Teenage Kicks: A Review Of Ross Sayers’ Sonny And Me…

It’s hugely heartening that Young Adult fiction is alive and well and flourishing in Scotland, with recent examples, including Helen MacKinven’s Talk Of The Toun, Claire McFall’s Ferryman, Daniel Shand’s Crocodile, Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope and Ross Sayers’ Mary’s The Name, among the very best.

The latest, published by champions of the genre, Cranachan, is Ross Sayers’ follow up to Mary’s The Name, Sonny And Me and the bottom line is it’s simply a fantastic read no matter what label is applied to it. It’s exactly the book I wish was available when I was a teenage reader (although you don’t need to be a teenager to read it) as it accurately and believably portrays not only what it’s like to be that age but what it’s like to interact with an increasingly adult world which you can see heave into view all too quickly. It’s also in a language and setting which is immediately relatable and anyone who thinks that isn’t important is wrong

That ‘inbetweener’ age which pulls in different directions is perfectly portrayed – wanting to be a kid for just a bit longer, with all the freedom and fantasy that entails, and an increasing desire to be part of this apparently mystical club of ‘grown-ups’ (and what a useless term that is) with its ages of consent, forbidden establishments, and being able to speak your mind and not get sent to your room.

The narrator is Daughter who we are introduced to along with his best friend Sonny, and immediately they find themselves in a situation which could go all sorts of wrong. It’s a scenario which exemplifies the time when the innocence of childhood clashes with the growing awareness that the adult world carries more judgement and condemnation than has previously been the case, and that behaviour which may have been dismissed as (as Frank McAvennie might say) “daft-boyness” will have greater consequences the older they get.

Imagine The Inbetweeners meets Alan Bissett’s seminal 2001 novel Boyracers and you have some idea as to Sonny And Me. It’s arguably, and I am happy to argue it with you, the best Scottish coming of age novel since. It is funny, thrilling, and entertaining, but more importantly it’s honest and unflinching. Fair play to both writer and publisher in not diluting the language in any way, a decision which pays off in spades. This is writing which feels vital and real.

There is more than a little of the classic teen cinema of John Hughes in evidence as well, with friendships strengthened through detention, unrequited and unspoken crushes, clubs and cliques, and cliches which are played with and often overturned. The comparison shows that the teenage experience (at least in the western world) is not so different. Another film reference I would point you in the direction of is Rian Johnson’s superb Brick – a high-school noir crime caper which blurs the lines between childhood and adulthood in a similar manner to Sonny And Me. Both have a serious crime as an important plot point experienced through young adult eyes, with the attitude, language, and point of view to match.

Sonny And Me is one of the best books you’ll read this year. At its considerable heart it is a book about friendship, those which are not calculated or carefully considered but which just happen – the connections made naturally not knowingly. If you’re the age of Sonny and Daughter then you’ll recognise all too vividly what they experience and have to deal with. If you used to be Sonny and/or Daughter (and that’s surely all of us) it’ll all come flooding back.

It’s about the experience of being a teenager and all too often, and all too quickly, that time can be forgotten, but it is important we remember and Ross Sayer has written a novel which will help you do just that. By all means buy a copy for the book-loving teenager in your life, but make sure you read it as well. It will not only help you understand them better, but also yourself.

Ross Sayers’ Sonny And Me is published by Cranachan.

The Ties That Bind: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Breakers…

As Scots Whay Hae! moves towards its 10th year one writer in particular has been with us most of the way – the estimable Doug Johnstone. Since 2011’s Smokeheads he has published novels at a rate of almost one a year (a fantastic run which should be celebrated) all of which have been reviewed on these pages, and, (along with Louise Welsh), he is the writer who has guested on the most SWH! podcasts to date. As such, a new novel is always eagerly awaited and welcomed, and with Breakers (his second with the excellent Orenda Books) he may just have given us his best yet.

You could argue that his novels can be split into two categories. First off there are the no-holds-barred joyrides of the aforementioned Smokeheads, Hit & Run, The Dead Beat, Crash Land and last year’s Fault Lines, each of which leave you breathless as the action unfolds at breakneck speed. It’s as if he has taken Tom Petty’s cri de cœur concerning rock music,”Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and applies it to those books.

