Luckenbooth (by Jenni Fagan)

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

“There is cheering out on the street. There is dancing. People meet and fall in love. Scuffles break out. They drink far too much. All of life is happening.”

Title: Luckenbooth
Author: Jenni Fagan
Pages:
338
Published by: Windmill Books (Imprint of Penguin, 2021)

In Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth, we follow the often squalid, sometimes vivacious lives (and deaths) of its residents.

Decades pass, people come and go, but the curses of dead women remain, echoing through the cold halls and dank stairwells of 10 Luckenbooth Close.

And much like Fagan’s novella Hex, Luckenbooth is a macabre but powerful piece of writing.

A darker shade of Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a magical place, but like all capital cities, there’s a darker underbelly that most are not privy to. 

Fagan’s interpretation of Edinburgh in Luckenbooth is the antithesis to the tourist board presentation. The novel exposes the reader to political corruption, malicious landlords, extreme poverty, and ingrained misogyny. All the things that polite society is aware of but tends to avert its gaze from. 

Luckenbooth is therefore a seething critique of society’s failings. And whilst the novel lacks subtlety at times, with each chapter veering into a different injustice, this feels intentional.

Fagan drags the reader kicking and screaming from the comfort of fiction back into the stark reality of social issues in our own world, only to pull them back in with slick, beautiful prose.

Luckenbooth Close as architectural horror

10 Luckenbooth Close is a place poisoned by the people within and the world without – and throughout the novel, the building morphs and buckles in grotesque ways. 

It’s a dying building, with the spirits of its violent past clinging to the veil between life and death, haunting its residents.

Highly visual, Fagan’s depictions of 10 Luckenbooth Close elicit creation in the mind of the reader. This is especially powerful in latter parts of the novel where the once-packed building stands derelict and (almost) abandoned.

Byam Shaw, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a power to abandoned places – in the absence of humanity, they take on new forms and natural life takes over, which Cal Flyn’s excellent Islands of Abandonment explores with real-world locations.

A form of architectural horror, Poe-esque in execution, it’s a memorable setting that will haunt the mind of its readers long after the final page is turned.

Final Thoughts

Is Luckenbooth worth reading? Great pieces of literary fiction unlock the reader’s imagination, transporting them to wild and wicked places they’ve never experienced before. And Luckenbooth is one of those books – if you give it time. 

It’s a bleak affair and not all readers will enjoy this relentlessly dark interpretation of Scotland’s capital. However, Jenni Fagan is a wonderful writer with a marvellous way with words – and it’s a compelling tale for those willing to darken the door of 10 Luckenbooth Close.

If you’re in any doubt, try reading Hex first – it’s a shorter book that introduces you to the writer’s style. But, if you’re a socially-conscious reader with a fascination towards the gothic, you’ll absolutely love this one.

4/5

Christ on a Bike (by Orla Owen)

Christ on a Bike Book Review
Christ on a Bike Book Review Pin

"Cerys receives an unexpected inheritance but there are rules attached. Three simple rules that must be followed..."

Title: Christ on a Bike
Author: Orla Owen
Pages:
260
Published by: Bluemoose Books (2024)

What would you do if you inherited a significant fortune from a total stranger? How about if you were legally unable to share it with anyone else?

These are the questions that Cerys, the meek and humble protagonist of Christ on a Bike, must wrangle with.

Routinely unnerving, each chapter becomes progressively more uncomfortable as the source of the inheritance comes into question. In fact, Orla Owen’s third novel goes to some startlingly dark places.

It’s a compelling setup, and Christ on a Bike duly delivers dollops of payoffs. This is a brilliant novel – and one that would make for an equally brilliant TV drama.

The perils of greed

Speaking of television, the BBC once ran a TV drama called The Syndicate. This was about friends and families winning big on the lottery and how extreme changes in personal wealth can alter people in unexpected ways.

Owen takes this a step further, with the wealth possessing a uniquely selfish legal agreement.

There are rules attached, one of which is that Cerys cannot share her wealth with another soul under any circumstances. Her finances are audited by a specially-selected financial adviser, and the keepers of the estate have an uncanny ability to sniff out non-compliance.

