Storm Warning: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay…

A new novel from Douglas Skelton is always reason for cheer so the recent publication of his latest, Thunder Bay (Polygon Books) was welcome news. It’s another departure in terms of style and setting from Skelton, a writer who refuses to rest on his laurels, always keen to explore different literary approaches to writing crime fiction. A prolific writer of non-fiction books on crime as well, he is steeped in his subject area and brings all his knowledge and understanding to his fiction. The style may vary but the name Douglas Skelton is a guarantee of quality.

His characters are usually to be found pounding metropolitan mean streets, but the action in Thunder Bay takes place on an island off the coast of Scotland and Skelton manages to make this landscape as equally dangerous and disturbing, understanding that the threat is not in the place, but with those who live there. In doing so he brings to mind many influences including films such as The Wicker Man and When Eight Bells Toll, the Shetland TV series, as well as island novels such as Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands, Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way, and Louise Welsh’s Naming The Bones.

As with all of the above examples, Skelton understands that island life has a very particular, and, especially to outsiders, an often peculiar feel. Due to the necessary close-knit dynamic of such a community strangers are noticed and viewed with suspicion. Secrets are closely guarded but never forgotten, passed down through generations, and crime and recrimination are often two sides of a very similar coin.

Journalist Rebecca Connolly arrives into just such a community, travelling from the mainland to the appropriately named island of Stoirm in search of a story which will make her name. 15 years previously the island’s most infamous native, Roddie Drummond, was charged with the murder of Mhairi Sinclair but, in that singularly Scottish and often unsatisfactory manner, found Not Proven. This is a verdict which splits locals into factions which don’t heal despite Roddie leaving. His return for his mother’s funeral threatens to stir up all those old resentments and Rebecca is determined to discover the truth. What she finds is more shocking and sensational than she could ever have imagined.

Skelton understands people, both their strengths and flaws. He certainly understands the evil that men are more than capable of doing but manages to avoid making his characters monsters. He doesn’t simply divide them into white and black hats, they are more complex than that – sidestepping stereotypes while acknowledging types. He is also confident enough to have more than one storyline unfolding keeping the reader on their toes as to where the narrative is going.

Skelton proves once more that he is master of his craft. I can’t think of many, if any, other writers who bring such varied and distinctive styles to their books. With that versatility in mind, as well as his wry humour, a deft way with a cliffhanger, and a barely concealed anger at injustice, with Thunder Bay in particular the writer he most reminds me of is Iain Banks, especially the latter’s later novels The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth.

From the Clydeside crime novels of his Davie McCall series, through the tales of Glasgow gumshoe Dominic Queste, his action-packed New York novel The Janus Run (a movie adaptation waiting to happen) and now Thunder Bay, Douglas Skelton shows that he is a writer who you can’t pidgeonhole or pin down. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he gives us next.

Thunder Bay is out now, published on the Polygon imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Claire MacLeary…

Claire MacLeary

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer Claire MacLeary about her trilogy of Aberdeen set crime novels, Cross Purpose, Burnout, and her latest, Runaway (all published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books) . These novels introduced readers to Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, two middle-aged women who join together to work as private investigators.

Claire and Ali discuss the central characters, how they are a refreshing change from the norm, other people’s reaction to their choice of career, and the development of the relationship changes over the three books. They also talk about the importance of research, the often dark themes of Claire’s writing, the importance of bringing something different to the genre, Aberdeen as a setting, and the distinctive way she approaches her work. It’s a must listen for anyone with an interest in books – crime or otherwise – one which gives a fascinating insight into the life of a writer.

You can read the SWH! review of Runaway here, but before you do I suggest you listen to the podcast as I think the two work together well to give you a clear idea as to Claire MacLeary and her work.

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, 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’ll be back soon with someone completely different. See you then…

Our Friends In The North: A Review Of Claire MacLeary’s Runaway…

One of the defining characteristics of most successful crime series is to have protagonists who readers look forward to spending time with. This is particularity prevalent in Scottish Crime Fiction. From Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus and beyond, the best crime writers have created characters who are undoubtedly flawed – arguably defined by those flaws – but who carry enough charisma, charm and intrigue to keep us on their side.

