Stranger Hings: A Review Of Chris McQueer’s HWFG…

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As Harper Lee, The Stone Roses, or Sam Raimi will tell you (and that’s a dinner-party I’d like to attend), it’s not easy following up a cultural touchstone. When your debut strikes a chord with a wider public and becomes higher profile than anyone expected then there’s bound to be added pressure to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Chris McQueer’s short story collection Hings was just such a debut, one which found its way into the hands of people who don’t normally bother with literary fiction.

As with lain Banks’ The Wasp FactoryIrvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and Alan Bissett’s Boyracers, Hings is a book with a reputation which spread in no small part by word of mouth, praised and quoted in the workplace and passed around the playground. It received mainly glowing reviews on sites such as this one, and in print, but so do many other books which don’t manage to achieve the profile Hings did.

In the age of social media such a reach can be more readily measured, with people posting pictures holding their copy on a variety of social media, often accompanied by messages professing that it’s the first book they’ve read in ages, a claim also made for those mentioned above. It feels as if Chris McQueer is reaching an audience outside of the usual Scottish literary scene in a manner not witnessed since Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love received similar attention in 2011. But now we get to find out if McQueer can follow Hings. That’s the question which inevitably arises with the publication of his latest collection, HWFG.

And breathe… From the welcome reappearance of Big Angie on page one, it soon becomes clear that those of us who loved Hings can relax, safe in the knowledge that normal service has resumed.  To borrow from the book’s full title, Here We Fucking Go again. There are few other publications in which Kim Jong-un, Ian Brady, Nicola Sturgeon and Ayrshire’s original and best loyalist rock band, Huns & Roses, would all appear. In fact there are none, and when you throw in Santa, the FBI, a sentient moth, an interview with the legendary Shoe Guy, and an angel called Rebecca from Cranhill, you have a cast which is quite unforgettable.

McQueer’s stories are driven by his vivid and visceral characters. Individuals whose lives are rarely written about – mostly outrageous and often shameless. His growing army of followers can be reassured that these are further tales of the dark side of life – divine comedy so black that it’s often difficult to see. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is writing to be dismissed as simply sensational or an exercise in excess. Yes, HWFG is a riot of acid trips and urban myths, infestation, masturbation, crime scenes and keech, but it’s also carefully crafted. These accounts of everyday events, with twists you don’t see coming, are as tight as a drum, the writing lean, sharp and succinct.

People get jobs, lose jobs, find love, lose love, discuss politics, get haircuts, fight world leaders, and take part in game shows to make ends meet. To those who say that McQueer’s writing is for Glaswegians only, I would suggest that these are all narratives which are at their heart universal – it’s in the telling that they become something else entirely. McQueer’s is a wild world, but it’s also a weird world, and it’s all the better for it.

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

HWFG is published by 404 Ink

You can hear Chris McQueer talking to Ali on the SWH! Podcast.

HWFG has two Glasgow launches this week, one on Thursday 8th at Waterstones on Argyle Street, & Saturday 10th when Stereo will become Alan’s Shed for one night only.

 

Man Of Letters: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Chris McQueer…

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For SWH! podcast 101 Ali speaks to the writer Chris McQueer about his latest collection of short stories, HWFG. If you haven’t heard of or read Chris’ work, where have you been? His previous book Hings took the world of Scottish writing by storm announcing a fresh and exciting new voice. HWFG, (Here We Fucking Go, if you haven’t worked it out yet,), sees him build on the success of Hings introducing readers to new characters as well as bringing back firm fan favourites.

It was fascinating to hear what inspired Chris to write, his influences, the difficulty in HWFG-coverfollowing a hit, the highs and lows of being reviewed, the importance of writing not only what but who you know, the crucial relationship between writer and editor, how vital a great cover is (see right), and his plans to branch out from writing fiction. He also kindly reads ‘Brexit’, one of his new stories, which gives the uninitiated a great introduction to Chris McQueer and his work.

