Book Review: Nutcase

Nutcase, by Tony Williams, is a retelling of the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong. The protagonist is Aidan Wilson, a hard lad born and raised in one of Sheffield’s roughest housing estates. Surrounded by violence and addiction he goes from young trouble maker to convicted criminal to vigilante. His size, strength and willingness to defend family and friends leads him down a road chequered by brutality.

Those living on the estates Aiden roams have low expectations. They deal drugs to make money, steal whatever else they need to use or sell, and get off their faces on alcohol and other drugs at every opportunity. Many of them take on jobs labouring, transporting goods (many stolen), or in the shops and pubs they frequent. Few stick to anything long term. Sex is recreational with babies a byproduct, accepted but with little responsibility.

Aiden is one of five siblings. As they grow up and leave the family home to set up with partners or friends they look out for one another whenever they are able. At times Aiden has his own place to live but there are regular periods when he stays with others for work or to escape trouble. This is accepted practice in his community. There are fallings out and regular fights. Aiden acquires a reputation that is both a threat and a means of survival.

There are girlfriends along the way but they bring their own dramas. When one young girl calls on Aiden to help an abused child he ends up in a situation that will haunt him. As will happen again, the grapevine carries different versions of his involvement. He will struggle to shake off the rumours some delight in spreading.

Aiden moves around the Sheffield and Leeds areas, spends time in prison, moves to Swansea, and gravitates home. He makes enemies, there are deaths, and he is blamed for his apparently uncaring behaviour. Relations of those he thwarts threaten retaliation. Damage to property is a distraction, bodily harm a regular and accepted risk. The violence of the lifestyle is gut-wrenching, the depiction all too believable.

The denouement comes as no surprise with the portrayal offering insight into the attention span and attitudes of the internet age. Few it appears place value on a life that lacks what the middle classes would describe as prospects, especially when that life has been spent recklessly.

The narrative style is almost blasé yet remains jaw droppingly intense. There are occasional asides about the lives minor characters will go on to lead which provide lighter relief. Nevertheless, the majority of what is being depicted remains horrific, especially that it has been normalised throughout the estates. I cannot say if it is realistic but that is certainly how it reads.

I haven’t been as perturbed by a storyline since I read the incredible We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire yet even it has characters who desire a better way of living. Aiden Wilson and his family never seem to consider this a possibility. Given their repeated actions I am guessing this could be a depressingly pragmatic point of view. I am left pondering what it would take to instigate change, if the Aiden Wilsons of our world would even welcome such intervention.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.


Author Interview: Simon Okotie

Photo credit: Evgeniy Kazannik

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Simon Okotie, author of In the Absence of Absalon, which is published by Salt.


1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in east London to a Nigerian father and an English mother. We moved to Norfolk in the late seventies – seemingly one of few black families in the region at the time. I moved back to Norfolk last year.

2. Can you tell us about In the Absence of Absalon?

It is the second book in a trilogy. My editor, Nicholas Royle, recently described the first book, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, as about ‘a man travelling 200 yards on a bus’. In the Absence of Absalon is somewhat less dramatic: it is the story of a man taking his keys out of his pocket – that’s the first half of the book, at least, as he does actually enter a townhouse in the second half. The third (as yet untitled) novel – forthcoming from Salt in 2019 – is about a man walking down a ramp; rather, it is about a man taking precisely four-and-a-half steps down a ramp leading to a pedestrian underpass (which I think is excessive – I am currently trying to edit out one of those steps).

The plot of the first book has been described as ‘slight’; whilst ‘In the Absence of Absalon brings us to a later stage in the emerging non-plot’, which is ‘wafer-thin’. Nicholas Lezard said, in the Guardian, that the whole of In the Absence of Absalon is largely a matter of qualifications, of trying, in tightened and tightening circles, to get to the essence of what it is to be alive in a contemporary city. And of course it is also a joke about the very nature of the detective’s search for clues. For here everything is of equal significance: that is, immensely significant on its own terms, and yet, when placed against the wider backdrop, of absolutely no relevance whatsoever.

I would say, though, that there is more to the plot than has so far been reported!

