That Was The Year That Was: It’s The Best Of 2017 Podcasts – Part 1 (Film)…

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This year we are recording three separate Best Of 2017 podcasts, one each for film, music, and books. For the first two, Ali and Ian are once again joined by irregular podcast guest and resident film expert Chris Ward, and Scottish music man & manager, Wesley Shearer.

In this, Part I, we concentrate on the films of 2017, and give you some recommendations. As usual, Ali kicks things off talking about his favourite Scottish films of the year, including T2: Trainspotting, Daphne, Benny, The End Of The Game, and Lost In France before Chris and Wesley widen the discussion to talk about the best films they have seen in the last 12 months. As well as their recommendations, they talk about the continuing success of the Glasgow Film Festival, the growing influence of streaming services, the possible threat to cinemas, and more.

Part II will concentrate on all things musical, and will be in your inbox next week, with Part III following before Christmas Day.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back catalogue for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

…or on YouTube:

We hope you enjoy and we’ll see you back here soon for Part II…

The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s Best Books Of 2017…

 

dsc_06491.jpgYou may have had your fill of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is small, beautifully formed, and well worthy of your attention.

These are the books which stood out against stiff competition in 2017. The list could easily have been longer but we like to stick to a traditional Top Ten. Consisting of five novels, two short story collections, a musical/historical biography, a collection of journalism, and a peerless book of essays, they take you to Memphis, Airdrie, Springboig and the Alsace, with detours to Firhill, London during the Blitz, New Mexico and Millport along the way. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the breadth of artistic and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

DSC_0382David Keenan – This Is Memorial Device

This Is Memorial Device is spot on in terms of time and place, but it’s so much more than that. It’s rare for a writer to capture both in a manner which avoids nostalgia and feels relevant, but Keenan manages to do so. This is a novel which is about what it means to be young, about the hows and whys – the when and where is less relevant. It’s about youth. Real youth, not the sort of arrested development that is all too common these days. I’ve read it twice and will do so again before too long. At the age of 46 it’s had a palpable effect on me. If I had read it when I was 15, (as happened with The Busconductor Hines and The Wasp Factory),  there’s every chance it would have changed my life. That’s your definition of a cult novel right there.

You can hear David Keenan talking about This Is Memorial Device on the SWH! podcast.

DSC_0359Ajay Close – The Daughter Of Lady Macbeth

The Daughter Of Lady Macbeth at times displays a sensuality in the descriptions which will bring you to tears. The prologue would stand on its own as a short story, and the scene where Lili is helping with the birth of piglets will stay with you for some time. Close also looks at fears about our own bodies, how they can fail us and how that can make us feel less than whole, no matter what others may say. It is a novel about what it means to be a daughter and a mother, but also an individual forced into the company of others and the multiple roles which we are conditioned to play to try to make such relationships work. While writing a thoroughly modern novel Ajay Close has told a story which is eternal yet rarely addressed.

DSC_0385404 Ink – Nasty Women

Nasty Women is unlike any other book you’ll read this year, and probably for the foreseeable future. That in itself is a reason for its existence and its importance. It looks closely at identity, race, gender, immigration, class, sexual violence, pregnancy, contraception, family, and so much more – all of which we need a greater understanding of and essays such as these can only aid that understanding. Those who would claim that it is anything other than essential reading simply haven’t read it. The stories are extraordinary in a manner which is two-fold – in their honesty and their rarity. These are voices which are seldom heard in the mainstream, despite what some may claim. It’s a book which refuses to deal in binary opposites, offering no simple answers for the simple reason there are none. It promotes constant questioning of ourselves and of others. That’s the only way to understand each other better. That’s the truth.

DSC_0469Peter Ross – The Passion Of Harry Bingo

Faith, hope and understanding. These are the common threads which run through The Passion Of Harry Bingo. By focusing on individual experiences Ross manages to say more than any straightforward reportage could manage, looking beyond clichés and stereotypes where others use them too readily to score easy points. Peter Ross revels in the complexities of individual stories but also in the shared experience, believing that while we may do great things on our own, we could do even greater things if we only understood each other better, and reading his stories it is impossible to disagree.

You can hear Peter Ross talking about The Passion Of Harry Bingo on the SWH! podcast.

