The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s 10 Best Books Of 2018 (+1)…

DSC_0809 2.jpgI know you’re bombarded with ‘Books Of The Year’ lists around this time, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is one for the more discerning book lover. It’s a good old-fashioned Top-Ten, but, as with Nigel Tufnel’s amp, this one goes to 11. Which is one better…

These are the publications which stood out against the stiffest competition in 2018, consisting of four new novels, three short fiction collections, the conclusion of a soul music and civil rights trilogy, a book of spell poetry, a history of Scottish pop, plus our bonus entry – a re-issue of a modern Scottish classic.

They will transport you to Harlem, Lewis, Bangour, and post-war America, with detours to Orkney, the Scottish Borders, Edinburgh, Paris, Moscow past and present, and through the looking-glass, along the way. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the artistic diversity and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today and proof that Scottish writing is in fine fettle indeed. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

Olga Wotjas – Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar

37795464Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is a crime novel for those people who think they don’t like crime novels. It is also a novel of manners, a comedy, a romance, (although not necessarily a romantic-comedy), and a work of science fiction. With so many influences at work, and genres juggled, it really shouldn’t work but it never falls down and Olga Wojtas should be praised for pulling such a feat off. I’m pretty sure I won’t read anything like it this year, unless it is ‘Miss Blaine’s Prefect’s’ next mission impossible, and I’m hoping that we won’t have to wait too long for that.

Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books

Helen McClory – Mayhem & Death

51tswpu6nl-_sx326_bo1204203200_McClory doesn’t waste words which makes her fiction perfect for the shorter forms. Some of her stories, such as ‘The Language Of Heaven’ ‘The Purvey’ and the unforgettable ‘A Coven Of Two’, are only just over a page long but they all pack a punch. ‘Museum Piece’ is like a supernatural James Kelman story, and if you can’t imagine that then you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

These stories are intensely sensual but also visceral, and are often uncomfortable as a result – there’s blood, sweat and tears on these pages. They do what the best writing should, making you face your own truths, and asks questions to which you may not like the answers.

Mayhem & Death is published by 404 Ink.
You can hear Helen McClory in conversation on the SWH! podcast from April 2018.

Alison Moore – Missing

9781784631406There are few things better than a novel which surprises you, which catches you unaware and makes you think about the world and yourself in a different way. Missing had just such an effect – as artful and emotional a book as I have read in some time. This is beautiful writing, eschewing the need to give reasons and explanations for what occurs, letting the reader come to their own conclusions.

It’s not a novel which asks for sympathy, but one which offers empathy, in a manner not dissimilar to Ron Butlin’s Ghost Moon. If you are already aware of Alison Moore’s writing, (her first novel The Lighthouse made the Man Booker shortlist in 2012 and she has had many other accolades) the quality of Missing will not surprise you, but if you aren’t then be prepared to be knocked out.

Missing is published by Salt Publishing

M.J. Nicholls- The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die

1002The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is a comic novel which takes its subject matter very seriously, and demands to be read in the same manner. It is a literary undertaking which needs the reader to engage fully. To do otherwise would be to miss out on what is, at times, an exhilarating experience.

Although there are other Scottish novels which come to mind, such as Kevin McNeill’s The Brilliant & Forever, Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island, and Graham Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, M.J. Nicholls is doing something which feels and reads as new and exciting. If you love books then The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is one to read, before it’s too late.

The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is published by Sagging Meniscus.

Vic Galloway – Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop

dsc_0792Rip It Up is more thorough and exhaustive than we have any right to expect from a book released to accompany an exhibition, and it more than stands on its own right and merits. Of course there are bands and musicians missing, but you can’t include everyone and Galloway admits as much in his introduction. While he can’t hide his obvious love for punk and indie music he remains non-judgmental throughout, and readers can pick the musicians and genres they are less familiar with and explore further for themselves.

Where the book works best is as an extensive overall look at something close to our hearts and always on our minds. This review could have been a book in itself as every page of Rip It Up has information I want to discuss and share with you. This is partly because it’s a subject I love deeply, partly because Galloway’s passion is infectious, but mainly because it’s a fascinating story well written, and what more could you want from any book? Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop – every home should have one.

Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop is published by National Museums of Scotland.
You can hear Vic Galloway in conversation on the 100th SWH! Podcast

Donald S. Murray – As The Women Lay Dreaming

dk4wu2bxsaa3yaw1At the centre of As The Women Lay Dreaming is a call for greater understanding and empathy. Tormond, who had witnessed too much at a young age, still had the capacity for love, and forgiveness. As important was the way he used his art and writing to try to help him come to terms with the world around him. This, in turn, would not only allow his grandson to better comprehend a man who had a huge influence on his life, (although he knew him only briefly), but also better understand himself.

