I have a small confession to make; I've been promising to read James Jobling's debut novel for a while, now. Unfortunately, life and all its wonderful and frustrating demands and setbacks kept getting in the way. Still, no excuse. First, he sent me an early draft to have a look at; then, when a publication date was announced, I promised I would read it for a release review. Finally, I had to travel down to the launch event at Southcart Books in Walsall and obtain a physical copy which I promised I would get to as soon as I could.
Which brings me to this, my review of James's first novel - first published and first written, I believe, which is worth keeping in mind - National Emergency.
The story concerns Ethan Hardcastle (and if ever there was better name for a potential action hero...), his wife Karris and their five year old son, Lincoln as they navigate a country torn apart by rioting. Influenced and inspired by the events of the 2011 London riots which subsequently spread to other UK cities, the book begins - properly begins, following a prologue which shows Ethan's son being born and sets up the foundations for where the story goes in the latter stages - at Ethan's quiet, suburban home where members of his family and friends have gathered to celebrate his 40th birthday. Watching with horror as the riotous events unfold on the news and internet, the chaos seems to quickly reach even this relatively quiet part of the world. Following a violent home invasion, Ethan decide to brave the restless streets with Karris and Lincoln in order to try and reach Ethan's brother David. Of course, very little in these kinds of books ever go to plan and the insanity escalates and escalates with tragic consequences...
My first impressions of this story were how astonishingly fast it moves. It slips from one scene of violence and chaos to the next with hardly any breathing room in between. It also managed to engender a real sense of dread in me, at least in the early chapters. The scenes depicting the chaos - both those through the medium of TV and those a little 'closer to home' - feel very authentic, very real. It's obvious that James has done his homework with regards to the way rioting unfolds, and he takes those images we witnessed in 2011 and ramps the whole thing up to the next level; imagine if those events had spiralled to encompass the whole country? Of course, there is an underlying reason for this and it's explained about halfway through the story. Now...it depends on your willingness to accept the tale slipping sideways from a hyper-real version of something that could actually happen, into something a bit more speculative, as to how you'll react to this. Personally, I didn't mind. I do think the story would have worked just as well if there had been no explanation behind the rioting - beyond the initial spark for it, that is - or even something only vaguely alluded to (I'm a huge fan of things 'just happening' in these kinds of stories - it adds to the sense of unreality and horror), but for me, it didn't put me out.
However, I do have a few issues with the book and I hope James will forgive me for saying. As I said earlier, this is - as far as I know - James's first novel; indeed, I think it's his first written work, and as such, it shows remarkable imagination and a clear raw talent, at least in my opinion. What lets it down occasionally for me is the frequently overwritten phrases, some awkwardly used words and the odd bit of forced dialogue. I also found myself getting annoyed a couple of times at character's reaction to certain situations - this might just be me, but I doubt you'd get immediately guilt-ridden after injuring or killing someone in a genuine self-defence situation. For a start, your adrenalin would still be too high to allow that level of contemplation. It happen two or three times in the book and it's the kind of thing that, for me, bogs the action of the story down. And a story like this is all about the action. You can have social commentary lurking in the background, it can serve as metaphors for things, but the writing has to be immediate, clear and concise and it has to keep pushing on, be in motion. And I think that James is not far from perfecting that, he just needs to cull the unnecessary words. I would suggest he read stuff by Wayne Simmons, Scott Sigler, James Rollins and David Moody (and I know he reads David Moody as there's a lovely tribute to Hater within the novel) and really look at how they use language, especially in action scenes. There's nothing wrong with the use of metaphor and simile but when it causes the reader to pause in the passage and try to figure out why it's there, it might need to be snipped or reigned in. There's also a scene that occurs in the final pages of the book that I really didn't care for. I won't say what it is, but suffice it to say that if you're going to put that in your story, you really need to be doing it for a very good reason other than shock value. To me, it was unnecessary; it's neither needed to show how 'bad' a certain person is, nor is it needed to make you 'care' about the victims anymore. I already 'cared' (to a certain level). But that is really just my thoughts on it.
One other thing that bugged me a little was the formatting. Many of the paragraphs are all over the place and I really, really cannot stand gaps between paragraphs. It's a fine format for blog posts or articles like this - even the occasional short story - but a book should look like a book, in my opinion. I imagine it also must add to the cost of producing the book - how many extra pages have been added because of this format? Anyway, it's a minor thing really, but I mention in case it's the sort of thing that might really irritate a potential reader.
Having mentioned the book earlier, this is a story which will probably appeal to those who enjoyed David Moody's Hater (and who didn't?). It has a vaguely similar premise, though comes in from a completely different direction. It's a very fast read with clearly depicted scenes and if some of it feels a little clichéd - a couple of scenes straight out of a big budget action film, for example - it's still mostly grounded in something close to reality. I think if James can tighten up his writing, take a small step back from it and really hone what talent he clearly possess, he'll be a fine writer. This book is good; I just know it can be a lot better, could be easily the equal of some of the best examples of this sub-genre with a little judicial pruning and editing.
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