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Lightening is flashing and thunder is splitting the Californian night sky as a young girl called Kirsty sneaks onto a yacht in the dead of night. Her mission is to find the laptop which holds the information that she is looking for - the proof that someone is trying to kill her. However, before she can complete her task, Kirsty is interrupted and a terrifying confrontation takes place. The action then switches to present day New York where Dudley Grose, a disillusioned, middle aged lecturer is teaching a creative writing course, "a writing course for dummies," as he refers to it. The lecture ticks along as normal with the sharing of (mainly dreadful) works in progress until one student, Adrian Slater, announces that the book he is working on will have a unique selling point. "I will - literally - kill to write a bestseller," he says, then proceeds to read shocking extracts aloud from his manuscript. Is Slater bluffing? Is he simply writing a very creative piece of fiction in the first person narrative? Dudley Grose doesn't think so. He becomes convinced that Slater's work is a blueprint for murder and that the man is dangerous. Is Grose overreacting? Many people, including the Dean of Faculty and Grose's young lover, Jenny, refuse to take his fears seriously, but when a student goes missing, things quickly take on a more sinister turn.
The Bestseller is a novel by Stephen Leather. After downloading this book to my Kindle for a modest £0.86, I thought it seemed promising. I found the 'book within a book' structure unusual. The opening scene on the yacht immediately draws the reader in as it is tense, exciting, atmospheric and very visual, but the sudden shift to the contrasting quiet of the lecture hall where Grose's students are reading extracts from their creative writing works immediately makes the reader question whether what they have just read has actually happened or whether it is somebody's work of fiction. The relationship between truth and fiction continues as the novel unfolds, which I found an intriguing concept in a novel set in the world of writing where all the key characters are either writers or wannabe writers.
This novel certainly makes some astute observations on the world of published and unpublished writing and the way that things have changed as a result of eBooks. I was expecting this book to be a fast-paced thriller, but was rather surprised to see that much of it seems to be taken up with the debate over whether eBook publishing is good or bad for the literary world. Dudley Grose represents the traditionalist. He hates the concept of the eBook and always writes with a fountain pen. In Dudley's view a book is, "a thing of beauty that had to be held to be appreciated, not a stream of electrons whizzing across a screen." He has published seven novels and been nominated for a Pulitzer. From the minute we meet Grose in the lecture hall with his battered old briefcase, dressed in his tweed jacket and green corduroy trousers, we realise that he is something of a dinosaur, out of touch with the new generation of writers. He would rather be lecturing on English literature but has been forced to teach creative writing courses to help his students pander to the mass market. The young student, Adrian Slater, with his RayBans, trendy laptop and motorbike is the perfect foil to Grose. Slater is convinced that the eBook market will take over from 'dead tree books' and he would rather sell a million copies of a book than win a Pulitzer. The two hate each other instantly and the clashes between them make gripping reading at times, particularly as Grose's lover Jenny, who is less than half his age and a student on the course, forms a friendship with Slater. The reader is made to ponder whether each character's contempt for the other is affecting their judgment and governing their actions. Is Grose's jealousy towards Slater fuelling his imagination, making him see him as an unhinged psycho? Is Slater's manuscript simply an attempt to wind Grose up? Should we be on the side of Grose or on the side of Slater? As I read the book I found my allegiance changing at different points in the story and it was hard to make up my mind who was the good guy and who was the bad guy.
Although I felt that this book had great potential, it didn't meet my expectations. I felt that the eBook versus 'real' books discussion was overdone and became a bit of a boring debate after a while. I wanted a bit more action and less discussion. I have heard all the arguments before on the pros and cons of the Kindle so there was nothing new to enlighten me on the subject. Whilst I could appreciate Slater's point of view that it is good that agents and publishers are no longer acting as gatekeepers, preventing new writers getting a foot in the door, I also had some sympathy for Grose's frustrations, feeling that the literary world was being overtaken by mediocre writers and equating self-publishing to "hawking my own work like some sort of snake oil salesman." Both Grose and Slater's viewpoints began to sound like rants after a while and seemed out of place in what I'd hoped would be a juicy book about murder. However, at times it gave us an astute insight into how the publishing world operates. I found it funny when Grose got angry with his agent for showing no interest in his latest book and said - "There are no vampires in it, is that it?"
Another reason I didn't enjoy the book is because I couldn't really warm to any of the characters. Slater could have been much more fascinating if he hadn't been so clichéd. We're supposed to see him as some kind of rebel, yet in one scene he persuades Jenny to try a cigarette. Wow! Very edgy! Slater believes that it violates his human rights to not be able to smoke in public. "We have to try everything at least once," he tells Jenny. No doubt we have all come out with that profound statement at some point in our lives, probably when we were about 15. The philandering Dudley Grose annoyed me even more. He was not only selfish but even more arrogant than Slater, an intellectual snob who got on my nerves. I hated the way he looked down on his students and felt that teaching them was somehow beneath him. It was really difficult to see why the young, pretty Jenny was attracted to him as he doesn't treat her well. Jenny's character lacked depth too, although at least the author seemed to capture credibly some of the frustrations of a woman whose married man won't leave his wife for her.
Throughout the book clichés abound. The university department is run by man-hating lesbians who won't take Grose's views seriously. However, I felt there were some shrewd observations on the politics in Grose's department where he dare not criticise certain students' work for fear of being accused of sexism or unfairness. I know quite a few people in education who have experienced that too. I have also heard of older people being phased out as a department attempts to modernise its curriculum and "go with the younger structure" so I felt that Dudley's fears in relation to his job were quite credible. Much as I disliked Dudley, I felt that the author captured very well the conflict he was experiencing, being in love with a younger woman but not wanting to risk his financial security by leaving his wife.
I had hoped this novel would hurtle along and keep me on the edge of my seat, but unfortunately I found that it dragged. At approximately 5,500 words this isn't a long book and it is described as a novella, but I struggled to finish it. It plodded along and for pages and pages I seemed to be reading about the merits and evils of Kindles over real books, or witnessing scene after scene where Dudley was mouthing off about Slater, or ploughing through passages of drivel where Dudley's students read out their creative works or just paragraph upon paragraph of Slater's ramblings. The scenes where the cops become involved were particularly hard to get through as the dialogue was so monotonous. I lost count of the number of times when one cop said words to the effect of, "you bastard! I've had just about as much as I can take from you" and Slater took his sun glasses on and off and came up with another smart alec wisecrack. I wondered if I would ever finish it, but somehow I managed to keep going as I genuinely wanted to find out what happened.
I was hoping for a few clever twists and turns throughout the novel but was disappointed. To be fair, the ending is not what I expected, but I can't help but think that the ending I DID expect would have been better. What I can say about the ending is that it is dramatic and ties up all the loose ends, but I felt I had waited too long for that moment of drama. This is a novel which starts on a dramatic note and ends on a dramatic note, but what is in between is pretty dull.
For the price (it is currently £0.98) I don't want to complain too much but I had heard good things about Stephen Leather's writing and thought this would be better than it was. The book within a book style was an excellent idea, but I felt this potentially gripping novel was let down by repetitive dialogue and clichéd characterisation. So I can't recommend this particularly highly.