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: Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird

One of the things about the e-book era is that it has re-energised the British crime and dark fiction scene. Novelists and short fiction writers who might have been overlooked by the big publishers – for being too dark, too grim, too violent, too different – have been given the option to self-publish or work with small, independent publishers to produce books that have, in many cases, had some of the big boys on the run. These writers are knowledgeable about their trade, know their history, know how to hook readers from the first sentence, and more importantly know how to use social media and modern technology in a way that many of the more established pros seem incapable of doing. There are a lot of these folks out there: Paul D Brazill, Ian Ayris, McDroll, Luca Veste, along with more established folks like Allan Guthrie, Ray Banks, Nick Quantrill. Also, included with this rather gilded lot is Nigel Bird.

Until recently, Bird had wrote mostly short fiction, although a novella length work, Smoke, was published not so long ago. And until very recently (despite being interested in his work) I hadn’t downloaded any of his collections, due to a very large to-be-read pile and work commitments. But I put this behind me recently by reading Dirty Old Town – a short but strong collection of short fiction.

For such a short collection, there’s a lot of good stuff in here. One Hundred and Ten Per Cent, which goes through the life of a runner as he moves from prison to the race track. It’s compelling, hard and has some lovely little moments of description:

“Everyone has a talent,” Tweed said.

As it happened, he was pretty damned good at taking the faces of cunts like the man on the other side of the table and turning them into modern art.

Nice and pithy. Appeals to a fan of clever, sweary quips like myself. But elsewhere, as in Dirty Old Town, the title story, a subtler but equally clever use of language comes into play:

I didn’t see the stars, but felt them speed through my nervous system, tingling down to my fingers and toes.

Again, nice and pithy. And the rest of the story is just as good. Harsh, unforgiving, and with a nice sense of loss.

A lot of these stories deal with loss: Dirty Old Town, Drinking Wine (Spo-dee-oh-dee), Sea Minor, Taking A Line For A Walk; all these deal with a sense of loss (love, life, future, family, you name it).

Bird has a lot of empathy and sympathy for his characters, even the bad ones, and it shines through on the page. In this sense, his work shares similarities with Donald Ray Pollock whose work I reviewed here.

There are a number of memorable stories in this collection. Bird has genuine talent and is definitely one to keep an eye on for the future. And I think I’ll be reading more of his work sooner rather than later.

The Hunters now in paperback

That’s right, folks. For those of you who prefer your crime fiction in Tree-Book as opposed to E-book format (and statistics say there are still plenty of you out there), I’m proud to present The Hunters as a paperback for the really rather decent price of $7.99 (just over £5 in sterling).

I wanted to make sure it was available to as wide a selection of people as possible. So using my graphic design and layout powers, I’ve ensured that you folks who prefer reading off paper can also enjoy the first of the Stanton brothers series in a nice looking paperback.

It’s currently only available on Amazon US, but if it sells enough copies I will seriously consider forking out for an extended distribution package, which ensures availability to traditional bricks and mortar bookshops.