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…

Remembrance Of Things Past – Part 1: A Review Of Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time…

There are notable examples of films with the same theme being released roughly at the same time. Two Robin Hood movies appeared in 1991 (Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves & the lesser-known Robin Hood, with Patrick Bergen in the lead role), two asteroid disaster movies opened within a month of each other in 1998 (Deep Impact & Armageddon), and within months of each other in 1998 -’99 there were two excellent adaptations of Chloderos Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Valmont & Dangerous Liaisons), and that’s without even mentioning the volcano film-fad of 1997.

It’s perhaps more rare in literature, but it so happens that there were two Scottish novels published this summer which take the unreliable narration of memory and individual responsibility as two of their central themes. One is a novel from David Cameron (no, not that one) called Prendergast’s Fall (Into Books) which will be reviewed on these pages in the near future, but first I want to discuss Charlie Laidlaw’s latest novel The Space Between Time (Accent Press Ltd).

One of the reasons for the existence of Scots Whay Hae! is to bring to your attention artists, musicians, and writers who deserve to be better known but who are finding it increasingly difficult to be heard. One of those is undoubtedly Charlie Laidlaw, whose novel The Things We Learn When We’re Dead was one of the most interesting and inventive of recent years, and about which SWH! said “..it will have you reflecting on your own past, present and possible future”.

The Space Between Time has similar concerns. It looks back at the life and times of Emma Maria Rossini, a girl who, to the outside world, seems to have it all. Her father is an A-List film star, hanging and working out with the likes of Tom Cruise and Sandra Bullock, and featuring in the list of ‘The World’s Top 20 Sexiest Men, although “only number 18” as his beleaguered wife comments. It’s a small moment but one which indicates how Emma’s mother struggles to cope with her husband’s level of fame. This feeling translates to their daughter who sees it as the central reason that family life has come to be unfulfilled and often unhappy.

As her adult life progresses, fairly unspectacularly, Emma continues to be tied to the past, changing her name and hiding her identity from others in an attempt to be judged on her own merits. But those ties bind fast and she never manages to escape fully. Most of us have moments in our life that come to be seen as defining, but can they be trusted? Are they pure memory, learned stories told to us repeatedly over the years, or, perhaps most likely, a mixture of both?

Emma remembers a traumatic trip to the cinema that comes to define the distance between her life with her mother and that of her often absent father, both physically and emotionally. Add to that a family picture which, on reflection, disproves the saying that “the camera never lies”, and other childhood reminiscences which are less than reliable, and it becomes clear that Emma’s past does not necessarily reflect the narrative created.

Her mother’s tragic death offers another puzzle where all may not be as it seems. Questions are not only asked about individual motives, but how feelings of responsibility, guilt, and grief in others are linked to those – the version of a story you choose to believe often being as selfish as it is prudent. Laidlaw once again asks readers to consider just how reliable their own memories are and should other possible narratives be considered. There is even the suggestion that our lives are little more than a collection of stories which we either choose to believe or dismiss.

However, The Space Between Time offers hope for the future no matter the tricks and tribulations of the past. As Emma begins to understand more about her family history she begins to learn more about herself. 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’s a novel which also examines the nature of fame, atheism, philosophy and science (Emma’s grandfather’s theorem on the nature and substance of the universe brings him his own version of fame in later life, something she draws comfort from). It’s a lot to take on, and some strands are less successful than others, but what holds everything together is the strength of the central characters. Despite their differences you have empathy with Emma, both her parents, and her grandfather, which is some achievement when you take into account how divided they appear, and how Emma’s perception of them changes.

With The Space Between Time Charlie Laidlaw has proven once again he is a writer of whom to take note. He writes literary fiction that is serious in its intention, yet has a humanity, a knowing sense of humour, and a warm heart that makes you feel as well as think, and there’s little more you can ask from any novel.

Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time is published by Accent Press Ltd.

Local Heroes: A Review Of Jemma Neville’s Constitution Street…

A quote which came to shape the nation’s politics was Margaret Thatcher’s claim in 1987 that, “..there’s no such thing as society”. Even as a teenager who was just beginning to get interested in politics this rang as a deeply suspicious and bogus claim, one made to justify the policies not only of Conservative governments, but also, sadly, future Labour ones as well, placing the wants and desires of individuals and big business ahead of any idea of communal benefits and shared social responsibility. That may be politicly simplistic and naive (and if it’s deep political insight you’re looking for, I suggest you look elsewhere), but that doesn’t make it untrue.