The other strand of his work focuses as much on family drama as crime, and are arguably when his writing is at its most powerful. Certainly I would suggest that Gone Again and The Jump are his most affecting and memorable novels to date. With Breakers, however, he has managed to marry these two strands together as never before, taking the poignant and heartfelt familial drama of the latter and adding the thrills and spills of the former. As such it is the most ‘Doug Johnstone’ book yet, and suggests the best may be yet to come.

Breakers focuses on the life of Tyler, a 17-year-old whose home life is a Daily Mail reader’s’ worst nightmare/wet dream. His incestuous elder siblings use him as their own Artful Dodger when they go to work, which happens to be housebreaking around Edinburgh’s more salubrious areas. Tyler would leave this life, acutely aware as to what he is involved in and carrying the guilt that goes with it, although also acutely aware that those they target are the haves who have more than they could ever need.

But his reason for reluctantly accepting his terrible lot is that he can’t abandon his young sister to the uncertainty of a life with their addict mother, or to the mercy of the social services, a fate which is surely only a phone call away. Johnstone asks serious questions about what can push people to criminal behaviour, the pressures brought to bear, and asks us to consider what would we do in Tyler’s shoes. The answers aren’t easy, and nor should they be.

When a housebreak goes spectacularly wrong Tyler and his family face new threats, from the police, but more worryingly from one of Edinburgh’s most feared criminal families. With the turmoil that is his life just turned up many notches, Tyler picks a fine time to fall in love with the enigmatic Flick who, although living in the same city comes from another world entirely. Yet, as with the better John Hughes’ movies, they find that they have more in common than their backgrounds would suggest. While never trivialising or lessening the impact of the dark and disturbing themes in Breakers, their relationship offers hope and, for Tyler, a shot at redemption.

If you are a fan of crime fiction then Doug Johnstone will always deliver the twists and turns that you are looking for, and there are few writers who do this with the brio he does. However, his writing always marries brutal honesty – and barely concealed anger – with compassion, eschewing simplistic ideas of good and evil, gods and monsters, to confront the more complex reasons why people do what they do. He understands people and how relationships work, and fail, and that very often it is the ties that bind families which can be the hardest to address.

Breakers is published by Orenda Books.

Fiercely Independent: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Ringwood Publishing…

For the latest SWH! podcast Ali spoke to Chief Executive of Ringwood Publishing Sandy Jamieson, one of their authors Dr Anne Pettigrew, and their Assistant Managing Director Laure Camail. Celebrating their 20th birthday this year, Glasgow’s Ringwood show that it is possible to publish and survive in a city which has notoriously had problems sustaining and maintaining a publishing culture in recent years.

The panel discuss the reasons for starting Ringwood, their co-operative business model and how that has evolved, Anne’s novel Not The Life Imagined and the publishing process from the writer’s point of view, how Ringwood has had to adapt to the changes in the marketplace, and their plans for the future.

With their focus on publishing and supporting first time authors, and a willingness to address the themes of “politics, football, religion, money, sex and crime”, they are an independent publisher with a strong idea of who they are, and what they do. We’re saying this is a must listen for anyone interested in publishing as the talk offers rare and honest insight, touching on many practical aspects of the process, both positive and negative.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, 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:

You can follow Ringwood on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The next podcast will be the second in association with Scottish Opera and it will be with you very soon…

Cult Hero: A Review Of Ewan Morrison’s Nina X…

With all the turmoil, storm and stress of recent times one literary voice has notably, and unexpectedly, been missing from much of the public and artistic debate – that of Ewan Morrison. While that’s not entirely fair as he has been working widely in film and TV, it is with his fiction that he has previously made the most telling and memorable contributions to the cultural conversation.

His most recent novel, Close Your Eyeswas published in 2013, which, considering the seismic shifts socially and politically (globally and locally) since, makes it seem a lifetime ago. This makes his return to publication most welcome as there are few writers who deal as intelligently, courageously, and often confrontationally, with the modern world as Morrison does.

All of which applies to his latest novel, Nina XIt’s a fictionalised account of what became known as the ‘Lambeth Slavery Case’, where, in 2015, self-styled Maoist cult leader Comrade Bala (real name Aravindan Balakrishnan) was sent to prison for abuse and false imprisonment. Morrison’s collective consists of Comrade Chen, four women followers whom he has a powerful and dangerous hold over, and a child who they view as ‘The Project’ – the person into whom they pour their hopes and dreams of a better future.