3. What inspired the book?

The books were inspired by a black man, known as Marigold, who was often seen in Norwich during the ‘80s unofficially directing traffic on the inner ring road wearing yellow rubber gloves. The original Marigold is still well known in Norfolk. He died in May 2015.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

The latter (although with my current work-in-progress – my fourth novel, a thriller – I am attempting to incorporate more of the former).

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Strange to say that I don’t really think of myself as ‘a writer’: I prefer to say, simply, that I write. After all, I can only produce meaningful work when my sense of self-identity (as ‘a writer’, or as anything else) is at its thinnest (although I’m not saying that identity is unimportant, or that issues of racial, gender or other strands of identity are absent from what I write). Fredric Jameson, writing in the London Review of Books about fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude, says that, at its best, to write (and to read) is to ‘lose ourselves in [a] precisely situated oblivion’, which nails it, I think.

And to answer the question, my favourite part of writing is where it takes me in my reading.

6. And your least favourite?


7. Do you enjoy social media?

I’m with Franzen:

“Intolerance particularly flourishes online, where measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on, invisible Facebook and Google algorithms steer you towards content you agree with, and nonconforming voices stay silent for fear of being flamed or trolled or unfriended. The result is a silo in which, whatever side you’re on, you feel absolutely right to hate what you hate. And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

Yes. I think it is readers, in a sense, who create books. I am grateful when people engage with my novels – whether on-line or in print – and am fascinated by the different interpretations of the so-called ‘action’, regardless of whether people like the work. Reviews always feed in, somehow, to my work-in-progress.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I am a public transport enthusiast, and like nothing better than a good bus or train-journey (outside of rush hours): an ideal place, often, to read, write and reflect.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I have just finished Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which is devastating, as was Philippe Sands’ East West Street.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

I would love to have spent time with the Buddha.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

I find it impossible to compute this question, as a highly introverted, private person!


Thank you Simon for providing such interesting, and entertaining, answers to my questions. 

You may follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonOkotie 

Click on the book cover above to find out more about In the Absence of Absalon. 

In the Absence of Absalon is published by Salt Publishing who I previously interviewed here.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, published by Salt

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, which is published by Salt.


This book is published by Salt Publishing “an independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature …. advocates for writers at all stages of their careers … [ensuring] that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.” They have twice been Booker longlisted, most recently in 2016 for The Many by Wyl Menmuir and recently received a Costa First Novel shortlisting for The Clock In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

In the Absence of Absalon is a sequel to the brilliantly original Whatever Happened To Harold Absalon?, a lengthy book but one whose plot could be reproduced in its entirety in a brief paragraph:

Marguerite is investigating the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor. He starts in a hotel where he has seen Harold’s wife Isobel entering a lift, he climbs the stairs to the floor where she alights and observes her eating in a restaurant with her baby and a friend. Ejected from the hotel, he then follows them and seeing her hail a taxi, and realising she has spotted him, he boards a bus and goes to the top deck. Concerned that Isobel may be on the deck below and that some of her associates may be following him in another bus he decides to leave the bus. He lets the passenger beside him stand up and walk down the aisle, and then follows him down the aisle, pausing to allow another passenger (a businesswoman) enter the aisle between them. That lady appears to pay his bus fare. At the next stop he rings the bell twice in the manner of the conductress so as to cause the bus to set off again – and while the bus is still accelerating away goes down the stairs and leaves the bus. As he is exiting he sees Harold through a window of a showroom the bus had just passed.

Clearly the author has decided that the pace of that book was inappropriate and has slowed it down for this book. The sequel features an unnamed detective carrying out “his investigation into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the Mayor’s transport advisor, who had been missing”. At the start of the book the investigator is approaching a townhouse, owned by Richard Knox, who Harold was known to have fallen out with before his disappearance. He believes he is being closely followed by Harold and that the house holds the key to resolving the mystery of his disappearance. By the book’s end he has walked up to the gate of the townhouse, looked for and found in his trousers the keys to the house, found that the apparently padlocked gate is not secured, walked up to the door which is opened by Harold’s wife Isobel, walked towards the stairs resisting the distraction of a ringing phone by then changing his plan when he hears a baby crying.

