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Speechless by Stephen Puleston

Nice cover, shame about the rest.
Once, as a bookseller, I made the foolish decision to take pity on a self-published author who was finding it very hard to get his 'thrilling mystery novel' into bookshops. I quietly agreed to a book signing, one where we provided the space for the author to actively sell their book to the itinerant and duly wary book buyers whilst stepping back and accepting no responsibility for the poor sales, but also accepting praise for my compassion and support in the process. I ordered a very modest number of copies, and gave them a date in store. Imagine my surprise when the book arrived, not a £6.99 A-format paperback as promised, but an £11.99 trade paperback, emblazoned with a monstrous swastika (it seems the husband and wife team designed the cover themselves), bearing the incorrect ISBN and received without checking on an invoice that clearly stated FIRM SALE. Needless to say that sales were very disappointing, and despite weekly calls from the author and his wife encouraging me to push their wider readership, no further sales were forthcoming. They then languished hidden under a table until a write-off of dead stock took them into a clearance bin, and from there, hopefully into an incinerator somewhere nasty.

In many respects, authors who choose to self-publish are those who fail to convince a publisher that their work is a) good, b) relevant or c) sellable, and as such, tend to be overlooked, sometimes unjustly. As someone who has spent far too much time reading 'great' novels from 'local' authors, I thought my days of pandering to them out of guilt and a loosely held notion that I might be one of them in the future had long gone. But it seems I can still be hoodwinked by freebies and so downloaded this novel, by Anglesey-based author and former solicitor Stephen Puleston. 

Reading his website bio has left me feeling like a complete twat. It seems he's worked damned hard on his craft, participating in short writing courses and polishing his drafts until fit to publish, but has still struggled to get his work recognised and read. He's worked with professional editors and has submitted countless chapters to agents and publishers, to no avail. And here I am, daring to look another gift-horse in the mouth and trashing his novel. Because it's not good. 

No, that's unduly harsh. There are many good things about this novel. 

  1. It was free
  2. It is based in Cardiff–a great city which is underrepresented in modern fiction, John Williams' trilogy notwithstanding
  3. The plot is actually quite good
  4. The life portrayed of the frustrated police detective is remarkably believable
  5. Splott!


However, on the other side of the scale there are many bad things about this novel.

  1. There are basic mistakes, including quite close to the start where the author says a tongue was found in Leon's flat, when in fact it was in Michal's flat, and a few (in)definite articles missing here and there
  2. There is awkward repetition of words in consecutive sentences that shouldn't have been allowed and makes me wonder if this one ever made it to the desk of a professional editor or proofreader
  3. He keeps saying people drink from beakers
  4. The choice to rebrand South Wales Police as the Wales Police Service is an very odd decision and makes me not wish to believe anything else, particularly the random geography of the action
  5. The ancillary cast are a bit rubbish, and despite attempts to fill them out with a bit of back-story remain two-dimensional, and DI John Marco is an archetype, or composite of literary detectives (recovering alcoholic, music taste at odds with those around him, emotionally distant, philanderer, absentee father etc.) as is his criminal nemesis


Reading that back I cringe inwardly as the last thing I want to do is put someone off reading a book, any book (except Ayn Rand–no-one should be exposed to that filth), or indeed writing as a means of self-expression. I hate myself for being critical of someone who has really put in some work to get a novel in print, no matter how he does it. But I can't say that I enjoyed this novel. There were parts that drove forwards, carrying me along hurdling over the barriers to appreciation as if they weren't there, and then DI Marco would light another cigarette and count how many he'd had that day, or mention Top Gear, and a part of me died inside. However, there is enough that is good here that with continued work, Mr Puleston might yet attract the attention of someone willing to take a chance on a 'local' author. It just won't be me.

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