51zOzblZfFL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Chris McQueer – Hings

The importance of Hings should not be overlooked. McQueer is writing about people and places which are at best marginalised, more often ignored. It’s the real reason that Welsh’s Trainspotting was the success it was. Of course it’s a well written riot (and also a short story collection, by any other name), but it depicted an Edinburgh rarely, if ever, seen on the page before. And, more importantly, it portrayed people never written about before. You could make the claim that McQueer is doing something similar for Glasgow. Short story collections can be hit-or-miss affairs, but with Hings the last story is as strong as the first. Chris McQueer may claim he’s only having a laugh, and these stories are properly, laugh-out-loud, funny, but there’s a whole lot more going on.

DSC_0450Helen McClory – Flesh Of The Peach

Sometimes you read a novel which catches you unaware – enough that you have to pause, take a breath, and start all over again, taking the time to calibrate to the language and imagery used. More often than not it is a sign of writing which isn’t afraid to experiment and take risks. Such a novel has to convince you that it is right and it’s up to you to adapt your expectations. All of the above applies to Helen McClory’s debut novel Flesh Of The Peach, and it pays back the reader prepared to engage in spades. Her command of language is complete and it marks McClory as a writer to look out for. A truly immersive experience, if your preference is for novels where the journey is more important than the destination then Flesh Of The Peach is for you.

DSC_0533Graeme Macrae Burnet – The Accident On The A35

In ‘Why Write?’, the second chapter of his essay What Is Literature?, Jean Paul Sartre claimed that the relationship between writer and reader is one of mutual commitment stating, “To write is thus both to disclose the world and to offer it as a task to the generosity of the reader.”. The Accident On The A35 makes that relationship clear as the reader is drawn into the world that Macrae Burnet creates and is forced to engage with the philosophical and moral questions posed, and as such recognise themselves in the fictional world. It’s a relationship which is key to all succesful fiction. What The Accident on the A35 undoubtedly shows, especially when taken with his previous work, is a writer engaged with what he does, and committed to how he does it. If His Bloody Project introduced you to Graeme Macrae Burnet then now is the time to cement the relationship as it’s one which promises ever greater rewards.

You can hear Graeme Macrae Burnet talking about The Accident On The A35 on the SWH! podcast.

DSC_0625Stuart Cosgrove – Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul

It follows on from Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul which was one of SWH!’s  Books of the Year for 2015 and which Stuart spoke about in-depth when he was a guest on the SWH! podcast. If Detroit 67 was the first part of a three-act play, then Memphis 68 fulfills the role of the second act, where things get worse before they can get better, setting the scene perfectly for the denouement. Yet again music would come to reflect the times, and in bringing the two together Stuart Cosgrove paints a vivid picture of people and place. There are few writers who so clearly and powerfully evince the relationship between popular culture and politics as he is doing with these books. The third book of his trilogy, Harlem 69, can’t come quickly enough.

DSC_0634Ever Dundas – Goblin

Every so often a debut novel comes along which confounds your expectations and enchants your sensibilities. Ever Dundas’ Goblin is such a novel, one which has at its heart the same kindness and compassion as its central character, attributes which are underrated in fiction. An indelible and haunting novel, it will take you back to your own childhood and the stories you told yourself to try to make sense of an often mystifying world. But what is really impressive is how skilful, and daring, the writing is. Where many would feel the need to signpost every plot twist and point made, Dundas makes the reader work and wait, refusing to give up Goblin’s secrets cheaply; the full picture slowly developing as the other stories are told. Goblin is utterly enchanting in every sense, and reveals Ever Dundas as a talent to treasure.

DSC_0520James Kelman – That Was A Shiver

Kelman’s narratives are not about plot, they are snapshots of people’s everyday lives; lives which have been going on before we become involved, and which will continue once we have moved on, and that seems to work best in short, sharp bursts – fleeting, like thoughts themselves. His use of language has always been unorthodox, (paragraphs of ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ could be described as “concrete fiction”). He writes as we think – in bursts, non-sequiturs, broken streams of consciousness, and considering things we would never say or act on. As he does this his prose becomes poetic, less concerned with the “rules” of grammar and narrative structure. If you want to know more about the human condition then James Kelman is the writer for you, and, while not reaching the heights of his greatest short story collections Greyhound For Breakfast and Not Not While The Giro, That Was A Shiver is a fine addition to his collected works.

