Potted Reviews 1 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and The Switched by Ryan Bracha

It’s been a while since I’ve written any reviews so I might be a touch ring rusty. But I’ve got a backlog to get through, so here goes.

First up is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, which won last year’s Booker Prize. History takes an assassination attempt on Bob Marley as it’s starting point and weaves a massive tale of corruption, politics, power, murder, and Jamaica. It encompasses a huge array of characters, some of whom change identities at certain points in the story. When this book is at its best it is superb but, at its worst, it’s a slog. However, the good massively outweighs the bad. Some have compared this to Ellroy (which is why I picked it up in the first place), but it’s nothing of the sort. Character is secondary to plot in Ellroy’s work, whereas James’ novel is all character – the plot is loose, and certain parts of it don’t gel well at all. James’ characters all have clear and defined voices, whereas Post LA Quartet Ellroy has one voice: the Demon Dog. What the two writers do share is an ambitious historical narrative vision that fuses real life events with detailed fiction, along with a tendency to take their characters on a seamy, seedy journey. In this case, James weaves a fictional history of modern day Jamaica out of the attempted murder of Bob Marley. It’s ambitious, superbly written, and often addictive. But, in places, it’s also a baggy, slow slog of a read that is in drastic need of an edit. For all its faults this is still a superb piece of work.

Regular readers will know how highly I rate Ryan Bracha. I loved Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, and Paul Carter is a Dead Man, and Ben Turner is a Dead Man. He has style, inventiveness, and wit to burn. Well, The Switched takes the wit and invention contained in those tales and ramps it up. In this novel, five unrelated people get switched into different bodies in a weird one-off event. Gradually, violent circumstances and strong personalities bring them together for a brutal final act. The Switched is great fun (as long as you’ve got a strong stomach). It’s as different from the Dead Man trilogy as it is from the universe of Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, but the novel shares the sharp, cutting satirical edge and the tendency towards experimental prose and structure. The reasons for the switch are never made clear (it’s possible that Bracha will reveal the reason in later books), so the focus is on the personalities. Bracha’s characters are pretty much all unlikeable with the exception of Charlie/Jake, but good writing ensures that they go through exciting transformations (and I’m not just referring to the switch itself but dealing with gender and gender fluidity), and the story is compelling enough to keep you reading to the end.

Ryan Bracha is fast building up an interesting, diverse, and impressive body of work. He seems to push himself from book to book – unwilling to settle for one genre or style of writing – and his back catalog is all the better for it. The Switched is another strong addition to this collection and comes highly recommended.

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Review: A Day in the Life of Jason Dean by Ian Ayris

Jason Dean is an a hard man, a very hard man, the kind of scary-looking bloke who gets sent to collect debts and, if needs be, kill people, which is exactly happens on this particular day, but the problem is that his heart isn’t really in it any more. He has a wife who hates him, and the only thing he truly loves is his daughter, Sophie, who occupies his thoughts a lot on this particular day.

So when local gangster, and all-round Wagner-loving psychopath, Mickey Archer, tells him to deal with some debts and then kill a skinhead car dealer who has sold Archer a dud vehicle he does so more out of fear of his boss than any desire to flex his muscles.

Jason’s debt collecting duties happen with mixed success. One of the men, an elderly soldier, commits suicide in front of him, and the other involves dealing with a nightmare family of the kind you’ll find on many deprived council estates. Jason ruminates on writers during many of these incidents, partly because although Jason isn’t a well educated man, due to parental negligence, among other issues, he is a well read and intelligent one.

Finally, he has to face up to the dealer and go through with Archer’s request, but even that is fraught with surprises…

A Day in the Life of Jason Dean is a very strong performance written in a stylised local vernacular that helps burrow into the mind of its protagonist. The character of Dean, who could so easily have been a cliché in the wrong hands, comes across as a sympathetic and even sensitive soul, albeit of the kind that you wouldn’t ever want to upset. The disagreement, although it’s more one-sided than that, between Archer and Dean about Wagner and Shostakovich is both funny and scary, and there’s a similar feeling of unease in another meeting between the two men later in the story – you always get the feeling that Dean is treading on eggshells around his boss. Similarly, Dean’s love for his wife and daughter is equally well evoked, and pays dividends towards the end of the story. Jason Dean is a very well written tale with a genuine compassion towards people on the lower rungs of British society and comes highly recommended.

