This is Charlie Hill’s second novel and is a very funny satire on books, booksellers and undeserving bestselling authors of male confessional novels.
Our hero, Richard Anger, is a bookselling anti-hero who runs ‘Back Street Books’ in Harborne, Birmingham. Richard is frustrated, bitter and funny. I found myself laughing from a very early stage in the book. Richard tries to cultivate a ‘bad and dangerous’ persona but few people seem to buy into it, seeing him more as ‘unkempt and malodorous’. Richard rails against mediocre writers. I’m sure many would sympathise but it raises the question of who judges good and bad books. One man’s pot-boiler is another man’s best-seller.
On a short holiday to Corfu, Richard meets a photographer in a tavern called Lauren Furrows. By coincidence, Lauren lives in Birmingham as well and is a Professor of Neurology at the University of Birmingham. Whilst Richard is attempting to make Lauren interested in his obvious ‘bad boy’ credentials, another customer in the bar who is reading a book suddenly topples over and dies. The cause of death is later identified as Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome (SNAPS).
Charlie Hill’s previous book was set in Moseley in Birmingham. Other suburbs of Birmingham get a shout-out in this novel including Selly Oak, Kings Heath and Digbeth. I was delighted to see Sutton Coldfield get a mention.
Back in Birmingham, Lauren takes an interest in the cause of SNAPS and believes it may have been triggered by the deceased’s choice of reading material. She calls on Richard to assist her given his knowledge of books. The book that was being read at the time of death was by star writer Gary Sayles, a vain hack whose editor and agent attempt to limit him to two clichés per page on his latest novel. If Sayles books are the cause of SNAPS, then the release of his latest blockbuster could cause a massacre.
In counterpoint to Richard, Lauren’s emotions are carefully managed. She presents an analytic, dry persona to the world. One of my favourite passages in the book came in a description of Lauren’s painful memories of her time at university:
in her third year, in an attempt to find a belief system and an individual to assuage the hurt and guilt, she had turned to the East. His name was Melvin and he was a t’ai chi instructor from just outside Norwich.”
We learn that Melvin left Lauren for another girl who was better at t’ai chi.
It is Charlie Hill’s poetic use of language together with a very droll turn of phrase that really delighted me in this book.
Gary Sayles is clearly unaware of the potentially disastrous effects that his books are having on mortality rates. Meanwhile his is targeted by Pippa and Zeke, a couple of postmodernists who want Gary Sayles as their next project. Pippa and Zeke specialise in big, shocking, ironic nothingnesses to which there is no meaning save what the critics give it. To ingratiate themselves with Gary, Pippa and Zeke pose as Mike and Susan, Gary Sayles’ biggest fans, and put in train plans for a nationwide book reading tour for the launch of Gary’s latest masterpiece.
Meanwhile, Richard and Lauren realise they must do something to stop people dying from reading bad literature but what can they do in the face of committed Sayles fans and general disbelief in the link between SNAPS and reading?
This is a really great read. Charlie Hill is a very talented writer and his books deserve a wider audience. Read this book, you won’t regret it (unless you drop dead reading it, but then you’d probably be past caring anyway.)