The Long & Short Of It: A Review Of James Kelman’s That Was A Shiver And Other Stories…

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There is an argument which you may have heard, possibly on these pages, that while James Kelman is one of the finest novelists around today, the format which suits his writing best is the short story. Kelman’s narratives are not about plot, they are snapshots of people’s everyday lives; lives which have been going on before we become involved, and which will continue once we have moved on, and that seems to work best in short, sharp bursts – fleeting, like thoughts themselves.

His latest collection, That Was A Shiver and Other Storiesis testament to this. For Kelman acolytes there are all the usual touchstones – references to other art forms, existential philosophy, the influence of Descartes (‘Clinging On’), internal monologues, socio/political commentary, and an unconventional use of language and grammar. But there are also surprises. There’s more obvious humour in these stories than has previously been the case. Kelman has always been funny (“I cannot eat a Johnny Cash cassette!”, from ‘the same is here again’, being just one example), but it was always a dark, unsettling, almost gallows humour which has become synonymous with the west of Scotland.

While that is still in evidence it does seem that these stories find Kelman in a good place, and good company as a result. The opening story ‘Oh, The Days Ahead’ is as much Seinfeld as it is Samuel Beckett, with the narrator, Andy, kept awake by an unwanted erection (the first of a surprising number in this book!) which he tries to take his mind off by ruminating on how ludicrous the situation he finds himself is, how he got there, and how he can get out.

As well as sex, there are drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz in these stories, and the overall tone is as sensory as it is cerebral. It could be that writing his last novel Dirt Road, (about a father and son who take a trip to the USA and immerse themselves in the local music), has awoken something elemental in Kelman. This feeling is reinforced by the relationships which many of the characters in That Was A Shiver are involved in. In the majority of his fiction the protagonists are more often than not isolated individuals, finding it impossible to form meaningful relationships with others. In many of these new stories, while still being alone with their thoughts, they manage to share their lives with others, or remember when they once did, as in the beautiful, page-long, ‘A Friend’.

Kelman’s use of language has always been unorthodox, (paragraphs of ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ could be described as “concrete fiction”). He writes as we think – in bursts, non-sequiturs, broken streams of consciousness, and considering things we would never say or act on. As he does this his prose becomes poetic, less concerned with the “rules” of grammar and narrative structure. This can disconcert and even alienate readers. While not reaching the extremes of his 2001 novel Translated Accounts, there are challenging passages in That Was A Shiver. However, when taken alongside Dirt Road, you could say that Kelman’s style has reached a pleasing balance between the experimental and the accessible. There will be some who bemoan this, but it may make it more likely that Kelman will finally reach the audience he deserves.

Continuing the theme of unexpected sensibilities, That Was A Shiver also finds Kelman in a reflective mood, with stories dedicated to Mia Carter (‘Back In That Town’), a Professor of English at The University of Texas who has been a long-time supporter of Kelman and his work, and his friend and colleague, poet Tom Leonard (‘That Was A Shiver). These dedications are reminders that Kelman’s life has in large part been defined by his relationships to two places (Glasgow and Texas), and his close links with both, but they are also evidence of a writer taking stock of his life to date.

John Updike said that the aim of his writing was “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” Kelman’s version of this thought is the belief that real drama is to be found in ordinary people’s everyday lives, and that’s not just what and who he writes, it is why he writes. If you want to know more about the human condition then James Kelman is the writer for you, and, while not reaching the heights of his greatest short story collections Greyhound For Breakfast and Not Not While The Giro, That Was A Shiver is a fine addition to his collected works.

James Kelman’s That Was A Shiver and Other Stories is published by Canongate

Past & Present Tense: A Review Of Ever Dundas’ Goblin…

dsc_0634.jpgEvery so often a debut novel comes along which confounds your expectations and enchants your sensibilities, making you marvel at a writer who manages to get it so right first time out. David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device is once such book from earlier this year, and, against most odds, it as happened once again with Ever Dundas’ Goblin.

It’s a novel full of surprises, and which takes you in unexpected directions. After a few chapters I had it pegged as an urban fantasy similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, China Mieville’s King Rat, or even Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, with the young central character, the titular ‘Goblin’, making her way in a Blitz-torn London with various characters and creatures as her eccentric support group – a coterie of Devils, lizards and Monstas. As she gets older and her world gets bigger, Goblin becomes a different novel altogether, more reminiscent of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, following Goblin as she becomes a young woman, discovering more about herself and others as her experiences accumulate.

