Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, £10.99
For his debut novel, Mark Radcliffe, the much-loved BBC broadcaster behind such cult shows as 'The Mark and Lard Show' and 'Out on Blue Six', has adhered to one of those oft-quoted bits of advice for anyone who thinks they have a book in them: write about what you know. In Radcliffe's case that's folk music: a veteran of a number of bands, the Nick Drake-loving Radcliffe now fronts an outfit called Family Mahone and busks every Friday. 'Northern Sky' uses the folk scene as a backdrop for the story of a group of friends who've grown up - a little - realised they don't have as much in common as they thought and that perhaps life has passed some of them by.
Ed Beckinsale returns to his hometown from college, where a promising lecturing job went down the tubes when he decided to punch one of his superiors. Living with his widowed Mum, the Nick Drake-obsessed Ed has a double helping of humble pie to eat: having got into an argument about the merits of Drake, Ed swung at his pal Freddy, only to accidentally hit former girlfriend Jeanie, a beautiful local singer who's now become a recluse.
All this happened at their cherished haunt, the local folk club Northern Sky, where the smell of progress and not just rolled tobacco, sweat and patchouli is in the air. It seems that people are waking up to the fact that Ed's best mate Mo has some great songs in him and that former classmate and wealthy heartthrob Lane Fox is more talented than Ed will ever give him credit for. There's a Guardian article and national tour in the offing, but will Ed's stubbornness get in the way of success and a possible reconciliation with Jeanie?
As you'd expect from someone who talks for a living, Radcliffe is good at writing dialogue – the exchanges between Ed and his chain-smoking, malapropism-using Mum a highlight. The problem here is that the big mouth at the centre of his story isn't that engaging a character. 'Northern Sky' suffers because you don't find yourself cheering Ed on, but rather shaking your head at his uncanny ability to go out of the way to mess things up. He
becomes too predictable too quickly, leaving you with a
lets-gets-this-over-with feeling to some of his mishaps.
While he needs to work more on developing his characters, Radcliffe writes well. His style is simple and fluid, and he's never eager to show off his music knowledge or pile the folk and Drake references on with a shovel. He also throws you with a completely unexpected ending, but fails to make full use of it by rushing the epilogue - so badly, in fact, that you wonder if he was due on air in five minutes. Another 30 pages would've made a big difference to 'Northern Sky' and really convinced you that, if there wasn't any happy ever after for the characters, at least Ed really had grown up enough to realise he was his own worst enemy.
There's enough here to suggest that Radcliffe can now have another moonlighting gig to add to his busking and that, learning from what does and doesn't work here, better is to come. And don't be too surprised if you see his name on a cinema poster before too long.