Holiday From Hell: A Review Of Jonathan Whitelaw’s Hellcorp…

51xgYP4nwWL._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

If it’s true that the Devil has all the best tunes, He (and it’s almost always a He) tends to get all the best films, plays and books as well – with one notable exception. Milton, Marlowe, Goethe, and Byron all depicted versions of Satan/Mephistopheles/Lucifer, and in the last 100 years the representations are innumerable.

One regular narrative trope is where the Devil leaves Hell to visit us here on Earth, notably in films such as The Omen, Angel Heart and even The Witches Of Eastwick. The stories range from the sublime, (Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle), through the mawkish (Meet Joe Black), to the ridiculous, (God help us, Little Nicky – if you ever needed proof that neither deity exists then that film is surely it).

Jonathan Whitelaw‘s latest novel, Hellcorp, takes the above idea, runs with it, and has great fun with it. Whitelaw quotes Mark Twain at the beginning of the book, “Go to Heaven for the climate. Hell for the company.”, which gets to the heart of our fascination with all things Hellish – it’s where the fun is to be had. The reason that endures is a whole other conversation.

Hellcorp opens with our anti-hero in consultation with the Pope. He wants to make Hell legitimate, and feels that in the Pope there is a man (and in this case it IS always a man) who should understand. This desire for change is rooted  in an unshakeable feeling that He is in a rut – His unreciprocated lusting after His secretary, Alice, (particularly poignant in the current climate), only exacerbating the feeling.

Constantly being the bad guy has taken its toll. He decides that His work is now so well-understood, so set in stone, that it can be carried out in His absence. To this end He sets up a company, the titular Hellcorp, which can handle things while He takes a well-earned vacation. The only problem is approval for leave is needed from His line-manager, who just happens to be God, and there are conditions. He can have a holiday as long as He solves a mystery which has even the Almighty stumped.

After some fairly one-sided negotiations, the Devil finds himself in Glasgow – where better to blend in? – where he awakes on an operating table. There He meets Jill Gideon. She will become the Watson to His Sherlock as they traverse the city trying to solve ever evolving crimes, although perhaps Moonlighting‘s David Addison and Maddie Hayes is a better comparison as the two constantly, and entertainingly, bicker and fall out. Questions of faith, (although not as you might think), trust, guilt and revenge are explored, but with an unusual theological bent.

The unconventional detectives find themselves coming into contact with a host of Glaswegian ne’er-do-wells, as well as Demons – the two often indistinguishable. These are individuals who make even the Devil shake his head in disbelief. What becomes clear is that Jill’s role in this tale is central, and as her desire for retribution becomes stronger, so her partner, unexpectedly, becomes almost valorous – a twist which no one sees coming.

Hellcorp brings to mind John Niven’s The Second Coming, (where God takes a holiday, leaving his son, JC, in charge), Alasdair Gray’s Fleck, (his take on Goethe’s Faust), but also the political tribulations and machinations of Yes Minister, Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life & Death, and even Andy Hamilton’s excellent radio comedy Old Harry’s Game.

It is yet another example of the innovation and diversity in evidence in the sometimes maligned genre that is Scottish crime fiction. In recent years we have had books from writers as distinct as Graeme Macrae Burnet, Graham Lironi, Louise Welsh, Douglas Skelton, Doug Johnstone, Denise Mina, Manda Scott, Charles E. McGarry, and Stuart David, among many others. All these writers are markedly different from one another, and to them you can add Jonathan Whitelaw. If you have read the above review and come to the conclusion that Hellcorp is not for you then I have failed you. Buy it, read it, and if you don’t then Hell mend you.

Hellcorp is published by Urbane Publications.