The literary references in the book are deliberate and pointed. Goblin and her friends become obsessed with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War Of The Worlds, as well as Frankenstein. These texts provide parables with which they can try to make sense of a crazy world. This is a time and place where the threat of Nazis and their bombs are all too real. It’s not surprising that children would deal with this by equating their threat with what they read in books, and as they play among the rubble thoughts of Morlocks and Martian Fighting Machines are probably less disturbing than the awful truth.

As a result of her ability to bring magic to the everyday, something she carries with her throughout her life, Goblin’s world is one in which you can happily get lost, making close acquaintances with fish boys and Glitter Queens, pigeons, pigs and elephants. Goblin is no wide-eyed innocent – she has an innate sense of who she can trust and who to be wary of, perhaps why she often prefers the company of animals to humans, and why she will protect and defend them fiercely. It’s interesting and apt to note that the philosopher Nietzsche gets a mention in the ‘Acknowledgments’ as there is a story about how he risked his life to protect a horse who was being beaten in the street, an act of kindness of which Goblin would approve.

Goblin also deals with memory and how events which happen in childhood can shape the rest of your life. When we first meet Goblin it is as an elderly woman working in an Edinburgh library, watching patrons devour books – literally. Photographs from her childhood come back to haunt her, forcing her to remember people and places she has long forgotten for her own peace of mind. As the novel progresses we jump in time between 2011 and Goblin’s past. It’s a clever device as we are more likely to accept the younger Goblin as an ‘old soul’, whose world view is more complex than we might expect from a child, having already met her in later life.

Perhaps the central theme of the novel is respect. Goblin treats everyone she meets, human and animal, as an individual and equal until they prove to be otherwise. Although mostly set in the middle of the 20th century, it is a thoroughly modern novel, confronting notions of gender, identity, sexuality, family, animal rights, and so much more. I’m often asked to recommend titles for young adults, and this has gone straight in at number one on that list. It’s a book which should be read as widely as possible as it has at its heart the same kindness and compassion as its central character, attributes which are underrated in fiction.

With Goblin Ever Dundas has written an indelible and haunting novel, one which will take you back to your own childhood and the stories you told yourself to try to make sense of an often mystifying world. But what is really impressive is how skilful, and daring, the writing is. Where many would feel the need to signpost every plot twist and point made, Dundas makes the reader work and wait, refusing to give up Goblin’s secrets cheaply; the full picture slowly developing as the other stories are told. Goblin is utterly enchanting in every sense, and reveals Ever Dundas as a talent to treasure.

Goblin is published by Saraband Books and is nominated for the Saltire First Book Of The Year 2017.

Scots Whay Hae! Presents… Awkward Family Portraits & ‘Shoulder Biting Joe’.

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There are few things finer than discovering a new band who play music just as you like it. When it happens you want to share with the world, and that’s why we at Scots Whay Hae! are delighted and honoured to be premiering ‘Shoulder Biting Joe’, the latest single from Glasgow-based Awkward Family Portraits, released on the always reliable Holy Smokes Records – (home to SWH! favourites The Strange Blue Dreams and Harry and the Hendersons).

Following on from the promise of their previous single ‘Do Yourself A Favour‘, Awkward Family Portraits take their music to shadowy and more intriguing places. If you like a bit of dark cabaret, soundtracked by the likes of Kurt Weill,  The Real Tuesday Weld, the much missed Vagabond Opera, and Frank’s Wild Years Tom Waits, then this is the band for you. Perhaps more than anyone, though, they put me in mind of the legendary The Tiger Lillies, a comparison I don’t hand out lightly. Indeed, ‘Shoulder Biting Joe’ could be a contemporary of ‘Flying Robert’ & ‘Fidgety Phil‘, characters from the Lillies’ Junk Opera Shockheaded Peter. Intrigued? You should be. Do believe the hype and take a listen for yourself:

In a year which has produced some of the finest music of recent times, it’s good to know that 2017 is going to keep on keeping on till the very end, and, with the promise of further new music from Awkward Family Portraits, 2018 is shaping up pretty nicely as well.

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If you want to catch up with Awkward Family Portraits live, they’re at King Tut’s on January 4th.

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

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2017 has produced great music of all shapes, sizes and sounds, but the singer/songwriter has had a particularly fine year. Albums by Mark W Georgsson, Siobhan Wilson, Annie Booth, Stephen McLaren, and Blue Rose Code (ne: Ross Wilson) have proved to be among the better records of the year, and the recent Autumnal releases have continued this trend. So much so that this latest review is a bit of a singer/songwriter special, with a couple of bands sneaking in at the end for balance.

