'I'm nearly finished the book. Lennie's just killed this puppy. He didn't mean to, just he's so strong, you know. And it's like I don't wanna read no more cos I know it's gonna end bad.'
A brief mention before I start, that Southsiders: That's All Right (US), originally published by Blasted Heath, is free today if you fancy a look. It's the first book in a series of four, but I think it works just as well as a standalone as it does as a spring board.
There are some similarities between the John Sissons and the Jesse Garon books. They both follow the growth and development of characters for whom the world is stacked against them and they both have had different homes at some point. The first two Sissons books, Abide With Me (US) and April Skies (US) were originally published by Caffeine Nights and that they lost their original publisher made no sense at all to me. Fortunately, the wonderful Fahrenheit Press, took on both novels and put out the third to ice a very wonderful cake, an image I'll come back to in a moment.
When Abide With Me came out, I think it was just about my favourite book of the year. The follow up was equally compelling and ripped my emotions into shreds and Everybody Hurts had a lot to live up to.
We find John Sissons struggling with life once again. He's lost both his parents and his best friends are either dead, in institutions or hanging desperately onto their sanity and ability to function. The only things he really has going for him are a house and a loyal partner, Trace.
The problem is that he's unravelling like an old jumper where a strand of wool is being pulled at by an annoyed Doberman puppy. Slowly his world is falling apart. Even the good things begin to weigh upon him. He doesn't feel worthy and lashes out blindly in the hope it might all collapse on top of him.
He's drawn to a homeless man in Romford. John provides him with coffee and burgers while reading him Of Mice And Men to fill the gaps where conversation might normally be. The pair become linked and it's not long before John is hanging out with the dispossessed, basking in the unchallenging warmth of their concern and able to function in a group who have nothing more to lose and who have become invisible.
As his relationship with Trace crumbles to dust, he finds out that his old mate Keith is at the end of his tether. While in prison, Keith murdered Ronnie Swordfish in order to protect John. It seems that someone has evidence of the killing and is blackmailing Keith who is slowly being drained of his livelihood. John owes it to try and help out, but even old friendships fall foul of John's growing depression.
This is the perfect addition to the series. The voice and delivery is maintained without missing a beat. Returning to the character and situation was a real treat and I was involved right from the off. It's great to spend time with the protagonist again, not that he's easy company. Mental fragmentation and struggle is wonderfully expressed as Ayris shines a light into a darkness in a way that so few can manage. He takes you on a journey that is difficult and unsettling to stick with, but is all the more rewarding for doing so. It's tense and troubling throughout, in part due to the plot development, but more so because it's impossible not to root for the guy. It's like the quote I opened with - it's compelling and yet it's hard to keep going just in case things don't end well.
I did love this one in its own right, but would really urge you to take on the trilogy from the start. To me it's like a delicious wedding cake that stands in three tiers. The foundation is the biggest and strongest, but the upper layer is made from the same ingredients and is just as tasty. You can get it all in one collection SHINING LIKE RAINBOWS for the bargain price of £2.99 directly from the publishers. You really won't regret it.