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.

Book number 8 notched up – time to move to the next one

Well, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Billingham Forum is finally done, dusted, and delivered to Amazon. And I’m glad to see the back of it.


Well, it was hard to write, for starters. It began life as a short story (encompassing the initial robbery at Billingham Forum). But as soon as the short was complete, I wanted to know what happened to the characters I’d created (the short story leaves the fate of several of them up in the air). So I decided to fill in the gaps…

The novella came next. It fleshed out Bobby, Harry, ToJo, and Thrombosis, but, again, left me wanting to know more about Billy Chin, Jonno, Joey, and Ramon. So I went back again, and gave the story a third go.

The novel took much longer to assemble than the novella and short story because I wanted the tale to be more character driven than in previous works. I used a lot more foreshadowing. Many of the characters make decisions that come back to haunt them later. Sometimes you can’t plot these things. Occasionally they just need to bubble to the surface. For a plodder like me, that take times.

I learned a lot by writing this novel. I found out that expanding a short work into something much longer is not for the faint-hearted. Often the plot changes course because what works in a short story (or even a novella) doesn’t always succeed in the more generous word count of a novel. Characters evolve because they can grow into the pages. The lack of limits makes them less black and white.

Endings changed, first chapters came and went, characters emerged from the chrysalis of a cameo to become fully-fledged main players. Most of the main players got at least two or three killer lines and moments, or in Billy Chin’s case got to steal virtually every chapter in which he appears. The Stantons were much nastier in the short story, partly because this was the first Stanton short I ever finished (that’s right, the first – which goes to show how bloody long the novel took to write). It was only when I wrote The Hunters that they developed slightly softer edges and became more sympathetic. A Funny Thing Happened… came together in such a way that it was overtaken by every other project. This is why what seem like prequels actually aren’t. I write about six projects at the same time. It just so happens that The Hunters was the first project after The Gamblers that I was happy to publish. A Funny Thing Happened… was last one to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The next Stanton story due for publication (early in 2017, most likely) has been almost as protracted. Sexy Lexy is set roughly a month after the events of A Funny Thing Happened… It was originally slated for release in The Greatest Show In Town, but I felt it needed lots of work and dropped it at the last moment. And, much like A Funny Thing Happened…, it expanded to become something bigger and broader – in this case, a novella.

After Sexy Lexy, I’m planning to put the brothers away for a while and concentrate on The Amsterdamned, which should come together quickly, because I’ve plotted it meticulously. Then I intend to fix my sights on We Won’t Leave This World Alive, which continues storylines from The Glasgow Grin (the Stanton brothers, Bob Owden, Gupta Patel, Jimmy Raffin, all get leading roles).

Anyway, enough talk about future publications…

Now it’s time to start pushing A Funny Thing Happened… to my readership.

I hope you enjoy it.

It was hard to write, but I think because of these difficulties it’s a pretty good read.

My seven months of Facebook exile has ended – what have I learned?

After seven months (give or take) away from Facebook I’ve decided to return to active social networking. My reasons for leaving in the first place were manifold. Progress on my novel A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Billingham Forum was in a state of paralysis and didn’t seem to be moving forward as quickly as I wanted. I needed more time to focus on expanding my graphic designer skillset to include web design (web page design and creation and learning HTML and CSS coding (with Javascript and other languages to follow). I needed these skills to produce a graphic designer website and portfolio, along with an entirely separate author website. I also wanted to leave because, at that point in time, my overuse of social media was getting in the way of these goals. Facebook became my means of venting my frustration and anger at the world, anger that increased when I realised my excessive use of social media was slowing down my progress. And so it went in a vicious cycle of anger and frustration until I decided that leaving was the only way I was going to achieve anything.

It took some time getting used to the adjustment. I realised just how many hours I spent on Facebook, doing nothing of much value, either on my laptop or my mobile phone. I actually missed it, although I wasn’t quite sure why. Then I began to fill this spare time productively. I spent hours studying HTML and CSS on Udemy or reading books on the subject. Gradually these languages began to make sense, and I was able to build a first draft author website. At the same time, my novel started to come together.

After a while, I realised that I didn’t need Facebook at all. And I certainly didn’t miss it. My procrastination levels dropped markedly. I bought server space and downloaded some software I needed to put my designer website together, which happened with little fuss. Then I learned about the responsive website design framework Bootstrap and put together a responsive version of my author website. The novel went off for editing (a process that’s now almost finished), and I’m gearing myself up for its release.

Which brings me here.

I’m in a much better place than I was in January. Just a few small achievements, such as learning to code relatively simple languages like HTML and CSS, and building a couple of websites, have brightened my mood considerably. Plus work on the latest Stanton novel is no longer getting me down. I feel like the time’s right to re-enter the world of social media. With a few caveats, of course!

My newfound sense of purpose and self-belief will disappear quickly if I succumb to old habits. So from now on, Facebook is restricted to my laptop. Besides, the Facebook app drains something like 20 percent battery life from most mobile phones. And I’m going to monitor my usage carefully.

So what have I learned from my time away from Facebook? Firstly, I can get things done when I put my mind to them. Second, social media time is dead time that can be utilised better by learning or writing or doing something useful. Third, I’ve got a long way to go before I can consider myself a fully functioning web designer (Javascript, PHP, MySQL, etc.). Fourth, I’m getting slower as a writer and I need to do something to combat this. I’m breaking my next big novel The Amsterdamned into small plot units, and story beats, in an attempt to speed up writing time (otherwise I’m likely to be publishing the fucking thing in 2019 rather than 2017). Fifth, if any of you want to learn a computer language or pick up software skills quickly, then I highly recommend Udemy. It’s brilliant.