It’s particularly pertinent that Christ on a Bike is set to release in the midst of an international cost of living crisis. From a readerly point of view, this context has a huge impact on how the novel is read. 

As Cerys’ lifestyle becomes increasingly lavish, with decadent details around the gorging of luxury truffles, and frivolous purchases of expensive branded soap and silky bed sheets, it makes for a physically nauseating read. 

This isn’t a criticism. To the contrary, it’s a remarkable achievement, eliciting a physical sensation of revulsion towards glutton via the medium of print. 

Meanwhile, Cerys’s sister Seren struggles to run a family home and cannot even dream of the excess wealth her sister has inherited by chance. 

And whilst Cerys is a more empathetic individual, Seren is more volatile. The money amplifies these character traits, and the disparity between the two creates an uncomfortable cocktail of guilt and envy.

Narrative & characters

As a writer, Owen positions herself as one who “focuses on the dark and macabre side of family life, the parts that go on behind closed doors.” And never is this more true than in Christ on a Bike, with tension around Cerys’s inheritance poisoning the relationships with her sister.

But the joy with this book is the incongruity between the subject matter and Owen’s own writing style. Her prose possesses a welcoming, approachable whimsy that captures the everyday in a genuinely satisfying manner; not unlike another Bluemoose author, Rónán Hession.

Between a mysterious recurring figure in Cerys’s new life and the feeling she’s being watched, Christ on a Bike retains a tense discomfort throughout. After all, what are the consequences of breaking this agreement? Can she back out of it? What would happen if she tried?

And it’s this dissonance between Owen’s affable style and the macabre narrative that unsettles the reader.

Owen’s novel broaches these questions – plus a number of moral quandaries befitting the biblical theme. And it’s a lot of fun.

Conclusion

Christ on a Bike is another feather in the proverbial cap of Bluemoose Books, and of Owen herself.

Each chapter has been crafted with a finesse that characterises the type of novel that Bluemoose Books publishes.

It’s clean, lean writing that never prevaricates or wastes the reader’s time. As I noted in my review of Heidi James’s The Sound Mirror, it’s clear that the team at Bluemoose have some remarkable editors on staff.

Owen is a fantastic writer too, which makes it easy to recommend Christ on a Bike to almost anyone. This is a novel that’s well paced and contains a darkly compelling narrative, with a divine writing style.

5/5

The Chimp Paradox Book Review (by Professor Steve Peters)

The Chimp Paradox Book Review

"It's not good or bad. It's a chimp"

The Chimp Paradox is a bestselling self-help book based on the Chimp Mind Management programme that has transformed the lives of many of its readers – notably in the field of sport psychology.

Steve Peters has worked with a number of sporting icons including Ronnie O’Sullivan and Chris Hoy (amongst others), before going on to work with Liverpool Football Club and the England national football team.

Self-help books tend to raise an eyebrow from this reader, but The Chimp Paradox presents a genuinely interesting psychological framework that is highly applicable to all readers.

What is The Chimp Mind Management Programme?

The Chimp Paradox posits a highly simplified metaphor for psychological theory. 

Essentially, our minds are divided into three categories: Chimp, Human, and Computer.

The Chimp

The emotion-led, primal part of our brain. The Chimp is about evolutionary instinct, self-preservation, and winning at all costs. It’s the ‘gut feeling’ one gets (which may or may not be accurate).

The Chimp's reaction speed is five times faster than the Human. Whilst The Chimp can be highly inappropriate in certain settings, it’s also important for survival.

After all, “It’s not good or bad. It’s a chimp”.

The Human

The Human is the rational part of our brain.

It’s highly logical, processes information as things are (rather than as we would like them to be) and ultimately wants a positive resolution for all parties.

The Human is the mediator, the social animal, and the ideal state for social situations.

The Computer

This is our pre-programmed behaviour. Essentially, it’s how our brain responds to things, without having to even think. For example, learned behaviour such as riding a bike, or unwritten social rules that we don’t think about - we just do.

