Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

A quick rundown…The story of Billy, looking after his young brother alone after the untimely death of his mother.

Strengths: Straight shooting book – no holds barred.

Weaknesses: Wish it was longer L

Why I read it: Bloomsbury kindly sent this to me – thank you!

Pages: 245

Published: 2012

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Setting: England

Rating: 9.5 out of 10


Admit it. You saw the title of this book and now you’re wondering what it’s about. Where does the term ‘prizes’ fit in to a story about a grieving pair of brothers? Why are there exclamation marks?

Now, just for a moment, step aside from this masterful piece by Stephen May. Pretend you’re in a doctor or dentist’s surgery, at your grandmother’s or browsing magazines at the newsagent’s. Think about titles such as That’s Life! and Take 5 in Australia; Pick Me Up or Take a Break in the UK. What do all these magazines have in common? That’s right, stories of survival, death and the opportunity to win a cuckoo clock by doing puzzles.

Billy, whose point of view this story is told, has been an avid reader of these magazines since his mum died. You see, the way in which she died is worthy of an article in one of the Life! Death! Prizes! magazines – she was trying to stop a bag snatcher from stealing her Netbook when she was killed. And now Billy is left to look after his half-brother, Oscar. Aunt Toni is sniffing around and Dean, Oscar’s absentee father is trying to make a comeback, but Billy knows that he can give Oscar what he needs – tuition in playing the RPG Empire and Super Maximum Explode washing machine rides.

You might think that you’ve read this kind of thing before, but I want to tell you: you haven’t. May handles Billy’s situation with brutal honesty, never sugar coating the bad – Billy drinks a bit, smokes the odd joint and prefers takeaway to lasagne from the freezer. Billy’s a flawed character, but May writes in such a way that you’re sympathetic with his plight. Whether Billy’s dealing with a hangover, trying to overrun the world as a RPG dictator, sneaking out to the supermarket while Oscar sleeps or trying to deal with his feelings for the attached Lucy, he’s a real guy. His character just leaps off the page.

The setting is another thing that May nails – from the dreary boredom of suburbia to the slight desperation to enjoy life with a fixed grin at the Fun Junction, where Billy meets his mother’s killer. This book will have you laughing, grimacing and cheering Billy on, as he ultimately tries his best to care for Oscar.

May’s razor sharp wit and realistic view of life, especially of a young person grieving while trying to figure out where they fit in the world, is simply fantastic. I couldn’t put this one down – to the point where I was reading while walking to find out what happened to Billy and Oscar.

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