Review of Ben Turner Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Some months on from the events of Paul Carter Is A Dead Man, things have changed drastically in New Britain. The slow-burning rebellion that Carter started culminates in a short, bloody war with the Scottish separatists and makes life difficult for Robert Lodge and his repressive regime. For a start, a group of lawyers, led by the beautiful but unhinged Nat Sweeney, are killing crews for both revenge and fun – stating that they’re working for Paul Carter, when they are in fact flying solo; then Ben Turner is also doing the same thing. Turner is despatched by Carter and the leader of the Scots, Davie Craig, to stop Sweeney and her group by killing them. Turner, being the somewhat rebellious individual that he is, ignores his orders and instead forms an uneasy alliance with Sweeney in order to kick off a bigger revolution. But in doing so he is messing with the well-laid plans of Garner, Robert Lodge’s former right-hand man, leading to folks being sent from Scotland (including Carter) to stop Turner from messing things up for Craig, leading to a chaotic and bloody finale.

Ryan Bracha’s Paul Carter was one of my favourite books of last year. It had invention and wit in spades, as well as a propulsive storyline and great characters. Now that the element of surprise that Paul Carter created has gone, it all comes down to storytelling for the sequel. And it doesn’t disappoint, because Bracha takes that foundation and builds on it, with a plot that involves a lot flashbacks and double- and triple-crosses. The narrative steams ahead in a way that even the first book couldn’t quite manage. Ben Turner is a very good read with plenty of wit, a lively cast of characters, good writing, and a keen eye for subverting audience expectations. Highly recommended, but if you haven’t read Paul Carter yet then it is best to start with that because it is also damn fine read.

My Top Ten Reads of 2014

Damn! Has the year really gone that quickly?

It only seems like yesterday that I was making plans for how I wanted my year to go, and here I am at the end of it. The Glasgow Grin still hasn’t made an appearance – never have I put so much work into a writing project – as it expanded from a relatively short 50,000 word novel into a pretty complex 105,000+ monster that is still being edited as I write this. But it’s a much better tale because of the changes – at least, in my humble opinion. Such was the nature of the project that I didn’t read and review as many novels as I had initially wanted to in 2014.

Occasionally, weeks went by without me reading a single word of prose – mostly because I wasn’t able to spare brain capacity from redrafting and editing The Glasgow Grin project. Alas, I just don’t have that big a brain!

Still, when I did get the chance to read, I devoured stuff. And this year has been marked by its sheer quality. There have been very few duffers (I only stopped reading two books this year, which is a first), and even though I didn’t read as much as I would have liked I’ve read some great work.

Right, enough waffle. On with the list, which is in no particular order.

1) Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Last year, Ayres’ superb novella Fierce Bitches made my list. It was a beautifully written tale with a density and ambition that promised great things to come. Peckerwood, published by the superb Broken River Books, is the first fulfilment of that promise. Written in a more straightforward pared-back style than Bitches, this Jim Thompson-esque tale of corruption in a small town came with some wonderful characters, great dialogue, and fine set-pieces. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you grab a copy straight away.

2) Corrosion by Jon Bassoff
Bassoff’s twisted and deliciously evil slice of psycho-noir revelled in its squalid small town atmosphere, numerous unreliable and unstable narrators. Well written, with a keen eye for the right piece of detail to make a description come alive or a piece of dialogue sing. A truly impressive piece of work.

3) The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson
This dark, kinky and violent piece of noir about a zen bank robber chasing his wife and partner in crime was a real surprise. I read a couple of reviews before picking it up, but they didn’t really prepare me for such a gut-punch of a thriller that packs more into its 100+ pages than many thrillers of three times the length. If you have the stomach for some of the brutality, you probably won’t find many more exciting thrillers around.

4) The Bitch by Les Edgerton
This tale of blackmail and a robbery that goes very, very wrong was easily one of the best I read in 2014. It piles incident on top of incident, almost to the point where a lesser writer might tip it over into parody, but Les Edgerton never lets this happen. Through a combination of excellent writing and controlled plotting, Edgerton turns this into a quite excellent noir thrill-machine of a novel. Excellent stuff.

5) Rust and Bone by Craig Davidson
It’s the title story, about an ageing bare-knuckle fighter, that’s the real killer in this collection (a fine tale, written in some of the most beautifully rendered prose I’ve read in a short story), but it’s a strong collection filled with several superb short stories.

6) Mixed Blood by Roger Smith
Ah, what would one of these lists be without one of Roger Smith’s black-hearted, fast-paced tales on it? Not the same, that’s for sure! This ultra-violent thriller has several story strands that interleave beautifully. And, as ever with Smith, it has a brilliant and vile villain. Why Roger Smith isn’t a more successful writer is one of the big mysteries? He writes superbly, can plot with the best of them, and paints a picture of South Africa that grows scarier with each novel. When dog-shit writers like James Patterson sell millions for ghost-written tales, you have to wonder why Smith, a far superior writer with real story-telling chops, doesn’t sell anywhere near those kinds of numbers.

7) The City And The City by China Mieville
My first experience of this British science fiction author was a highly positive one. It’s a detective thriller set in two eastern European cities that share the same geographical space. The inhabitants of the city have differing languages, customs and architectural styles, and deal with each other’s existence through a combination of architectural cross-hatching and ‘unseeing’. It sounds like more of a ‘mindfuck’ than it actually is, and is a well-written thriller that seamlessly combines philosophical elements and satirical digs at big business and national identity. Superb stuff.

8) Paul Carter is a Dead Man by Ryan Bracha
Bracha’s alternative version of modern-day Britain makes for an ugly place, but also for a damn fine satirical thriller that skewers the kind of UKIP-style politics that currently blights our nation, along with nice digs at social network justice and its own brand of replacement swearing.

9) The Long Lost Dog Of It by Michael Kazepis
This original take on the the ensemble novel has its flaws, but it has stayed with me in a way that no other book has this year. It has some fine moments, plus far and away the best action setpiece I read this year (between two hitmen that starts in an apartment block and eventually expands out into a wider conflict with the police). It also has some wonderful prose.

10) American Death Songs by Jordan Harper
A fine collection of hard-edged short stories that really put its steel toe-capped boots into its characters’ guts. Harper is a damn fine writer of short tales. Great collection.

I read a lot of good stuff this year and there were many other notable and highly enjoyable works by writers such Paul D. Brazill, J. David Osborne, Keith Nixon, and Josh Stallings among many others.

Here’s hoping 2015 throws up as many gems.

Merry Christmas, folks, and a Happy New Year.

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.