The Computer allows us to act before the Chimp, which is preferable due to the Chimp's destructive tendencies. However, when adverse experiences are introduced to the computer, they can be harmful and difficult to remove.

The Chimp Paradox presents a number of means and methods to calm the chimp whilst ensuring its needs are represented. It also discusses how to keep the computer in healthy balance, removing unhelpful ‘gremlins’ and fostering socially beneficial ‘autopilots’.

Interestingly, it has a lot in common with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and also touches lightly upon trauma therapy, as covered in Bessel van der Kolk’s excellent book The Body Keeps the Score.

Is The Chimp Paradox a Difficult Book to Read?

Professor Steve Peters does an excellent job of making an incredibly complex field of psychology easy to follow.

The book also includes summaries of each section throughout, as well as practical ways to implement the theory. Its universal simplicity is brilliant – anyone can apply this logic to their own lives.

Some have criticised the book for its simplistic approach to psychology, but this is a fairly superficial point. Peters acknowledges this in the introduction and that The Chimp Paradox is a surface-level introduction to a much deeper topic.

Where the book can be criticised is its occasional lapsing into esoteric thinking. For example, Peters builds upon the Chimp / Human / Computer analogy by situating it within a cosmic universe. The ‘divided planet’ is where the human and chimp wrestle for control, whilst the ‘guiding moon’ is the computer that pulls the divided planet in the right direction.

It just about works, but it stretches the metaphor further than necessary, when the Chimp / Human / Computer explanation itself is fine.

Still, The Chimp Paradox is essential reading for those interested in personal development. If you’re an anxious person, quick to confront people, or feel like life is passing you by, this is a genuinely enlightening read.

Conclusion

There’s a reason that The Chimp Paradox remains a bestseller, many years after publication. It’s a compelling theory that anyone can use to improve their lives.

Whilst those with a qualification in psychology may find shortcomings in the theory, this is a book review – and as a book, it’s a very good read. 

Unlike some other self-help books, which border on smoke & mirrors, The Chimp Paradox is the real deal.

4/5

The Art of Escapology Book Review (by Nicola Ashbrook)

The Art of Escapology Book Review Featured Image

Ever had that feeling of just wanting to run away? To disappear and start over, leaving your troubles behind like shed skin.

If so, The Art of Escapology should be one of the next books on your reading list.

From a receptionist fleeing the mundanity of day-to-day life, through to darker topics of domestic abuse, The Art of Escapology sweeps the reader through a series of compelling vignettes on the theme of escape.

Small but mighty, it’s an 88-page anthology of highly impactful writing.

Flash fiction is a remarkable medium of storytelling.

Humble, yet radical, it’s the panacea to a publishing landscape dominated by 800-page epics and a movie industry shackled by sequels and reboots. In as little as two paragraphs, a talented writer can impart a character’s entire life story and challenge a reader’s worldviews.

Nicola Ashbrook’s The Art of Escapology is no different. Punchy and perfectly paced, each story subverts the reader’s expectations (sometimes multiple times) and delivers some gut-wrenching twists. 

Personal highlights include Moving Homes, Giants of the Sea, Thor is to Bifrost as I am to The Mersey Gateway, The Sparkly Horse Story, Run Ratty, Run, Delphine’s Decision, and Praying for Dad.

Escape, or the need to escape, is a powerful emotion, and it’s partly because of this that these stories succeed – the other part being that Ashbrook is an excellent writer.

Conclusion

Occasionally witty, often thrilling, and always thoughtful, The Art of Escapology is an elegant collection of flash fiction that should be on every short story lover’s bookshelf.

There’s a brilliance to each narrative and it’s a genuine pleasure to read. Don’t sleep on this one.

5/5

The Battle That was Lost Book Review (by Michael S. Jackson)

The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Review
The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Details

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

The Battle That Was Lost is the latest book in Michael S. Jackson’s Ringlander series. 

A 50ish page novella, this entry details a battle that has significant ramifications for the narrative of Jackson’s full-length fantasy novel, Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

On the surface of it, how interesting could a novella about a battle be? Swords presumably clash, armour is rent, and people die. Par for the course. And let’s be honest – the most memorable parts of fantasy fiction tend to be the character moments and world-building.

