Cautionary Tale: A Review Of Vicki Jarrett's Always North…

Sometimes a novel arrives which captures the feeling and spirit of the age perfectly (I believe the Germans have a word for just that). Vicki Jarrett’s Always North is just such a novel. It may have been a long time coming (I first read a short extract in Gutter magazine in 2011) but the timing of its publication is impeccable, as Jarrett looks at concerns and questions about climate change and uses them to examine many other aspects of the modern world.

It could be said to be a book of two halves, pre and post what I’m going to call the ‘terrible event’. In the first the crew of the Polar Horizon, an Arctic commercial vessel made up of sailors, scientists, and corporate types, are ‘mapping’ the area for reasons which are not entirely clear, and not entirely legal. Secrets are kept, and relationships strained, as Jarrett beautifully captures the effect this strange world, and the creatures who live there, have on the visitors, with the tensions created clear from the start.

There is also a polar bear (undoubtedly the literary animal du jour) who, as well as representing the consequences of human intervention on the natural world, works as a cross between the shark in Jaws and Moby Dick, with the allusions clearly deliberate (“Call me Isobel”, is how the central character introduces herself to her shipmates). If I mention other cultural points of reference, such as Alien(s), The Revenant and The Thing, then you’ll begin to get an idea as to the tone of these sections of the book as Jarrett blends multiple genres, touching on thriller, horror, and sci-fi – although the ‘fi’ in the latter is too ‘sci’ for comfort.

The second half is set in a Scotland where jobs are hard to come by, day-to-day living is a challenge, and people often drink to forget – imagine! Isobel has to try to come to terms with what happened on the Polar Horizon, how the world has changed since then, and her part in both. Guilt sits on one shoulder, justification on the other as they battle for her conscience, and it’s a feeling which will be all too familiar to anyone who has one of those.

The atmosphere Jarrett creates throughout is tense and even challenging, but you are not meant to feel comfort while reading Always North – and the sense of unease created is palpable and stays with you once the book ends. I have no doubt I will still be thinking about it for the rest of the year, and beyond.

That is also down to the writing which is impeccable in all aspects. There is a welcome dark humour which runs throughout, and there are images, phrases, characters, and ideas, which are unforgettable. But most impressively there is humanity at its core, as well as a clear understanding of what motivates us, both as individuals and as a species, which helps avoid sweeping statements and generalisations and raises it above most other novels that look to deal with such a serious subject.

Always North is not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘wedunnit, and it’s time to acknowledge that and take responsibility’, but if that makes it sound like a ‘worthy’ read then I have given you a false impression as it is far from it. Vicki Jarrett has managed to write a novel which clarifies current thoughts and ideas presenting them in a way which express fear, anger, and frustration, but still offers hope, not only in what is written but how it is written. When the truth is being constantly challenged as fabrication then perhaps it is in fiction where answers can be found and serious discussion is to be had.

Vicki Jarrett’s Always North is out now, published by Unsung Stories.

That Was The Year That Was: The Best Of 2019 Podcasts – Books…

For our Best Books of 2019 podcast Ali was once again joined by Publishing Scotland’s Vikki Reilly to have a chat about their year in books.

As well as discussing in detail their personal favourites they look at the writers who have left their mark, awards and award winners, festivals old and new, the healthy state of Scottish poetry, the continuing prosperity of crime fiction, what’s happening in the publishing world, the prevailing trends and themes of 2019, what to look forward to in 2020, and a whole lot more. Although they don’t quite manage to cover everything they give it a right good go and we hope you’ll find something to pique your interest.

This is always one of the most pleasant podcasts to record as the two geek out on their love of books. It’s also the perfect companion piece to our earlier post The Good Word: SWH!’s 10 Best Books Of 2019… where you’ll be able to link to reviews of many of the books and writers that Vikki and Ali discuss.

And don’t forget to check out the Books from Scotland website for more of the best of Scottish books (the latest issue has lots of suggestions for Christmas).

