Professor,” as Pearson is known, hopes to rebuild his career.

Deft characterisation reveals their personal burdens. There is the mayor’s wife, Anna, rescued from a life of poverty and beatings; Sara, an orphan the mayor brings home to care for Anna; “the Professor”, nesting like a destitute in the detritus of his unwritten magnum opus; Willem, the mayor’s nephew, living in poverty in upper town; David, the mayor’s boarding-school-educated son ill at ease in his hometown -“The History”, it seems, will solve all their problems. As Jennings shows, it is a burden too large to bear.

Cross-posted from Fiction Uncovered:

a community website at http://www.fictionuncovered.co.uk which offers eight selected writers – and an even broader group of writers through recommendation and endorsement – a chance to reach readers. The website also encourages contributors to uncover lost or forgotten fiction as well as new fiction.

Book Review: Kind of Cruel, Sophie Hannah

Kind of Cruel, by Sophie Hannah

(Hodder & Stoughton) 384pp

[out in hardback – paperback due 12 August 2012]

Kind of Cruel is the seventh novel in Sophie Hannah’s police procedural series featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer.

‘Kind. Cruel. Kind of Cruel.’

Just five words, apparently random, meaningless words but they provide the connecting thread that holds together this taut, intelligent psychological thriller.

The words are scribbled on a discarded piece of paper, buried amongst Charlie Zailer’s private notebook and, crucially, spoken aloud by Amber Hewerdine to her hypnotherapist, Ginny Saxon, in the middle of their first session. The words mean nothing to Amber who is seeking help with insomnia, but they are a vital clue for the police team currently investigating the brutal murder of Katharine Allen; a woman whom Amber claims she has never met.

‘But we’ve walked ourselves around Little Orchard how many times? And we can’t find the page with ‘Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel’ written on it. We can’t bring up a memory of having seen it in any of the bedrooms or bathrooms, in either of the two lounges, in the kitchen, dining room, games room or library. ‘

The story takes place over 10 days in 2010 but the roots go back further in time, to family relationships and early friendships. In an inventive narration that unpicks the idea of story itself, Hannah offers different angles and voices. We hear Amber’s view, Ginny Saxon’s expert opinion and an all-seeing eye who takes us into the heart of Waterhouse and Zailer’s complicated love-life.

It takes a bit of time to work out who is telling us the story. Chapters are spliced between a third person shifting narrator, different first person narrators and lengthy interior monologues.

‘What is the difference between a story and a legend? In which category does Little Orchard belong? I’d say it falls squarely into the “legend” category. It has a name, for one thing; Little Orchard. Those two words suggest more than a house in Surrey. They’re enough to call to mind a complex sequence of events and an even more multi-layered collection of opinions and emotions. Wherever we have a mental shortcut phrase for a story from our past, that provides a clue that the story has become a legend.’

‘The room filled with the sound of everyone breathing too loudly. If Simon had been asked to guess with his eyes closed, he’d have said twenty people hiding from a predator. Or leaping off the top of a mountain. There was something enlivening about refusing to be intimidated by an objectively intimidating person. Simon was surfing the crest of an adrenaline wave; he hoped it wasn’t affecting his judgement.’

It’s a taught, intensely satisfying read. It’s not essential to the enjoyment factor or following the storyline that you’ve read the previous six novels in the series. Part of the joy of this novel is marvelling how Hannah drip-feeds their relationship into the story in a way that feels natural and unobtrusive. Her storytelling is skilful and controlled. If this is your first introduction to Charlie and Simon, I guarantee you’ll go in search of the rest.

Book Review: Central Reservation, Will le Fleming

Central Reservation, by Will le Fleming

256pp. (Xelsion) ISBN 978 0 9569370 0 1

In Central Reservation, thirteen-year-old Holly wants desperately to be freed from the sisterly bonds that tie her to Yvonne, her twin, but she is shocked and guilty when Yvonne is killed in a freak accident involving the school bus.  As she struggles to create a new self apart from her sister and realign her relationship with her widowed mother Belinda, Yvonne’s ghost follows her every move. Holly’s efforts are further complicated by outside forces and internal family conflicts; by a foot-and-mouth epidemic that brings MAFF operatives who prowl the countryside like hired assassins, and by “The Family” who descend on Holly’s isolated farm bringing comfort but trailing with them unresolved and hitherto unspoken “issues”.