Fear not, dear reader. The Battle That Was Lost strikes a good balance between character and world-building elements. The frenetic fighting is punctuated with flashbacks that help steady the pace of the writing, giving the story both time and space to breathe.

This is another impressive outing from Jackson, and well worth your time if you’re into fantasy fiction.

Discontent is brewing in the world of Rengas.

The occupying Bohr faction faces a rebellion in the form of the native Tsiorc, led by Tactician Laeb. And whilst this civil war plays out in more detail in Jackson’s full-length novel, The Battle That Was Lost instead focuses on the smaller, but nonetheless important frontier of Drakemyre.

Thugs for hire, Qor and Staegrim – the latter a proud bastard – prowl the outskirts of the battle, moving between the lines of troops in pursuit of their target for assassination.

The banter between the two is a winning formula; it’s authentic and genuinely amusing. 

They share an unconventional relationship; friendly, but wildly antagonistic. Each exchange is tense, yet amusing – it’s a compelling paradox that keeps the reader involved in the narrative, and it’s this relationship that forms the heart of The Battle That Was Lost.

But there’s plenty more at stake here than the result of a single pitched battle. After all, this is a world of political intrigue, supernatural forces, and tactical minds. This confrontation between the Tsiorc rebels and the Bohr could determine the future of the continent.

The Art of the Novella

The publishing industry is not short of fantasy novels.

People are constantly on the lookout for the next The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and because of this, fantasy novels tend to be fairly lengthy in an attempt to replicate the epic scope of the genre’s more iconic titles – whether they justify the length or not. 

The novella is therefore a brilliant medium for readers to enjoy the genre. It’s a challenging style that forces an author to be clinical with their prose, including only the best of their writing.

Indie Publisher Interview

I recently spoke about short-form writing with Andy Leach of subscription-based publisher Seventy2One.

And in a world where some fantasy authors simply want to write 7-book epics, it’s refreshing to see a writer embrace the short form for a change.

Jackson’s a good writer too, and this novella is no exception. It’s witty, amusingly crude in parts, and tells a good story in a concise manner.

It’s an accessible means of introducing new readers to a larger world, allowing them to dip into a mythos without the need to commit their time and patience to a larger novel. Plus, The Battle That Was Lost also includes the first three chapters of Ringlander, Jackson’s full-length novel, to give the reader a taste of what’s to come. 

From the author’s point of view, it’s great marketing for their larger novels. From the reader’s point of view, they get a shorter, more concise snapshot of what to expect from the author’s larger books, as well as their writing style.

Flashbacks to the Future

Flashbacks have a sketchy reputation in fiction, both on-screen and in books. And for good reason.

Too often, they interrupt the pacing of narratives, risking the alienation of a viewer or reader who is thrust into a time or space they don’t immediately recognise. If the flashback doesn’t add to the present narrative, either plot-wise or thematically, it can be jarring.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case in The Battle that was Lost. Jackson uses the technique in a really smart way, with each flashback foreshadowing future events whilst creating a sub-narrative of its own. These are equally compelling as the battle, helping to switch up the full-tilt pace of the titular battle.

The flashbacks make this novella far stronger, and also serve as a window into the events of Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

Book Review

Read the full Tales from Absurdia book review of Ringlander: The Path and the Way

Conclusion

The Battle That Was Lost is another solid entry into Jackson’s expanding world. It’s an approachable novella that reconnects readers already familiar with the world of Ringlander, whilst serving as a solid entry point for new readers.

It’s witty, features some brilliant battle sequences, and fleshes out the existing lore in a really satisfying way. The inclusion of maps is also a brilliant addition – every fantasy author should do this. It’s a great way to situate the events of the book, whilst still encouraging the reader to use their imagination.

Sure, it won’t change the minds of readers who don’t enjoy fantasy, but for those who do, The Battle That Was Lost – plus its full-fat sibling Ringlander – offers readers a compelling world, a strong narrative, and a bevy of unique characters.