We first meet that child years later, now known by others, if not yet herself, as Nina, trying to come to terms with her first days of ‘Freedom’ after years kept prisoner. The novel is constructed from entries in Nina’s journals – numbered jotters that often have addendums from her ‘Comrades’ where they offer ideas and suggestions as to how her behaviour, and each other’s, should be modified. Certain words and sections are faint on the page, difficult to read and understand. It is as if they are being whispered, or fading from Nina’s mind, and the story has to be pieced together as scraps are discarded, lost, and found, and Nina’s fractured mind and memory offer varied, and often conflicting, explanations of people and events.

In particular, there is a terrible incident which Nina witnesses and which the Comrades try to make her forget, or at least re-remember – with self-preservation trumping nurturance. Morrison has always had a keen eye for portraying human weakness, and piercing pomposity, and the Comrades descent from high-and-mighty pontificating to petty squabbling, and increasingly desperate, and violent, measures to try and regain some control over the situation, is as believable as it is dispiriting. However, things are little improved when Nina becomes caught up in the world of social services, hospitals, and the law where different rules and regulations are enforced. Morrison is interested in constructs, philosophies and faiths of all kinds, but more so with how the human element is always destined to undermine, compromise and ultimately sabotage them.

Nina X is not simply an examination of nature versus nurture, but rather how a vulnerable mind can be pulled apart by conflict and confusion, and that human frailties (a term which seems horribly inadequate) such as envy, lust, jealously, hubris, anger and pride guarantee failure. The portrayal of Nina/The Project is as complex as it is heart breaking, with a long-suppressed individual voice trying to break through, to be heard and understood. In that sense Nina reminds me of Ron Butlin’s Morris Magellan in The Sound Of My Voice trying to get to a personal truth that has been suppressed for years in an attempt to survive.

It is also a novel about the importance of language and the written word, how they are used to understand, but also to obfuscate – deliberately or otherwise. The nomenclature of people and things takes on greater significance in a world as limited and suffocating as Nina’s. The naming of pets as Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg, or the forbidden contraband of Dairy Milk, Coca Cola, and glossy magazines, all carry multiple meanings. Nina has been told her whole life that some words are acceptable while others come at a cost. With her newfound freedom she finds that it’s not just the rules that have changed, the language has too, and even how she refers to herself becomes a battle.

With Nina X (as with Close Your Eyes, to which ‘Nina’ makes a great companion piece) Ewan Morrison challenges readers to think about what writing is for, believing that an engaged writer has a responsibility to address difficult issues. Some may regard him as a professional contrarian, using his mastery of the written word and ability to understand all sides of an argument to push people’s buttons for his own pleasure, but that would be to underestimate him as a writer, and a thinker. Rather he challenges prevailing cultural trends and beliefs, no matter who holds them. If you have a sacred cow to hand you might want to secure it as Morrison takes great delight in running them through, which makes him one of the exhilarating and exacting writers around.

As artistic as he is antagonistic, he believes in intellectual discourse and the rigorous thinking that accompanies it. Nina X is a reminder that the best writing should challenge and confront, and that there are few who do this as well as Ewan Morrison. He asks the questions that others avoid, or would never even think of asking, and offers no easy answers in return. This doesn’t always make his novels easy reads, but it does make them important ones and I know which I prefer every time.

A version of this review first appeared on Publishing Scotland’s Books From Scotland website.

Nina X by Ewan Morrison is published by Fleet.

Local Hero: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Henry Bell…

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer, editor and producer Henry Bell (right) about his biography of Scottish Socialist icon, John Maclean. If you haven’t heard of Maclean then this is a perfect place to start, and if you have then I’m sure you’ll learn something new about the man dubbed both “Hero of Red Clydeside” and “the most dangerous man in Britain” depending on which newspaper you read.

Henry explains how Maclean came to achieve such fame, the sacrifices he made, his links to Ireland and the Kremlin, and how he managed to hold both nationalist and internationalist outlooks, views which are still prevalent in Scottish politics today. It’s a fascinating discussion about one of Scotland’s most important historical figures, and one which you won’t want to miss.