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, with Spotify, 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 listen to our Best Music of 2019 podcast here, and the Best Films of 2019 will be with you soon…

The Good Word: SWH!’s 10 Best Books Of 2019…

I know there are plenty of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists around this time competing for your time and attention, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is one for the more discerning book lover with something for everyone. It’s a good old-fashioned Top Ten which has short stories, sci-fi, historical fiction, crime, non-fiction, noir, comedy, and tragedy. There’s even some music to soundtrack your reading!

These are the publications which stood out against the stiffest competition. They will transport you back to the past and into the future, visiting, among many other Scottish stop offs, Paisley, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen as well as Belfast, London, Italy and the USA along the way. Taken as a whole they show the artistic diversity and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today and are proof that Scottish writing is in the finest fettle. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

Beerjacket – Silver Cords

For Beerjacket (Peter Kelly) dreams are the ‘silver cords’ connecting the creative and practical aspects of a person’s psyche, firing the imagination and inspiring an individual to create something from what occurs, whether in song, story, drawing, or poetry, all of which are a feature of this extraordinary book. It’s rare that an artist sets out a thesis on the importance of the creative process as clearly and then sees the resulting vision realised so fully. The best art makes you understand yourself better through other people’s thoughts, ideas and expression. With Silver Cords Peter Kelly has created a work so unashamedly personal that we should be thankful he has shared it with us. We’re all the better for it.

Silver Cords is published by Scottish Fiction.

David Keenan – For The Good Times

For all the artistry For The Good Times wouldn’t work without the characters being believable, especially when they are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Keenan shows he has a keen ear for how people speak, but to do so in an accent other than your own throws in another ball to keep in the air. He also understands how people act in their different groups, and how they think and act when they are alone.

But more than anything else there is a truth at the novel’s core. Every sentence – every word – is there for a reason. Clearly written from the heart it will force you to reflect on the people and places which made you, for better and for worse. For David Keenan it is another magnificent, and memorable, achievement and cements his growing reputation as one of the finest writers around.

For The Good Times is published by Faber & Faber Books

Alan Trotter – Muscle

I often write notes as I read through a book which I’m going to review and the final one I had for Muscle simply said, “Begin Again”, and that’s exactly what I did. The second time around I read deeper and got more than I had the first time, and different than I got the first time. You’ll get back from Muscle as much as you are willing to put in, but effort on your part is required and so it should be. Alan Trotter has written a novel for people who are in love with fiction, who are in love with reading, and if that applies to you then you are in for a rare treat.

Muscle is published by Faber & Faber Books

David F. Ross – Welcome To The Heady Heights

As evocative of the ’70s as Alvin Stardust riding a Chopper, Welcome To The Heady Heights is where those well-known Williams, Connolly and McIlvanney, meet. Ross uses Glasgow’s infamous No Mean City reputation as the backdrop to a story which lifts the lid on the worlds of showbuisness and politics and finds what lies beneath rotten. It’s one of the most thoroughly and unapologetically enjoyable novels you’ll read this year – riotous, courageous, and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also gritty, gallus and Glaswegian to its core – with Welcome To The Heady Heights David F. Ross has given us a novel to revel in.

Welcome To The Heady Heights is published by Orenda Books.

Claire MacLeary – Runaway

What is often asked when you review a novel in a running series is, “Do you need to have read the earlier books?”. With Runaway the answer is two-fold – “No you don’t”, but also, “You should anyway”. Runaway stands on its own as a great crime novel, but I’ll bet that once you have made Maggie and Wilma’s acquaintance you’ll want to get to know more. In just three novels they have become two of Scottish fiction’s most engaging characters, who, as suggested earlier in this review, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.

Runaway is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

Ewan Morrison – Nina X

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.

Nina X is published by Fleet.

Karen Campbell – The Sound of the Hours

Campbell uses the central relationship (between local girl Vita & ‘Buffalo Soldier’ Frank) to examine wider concerns. She looks at how carrying fundamental positions and prejudices, whether religious, political, or ideological, can tear families, and nations, apart – themes that have rarely been more expedient than they are today. She also considers the role of women in times of war, and how that alters family dynamics and relationships.

