Scots Whay Hae!

Talking About Scottish Culture So You Don't Have To

The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s Best Books Of 2016…

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It’s the time for ‘Books Of The Year’ lists and we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection for 2016, while small, is beautifully formed and well worthy of your attention.

These are the books which stood out against a lot of stiff and perhaps better known competition. The list could have been longer but we like to stick to a traditional Top Ten. Consisting mostly of novels, with one remarkable collection of short stories, and one unforgettable musical (auto)biography, these are the books which have left their mark. Here’s what we thought at the time:

51xve7sbigl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Young Soul Rebels – Stuart Cosgrove

Stuart Cosgrove writes as he broadcasts – eloquently, forcefully and at pace, and as such he makes persuasive and forceful arguments. If you have a music fan in your life, then I would suggest this book is the perfect gift. If they are a soul fan, then it is a must. Anyone who has ever pored over liner notes, obsessed over b-sides, searched out limited editions and rarities, or cued hours for tickets or entry will recognise themselves at least in part on the page, no matter what their musical tastes. Stuart Cosgrove is here to remind you that while music may not be a matter of life and death (and there are poignant reminders of that in Young Soul Rebels) it certainly makes the former worth living.

9781910449820The Waves Burn Bright – Iain Maloney

With The Waves Burn Bright Iain Maloney has written his best book to date, not only an entertaining and thoughtful one, but, I would suggest, an important one. Many of us will never forget the night of Piper Alpha, but there will be those who are unaware of it. This is an important part of Scotland’s history and Maloney has not only paid respect to the memory of that terrible event, he has offered fresh insight into how individuals and their families and friends cope, or more often fail to cope, with trauma – the humanity behind the headlines.

29547067Armadillos – P.K. Lynch

I’m certain this was not an easy book to write or research, and in the afterword to the novel Lynch talks about feeling a responsibility to the victims of sexual and psychological abuse, stating; “My biggest wish for Armadillos is for survivors of abuse to feel I’ve been sensitive and truthful.” Lynch remains as good as her word to the very end. Helping to understand terrible things is something written fiction can do better than any other art form, and Armadillos is a reminder of this. It is not always an easy read, and nor should it be, but any novel which makes you think more keenly on a subject is a success, and Armadillos is certainly that.

vespas-full-front-copy-275x423The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas – David F. Ross

The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas is the second part of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first part, The Last Days of Disco, to enjoy it.  Mention of a trilogy made me think of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown books, and there are parallels between The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas and Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments. Like that, it is written with an eye for the absurd but a genuine love of the music both writers reference. The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas is a blast. Sometimes you want a book which unashamedly entertains, and David F. Ross has done just that. There’s a riot going on, and The Miraculous Vespas are at the centre of it.

418DU4pdayL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_Three Craws – James Yorkston

As a songwriter, James Yorkston is a master at telling tales, and is also well aware of the ballad tradition, so it should be no surprise that he writes as well as he does, or that his debut novel touches upon the themes that it does. There is a lyricism in his use of everyday language which is rare and believable, and he uses his musicians ear to master the phraseology not only of how his characters talk to each other, but how they ‘talk’ to themselves. Three Craws is in some ways a ballad for modern rural life, but like the children’s song with which it shares its title, it’s one which isn’t afraid to show you the dark as well as the light. It also introduces Yorkston as a welcome new voice in Scottish fiction, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 The Dead Don’t Boogie – Douglas SkeltonDDB_Cover

With Dominic Queste, Douglas Skelton has created a character you want more of, in a similar manner to Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane. This is modern pulp fiction at its best. It’s fast-paced and flippant, and with all the clichés any reader would come to expect; tough guy priests, reformed hard men, dames in distress, but brought bang up to date in place and time. The fact it succeeds is a testament to Douglas Skelton’s understanding of noir fiction, and it’s another example which proves that Scottish crime writing is as diverse and as any other area of literature. Here’s hoping Dominic Queste continues to boogie for some time yet.

treats_-270Treats – Lara Williams

With Treats Lara Williams manages to capture the emotion, humour and pathos found in the drama of everday lives in just a few pages, and in that regard it is reminiscent of A.L. Kennedy’s 1990 debut collection Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. Williams’ displays brevity, wit, and a desire to find something romantic in life, even though it may not be conventional, or exactly because it is unconventional. One of the reasons for reviewing Treats some months after I first read it is that it didn’t leave me, and I have returned to my favourite stories again and again much as I do with certain tracks on a cherished album. There is something in them that makes me want to remember previous times, places and people. Like perfect pop songs in literary form, this is storytelling at its finest.