Jemma Neville‘s Constitution Street (404 Ink) rightly turns that claim on its head. Its subtitle is “finding hope in an age of anxiety”, and at a time when global, and national, politics seem to be spiralling out of control, or at least out of our control, then it may seem impossible to affect any change or make a difference. If democracy has not failed us, then it’s fair peching heavy. Neville proffers that a difference can still be made, and the place to start is outside your front door. She looks at the local to make commentary on the global, taking individual stories to make universal points. By marrying the personal with the political, and fleshing out statistics with individual stories, she presents us with a book that engenders empathy and anger in equal measure.

It’s a tour around the urban landscape of her neighbourhood, and it is one that will be familiar to many. The ‘Constitution Street’ of the title is a thoroughfare in Leith, Edinburgh, and it is where the author calls home. Neville feels that if she is to better understand the wider world she needs to better understand her world – one which has undergone significant social and cultural shifts and changes over the years. By the simple, and increasingly overlooked, act of talking to those who live and work on the street, and hearing their own points of view and ideas, she asks us to consider the fluid nature of all communities, and therefore what a social contract for our times should consist of as it becomes clear through these conversations and stories that the current balance between the state and the individual is clearly out of whack. 

Using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an ideological map, she looks at how those rights have increasingly been eroded and neglected over time. These include the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’! They seem so bleeding obvious that you would hope that they don’t even need mentioning, never mind written into a Bill of Rights, but our political systems are failing people in every example. You won’t have to walk very far from your own residence to realise that is the case, no matter where you live. But that is exactly what Jemma Neville is suggesting you should do – engage with your community, get to know those who, like you, make it what it is and discuss how you can make it better.

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 that offer that?

Jemma Neville‘s Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety is published by 404 Ink where you can pre-order a copy.

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

From the 10th – 26th August, 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, like a Nigel Tufnell amp, this Top Ten goes up to 11).

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan – Saturday 10 August 15:30 – 17:00

Early 1980s Scotland in Airdrie, a former mining village. This is the setting for David Keenan’s achingly evocative fictional history of local post-punk band Memorial Device. It’s a hallucinatory love letter to the shipwrecked youth of this Central Belt hinterland whose lives contained little other than music – and Benny’s chip shop.

In partnership with the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and writer-director Graham Eatough we present a theatrical response to Keenan’s cult hit, featuring music selected by Stephen McRobbie from Glasgow band The Pastels. After the 45-minute performance, the creative team is joined on stage by Keenan to discuss This is Memorial Device.

You can hear David Keenan discussing This Is Memorial Device with SWH! below:

Chris McQueer & Russ Litten – Saturday 10 August 20:30 – 21:30

Chris McQueer’s short, side-splitting stories keep coming in HWFG, the follow-up to debut Hings. Nurtured in Scotland’s spoken word scene and described as ‘Charlie Brooker on Buckfast’, his stories illuminate lives on the margins. Novelist Russ Litten foregrounds working class lives in We Know What We Are. His first story collection centres on Hull in its City of Culture year, and has drawn comparisons to James Kelman.

You can hear Chris McQueer in conversation with SWH! below:

Karen Campbell & Marcus Malte – Tuesday 13 August 13:45 – 14:45

Ex-police constable Karen Campbell is back with The Sound of the Hours, a book about love and loss set in an occupied Italian town during the Second World War. French author Marcus Malte brings us The Boy, his award-winning historical novel which follows the tale of a feral child’s episodic journey through variations of early 20th century society. Two emotional tales of family, passion and war. Chaired by Jenny Brown.

You can read the SWH! review of The Sound of the Hours here…

Outriders: Jenni Fagan & Harry Josephine Giles – Wednesday 14 August 13:45 – 14:45

In 2017, we sent ten writers across the Americas for Outriders, a project of complex journeys, exploring controversial themes during which the writers exchanged ideas. Ahead of Outriders Africa later this year, Jenni Fagan and Harry Josephine Giles return to discuss how their journeys influenced them. Their work since includes Fagan’s poem ‘Truth’, written while travelling the USA, and Giles’s ‘Traveller’s Lexicon’, responding to their journey from Montreal to Churchill.