4/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Ghost Signs Book Review (by Stu Hennigan)

Ghost Signs Book Review Header

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan’s debut publication, is a non-fiction book set in Leeds during the first UK lockdown of 2020, following the arrival of COVID-19.

Ordinarily a librarian, Hennigan volunteered to be a delivery driver for the local council, providing fresh food for families shielding or economically impacted by the lockdown. This took him to some of the most impoverished places in the entire country.

A desperately sad read, Ghost Signs is an eye-opening account of poverty in the 5th biggest economy in the world, whilst highlighting the crippling human cost of an absence of sensible domestic social policies.

It’s also a shocking indictment of the lack of vision from 12 years of successive Conservative governments.

It’s March 2020. And with much of the UK in lockdown due to rising COVID-19 infections, a Leeds City Council van trundles through the darkened streets of the pandemic-hit city.

One of the poorest places in the UK, 24% of Leeds’ neighbourhoods are in poverty. Furthermore, 29% of the city’s children under the age of 16 are living in absolute poverty*.

In response to the pandemic, the council has mobilised the Food Distribution Centre to ensure that the extremely vulnerable and their families have access to food, drink, and sanitary products. Over the course of the first three to four months of the initial lockdown, Hennigan chronicles his experiences within the local community, revealing the harsh impact of both the pandemic and years of austerity-led economic policies.

If social conditions were bad prior to COVID-19, it’s far worse now. On the doorstep, Hennigan witnesses emaciated 30-year-olds who haven’t eaten in days, socially anxious individuals fearful of answering the door, and victims of crippling drug addictions.

Days and weeks blur into one another, the same issues cropping up on the doorstep. Sallow-faced parents delighted to see a food package, their children celebrating the arrival of the delivery drivers. The volume of people unable to support themselves is stark, and tremendously upsetting.

One particular exchange with an eight-year-old girl stands out:

“Is that FOOD? she asks when she sees the bags
I nod.
ALL of it?
I nod again.
For US? She points to herself, eyes wide.
Yep, all for you.
YAYTHANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!...

… I’ve got tears streaming down my face on the way back to the van… …her reaction to the food is so sad that it’s unbearable. Months later, I still won’t be able to recall the event without welling up. It’s a moment I’ll remember as long as I live.”

And this is just one man’s story in one city. 

Multiply this narrative to the numerous volunteers at Leeds’ Food Distribution Centre – then scale it up further to encompass the entirety of the UK – and it paints a truly desolate picture.

*Absolute poverty is defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.”

The Road to Armley Gaol

Ghost Signs has drawn favourable comparisons with George Orwell’s excellent The Road to Wigan Pier. This isn’t a surprise – both texts are investigations into poverty in the North of England, and very effective at what they do.

However, there is one key difference. Whereas Orwell’s text feels more journalistic and theoretical, Ghost Signs is more a memoir of a frontline worker’s direct experiences. Orwell is an outsider looking in whilst Hennigan is a local person stepping up to serve his community in a time of need.

Starving children, elderly people in tears due to loneliness, and individuals with crippling depression fearful to leave their own homes… these are tangible stories about real people.

The authenticity of Hennigan’s writing style, and of course the dreadful conditions that people live in, are what makes this book so difficult to read in parts. But they’re also the reason that Ghost Signs needs to be a widely read book.

The Human Casualties of the Pandemic

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott published the seminal work, Failures of State. An excoriation of the inaction of government policy, the text examines policy-making during the pandemic, as well as the PR and Comms that came out of Number 10, Downing Street. It’s well worth a read.

But if Failures of State was the post-mortem of the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghost Signs is the funeral pyre. The former details policy failures, whilst the latter chronicles the human consequences of Whitehall’s prevarication and harmful years of austerity.

Still, there are moments of affirming humanity. Smalltalk on the doorstep and brief moments of brilliantly droll Northern humour in the face of adversity punctuate the misery. And the fact that a volunteer service like the one Hennigan took part in can be set up and actioned so quickly, speaks volumes about the ethical character of the nation.