It’s with that in mind that we can give a warm welcome back to private investigators Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, whose flaws, while still evident, are less-sensational than an opium or whisky habit. They are back for round three in their fight against Aberdeen’s criminals in Claire MacLeary’s latest novel Runaway.

This time around we find Maggie and Wilma’s relationship beginning to fracture as cases are increasingly rare, often disagreeing as to the best way to go about their business. Imagine Cagney and Lacey, older, wiser, and wearier, but working the slightly less-mean streets of Mannofield rather than Manhattan, and you have some idea as to the women’s dynamic. Not love/hate, more love/exasperate.

When Scott Milne reports his wife Debbie as missing the police aren’t interested so he decides to go private, asking Harcus & Laird if they will help. The two argue as to whether this is a case worth taking on, with Wilma for and Maggie against. When they do it takes them to places which in turn remind them of their past, reassess the present, and make them fear for the future.

Runaway has a distinctly darker tone than MacLeary’s earlier work, commenting on homelessness, the lives of sex workers, and people-traffiking (something which appears to be rife in northern Scotland, also featuring in Douglas Skelton’s latest novel Thunder Bay as well as being central to the plot of the last series of Shetland).

But, as with Cross Purpose and Burnout, Runaway is as much about the drama of everyday living as it is about solving crime. The reason Maggie and Wilma are relatable is because they are so believable. Two suburban middle-aged women working as PI’s is a tricky scenario to pull off, but MacLeary clearly understands these women and their lives.

Whereas Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane, or Douglas Skelton’s Dominic Queste all have lifestyles which allow them to play the loner, fulfilling crime/noir stereotypes as perfected by the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, Maggie and Wilma have responsibilities which many readers will relate to – ones which they take seriously. Family, partners, friends and colleagues, for most of us these are ties which are not easily severed, and they fight for them despite often receiving disapproval, opprobrium, and often condemnation for what they do. Overcoming, or rather dealing with, such attitudes, often from their nearest and dearest, shows true strength and determination.

This recognisable humanity is what makes Claire MacLeary’s novels as notable as they are welcome. She makes nods to, and understands, the tropes and themes of crime fiction but adapts them to her characters rather than the other way round, avoiding cliche and stereotype. This also applies to the way people talk to each other. MacLeary clearly has an ear for how people argue, bicker, and tease, but also understands how they struggle to apologise, explain, or make-up afterwards. It’s as much about what remains unspoken as what is said, and the problems that result from this inability to communicate.

Both women’s life experience comes into its own and it’s their refusal to be overlooked and ignored which gives Runaway a vitality and verve which is rare. MacLeary uses who they are and how others may perceive them as a strength rather than suggesting any weakness, turning people’s prejudices against them. Being underestimated and patronised becomes one of the greatest weapons in their armoury.

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 at the top of the page, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.

Runaway is out now, published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

Social Realist: A Review Of Henry Bell’s John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside…

There are a couple of books which came out last year which have remained on the SWH! ‘must-read’ pile, and which will be reviewed on these pages in due course. One of them is Henry Bell’s biography of John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside, which looks behind the mythology to reveal the man, his life, and offer comment not only on that time and place, but also on the politics of today.

Chapter One begins, perhaps surprisingly, with the subject’s death, and goes on to detail MacLean’s funeral and how widespread the mourning was. It’s an arresting opening which sets the tone for what follows with Bell’s ability to set a scene matched by his clear and concise way with a statistic. More than any other section in the book it shows just how important and iconic John MacLean had become to the people of Glasgow, and beyond. You are immediately made aware that this story is important and it encourages you to read on and learn more about the life which led to this.

Most of us will only know John MacLean, if at all, by his reputation as “Scotland’s Greatest Revolutionary Socialist” without having given too much thought as to who, how, and why. To some that description will immediately make him a hero, to others a villain. As always the story is more complex than that and, as with the the best biographers, Bell goes on to unpick that complexity and makes things more clear and balanced. John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside is a profile of a man whose story demands to be read and understood more widely. It’s a thoroughly researched and engaging read which walks that fine line between giving the reader the facts and telling the story in an involving way.