The Sound of the Hours is a novel to get lost in – one that transports you to another time and place, and you cannot help but become involved and emotionally invested with the lives of those who live there. It’s also a timely reminder that any discussion about the best contemporary Scottish novelists should include Karen Campbell.

The Sound of the Hours is published by Bloomsbury.

Jemma Neville – Constitution Street

Constitution Street is a book for our times, a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us. It’s a call to care, for ourselves and others, and where better to start than at your own front door. It’s a fascinating and intrinsically human approach to examining the practical applications and implications of social contracts in modern society. It learns from the past, examines the present, and looks to the future, offering the hope that by better understanding each other we will come to better know ourselves. How many books have you read lately which offer that?

Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety is published by 404 Ink

Catherine Czerkawska – A Proper Person To Be Detained

A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A Proper Person To Be Detained is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

M.J. Nicholls – Scotland Before The Bomb

Scotland Before The Bomb is that rarest of literary beasts – a satirical, witty, and considered comic novel which is deadly serious at its core. Coming near the end of a varied and vibrant year for Scottish writing, Nicholls has delivered one of the very best examples of just why this is. While you’ll find your own touchstones it’s unlike any other novel you’ll have read before unless you have read M.J. Nicholls. And if you haven’t you absolutely should. He could just be your new favourite writer – you just don’t know it yet.

Scotland Before The Bomb is published by Sagging Meniscus Press

Just missing out on the top ten are Mandy Haggith’s The Amber Seeker, Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay, Doug Johnstone’s Breakers, Ross Sayer’s Sonny & Me, Helen Fitzgerald’s Worst Case Scenario, Alan Parks’ February’s Son, and David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall, but you should still click on those names, read their reviews and seek them out all the same.

Our review of the year in books podcast with Vikki Reilly will be with you very shortly…

State Of Independence: A Review Of M.J. Nicholls' Scotland Before The Bomb…

In February of last year we reviewed M.J. Nicholls’ The House Of Writers a novel concerned with writers, writing, and all that goes with it. In June his next, The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die, was published and was also reviewed on these pages where we said, “It is a love-letter to literature, but one which casts a delightfully cynical and often incredulous eye over all the hype and hoopla which surrounds the publishing industry.”

In the space of those two novels it felt that Nicholls had addressed his thoughts and concerns about being a writer, making his points in a pertinent and artistic manner which challenged the reader to consider their own relationship with literature. The question to ponder when approaching his latest, Scotland Before The Bomb, was where he was going to go next. As always with M.J.Nicholls the answer was never going to be straightforward.

This time around he turns a keen and coruscating eye on the state of the nation, or rather the states. Continuing to mix fantasy with reality, the premise of Scotland Before The Bomb is decidedly more towards the former, one hopes. In 2060 Scotland is destroyed by nuclear strikes from Luxembourg for reasons unknown, although it is possible some persistent trolling was to blame. As time passes the rest of the world wants to know more about Scotland’s history, especially the time between the independence referendum of 2014 and the country’s fatal destruction.

In that time Scotland not only achieved independence but became so enamoured of the idea that it continued to split further into individual nation states each with their own social, political and cultural systems. Scotland Before The Bomb promises to bring you “closer to understanding the enigma that was Scotland before the bomb.” Of course the writer/editor of this book is one M.J. Nicholls (writing in 2113). Who else?

If you haven’t read Nicholls before, and if the above paragraphs don’t make it clear, this is a writer who likes not only to play with the content of his books, but with the form itself. Having Scotland broken up into these fiefdoms dictates the structure, dividing the chapters into short stories which allows Nicholls full rein to turn his hand to different styles and literary devices. As a result we have journalistic reports, diary entries, Senryu poetry (often called human haiku), virtual tickertape, Q&A interviews, Trip Advisor reports, emails, transcripts, and even concrete poetry.