Although death stalks the novel, the distant, third person narration holds mawkishness and sentiment at bay. Subtle switches in perspective add tension. At the hospital immediately after the fatal crash Belinda’s deep-seated grief merges with her new sense of loss but self-pity is quickly replaced by suspicion that “[h]er thin fierce child who always wanted to be alone […] had made it happen.” Black comedy undercuts painful emotion, such as in the authentically awkward family scene where Eva, Belinda’s sister-in-law, feels no compunction in suggesting that Holly should wear Yvonne’s clothes to the funeral or that her son should wear the black neck tie once worn by Holly’s father.

The whole is bound up with overt symbolism of renewal, in the greenery surrounding the farm and the Holly/Yvonne (Yew) pairing, contrasted starkly with fracture (of family and farming community) overlaid with deft descriptive passages of flaming pyres that reveal the wanton mass destruction of livestock: “against the last of the light in the sky they could see scraps in the air, tumbling and blowing. For a long second Holly tried to tell herself they were bats”.

Review: Ramshackle, by Elizabeth Reeder

Ramshackle, by Elizabeth Reeder (Freight Books)

ISBN 978 0 9566135 7 8, 161pp

In Ramshackle, Elizabeth Reeder captures perfectly the see-saw sensibilities of teenage years in this tender tale of becoming. On a cold, wintry Friday night in a house on the shores of Lake Michigan, fifteen-year old Roe Davis’s adoptive locksmith father reads her a chapter from The Golden Compass. She’s ‘already read the entire trilogy’ herself, and is too old to be read to, but it feels right. When she wakes up on Saturday morning, everything feels wrong. The house is cold and still, there’s ‘day old coffee in the pot’ but no sign of her father. Ramshackle charts Roe’s search for her father and for her own identity, and also her growing self-realisation that past memories are only partial truths.

Borrowing from the Bildungsroman, Reeder includes common teen issues and anxieties, such as absent fathers, negligent mothers, and betrayal by adults in authority, and she moulds them into a tale that’s both fresh and compelling. She threads the locksmith trope through the storyline to give it narrative depth. Roe puzzles secret compartments, unidentified keys, and broken locks. Is there a terrible family secret she can unlock, a code to decipher? Who was her mother? Where has her father gone and why now? Has he run off with Mr R, her Communication teacher’s wife? What’s the mystery of the identical boxes her father made for himself and Old Mrs Morse next door? And what of the lock to the old oak door that the Watson’s, Mrs Morse’s ancestors, carried from Scotland to their lakeside home that puzzled her father for so long?

The opening image of ‘Lyra trying to figure out how to read the alethiometer’ defines Roe’s quest: a teen between two worlds, she hovers on the portal between childhood and adulthood and behaves like any normal teenager: rebelling against Aunt Linden, her sudden-surrogate mother, she goes to parties, skips school, makes out, and talks back to her teachers. But she does un-teenage things too: she leaves the porch light on as a ‘beacon’ to guide her father home; she watches over Old Mrs Morse’s home while the land vultures gather; she follows her ‘pocket CTA train map’ on a journey to unexplored territories in the familiar urban landscape. Particularly effective is the way that Reeder conveys a sense of time and memory through the automated transit authority instructions that roll out during Roe’s ride around the ‘El’ on the day that she spools back through her fragmented memories searching for and reconstructing her true self.

 Belmont is next. Doors open on the right at Belmont.

Saturday brunch at Ann Sather’s. Cinnamon buns. My dad tells me not to lick my fingers. How can you not lick your fingers? Scoop up the white sugar frosting with your index finger and stick it in your mouth, lick your lips. How can you not?