It looks at MacLean’s Highland heritage and Calvinist upbringing, his life as a teacher (the belief in the importance of education for all arguably at the heart of everything he fought for), his incredible relationship with Communist Russia and the Kremlin, and his links to those involved with the struggle for an independent Ireland. It is little wonder that the UK government, and other western countries, took such a keen interest in this man – a skilled and charismatic orator who could command large audiences for his speeches. Some of the most powerful sections in the book are where Bell details MacLean’s time spent in jail as a result and the toll it took, especially on his health and family.

What is of particular interest is MacLean’s move from his belief in Marxist internationalism to socialist independence, at least where Scotland was concerned. He wasn’t the only Scottish figure to hold these apparently opposing beliefs – years later Hugh MacDiarmid would become a member of the Communist Party and the National Party of Scotland (and be expelled from both), and there are echoes of this complex political and idealistic view evident in Scottish politics to this day. If you want to understand better Scotland’s current political landscape it helps to know your history, and Bell’s book is an excellent place to fill in many of those gaps.

I’m not a great reader of political biographies, but I have read many concerning the lives of philosophers and John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside works in a manner similar to Rudiger Safranski’s biography of Nietzsche, Ray Monk’s on Wittgenstein, Bernard-Henri Levy’s Sartre and, most appropriately, Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx. As with all of those Bell strikes a balance between the subject’s life-story and their ideology – the personal, the political, and also, (as important for MacLean as any of the others), the philosophical.

Henry Bell makes it clear that while MacLean was a man of action, prepared to suffer and even die for his cause, he was also a man of ideas – an intellectual who often placed those ideas above all else. Radical, yes – but only in a society where individuals and groups were, and are, too willing to compromise what they believe. Now, perhaps more than at any time in the last 100 years, John MacLean has lessons for us all. Here begins the lesson.

Henry Bell’s John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside is out now on Pluto Press.

Tell It Like It Is: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Nadine Aisha Jassat…

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to the poet Nadine Aisha Jassat about her new collection of poems, Let Me Tell You This. It starts with a reading from Nadine, and the conversation is interspersed with further examples throughout which should give you a clear idea as to what makes this book so special.

During their discussion the two touch on narrative, family, the possibilities for poetry, the importance of rhythm, voice & language, why she is glad to be published by 404 Ink, and what these poems mean to her, and others. It’s one of the most engaging podcasts to date, and we hope you will be inspired to investigate Nadine’s work for yourself, and consider it with the care and attention it deserves.

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, 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:

And, as discussed in the podcast, here is Hopscotch, the short film based on Nadine’s poem of the same name:

Be here soon for the next Scots Whay Hae! Podcast, which, undoubtedly, has a lot to live up to…

Mono Mania – A SWH! Podcast Special: The Glasgow Launch Of David Keenan’s For The Good Times…

Ali & David Keenan: Photo Credit Imogen Pelham

Last month in Mono there was the Glasgow launch of David Keenan’s latest novel For The Good Times. A night of two-halves, SWH!’s own Ali Braidwood was on chairing duties as first Chris McQueer (below) then David himself (above) read from HWFG and For The Good Times respectively before talking in depth about their latest work. It was a really special night and if you weren’t able to make it we hope what you are about to hear is the next best thing.

Ali & Chris McQueer: Photo Credit Imogen Pelham

Thanks to Craig Stoddart who made these recordings while doing a fine job with sound and music on the night. Cheers to Stephen, Tara, and all at Mono for hosting us and making it such a special event, and to Faber & Faber for putting it together.

You can read the SWH! review of For The Good Times here, and Ali’s recent one-to-one podcast with David can be listened to by clicking here . We’re saying it’s one of the best yet, and so are other people, but you can make your own mind about that. However, not until you’ve listened to David, Chris & Ali talking books before a live and attentive Mono audience.

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, 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 is a fascinating interview with the poet Nadine Aisha Jassat which you won’t want to miss…

Book Now To Avoid Disappointment: A Preview Of Aye Write! 2019…

From today (14th) Glasgow’s Book Festival Aye Write! is the only show in town for lovers of fact, fiction, food, poetry, prose, biography, comics, and any other form of writing that takes your fancy.