For those of a sensitive nature, I should say, the podcast contains the sort of language you might expect when discussing a collection with the full name Here We Fucking Go, for once fully earning the ‘Explicit’ tag iTunes often gives us, seemingly randomly.

HWFG has already received glowing reviews, and here is just a short exert of what SWH! thinks, with a full review to follow soon:

“With HWFG Chris McQueer proves that Hings was no one-off, but only the beginning for a writer who found his voice immediately. For his growing army of followers there are further tales of the darker side of life – divine comedy so black that it’s often difficult to see, but it’s always there. HWFG also shows a writer growing more confident in their craft, often addressing the reader directly, making for a more immersive read. Have no fear, Chris McQueer is the real deal”.
Ali Braidwood, Scots Whay Hae!

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back catalogue of podcasts for you to discover (100, to be exact). If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

We will be back with you very soon with the next podcast which we have already recorded. It sees Ali in conversation with the man behind the fabulous Viva La Rose, otherwise known as David Luximon-Herbert, and it includes two tracks from his album For She Who Hangs The Moon. See you back here soon for that one…

HWFG and Hings are published by 404 Ink

HWFG has two Glasgow launches this week, one on Thursday 8th at Waterstones on Argyle Street, & Saturday 10th when Stereo will become Alan’s Shed for one night only.

Heart of Darkness: A Review Of Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker…

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The city of Glasgow has a complex relationship with real crime, one which probably explains the popularity of crime fiction not only in the city, but about the city. There are few places who aggrandise and almost celebrate its violent reputation, and those who are responsible for it, in the manner Glasgow appears to. Sicily and Chicago are two others which spring to mind.

As those who live in or visit the city will know, Glasgow is (with well-known and notable exceptions) a generally friendly and supportive community, large enough for many diverse people and opinions, but small enough for most of the populace to find some sort of connection with less than six degrees of separation. However, a braggadocious attitude to the brutal is never too far away, perhaps best summed up by folk hero and baggage handler, John ‘Smeato’ Smeaton, who, after kicking a burning man in the ‘nads,  warned any other potential terrorists that, “This is Glasgow; we’ll set aboot ye”.

Many Glaswegian gangsters have become celebrities, if not exactly celebrated, and there is a penchant for giving those involved in crime nicknames – The Godfather, Blind Jonah, Fat Boy, Babyface, The Licensee. One of the city’s most notorious serial killers was known as Bible John, due to his use of quotations from the Scriptures, and he became a bogeyman like figure to Glaswegians in the late-’60s and the ’70s – his police composite drawing peering eerily down from walls and out of phone boxes. To this day the legend endures, not least because he was never caught, and the case remains unsolved. It’s a classic example of the blurring of lines between fiction and fact when it comes to Glasgow and crime.

And that is why the Bible John story makes the perfect inspiration for Liam McIlvanney’s latest novel The Quaker. Taking those infamous murders as his starting point, McIlvanney explores just how crime, particularly violent crime, can affect a community. Gangsters, by their nature, rule by fear, but they also purport to have some twisted form of code-of-honour. When a criminal doesn’t follow any rules then that’s when real fear takes hold, and in McIlvanney’s book his titular Quaker seems to choose his victims with no clear or easily understood pattern, and his ultra-violent methods point towards a psychopath.

The problem for the police is that it is difficult to catch such a person unless they leave clear clues, and the Quaker is too thorough for that. Initial mistakes have been made by investigating officers, which has led to outsider DI McCormack being assigned to discover the extent of the blunders and their consequences. Having to, and failing to, win over a sceptical squad room, he soon becomes obsessed with the case, despite many attempts to warn him off. What follows is a genuinely tense unfolding of one man’s fight to prove that the right result should always override other considerations, even when they are potentially personally beneficial. The truth may not be pretty, and The Quaker is grim and gritty, as you would expect a Clydeside crime novel to be, but it is also much more.

