- Paperback: 570 pages
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (7 Feb. 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1523935456
- ISBN-13: 978-1523935451
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 3.6 x 21.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 324,950 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner (The Jack Vincent Papers Book 1) Paperback – 7 Feb 2016
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About the Author
Stephen Carver is a writer, editor and academic. For sixteen years he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia (where he also took his doctorate), spending three years in Japan as an associate-professor of English at the University of Fukui. He is presently Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing, the Senior Editor at Green Door Design for Publishing, and a reader for The Literary Consultancy. He is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, and has published extensively on gothic film and fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Not-Not, Cascando, Birdsuit and Veto, and he also blogs on literature and creative writing. He lives in Norfolk with his wife and son, and far too many books and motorcycles.
Top customer reviews
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Here in spirit and subject matter I find so many of the greats on whom I cut my own emerging literary awareness. Here is Thomas Hardy in the narrator’s early rural years, here is George Eliot’s Eppie in the golden curls of Jack Vincent’s little sister Sarah, and here woven into plot as well a the subject matter is Thackery. But here beyond all others is Charles Dickens whom it seems is the writer narrator (and dare I suggest perhaps even the author?) would most like to have been himself. Thus we are drawn from the horrors of a medically unattended death in childbirth (the narrator’s mother) through the comparable horrors of Marshalsea debtors’ prison , on into the terminal horrors of the unattended death in the squalor of the London slums of the author’s father (I cannot bring myself to disclose the truly shocking detail Stephen Carver describes). Dr Carver’s Victorian England is one in which the grim life of the rural and urban poor is exceeded only by the grim death that follows it. Here, in consequence, I do not find the Brontes, and here I most definitely do not find Jane Austen.
The narrator’s personal journey takes him on the troop carrier Birkenhead to South Africa where, it is no secret to disclose, it is wrecked. Vincent is present throughout the journey and the wreck, describing in graphic detail the fate in the titular Shark Alley of those that did not make it to the lifeboats – as well of that of some that did. These two story lines of the early and middle years of Jack Vincent are woven into an alternating narrative that keeps the plot moving at a pace that retains the reader’s interest, perpetuating the vehicle for the author’s real interest which lines in social history. Hence Vincent’s scandalous affair with society hostess Mina Garwood is contrasted with his eventual courtship of and loving marriage to London seamstress Grace in a story line that pauses briefly to explore, amongst other socio-political landmarks, the Chartist Kennington Rally of 1848.
At over 200,000 words this ‘trippledecker’ is no lightweight read. If any criticism is to be made of it, it is perhaps that Jack Vincent is too socially aware and that holds values that are more twentieth or even twenty-first century than nineteenth. For this apparent anachronism we cannot blame him though, for Dr Carver has surely time travelled in the tradition of his favourite penny-a-line serialisations. Though we have never met, I am quite certain that Stephen Carver is Jack Vincent.
I have no difficulty in awaiting this work the maximum five stars and I await its sequel with interest. Congratulations, Dr Carver, on a fine achievement.
The book has a striking colour cover in the Victorian style of 'The Illustrated Police News' and the type is nicely readable (i.e. not at all Victorian beyond the title font). In an ideal world de luxe edition readers might be presented with a pictorial section, assembled by the editor, with photographs of the documents, reproductions of title pages, period photographs (difficult given the date of the events) or engravings of significant characters. When the significant characters include Dickens, Thackeray, W.H. Ainsworth, Cruikshank, Count D’Orsay, Piers Egan, Flora Tristan, G.W.M. Reynolds, leading Chartists, even the models for Bill Sikes and Nancy, and the full cast of the dramatic events of the Birkenhead disaster, then the reader undoubtedly gets their money’s worth in the novel as it stands.
The only flaws I spotted were minor copyediting errors such as ‘Marshalsea Debtors Prison’ initially appearing with a consistent typo (‘Malshalsea’) or the odd influx of ‘frozen water’ that is clearly not ice during the climax. Otherwise, I only had to pause to digest a few examples of authentic Victorian phraseology and Thieves cant of the Newgate era. The great depth of historical research and knowledge shown is very pleasing, never boring. Initially I had problems with the triple deck of titles but true Victorian novels are often equally encumbered though summarised through familiarity (e.g. 'Dombey and Son' is really 'Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation').