Jenni Fagan’s There’s A Witch In The Word Machine was one of SWH!’s Best Books of 2018…

Kate Hamer & Doug Johnstone – Friday 16 August 13:45 – 14:45

The tenth crime novel from Edinburgh’s Doug Johnstone, Breakers follows a teenager trying to escape his dysfunctional family whilst implicated in the assault of a crime-lord’s wife. In Crushed, Kate Hamer’s follow-up to the bestselling The Girl in the Red Coat, can Phoebe control events to such a degree that when she thinks about murder, carnage occurs nearby? Meet two accomplished writers of lively lawless tales in conversation with writer and broadcaster James Crawford.

You can read the SWH! review of Breakers here…

Stuart Cosgrove – Friday 16 August 20:45 – 21:45

Broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove rounds off his superb 60s soul trilogy with Harlem ’69. The area at the heart of the Black Panther movement became a byword for crime, but was also a furnace for black creativity that defined popular music for decades, producing icons like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix. Hear about these conflicting legacies in an unmissable event for music lovers.

You can read the SWH! review of Harlem ’69 here…

Beerjacket – Saturday 17 August 18:30 – 19:30

Glasgow alt-folk musician Beerjacket (aka Peter Kelly) has played with some of the biggest names in music, from Frightened Rabbit to The National, thanks to his rich songwriting style. With new album-book combination Silver Cords, he has paired each song with a story spun from the lyrics. They act as a bulwark against the impermanence of digital music and Beerjacket shares them with you in this event.

You can hear Beerjacket in conversation with SWH! below:

Nadine Aisha Jassat, Mariam Khan & Amna Saleem – Saturday 17 August 19:15 – 20:15

In a time of heightened Islamophobia, racism and the misrepresentation of Muslim people, writer and activist Mariam Khan lets Muslim women speak for themselves. It’s Not About The Burqa is the stunning result: a landmark anthology of essays by and about seventeen Muslim women. Join Khan and contributors Nadine Aisha Jassat and Amna Saleem for an illuminating and powerful event.

You can hear Nadine Aisha Jassat in conversation with SWH! below:

Henry Bell & Kenny MacAskill – Monday 19 August 15:45 – 16:45

January 1919, a world in turmoil: Ireland declared its independence, while Trotsky led the Red Army in Poland. Maybe that’s why workers’ demonstrations in Glasgow led the British establishment to roll army tanks into George Square. Henry Bell’s John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside and Kenny MacAskill’s Glasgow 1919 offer coruscating new perspectives on the major players and events in a key period in Scotland’s political history. Chaired by Ruth Wishart.

You can hear Henry Bell in conversation with SWH! below:

Sarah Henstra & Elle Nash – Saturday 24 August 20:30 – 21:30

Two novelists discuss timely, provocative books about youth, gender politics and violence with author Helen McClory. Sarah Henstra’s searing examination of rape culture on college campuses, The Red Word, won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction when it was first published in 2018. Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other takes an unflinching look at obsessive love and has been described as a ‘heart bomb.’

You can read the SWH! review of Animals Eat Each Other here…

Andrew Crumey – Sunday 25 August 15:30 – 16:30

Acclaimed Scottish writer and critic Andrew Crumey talks to Stuart Kelly about The Great Chain of Unbeing – his collection of short stories that journey across space and time, taking readers from the Renaissance to the atomic age and off into far-flung futures in space. With echoes, repetitions and connections across the book and even into Crumey’s other novels, a larger story begins to unfold.

You can read the SWH! review of The Great Chain of Unbeing here…

You can peruse the full programme here, and follow the festival on Twitter & Facebook as well as YouTube & Instagram.

You can still read Scots Whay Hae!’s Top Ten Picks Of The Fringe for 2019.

