Dan Rhodes has a grudge. A publisher of his previous novels (a Scottish Indie no less) didn’t pay him as they should have. It’s no secret. He tells the full story of that and his ongoing battles to receive his due here. He remains bitter and angry, and incorporates the experience into his latest novel, Sour Grapes. While he’s at it, why not lampoon the entire publishing industry? It’s a wonder he found a publisher. But Scott Pack, who rescued his previous novel The Professor Who Got Stuck In The Snow, from self-publishing hell, signed this one up to be published by Lightning Books, then promptly left the company and publishing in general!

No reflection on the book, I’m sure, which is very, very funny. Sarcastic and sardonic in places, and packing a few low punches. (Don’t ask about the slug on the front cover.) Talk about escapism in a time of need ….

A new literary festival has been founded in quintessential English villages, collectively known as The Bottoms. Ticket sales are surprisingly good, particularly for celebrity authors. The moderators, however, are not that experienced. Cue the Salman Rushdie event, during which the poor author can’t get a word in edgeways, and the audience ask the most ridiculous questions in the few minutes at the end of the event. Alexander Armstrong, J K Rowling and others make not altogether flattering appearances under their own name. The author who steals this particular show (i.e the novel), however, is one Wilberforce Selfram (a satirised Will Self) who has swallowed a thesaurus and refuses to speak in words of less than than 5 syllables. He has also walked, sorry, perambulated from London, sleeping under open skies, with leaves for blankets, eating whatever nature provides. He is following advice from the Beoffrey Papers, a slim ream of writings from the thirteenth century, recently ploughed up in a field in Kent.

Lyffte th’ logge and fynde beneethe foode fytte forr a kyng.

The festival organiser, Mrs Angelica Bruschini, has recently moved to the area. Finding it too sleepy for her liking, she sets about injecting some culture. When she is approached with funding for a new literary festival, she grabs the opportunity with both hands. Not giving two thoughts as to why the company The Literary Festival People, would be so keen and so generous. Yes, there are nefarious dealings going on in the background. In addition, Mrs Bruschini has secrets of her own, as does Wilberforce Selfram.

Rhodes certainly lays it on thick, taking swipes at everything: publishing celebrities, nepotism, exploitation of workers within the industry, millenials, Gen Z influencers, cancel culture, literary hoaxes, identity politics, environmental issues, conspiracy theories. He also takes the mickey out of himself, analysing in meta commentaries the similarities between Sour Grapes and The Professor Who Got Stuck In The Snow. Not that these similarities bothered me one bit.

Throw in some computer hacking and you have a link to a rather unexpected and tender love story. Ah, bless.

Sour Grapes is not perfect; the lack of distance between Rhodes and the subject of his ire makes it a little heavy-handed in places (The Brotherhood of Death publishing cult, or instance), but it is quite an amusing ride. Written in the evenings, following Rhodes’s shifts as a key-worker, it’s the first novel I read that was written during the pandemic. I’ll bet I’ll not read another novel written in the same timeframe like it.

Lightning Books is the fiction imprint of Eye Books, a small, independent publisher founded in 1996. On their website they state “As a small publisher we are able to make decisions quickly, and not by committee. We are small and nimble enough to take risks.” They may have taken one with Sour Grapes. I have a feeling it will pay off.