If you didn’t know that McIlvanney was a Professor of literature as well as a writer of crime then you can find clues throughout. The Quaker’s opening quotations are from Pulitzer prize-winning poet Charles Simic and T.S Eliot. Later he has McCormack referring to Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and there is also mention of Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots, historian John Prebble, and further quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and King Lear. These literary references add another layer to The Quaker and although not knowing them will in no way affect a reader’s enjoyment of the book, it definitely gives a greater understanding of McIlvanney the writer and how he approaches his fiction.

If you know David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven, or 2007’s Zodiac for that matter, then you have some idea as to the tone of The Quaker. It is tough, dark, violent, and chilling, but also cerebral, thoughtful and clever. It also has more twists than a Chubby Checker convention – just when you think you have it solved McIlvanney pulls the rug from under you. The Quaker is fiction of the highest order no matter the genre. Of course comparisons will be made, and rightly so, to Denise Mina, Karen Campbell and Ian Rankin, but I am reminded of Frederic Lindsay’s Brond, or even Frank Kuppner’s A Very Quiet Street, a book which also took real crime as its starting point. Tense, terrifying and tremendous, The Quaker is exemplary modern crime fiction which deserves to be read far and wide.

The Quaker is out now, published by Harper Collins

Begin Again: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s The Janus Run…

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As regulars to SWH! will know, crime-writer Douglas Skelton is one of our favourite novelists. He has been a guest on our podcast, and his most recent novels, 2016’s The Dead Don’t Boogie & 2017’s Tag – You’re Dead both featured in their particular years’ ‘Best Of’ roundups. They were taken from his series of Dominic Queste novels, which feature a Glasgow gumshoe obsessed with film, noir, and film noir. Skelton has Queste speaking and acting as if he roams the streets of Brooklyn rather than Barlanark, so it makes complete sense that he has chosen to set his latest, The Janus Run, (a departure from the Queste books), in New York. This move makes for his most exciting novel yet.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Dominic Queste fan, and I hope we hear more from him before too long, but The Janus Run is a proper page-turner thriller, pure and simple – enthralling from start to finish. It feels as if this Atlantic crossing has freed Skelton as a writer. Instead of having characters pretending to be in the movies, this time they are in them. It’s as if he has brought all of his influences to bear – the novels, the films, and the TV shows which he loves are still in evidence, but without the direct references which, while great fun, always felt more than a little knowing. This time round Skelton shows rather than tells.

There’s police procedure and patterns of speech reminiscent of those found in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels or TV series such as NYPD Blue, a nod to the mob movies of Scorsese and The Sopranos, government conspiracies with echoes of the Bourne films or No Way Out, and bloody shootouts which would make Tarantino blush. If you’re like me you’ll enjoy casting a fantasy (but, in a perfect world, surely inevitable) film version; a top-of-his-game Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper are two names which I can’t shake. I’ll let you decide on which roles they would take on. With enough twists and turns to give you Vertigo (and yes, there is definitely some Hitchcock in there as well), you’ll be wondering what’s going on, and who has done what (and, indeed, who is who), before you realise you’ve just been told the answer. It’s a novel which guards its secrets well.

It begins with two words, “Dagda awakens”. And most of the novel deals with the result of that resurrection. As you might expect from the title, there are double-lives and double-crosses, as well as pseudonyms, psychopaths, secrets, and lies. A suspicious and troubling death results in people returning to lives they thought they had left behind, resulting in unlikely alliances and suspicion reigning supreme. No one trusts anyone completely, and as such it is terrific fun to read. As you do you can’t escape the feeling The Janus Run was a real labour of love for Skelton – that perhaps this is what he’s been wanting to write all along and he is grabbing the opportunity with both hands.