mickey-bellThe Making Of Mickey Bell – Kellan MacInnes

The Making Of Mickey Bell is possibly the most packed novel you will read this year in that it is bursting with ideas, stylistic flourishes, unusual narrative voices and literary experimentation which makes it stand out in the crowd. What is most impressive is the desire to do something different. Actually, it’s the desire to do something different and pull it off. Kellan MacInnes has been willing to experiment with form, structure and language and you can’t help but feel he has had a ball doing it. There is a lust for life, and for writing, which runs through the book, and which keeps you turning the page.

41bhqqyxlilCrash Land – Doug Johnstone

There are few things I look forward to more than a new Doug Johnstone novel, and if you like your thrillers fast and furious then Crash Land is the perfect book for you. I used to doubt reviewers who said that they finished a book in one sitting, but in all honesty I cracked the spine at 8pm on a Thursday night and headed to bed an exhausted yet happy reader around three o’clock on Friday morning. Make no mistake, Doug Johnstone is one of the best writers around, both in terms of style and substance. No one’s thrillers are quite as thrilling.

41ztdl-stl-_sx314_bo1204203200_The Brilliant & Forever – Kevin MacNeil*

With The Brilliant & Forever Kevin MacNeil has pulled off the difficult trick of making readers laugh first, then making them think. It’s rare to read a book which has me laugh out loud, but MacNeil manages it, and this makes the novel’s twists and dramatic moments more shocking when they occur. It’s a novel that is philosophically interesting and engaging, examining how we consider art and culture increasingly as commodities while treating some people as if they were less then human at the same time. You may not think the two are linked, but you’d be wrong. The Brilliant & Forever shows Kevin MacNeil writing with insight, skill, passion and a playfulness which at times conceals an underlying exasperation and anger. It is evidence of a writer at the very top of their game.

*(The full version of this review will appear in the next edition of The Bottle Imp.)

p.s. There may be some of you thinking, “Why is there no mention of the Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet?”. That’s because it appeared in last year’s list, but you can still read our full review here.

p.p.s. This post is not sponsored by Laphroaig. However, we’re open to offers…

New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…

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I’ve never really thought about how the changing seasons affect the music you listen to, but one of the interesting things about following the year through Scots Whay Hae!’s Tracks Of The Year Spotify list has been to see what the 2016 trends have been, and how they change.

It does seem that as the year has progressed the upbeat has slowly been replaced by more reflective and contemplative fair. I could try to come up with a clever reason for this, but the truth is this is the sort of music I like to have accompany me on cold, dark nights. So there’s melancholia as well as melody in this roundup of reviews. There’s even a mention of “mortification”. However, there’s also one tune which will be essential at any self-respecting Christmas night out. You’ve got to have an exception to prove the rule.

We begin with something magical and moving. it is something to have been is the new EP from Olive Grove Records, and features songs from Jo Mango (‘Wisps Of Something’), The State Broadcasters (‘I Am This’), The Son(s) (‘Mississippi’) and Call To Mind (Hole In The Heart’). Available on download and on beautiful green vinyl, it’s a reminder, as if you needed it, that the name Olive Grove has long been a guarantee of quality. They simply refuse to release anything other than the finest music, and, although each track on it is something to have been works individually, together they make one of the most significant and memorable releases of the year. Olive Grove’s Lloyd Meredith has gathered a fine family of artists around him, and it is fitting that this EP honours the memory of his late father as it’s the perfect summation of where Olive Grove have come from, and how strong they stand today.  Buy a copy for someone you love. They’ll thank you for it, perhaps more than you’ll realise:

I discovered the work of Malmo in late summer and have been listening to them on a regular basis ever since. Anyone who knows their music will be unsurprised by this as they are influenced by the likes of Massive Attack and The Blue Nile, (particularly the latter’s first two albums which are among the finest records ever made, as any fule kno). There are also traces of Prefab Sprout, Bryan Ferry, Scritti Politti and The Bathers, at least to these ears. November saw the first new track from them in a while, and if you, like me, are late to their exquisitely tasteful party then this is the perfect place to start. It’s called ‘Dust’:

Half Formed Things are an Edinburgh three-piece who have a new EP on release, also called Half Formed ThingsThey describe themselves as “cinematic & mortific”, and while I understand what they mean – there is a sense of dark unease about their music – I don’t think it does them full justice as it only scratches the surface of what they offer. In only three tracks we have soaring vocals, off-kilter melodies, relentless drums, sublime piano, driving guitars, and even a little finger-clicking. There’s some David Sylvian, Kate Bush, Tindersticks and Nick Cave evident in their sound, to give you some notion of what’s going on, but the best idea is for you to listen for yourself. If you’re not smitten by the time track 3, ‘Swami’ finishes then go back to the beginning and start again because you’re just not working hard enough. But don’t worry; I promise it will be worth it:

When SWH! first started regular music reviews Meursault made me want to continue even when no-one knew if anyone was reading or taking a blind bit of notice. Here was the perfect example of what SWH! aimed to do – discover something new to us and shout about it as loud as possible till people listened. Enough history; suffice to say that Meursault  (who are essentially Neil Pennycook and friends) have a fond place in our hearts, so their return is a reason for celebration. The new EP is called Simple Is Good, (released by Song, by Toad, while we’re mentioning favourite record labels) and judging by the title track we are back in safest of hands with a band who will break your heart and mend it again all in the space of one song. Pennycook’s plaintive vocals are backed by piano, strings, gentle drums and unobtrusive electronics, allowing the song to come to the fore and affect you almost without you realising. Understated beauty in musical form:

One of SWH!’s favourite acts of the last decade are The Bird & The Monkey, and there is something of their experimental sound in the music of The Eastern Swell, who also put me in mind of All About Eve and Trembling Bells. You could describe them as prog/folk/rock, if you needed to do such a thing. There is certainly something dark at their heart, as the single ‘Muckish Mountain’ suggests, but in the best possible sense. It’s the perfect song for a reflective New Year’s Day walk, at least it is if your Hogmanays are anything like mine. Their album One Day, A Flood received rave reviews on its release, and it looks like 2017 could be their year. Hear for yourself:

Another label which guarantees quality is Last Night From Glasgow. So far this year they have released music by Mark W. Georgsson, Emme Woods, Stephen Solo, Teen Canteen and Be Charlotte, all of which have been highlights in what’s turned out to be a hell of a year for music. To that we can now add ‘Mould Me’ from BooHooHoo. I was lucky enough to see them support Teen Canteen at the latter’s album launch earlier in the year, and they damn near stole the show. They make electronic pop music to lift heart and soul, and ‘Mould Me’ is a prime example of what they do best. Joyous, uplifting and as hooky as an ex-New Order bassist, BooHooHoo are guaranteed to make your life better. And, if the accompanying video doesn’t make you smile, ask a friend to check for a pulse. This is ‘Mould Me’:

I’m going to finish with a contender for album of the year. Lomond Campbell will be known to some as FOUND’s Ziggy Campbell, but a move from the urban to the rural has prompted a change of name and a solo career to match. The result is Black River Promisea collection of songs which range from evocative instrumentals, through pared down laments, to  songs which are altogether more complex and grand. Going back to my original point at the top of the page, it is the perfect soundtrack to autumn/winter. The production in particular is judged perfectly, at times sounding as if it was recorded in an abandoned building (which it basically was) but always concise and clear.

Mention must be made of the string arrangements by Pete Harvey which lift Campbell’s songs to new heights. This is an album which sounds fresh and intoxicating, and while there are definite nods towards the music of King Creosote, Lone Pigeon and James Yorkston & The Athletes, it also feels out of time, bringing to mind other famous pastoral records such as Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter or Five Leaves Left, John Martyn’s One World or even a darker take on Astral Weeks.  I’ve been listening to it for the last fortnight daily and am quite comfortable to place it in that hallowed company. See if I’m not right. Here’s the title track:

The next music review will be a best of 2016, and that’s going to involve some tough choices. Any thoughts? Fire them our way…

You Have Been Watching… 16 Years Till Summer

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I don’t normally bring anything directly personal into a review – it’s rarely relevant, but I want to make the point that sometimes a piece of art, whatever form it takes, comes along at the right time to help you make sense of the seemingly nonsensical, and help you through tough times. That’s what Lou McLoughlan’s film 16 Years Till Summer did for me. It’s an amazing piece of work made more special by the circumstances around when I watched it. As the film shows with heartbreaking clarity, sometimes timing is all.