The narrator has been trained and mentored by Marguerite and is similarly meticulous in his thoughts – unlike Marguerite his thoughts are typically more focused on the actual case in hand though and (with the exception of rare Marguerite digressions into areas only very tangentially related to his investigation (one particularly entertaining one starting with a reference to whether Isobel is free to leave, quickly departing by route of the ease of leaving a non-dinner party into a four page discussion of what the concept of cooking and preparing means in the context of the three types of pizza (take-away, shop bought and home-made))) are often related to his physical progress and the motions of his body.

Overall a hugely enjoyable and at the same time thought provoking book and one very much in the unique style of its predecessor. Comparing it to that there are negatives and positives.

On the negative side, at times the physical descriptions shaded at times into a level of tedium I did not experience in “Whatever Happened …”. The book also makes, like the paragraph above extensive use of brackets, but, unlike the paragraph above does not seem capable of correctly un-nesting them, by omitting the use of double (or triple) closing right brackets. Only a mathematical pedant would notice this – but of course this is exactly the type of book a mathematical pedant enjoys!

On the positive side, the much stronger aspect of this book compared to the first, is the greater sense of meta-narrative in a number of senses: the unnamed narrator refers at times to what the investigator may be doing during chapter breaks; the investigator himself is aware (without understanding the mechanisms) that his thoughts and actions are somehow being monitored; the footnotes relate even more closely to the case than before; the narrator himself starts to get involved in the book, in particular as it ends following the investigator into the room where they baby seems to be crying “determined, once again, to understand the circumstances of his disappearance”. As a result the real conceit at the heart of this series – examining the very idea of sheer complexities of life and how they can be rendered in fiction, comes out more strongly.

This and its predecessor are highly recommended.



You may read my review of In the Absence of Absalon here.

Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with Simon Okotie, the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Book Review: Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness

“He is on the fringes, camouflaged within the crowd. To him, the streets are a theatre, with an ever-more complex cast and plot. The flâneur is the only observing audience member of this play. Maybe there are other flâneurs, at different vantage points, but what they witness would be a completely different work. As the characters of his theatre present themselves only randomly, in flashes, the flâneur is our only possible protagonist, both sociologist and anthropologist, alienated and immersed in his city.”

Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness, by Simon Kinch, explores a young American man’s ennui as he reaches the end of a three month long tour of Europe. When the story opens he faces a choice – return to his parental home in America as planned or remain where he is. Sitting on a bench in a coastal town between Spain and France he has received a text message from his girlfriend – she is breaking up with him. His reaction is to throw his phone into the sea and abandon plans to visit Paris and then London before flying home as his ticket and visa demands. Instead he returns south, to a hostel in the small Spanish town of Sevilla.

The protagonist, Granville, feels cut adrift. He accepts the easy friendships offered by the other young people he encounters. Knowing that his money is not limitless he finds himself a small job. He observes the lives others lead from his vantage points in cafes and as he walks the streets. He eavesdrops on conversations. Although seeking company, he shies away from attempts by others to get to know him better.

Had he returned to America Granville would also have found a small job to tide him over until he rejoined the road his life would now travel. In dual narratives the reader is offered snapshots of his day to day life in Sevilla and as it would have been in Madison, USA.

The melancholy undertones of the narrative pervade each small choice Granville makes. He is drifting but cannot find a good reason to change this way of living. He misses his girlfriend yet rejects the advances of others if they try to get close. He becomes more interested in the interactions of strangers than in improving his own.

Although told in the first person there is an air of detachment, a recognition that Granville is not behaving in a manner that can be sustained. In Sevilla he can neither speak nor read Spanish yet puts off the need to make longer term decisions. By throwing away his phone he has cut contact with those from home. He recognises that his parents will be worried yet still continues as he is. When crisis points are reached his reactions revolve around avoidance.

Granville struggles with his girlfriend’s rejection, as if not accepting her decision makes it less real. He changes location rather than changing himself. He seeks a dream without the drive to achieve. He is aware yet will not act constructively.