Conclusion

Ghost Signs is less a book about the pandemic, and more a commentary on successive governments’ inability (or unwillingness) to tackle absolute poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s a glimpse into the palimpsest that is the UK’s socio-economic landscape. One where working people bear the brunt of adversity, whether it’s a pandemic or a bruising cost of living crisis, whilst the millstone of economic inequality weighs ever more heavy as the months and years go by.

Though a highly uncomfortable read, Ghost Signs is a very well written book. It’s an honest, hard-hitting contribution to public discourse and a stark wake-up call for the electorate.

4/5

Ghost Signs is available in paperback (affiliate link) at bookshop.org, or directly from the publisher at Bluemoose Books.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Edgware Road Book Review (by Yasmin Khan)

Edgware Road Book Review

Edgware Road, Yasmin Khan’s debut fiction novel, is a tale about the lives of three individuals, spanning the streets of London to the Asian subcontinent.

Khan’s prose is wonderful – a real pleasure to read – and yet the novel isn’t quite able to facilitate the scope and ambition of its plot and characters.

Still, despite its flaws, Edgware Road is a good novel and well worth your time.

One of the three protagonists, Khalid is a Pakistani immigrant working as a croupier at Hugh Hefner’s infamous London Playboy Club. Shuffling cards by night, Khalid has big plans for his partner and daughter – dreams of Caribbean islands, diamonds and flash cars. However, despite knowing that the house always wins, Khalid has a gambling problem, staking his family’s future happiness at the expense of the present.

Meanwhile Alia is searching for clues following the disappearance of her father. In an endeavour to discover the truth, Alia’s travels take her from exploring the streets of London to connecting with distant relatives in Pakistan. A daughter of a post-partition Pakistani family now living in England, her complex heritage forms a significant part of her narrative.

Elsewhere, politician Arthur Denby seeks to unveil a political conspiracy surrounding the mysterious BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International). Based on a real historical scandal of the ‘80s in Britain, Khan uses Denby’s perspective to explore the political underworld of lobbying, sweetheart deals, and financial fraud.

These three narrative threads are interwoven into a compelling structure with some solid characters, each perspective alternating between 1987 and 2003.

It’s a great way to write a novel, especially one with complex family drama and political intrigue, keeping the reader guessing whilst adding flourishes of detail to the emerging plot.

However...

Despite the pleasing prose, interesting characters, and smart structure, there are a few problems.

For a start, the novel feels far too short for the amount of plot and character development. 

At 300 pages, relating three perspectives across two separate periods of time, Khan can only dedicate roughly 50 pages per character, per time period to build character and write a satisfying plot.

And whilst this would be entirely possible with more economical prose, the magic behind Edgware Road is its brilliant writing style. It’s a real pleasure to read, which is why it’s frustrating that there isn’t more of it.

Of course, word count isn’t everything. A shorter book like The Sound Mirror uses similar techniques surrounding multiple perspectives in separate time periods with far greater success.

However, the key difference here is that there are a large number of narrative threads opened by Khan, including Khalid’s involvement with the BCCI, Alia’s relationship with her family in Pakistan, Denby’s troubled home life – just to name a handful. These plot moments, amongst others, do not feel fully explored.

Pacing is also an issue. The first third of the novel is well paced, but the rest, from the middle section through to the conclusion, feels rushed. Alia’s on-off relationship with her flatmate goes nowhere, and whilst Denby’s perspective is an interesting one, he often reads like an afterthought and never quite earns his place in the story.

What results is an ending that feels wholly unsatisfactory, with Edgware Road unable to give its characters the closure they deserve – and that’s a real shame.

Conclusion

Whilst Edgware Road is a flawed debut, it’s still worth a reader’s time, particularly for fans of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which explore similar themes of the immigrant experience in London.

Unfortunately, Edgware Road doesn’t reach the depth of those novels, but the prose is lovely, and the characters, whilst lacking the depth they deserve, are a delight. It’s just a tad frustrating that such potential has been squandered.

Still, keep an eye out for Yasmin Khan’s future books – she’s a talented writer.