Where Extremes Meet: A Review Of Helen’s Fitzgerald’s Worst Case Scenario…

What is crime fiction? Discuss… It’s a question that has been nagging at me for a few years now. I used to think I knew what it looked like and what it read like, but then I realised that many of my favourite books could be described as crime fiction, from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, through Iain Banks’ Complicity, to Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room & many more. The scales fully fell thanks to two very different novels published in 2015 by Saraband Books which I read, reviewed, and then interviewed the authors. They are Graham Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project and Graeme Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, and from then on any prejudice I held (and I admit I did) disappeared.

But the question remained, “What is crime fiction?”. I have reviewed most of Doug Johnstone’s books on these and other pages over the years, including his most recent Breakers, and while crimes occur I have never really considered them “crime”. They are mainly concerned with the dynamics of groups – friends, family, co-workers, bands, university pals – and, to a greater or lesser degree, address social/political and cultural themes. His books are more about why people commit crime than solving the crime itself.

Similar questions can be posed concerning Johnstone’s fellow Orenda Books‘ author Helen Fitzgerald. Her novels, (which include The Donor, The Cry, and The Exit) often deal with deception (self and otherwise) and perception – how we perceive the world, how others perceive us, and, perhaps most damaging of all, how we perceive how others perceive us. Her characters make decisions, for various, and often understandable reasons, which then have devastating consequences. Her novels have been described as “domestic noir”, which is certainly apt, but they are also examinations of human behaviour and what happens when individuals are pushed to their limits and beyond.

Her latest is Worst Case Scenario. Mary Shields is trying to protect her relationship, her son, her reputation, and her sense of right and wrong, but feels she is losing her grip on all of these. A probation worker based in Glasgow, she is obsessed with the case of Liam Macdowall, a man who murdered his wife but who, while in prison, has become a poster boy for a variety of ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ who believe his conviction to be unfair, and who have taken his book CUCK as a primary text. Mary is determined that justice will be done, and is prepared to blur the lines between proper procedure and illegality to achieve her aim. Desperate times are perhaps the worst times for desperate measures, and Worst Case Scenario shows why this is in glorious and often gruesome detail.

One of the reasons that Fitzgerald’s books make such a connection with readers is her characters are utterly believable. They are us, but the situations in which they find themselves are extreme, posing the question, “What would you do?”. It’s a difficult feat to make such characters as sympathetic, or at least as empathetic, as they are, but they are ordinary people pushed to the edge, by work, family, their minds, their bodies – in short, by life. In many of Fitzgerald’s books the protagonist’s situation spirals out of control quickly. That could be any of us if circumstances dictate – we are all only a couple of bad decisions from crashing.

Helen Fitzgerald doesn’t worry about the possibility of causing offence – possibly relishing the opportunity. But it’s not shock for the sake of it – she wants to address aspects of the everyday which people often sideline, and there is an honesty in her writing which is rare. Mary Shields is an unforgettable character who life, and Fitzgerald, throws a hell of a lot at. She is swiftly approaching retirement, is menopausal, is a (barely) functioning alcoholic, obsesses, and sometimes fantasises, about her cases, and her son then starts a relationship with the worst person Mary could imagine.

Despite all of this it is the case of Liam Macdowall which comes to overshadow all other aspects of her life as she begins to use other clients and their cases to get the results she believes to be right, and as a result it all goes spectacularly wrong. It’s farcical (in the true sense of the word) but the humour is so black that it often catches you unaware.

Although the thrills, and literal spills, are plentiful it’s important to stress just how funny Worst Case Scenario is, but, as with the shock value, it is done with purpose. Fitzgerald comments on workplace politics, social and cultural hypocrisy, and the complexities of the modern world and finds them absurd. Her insights are keen and cutting. For instance, she examines the Pavlovian nature of popular protest, the role of the media, and how nothing appears real unless it is caught on camera or seen on screen.

Mary’s behind the scenes insights into red-tape and failings of the acronym obsessed world of the probation system, her not-so-passive relationship with her family and workmates, her use and abuse of supposedly sacred relationships – these are all deadly serious. Fitzgerald’s fiction is an expression of frustration, deciding that you might as well laugh or you’d definitely cry.

It has often been claimed that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy and few writers blur that line as Helen Fitzgerald does, and never more so than with Worst Case Scenario. Thrilling and hilarious, the reason her fiction works so well is because it is where extremes meet. What is crime fiction? Who cares – as long as the books are as good as Worst Case Scenario then you can categorise them any way you like.