It is possible to imagine other ways the story could have been structured, rather than Shark Alley looming from page 1, but taking such a long time to arrive, but ultimately the reader is rewarded with it all coming together quite satisfactorily. I read the first two sections steadily but galloped towards the end reading the last section until 3 in the morning (unusual for me these days). An element I would like to feel more historically secure about is the way Jack Vincent’s gothic narratives regularly appear to make use of twentieth century science-fiction tropes that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells haven’t gotten around to introducing yet: time travel and other dimensions. One of Jack Vincent’s gorier tales even sounds like a combination of the Japanese Horror film 'Audition' with the original 'Sweeney Todd'. I also feel that occasionally there is too much sex and swearing for authenticity (i.e. for any reading audience Jack Vincent could conceive of), but pursuing this line of argument might lead to a wholly convincing but much less readable book.
In Jack Vincent we have a Victorian narrator of quite a different stripe than any other than I am familiar with (my ignorance includes George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series). Vincent keeps his class roots and consequent political sympathies in sight throughout for good or ill falling on the wrong side in the debate over the Newgate Novel and the (necessary?) moral purpose of literature, but being able to contribute to Henry Mayhew’s 'London Labour and the London Poor' through his ability to speak to the working and underclass in terms they can understand. To say there is a happy ending for Vincent might be a spoiler if ‘Volume 1’ did not already give it away and there is a proper hook for the next volume. One wonders how much trouble Jack Vincent can get into since he will be too old, surely, to be our guide to late Victorian events (Khartoum, the Zulu wars, the Ripper) and one might be slightly intrigued to read a volume collecting his out-of-print gothic romps with their pirates and werewolves. Even without another volume appearing, Shark Alley can stand alone as an impressive achievment.
Overall, 'Shark Alley: Memoirs of a Penny-a-liner' is a bracing excursion into the Regency and early Victorian period reminding us of just how alien a world it was while showing that extensive political change has not in the least shifted the reigns of power from an exploitative and uncaring upper class. This is not to say it is an example of the Historical Novel as vehicle for social realism; the reasons for critiquing British society are grounded in a well-balanced world-view. In dealing with real historical events the author is scrupulously fair-minded when it comes to apportioning blame; the climactic disaster affects all classes, and, apart from the despicable Grimstone, everyone acts well on shared moral values (Women and children first) other than those few who conclude it is worth risking their lives for an effort at the bullion the ship is carrying. The author’s avoidance of the blame game allows the point that humanity is adrift in a hostile world and easy prey without the help of others to be expertly brought home. But though ultimately validating the Dickensian virtues of hearth, home and helpmeet, Jack Vincent ends Shark Alley with a more characteristic piratical flourish involving some ill-gotten gains and gothic gear.
Round of applause for Green Door Press.
I immediately saw that this novel has some similarities to the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. It is set in Victorian England, has a protagonist who is incorrigible, although with rather nobler qualities than Flashman, and who relates to the towering figures of the day, though in this case not military men but the lions of literature.
Jack Vincent is a hero of our time as well as of the nineteenth century. Born to a humble tailor who is condemned to imprisonment for debt, he finds he has a gift for story telling which proves his salvation. He fights his way to the top by dint of his own talent and hard work, only to be cast into the depths by vicious and spiteful enemies. One day the toast of literary London. The next day – just toast.
Carver is astonishingly skilled at the difficult feat of writing in a style reminiscent of the time while imbuing the narrative with a twenty first century sensibility. A couple of times early in the novel, his writing echoed the Victorian style a little too exactly for me but he soon returned to the faster pace and knowing style which so characterises the book.
Shark Alley is not only reminiscent of the Flashman books. There are touches of Dickens, Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and even what seems like a nightmare glance towards The Life of Pi. Or maybe to Steven Spielberg.
This is an entertaining read for all lovers of historical fiction and for those, like me, who write it. I look forward to further instalments. Martin Lake
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Most recent customer reviews
What a fabulous read! Carver’s detailed knowledge of the period shines through without ever intruding on the flow of the novel.Read more
I have always been interested in Victorian penny dreadfuls as well as the history of Chartism (a working-class...Read more