Hello you yummy scrummy people and welcome to my beardy blog for what is Day 20 of #Fahrenbruary. If this is your very first visit to my blog, and you are unaware of what the aforementioned #Fahrenbruary is, then here is a very handy link to help clarify a few things:
Wasn’t that splendid? It really is a marvellous post, so if you skipped it and figured you’d come back to it later, may I suggest that you make a note on scrap of paper so you don’t forget. You really will kick yourself if you do.
So, I’m going to take an educated guess that you are here to read my brand new, never seen before, review of Saira Viola’s debut novel ‘Jukebox‘?
What’s that? You were looking for recipe suggestions for cooking a duck? How the hell did you end up here then? Well, seeing as you are here, I suggest that you just stuff it and stick it in the oven. It’s just a bird after all – like a floating chicken – how hard can it be? I reckon, 180°C/Gas Mark 4, for about 90 mins or so? Maybe cover it in foil and remove for the last 30 mins? Poke a skewer into the leg to check it’s cooked thoroughly; juices clear and all that. I have no idea if all of that’ll work, but I’m sure I saw it on TV somewhere.
Whilst you’re waiting for your duck to cook you may as well stay and read my review. It’ll pass the time and you may discover your new favourite author.
You will? Oh, I am pleased. *happy face*
As this is Fahrenbruary, Saira has also kindly provided us all with an audio extract of herself reading from Jukebox. I know right, how exciting is that, eh? You can find that at the end of the review.
So, without further ado, lets have us some blurb:
“Nick Stringer is a rookie lawyer but what he really wants is to run his own record label. His dream seems one step closer when old family friend and businessman Mel Greenberg offers to bankroll him.
Avery Cross is a junior reporter desperately searching for the story that’s going to make her name. Avery thinks there’s more to Mel Greenberg than meets the eye and that uncovering the truth about him might just be her ticket to the big time.
Nick, Mel and Avery’s lives converge against the backdrop of London’s underworld where glamour, crime & greed party side by side. It doesn’t take long before Nick begins to realise that if an offer looks too good to be true it probably is.
In a city rocked by corruption and excess, one of them is going to learn that sometimes in life you get more than you bargained for.
Jukebox is Saira Viola’s brilliant full-length debut novel.”
Have you ever made a deal with the Devil? No, neither have I. For one, I don’t have his phone number (FYI: dialling 666 doesn’t work, and if you try to dial it upside down, multiple times, you just get an irate emergency number operator threatening to get the police on yo’ ass. Trust me on this), and for second, I don’t believe in the Devil. Which means I’ll just have to make my own way in life and blame myself for my, numerous, fuck ups along the way.
But many other people do and, once upon a time, it seemed to be reasonably common practice for struggling artistes, writers, businessmen (it seems generally to be the men who like to sell their souls. Women seem happy enough to keep theirs and do it the hard way; sheer hard work and talent 😅), and even members of the clergy, who really should’ve known better, who wanted to get rich quick, get a leg up the career ladder, or just be noticed. A quick Google search throws up many a story of those daft enough to think that the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Lucifer, The Supreme Spirit Of Evil himself was a reasonable enough chap to make a deal with to get whatever it is that they wanted at the time.
Most of these stories happened many years ago when the less enlightened used the devil as an excuse to explain away the super-talented, and usually, sadly, to the detriment of said individual who often ended up dead pretty soon after (and, presumably with hot forks poked into their fundaments for all eternity, or at the very least being forced to forever fetch the Devil’s slippers of an evening).
One of the most famous people in recent times who allegedly made a pact with Lucifer was the legendary Blues guitarist Robert Johnson:
According to one source the story of Robert Johnson can be summed up thus:
“The legend goes that he wanted to be great at guitar and was instructed to head to a crossroads. There he met the devil who tuned his guitar, giving him mastery over the instrument. Johnson did little to dispel the rumors, even encouraging them by alluding to the fact that he had, indeed, made a deal with the prince of darkness. He produced 6 records before his death at age 27. Johnson’s death is controversial as the most common claim is he was caught flirting with a married women and she offered him some whiskey which was believed to be poisoned by her husband. He was buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which is still under debate.”