With As The Women Lay Dreaming Donald S. Murray has pulled off a similar feat. It not only brings to life the disaster of the Iolaire, but also a place and its people over two periods of time, using personal and individual stories to examine wider themes. This is a novel which reveals new layers with every reading. It is history brought to life through fiction, and when it is done in a manner as moving and beautiful as this it is invaluable.

As The Women Lay Dreaming is published by Saraband Books
You can hear Donald S. Murray talking to Ali on the SWH! Podcast.

Chris McQueer – HWFG

hwfg-cover-1Chris McQueer’s stories are driven by his vivid and visceral characters. Individuals whose lives are rarely written about – mostly outrageous and often shameless. His growing army of followers can be reassured that these are further tales of the dark side of life – divine comedy so black that it’s often difficult to see.

With HWFG he proves that Hings was no one-off, but only the beginning for a writer who appears to have found his voice immediately. It also shows evidence that he is growing more confident in his craft, often addressing the reader directly, making for a more immersive read. After two superb short fiction collections I can’t wait to see what he does next – no pressure! And to those who remain unsure, have no fear – Chris McQueer is the real deal.

HWFG is published by 404 Ink
You can hear Chris McQueer talking to Ali on the SWH! Podcast.

Andrew Crumey – The Great Chain of Unbeing

46482527_184604975815225_6470154595455729664_nIn my opinion Crumey is one of the most underrated and overlooked writers at work today, although his being shortlisted for this year’s Saltire Fiction Book Of The Year may see that change. There are a couple of comparisons with other authors who have appeared on these pages I could offer in terms of style and substance; David Keenan and M.J. Nicholls are the two who spring to mind – but if I’m being truthful Andrew Crumey stands alone.

If you haven’t read his work before then I think The Great Chain Of Unbeing an ideal place to start. All his books can be read on different levels, but that applies to this one more than most while still giving you the full Crumey experience. Put simply, he makes you think. More than that he challenges you to think, and that’s what a great writer should do. We all need a challenge, otherwise what’s the point?

The Great Chain Of Unbeing is out now, published by Dedalus Books.

Stuart Cosgrove – Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul

46523465_252474145447194_8238799154168463360_nAnyone who has read the previous books will know what to expect in terms of form. Cosgrove takes us through the year of 1969 chronologically, month by month, and looks at events which may have begun in Harlem but which had ramifications way beyond the neighbourhood boundaries.

I was wondering how he was going to wrap things up before the close of this third act, and he does so by looking to the future, linking events and individuals to people, places, and music from the next five decades which only reinforces his central thesis that these are three years which shaped America, and shook the world, musically and politically. All the issues that Cosgrove touches upon, in this volume especially, are still felt keenly, and there is a sense that he views 1969 as a year zero for America – socially, politically, and culturally – and things would never be the same again.

Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul is out now, published by Polygon Books.

Jenni Fagan – There’s A Witch In The Word Machine

Theres-a-Witch-in-the-Word-Machine-4-e1530966044594The spell poems in Jenni Fagan’s latest collection There’s A Witch In The Word Machine do their job as there’s something magical on these pages, with an honesty and integrity at their core that makes you confront your own. Fagan looks at people and places, love and loss, all with an unflinching eye married to her innate understanding of the power of words to communicate and to help heal. The central poem of the collection, ‘Bangour Village Hospital’, is the most moving and emotional piece of writing I read in 2018, and it is exemplary of the power of Jenni Fagan’s poetry.

The best poetry collections take hold in a manner similar to favourite albums in that you are compelled to return again and again, finding something new each time while also taking comfort in growing familiarity and significance. There’s A Witch In The Word Machine is highly personal, yet its themes are universal, and no other book captured the cultural spirit of 2018 as it has.

There’s A Witch In The Word Machine is published by Polygon Books
* A version of this review first appeared in The Bottle Imp’s Best Scottish Books of 2018

(+1) Ron Butlin – The Sound Of My Voice (Republished)

dsc_0772The Sound Of My Voice is as astonishing an undertaking to me today as it was when I first read it in the late ’90s.  It is artistic, insightful, philosophical, psychological, even spiritual, and I could go on and on. But, above all, it is human and it is compassionate. At its core is a kindness and an attempt at understanding the worst of times with the belief that only then can we appreciate the best of times. Few writers have the ability, and, indeed, the desire to examine and understand what it means to do more than simply exist as Ron Butlin does, and this is evident in his poetry and other writing, particularly 2014’s novel Ghost Moon. 