Glasgow is the latest album from Findlay Napier, whose work I hope is familiar to most readers, but if it isn’t then Glasgow is the perfect place to start. Known as one of the finest folk writers and musicians around, this is a record which seems more personal than previous work, and is all the more powerful for it. It’s a place where folk meets indie in a mood of celebration and reflection, and aside from his original compositions there are covers of two Glaswegian classics  – Hamish Imlach’s ‘Cod Liver Oil & The Orange Juice’, and The Blue Nile’s ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’. It’s as if someone had told him what I want for Christmas.

With references to the Necropolis, shipbuilding, The Locarno, ‘Wire Burners’, and even a paen to The Blue Lagoon, this is a love-letter to Glasgow to rival Raintown, The Great Eastern, Tigermilk and the aforementioned A Walk Across The Rooftops, putting it in the finest company possible. Beautifully sung and played, (and produced by the god-like Boo Hewerdine), Glasgow already sounds like it’s been a favourite record for years. Here’s Findlay with ‘Young Goths In The Necropolis’, in session for Year One Music:

One of the best things about getting music sent to SWH! (and we appreciate everyone who does) is discovering someone new to us who makes our world a better place. Step forward Barbe Rousse with his song ‘Elephants Don’t Suddenly Disappear’, taken from his album Misc. Muses. It’s an uplifting piece of pop music which demands repeat playing, with a video to match (especially if you’re a “fan” of the elephant). It also features an unexpected guitar solo – not the only one to appear in this roundup. If you’re feeling blue then this is bound to bring joy, like sunshine on a rainy day. So that’s what Zoe was on about:

In September SWH! went through to Leith Depot for the launch of Stephen McLaren’s excellent album We Used To Go Raving. As well as the mighty Errant Boy opening, Stephen was supported by Brave Little Note who was just sensational. The alter-ego of multi-instrumentalist and singer Jack Irvine, the music is enthralling and unforgettable. Luckily for us all there is a new track posted on her Soundcloud page, ‘Only Constant’ which bears the label”(Rough Mix)” but which is too good not to mention here, and which will give you a taste of what Brave Little Note is all about. Comparisons will rightly be made to St Vincent and Feist, not least by me just there, but I’m also reminded of Jens Lekman and Joan As Policewoman. However, have a listen for yourself and come up with your own points of references. We can’t do all the work for you:

Greg C. Clark released his latest album What Everone Wants (further Glasgow nostalgia ahoy!) back in January, but it only came to SWH!’s attention when we heard the remix of the track ‘Birdsoaring’. Album duly bought and listened to, I can tell you it’s a really strong selection of classic new wave songs which touch on Lloyd Cole, the popper side of The Cure, and “Bens” Lee, Kweller and Folds Five. I was going to post the remix of ‘Birdsoaring’, but decided to go with the original album version:

Jaz Coleman, bless him, once sang that he was “Living in the eighties” which, to be fair, he was at the time. However, there is no doubt that the ’80s are having their nostalgic moment once more as books, film, TV and music wear the influences from that decade proudly on their sleeves. From La La Land and IT, through the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, Hadley Freeman’s retrospective Life Moves Pretty Fast, and Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s comic book series Paper Girls – at times it feels like I’ve been cryogenically frozen for the last 30 years, and that’s before we talk about the music of The 1975.

But, on the whole, I’m all for it and surfing the ’80s wave like few others is Glasgwegian Michael Oakley, with his new single ‘Turn Back Time’ taken from the EP California. So ’80s it’ll remove your socks, pierce your ear and put highlights in your hair before you know it. It’s also reminiscent of Boy Meets Girl’s ‘Waiting For A Star to Fall‘ which, we can all admit, is one of the greatest records ever made. Mylo knew it, and so do you. Anyway, strap on your Ray Bans and enjoy:

Jumpers For Goalposts have just released their eponymous debut EP on the fabulous Fox Star Records, (who are also responsible for the recent release by The Sweetheart Revue which featured in last month’s roundup). Their sound is reminiscent of Del Amitri and Hothouse Flowers, marrying Celtic rock/folk and Americana to great effect. The first track is ‘The Boxer Benny Lynch‘, a fantastic tribute to arguably Glasgow’s greatest ever sportsman, but I’m going to post ‘Per Lachaise’ as it’s my favourite of the EP’s three tracks. A beautiful song about life, love and art, it promises great things for their future. Watch this space:

Straight out of Ru’glen, Harry and the Hendersons have been rightly lauded and talked about for some time, and this month saw the release of their highly anticipated debut album Method of the Matchstick Men. If Michael Oakley takes you back to the ’80s, then Harry and the Hendersons set their time machine to a decade earlier making epic, classic, rock music reminiscent of early Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Byrds and even a hint of Creedence. The Dude would approve. But there are also echoes of ’70s English folk rock bands such as The Trees and Spirogyra. It’s an album to get lost in – turn on, tune in, drop out. This is the title track:

We are going to end where we began, in Glasgow’s Necropolis, the setting for the video for Tenement and Temple’s single ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow.‘ They are Monica Queen and Johnny Smillie, and they continue to make beautiful music together, just as they have since their days in Thrum. In this reviewer’s opinion, Monica is quite simply the finest singer around, and every home should own her solo records Ten Sorrowful Mysteries and Return of the Sacred Heart (produced by one J. Smillie). ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow is further evidence of this, and it is launched at The Tron Theatre in Glasgow on the 24th November in collaboration with the aforementioned Fox Star Records. I could tell you how beautiful it is, probably using words like “ethereal”, “dreamlike” and maybe even “hypnagogic” if I’ve had a glass of wine or two, but instead you can listen for yourself right here and now:

The next music review will be our Tracks Of The Year for 2017, for which there is going to be stiff competition…

There’s A Riot Going On: A Review Of Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul…

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One of the most eagerly anticipated books of 2017, at least round our way, is Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul. It follows on from Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul which was one of SWH!’s  Books of the Year for 2015 and which Stuart spoke about in depth when he was a guest on the SWH! podcast. Both books are part of his ‘Sixties Soul Trilogy’ (Harlem 69 is due in 2018) which takes the music of those cities as a starting point to further explore arguably the most explosive and important years of 1960s America.

Memphis 68 is defined by two deaths; Otis Redding’s in December of 1967 and Martin Luther King Jr’s in April ’68. The book begins with a city in mourning for its favourite son. For many music fans, this was the day the music died, with Redding’s demise in a plane-crash as shocking and untimely as that of Buddy Holly in similar circumstances in 1959. As with the earlier incident, it is easy to overlook the other individuals who also lost their lives, but Cosgrove makes sure they are not forgotten, reminding readers that while Redding may have been Stax Records’ shining star, he was a member of a large musical family whose loss was great and deeply felt.

As well as the fluctuating fortunes of Stax, there are many other strands to Memphis 68 which Cosgrove weaves together with the confidence of a writer who knows his subject inside out. One of these is the strike of black sanitary public works employees, a protest which brought Martin Luther King Jr to the city. If Redding’s death shook Memphis and music, the shooting of Dr King on April 4th shook the world. Cosgrove takes time and care to contextualise his death, looking at the weeks and days before and after, but also adding a historical and cultural overview.

Redding and King aside, the characters we are introduced to are varied and remarkable. Some of them are well-known, such as gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson – in town to promote her “glori-fried” chicken franchise, a young Black Panther named Samuel L. Jackson, the mercurial Booker T. Jones, the unpredictable Wilson Pickett, an insecure Dusty Springfield who would record her greatest record in the city, and guitar legend Albert King with his famous ‘Flying V’.

But it is the lesser known who make this story so compelling. The inspirational Juanita Miller, the tragic story of Larry Payne, the intimidating Dino ‘Boom Boom’ Woodward (with “fists that hung heavy like swollen fruit”), and Olympic sprint hopeful Bill Hurd. They all make have their parts to play as the year’s events unfold. Then there is the strange story of Agent 500.

Agent 500 is the name given to Marell McCollough, a government spook who has a central role in the historic events of the 4th April, and he is just one example of the US authorities fear of the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, which Martin Luther King Jr was obviously central to. It’s fascinating to realise how keenly this sense of ‘Big Brother is watching you’ was felt in the wider culture of the US at the time. This was reflected in TV and movies, but also in the music with a range of songs referencing the FBI, double agents, and a fascination with spies all becoming hits in the ’60s.