You can read the SWH! review of John Maclean: Hero Of Red Clydeside here, but before you do you should listen to the podcast as the two work together well.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, 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:

Henry Bell’s John Maclean: Hero Of Red Clydeside is out now on Pluto Press.
We’ll be back very soon with someone completely different….

New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

Live In The Flicker cover – credit Louise McLachlan

It’s interesting to write this after putting together two radio shows made solely from music featured on this year’s SAY Award Eliglible Album list (Yes, we have a SWH! radio show – haven’t I mentioned it? You can catch up with all the old shows here – SWH! on LP Radio). What it proved was that last year was phenomenal in terms of Scottish music, with a huge variety of styles and genres on show, and of such high quality it’s genuinely astonishing. It fair makes yer heart swell…

This month’s review proves that situation is not only continuing, but is arguably getting even better. Without a doubt it has been one of the hardest to compile as there was so much good new music released in the last month, and to whittle it down to eight was tough. There’s a mix of noisepop, jazz/folk, electronica, gaelictronica, singer/songwriters, American roots, and much more, including at least one album (at least one) destined to become an all-time classic. Think I’m joking? Perhaps exaggerating for effect? Read on and decide for yourself…

We are going to start with Half Formed Things. Regular readers of these reviews will probably be able to write this one for themselves as I have made it clear that when it comes to Half Formed Things it was a case of love at first listen, which would have been their eponymous EP back in 2016. Since then there are few things I have been awaiting with as much anticipation as their debut album, Live In The Flicker. Now it is with us and I can assure you, and me, that it more than lives up those high expectations.

The album opens and closes with the peal of church bells, and the songs in-between each tell their own tales, like chapters in a book, not unlike Tindersticks, or, and I don’t say this lightly, The Blue Nile – with each song working individually but coming together to create an even greater whole. Other influences I detect are David Sylvian, Kate Bush, and late-period Talk Talk, with a similar sense of space being evoked. That suggests ambience, yet the music is always insistent – it will not be ignored. There’s a sense of momentum to the album – like glimpsing scenes from a moving train, you’re not quite sure what you’ve just witnessed.

That’s what the first listen to Live In The Flicker is like, you know you’ll have to listen again, and again, to try and understand fully. From the opening ‘Flicker’ to the closing ‘The Calm’ you are taken to another place by a soundtrack which makes your head swim – with instruments being used for different purposes – drums and cymbals take the lead, piano riffs keep the rhythm, and harmonies (oh, the harmonies!) becoming an instrument all of their own.

So make room in your lives for Half Formed Things’ Live In The Flicker as it may just be your new favourite album – or maybe, for you, just a very good one. Ultimately you decide, I can only guide. You certainly won’t hear another album like it until they make their next one. Scottish Album of the Year? Half Formed Things may just have made an album for the ages.

How do you follow that? Well, what about a track from an album which has now become the most eagerly awaited of the year, and a video featuring friend of SWH! and Olive Grove Records hi-heed-yin, Lloyd Meredith, tied to a pole in the middle of nowhere. The artist is Broken Chanter and the track is ‘Wholesale’, and if it’s an indicator of the quality of the rest of the album (*Spoiler Alert – it is) then we are all in for a treat.

As anyone who has been to a Broken Chanter live show knows ‘Wholesale’ has quickly become a highlight of the set, and rightly so as it is Celtic pop at its finest, with David MacGregor’s world weary vocals (for Broken Chanter is he) beautifully offset by heavenly harmonies and a band playing at the peak of their powers. They include Audrey Tait, Jill Sullivan, Gav Prentice, Hannah Shepherd, Kim Carnie, and Emma Kupa – just about the most super-group you could imagine. If the summer starts with Half Formed Things and Live In The Flicker it could be rounded off nicely by the Broken Chanter album. Phew, what a scorcher! In the meantime, enjoy ‘Wholesale’, video and all:

What I love most about these reviews is discovering someone new to SWH! and falling hard for their music. Norrie McCulloch got in touch last month and kindly sent a copy of his latest album Compass. It is packed to the gunnels with great songs, with Norrie’s voice as smooth as a Speyside single malt.