A documentary set in the western Highlands, and filmed over four years, 16 Years Till Summer follows Uisdean who we meet caring for his ageing father. Theirs is a warm yet antagonistic relationship, with the older man raging against the dying of the light, and determined to make sure his son meets his high standards. Then comes the first major reveal when, while eating together, Uisdean says, “The soup you get in jail they can’t put meat in it because of the vegetarians.”

As the nature of the film is to observe rather than interfere, nothing much more is made of this at the time, but as matters move on Uisdean talks about why he was in jail, his heroin addiction, his hopes for his father’s home, and for his own future. The film makes clear that this is his truth, not necessarily the whole truth, but there is little doubt that he sees a future in the Highlands. This is home. It may seem overly romantic, but he makes a direct connection between the beauty of his surroundings and his continued recovery, but this is no fairy tale and harsh reality soon intervenes.

An event causes repercussions for all involved. I’m not going to spoil anything, but I can say that Uisdean goes on to find the promise of happiness in Audrey, a remarkable woman whose faith some will judge as blind, others as inspiring. I’ve watched 16 Years Till Summer three times now, and my view has changed each time. Whatever your thoughts on their relationship, it is like few you have seen on screen before.

Lou McLoughlan’s direction is so subtle that it could be overlooked, but it makes this documentary what it is. There is never a question heard, and those on camera are obviously so comfortable in its company that they never play up to it or make the viewer feel as if they are intruding. It’s an amazing feat to pull off.  This is honest storytelling, not sensational in the slightest, and this makes it all the more powerful. You are never forced in a certain direction, and as such you have to make up your own mind as to what you think and confront any judgements you make. Whatever they are, they will say as much about you as anyone on-screen.

There is an unhurried pace to what happens which reminded me of Tokyo Story by Yasujirô Ozu and Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. Both of those films are fiction, but the comparison stands as there are aspects to this film which feel unreal. Not invented, I should hasten to add, but this is drama that only occurs in real life. Any writer would likely deem it irrational or simply unbelievable.

I also have to mention the music, the cinematography, and the sound, which is perhaps an unusual thing to highlight, but which is vital to the film’s overall tone. In the opening sections the gentle noise of water is constant. The lochs and the mountains are characters on their own, in sound as well as sight. The natural world plays a full part in proceedings, and allows a magical sensibility which wouldn’t be the same in an urban setting.

16 Years Till Summer is a film of two parts. It’s a film of four parts, and it’s a film of many parts. It’s a love story, then another love story. It’s a treatise on truth, guilt (and I can only imagine the guilt), responsibility, self-determination, redemption, and faith. And Faith. It’s a reminder that life isn’t a linear narrative of highs and lows where everything will be alright in the end. It’s a series of moments, and we should enjoy the moments which make us happy and try to learn something from those which harm us, or where we cause harm.  If you get the chance to watch 16 Years Till Summer then grab it. It’s a film shot through with humanity, and you cannot fail to be affected by it. How you are affected by it, I can’t say, but you can’t ask much more from a film.

Here’s the trailer:

..and this is the audio version of this review:

Brace Yourself: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Crash Land…

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There are few things I look forward to more than a new Doug Johnstone novel. Over the last decade, beginning with 2006’s Tombstoning, he has produced a body of work which manages to be familiar yet absolutely individual, and has written thrillers which defy formula. Since 2011’s Smokeheads in particular it has felt as if this was a writer who had found his voice and a style which made him stand apart in a very busy marketplace. That style is literate and lean – Johnstone doesn’t waste a word in order to move the plot along. Legendary Motown Svengali Berry Gordy used to appeal to his songwriters, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and it appears Johnstone has a similar approach to writing.

Taking his eight novels to date as a whole, you can begin to see two distinct threads emerge which can loosely be divided into domestic/family noir, and more straightforward thrillers. His latest, Crash Land, is definitely in the latter camp. It’s a breathless tale of “boy meets girl – boy and girl flirt and drink gin – boy and/or girl crash plane”, and it will delight fans of Smokeheads, Hit & Run and The Dead Beat in particular as it is a return to the breakneck action of those books, where an unsuspecting individual gets embroiled in life-changing events which are mostly of other people’s making.

