Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
SGM Ashcroft has spent a long time working as a journalist before finally making his debut novel, titled Hack. The story follows an ambitious newspaper reporter in Portsmouth, England, Llew Sabler, who is always trying to break the big story, even after he has become the most reviled figure in town following a stunt gone wrong. Even more, the story he’s caught the scent of promises either death or glory, nothing in-between.
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SGM Ashcroft launches the Hack Saga
It can be a little difficult for an author to decide on how to begin their literary career, and it seems to me most of them turn to whatever fields they’re already familiar with. In my opinion, this makes the debut novels of certain authors rather interesting for the insight they’re likely to provide into a specific segment of life, as is the case with SGM Ashcroft‘s Hack.
Starting off the Hack Series, the novel is centred on Llew Sabler, a newspaper reporter working in Portsmouth, England, in 1990s, largely mirroring the author’s own career path in life. However, I am certain the similarities come to an abrupt end right where Sabler’s reporting methods begin, being unorthodox to say the least.
A trouble stirrer through and through, he seems to have a knack for creating news, if not being smack-dab at the centre of it all. His editor has tolerated his antics for quite a while now, but all good things must eventually come to an end.
The one woman who has managed to bewitch his heart and his thoughts, Thirza Kirkby, is being charmed right under his nose by his oldest friend, Emdel Black. Losing what little he had left of his mind, Llew concocts the kind of fake news which drawn the ire of the town, and leaves him facing a very real jail term in the near future.
However, a final shot at redemption might still be in sight. He comes across the scoop of a lifetime, the kind of story capable of making waves across the country… the kind of story people would kill to keep quiet. With a guarantee of either death or glory, Llew takes his chance and tries to drag the story into the light of day, and most importantly win Thirza’s heart back somehow.
The Truth in a World of Sickness in Hack
Though every author has his or her own style, I think many of them can be categorized in groups, and it seems to me the style used by journalists-turned-writers is a rather distinct and unique one. For one, they have a tendency towards constant movement and action (more on this later), but more importantly, they have the tendency the present interesting truths under the banner of humour.
In Hack, there is definitely quite a lot of the second, and whether these bits of general observation come from the characters or the narration, they are always enough to at least make you pause and think about them.
Now, I don’t claim Ashcroft knows the ultimate truths about the world nor the meaning of life and there were more than a few observations I found it difficult to agree with. Nevertheless, his ideas are presented with logical support, and more often than not, they carry bits of truth few, if anyone, could completely deny.
The humorous tone in which we’re presented these observations is a fairly necessary one I find, seeing as how many of them trend towards the darker side of the human psyche. The story is set in the rather sick and sacrilegious world which we all remember the 1990s as (at least, it’s the case for our characters), and the unsavoury elements sure have a stronger presence than their counterparts.
Together, the humour, truthful observations and morally-bankrupt setting merge together to create a rather unique and original atmosphere, one which sometimes borders on the surreal and ridiculous, and definitely stands out as an interesting result to this cocktail.
The Twisted Paths of Llew Sabler
Another element which stood out to me was the attention given to the portrayal of all the characters, from Llew himself to the criminals and degenerates making up the population of Portsmouth. Starting with the protagonist himself, he is immediately portrayed as being most unlikable and incompetent enough to make the sorts of decisions which create heaps of trouble.
I will admit, I wasn’t sold on him right away and wasn’t certain I could handle an entire book’s worth of his questionable decisions. However, as the plot moved on I began to warm up to him and his sense of adventure, and while he doesn’t become an entirely different person by the end of it, he does go through some interesting and believable changes along the way.
What’s more, Llew is the kind of protagonist who, even if he does everything wrong, still gets one thing right: he always successfully moves the story along, never running out of winding paths to run along. I mentioned earlier journalists have a good writing hand when it comes to faster-paced and more action-packed stories, and it shows here as well through a pace which never leaves time to get bored.
As far as the secondary and tertiary characters are concerned, I think SGM Ashcroft‘s experience as a journalist paid off once again. No matter how despicable or repulsive his characters are, they never devolve into stereotypes nor does the author pass any kind of judgment. In the end, people remain people, and life is as far from being black and white as it could be.
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The humour itself, which emanates its own colour throughout the entire story, is at times a bit twisted with a couple of nasty segments here and there. While those particular moments aren’t exactly my cup of tea, I was able to easily look past them, and on the whole, the comedy did succeed in keeping a smile on my face throughout the vast majority of my reading.
The Final Verdict
Hack by SGM Ashcroft is a very promising debut for the journalist-turned-author, one which tells a fast-paced and interesting story strongly accented by an irreverent brand of humour and a propensity for meaningful observations about life in general.
If you’re looking for a good dark humour novel which also has some real depth to it and stands clearly apart from its peers, then I highly suggest you give this novel a look.
SGM Ashcroft is an author from High Wycombe, England, who has been working as a journalist since 1987. He has the distinction of having worked for the BBC until 2005 when he decided to go freelance. His debut novel, Hack, came out in 2020, and marks the beginning of Ashcroft’s Hack Series.