3/5

Edgware Road is available in hardback at bookshop.org, with the paperback also available to pre-order.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying Book Review

How to Suck at Business Marah Archer Book Review

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is, if it isn’t nakedly apparent from the title, a satirical text on breathtakingly bad business management.

Written in the style of a self-help business book, it’s designed to impart pearls of wisdom and innovative insights from a sociopathic entrepreneur who has grown their corporate empire from nothing.

These types of books, often penned by self-styled ‘LinkedIn Gurus,’ are ripe for parody and yet How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying falls flat. Amusing in parts, the book unfortunately leans into predictable satire that never truly evolves beyond the first joke.

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying
Overview

From business strategy and HR policies (a particular highlight), to marketing and project management, Archer’s text features some of the most egregious, irresponsible, and morally bereft business advice, packaged as wisdom. That in itself has the potential to be hilarious.

It’s a social commentary on American workers’ rights, damning the power that unscrupulous bosses have over their employees.

This should be a fairly straightforward target for some sharp satire. And yet somehow How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is to satire what a blunt instrument is to open-heart surgery, bludgeoning the same point over-and-over.

Even the title is problematic. The writer-character of the book is absolutely convinced he’s the world’s best boss, and yet How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying breaks immersion by implying that the ‘real’ author simply wants to vent at their experience of bad managers.

Still, it’s not an altogether bad book. There’s some solid social commentary and amusing remarks on business culture that, frustratingly, shows what this book could have been.

Like David Brent, but Without the Charm

Our main character, the self-proclaimed ‘world’s best boss’, reveals as much about his own life through his running commentary and actions, as the misery he piles upon his employees. He’s a seedy, tragically bad manager who has convinced himself that he’s an industry thought leader.

But he lacks any sort of charm to offset the lack of humanity. The boss of How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is a straight-up terrible human being, without any vulnerabilities or complexities that would enable the reader to connect with him on any meaningful level. He’s insecure and hates his employees succeeding.

There’s a missed opportunity here to introduce doubt, or sincerity, like The Office’s (UK) David Brent. Brent is a pretty ethically and morally dubious boss, but he’s entirely sincere in his buffoonery.

How to Suck at Business David Brent
Like this guy, but not.

The boss in this book is only comparable with David Brent insofar that he possesses the same dated and misguided views, but lacks any corresponding charm whatsoever. The result is that the running joke quickly begins to grate.

Satire at its best works with a wink and a smile, straddling an uncomfortable gap of truth and exaggeration. The problem is that How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying keeps winking over and over, whilst holding up a sign daubed with “this is satire”.

Conclusion

Anyone who has worked for terrible (or hostile) management will find some relatability in this book. It runs the full gamut of areas in a business, with our main character naturally professing to be an expert in almost all areas.

However, the humour is very on the nose, and once you’ve read a couple of chapters, you’ve pretty much read them all.

A mildly humorous read, but not the most original.

2/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May Book Review

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May Book Review

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

A reimagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a supernatural twist, Francesca May’s Wild and Wicked Things spins a compelling yarn about the bond between three women – Annie, Emmeline, and Bea. It’s a terrific tale of witches, blood magic, and small-town intrigue on the shores of the North Sea.

An atmospheric, slow burner that delights throughout, it’s clear that May has poured love and passion into building her characters, as well as the dark, moody setting of Crow Island. The result is a tangible and authentic world – a kind of richness that many authors dream of.

And whilst the aesthetic often recalls more Roaring Twenties America than its apparent UK setting, Wild and Wicked Things is a sensual and stylish Sapphic novel.

It’s an exceptional piece of writing.

Drawn to Crow Island to settle some routine legal affairs following the death of her father, Annie Mason walks the shore of her holiday cottage, drawn along the beach to the revelries of the manor next door.

Cross House, home of the notorious Emmeline Delacroix, is renowned for its raucous parties and flowing of Kazam (an alcohol that may-or-may-not be laced with magic). Warned of this, Annie is nonetheless magnetised, pulling her into a world of illicit magic and forbidden romance.