Last but not least, I’ve learned that taking time out to pursue goals is the most productive and rewarding thing you can do. Sure, it can be frustrating, and progress can often be slow, but the pleasure from achieving life goals (however small) is immense. I can no longer imagine going back to the way things were.

Hell, I don’t wanna go back to way things were.

Onwards and upwards, my friends. Onwards and upwards.

I’ve got a brand new author website

After learning HTML and CSS (an ongoing and never ending process, I might add), and after a couple of false starts, I have designed and coded my new author website. Based on the Bootstrap framework, the site is fully responsive. You should have a good experience regardless of the device you view it on (although for some reason it doesn’t play nicely with Adblock – so be sure to turn off your blocker for my site (don’t worry I don’t have any sneaky ads)).

Come pay me a visit and maybe get on my subscriber list.

Potted reviews: Russian Roulette: The Konstantin Files by Keith Nixon, High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard

Keith Nixon’s The Fix impressed me a couple of year’s back (and the sequel of sorts I’m Dead Again is just as good). Both featured a six-feet-five Russian tramp called Konstantin whose skillset is considerably more advanced than that of the average homeless citizen. In The Fix and even in I’m Dead Again he’s more of a supporting character. However, in the cracking collection of novellas called Russian Roulette he takes center stage. Along the way Konstantin encounters bumbling criminals, wannabe hardmen, drugs, dominatrixes, prostitution, fake psychics, and other misfortunes, most of which he deals with using a combination of smarts and fast fists. This anthology is packed with top notch entertainment from start to finish, written in short punchy sentences that capture the right mix of description, action and character. These are fast-paced, action-packed, foul-mouthed stories with a fair dose of heart. Highly recommended.

I recently read J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. It came across as well written but somewhat vague and episodic. It was too drawn out and the characters were too opaque for it to be truly compelling. It didn’t fill me with any compulsion to read any other of the Ballard novels on my shelf in the near future. But then the film of High Rise came out and I decided that I should read the novel before watching the film. And I’m glad I did. The book is, in a word, brilliant. Unlike The Drought this one is all just crazy momentum. It starts with a truly wonderful opening line and gets better from there. Whether viewed as an allegory about status and class, a statement on modern society’s inability to function without its technological trappings, or just as a satire about alienation, this is blistering fiction. I loved every second of it.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I try to get through at least one or two of his novels every year, just as a palate cleanser. His work always feels like a homecoming of sorts (Leonard was the first crime novelist I read) and Mr Majestyk was no different. It’s basically just a western dressed up in contemporary clothing, but Leonard’s spare writing makes it seem contemporary and fresh. Melon farmer, and former soldier, Vincent Majestyk wants nothing more than to be left in peace to bring in his melon crop, but various people get in the way of this including a mafia hitman. He gets zero help from the ineffectual local police, who actually want to use Majestyk as bait to lure the hitman, so decides to take the law into his own hands and hunt down the bad guys. Like I stated, just like in a western, a small guy gets pushed around by big interests and pushes back with bloody results, but the pleasure comes from the way the tale is modernised and told. Elmore Leonard couldn’t tell a dull story if he tried: his dialogue is always a pleasure to read, his descriptions hit just the right notes of concise, snappy detail, and the action and momentum is just right. If the romance between Majestyk and Nancy Chavez is a bit pat and easy that’s probably because this was Leonard’s second contemporary crime novel (after the relatively low-key The Big Bounce) and he didn’t really hit his stride until the next novel Fifty-two Pickup. But that’s a minor caveat because this is a cracking read otherwise.

Subtitle Fatigue: The Gripping Post With the Twist that’s got Everybody Talking

Am I the only person out there who’s bloody sick and tired of seeing Kindle books with SEO subtitles that are like a mini-essay?

For example:

The Girl with a Girl Tattoo: The psychological thriller novel with a gripping twist that you just won’t see coming!

A Man Without Eyes: The astonishing debut thriller novel that will grip you by the genitals until the very last page!

Book titles with colons and a short essay of random keyword bullshit seem to be the new trend for indie fiction and some self-publishers, now that The Girls… are beginning to wear out their welcome. Every new book that seems to be hitting the Kindle charts at the moment is followed by some ludicrously long subtitle/essay. I’m not sure if you agree (maybe you don’t), but this whole thing just screams AMATEUR! It also automatically makes me not want to buy the thing. In fact, if your title is followed by a colon and a random-arse description of what it contains then I’m sorry, but you’ve just been scratched off my to-read list forever. It could be the best novel ever written, but I’ll never know because I just won’t read it.

Is that writer and reader snobbery? Perhaps. Call me strange if you like, but I prefer not to be informed about an impending twist, and I don’t need to be persuaded that something is gripping. I prefer to read for myself and make an informed decision. And if I’m looking for thrillers, if your novel shows up in my search I can safely assume that the fucking thing is, in fact, a “thriller novel.”

I know I won’t stack my work with subtitles for a competitive advantage. If I can’t say what needs to be stated within the genre selectors that Amazon provides, along with its generous keyword provision, and my book blurb then, frankly, my novels deserve to fail.

Rant over!


Some fresh cover concepts

I’m thinking of renewing my cover designs. The aesthetic is rough and gritty – all sketchy, nervous lines and spatters of colour – reflecting the content of the books. It’ll be interesting to know people’s opinions. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Do I need a better illustrator (ie. somebody who’s not me)?

Personally, I like them. They sum up the content and the location of the book better than the current covers. Over the coming weeks I intend to do the rest of the covers, but it’ll be interesting looking at these a few weeks after their initial creation and see if I still feel the same about them.

CuriousCaseCover v2   BoneBreakers2016

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to know your thoughts on the matter. If you’re feeling chatty let me know in the comments section (particularly if you feel these are more impactful than the current covers).