In the book Cosgrove includes a letter written to King, supposedly concocted on the order of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, which is quite astonishing, and which shows the fear and paranoia which was prevalent. It is in this sort of detail that Memphis 68 excels and that the bigger picture emerges. Cosgrove looks at individual lives but he also links events to the Paris riots of that same year, the Mexico Olympics, the emerging American black cinema, as well as the musical developments in Memphis and beyond.

If you read Detroit 67 you’ll have been as eager as I was for Memphis 68 to continue the story. If you haven’t and are not sure if Memphis 68 is for you I’m going to suggest something simple. Visit a bookshop and pick it up, then read the first three pages. You’ll know by then if you want to read on as this is a book which grabs you from the off. The constant throughout the book is the music, in which Cosgrove is immersed, and he writes about it with a passion and fire which is infectious. In those opening pages there are mentions of Rufus Thomas, BB King, Carla Thomas, Bobby Womack, Elvis Presley and many more promising a must read for anyone with an interest in popular music and culture.

Here are three of the most important tracks referenced in Memphis 68:

Johnnie Taylor – Who’s Making Love?

Sam & Dave – I Thank You

Isaac Hayes – By The Time I Get To Phoenix

If the death of Otis Redding had changed Stax Records for ever then the emergence of Isaac Hayes, and especially his ‘Black Moses’ persona, by the end of ’68 would change the music and cultural landscape yet again, and take it as far away from the romantic pop and soul of Motown, (which was the focus of, and soundtrack to, Detroit 67), as could be imagined, and this feel of a story unfolding and developing is key.

If Detroit 67 was the first part of a three-act play, then Memphis 68 fulfills the role of the second act, where things get worse before they can get better, setting the scene perfectly for the denouement. Yet again music would come to reflect the times, and in bringing the two together Stuart Cosgrove paints a vivid picture of people and place. There are few writers who so clearly and powerfully evince the relationship between popular culture and politics as he is doing with these books. Harlem 69 can’t come quickly enough.

Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul is published by Polygon Books.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?: A Review of Lesley Glaister’s The Squeeze…

DSC_0565Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Portrait Of A Lady, Oscar And Lucinda, Bonjour Tristesse – the best novels concerned with the complexity of relationships are those which refuse to bow to sentiment, and often are more concerned with puncturing the idea or ideal of love and romance than living up to it. Lesley Glaister’s latest novel The Squeeze takes this approach with honesty and searing insight and in doing so examines the effect of those opposing forces of passion and reason, the desires that drive us to get together and the justifications made for staying together. The Squeeze could be considered an anti-romantic novel, and that’s what makes it compelling.

It certainly doesn’t pull its punches when detailing what humans are capable of. Mostly set in Edinburgh, 1989-92, it opens with a short chapter from ‘Alis’ (the chapters are named after the characters who narrate them). It’s half a page which nonetheless sets the tone for what is to follow as it posits the dangers of dreaming when set against the harsh reality of some people’s lives.

Alis and her friend Marta are from post-Ceausescu Romania where crime and poverty come together to make desperate people do desperate things. The two teenagers are trafficked from their home to work in one of Edinburgh’s euphemistically names ‘massage parlours’. Their story is terrifying and all too believable as subsequent men promise them not even the world, just the possibility of taking them out of their current situation, if only for a short while, only to deliver them into a living hell. Held as prisoners with only their captors and customers as contact, the two’s friendship and the hope of home is the only thing that they can cling to.

The other strand in the novel focuses on the life and loves of Mats, a Norwegian who has come to Scotland’s capital for work reasons, something which has put a strain on his marriage to Nina, although he is slow to realise it. Their relationship is one which seems potentially perfect to Mats bar the lack of children, a situation he is keen to put right. This belief is the first time we sense that when it comes to self-deception Mats is a master.

Barely a year later Mats and Nina are divorced and he has remarried to Vivienne – his desire to be a father a not inconsiderable factor. Vivienne’s chapters are in the form of audio recordings which she does as therapy, something she has undertaken as she feels from early on in their marriage that things are not as they should be. Mats has, apparently happily, made a home together not just with her but also her son Artie, determined to create the perfect family which eluded him previously. Both Mats and Vivienne believe they have roles to fulfil, roles which society expects, even if they are not sure how to do so or fully understand why.