Worst Case Scenario is out now, published by Orenda Books.

Pride & Prejudice: A Review of Karen Campbell’s The Sound of the Hours…

Sometimes a novel comes out of nowhere to delight and surprise you, not following any current trends or themes. That is the case with The Sound of the Hours, Karen Campbell’s latest. Set in Italy in 1943, just after the arrest of Mussolini, it uses an unlikely romance, set against the backdrop of World War II, to examine religion, politics, race, family, and what it means to belong. Perhaps the least surprising thing about it is that Campbell is the author as there are few writers who have the range of subjects and styles evident in their bibliography as she now does.

The Sound of the Hours is her seventh novel and, after her initial series of Glasgow-based police procedurals, she wrote This Is Where I Am, a powerful account of the relationship between a Somalian refugee and his mentor, (which was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime). She followed that with Rise, a novel that takes some of the familiar themes and tropes of Scottish literature and art and plays with them to great effect.

The Sound of the Hours is the first time Campbell takes her readers outside of Scotland (with a couple of notable exceptions)setting the majority of the story in Barga, a Tuscan town with strong Scottish connections to this day. She has clearly got a keen sense of the place and its history – knowledge that you suspect comes not only from time spent there, but also from extensive investigation.

This allows you to immerse yourself in this world, and you feel you could find your way around the streets, and to the houses, markets, churches, and graveyards that are portrayed, with little trouble. Yet, it’s a novel that wears such research lightly, getting the balance between entertaining and informing just right. As with all of Karen Campbell’s novels her characters are the key.

We are introduced to seventeen-year-old Vittoria ‘Vita’ Guidi and her family whose split loyalties and the tensions that result mirror the Italy of the day. It is a country that became disputed territory in the last throws of the Second World War, with German occupation under threat from an encroaching United States Army. Many Italians became pawns in this dangerous game, having to react to changes in who was in charge on a regular basis. Campbell captures the pressures on civilians as war rages around them, and how that heightens day-to-day living as well as emotions. Vita and her family are caught in the middle and have to find new ways to survive.

The other strand of the novel is the story of Frank Chapel, a ‘Buffalo Soldier’, the nickname for African American U.S. Army personnel. Frank is an educated liberal, a Berkeley College straight-A student who believes he is destined for officer status but soon finds out that the army is not going to allow him to reach the higher ranks, and he becomes a victim of institutional racism for the first time in his life. Frank has to quickly adjust his view of not only what the army has to offer, but also how his life may unfold.

Campbell puts us in the boots of men fighting for a country that does not let them vote. Even after swearing an oath to lay down their lives they find themselves eating and sleeping in separate areas from other soldiers. When even the army becomes segregated then it becomes clear where cultural priorities lie. Shipped to Italy to help liberate the country from German occupation, and make sure that Mussolini and his acolytes remain out of power, Frank finds himself in a strange land where his uniform creates one response, the colour of his skin another.

When Frank and Vita meet (an unforgettable scene) it is clear that theirs is a relationship that will have to overcome huge odds, and it unfolds beautifully with Campbell eschewing the easy and obvious route of love conquering all for a more nuanced and believable story. Rather it’s the other strands of their stories that are brought to the fore as they are separated almost as soon as they meet, making not only for a more interesting read, but adding a romantic tension and suspense that it would not have otherwise. Vita’s priority is to keep herself and her family safe, while Frank must negotiate fighting battles internally and externally as he tries to make his way back to her.

As I mentioned earlier, Campbell uses this relationship 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. As the boys play at soldiers the women have to not only patch them up, but also try and live as normal a life as possible all the while fearing the worst. Questions of heroism and sacrifice, and what forms they take, are never far from the surface.

If you can imagine Captain Corelli’s Mandolin meets Catch 22 you’ll have some idea as to what The Sound of the Hours is like. There is the romance of place and its people of the former, the absurdity and madness of war of the latter, and the clash of cultures of both. It’s 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.

version of this review first appeared on Publishing Scotland’sBooks From Scotland website.

The Sound Of The Hours is out now published by Bloomsbury, and the Glasgow launch is at 7pm, at Waterstones on Sauchiehall St, Tuesday 16th July.