Review: Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet by Ryan Bracha

I like ambition in a novel. It suggests that the writer gives a damn about their work and, more importantly, suggests that the writer wants to create something that will one day match their ambition. Most of us writers write within ourselves. We work to structures that have been in place for a long time, deal with character tropes that are audience-friendly, narrative experiments are verboten, narrative and plotting are easy to decipher, and language is as reader friendly as possible. Very few of us make our audience work for it. In truth, even though many of us writers say we write to please ourselves and not our audience, the opposite is often true. We want the audience to love us.

So congratulations must go to Ryan Bracha for attempting something ambitious with his first novel Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet (now referred to for brevity’s sake as SAJFYHKY). It’s a multi-multi-character novel that weaves first person, third person, and other forms of narrative into a story that I’ll do my best not to give away too much of.

The story involves people putting themselves forward to potentially receive ten grand for doing something that is initially a mystery to them. When these people start turning up murdered with their throats cut and their clothes removed, it is immediately obvious that something beyond plain old murder is afoot. But, not being in possession of the full facts, the newspapers, the media, and the bloggers tag the murders as the work of the Sheffield Ripper. But as things progress, and the full game is revealed, the killings start to mount up and things start to get really crazy and the story encompasses strange gambling syndicates, millions of pounds worth of money, shady media manipulators, insanity, and a couple of people drawn into all this madness by a French sex addict who follows his dick just once too often.

SAJFYHKY tells its story through numerous narrative devices in numerous narrative voices. As the story progresses, voices chime in for a chapter or so and disappear as death or relevance to the story takes them out of the narrative. Of course, this makes it difficult at times to remember who is who occasionally, especially if you are quite a slow reader, but the whole thing is well written and tries to impale a considerable portion of modern society with its satire. It doesn’t always succeed in its ambition; some chapters feel like they could be shortened, some characters don’t always work; but when it does succeed, and everything is firing, it is incredibly funny and bitter and in places sad. Bracha is a genuinely talented writer. I hope he doesn’t curtail his ambition and continues to stretch himself with broad narratives and experiments with character and voice.

If you are a reader who is prepared to work for it, and can stomach strong violence, language and some sexual content (and if you can’t, why the bloody hell are you reading my blog?), SAJFYHKY will give you some real moments of pleasure and it comes recommended by this particular reviewer.

Review: The Fix by Keith Nixon

Set in 2007, a year before the financial crash, The Fix is about investment banker and everyman Josh Dedman. He’s having a pretty bad time of things. He’s framed and fired after £20 million goes missing from the bank where he works. His miserable and unpleasant girlfriend pretty much hates his guts, when she isn’t cheating on him. He’s unwillingly befriended by an irritating bloke on a train and even more unwillingly befriended by a foul-smelling Russian tramp who claims to be ex-KGB

When the man who framed Josh (and just happens to be his boss) is murdered he finds that he’s the chief suspect. And that’s when things really start to get unpleasant…

I knew that I was going to like The Fix on page one when it started with I am fucked. Anybody who can start a story like that is always going to get my attention. Nixon throws the reader straight into the action and keeps them there for the duration of the story. He takes a fairly complicated plot and spins it out nice and smooth, so the reader doesn’t lose their way. He alternates the sad-sack first person narration of Dedman with third person viewpoints of several other characters, all written in terse, funny, effective prose. The pace is fast with little fat to chew through to get to the meat of the story. The main thing though is the characters. And Nixon does good characters.

Dedman makes a convincing everyman, but the supporting cast are just as clearly defined: whether it’s Josh’s nasty, spiteful girlfriend Claire, his vile American boss, Hershey, or his friend Jack, whose bravado masks a few secrets. And of course Konstantin Boryakov and Mr Lamb, who definitely qualify as my favourite characters and light up the tale whenever they appear.

The Fix is a very good tale, well told. It gets the right balance of laughs and thrills and comes highly recommended from this particular reviewer.

Review: Red Esperanto by Paul D Brazill

This is the first part of Paul D Brazill’s Luke Case series of shorts. It is set on the bleak wintry streets of Warsaw. Our less than intrepid hero puts himself in extreme danger when he begins an affair with Jola, the wife of a local gangster.