At a time which should be happy for both, what unfolds is a sense of disappointment and anxiety, and simmering tension because of it. The Squeeze doesn’t avoid the clichés which surround relationships, it’s more that Glaister plays with, and unpicks, them.  Mats wants to be the breadwinner and protector, Vivienne the good mother and wife. All the while there are the often brutal ‘Marta’ chapters which put their problems into stark perspective as she is used and physically abused by men who neither know nor care who she is. Her life is about survival, and that is not guaranteed.

When Marta, Mats and Vivienne’s worlds collide it is down to yet more deceit, lies and guilt, primarily on Mats part as he seeks redemption and the chance to do the right thing, although  arguably for the wrong reasons. Glaister asks questions about why people act as they do – what are the justifications, and can any act be considered purely unselfish? Once again, dreams of a happy life are cruelly glimpsed before being destroyed by reality and all too human failings. The final part of The Squeeze jumps forward to 2005 and without giving anything away it’s fair to say that the intervening 13 years have been filled with a mixture of some love but a lot of regret as the central characters come to realise that actions have consequences which can last a lifetime.

With The Squeeze Lesley Glaister proves she has an understanding of human frailty and weakness which is forensic, and it is rare to read about relationships with such honesty and insight. It would have been easy, and perhaps understandable, to make these characters reprehensible or caricatures, but they are heartbreakingly human with all the ego, anxiety, faults and frailties that entails.  You’ll recognise aspects of yourself in this novel, and if you don’t you might want to reconsider as it may just be you’re only deceiving yourself.

The Squeeze is published by Salt Publishing

Happy Accidents: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talk To Graeme Macrae Burnet…

DSC_0540.JPGOn the latest podcast Ali speaks to writer, and returning guest, Graeme Macrae Burnet. The primary reason was to discuss his latest novel, The Accident On The A35, but the conversation turns to the work of George Simenon, existential fiction, home-town chauvinism, the importance of character, the formative nature of teenage years, the writer/publisher relationship, different approaches to writing, and a whole lot more.

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Graeme also looks back on life since his second novel, His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and all that has entailed. As mentioned, Graeme was on the podcast back in December 2015 with fellow Saraband/Contraband author, Graham Lironi.

On it he spoke about His Bloody Project, which had only just been published, and it’s fascinating to hear what has happened to writer and novel since then. We’re calling the latest podcast a must-listen for anyone with an interest in books, writers, and writing, and we wouldn’t lie about something like that.

This is SWH! podcast number 86, so if you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back catalogue for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on…

..SoundCloud

 

..or on YouTube:

To whet you’re apetite, we may have some live music next time round – but, then again, we may not. Tune in to find out…

Whisky Words: A Review Of Iain Hector Ross’s The Whisky Dictionary…

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If you believe the supermarkets, it’s already time to be thinking about Christmas. While this is clearly nonsense there is no harm in giving you a heads up about a book which is made for gifting to those for whom a well-chosen bottle has previously been the only sensible choice.

Iain Hector Ross’s The Whisky Dictionary is the perfect gift for anyone who enjoys a dram or two. Whisky has the reputation of being the drink of choice of the obsessive, (despite a strong challenge from gin and beer in recent years). As with vinyl or first edition collectors, whisky enthusiasts are often willing to spend more than they can afford on a rare item, and they have a language all of their own to talk about it. A group of whisky fanatics will evangelise into the wee small hours about peat, sherry casks and single malts – or at least until the bottle runs out.

Ross knows that of which he writes, and his dictionary informs, educates and thoroughly entertains as he explains both the science and the mythology of Scotland’s national drink. He also demonstrates what a rich language has grown around whisky, its production, and its consumption. If you want to know the difference between a ‘swig’ and a ‘swirl’, ‘heart’ and ‘head’, ‘glug’ and ‘glamp’ or a ‘sook’ and a ‘sowp’, the answers are here for you.

You will also find out where the terms ‘monkey shoulder’, ‘Devil’s cut’ and ‘quaich’ come from, and so much more. So, if you are partial to a wee ‘glammie’, have found yourself ‘frisky’, or have perhaps even been ‘mortal-fou’, (although hopefully never ‘bitch-fou’), or know someone who this applies to, then The Whisky Dictionary is just perfect. Slàinte.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Ben Averis, who has previously worked with publishers Sandstone Press on The Rainforests of Britain and Ireland: A Travellers Guide by Clifton Bain.

The Whisky Dictionary is published by Sandstone Press.