(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finds himself de-facto leader and struggles to maintain a sense of order even as everything goes to shit around him; withdrawn, fatalistic Johnny, whose relationship with Isaiah is secretive and sensitive and perhaps the only thing rooting Johnny in anything resembling reality; Alice,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.