If you’ve read Brazill before, you know what you’re going to get from the off: rich, evocative prose that paints a vivid picture, a seedy setting frequented by even seedier characters, and a good tale, well told. In fact, of the three Case tales this one has to be my favourite because of the nifty twist at the end that Brazill throws at the reader in such an offhand manner. He makes it look and read effortless, but it really isn’t.

If you have yet to read either Brazill or the Case tales – what the hell have you been doing? Stop reading this and go and buy them now. But in all seriousness, if you haven’t read him yet then start with Red Esperanto it is as good a place as any to get acquainted with Brazill’s world. Highly recommended.

Review: The Storm Without by Tony Black

According to the blurbs, Tony Black is apparently Irvine Welsh’s favourite crime writer. This is no small thing to have on your resume, that one of the most influential writers of the last thirty years thinks you’re the mutt’s nuts when it comes to writing crime fiction.

Black has made his name writing the Gus Drury series of books, all of which come with lots of critical acclaim, so he has a pedigree with this stuff. This Blasted Heath release isn’t one of those, this one is about Doug Michie, a former RUC officer with a past, who has returned to his old home town of Ayr. He’s barely back in town five minutes when he meets an old friend, and once more than that, Lyn, whose son has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. She doesn’t believe he did it. Doug takes it on trust and starts investigating. What he finds out leads him to old enemies, smuggling and council corruption. On top of which he has to deal with an alcoholic mother and ex-colleagues who aren’t exactly happy to have him back.

The Storm Without is a brisk read with plenty of style and a compelling narrator in Doug Michie. Tony Black’s excellent prose brings the rainswept streets of Ayr alive with nice little nuggets of description and he keeps the narrative moving along nicely. So far so good. But there is one flaw, one that takes a 5-star performance and turns it into a 4-star scrape. That flaw is the ending. Without giving away spoilers there is a rescue for a certain character, but the thing is we never find out how this happens or by whom or how the character gets found. Aside from a paragraph of a newspaper article explaining that it has happened there’s no further description to explain how it happened. Okay, I know they say show don’t tell, but if you can’t show something at least tell me how something occurred – I’d rather be told something than just be forced to accept that something has happened – without an explanation it becomes a deus ex machina and feels a bit rushed. This is a pity, really, because Black can really turn a sentence and he knows his way around a narrative and in Michie he has created a genuinely complex and likeable character. Despite the flawed ending, in my humble opinion, at least, this is still a fine read, but it could have been more than that. Still, Michie is a great character and I look forward to reading more from him and Tony Black.

Review: 13 Shots of Noir by Paul D Brazill

Paul D Brazill has carved quite the niche for himself. He is a prolific writer of shorts that seem to get published in all the major online outlets, plus he’s got himself published in Maxim Jakubowski’s print anthologies, too – all of which are a major deal in my opinion. I’d read several of his stories online (including the quite sublime The Tut), so decided to give 13 Shots of Noir a go.

And what a strong collection it is. The stories are tight and never outstay their welcome. Added to which, Brazill has a lovely way with words; take this gem from The Man Behind The Curtain:

Carole has barely been out of her teens when Doctor James Parker, as glimmering and sophisticated as a Brandy Alexander, swept through her humdrum life like a tornado, picked her up in an Oz that bore than a passing resemblance to Chiswick, West London.

As the years trundled on, however, James’ gambling and drinking habits ballooned to the size of the Hindenburg, his mood swings and behaviour grew more and more erratic and Oz turned out to be no place like home.

The Oz reference in particular is superb and clever. I like writers with a clever turn of phrase, and the ability and confidence to employ them correctly, particularly as a rather plain prose stylist I am rarely capable of them myself. And here’s another from the very nicely put together Mr Kiss and Tell:

As the years trundled on, Billy Kirby, alone in his two bedroom Housing Association flat, like so many lost souls, turned to Mecca. Come rain or shine, come hell or high water, every Monday and Friday afternoon Billy was in the Mecca Bingo.

13 Shots is a very strong collection of shorts, but my particular highlights include The Tut, Mr Kiss & Tell, Drunk On The Moon (which has spawned a successful series about werewolf P.I. Roman Dalton), The Final Cut and the beautifully twisted and brief M.

Highly recommended.