Book Review: The Life Assistance Agency by Thomas Hocknell

Thomas Hocknell’s debut novel The Life Assistance Agency skilfully combines two genres. It’s an adventure thriller; tense, suspenseful and threat-laden with twists a plenty, but the supernatural theme of the book means that it will also appeal to lovers of adult magic and fantasy.

The barest bones of the plot are that Ben Furguson-Cripps, a hapless author disillusioned with his craft, finds work alongside an old chum, the ebullient (or should that be jammy?) Scott Wildblood, proprietor of the mysterious Life Assistance Agency.

The LAA works much like a detective agency; clients present challenges (and none are too obscure); Ben and Scott provide the solution. The pair are hired to find a missing person, Mr Foxe, a historian and scholar with links to an Elizabethan angel-caller, Dr John Dee.

Ben and Scott travel across Europe in their quest for Foxe, with considerable hindrance from The Society, whose role it is to stop ordinary folk straying into extraordinary territories (ie, occult and spiritual mine fields). A trail of historic relics, together with the vibrantly written diary of Mrs Jane Dee dating back to the 1500s, leads Ben and Scott to the streets of ancient Prague where the dark and shocking secrets of Dr Dee are finally revealed.

As someone who rarely reads this type of novel, I am struggling for a literary comparison, but if a filmic one will suffice, this book lands on a spectrum that includes the Bourne series and Angel Heart for its fast paced and vibrant locations, and spooky supernatural undercurrent of the main character respectively.

Throughout the drama, readers will enjoy Tom Hocknell’s lively prose which is liberally sprinkled with funny and original metaphors and similes. There’s even an element of sexual tension and betrayal which threatens an unlikely bro’mance.

Overall, TLAA is a highly entertaining read.

Book Review: 183 Times a Year by Eva Jordan

Eva Jordan’s debut novel 183 Times a Year is the story of beleaguered mum Lizzie and angst-ridden teenage daughter Cassie’s relationship and their chaotic ‘blended’ family.

Thanks to a first person narrative by Lizzie and Cassie alternately, we get both sides of the story. There is never any confusion about who’s talking as the two protagonists have their own distinct tone of voice.

A rich supporting cast of characters speeds the action along and the goodies and baddies are clearly flagged from the outset. Other family members add depth to Lizzie and Cassie’s characters (for instance, Cassie’s empathy for her cancer-suffering Nan rescues her from being a monster), then there are friends, boyfriends and a loathsome ex-husband to contend with; all vividly drawn and believable.

It’s a book of two halves; the first is brimming with laugh-out-loud comedy – mainly due to Cassie’s utterly selfish take on the world, and her frequent malapropisms. In the second half, the book takes on a darker tone, becoming less slapstick and more thought-provoking. You’ll get no plot spoilers from me – but a shocking twist changes the direction of this novel entirely, adding layers and depth.

The complex (and often toxic) mother-daughter relationship theme will resonate with women everywhere and you don’t have to be a parent to get it; if you are child-free, just think back to your own teenage tempest. Expect a roller coaster of emotions that includes tears, laughter, anger and indignation. Above all, this book has shed-loads of heart.

The jig is up…

But I can’t stop dancing. Or smiling. I’ve known for a few weeks that my first novel is to be published next year by the awesome Urbane Publications, led by the inimitable Matthew Smith. I could not be more thrilled but keeping the news a secret has been a real challenge.

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Finding a good home for Seeking Eden has not been easy. Last March I started looking for a literary agent, and wrote to nine or ten, pitching my novel which was then called ‘Beginner’s Guide to Burb Watching’. Within three months, I’d clocked up a few rejections – others simply ignored my efforts and never replied.

Next I paid a well-known heavy-hitting editor and critic to run her expert eyes over my partial manuscript. It was a sobering experience. Her unequivocal view was that the novel I had lovingly spent over a year crafting was un-publishable – at least via traditional routes. The reasons? I don’t have enough space here, so comprehensive were her suggestions. But in brief, the setting was wrong, the age group of the cast, even more so; too many points of view (I had written from the perspective of four adults; two men, two women). Lastly, my child-free heroine was deemed unlikeable because of her indifference to kids and a lapse in judgement during a brief affair.

The only ray of hope in the whole sorry – but very detailed, conscientious and constructive report – were the words: “I’d like to assure you that you are a talented writer, with a smooth and lively writing style.” Phew, well that’s alright then!

I was devastated – nobody wants their work shredded – and I expect the bureau concerned would say that it was just a matter of making some revisions. But it was clear to me that if I rewrote the characters, the setting and the plot – nothing would be left of my original concept.

So I had a dilemma; whether to park my first novel and file it under ‘apprenticeship’ or to self-publish as so many of my wonderfully supportive twitter brethren are doing with great success already. It was during the process of researching how to self-publish that I found Urbane on Twitter; up to that point, I had not known a third way existed. I emailed Matthew Smith and not only did he not ignore me (as many had done ), he suggested meeting up. Our conversation was a big eye opener so when, a few weeks later, I discovered Matthew was speaking at Margate Bookie, I drove to the seaside to find out more.

I knew at once that Urbane was the right partner. Not only because Matthew Smith is down to earth and straight talking, but also because Urbane’s authors are all huge fans of his, full of admiration and respect for their publisher.

Another two or three weeks passed before I received the news I’d been hoping for. I’m proud and chuffed to be an Urbane author and after working alone for so long in the freelance wilderness, it is great to be part of something so positive and committed.

But there is another side to this; after editor-lady’s damning report, I had to decide whether I was prepared to be shoe-horned into existing genres and formulas (and there is nothing wrong in that – commercial success is the stuff of dreams), or whether to have the courage to walk a different path. As a keen reader, some of the books I have enjoyed the most have been just plain weird – and certainly don’t fit into any chic-lit ideal of cloudless skies and happy endings.

With Urbane, talented new writers can flex their creativity, without being railroaded into the genre du jour. Originality is encouraged (not quashed) and there is a clear culture of mutual support among authors. Owner managed independents are the future of publishing – I only hope I have a future as a novelist. All will become clear – for now, I am happy and grateful to be given a chance to bring my book to life. At this stage, it would be greedy to ask for more.