With the exception of brief diary entries from a mysterious individual, the novel functions as a twin narrative, flowing between both Annie and Emmeline’s perspectives. Given Wild and Wicked Things’ predilection for revealing its secrets in a gradual manner, this style works well – each character’s perspective proffers pieces of a narrative jigsaw in an attempt to uncover the true nature of the mysterious bond between Annie and Emmeline.

Wild and Wicked Things might be a slower-paced novel, but it never wastes the reader’s time. Each conversation reveals aspects of character, driving the plot forward, or helps further build this marvellous world. Take your time with it – it’s a rewarding piece of writing that has been crafted meticulously to be enjoyed.

Something Wicca this Way Comes…

Being a Gatsby-inspired novel, Wild and Wicked Things is glamorous and raucous. In fact, May’s novel leans fairly heavily into the Gatsby-like influences early on. 

For example, there’s a purple light across the bay instead of a green one; Emmeline resembles Jay Gatsby in numerous ways, and Annie’s modest house, set across the way from Emmeline’s, is similarly placed to Nick Carraway’s own humble abode. Fans of Gatsby will find these references comfortingly familiar.

Still, because it’s so culturally intertwined with Roaring Twenties America, it’s difficult to divorce Wild and Wicked Things from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel. Crow Island itself is a fictional place and therefore exists in its own spatial dimension. So whilst the setting feels authentic, it never feels especially British. 

This isn’t a bad thing at all, and it certainly doesn’t affect immersion – Wild and Wicked Things is a highly stylised novel that borrows ideas from The Great Gatsby and builds upon them in some really fascinating ways. 

Any surface-level influences eventually yield to reveal deeper, darker secrets. It’s when the parties are over and the lights are dimmed in the hallowed halls of Cross House that Wild and Wicked Things truly comes into its own, usurping readers’ expectations with a thrilling plot.

There’s also far more at stake than a linear plot about witches. Wild and Wicked Things is also a thoughtful, methodical examination of what it was to be LGBT in the early 20th century. 

Magic is often presented in the society of the novel as a frowned-upon practice, functioning as a smart metaphor for homosexuality. Indeed, Emmeline herself is often portrayed as a mysterious and malevolent force, her predation upon young women playing into age-old, harmful tropes that many will be familiar with.

It’s a social topic handled sensitively, with May’s novel challenging these tropes and social mores, engendering empathy in the reader thanks to fantastic, well-written characters.

To Bea or Not to Bea

It’s fairly clear when an author knows their characters, and May has evidently spent many a day and night with these individuals. These aren’t just characters on a page. From mannerisms and gestures to inflections in dialogue, they feel like real people, and that’s testament to the writing and world-building. 

Bea is insecure and desperate, but unlike Daisy, her counterpart in The Great Gatsby, it’s relatively easy to empathise with her.

Likewise, Emmeline is a complex woman, tortured by her past and haunted by her future. She’s strong but vulnerable, with a reputation as an Anne Lister-like sort; corrupting young women and ensnaring them into her cult of personality (if, of course, you believe the rumours). Naturally, the truth isn’t quite as clear-cut as that.

Annie, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an inquisitive but shy young woman. But unlike Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, she’s an active participant in Wild and Wicked Things, driving the narrative and shaping the lives of those around her. Beneath her innocent, seemingly passive, demeanour is an influential, forthright woman trying to find her true self. 

Meanwhile, Isobel & Nathan, two of Wild and Wicked Things’ supporting cast, are excellent additions, playing off against Emmeline’s dark, brooding demeanour.

Conclusion

This is one of the books to read in 2022. Especially if you enjoy witchy vibes and magic realism. But it also features some fantastic social commentary.

May has a wonderfully evocative style of descriptive writing that conjures vivid imagery at the mere turning of a page. The setting and aesthetics drip with detail, and the characters are fully-realised three-dimensional people. They have flaws, make terrible decisions, and it’s because of this, amongst other reasons, that they’re so much more believable. May takes all the time necessary to reveal their hopes and fears and the novel is far stronger for it.

In short, Wild and Wicked Things is a terrific novel that’s well worth your time.

5/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.