Granville’s drifting is only possible due to his position of privilege, yet the writing engendered a degree of sympathy. The parallel stories provide a vehicle for portraying much that is difficult to express. There have been many classic stories written of men attempting to find their place in a world that rewards behaviour they rail against. This contemporary offering stands with the best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased)

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased), by Marie Gameson, is a charmingly idiosyncratic tale told by an unreliable narrator. The prose is quick and witty yet also affecting. Its protagonist is Winifred Rigby, a translator living in London whose memory is not what it should be. She is plagued by her mother and sister’s interference in her life. It took some time to understand why she granted them such freedom to come and go from her home, why they are constantly prying into her personal and private affairs.

The novel is a slow burner but this does not detract from its easy engagement. It explores how memory is curated and how the past shapes current perceptions. Individuals cling to what they consider important, which may mean little to others, even those who were also there. The same events will be remembered differently, reasons forgotten or fragments misunderstood.

The story opens with an old man knocking on Winifred’s front door. He is Fred Fallowfield and was her history teacher at school. He believes that his dead father is responsible for causing havoc at his home and that an essay Winifred wrote when she was fourteen holds the key to sending this disturbed being on its way. Fred’s wife catches up with him and tells Winifred he is suffering from dementia.

Fred will not be swayed from his conviction that only Winifred can help. Eventually she agrees to undertake research into mystic funeral rites from the East, at his behest. Meanwhile her own life is brightened by a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend who, along with his girlfriend, proposition Winifred. She readily accepts and must then keep their liasons secret from her sister.

Another old schoolfriend, Diana, is also eager to rekindle their friendship. Winifred regards all her relationships with an air of detachment and is surprised to discover that she and Diana were once close. She makes a visit to Diana’s family home and lost memories are stirred.

Winifred does still care about her father who sells The Big Issue outside an underground station. Her sister talks of their father as though he is dead.

Winifred is trying to earn enough to enable her to return to Taiwan where she had been teaching English and where she last felt at peace. She has embraced Buddhism and practices mindfulness, although still keeps forgetting to complete simple, basic tasks. Her sister derides her apparent preference for all things East over West. Winifred believes her sister and mother are taking the money she earns, that they gave away her life savings, to keep her where she is.

As each of these threads is developed the reader gains a clearer picture of how Winifred is regarded by others, and how challenging many people find dealing with someone who behaves differently. Relationships are formed over time with shared memories being key. A recurring theme is the difficulty of grieving for the loss of a loved one when they are not yet dead.

The denouement fills in the gaps between what have been gradual reveals. Family is portrayed at its best and its worst yet there remains hope and understanding amidst the complexities of lives lived. Over time people change, however much those who love them struggle to regain what they once were.

The writing is deft, light and entertaining throughout with a depth of understanding that lingers well beyond the final page. A sagacious and captivating story that deserves to be widely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Fair of Face

Fair of Face, by Christina James, is the sixth novel in the author’s DI Yates series of crime thrillers. Set in contemporary Lincolnshire it first introduces the reader to Tristram Arkwright, an inmate of HMP Wakefield who, as a reward for good behaviour, works in the prison library. He strikes up an illicit correspondence with Jennifer Dove, a city analyst turned bookseller who supplies the maximum-security jail with its reading material. Bored with the ‘honest intentions and humdrum goals’ of the local citizens, Jennifer considers her secret correspondence with the incarcerated librarian an exciting diversion. Both are attempting to play mind games believing they can retain the upper hand.

The action moves to Spalding where the bodies of a mother and her infant daughter have been discovered in their beds. The house is run-down and in one of the roughest streets in town where everyone knows everyone else’e business and few men seem to stick around. The murder house had been checked after the postman found the front door wide open early in the morning on his rounds. The dead woman’s foster daughter, Grace, is missing.

DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong are called in to investigate. When Grace reappears with a friend, Chloe, both girls are acting strangely. These ten year olds are gently questionned but do not seem able to account for their whereabouts over the weekend just past with any consistency. Chloe seems more upset about the two deaths than Grace.

Due to the girls’ ages social services become involved. Marie Krakowski is a big hearted woman who DI Yates resents for her determination to protect her young charges. Her persistent interference during formal interviews makes getting the truth from the two children a challenge. Another social worker, Tom Tarrant, is held in higher esteem. Both social workers are familiar not just with the girls and their chequered backgrounds but also their troublesome wider families, details of which they are reluctant to share citing client confidentiality.