There is some great American influenced roots music being made and played in Scotland at the moment, and Norrie has made a record which stands alongside the best of them, and which deserves to be heard far and wide. If you like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, together or as seperates, then this is for you. If Haight-Ashbury had sat at the foot of Stirling Castle this is the music you would have heard. This track is called ‘Road Sign’ and it is the very definition of a great song. Listen once, listen again, and before you know it you’re hooked.

I have probably seen Lizabett Russo live more than any other artist in the last 12 months, with L-Space possibly the only exception, and I can tell you that she never gives the same gig twice. There have been nights of traditional Transylvanian songs, film soundtracks, folk and fairy tales, and then there is her own music which is a mixture of them all. Her latest album is Something In Movement, made with her regular musical collaborator, guitar virtuoso Graeme Stephen, as well as Pete Harvey, Tim Lane, and Tim Vincent-Smith.

It’s a fantastic collection of songs in every sense of the word, with Russo’s voice never better. There seems to be a new-found confidence in her work, as if this is the album she’s been wanting to make from the start. Be under no illusion, Lizabett Russo is the real deal, and one of the most interesting and intriguing musicians around. This song, ‘The Hunter & The Prey’, makes that point perfectly:

Another new band to SWH! are Bad Protagonist Club but I’m sure this won’t be their only appearance on these pages. This single is ‘Verdant Forest (Waiting For Me)’ and it’s exactly the sort of pop song which works its way into your life without you noticing. You get up in the morning, it’s just there! There are chiming guitars, drums battered to within an inch of their lives, vocal harmonies as much shouted as sung, and bursts of energy followed by periods of contemplation, before it all kicks off again – like a kid whose tooth-kind Ribena has been replaced with Buckfast. This, in case you were in doubt, is a very good thing. And this is ‘Verdant Forest (Waiting For Me)’:

Amy Duncan has regularly appeared on these pages over the years, and the reason for that is she just keeps on making music which lifts the heart and soothes the soul (hell, it might even soothe Bad Protagonist Club). Her latest single, ‘Labyrinth’, is no exception, although, like most of the music featured in this review, there is a twist in the tale. In Amy’s case it’s the electronic sounds and jazz rhythms which appear halfway through and turn what is a perfectly lovely song into something altogether more interesting. Amy Duncan’s music makes the world a better place, and right now we need her, and those like her, more than ever. This is ‘Labyrinth’:

Animation by Tracy Foster

Previous podcast guests WHYTE are back with a new album, tairm (following on from the acclaimed Fairich) and to say it’s a thing of beauty is understatement in the extreme. Once again composer Ross Whyte’s electronic music underscores Gaelic songs sung by Alasdair Whyte, and their marriage is magical. The songs are based in the folk-tradition, but Ross’s music, perhaps unexpectedly, enhances that feeling rather than diluting it.

It helps that Alasdair’s vocals sound like they are sung by an old soul, and he clearly has an inherent understanding of what he sings and where it comes from. I mentioned the SAY Award at the top of the page and I genuinely think that tairm has a chance of being the first Gaelic language album in contention. Put aside any doubts you may have and join in as it’s a record which deserves to be heard by the widest audience possible. That includes you, by the way.

Braemar’s Youth Team also have new music for our pleasure in the form of the album Threshhold Experience and it is the result of Angus Upton (for they are he) spending a winter immersing himself in Krautrock, the works of Brian Eno, and possibly The Durutti Column if the title of one track is anything to go by – an excellent way to spend those long nights. It’s certainly been time well spent as Upton proves again he is one of the most exciting young musicians around today, and if you haven’t yet got his 2018 album Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (an eligible album for this year’s SAY Award) then I advise you to do just that. But only after you listen to the following. Youth Team are in it for the long haul and that’s a journey you want to be part of.

Meet you here next month for more of the best in new Scottish music. But while you wait, remember that SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm. You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.

Second Thoughts: A Review Of Mandy Haggith’s The Amber Seeker…

You wait ages for a good trilogy to come along then, appropriately, three turn up at once – or almost at once. In the last month or so SWH! has reviewed Runaway, the third (although likely not the last) in Claire MacLeary’s Harcus & Laird series, Star Of Hope, the final book in Moira McPartlin’s Sun Song Trilogy, and now we have The Amber Seeker which is the second part of Mandy Haggith’s Stone Series. If you read part one, The Walrus Mutterer, then you’ll be eager to return to the land-and-seascapes of Haggith’s wonderfully evocative Iron Age, and you won’t be disappointed – but you may be surprised.