An Indelible Event: A Review Of Donald S. Murray’s As The Women Lay Dreaming…

Dk4Wu2BXsAA3yAw.jpg

It’s a well-worn argument, but the lack of Scottish history taught in schools has undoubtedly had a negative affect on the Scottish cultural psyche. To quote Sam Henry (then President of Scottish Association of Teachers of History) in The Scotsman in 2005 this situation means, “we are not doing justice to pupils and their grasp of their own heritage and their ability to come to terms with the world.” I won’t go into it much further here, except to say that a prime example of such gaps in many people’s knowledge of Scottish history, outside of the Highlands and Islands, is the sinking of HMY Iolaire on 1st January 1919 off the port of Stornaway. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters with over 200 out of the 283 aboard dying. They were returning from the First World War, so close to home they could almost touch it. The very definition of a national tragedy.

The first I heard of it was in song (in my mid-30s) and I found it embarrassing that was the case, if understandable. However, learning about it in this way does suggest that such stories told artfully can help fill in those gaps in people’s knowledge and awareness. So it is with Donald S. Murray’s new novel As The Women Lay Dreaming (Saraband Books) which gave me an insight into the Iolaire disaster which no history book could manage, in a manner similar to the way Iain Crichton Smith’s novel Consider the Lilies gives perspective to, and understanding of, the Highland Clearances. Murray’s is a powerful book, one which tells of a survivors’ story and the effect such a terrible event can have even through the generations.

It is told over three periods of time, beginning in 1936 with Alasdair’s story – a boy who we first meet in Glasgow. Brought up hearing Glaswegian on the city streets, his mother spoke Gaelic and his Aberdonian father Doric. This linguistic confusion represents a key theme as the novel unfolds. After their mother’s premature death his father struggles to cope and Alasdair, and his sister Rachel, are sent to stay with their grandparents, on their mother’s side, on the Isle of Lewis, a move which is jarring to say the least. We then jump to 1992 where Alasdair, now an art teacher back in Glasgow, is finally taking the time to look through his grandfather, Tormond Morrison’s, journals.

These journal entries make up the rest of the novel. They look back on Tormond’s time in World War One, and the Iolaire disaster, trying to make sense of both. His original diaries sank with the boat, so these are recreations, including, vitally, some of his drawings. Written in a mixture of Gaelic and English, Alasdair tries to make sense of Tormond’s account of a time defined by understandable confusion and turmoil in an attempt to place himself in his grandfather’s shoes. They conclude with the boat’s sinking, the event central to the narrative as Tormond was on board the Iolaire the fateful day it went down.

Murray explores many themes as he compares people and places, touching upon class, religion, art, memory, family, grief, and much more. Beginning chronologically, Tormond’s story is one of a young man who is trying to work out who he is and what he believes. His discovery of a skill for drawing, married to a desire to better understand the lives of others, offers him the promise of another, or at least a different, life. When this is encouraged by Foster, an Irish senior officer, he begins to dream as to what the future could hold, despite having ties and commitments at home. The tragedy of the Iolaire puts paid to those, and Murray makes clear that while the fallen are rightly mourned, the individuals who survive deserve care and consideration. Those who make it home in body often leave something of themselves behind.

In 1936, when young Alasdair and Rachel join Tormond and his wife Catriona, the problem with mutual understanding comes not only from a language barrier (literally for Rachel, who is so traumatised by this move she refuses to speak), but from the cultural differences between the children’s life in Glasgow and what is expected on Lewis. For instance, what passed for religious knowledge and education in the city, where knowing the simplest of prayers was sufficient, just won’t pass muster. However, the two are looked after and loved by their grandparents, and as they become accustomed to their new surroundings, and close bonds are formed, particularly between Tormond and Alasdair, things improve markedly.