The Sound Of My Voice remains “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”, but now you have and I hope I have convinced you that it is essential reading. Returning to it after seven years only confirms my feelings that, after all the Scottish novels I’ve reviewed on these pages and elsewhere, if I had only one to recommend to you The Sound Of My Voice is it.

The Sound Of My Voice is republished on the Polygon imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

2018 really was a strong year, with Helen Taylor’s The Backstreets of Purgatory, Douglas Skelton’s The Janus Run, Mandy Haggith’s The Walrus Mutterer, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take and Daniel Shand’s Crocodile just missing out, but you should click on those names, read their reviews and seek them out all the same. 2019 has a lot to live up to…

Three Is The Magic Number: A Review Of Stuart Cosgrove’s Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul…

 

46523465_252474145447194_8238799154168463360_n.jpgAll good things must come to an end, and this is sadly true for Stuart Cosgrove’s epic and engaging soul and civil rights trilogy. What began with Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul, and moved to Memphis ’68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul, ends with Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul, and while it is a crying shame that, for the moment at least, we won’t find out more of what happens next (although, as suggested in the title, Cosgrove does touch upon the future), as James Brown knew, when you depart the stage do it in style and leave them wanting more. Cosgrove is leaving us in the finest style, job done.

Anyone who has read the previous books will know what to expect in terms of form. Cosgrove takes us through the year of 1969 chronologically, month by month, and looks at events which may have begun in Harlem but which had ramifications way beyond the neighbourhood boundaries. His cast of characters are a Venn diagram of the well-known, the lesser-known, the expected, and the unexpected. For every Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and Donny Hathaway, there’s someone such as Fat Jack Taylor, Betty Mabry, Arthur Conley, and Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams) whose stories are vital – indeed they, and others like them, are the spine of Harlem ’69.

All four mentioned have the most remarkable life stories, as a musical impresario and drug dealer, a muse – and so, so much more – to Miles Davis, a man struggling with his sexuality in a none-more macho world, and a leading Black Panther and mother to a future superstar. Theirs are just a few of many such accounts, and they are evidence of what Cosgrove does so well – taking everyday people’s extraordinary lives and linking them to what’s going on, not just in Harlem, but across America.

Then there are those who appear who you, or rather I, just don’t expect. Famous names such as Jimi Hendrix, Luther Vandross, Frankie Knuckles, the aforementioned Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Nile Rodgers, and George Benson. Most music lovers will be aware of their lives and work but they seem to belong elsewhere, to other musical movements and eras. For all of those mentioned to appear in the story of Harlem in 1969 is as fascinating as it is surprising.

So far I’ve only really touched upon the music, but this is as much a story of civil rights (and social issues), if not more so. They are intrinsically linked with the time and place, and with each other. This is epitomised by the staging of the free concert which came to be known as ‘Black Woodstock’, with appearances from Sly and The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and a legendary performance from Nina Simone – her version of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ a highlight of the set, and as a result the song would become the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in 1969.

The backdrop to Harlem ’69 is dark and dangerous, with the increasing prevalence of heroin taking a terrible toll, street gangs at war, and crime and mortality rates through the roof. As the months unfold matters only get worse. There are events throughout the year which define the times – the raid leading to the arrest of 21 Black Panthers being one of the most far-reaching in its consequences. But perhaps the most shocking is the death of 12-year-old Walter Vandermeer, an event which came to symbolise Harlem’s problems.

I was wondering how Cosgrove was going to wrap things up before the close of this third act, and he does so by looking to the future, linking events and individuals to people, places, and music from the next five decades which only reinforces his central thesis that these are three years which shaped America, and shook the world, musically and politically. The influence on, and the links to, the greatest exponents of hip-hop and rap is particularly strong, and poignant.

Tupac Shakur, Dr Dre, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Tone Loc, Mantronix, NWA, Public Enemy, Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest – their music and politics can be directly traced back to the years and places covered by Cosgrove. The Black Panthers’ influence in particular can be felt in music, film, theatre, art, fashion, and elsewhere, and that continues to the present day (perhaps most obviously in Marvel’s recent Black Panther movie). All the issues that Cosgrove touches upon, in this volume especially, are still felt keenly, and there is a sense that he views 1969 as a year zero for America – socially, politically, and culturally – and things would never be the same again.