Whichever way you look at it that’s a pretty sad story, one that has many different interpretations. Robert just wanted to become a great musician, to master his instrument, something that he clearly already had the talent for and no amount of devil-worshipping bull-shizzle was going to help him there; just hard work and dedication and a tad more self-belief.
In Sara Viola‘s debut novel “Jukebox” Nick Stringer is about to make a similar deal, only his devil is very real and goes by the name of Melvin Maurice Greenberg.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a tad. Nick is a trainee solicitor at ‘Fisher, Fowler & Ferret LLP‘, a right dodgy sounding firm if I ever heard one, but who are actually very respectable and see a great future for our young Nick. He his awaiting the results from his bar exams, or whatever it is that solicitors do to become more solicitor-y, but, to be frank, he hates it:
“Nick hated the pedestrian lifestyle of the law. He hated lawyers and their sneaking artifice. He hated their formality; he hated their pseudo respectability; he hated their smug little lives, and their crowing greed. Most of all, Nick hated himself for agreeing to become a lawyer in the first place.”
You see, he really isn’t a happy bunny. What Nick really, really wants (a zig-a-zig-ah) is to run his own record label. He even has a name for it: Soopa Records. so named because Superman is his biggest inspiration. Thank goodness his biggest inspiration wasn’t Terrence and Philip from South Park, that could’ve gone very differently if they had (naughty words ahoy):
Mind you Uncle Fucka Records does have a certain charm.
Anyhoooooo, I digress.
Nick has pretty much resigned himself to a life as a lawyer whilst moonlighting with his best mate Matt in their band. Nick and Matt also like to spend a lot of their time getting off their tits on recreational drugs and hanging about in clubs and bars.
So far, so average for little old Nicholas. But then Mel Greenberg comes into the equation. Mel is a bit of a wrong’un; a criminal mastermind always on the look out for the next big money maker, and looking out for Number One, as criminal masterminds are wont to do. However, unbeknownst to Nick, Mel is also his uncle related through his father’s half-brother (Nick’s father). Mel has had his greedy little eye on Nick for a while it seems:
“Now Mel was diversifying into the music bizz he had tagged a prime target for his latest racket: Nick Stringer, illegitimate grandchild of his own dear father and offspring of his half-brother, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Well, in the interests of family unity and all that, he wanted to help the lad achieve his full potential. Why not? He had been keeping a protective eye out for Nick ever since he had been told he was his nephew and part of the Greenberg tribe.“
Now, in my mind there’s a lot wrong with paragraph up there, particularly the part about “keeping a protective eye out for Nick… “. The only protective eye Mel Greenberg has is for himself, and Nick is just a pawn in the greater game of making money. But Nick, although certainly not a stupid boy, and is well aware of Mel’s true nature and reputation, is clouded by the fog of possibilities as Mel agrees to bankroll Soopa Records and help Nick to achieve his dreams. However, Mel is more interested in having a lawyer on his books, one that he can keep a tight rein on and who won’t ask awkward questions, and will keep his men, and himself, out of strife with the law
You see where all the deal with the devil shit comes in now, right? Yeah, see, this blog isn’t just thrown together like some kind of child’s collage in a nursery school 😅
As mentioned in the above extract, Nick’s father is in the advance stages of Alzheimer’s disease and frequently wanders off from the care home that he is residing in, putting extra pressure onto Nick. Mel, the caring soul that he is, visits Nick’s mum regularly to check the all is ok and if he can be of any help. I’m not going to go into story details here, you can read the chuffing book and find out for yourselves just how caring Uncle Mel can be, but something happens that shows off Mel’s true, selfish and plain nasty nature whilst under the guise of concern and family togetherness. He really is a very unpleasant character indeed, superbly written by Saira. He is not just some one dimensional villain, he has layers, albeit selfish, villainy layers, like some kind of Mafioso onion. The complexity of his character can be seen in his interactions, and his infatuation with, Mimi Deepridge; former centrefold, glamour model, soft porn star and ex-mistress.