The murder investigation keeps coming back to these youngsters, one of whom is a survivor from a previous violent attack on her family. Although the perpetrator of this atrocity was apprehended there are secrets to uncover that could potentially have a bearing on the more recent case.

There are a number of links between characters which I found somewhat challenging to follow – uncles, nephews, siblings, partners, employees and social workers had multiple interactions and a variety of roles. The point of view kept switching between chapters which interrupted my concentration as I worked out who was narrating and their relationships. Having a Tim and a Tom didn’t help my attempts to retain a coherent overview. I wondered if some of this would have been clearer had I read previous books in the series.

There are many detailed descriptions of clothes, some of which seemed unnecessarily acerbic:

“Marie was wearing a floor-length red cotton tartan skirt and a jacket with a nipped-in waist (insofar as it was possible to nip in Marie’s waist)”

One of the characters plays a role that subsequently appears superfluous to the plot.

Despite these minor criticisms the writing remains engaging. I had guessed many of the reveals early on but had by no means worked out them all. Introducing two ten year old girls as potential witnesses or even suspects to murder was a plot driver I haven’t encountered before. The difficulties this presented to the police investigation added food for thought.

A crime novel that held my attention and offered sufficient originality to make it worth the read. Where I am sensitive to what I regard as over emphasis on looks and dress, others will likely find this helps picture each scene.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

This post is a stop on the Fair of Face Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: The Squeeze

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

I have long been a fan of Lesley Glaister’s work. Her stories are perceptive, engaging and memorable with just the right degree of humour and originality to lift the difficult subjects she explores. Thus I eagerly awaited this, her latest publication. It is perhaps unwise to approach a book with such high expectations.

The Squeeze revolves around two characters who must each find a way to survive the choices they have made. Neither can become the person they long to be and, whatever befalls, life will only ever move forwards.

Marta grew up in Romania under Ceaușescu. Her father had high hopes for his daughter but was killed just before the regime was overthrown. Instead of preparing for university, Marta works in a chemical factory and helps to care for her little sister. When a well groomed stranger starts to woo the tired and yearning teenager, she ignores the warnings and accepts his attentions. Within weeks Marta has been abducted, trafficked, and forced into prostitution in the UK.

Mats is a businessman in Oslo with a pragmatic wife, Nina, who refuses to have the child he so desires. Mats is offered a transfer to Edinburgh and Nina tells him to accept, but that she will stay where she is. Mats considers himself steady and loyal, always eager to do what is right. If those he loves do not respond in kind he feels let down.

On a drunken night out with a work colleague in Edinburgh, Marta and Mats have sex. To Marta he is just another punter but Mats is wracked by guilt. When their paths cross again Mats is seeking absolution. It will cost him dear.

From this point on I found the development of the story somewhat preposterous. The day to day life and future prospects of the sex workers are achingly evoked but Mats’ reaction to his indiscretion seemed overblown.

Although wishing to be generous and giving, Mats is weak and needy. The women in his life, drawn by his looks and gentle demeanour, become frustrated by his lack of empathy, his expectation of gratitude for unasked for efforts. He wants his new wife to fit an image he has created, becoming disappointed when she strays from this construct. He thinks longingly of Nina, unaware of how she regards him.

The reader views Mats through his wife’s eyes as she records her thoughts – therapy for post-natal depression. There is little communication in their relationship.

Marta’s friendships with the other sex workers are touched on but never fully developed. The woman she travels with, Alis, is given a voice in the narrative but remains elusive. Despite living in the brothel for years little interaction is detailed.

The denouement may be regarded as auspicious, or perhaps just another chance for Mats to set himself up for further disappointment. He appears to have learned little over the years.

A great many social attitudes and issues are packed into this story, all insightfully portrayed yet somehow lacking coherence. It is written as a novel but at times reads as a series of vignettes. Each is effectively crafted and interlinked yet missing a degree of fluidity.

Any Cop?: The tale is easy enough to read and offers layers to unpick but is not as strong as I had expected. The characters are well drawn in their aloneness but action too often felt cumbersome. I am left dissatisfied.


Jackie Law