In 1992 the older Alasdair looks back on these years with great fondness – in many ways the time which would shape his life. A love for drawing and appreciation of nature which his grandfather would inspire would provide the spark for his own career in art and teaching, but as he reflects on the journals he also begins to understand more about this man who gave him so much. At 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

Take Two: A Review Of Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet…

Fishnet.jpg

If ever a novel deserved a long life it is Kirstin InnesFishnet. A winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, and one of The Independent’s Top 10 Debut Fiction Books of 2015, it was, like far too many others, a casualty of the liquidation of Freight Books. So it is most welcome news that it is being republished by Black & White Publishing, in a beautiful new edition, which makes it the perfect time to republish the SWH! review of Fishnet from 2015*. Having read it again, we stand by every word:

As if confirmation was needed, the 50 Shades phenomenon proved once more that when it comes to fiction, sex sells. It was also a timely reminder that there are too few novelists prepared to write seriously about sex. This is particularly true with regard to the sex industry and those who work in it, both of which are all too often stigmatised and stereotyped without a second thought.

Kirstin Innes’ novel Fishnet gives the subject the serious consideration it deserves, and in doing so she has written a book which will challenge the reader, making them reassess what they thought they knew as it refuses to offer easy answers but raises many uncomfortable questions. If after reading you haven’t reviewed your own attitudes, to the selling of sex and so much more, then I’m afraid it says more about you than it does Fishnet. Continue reading

Paint It Black: A Review Of Helen Taylor’s The Backstreets Of Purgatory…

DSC_0796.jpg

I recently attended the Glasgow launch of Helen Taylor’s debut novel The Backstreets Of 39330800_598687323859088_5110516692849524736_nPurgatory. It was a fascinating and refreshingly different approach to a book event. Instead of the usual chat with chair/readings/Q&A format Taylor replaced the former with a talk on the life and work of the infamous Italian painter Caravaggio (along with an old-school approach to slideshows – see right) to a packed Byres Road Waterstones.

This decision was not as left-field as it may sound as Caravaggio not only plays a major part in the plot of The Backstreets Of Purgatory, but also the structure, with chapters being named after the artist’s paintings (a selection of which are at the bottom of this review). But the important question is, “Is the book any good?”. The short answer is “Very”. The long answer begins now.

I had no knowledge of The Backstreets Of Purgatory before its launch, and only a little more than that afterwards as Taylor avoided spoilers even after her reading. The back cover proclaimed it as “Caravaggio In Glasgow, A Tale of Art, Insanity And Irn-Bru”. While pithy, that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Struggling Glaswegian artist Finn Garvie dreams of being the city’s answer to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, but spends most of his time contemplating work rather than creating it, occasionally caricaturing patrons of the local Bingo. His long-suffering girlfriend, Lizzi, senses he views their relationship in a similarly lackadaisical fashion. This is in part due to Finn discovering a new muse in the shape of au pair Kassia, who, to his chagrin, doesn’t want to know. Continue reading

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

programme_cropped.png

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

Black Magic: A Review Of Robin Robertson’s The Long Take…

DSC_0793.jpg

There are regularly heated discussions about the worth of prizes in art and culture. Recently announced, the Scottish Album of the Year longlist provoked debate about the worthiness not only of those on the list, but of the nature of the award itself as a very long, (and very strong), list of eligible albums was whittled down further to twenty by a chosen group of critics, journos, and others (of which I should declare that SWH! was one).

The arguments for are that the chosen records and musicians will benefit from the publicity, reach a greater audience as a result, and showcase the strength of Scottish music at the moment. Among the arguments against is that all such awards reduce art and culture to a competition, one which pits artists against each other, and which, at least according to one well-known and respected musician, can lead to anxiety and stress amongst those who find their music being judged in this way. Continue reading

Fine & Dandy: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Visits Aberdeen…

sdr

Charley, Jon, Shane, Ali, & a hawk

After our recent Dundee podcast Ali moves up the coast to Aberdeen to talk to Charley Buchan from Fitlike Records (as recently featured on Radio 4’s Notes From A Musical Island), writer Shane Strachan, and arts blogger Jon Reid, otherwise known as Mood Of Collapse,

The three talk about the changes in, and challenges for, Aberdeen’s arts and cultural community, the influence of the city’s educational and civic insitutions, the importance of spaces and places, graduate and talent drain, what inspires them to do what they do, and their hope for what happens next. It’s an impassioned and inspiring chat about the past, present and future for the arts in Aberdeen.