In doing so Nicholls tackles current obsessions and concerns, such as climate change, immigration, zero hour contracts, racism, fake news, nationhood, the failure of political systems, and so much more. While doing so he has Ross & Cromarty bankrupt itself to the World Bank, Edinburgh’s festival becomes permanent, the sovereign nation of Perth threatens to launch their own nuclear attack as a result of royal disharmony, Stirling is plagued by a dangerous and debilitating fog, Lothian’s skies are black with delivery drones, and Glasgow & Renfrew seem to exist only on the pages of a notebook of an unnamed “disillusioned fiction writer”, whose style seems strangely familiar.

Nicholls’ humour is really to the fore this time around. He revels in the absurd, both in the possibilities his writing allows and in the world in general – the former perfectly serving the latter. No other writer would have Nicholas Parsons enforcing a never-ending game of Just A Minute on the villagers of Braemar, or have Alasdair Gray as one of the earliest First Ministers of Scotland, post-independence – (except perhaps Mr Gray himself).

If his previous novels put a wry smile on your face, Scotland Before The Bomb will have you laughing out loud. At times it’s Jerry Seinfeld meets Laurence Sterne meets Kathy Acker, at others it’s like Samuel Beckett’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also impossible to define fully. To attempt to do so would be like writing a parody of M.J. Nicholls, something which I think he would admire and abhor in equal measure, so much so that I’m tempted to give it a go.

Scotland Before The Bomb is that rarest of literary beasts – a satirical, witty, and considered comic novel which is deadly serious at its core. Coming near the end of a varied and vibrant year for Scottish writing, Nicholls has delivered one of the very best examples of just why this is. While you’ll find your own touchstones it’s unlike any other novel you’ll have read before unless you have read M.J. Nicholls. And if you haven’t you absolutely should. He could just be your new favourite writer – you just don’t know it yet.

M.J. Nicholls Scotland Before The Bomb is published by Sagging Meniscus Press

Hills & Tales: The SWH! Podcast Talks To John D. Burns…

For the latest podcast SWH! was back in Edinburgh to talk to mountaineer, storyteller, and writer, John D. Burns, and the story he has to tell is a fascinating one. He talks about how he first discovered the delights of hillwalking in the Lake District in his youth, his thoughts on how we should treat, view, and interact with nature, why he fell out and then back in love with the hills, the politics of the wild, his forays into poetry, theatre, and stand-up, and so much more. It’s one of the most interesting and informative podcasts yet, and I know you’ll come away with a new view on our landscape, and on life.

John’s first two books, The Last Hillwalker and Bothy Tales, are both bestsellers where John describes his time spent on the hills of Scotland, and the stories accrued over that time, both personal and from fellow hillwalkers and bothy dwellers.

His latest book, Sky Dance, (right) is a novel set in Highlands, and John sets out why he decided to move into fiction, and the importance of telling and sharing stories as a way to understand and respect the land and the creatures who dwell there.

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, with Spotify, 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:

All of John’s books are published by Vertebrate Publishing.
Thanks to Holyrood 9A in Edinburgh for their hospitality & understanding when we were recording (and their excellent selection of beers).

Coming soon are our Best of 2019 podcasts which will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

Lessons From History: A Review Of Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained…

Sometimes you start a book which defies your expectations to such an extent that the only thing to do is recalibrate and start again. That’s what happened with Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained (Contraband, Saraband Books). I knew the story was centred around a real-life crime, one which had a direct relationship to Czerkawska and her family, and think I was expecting a whodunnit with the author acting as detective through the ages. I should have known better – Catherine Czerkawska would never be so obvious.

There seems to be a real appetite for true crime which is always with us, and which is often accompanied by a sense of voyeurism – a desire to get a vicarious thrill from discovering the worst that men can do. This is an accusation which cannot be pointed at A Proper Person To Be Detained despite the premise. What unfolds is more of a social and cultural commentary on the Britain of the day, but one which forces you to make parallels with the present.