Addison, doors open on the left at Addison.

He isn’t what he professes to be. People rarely are. He professes to be here for me. He went to a lot of trouble to procure me, to keep me, or so he says. And now he’s on a journey away from this city, this Gothamlike, fantasy city full of crime and poverty and absurd wealth. These sleek buildings, these twenty-three bridges. This corrupt past. This incredibly possible future.

Wrigley Field is empty, no flags flying, no bustle. No hope or disappointment. Just a shell.

Priority seating is intended for the elderly and disabled passengers. Your cooperation is requested.

Standing passengers please do not lean against the doors.

Sheridan is next. Doors open on the left at Sheridan.

Please familiarize yourself with the train’s communications, posted in each carriage.

This is Sheridan.

Doors closing.

It’s a fine debut but there are cracks. ‘Quizz’ (Roe’s boyfriend);  as a character name it’s too blatant. ‘Mr R’ debates the idea that ‘absence is presence’ in the Communication class; ‘an absence of evidence is not evidence of presence’ is a quotation that sits above a café booth and Roe tells us too-handily that it’s from Scott Weidensaul’s inquiry into absent or extinct species in The Ghost With Trembling Wings. And Roe ponders ‘the natural order’ too easily:

It’s just like with keys. Lock and key and how we think they make things whole when they come together, but what if it’s just the opposite, the lock is whole, a complete entity on its own and the key invades, pushes the molecules into unnatural spaces, tumbler and pin, and turns it.

But what if the natural order is with the two of you there? Right there. And when one goes, the air invades, displaces and everything is off kilter, unnatural. Space as the invading presence? As the opposite of the state of grace?

In her desire to hammer home the grand theme of loss, the whole narrative could easily slide into one of Chicago’s ‘glacial fault lines’. Ultimately, a skilful control of the material and subject anticipates such complaints and sidetracks the reader into a tissue of inter-textual borrowings and knowing nods in a text where Bambi is as plausible a reference as American Gods, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, of course, towering above all, the twinkling, magical, Northern Lights.

Made in Britain – review

‘Every Town’, the near-mythical setting of Gavin James Bower’s post-industrial landscape in Made in Britain, is peopled with dysfunctional families, suffused with social disengagement, law-breaking and public disorder. It’s a bad but normal British town. A bit too bad. It’s as if an evil giant has gobbled up the moral fabric of this ‘dirty old town’ and spat it out to lie in the gutter – unnoticed, unloved, and unwanted. If the townspeople are waiting for their fairy godmother to wave a magic wand and turn the clock back to a golden age of full employment, to a time when money made people nicer, it isn’t going to happen. The mills and mines scarring the hills and streets around ‘Every Town’ point to a longer trajectory and a bigger problem.

Parents are over-worked or workless, children are neglected and neglectful. The future is hopeless, yet, ironically, and authentically, their lives are centred on school and the fake promise that education is a golden ticket to possibilities. Going unsaid but lingering in the air above the sex-obsessed teenagers waiting anxiously for their results is, ‘what’s the point?’ I wondered that too. We know it’s Grimm ‘up North’ – have known since the century before Orwell hurried past Burnley on his way to Wigan Pier.

 [Charlie] I’m up the canal, and can see the whole town from where I’m sitting. The old mills to my left, the rows of terraced houses boarded up now on that side of town, and the council blocks where Trafalgar Flats used to be, before they knocked them down. Straight ahead’s the new bus station, lit up in purple. To my right’s the new sports centre, which used to be the multi-storey, which used to be the sports centre.