During the hour there are mentions for Nuart Aberdeen, Gray’s School Of ArtJamie Dyer, 10Ft Tall Theatre, Painted Doors, Fat Hippy Records, Kathryn Joseph, Aberdeen Art Gallery, University of Aberdeen’s Creative Writing MLitt, the SAY Award long-listed Best Girl Athlete, Peacock Visual Arts, The Lemon Tree, The Blue Lamp, Iona Fyfe, and many more. Thanks to artist Mary Butterworth for putting up with us and taking the picture at the top of the page, and to Charley for being the perfect host. Continue reading

This Is The Story: A Review Of Vic Galloway’s Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop…

DSC_0792.jpg

Currently running at The National Museum of Scotland is Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop exhibition, on till the 25th November this year. It’s an admirably exhaustive celebration of Scottish pop from the ’50s till the present day. With a wide range of exhibits, memorabilia and video footage, I highly recommend anyone with an interest attend, but make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to take it all in. There are also related events throughout its run, including Key Note Sessions, Film Showings, Free Fringe Music, some Late-Night’s at the museum, as well as various playlists put together by the great and the good for your pleasure.

To accompany the exhibition Vic Galloway has written a book of the same name, and there is surely no one better placed to do so. It would have been easy to put together a “Scottish Pop by numbers” publication that does little more than name names and places, but Galloway is too steeped in the music – too much of a fan – to do that. This is his world and he wants to share it with you.

The book is an unashamed celebration of the music which has provided the soundtrack to much of our lives, one which is packed full of incidents and anecdotes, and even if you know some of the story I guarantee you won’t know it all. It was the earlier years of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, which was mostly new to me, and it was fascinating to learn more about Lonnie Donnegan, Frankie Miller, Stone The Crows, and the early careers of Alex Harvey and Rab Noakes, as well as hearing about The Beatstalkers, The McKinleys and The Sutherland Brothers for the first time. Continue reading

Great Scott!: A Review Of Allan Massie’s The Ragged Lion…

61RpmCjwEtL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

The first book of Allan Massie’s I read was his historical novel Augustus (I think in the late ’80s) and it made a deep impression on me. I hadn’t been a huge fan of historical fiction up to that point, preferring the modern and contemporary even then. Written in the form of a memoir by the titular Roman emperor in old age, what was so impressive was how Massie managed to get into the character and make the reader believe that this was his life, at least from his point of view.

It’s a style which served Massie well in 1991’s Tiberius, the second of his “Memoirs of the Emperor” novels, and it is one he similarly applies in The Ragged Lion, his 1994 novel about the life of Walter Scott which has just been republished by Polygon Books. For those who are fans of Scott’s fiction it is essential, but, as with the Roman Trilogy, it is also a great read for those interested in the history of the time as it looks at the people, places, events and attitudes through the prism of arguably the most famous Scottish writer, and, certainly at the time, the most celebrated. Continue reading

Words & Music: A Review Of Stephen Thom’s Beachcomber…

0011497348_10 2.jpg

Back in March we included Dante’s excellent album I Wear Your Weight With Mine (below) in our monthly musical roundup. At the time we said this –

a4159485687_10“Sounding like a Celtic Arcade Fire or Band Of Horses, like those bands they are not easily pigeonholed or categorised. Their music has been described as “subtly anthemic”, which may seem like a contradiction in terms until you hear the songs and then it all makes sense. Rooted in folk music but taking it to new places, their songs have a resonance and vitality which grows which each listen. Dante are a band who you cannot ignore.

Dante got in touch to ask if we knew there was an accompanying book of short stories, written by their mandolin player Stephen Thom, called Beachcomber, the name of the first track on I Wear Your Weight With Mine. The more cynical among you may think this is one band member taking the chance to release his words on the back of the music, but you would be wrong. Thom is already a published writer, and these stories are intrinsically linked to the songs, with titles and lyrics shared across both. Continue reading