While the vast majority of events are at the festival’s spiritual home of The Mitchell Library, The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall also has its fair share. But it is only right that Glasgow’s most famous library is the focus point for a book festival which is international in scope, but has its roots firmly planted in the city.

Here are SWH!’s carefully selected 10 highlights to give you something to think about, but you can peruse the full programme at your leisure here.

You can also keep up to date with events as they unfold by following @AyeWrite on Twitter or on Facebook. Tickets can be bought here and you can click the links below for further details on the individual events.

Robin Robertson – 14th Mar 2019  •  7:45PM – 8:45PM  •  Mitchell Theatre 
Robin Robertson returns to Aye Write! with the most decorated book of his career. Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, The Roehampton Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Long Take is one of the most remarkable – and unclassifiable – books of recent years.

The book’s protagonist Walker, a D-Day veteran, is brutalised by war, haunted by violence yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and himself. As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish.

You can read the SWH! review of The Long Take here

Stuart Cosgrove & Ken McNab – 15th Mar 2019  •  7:45PM – 8:45PM  •  Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
A momentous year in musical history has given rise to two new books. Stuart Cosgrove completes his trilogy with Harlem 69: The Future of Soul in which a Rabelaisian cast of characters including Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone feature in a tale of crime, gangsters and a darkly vengeful drug problem. 

Ken McNab’s And in the End is the story of the last acrimonious days of the Beatles played out in 1969, the year that saw the band reach new highs of musical creativity and new lows of internal strife.

You can read the SWH! review of Stuart Cosgrove’s Harlem ’69 here

Anna Groundwater – 16th Mar 2019  •  11:30AM – 12:30PM  •  Mitchell Library
Anna Groundwater is a cultural and social historian of early modern Scotland at the University of Edinburgh and acts as a consultant for historical television and radio programmes, appearing on Scotland’s Clans and In Our Time. 

Her book Scotland Connected is a user-friendly and thought-provoking guide to the key events in Scottish, British and World history, readily demonstrating the connections between the three.

SWH!’s Ali Braidwood will be in conversation with Anna Groundwater for this event which is must for anyone with an interest in Scotland’s history and heritage…

Stephen Millar & Alan McCredie – 17th Mar 2019  •  4:45PM – 5:45PM  •  Mitchell Library
Finding himself faced with a feeling of disconnection from his city of birth, Stephen Millar set out on a mission to capture the heart and essence of Glasgow, meeting with members of a remarkable variety of clubs and sub-cultures from pagans, to cosplayers and traditional musicians who make up the fabric of the city. 

His book Tribes of Glasgow moves beyond stereotypes and delves deeper into the origins of these tribes. Scottish photographer Alan McCredie brings these stories to life through a blend of portraits and candid snaps.

This event is chaired by Ali Braidwood from SWH! so please join all three for what will be a fascinating insight into Aye Write!’s, and SWH!’s, home turf…

David Keenan & Michael Hughes – 17th Mar 2019  •  6:30PM – 7:30PM  •  Mitchell Library
David Keenan’s For the Good Times follows Sammy and his three friends in the Ardoyne, an impoverished, predominantly Catholic area of North Belfast. It is a book about the devastation that commitment to ‘the cause’ can engender.

Country by Michael Hughes is set in 1996 when, after 25 years of conflict, the IRA and the British have agreed an uneasy ceasefire, as a first step towards lasting peace. But if decades of savage violence are leading only to smiles and handshakes, those on the ground in the border country will start to question what exactlythey have been fighting for.

You can read the SWH! review of For the Good Times here, and David was a podcast guest earlier this year which you can catch up with right now

Murray Pittock – 23rd Mar 2019  •  4:45PM – 5:45PM  •  Mitchell Library
Murray Pittock is Bradley Professor at the University of Glasgow and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Royal Historical Society. His latest book is a study of enlightenment in Edinburgh like no other. 

In a journey packed with evidence and incident, he explores various civic networks – such as the newspaper and printing businesses, the political power of the gentry and patronage networks, as well as the pub and coffeehouse life – as drivers of cultural change. His analysis reveals that the attributes of civic development, which lead to innovation and dynamism, were at the heart of what made Edinburgh a smart city of 1700.