Nicely done and preventing the story from tipping into relentless misery is a fractured narrative that follows three distinct but ‘typical’ Northern teens: Russell ‘the lonely boy’ is a bit weird [or nearly normal]. Day-dreaming his way through life, imagining a perfect love and a perfect life, he’s scared of his street-wise peers and lives with an uncaring, troubled mother who stays home all day and won’t even raise herself to wash his shirts, for goodness sake. He imagines city-life [Leeds not London] as a portal, a release form responsibility – and ‘because there’s always someone who’s more different than you. You can just get on with being yourself.’ Charlie is Russell’s doppelganger-figure; clever, yet wise enough to realise the futility of academic qualifications, he purposefully sets out to utilise his skills in other ways and for other means. Motherless; Hayley lives with her two-jobs-and-no-time-for-fun Dad and flaunts pent-up sexuality at the naive English teacher, Mr Mitchell, while at the same time she lusts after Charlie. Her imagination works overtime: always set to ‘compare’, constantly coming up short.

Made in Britain is smarty-pants clever. Stock tropes from teen novels, such as text-miscommunication and a triangular lust plot are packaged within a tissue-paper layer of poignancy that dares us to care. Russell is not Holden Caulfield; Hayley’s eyes are not ‘the bluest’; Charlie is not Renton. The characters are more archetype than realistic and the humour is too sincere to devastate. And yet, it’s a bleakly wry anti-Bildungsroman. A dead body lies unheeded in an open grave, and Bower takes us down a more sinister path than the grimmest of Northern crime fiction. Who can bother to report it – who cares enough to begin an investigation? An absence of blue and white tape is more revealing than Hayley’s bare behind.

Published last year, reviewers said Made in Britain was ‘timely’, and made comparisons with disenfranchised teens and summer riots.  Perhaps. Depressingly, Bower reveals how little has changed since Trevor unleashed his racist vitriol on the local jobcentre in David Leland’s 1982 TV drama-cum-movie of the same title. Nowadays, no one in Every Town would waste their energy lobbing a brick through the window.

And no one would notice if they did.

Dead Money by Ray Banks

Review: Dead Money, by Ray Banks (Blasted Heath)

ISBN: (epub) 978-1-908688-04-0 (Kindle) 978-1-908688-03-3

“If you’re playing a poker game and you look around the table and can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.”  — Paul Newman

Alan Slater is an affront to double-glazing salesmen everywhere. Alongside the usual display of dubious sales techniques, he physically abuses potential customers, takes drugs, drinks to excess, gambles, cheats on his wife; you’d like to think he gets everything he deserves. He definitely deserves Les Beale, his worse than bad friend who hooks him into a shady poker game which turns into a real-life game of truth or consequences. Trying to out-cheat the cheaters, as Paul Newman could have told them, is a fool’s game and these two are Class ‘A’ fools.

Dead Money is a highly entertaining, quick read; a noir-dime novel updated for the 21st Century. The opening fizzles under Slater’s gaze around the ironically-named ‘Palace’ interior:

I turned to ARFour, which had been doing its spuds all night thanks to the man sweating at the end of the table. He was two-belts fat and he had a habit of pushing his long grey hair back until it was slick to his head. When the dealer spun up, the fat man’s eyes went from ball to layout and he became a child deep in thought, the tip of his tongue poking out the corner of his mouth. Deliberating, digesting and cogitating, just like they used to do on Masterchef.

But, just as the luck of the fruit machine turns with the nudge of the wheel, poker on the turn of a card, so Slater’s luck turns. His mood changes as his role of spectator turns to hunted man and his ability to crack one-liners gets lost in the rising panic. The outcome and how we feel about Slater also changes with his luck. Banks pulls off quite a feat. In creating an anti-hero with whom we side, even as we abhor what he does and everything he stands for, he dispels the oft-repeated nonsense that you need a likeable protagonist to enjoy a story.

It’s not perfect, by any means. It could be tighter and ten pages shorter but it rings so true in character and atmosphere that you’ll be unsticking your sole from the carpet as you press the button two stops after you were supposed to get off.

Dead Money by Ray Banks is one of five titles released [as e-book and Kindle version] under the new digital imprint Blasted Heath which launches on 1st November.

And while you’re clicking that mouse, check Ray Banks’s blogpost over at The Saturday Boy on what Lee Childs thinks of Dead Money

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UPDATE – SORRY ABOUT  THE POP-UP ADS – THEY’RE NOT CONNECTED TO BOOKRAMBLER