Book Review – Brown Bread, Boys: A Tragedy by Delilah Des Anges

41ybRFdf2WL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_

(Please forgive the Amazon image, I couldn’t find a better one on short notice.)

Self published books have a terrible reputation. Sturgeon’s Law claims that ninety percent of everything is crap, and this adage is never waved around more than in discussions about fanfiction and/or self published books. I’m not going to discuss my own personal opinion on the matter – there’s a ramble for another day – but, suffice it to say, if Sturgeon’s Law is to be considered accurate then ‘Brown Bread, Boys: A Tragedy’ definitely finds itself in the 10%.

Imagine the unholy union of Guy Richie’s ‘Snatch’, Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Clothe it in gallons of blood, knock-off Burberry and add a good dash of near-supernatural horror for good measure. ‘Brown Bread, Boys…’ is a story about London gangsters who’ve somehow harnessed a dark, primal power – whether it’s black magic or something more rooted in the supernatural is up for debate, but when it ends in exploding hearts and buckets of the red stuff, who’s arguing? The presence of this volatile and terrifying power immediately means we’re not in your basic Brighton Rock territory. These are not the kind of gangsters we know and love.

There are power struggles and betrayals galore, but what makes the book compelling is the interplay between the deftly-woven main characters. Isaiah, a man who finds himself de-facto leader and struggles to maintain a sense of order even as everything goes to shit around him; withdrawn, fatalistic Johnny, whose relationship with Isaiah is secretive and sensitive and perhaps the only thing rooting Johnny in anything resembling reality; Alice, an Amazonian shitkicker of a woman with a penchant for cheerfully torturing people in the buff. And Pitbull, a pint-sized ‘chavette’ with an attitude and a hell of a secret. True to the Shakespeare play on which it was partially based, when things go wrong they go very wrong indeed, and the spiralling descent of these four characters – fates interwoven, by accident and design – is absolutely fascinating to read. The story is well paced and there are enough twists and turns to keep a well-trodden path fresh and interesting. And the characters manage to be suitably larger-than-life while still talking, acting and feeling like real people – a difficult thing to pull off whether you’re traditionally published or have taken alternative routes.

What I read in October

the-moon-will-look-strange-finalsmall1

The Moon Will Look Strange by Lynda E. Rucker

Short fiction collections can sometimes be hit and miss. You sometimes read collections in which only one or two stories stand out, and the rest are sort of literary white noise. This isn’t one of those collections. The author has a clear, almost conversational style of prose, the kind you can imagine works brilliantly when the stories are read aloud; it’s very effective, and allows for a creeping sense of unease lurking quietly beneath the surface of each story.

Lynda E. Rucker’s great strength, in my opinion, is creating an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension, exemplified by stories like ‘No More A-Roving’, in which a seemingly mundane situation grows stranger and stranger – you can almost feel the claustrophobic sense of dread emanating from the page, a fundamental ‘wrongness’ rather that straight-out horror which works brilliantly. ‘The Chance Walker’ recalls the deep-seated anxiety of homesickness, and finding oneself paranoid and isolated in a foreign country. ‘The Last Reel’ has a cinematic self-awareness which compliments the subject matter beautifully. My favourite, the titular ‘The Moon Will Look Strange’ is an exploration of loss and guilt and grief, a dark and moving piece which asks what extreme lengths we will go to in order to bring back a lost loved one.

My favourite horror stories are those which plumb psychological depths and ask questions of human nature and emotions, and Rucker definitely delivers on this – her stories explore the human condition every bit as much as they explore the horrific and the supernatural, and this sets ‘The Moon Will Look Strange’ apart from many of its contemporaries. An excellent collection.

tumblr_inline_nb5w7urFt21svr1hh

No.6 by Atsuko Asano

In the seemingly utopian city of No.6, a young boy named Shion finds his perfect existence fundamentally altered by the arrival of a boy named Nezumi, a fugitive whom Shion finds injured. After sheltering Nezumi one stormy night, his life is turned upside-down – all the privileges afforded to him are mysteriously withdrawn and he finds himself at the centre of a strange conspiracy involving parasitic wasps which cause premature ageing. If it sounds bonkers, that’s because it is. But it works. The city of No.6 recalls ‘Brazil’-esque levels of control, and a populous all too happy to roll with it in order to retain their comfortable lifestyles. But outside the city, a very different world exists, and Shion soon discovers the lengths people will go to in order to keep the uncomfortable secrets about No.6 hidden.