Johnstone’s writing allows the reader to fill in the gaps, not concerning himself with details which only get in the way of the storytelling. It’s interesting to compare his work to that of another writer of crafted thrillers, Bret Easton Ellis. Whereas the latter goes into painstaking detail about the clothing, music, food and business cards of his characters, Johnstone goes straight to the action; the death, the deceit, and the inevitable fallout. In his hands American Psycho would have been a short story. In Crash Land, the crash in particular is a visceral piece of writing which manages to convey the chaos of such an event in a page where other writers would have stretched it out to the point of overkill. Rarely has the term, “less is more” been as apt.

Finn Sullivan is the young man whose life is literally turned upside down when he meets Maddie Pierce, a classic femme fatale in the noir tradition who is believably beguiling while remaining dangerous at all times. If that sounds clichéd then you’re mistaken as Johnstone embraces the tropes of the genre and brings them bang up to date.

Finn quickly finds himself playing a game to which he doesn’t know the rules, and things unravel at a speed which is not just believable but necessary. After the crash he has to recover quickly, but finds the body often heals more readily than the mind. Guilt and desire are the overriding and competing emotions which are to the fore, and which cause him to lie to strangers, friends, and family alike, but also to himself.

He feels protective towards Maddie while increasingly coming to realise that it is he who needs protection. As with any novel based on plot twists and turns, the more that is said in a review the less impact it is likely to have for new readers so I’ll leave the reveals there, suffice to say that Finn increasingly acts in a manner which only amplifies his sense of shame and diminishes his self-worth, but he is apparently unable to do otherwise. Guilt and desire – these are powerful, opposing, emotions. Emotions which entire religions are built on.

Those who came to Doug Johnstone’s writing through Gone Again or The Jump may not take so readily to Crash Land. It doesn’t carry the strength of emotion or the intrinsic vulnerability that can be found in those more complex novels, where he offers readers recognisably immediate and familiar scenarios. However, if you like your thrillers fast and furious then Crash Land is the perfect book for you. I used to doubt reviewers who said that they finished a book in one sitting, but in all honesty I cracked the spine at 8pm on a Thursday night and headed to bed an exhausted yet happy reader around three o’clock on Friday morning. Have no doubt, Doug Johnstone is one of the best writers around, both in terms of style and substance. No one’s thrillers are quite as thrilling.

Here is the audio version of this review:

Crash Land is published by Faber & Faber.

You can hear Doug Johnstone talking about his previous novel, The Jump, on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: *A Review Of Iain Maloney’s The Waves Burns Bright…

ezeod21rWriting about real life in fiction is fraught with danger, but when the background to your book is a notorious disaster then an author not only has to be sure of themselves and how they are going to approach it, they must do so with conviction. Research and point of view is vital if you are not to be accused of disrespect or worse, and even then you have to be prepared for unfounded opprobrium such as James Robertson had with the reaction from some to his writing the 2013 novel The Professor of Truth. Not to the book itself, but simply the writing of it.

Iain Maloney risks similar strong reaction to his latest novel The Waves Burn Bright which has 1988’s Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform disaster as its major event. Maloney is obviously well aware of the duty of care he has to all involved and this shows in his writing which is never sensationalist, and which clearly has the backing of rigorous research. This approach stands him in good stead as Maloney takes on more than one controversial and emotive subject. Continue reading

Creative Industry: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To David F. Ross…

david-rossIn the latest podcast Ali talks to writer David F. Ross ostensibly about his novels The Last Days Of Disco and The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas and the forthcoming The Man Who Loved Islands, but the conversation veers off in many interesting directions.

They discuss the motivation behind this relatively new career as a writer, what inspired him to set his novels in Kilmarnock, the importance of remaining true to people and places, the golden years of mobile discos, the central importance of music in his work, architecture, and morality – and I don’t mean the 1981 OMD album.

All writers take different paths, but some are more different than others and it’s fair to say that David’s is unique. Any one who is interested in writing will find what he has to say on the subject fascinating. But there is something for everyone here, including tips for any budding DJs, a mutual love-in about Postcard Records, and the importance of creative subjects in education. Social, political, cultural, and artistic – all those boxes are ticked in this podcast. Continue reading

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