Review: Low Down Death Right Easy by J David Osborne

J David Osborne’s Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit was a fine collection of strange stories from a young writer with obvious talent, both in his ideas and prose, and automatically sent his second novel (Low Down Death Right Easy) to the top end of my To-Read list.

It concerns two main stories that are only ever really linked by small things – paths briefly crossed, unpleasant finds, decisions made. Danny Ames is a thug who when he’s not getting money out of people who cross his path with his fierce partner Beck works as a bouncer at a nightclub. Then there’s Sepp and Arlo Clancy. Arlo is a straight arrow married, with hints of a wilder past, facing the daily horrors of serving the general public (and their stupid demands), while his younger brother Sepp is an ex-con on parole trying to make ends meet. Arlo and Sepp’s already fractious relationship is tested even further when the two men are fishing for catfish in a local river they find a severed head. Meanwhile, Ames is on the lookout for his brother, who wanted to be a teacher but has gone off-the-rails and can no longer be found anywhere. Add a dash of noir to this brew, and let’s just say things don’t really end well for everyone.

Osborne’s novel takes the standard tropes of noir – missing brothers, shady criminals, run-down bars, criminal heists – and makes something new and strange out of them. The prose has a ultra-lean, neutral feel to it, with naturalistic dialogue, which gives more weight to the moments of oddness that pepper the narrative (Danny’s habit of spitting teeth after indulging in moments of violence, Arlo’s nightmares about the severed head, the strange albino who frequents Arlo’s local bar). It’s a real work of quality, although I did have one caveat that occasionally jarred me out of the story. The lean nature of the prose leaves readers to fill in the gaps, but sometimes it goes too lean – at least, in my humble opinion. During odd moments, I felt forced to re-read lines because Osborne had seemingly written around the action, leaving only the aftermath. This might have been the writer’s intention, but it jarred for me – though others might not have any issue with this at all. However, this was my only caveat with an otherwise impressive and compelling novel. I’m already looking forward to his next one – Black Gum Godless Heathen – as this one comes highly recommended.

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Review: Paul Carter Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Regular readers will know that I was pretty taken with Ryan Bracha’s Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet last year. It was enjoyable, ambitious, well-written and tried to do things a little bit differently.

Well, now he’s back with his latest Paul Carter Is A Dead Man. It’s a singular take on the dystopian nightmare tale – think more Big Brother in the Endemol definition rather than the Orwellian one. It’s set in the present day but in a reimagined Britain, which has closed off its borders to the rest of the world after an explosion in 2009 that kills more than 400 of its citizens (including three generations of heirs to the throne). Law enforcement as it was no longer exists. Power (of a sort) is now in the hands of the British people, and criminals are placed in online public courts for twenty four hours, to be judged. The sentence for most crimes, and in most cases, is death, although if not enough votes are gathered the defendant is released unharmed.

As the story starts, Paul Carter is on the run for murdering an internet troll who was ruining his reputation. By the end of the evening he has killed another man (one of the crews – hired thugs recruited as police under the new regime), and his status as Public Enemy No 1. is secured. The one person he can turn to in his hour of need, his cousin Danny, refuses to give him shelter so he goes on the run again, which brings him into contact with Katie, a pretty girl with terrible breath, who has been made homeless by the changes in British society (although homelessness is somewhat different in the new Britain). She takes him back to where she is living with her friend Shane, also homeless. When Carter’s cousin is unfairly arrested, the man decides to do something about it – setting in motion events that will send shockwaves through the hopelessly corrupt system. It will also prove a test of the kind of man Carter is – failing will cost him and those he holds dear their lives…

Paul Carter is a Dead Man is a well written alternative future dystopia. It is also an effective satire of modern day Britain – a place where people are often judged by the kangaroo court of public opinion on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other smaller social media networks, where rumours, innuendo and ignorance are often paraded as facts and then shared like viruses from wall-to-wall and retweeted by tens of thousands, where more members of the public vote for singers in public talent competitions than they do for their political leaders. Bracha sets up the base story of Carter, and his transition from wanted murderer to freedom fighter, nicely and then branches out into vignettes that deal with modern day Britain. Although they are well written, I felt that on occasion these vignettes detracted my attention away from Carter’s story. Bracha had expertly built and sustained tension that is then slackened when the tale slows down to take a detour. Part of me wondered if Bracha might have been better served by dovetailing these elements into the story somehow (but, then again, these may pay off later, as Paul Carter is the first of a trilogy). However, this is a minor caveat because the main story and the main characters are so damn compelling and the vignettes are never very long.

Paul Carter is a major step-up from Strangers (which was no slouch, I might add) in terms of the leanness and meanness of the writing. It has more focus, is snappier and punchier, and assembles the main story quickly and neatly. Also, the use of wordplay to remove the swearing from the tale is a brilliant move – more sensitive readers really have no reason to complain about bad language. Bracha also performs the neat trick of making a murderer sympathetic, likeable and a compelling enough a personality to bring the reader and other characters under his spell. This is not easy to accomplish, so kudos has to go to the writer for doing it so damn well. The other thing he does superbly is the final third of the tale, where Carter has to make choices, deal with them, and plan his way out of a very tricky situation. Should Bracha ever turn his attention to writing something a little less ambitious, like a straight-up crime thriller, it would probably be a storming tale. Although, I think the ambition of his writing is partly what makes him the author he is (a damn good one).

I heartily recommend Paul Carter is a Dead Man to readers everywhere. It’s an entertaining story that also works as an alternative future dystopia and as a satire of  modern day Britain.