Story aside, the manga itself is well-drawn and laid out, and although my Japanese isn’t good enough to allow a thorough translation the English script seems to be well done. Both main characters are interesting in that ‘opposites attract’ kind of way – sweet, idealistic Shion and the strange and unpredictable Nezumi, who seems as irritated by Shion as he is enamoured. There appears to be some kind of slow-building romance beneath the surface of their relationship, which is intriguing in of itself – ostensibly, this is sci-fi YA manga and same-sex romance isn’t something you see a great deal of in western genre YA, at least in the mainstream. I’ve only finished two volumes, but I’m looking forward to reading on.

734_large

Black Static issue 42

A very strong offering from Black Static this month, with several excellent stories, most notably ‘Be Light. Be Pure. Be Close To Heaven’ by Sara Saab. A truly fantastic exploration of religion and worship, featuring a strange and totally believable sect in which ritual amputation of one’s own body parts represents the truest form of piety. The prose is stunning and the story is one of the best I’ve read all year. Other stand-outs include Alyssa Wong’s ‘Scarecrow’, in which loss, love and cruelty intermingle beneath the canopy of the main character’s strange avian transformation; the weird and unsettling ‘What Happened To Marly and Lanna’ by Noah Wareness, which reads like a lucid fever-dream, and Kristi DeMeester’s ‘December Skin’, in which an unseen threat looms large and horrible like a monster on the periphery of one’s vision, and the main characters seem almost complicit. Matthew Cheney’s ‘Patrimony’ is a fascinating, ‘Dark Tower’-esque post apocalyptic tale of revenge and retribution with a suitably bleak ending. ‘Goat Eyes’ by David D. Levine and ‘The Bury Line’ by Stephen Hargadon are both good stories in their own right, but didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Dead Funny, edited by Robin Ince and Johnny Mains 9781907773761frcvr.indd

Horror stories by comedians. It shouldn’t work, should it? But this accomplished anthology proves that not only does it work, the fusion of black humour and dark subject matter is actually really effective when handled properly. The result is a sort of textual equivalent to ‘The League Of Gentlemen’ or ‘Gareth Marenghi’s Darkplace’ – both entertaining and uncomfortable and, in some places, downright disturbing.

Reece Shearsmith’s ‘Dog’ is perhaps the best example of this – the tale of a young boy who, in retribution for his brother’s dogshit-induced blindness (a real phenomenon, by the way) goes on a crusade to hunt down the dog – and owner – responsible. The resulting narrative is both darkly humorous (little details, such as the Mr Kipling van, had me snorting guiltily) and quite horrific. Two little boys quite casually murdering women and their dogs should not make such a good story, and yet here it is.

Not all of the stories are humorous, and that’s no bad thing. Mitch Benn’s ‘The Patient’ is classic, straightfoward horror and delivers exactly what it sets out to achieve. I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening in Matthew Holness’ ‘Possum’, but it’s weirdly compelling in a nightmarish, hallucinatory sort of way. ‘Filthy Night’ is every bit as good a piece as I have come to expect from Charlie Higson, although I have previously only read his books for young adults – clearly, adult fiction is missing out on his input. And Richard Herring’s ‘Woolboy’ is a deliciously creepy ‘alone in the woods’ type affair, showcasing the dark side of knitting (no, really.)

My favourite, though, is Katy Brand’s ‘For Roger’. What an amazing story. Exploring his loft, a man finds a diary which appears to have been written by some future incarnation of himself, and which details a sequence of events he then sets out to attempt to circumvent. A strange and ultimately very touching tale, this is deftly written and had me compulsively turning the pages to find out what happened. The stand-out tale in a collection of excellent stories. Who’d have thought comedians could be so horrible?