Regular readers of Czerkawska’s will know that she takes her research seriously. A prolific poet and playwrite as well as a celebrated novelist, her previous books include The Curiosity Cabinet, The Physic Garden, The Posy Ring, and 2016’s The Jewel (the story of Jean Armour whose life has always been overshadowed by that of her husband, Robert Burns). A champion of the under-represented, overlooked, and persecuted Czerkawska is rightly known as one of the most interesting and individual historical novelists we have, able to find a relatable way to tell a story which may have been overlooked otherwise.

With A Proper Person To Be Detained the author’s familial relationship to events lend it an extra dimension which is almost palpable. This time it’s personal and it shows. Murdered in a drunken quarrel, her great-great-uncle John Manley was the son of Irish immigrants, and the way he, and his kith and kin, were treated shows that many lessons are taking a long time to learn. The tragic incident is used as a ground zero from which a family tree evolves and then runs throughout the book, allowing the writer to examine the multiple strands which lead to her own.

But this is not simply a literary Who Do You Think You Are?. Czerkawska uses the plight and experience of her family, and the documents and details resulting from her research, to examine so much more, particularly the plight of immigrants. She discovers plenty of evidence to suggest that myths and stereotypes were widespread and had influence. Well into the 20th century signs could be found on hostelry doors which read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (the title of John Lydon’s 1994 autobiography) and Czerkawska looks in great detail as to why such victimization prevailed, and what it meant for those who suffered it.

Perhaps the most shocking commentary on how the Irish were viewed at the time comes from the pen of Frederich Engels, who famously co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, but who appears to have believed that although all working men are equal, some are more equal than others. His thoughts and attacks on the ‘Irishman’ have to be read to be believed, and have parallels with the treatment of, and the reporting on, immigrants and their families today, often persisting through generations. Such prejudice can be as stubborn as it is damaging.

In some ways A Proper Person To Be Detained makes an interesting companion to Jemma Neville’s Constitution Street and the call made in that book for a written bill of rights which should include, among others, the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’. An aspect of Czerkawska’s book which is shocking yet unavoidable is the thought that we may be moving backwards rather than forwards when it comes to respecting those rights, particularly when she looks at the social structure of the various places that her family found themselves, including Glasgow’s Calton/Trongate. The detail of the poverty and hardship that had to be endured resonates all too clearly with some areas in cities today.

A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

You can still hear the podcast we recorded with Catherine Czerkawska back in 2017.

The Talk On The Street: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Jemma Neville…

For the latest SWH! podcast Ali headed to Edinburgh to chat to writer Jemma Neville all about Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety (published by 404 Ink), her fascinating and inspirational book which SWH! described as, “a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us.”

Talking in the welcoming surroundings of The Hideout Cafe (below) on the very street itself the two discuss the ethos behind the book, the way it is structured, and how both are reflected and inspired by the place and the people who live and work on Edinburgh’s Constitution Street.

Jemma talks about what prompted her to write this book, the importance of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the responses of her interviewees, how an area can change but still retain an identity, the importance of communal spaces for meeting and more, how the issues and themes of Constitution Street relate to communities of any size and place, and a whole lot more. You’ll never look at your own locale in the same way again.

This podcast is the perfect partner to the book, expanding on some of its themes, but by no means all and the best thing you can do is to discover that for yourself. To convince you further you can read the full SWH! review of Constitution Street here.

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, with Spotify, 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:

The next podcast will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

Rememberance Of Things Past – Part 2: A Review Of David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall…

*Before you read this review I would advise you go to Rememberance Of Things Past – Part 1: A Review Of Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time which explains why we are considering the two novels together.*

You wait for one novel examining the unreliable nature of memory and then two come along at once. The first was Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time about which we said, “The Space Between Time offers hope for the future no matter the tricks and tribulations of the past. […] Pictures, events, and remembrances are reappraised and a different story emerges, one which will have the reader returning to the book’s earlier sections to see if they could have read them differently.”.