Most depictions of the Roman god Janus have two faces, representing looking to the future while simultaneously looking at the past. After the Dominic Queste novels, (and trying hard not to labour the point), The Janus Run shows us another side to Douglas Skelton, one where, while not exactly being deadly serious, (although it’s definitely deadly) he reigns in the pop culture references and the Spillane-like one-liners and lets his characters just be who they are, even if who they are are cold-blooded and highly-trained killers. To call it gripping is understatement writ large. But perhaps all you need to know is this – while reading it on the train I missed my station, completely absorbed by what was unfolding, which is the first time that has happened. Risk going further than you mean to and get your hands on The Janus Run because Douglas Skelton has written a thriller truly worthy of the name.

The Janus Run is published by Contraband Books, the crime imprint of Saraband.

Growing Pains: A Review Of Daniel Shand’s Crocodile…

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There are few more difficult aspects for an adult writer to get right than the voice of a child. Often they are given speech patterns which are older in tone and content than the intended age. In recent years, however, Scottish writing has had quite a few examples where a young central character’s voice, accents and actions have been utterly believable. They include Ross Sayer’s Mary’s The Name, Helen MacKinven’s Talk Of The Toun and P.K. Lynch’s Armadillos, and to those you can add Daniel Shand’s latest novel Crocodile, published by Sandstone Press.

It’s the story of Chloe who has come to stay with her grandparents very much against her will. It unfolds that this is an arrangement between Angie, (the girl’s mother), and her elderly and estranged parents. It’s an uneasy alliance which means that although the latter get to spend time with their granddaughter, and Angie gets the break from the responsibilities and burden of being a parent which she feels she needs, they all realise that this is far from an ideal situation. As a result Chloe’s wishes are of little consequence and she has to find ways to cope. She literally dreams of life back with her mother, remembering a version of events which she may be viewing through rose-tinted spectacles married to a lack of understanding of the adult world that comes with youth. What remains of her naiveté is all too soon lost.

After initial resistance Chloe begins to make a life in her new surroundings, finding some comfort in the well-meaning kindness of her grandparents and their neighbours, and making friends with Ally, Chris, and Darryl – a local gang of fellow outsiders who would not be out-of-place in a Stephen King novel. After initial mutual suspicion and even resentment, the four build dens, climb trees, get drunk, and become as thick as thieves. It’s a familiar and beautifully told tale which will have you reminiscing on your own childhood – the good, bad, and ugly. Just when things are settling down for Chloe (or “the girl” as she is known for most of the book) events conspire against her, both deliberate and accidental, which brings disruption and turmoil to her life once more.

Without giving away spoilers, it is the reappearance of her mother in Chloe’s life which throws everything in the air. As we get to know more about Angie it becomes clear that she is the immature one in this family – displaying selfishness, jealousy, insecurity and anger, often in a single sentence. It is strongly hinted that there is something in her own childhood, an event from her past, which could be at the root of this self-destructive behaviour which, in turn, is having such a detrimental effect on her daughter. And so it goes – familial secrets and lies raise their ugly heads as events progress, and everyone has to reflect on their actions, and inaction, to try to work out how they can move on, if that’s possible.

Daniel Shand’s debut, Fallow, won the Betty Trask Prize garnering acclaim from the likes of Alan Warner, Allan Massie, Joanne Harris and Rodge Glass. It’s often difficult to follow such success but he has done so by writing a coming-of-age novel which doesn’t pull its punches, beautifully setting out an individual childhood which will resonate with readers. Where Shand really shines is in the construction of his dramatis personae. He uses an economy of language to get to the heart of what makes his characters tick – a look, a touch, a stray thought, a wordless tantrum. By examining all too familiar failings, and the tricks the mind often plays to justify and even forgive them, he gives insight into the human psyche which does not always make for an easy read, but which is never less than a compelling one. With Crocodile Daniel Shand has cemented his position as one of Scotland’s finest and original literary voices.

Daniel Shand’s Crocodile is published by Sandstone Press.