The reason for that is all in the telling. Last time around the story was that of Rian, a young woman who is unexpectedly sold into slavery, and who has to learn harsh life lessons quickly as she is used and abused while trying to make some sense of how her life has transpired. In The Amber Seeker the narrator is Pytheas of Massalia, a character who also features in The Walrus Mutterer, and not a sympathetic one at that. This makes it a brave and fascinating decision from Haggith to look at events from his point of view.

If you think of famous films such as Rashomon, The Usual Suspects, or Jackie Brown, and how they look at events from different characters’ perspectives, you’ll have an idea as to what is going on with these narratives (when taken together) as the same story, or at least parts of it, are told from different points of view. Both Rian’s and Pytheas’ stories are riveting from beginning to end, but it’s where they overlap that makes for the most interesting reading. Is one more reliable than the other or are they just two sides of the same story? Or is the full picture to be found somewhere in-between?

This asks questions about the nature of truth, perspective, and the power of the narrator to influence where readers’ sympathies lie. As you would expect, Pytheas is portrayed as a more appealing personality this time around, but it is difficult to forgive or forget his behaviour as Rian experienced it. There is still a strong whiff of toxicity surrounding him, especially when convincing himself of the rights and wrongs of his actions, and Rian’s subsequent reaction. But it is not just he who regular readers will reassess – for those familiar with The Walrus Mutterer many of the main players, such as Toma, Ussa, Gruach, and Fraoch, are changed, to greater or lesser degrees, in relation to their interactions and relations with Pytheas.

At times the world that Haggith creates feels like fantasy as much as history – a sort of Game Of Thrones before the dragons – with warlords, curses, feuds, revenge, and the promise of prosperity in other lands. This is in part due to Haggith’s choice to use English no matter the speaker, with where an individual is from, and who they are, explained using backstory, plot, beliefs, costume, and character. It makes for a world which is strange and intriguing, but familiar enough for readers to immerse themselves fully.

When a book is part of a series then a pertinent question is always, “Do I have to have read the others?”. My answer to this is that, while it usually helps, the best novels need to stand alone. However, while that is true for The Amber Seeker, I would urge you to also read The Walrus Mutterer to get as full a picture as possible of the story up to now. Taken together they make The Lyre Dancers, the final volume in this trilogy, a novel which is eagerly awaited as this is a story which demands a fitting ending. But who gets to tell it, and how? Only Mandy Haggith knows, and that mystery is as intriguing as any.

The Amber Seeker is available now, published by Saraband Books

Call Me Ishbel: A Review Of Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope…

When you come to a trilogy at the end it can feel like you have missed too much to truly understand what’s going on. I can’t imagine seeing the The Godfather III without having seen I & II first, or, gawd help us, The Matrix Revolutions before The Matrix. However, that’s not always the case, and the best books and films in any series should work individually as well as part of the series, with the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy books, or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours’ films, being perfect examples.

After reading Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope, the final part of her ‘Sun Song Trilogy’, without having read the first two I can say that it passes the test of working as a stand-alone but one which also makes you want to spend more time with the characters, to discover fully how they, and their world, got to this point. If one of the characteristics of a good writer is to make you care, then Moira McPartlin does that in spades.

That’s partly because it’s a story that is all too believable – and terrifying. Set in the dystopian near future of 2089, Star Of Hope is close enough for many of its themes and concerns to be all too recognisable. Concerns over artificial intelligence, the distant between the have and have-nots (in this case the ‘Privileged’ and the ‘Natives’), genetics, the plight of the bees, and what happens when the lights go out, are all central to the story.

As with many such fictional worlds they increasingly feel like predictions rather than prose. In that sense Star Of Hope is similar in tone to Louise Welsh’s No Dominion, the third of her ‘Plague Times Trilogy’ in that both are about a final mission, or in this case missions, with groups travelling across the land. Along the way they encounter ever-increasing dangers, double-crossing, and death. Long-held beliefs are challenged and no-one reaches the end unchanged.