It just so happened that a second novel appeared around the same time looking at similar themes and ideas, but in a rather different way. It is award-winning poet David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall (published by Into Books), and to say it is unusual in structure and form doesn’t begin to tell the story. In fact it’s a novel which is as much about the way the story is told as the story itself.

Split into distinct parts, what you get are two unreliable narrators for the price of one as businessman Martin Prendergast’s life unfolds in different and distinct directions, first on the way down during the ‘fall’ (real or imagined, we’re never certain) and he remembers and examines the events which brought him to the edge of that ledge, his life flashing before his, and our, eyes – journeying all the way back to Prendergast’s first breath.

Once you have reached that point you then flip the book around, start at his very beginning, and work your way back through now familiar events which inevitably leads us back to that ledge. (I have been told that is the way the book is meant to be read, although it would be interesting to speak to someone who did so the other way around).

You may think that this just amounts to reading the same text twice, but there are differences, often subtle ones, which lend the telling of the life of Martin Prendergast a literal different turn of events. It’s an inspired twist which asks the reader to reflect on their own past, and how memories are central to the idea of self and individual identity.

Prendergast’s existence, on the first reading, appears to be one of increasing disappointment, with life, with others, and with himself. Things have not worked out as they should, and he feels he has failed as a son, lover, husband, and father. Even work, which seems successful to others, causes him anguish instead of pride. While it is way too simplistic to say that his life unfolds once as tragedy, again as comedy, there is more positivity to be found in Prendergast’s younger life which makes a greater impact in the second telling. It shows that where a story begins can be as important as where it ends.

With Prendergast’s Fall Cameron has written one of the most inventive and interesting novels of recent times (and the best book by anyone called David Cameron of 2019). The structure may be eye-catching and unusual, but it is the writing which stays with you – nuanced, insightful, and exacting. If you are looking for comparison’s then in terms of structure there are echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Andrew Sean Greer’s novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli – but only echoes as it stands alone.

In terms of themes and ideas I would offer you Andre Gide, Albert Camus, and James Kelman as all examine the nature of existence and being, and what that means to the individual. You also can’t avoid comparisons with Proust’s examination of involuntary memory, In Search of Lost Time. However your own experience of memory will be enough to make an immediate connection with Prendergast’s Fall.

It is a novel to take your time and pour over (and possibly become mildly obsessed with). If you’re anything like me you’ll return to the story for a third time, making direct comparisons between the two versions. It is a novel which demands a degree of commitment from the reader but then all the best novels do.

Prendergast’s Fall is available now, published by Into Books (Into Creative).

West End Girl: Pat’s Guide To Glasgow West End Is 20…

This week sees Glasgow’s OB (Original Blogger) Pat Byrne’s Guide To Glasgow West End celebrate its 20th anniversary. When it comes to supporting the arts & culture in Glasgow few have shown the passion, commitment, and enthusiasm that Pat has and to keep that burning for two decades means that this is a significant, and inspirational, milestone – one which should not go without comment.

The stats (right) speak for themselves, but it is the joy, warmth, and breadth of knowledge that Pat brings to her role as THE premier champion and chronicler of all things West End that makes her stand apart. Her editorial stance is to share, celebrate, and enjoy the things she is passionate about – one which chimes closely with SWH!

Although being a regular reader for years, I only really got to know Pat and her husband Jim when they asked me to get involved with the Ten Writers Telling Lies project, which married short stories and poetry to Jim’s songs. Since then they have become firm friends, and I always know I’m at a good event when I see Pat’s smiling face in the room. I for one will be raising a glass in her honour and I’ll hope you’ll join me. Here’s to many more.

For a great overview of the previous 20 years I recommend reading this interview Pat gave to Ian Marland for Glasgow WE recently – Guiding Star

And here is the podcast with Pat, Jim, and Samina Chaudry which Ali recorded in 2017 where they talk all about Ten Writers Telling Lies.