Mel cannot control his desires for Mimi, but he has a small problem with her, one that he cannot reconcile himself with and one that could lead to a very sudden and tragic end for Mimi. Of course you will have to read the book to discover what this is, but it does illustrate the freedom that the Indie Presses such as Fahrenheit 13 and Fahrenheit Press allow their authors so that stories such as Mimi’s and Mel’s in ‘Jukebox’ can be published.
As with Saira’s other full length novel, ‘Crack, Apple & Pop‘, her story sparkles and leaps from the page with her skilful use of words. Okay, she’s a writer, of course she must have a way with words, like, d’uh! But, Saira’s prose has an almost lyrical quality to it, a sing-song rhythm that floats into you eyes and into your brain.
Take this extract from the beginning of the book:
“Stringer was crossing the busy Fleet Street end of Chancery Lane when he spied a group of dance DJs and a well-known music producer. They were dressed all the same: designer denim, Adidas trainers, and Boss shirts streaked with easy-cum easy-go shades of yesterday.
‘Oi, Oi,’ shouted one.
Nick looked behind him – yes, they were definitely speaking to him. He checked over his shoulder again, convinced the guy wanted someone else.
‘I’m Ritchie – You’re with that law firm, aren’t ya, on Clerkenwell Road?’
‘Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m not sure who …’ started Nick with a squirrel jitter. He was Hush-Puppy sweet, unaccustomed to talking to such a copacetic crowd. To him, people like that were above and apart from the jobbing mainstream. I’m just a bumbling geek with stick-up hair and skin the colour of raw chicken – what do they want with me. He fretted, his messy locks had shot up in a wiry fuzz all over his temple making him look like a frazzled cartoon loon.
‘You know my cousin, Julian. You had a night out with him at Faces in Enfield about a week ago.’ He spoke with a pronounced North London cant, ubiquitous in black-taxi drivers and insurance scammers. He was a large hulk of a man with acute halitosis and an awkward mop of hair that crowned his sallow face.
He had ‘Popeye the Sailor’ lips and capped teeth, reminding Nick of Harpo Marx. The truth was that Nick had no memory of a night out at Faces, but he faked recollection. As far as he knew, Faces was a Hoddesdon dive playing wall-to-wall smoove groove rammed with toilet-chic babes hooked on Malibu and Pineapple, prinked up in Primark not Prada.“
There’s so much in there that helps to conjure up the scene so beautifully, even if I had to look up words like ‘copacetic’ – it means to be in excellent order, Beardy Fact Fans 👍🏼 – and the words flow effortlessly from the page. Another passage I particularly liked was one where we meet Matt’s date at the Cuckoo Club where he and Nick meet to see a prospective band signing:
“His date, super-hot, super-privileged, and super-bratty, was dressed in leather, lace, and lascivious eye make-up. She was a brooding combo of Winehouse eroticism mixed with the marbled perfection of Dita Von Teese. With her blood-kissed lips and sultry stare, she knew she brought the heat and could turn it on and off to perfection. She spoke in a lush-hush combo of LA and Moscow.“
To be honest, I could fill this review with quotes and passages from this book, but that would be silly and quite possibly illegal, so I’ll stop now 😉
But I feel that they both help in some small way to illustrate Saira’s unique voice, one that is also evident in her poetry and short stories. I will be posting some examples of each of those, plus a Q&A with Saira where she explains how her unique style came about, in further Fahrenbruary posts, so watch this space (not literally. You can go off and do other things in the meantime, but I shall post links here once they have gone live. Trust me, they are well worth checking out).