In Star Of Hope the story is mostly told in alternative chapters which focus on 16-year-old Sorlie and his aunt Ishbel. They undertake separate missions to find the legendary ‘Star Of Hope’ which, we are told, holds the key to returning to a better life, one which will benefit all and not just the few. Without giving anything away, while this proposed solution is not necessarily what you might expect, the world they encounter is just recognisable enough to believe that this possible world is worryingly probable.

Creating such a familiar world for her characters to inhabit allows McPartlin to have some fun with place and language. There is a visit to ‘Beckham City’, when people frown their eyebrows “pringle”, (a perfect image which I intend to use in future), messages are ‘pinged’ to each other, and there are lots of rumour and myth about the history of technology before the servers went down which emphasise just how, and how quickly, this world became the way it is.

There are no frivolities, nothing unnecessarily sensational, to sidetrack the reader. Sorlie and Ishbel’s missions are deadly serious, with nothing less than the very future at stake. But this is not the worthy and finger-wagging undertaking that it could have been. Sorlie and Ishbel are characters you care about, and I can only think this will be strengthened for those who have been with them from the start. However, there are plenty of other strong characters to invest in, from the taciturn and increasingly complex ‘Dawdle’, the damaged and confused ‘Noni’, the Machiavellian ‘Merj’, and the dependable ‘Reinya’. It’s a fine cast which gives not only the journey but its end a power it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

The final scenes are worthy of a Sam Peckinpah movie (or John Wick, for a more recent comparison), with bullets and bodies flying around and no-one sure what is going on. It’s a suitably dramatic ending to a novel which builds the tension right from the start and which never lets up (with a couple of notable and memorable beats for everyone to catch their breath). It’s one of the most exciting bits of writing I have read in some time, and a fitting conclusion.

Young Adult fiction, (or at least fiction with young people at its core), is thriving in Scotland – with some publishers having their own YA imprint, which speaks well for the future as well as the present. Recently memorable examples include Ross Sayer’s Mary’s The Name (his latest Sonny & Me is out now), Helen MaKinven’s Talk Of The Toun, Claire McFall’s Ferryman and Daniel Shand’s Crocodile, and Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope belongs in that company. Does it all end well? You’ll have to find that out for yourself, but it’s a journey well worth making.

Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope is published by Fledgling Press

That’s Entertainment: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute…

Few operas have found their way into popular culture in the manner of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. From Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Papageno’s bird catcher for the character Old Bailey in his novel Neverwhere, Whitney Houston claiming she is the ‘Queen of the Night’ in the movie The Bodyguard, and with music which has been used to sell everything from cars to contraception, it’s influence has spread far and wide. This is something which Scottish Opera’s revival of their 2012 production plays with beautifully.

It embraces the aesthetic of steampunk fully. If you know the graphic novels of Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or films such as Brazil, Howl’s Moving Castle, or the recent Mortal Engines, you’ll have some idea of the look and feel. In fact the wizard Sarastro can be described as a mix of The Matrix’s Morpheus and Kenneth Branagh’s Dr. Arliss Loveless from the otherwise forgettable Wild Wild West.

Throw in minions who seem to be a marriage of Disney’s Minions & Tik Tok from Return To Oz, a dragon which is more H.G. Wells than Game Of Thrones, and strange men in top hats who watch over proceedings, and it’s clear that everyone has risen to the challenge to offer up a production which is as much a treat for the eyes as for the ears. Those involved with stage, costume, lighting and props should take a well-deserved bow.

But for all the magic and magnificence of the staging what runs through this production is heart, humanity and humour. Central to this is Richard Burkhard’s Papageno who represents the everyman, the link between the audience and the stage, (the ‘Buttons’ character, so to speak – see more below), whose mistakes and mishaps are all too recognisable, and who reminds us that while not everyone can be a hero, they still deserve love.

There is more than a touch of pantomime about The Magic Flute with a prince and a princess, a wicked Queen, slapstick and farce, playing to the gallery, and (*Spoiler*) happy endings for most by the time the curtain falls. As such it is easy to explain its continued popularity, regarded by many as the opera for all the family, and there is an excellent piece in the programme by Paul Maloney which sets out the influence on vaudeville and music hall.

