Sunday, January 08, 2012

Olive Press

Yet another independent offering in an ever-expanding sea of self-published novels. Maybe it’s the circles I move in, but I’m bombarded daily via Twitter and Facebook and the like to read this ebook and that ebook. It’s the shape of the future and if more indie novels were as good as Olives by Alexander McNabb then mainstream publishing would have cause to tremble.

Of course, if quality was the only gauge then the market wouldn’t be so flooded with high-profile dross from the big publishing houses and you wouldn’t find any good books remaindered and selling 3 for a fiver in your local bargain bookstore. (I’ve found them, although the challenge is finding 3 good ones at the same time to qualify for the offer.) It’s all about the publicity, the marketing, the prominence given to titles on the shelves – or, in the ebook world, on websites – and I can only hope Olives garners the recognition and attention it deserves.

To that end, this review.

Now, hand on heart, in the interests of full disclosure, I chose to buy myself a copy of this book because I know the author. The fact is, I often end up reading friends’ books, whether through volunteering to proofread the MS or, as in this case, simply because I’m familiar with the guy’s work and so there’s a trust that the book will be of a certain quality. Given the unfeasibly huge range of indie books out there, this might as well be one of the selection criteria. Anyway, with that in mind, I always do my best to be as objective and critical as possible, regardless of connection with the author or (in the case of TV, movies etc) anyone else involved, but by all means feel free to make allowances while weighing this review.

Olives is a courageous work, far braver than anything I’d venture to write. A white guy writing about the Middle East? Must be mad to try.

But McNabb has lived and worked in the region for decades and writes with an assured confidence, while taking the precaution of introducing his first-person protagonist a fish out of water. Indeed, Paul Stokes, journalist, never really reaches a full understanding of the world into which his career has thrown him and there’s a sense that no matter how much he learns he will remain to some extent out of his depth. It’s an admission most of us might make on Middle Eastern matters.

According to the publishing world – agents and editors, folks of that sort with their finger on the global pulse - readers aren’t going to be very interested in a tale centred on Middle Eastern troubles. Maybe I’m strange, but I shake my head at this wisdom - it seems to be lacking the full set of pillars – and at the risk of turning hippy it strikes me that we all need to embrace a little understanding if we’re ever to find peace. So while every bomb and shooting disinclines me to watch the news and while every arduous airport security check puts me off travel, I welcome this novel as a rare opportunity to lift the curtain on the region.

Rest assured, it won’t bore you with the issues. It’s not some stale classroom lesson or documentary. It’s fiction. It’s an initially slow-burning thriller, a deftly mixed cocktail of political and sexual tension that – very broadly – puts me in mind of The Year Of Living Dangerously: romantic heat against a backdrop of political troubles. And after drawing you in, it becomes genuinely un-putdownable at around the halfway mark.

Where it’s especially clever is in its deliberate eschewing of religious issues in favour of a far more fundamental concern – water – and a very human story of people embroiled in and affected by the long history of conflict. It takes care to offer balance too and I’m thinking particularly of a powerful scene involving an Israeli border guard that, for all its relatively incidental nature, provides the most effective reminder that there are far more lives – on all sides – touched by the violence than the central family to which Paul attaches himself.

The only faction who perhaps don’t receive an even-handed treatment are the British, as represented by the odious Gerald Lynch, but to say too much about him might entail straying too far into spoiler territory and I’m keen to avoid that.

For me, the only areas in which the book falls a little short of the mark are with the Swede, Lars - whose dialogue is peppered with faltering English and all the Scandinavians I’ve ever met have never suffered anything like that in the language department – and, curiously, in Paul Stokes himself. As a protagonist, Stokes is not unrealistic, but he spends much of the story as a hapless victim, only properly taking control in ending his relationship with Anne, when he’s cowardly and disingenuous, unable to fess up to the real reason it’s all coming apart: namely, his dalliance with Aisha. Not atypical male behaviour, by any stretch of the imagination, but it makes for a somewhat un-empathetic central character. On the other hand, it detracts not one jot from the engrossing and progressively compelling nature of the plot and, moreover, shifts focus of our sympathies onto other characters like Aisha - and even Lars. Thus, it becomes a book not about Paul Stokes, but about the people and the issues around him, which, for my money, is the way it should be.

In a similar way – without giving the game away – come story end, I found myself hankering for some additional coda, but against that, on reflection, I have no idea what more might be said and so I’m obliged to conclude that it delivers the perfect end note.

Really, there’s a lot more to be said about Olives - it's one of those books that could easily become a talking point - but we would end up peppering the review with spoilers and, trust me, you’re better off giving it a read and allowing it to provoke your own set of thoughts. And provoke them it will.

Intelligent and accomplished, this is a well-judged thriller, smouldering at first but growing steadily more explosive and with a distinctive flavour of its own, courtesy of its setting and its author’s informed perspective. And if your understanding of Jordan extends little further than Katie Price, then you could stand to have your horizons broadened.

The walls of mainstream publishing are a long way off tumbling down. Meanwhile, there are a great many - too many - independent authors out there, clamouring for your attention. Picking out the good ones can be like finding the best tea leaf in a bag of Tetley.

But even if you don’t think this will be your cup of tea, go and have a read of the sample: HERE. (Click on the image to Look Inside)

If you like the taste, pop it in your Kindle, sit back and let it brew. Give it the time it deserves and this is a read that will reward.


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