Having great dialogue and a strong story are one thing, but without equally strong and diverse characters this book, just like any book really, would fall flat on its bumski. Well, as in Crack, Apple & Pop, Saira has populated her story with many brilliant and varied characters. Along the way we meet: Sylvie, Nick’s gum chewing and highly efficient secretary at FF&F; Avery, an investigative journalist who is onto the trail of Mel Greenberg and his criminal shenanigans, but who also develops a very soft spot for Nick; Jimmy Squash, so named because he can squash a man’s skull in less than a minute flat; Terry “Tezza” Carroll, along with Jimmy, the other half of Mel’s enforcer duo; Phil ‘the pill’ Drummond, currently languishing in a jail in Pau after a drugs run went awry, and who is also the son of one of England’s most notorious crime lords, Michael Drummond.
The list goes on, with some only passing through, whilst others, like those above, have more substantial roles to play. But all of them have a big effect on the overall story and drive Nick deeper and deeper in to the proverbial doo-doo.
It would be remiss of me here not to mention one particular character who really stands out from the rest and pretty much steals the page from every other character on it: the fantastically monikered Buddha Christ Mohammed, or BCM for short.
BCM is described thus:
” […] Buddha Christ Mohammed, also known as BCM, six foot four with a rippled, sunburnt torso and poker straight hair, his eyes the colour of blue cactus. In his hand he carried a long stick and a faded leather satchel full of potions and homemade concoctions. A reflective mix of Gandalf and a young Tommy Lee Jones, he had an imposing dignity frayed with the weariness of a man who’s seen too much.“
BCM is such a great character that I would dearly love to see him in his own book one day. You really feel that there is a lot more to tell about him. He has a habit of being in the right place for those who need him, at the right time. He has a serene calm about him, but he is more than capable of taking care of himself using force if necessary. Come on Saira, tell us his story, you know you want to! (okay, you know I want you to 😉).
In keeping with the noir tradition, Jukebox’s chapters short and to the point. There’s no padding or fluff here. Saira uses her words like saffron; a valuable commodity to be used exactly when necessary and never excessively. She goes in, gets the story told, and gets out again. They’re not quite as short as those in Crack, Apple & Pop, and have less of an anthology feel about them, but they can take your breath away. Take Chapter 36: Crossword Puzzle, for example. That one will almost literally leave you breathless with its pacing. It is bloody cracking 12 pages (well, 12 pages on my Kindle at least, and I have quite small font, lol).
I could go on and on about this book all day, but I have just previewed this post on my phone and, to be honest, you will already be too old, or dead, by the time you get this far to even read the damn book, so maybe I should stop now?
Okay, okay, there’s no need to be rude about it, sheesh. A simple “yes please, Mart” would have done. Deary me. So, skip past the photo of Saira for my little recap…
Jukebox is a superb example of what makes Indie Presses like Fahrenheit and Fahrenheit 13 essential (and why, without blowing our own trumpet too much, blogger and reader led initiatives such as Fahrebruary are important in spreading the word to the wider reading populace). I doubt that there would be many trad publishers out there that would publish Saira’s books with their eclectic mix of characters, sexualities, genders, dark storylines, black humour, short sharp chapters, narrative style, prose and structure as they are hard to compartmentalise and neatly categorise for the consumers and awards ceremonies. Without shouting about them, authors like Saira and her books would go largely unnoticed and unread, and that would be a true crime story.
I mean, that’s my opinion anyway 😅
Saira weaves a complex, dark, gritty and compelling slice of noir; a tale of greed and desire, of taking the semi-easy route and getting bitten on the arse whilst believing that you will be able to find a way out and still come out on top. But, as in real-life, there are no easy ways out in Jukebox. Without giving away spoilers, the ending leaves many a stone unturned and many a question unanswered. Don’t let this put you off though: in Saira’s own words, after I told her how much I loved the book and what I thought about its ending:
“Ah the Jukebox ending! Life is messy; no fairy tale endings. I thought about it and decided to keep the jukebox playing am glad it got you wondering though…”
Take from that what you will.
Now, as an extra special bonus, I present to you a sound clip of Saira reading from Jukebox using her own voice from her own mouth on her very own head. The extract is from Chapter 4: Communication Breakdown. My grooviest and funked up thanks to Saira for recording it for my blog.
You can buy Jukebox directly from Fahrenheit Press at he link below: