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  1. The Busker promises three cities, two years, one chance. Yes, the cities bit is correct, and I’ll take Liam Murray Bell’s word for it that it takes place over two years – although it is difficult to gauge the passage of time – but “one chance” is a bit misleading. We open the book to find Robert Dillon, homeless on the streets of Brighton, having pawned his guitar to buy a bit of food and some drugs to help him sleep. Since Robert – or Rab – is a busker, this seems to reflect some pretty short term thinking. Rab seems to be a stereotypical Glaswegian junkie, having incoherent arguments with his incoherent homeless buddy Sage. Certainly, Rab is at rock bottom. So it challenges pre-conceptions to discover that Rab is an articulate man from a middle class part of Glasgow who recently signed a recording contract and had an album released. The novel layers back in time, first to London where Rab is living the high life, raiding the mini-bar in his swanky hotel room, being ferried about the place by record company limousines, and looking forward to a life of fame and wealth. And then it is layered further back to Hyndland, Glasgow, where Rab’s friends are looking at universities as Rab is making preparations to head down to London for the big time. He is full of hopes and expectations; perhaps his girlfriend Maddie might come to join him; they could buy a house and once the royalties start to pour in, Maddie’s English uni tuition fees wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket… Obviously, we know that Rab’s music career is not going to end well; part of the intrigue in the novel is seeing how such a low ebb can be reached from such promising beginnings. The journey gives a searing portrayal of the music industry which seems so cut-throat and unsentimental that it’s a wonder anyone would ever consider joining it. Everyone seems to be in hock to someone else – those who seems to be screwing over the artists are being screwed over themselves. There is also a good deal of cynicism about celebrity endorsement of grass-roots movements. Rab is encouraged to involve himself with the Occupy movement, pretending to be sincere, pretending to live in a tent, pretending to be in touch with the streets. The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the future that is waiting for Rab. One of the strengths of the book is the development of Rab as a character. He may not have been much chop as a rock star, he may take some poor decisions and sometimes seems callous, but he does have an innate optimism that is hard to dislike. He doesn’t want charity; he doesn’t want to admit defeat; and he seems to still have hope that he’ll be able to pull himself up. In each of the three sections, he is counterpointed by more pessimistic characters – Sage in Brighton, Price the record mogul in London, and Maddie, the girlfriend in Glasgow. Rab is never deterred by the fact that the voices of pessimism often seem to be right; and the reader cheers for him. Does he get there in the end? Perhaps. ****0
  2. Cassie is a girl on a mission. A nasty, gruesome mission. The man she meets will remember their meeting for a long time. Because Cassie is fighting for the Republican Cause. Sure, there's a ceasefire, but Cassie never signed up to it... So It Is weaves together Cassie's story with that of Aoife, a girl growing up in the nationalist Lower Ormeau Road area of Belfast. Aoife's world is a small area of houses, bounded by the river and the railway, isolated, but on the direct marching route from Protestant Ballynafeigh to the city centre. Aoife and her family shelter as loyalists hit golf balls over the railway at their windows; the RUC (97% protestant, 100% unionist) force Orange parades down the road and raid the houses. Aoife's mother has some kind of post traumatic stress disorder and spends her days with her hand in the sink whilst her father drives his taxi between the social security office and the bar. This casts Aoife into a role caring for her young brother Damien whilst trying to steal time to spend with her friend Becky and his rather good looking brother Ciarán. As the stories progress, we see hatred and hurt growing - with justification - by the day. But we also see the early stages of the peace process as the politicians, many of whom were the paramilitaries of yesteryear, try to draw the hatred and violence to a close. This leaves their community in a limbo; the young bloods looking for their part of the action, still feeling the pain of a stolen childhood, whilst denied the opportunity to play their part. Liam Murray Bell unashamedly portrays this period of time from one side of the divide. His characters are partisan; the history they learn; the politics they follow; the attitudes they adopt - are all from the one side. But So It Is allows the reader to infer that there are symmetrical relationships on the other side of the divide. At one point, Aoife and her friend Becky try to sell cheap jewellery they have made to some of the protestant houses on the Ravenhill Road. They discover that, apart from a picture of the Queen in place of the picture of the Pope, the houses and the lives are the same. And later on in the book, as we follow Cassie, we find that there's very little difference between her own brand of vengeance and the deeds she is avenging - which in turn would probably have been vengeance in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence. By the end of the novel, the reader starts to see the humanity in the situation. Nowhere is violence condoned; this is not a glamorisation of violence. There are plenty of characters who also suffer pain and don't turn to violence. But there is a sense of damaged people within a damaged society, some of whom turn to violence as an escape. These are not the brigadiers; not the OCs. These are the gunfodder and they damage themselves as much as they damage anyone else. The ending is ambiguous, and on a personal level it is tragic. But there is also the hope that the reader knows comes to fruition through the Good Friday Agreement, decommissioning and devolution. Liam Murray Bell has a remarkable ear for dialogue, though, and his colloquialisms are authentic. He captures the mood of the early ceasefires perfectly - a sense of tension, nobody believing it could last but afraid to do or say anything in case it fractured the peace. And, the frustration of those who felt cut adrift. Bell's geography is not quite perfect, though, when he tells us that Cassie knows very few people in South Belfast and nobody in East Belfast despite living on the Lower Ormeau and having an aunt in the Short Strand. Still, it's a small thing in a compelling, horrifying and satisfying novel. ****0
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