There’s a playlist on the Books from Scotland website which Stuart Cosgrove has carefully curated for your listening pleasure, but here are just a few of my favourite tracks mentioned in Harlem ’69:

It is to be hoped that this isn’t the end of Stuart Cosgrove’s writing about American soul music and culture, but if it is then it’s on a high. However, if you happen to read this, Stuart, I have one last thing to say, “One more year, one more year…!”.

Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul is out now, published by Polygon Books.

A Life In Film: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To May Miles Thomas…

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4oyoqq68z6zvhepr87pdFor the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer & director May Miles Thomas (left) about her incredible film Voyageuse and the issues and themes it addresses, such as family, sibling rivalry, ageing, grief, and much, much more.

During their chat the two also discuss different approaches to making film, May’s previous projects, using setbacks as inspiration, the problem in getting heard in a crowded market, and the primary importance of story in her work.

It’s a fantastic listen, one which is essential for anyone who is interested, not only in the process and reality of filmmaking, but all aspects of creating art in Scotland. There is also mention of Hitler, satanism in Glasgow, Sian Philips, and the CIA. What more could you want from a podcast?

If you are in London on Friday 14th you can see Voyageuse on the big screen as it is showing at the Picturehouse Central, when there will also be a Q&A with May Miles Thomas and Dame Sian Philips. For everyone else, you can watch the full film over at Vimeo as well as view the trailers for other productions from Thomas’ Elemental Films, and the full-length version of the much discussed The Devil’s Plantation. If you visit the latter’s website you will find all the information you need to follow in Harry Bell’s footsteps (and for that to make sense you’ll have to listen to the podcast first). In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Voyaguese: Continue reading

American Horror Story: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Andy Davidson…

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For the latest podcast Ali met up with the American novelist Andy Davidson before his event at The Edinburgh International Book Festival. In an ironically dreich Charlotte Square the two discuss Andy’s terrific debut novel In The Valley Of The Sun which is among the best of the year so far.

DhhU22jWAAAKJSQPublished on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books,  In The Valley Of The Sun is set in the small towns of the Texas desert. We’re calling it a vampire thriller unlike any other, but, as you’ll hear, that’s not necessarily how Andy sees it.

If you want a point of reference think Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, or even Jim Jarmusch’s 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, among many other cinematic and literary influences. Dripping with blood, sweat and tears, it is as shocking as it is compelling, and in Travis Stickwell Davidson has created an anti-hero for the ages. If you are a fan of horror and/or crime fiction then you don’t want to miss out on this one. Continue reading

The Write Stuff: Scots Whay Hae!’s Top 10 (+1) Picks Of The Edinburgh International Book Festival…

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From the 11th – 27th August in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens (and George Street) once again becomes the place for book lovers to meet, greet, and be merry as the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes up its annual residence. It’s always an oasis of calm and conversation in a city gone daft, and it is one of SWH!’s favourite places to be.

There’s a lot of great events to choose from, so to help you find something just for you here are Scots Whay Hae!’s Top Ten Picks of what to see at this year’s book festival (with a bonus extra because you’re special).

67dac432Robin Robertson, Sat 11 Aug 12:00 – 13:00 – The Spiegeltent
A renowned poet whose work often hauntingly evokes the lives of Scottish outsiders, Robin Robertson strikes out with a breathtaking new project, The Long Take. In this verse novel, Walker is a war veteran from Nova Scotia who sets out for Los Angeles in 1948. Robertson’s book demonstrates the origins of ‘noir’, presented here with period filmic and musical accompaniment.

And you can read the SWH! review of The Long Take here. Continue reading

Fringe Benefits: Scots Whay Hae!’s Top 10 Picks Of The Edinburgh Fringe…

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For many of us August means Edinburgh and its attendant festivals. As ever, the Fringe in particular has so much on offer that it can be tough to see past the big names, sort through the plethora of posters, and separate the wheat from the cultural chaff. To help you do so here are Scots Whay Hae!’s Top Ten picks of the Fringe. There’s comedy, poetry, theatre, music and more – hopefully, something for everyone.

2018THISSCR_T4This Script and Other Drafts (Jenny Lindsay), Aug 13-14, 21-22 – Scottish Storytelling Centre
At a time of schisms within feminism, ongoing revelations of #MeToo, endless discussions about womanhood, and sirens being the soundtrack to our newsfeeds, Jenny Lindsay found herself getting a bit angry in 2017… Putting that anger to work she wrote a series of univocal poems, invented a superhero on her period, explored the rifts within feminism, set up a date with capitalism and penned some poems based on comments on PornHub videos. Amongst other drafts… Come join an award-winning poet for an evening exploring sex, gender and feminism. Can she rewrite this script? Can you? Continue reading