His Bloody Valentine: A Review Of Alan Parks’ February’s Son…

The Glasgow crime novel has a rich, varied and celebrated tradition. Many would cite William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw as the first true classic of the genre, but before that you have to consider the phenomenal success and notoriety of No Mean City, Herbert Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur’s 1935 novel which did more than any other to shape and colour the notion, for a generation of readers, of the city as a place where razor gangs ruled. However, even before that classic novels such as Walter Scott’s Rob Roy and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner had scenes set in the city which suggest that of all Scottish towns and cities Glasgow had long held a reputation as a dark and dangerous place where dirty deeds are done dirt cheap.

Recent notable writers to have enhanced this literary legacy include Denise Mina, Louise Welsh, Douglas Skelton, Craig Russell, Liam McIlvanney, and many more – so many that you may think that there was little new to tell, or ways to tell it. Enter Alan Parks. With his previous novel Bloody January he introduced us to Detective Harry McCoy and a coterie of characters who made an immediate impact. His second, February’s Son, proves that was no fluke and strongly suggests that this is a series set to run and run.

Set in the early 1970s, Parks has managed, in the space of just two books, to create a world which avoids wallowing in nostalgia, instead using the past as a setting for crimes and events which remain relevant today. This is achieved by populating them with individuals who avoid well-trodden stereotypes while being immediately recognisable. For Parks, it’s never as simple as having white hats versus black, there is moral ambiguity throughout, and it is testimony to his skill that we forgive, or at least excuse, some truly appalling behaviour.

February’s Son begins almost immediately after Bloody January, with McCoy returning to work only after consultation with the police psychiatrist after his near-death escape on a Glasgow rooftop. With only the merest sympathy on show from his colleagues he is thrown into another case where the lines between the law and criminality quickly become blurred, and the past threatens not only to haunt him, but destroy him one way or another. Harry McCoy is a character who is good at his job not despite everything thrown at him, but because of it.

Be under no illusion, for many of the characters in February’s Son life is nasty, brutish and often short, or at least some combination of the three. This is a world where extremes meet and McCoy thrives as a detective in no small part because he understands both worlds in which he resides. His paternal relationship with his superior Murray is balanced by his “friendship” with rising gangster Stevie Cooper – the latter forged in a particularly unforgiving and brutal childhood. Imagine Trainspotting’s Renton had joined the police and Francis Begbie had risen to run a local firm and you have some idea as to the nature of their relationship, the complexity of which is at the heart of this story in-particular.

February’s Son is full of contradiction, confrontation, deception and deceit, yet retains a humanity which is perhaps unexpected and difficult to define. It all comes down to the characters, and the justification for their actions. Parks asks us to consider the statement (often ascribed to Machiavelli) that “the ends justify the means”, and in the majority of McCoy’s cases the ends are so shocking and horrific that almost any means seem justified, or at least they are to those involved. Perhaps the greatest feat the writer achieves is to carry us along with these arguments, until, as with McCoy, we revaluate not only what has happened, but our reaction to it. There’s a level of reader complicity which is rare, and potentially troubling for some. When posed with the question, “what would I do?” the answer could be unexpected.

In the last few years we have reviewed many novels on these pages sold under the banner of crime. Sometimes it appears a banner of convenience, but Alan Parks is writing unashamedly in the genre along the lines of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Anne Cleeves and Christopher Brookmyre, and that is the company in which he belongs. However there is also a link to the British pulp fiction of the ’60s and ’70s – often sold as cheap paperbacks with the promise of sex, drugs and violence between racy and sensationalist covers. When you consider those touchstones and references, and most importantly the writing itself, it becomes clear that Alan Parks is writing crime fiction which is both familiar yet unexpected – simultaneously incorporating the old, new, borrowed, and black and blue. Roll on March.

Both Bloody January and February’s Son are published by Canongate.

Ali will be in conversation with Alan Parks as part of the Imprint Festival at Kilmarnock’s Dick Institute on 10-10-2019. Details and tickets are here…