Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

 Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

Every day I find stories sadder and more stupid than ours, reflects Billy on his newfound addiction to those trashy magazines that line the check-out shelves at the supermarket. Not the fashion magazines or even the Hollywood gossip rags, but the ones that deal in the currency of the tragedy of the everyman. Its good. It helps. It means that I can tell myself that Im lucky.

Billy is attending his mothers funeral.

At nineteen, Billy has become the carer for his six-year-old half-brother Oscar, for whom he is determined to care to the best of his abilitynever mind the escalating bills, Oscars increasing insularity, or the fact that Billy will be off to university next year. Withdrawing from the world and all of its responsibilities, the boys seek solace in each other and the fort theyve created from their mums home. Their lives become a blur of takeaway food, action movies and bath-time rituals, and by focusing on these small moments rather than the warnings from the gas and electricity company, and Oscars erratic behaviour, Billy is able to cope.

But coping is a long way from actually functioning, and his efforts to juggle his part-time job at the local museum, an awkward almost-love affair with a school teacher, and the haunting spectre of Aidan Jebb, the man who killed Billys mother, increasingly take their toll. Billy continues to push through, striving to prove that he is capable of caring for his brother, making light of issues such as Oscars wetting the bed, his bullying of other children and his complete and utter emotional breakdown over a Chupa Chup. Billys greatest fear is that hell lose the only family he has left, and when his Aunt Toni and Oscars deadbeat father attempt to apply for custody of Oscar we see just how damaged he is: his fear of abandonment and his coping-by-withdrawal methods become increasingly overt.

With the risk of losing Oscar becoming a reality, Billy turns to his valued methods of escapism, but increasingly finds that theyre turning on him as well. The computer game he spends his days immersed in lets him down when his carefully built armies and cities are destroyed; the Life! Death! Prizes! magazines for which the book is named merely numb him, and so does the pornography to which he then turns; the woman hes been seeing slips through his fingers; his job is under threat.

So many of these things, however, are pure chancejust like the death of Billys mother, and he cant help but fixate on Aidan Jebb, constructing a life for him, humanising him, and then tearing him down in the depths of his imagination. He recreates and reimagines, offering so many what ifs around his mother: what if she had simply let Aidan Jebb take the laptop computer he was trying to steal, rather than fighting back and losing her life over a cheap piece of plastic? He creates an imagined punishment for Jebb as well, using an historic incident involving two child thieves as a basis for justification. The Jebb thread is woven throughout the book as a marker of Billys obsession with his mothers killer.

But his fixation on Jebb also, at times, humanises the man. When Billy, fearful about Oscars mental state, conjectures'What does emotional abuse actually mean? he asks, listing dozens of horrific cases of properly abused children: thing us, we are our individual personality disorders. Thats what makes us human, he is simultaneously creating an argument for Jebb and his actions as well. Indeed, towards the end of the book, the two are temporarily twinned; unfortunately, although the thematic consistency works well here, Billys actions as he reaches true Jebbian depths dont quite seem to gel with what we know of his character.

Life! Death! Prizes! is what might be described as a biting narrativeit certainly sinks its teeth into you at times, leaving marks that you want to rub and prod at. Mays writing is sharp and honest, a mix of the bleak and the humorous, and he excels at contrasting the mundane and the human, and making something of the everyday.

Billys constant assertion that someone always has it worse and his news of magazine props to prove his point, not to mention the many methods of seclusion available to him in the modern world, is a sad but accurate reflection on the coping mechanisms of disillusioned and alienated society, and applies not just at the level of our protagonist, but across everyone in the novel as well. The sheer amount of coincidence in the book, a deliberate and effective ploy, only highlights how the terrible things we revel in as a way of elevating our own lives may only be an unexpected twist away.

Rating: star Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen Maystar Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen Maystar Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen Maystar Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen Mayblankstar Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May (excellent)

With thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for the review copy

Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing Life! Death! Prizes! from

Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA | Booktopia | The Nile

white 15 Book Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen MaySend to Kindle


  1. GREAT review for the fabulous LIFE! DEATH! PRIZES! by @realstephenmay @bloomsburybooks

  2. This is on my wishlist , sounds great!

Add us to your Google reader: Add to Google

Follow us on Blog Lovin' Follow on Bloglovin