Old Morality: A Review Of Charles E. McGarry’s The Shadow Of The Black Earl…

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One of the most welcome literary surprises of last year was Charles E. McGarry’s novel The Ghost Of Helen Addison. It introduced the world to private investigator, and bon viveur, Leo Moran, whose gift of second sight is both a blessing and a curse. To say this is a Glaswegian gumshoe with a difference is ridiculous understatement writ large. Quite simply, you will never have met a character like Leo Moran. In the SWH! review we said, “With The Ghost Of Helen Addison Charles E. McGarry has presented a new voice to Scottish crime fiction, and a memorable character to match. I’m looking forward to seeing how these novels develop…”. Well, look no further as the man is back in The Shadow Of The Black Earl.

If you liked the first Leo Moran mystery you are going to love this one. After a particularly upsetting funeral the dapper detective goes to stay with his now firm friend, the extravagantly named Fordyce Greatorix, at his family home of Biggnarbriggs Hall. There he encounters a range of eccentric characters who would not be out-of-place in an Agatha Christie novel. What unfolds is a whodunit which delves into the world of the occult, masonic and pagan rituals, and police corruption, as well as touching on every one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and then coming up with a few more. If you didn’t read the previous novel you may think this is business as usual in terms of Scottish crime fiction. You’d be wrong. With this second outing what’s now clear is that Leo Moran mysteries are something entirely different altogether.

One of the most welcome things that McGarry does is to take Leo around the country to solve crimes in Scotland’s lesser known locations. The Ghost Of Helen Addison was set in Argyll, and this time round he finds himself in deepest, and, quite literally, darkest Galloway. It’s an inspired setting which adds an instant atmosphere to proceedings, in no small part due to the rich literary history of the area. Think of the supernatural Border tales of James Hogg, such as The Brownie of Bodsbeck and the epic The Three Perils of Man, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s superb short stories ‘Markheim’ and ‘Thrawn Janet’, as well as his masterpiece of a novel The Master of Ballantrae. All of these have a strong sense of a place where religion and superstition clash, and there is no doubt McGarry taps into this.

But, perhaps surprisingly, it’s another well kent Border writer who I was reminded of when reading The Shadow Of The Black Earl, and that is the Great Waldo himself. It’s not just the place which brings Walter Scott to mind, (he spent most of his time on the other side of the M74, so to speak), or that Briggnarbriggs Hall has more than a hint of Scott’s beloved Abbotsford about it in its grandeur and folly. It’s not even that the title has overtones of Scott’s 1816 novel The Black Dwarf. Comparisons are to be found in McGarry’s writing as well. Going against the grain of most modern fiction, never mind crime, this is a writer who will not be rushed. As with Scott he refuses to hurry matters, enjoying the diversions his characters make along the way. The idea that every sentence has to be a punch, or that action is all, is anathema. Like his protagonist, McGarry would far rather his reader stop and smell the roses.

His descriptions of the surroundings are often extensive, verging on the purple at times, but they completely suit the people and places depicted. In terms of the detective work think of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ novels, or even G. K. Chesterton’s tales of Father Brown. There is something distinctly out of time about the Leo Moran mysteries. In fact it is easy to forget you are in a contemporary novel until mentions of mobile phones and Facebook profiles break the spell. It’s another sign that this is a writer doing something different. You might even think he’s deliberately out to subvert the crime genre. Taking a Glasgwegian PI away from the side of the Clyde is just the start.

There is little doubt that McGarry has developed as a writer from The Ghost Of Helen Addison. This time round there are less detailed depictions of what Leo eats and what he wears, which personally I missed as I love food and clothes, but I think it was the right decision in terms of moving the plot along. More importantly, he makes far better use of his female characters in this novel, his relationship with Elaine central to proceedings. I would love to see even more of Stephanie – the one friend who seems to have his number – as I think they would make a memorable double act. Perhaps that’s being kept for Leo Moran’s third mystery. I certainly hope there is one. A character as ineffaceable and distinct as Leo Moran deserves a long literary life, and that goes doubly for Charles E. McGarry.

The Shadow Of The Black Earl is out now and is published by Polygon Books.

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

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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…

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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. Continue reading

Take Two: A Review Of Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet…

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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…

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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