If you’ve been looking to introduce someone to the joys of opera, then Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute is the perfect choice. If that someone is you, then why not give it a chance. I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Thanks to Scottish Opera for use of the following images:
Credit – James Glossop

Tour Dates:

Theatre Royal – GLASGOW Tue 14 May to Sat 18 May BOOK TICKETS

Eden Court – INVERNESS Tue 21 May to Sat 25 May BOOK TICKETS

His Majesty’s Theatre – ABERDEEN Thu 30 May – Sat 1 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Festival Theatre – EDINBURGH Wed 5 Jun to Sat 15 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Hackney Empire – LONDON Thu 20 Jun to Sat 22 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Belfast Grand Opera House – BELFAST Thu 27 Jun – Sat 29 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Keeping It Corporeal: A Review Of Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other…

As regular visitors to SWH! will know, 404 Ink have, in a fairly short space of time, come to be recognised as a reliable mark of quality, publishing books which are not only well written and enjoyable to read, but which challenge readers and the literary status quo, allowing for marginalised voices to be heard, loud and clear.

Recent publications include Nadine Aisha Jassat’s poetry collection Let Me Tell You This, the Queer words anthology We Were Always Here, Chris McQueer‘s second short story collection HWFG, Helen McClory’s The Goldblum Variations (the international rights to which have just been sold to Penguin Books) and the rightly acclaimed collection of essays Nasty Women. By any standard that is an admirable list, and it only scratches the surface.

Their latest is Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other and it is a welcome and worthy addition. It’s a novel which hits you full in the face so hard it makes you fear for your front teeth. The arresting opening sentence sets the uneasy, and often queasy, tone which doesn’t let up till the last. A visceral read which is at times dreamlike as you become intoxicated by the sensual and sensory images and language. You may want to look away but you’ll find you can’t, desperate to know how things resolve themselves. However you’ll soon realise this isn’t about where the narrative is going, but why.

The writing is exemplary – lean and mean, reflecting the content – it’s where Ernest Hemingway meets Kathy Acker. It also pulls off the difficult trick of making you think you have experienced or read things which you haven’t. As with the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Nash makes you believe you have witnessed visceral acts of violence, and sex, when in fact she cuts away and lets your imagination run riot. In terms of editing as much as writing, Animals Eat Each Other is an example to all.

We are introduced to ‘Lilith’, although that is a name given to her by others, and which, she learns, is one rich in meaning and which comes to define her, and even shape her. Nash makes it clear that language is important, the things which are said and those that remain only thoughts, as well as how people are referred to and the way in which relationships are defined. The latter hold the promise of, if not happiness (which is rarely considered a possibility), escape, belonging, change, submission, and subsummation – the chance not only to be with someone else but to become someone, or something, else.

There are shifts in power and thought happening constantly, sometimes in the space of a single embrace. This is in no small part down to the fact that ‘Lilith’s’ is a mind never at rest, except when quietened by drink and drugs, or distracted by pain or pleasure. The world as she has experienced it has her constantly anxious which in turn has made her uncomfortable in her own skin – a skin she is, as with her identity, keen to shed, or to have others remove for her in the belief that psychological change can happen through physical manipulation.

Despite what you may initially think this is not a novel about sex and violence, but one which examines obsession, self image and worth, fantasy vs reality, want and the need to be wanted, and the complexity of human appetites and infatuation. You could say it is concerned with the politics of desire, the rules and regulations – some made clear, some unsaid – which play out in various, and arguably all, relationships. I have seen Animals Eat Each Other described elsewhere as ‘erotic’ but that doesn’t do it justice it at all as Nash digs much deeper than that. She is not concerned with the aesthetics of desire, but with the psychology – more Erica Jong than E.L. James.

If you are looking for recent points of reference then those of you who have read Helen McClory’s novel Flesh Of The Peach, Pauline Lynch’s Armadillos or Anneliese Mackintosh’s short story collection Any Other Mouth, will find similar themes in Animals Eat Each Other. With it Elle Nash has written the literary equivalent of a great Punk single – fast, furious, and unforgettable, one which sticks in your head and creeps beneath your skin. Animals Eat Each Other – you couldn’t ignore it if you tried.

Animals Eat Each Other is out now, published by 404 Ink.

You can still hear the SWH! Podcast with 404 Ink here