SWH!’s Ali Braidwood will be in conversation with Murray Pittock for this event, and it would be great if you could join them, and join in…

Donald S Murray – 24th Mar 2019  •  4:45PM – 5:45PM  •  Mitchell Library
In the small hours on 1st of January 1919, at the entrance to Stornoway harbour, the cruelest twist of fate changed at a stroke the lives of an entire community. On that terrible night the HMY Iolaire smashed into rocks and sank, killing some 200 servicemen on the very last leg of their long journey home from war.
 
As the Women Lay Dreaming is a deeply moving novel about passion constrained, coping with loss and a changing world, it explores how a single event can so dramatically impact communities, individuals and, indeed, our very souls.

You can read the SWH! review of As the Women Lay Dreaming here, and Donald was a memorable podcast guest last year, a conversation which is still available for you to listen to

Shaun Bythell Introduces… Daisy Johnson and Alan Trotter – 24th Mar 2019  •  6:30PM – 7:30PM  •  Mitchell Library
Shaun Bythell, owner of the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland and author of Diary of a Bookseller introduces these two extraordinary debuts.

Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As daring as it is moving, the novel is a story of family and identity, of fate, language, love and belonging that saw Daisy shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2018. 

Drunk on cinematic and literary influence, Alan Trotter’s Muscle is a slice of noir fiction in collapse, a ceaselessly imaginative story of violence, boredom and madness

You can read the SWH! review of Alan Trotter’s Muscle here

Beerjacket – 29th Mar 2019  •  7:45PM – 8:45PM  •  Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Nearly five years since the release of his last album, Darling Darkness, Beerjacket returns with his most ambitious project and album to date, Silver Cords. 

Accompanying the 12 songs are a collection of 12 short stories; intertwined with the music The combination of sound and print creates an ethereal tone which binds the stories with a dreamlike, magic realism quality, and certain recurring themes of isolation, now-ness, interconnectedness, loss, and fear. 

Ali Braidwood is delighted to be chairing this event so why don’t you join Beerjacket & he for what promises to be a musical and literary treat.

You can read the SWH! review of Beerjacket’s Silver Cords here, and the man himself was a recent podcast guest which is still available for your listening pleasure

Charly Cox and Nadine Aisha Jassat – 30th Mar 2019  •  4:45PM – 5:45PM  •  Mitchell Library
In She Must be Mad, Charly Cox captures the formative experiences of today’s young women from the poignant to the prosaic in writing that is at once witty, wry and heartfelt. Written for every woman surviving and thriving in today’s world, for every girl who feels too much, her poems say ‘you are not alone’. 

Nadine Aisha Jassat was recently named as one of 30 inspiring young women under 30 in Scotland. Her spoken-word piece Hopscotch was made into a film in 2017, and Let Me Tell You This is her debut poetry collection.

Let Me Tell You This is out now, published by 404 Ink, and Nadine will be a guest on the SWH! podcast in the very near future…

That’s all folks – and if you do make it to one of the events Scots Whay Hae! is involved with please come and say hello.

That’s Entertainment: A Review Of David F. Ross’ Welcome To The Heady Heights…

It’s always a risk when a writer leaves well-loved characters and places behind to move on to something new. David F. Ross completed his ‘Disco Days Trilogy’ with 2017’s The Man Who Loved Islandsa fitting end but one which left both writer and reader questioning what he would do next. The answer to that is now with us in the shape of Welcome To The Heady Heights, (Orenda Books) and from the opening chapter it is clear that everyone can relax, sit back, and enjoy.

It’s a novel which gets to the heart of ’70’s Glasgow, capturing, and revelling in, the city’s wit, wisdom and widoes, and using them to examine human frailty and institutional corruption at its worst. Corporation busconductor Archie Blunt is a man with a mission, a proud Glaswegian who understands the city and those who bide there, and is glad to do so. When he find himself out of work and, at the age of 52, running out of time, he feels that life is in danger of passing him by. The one thing he has going for him is that he knows where the bodies are buried and who has dirt on their shoes, and starts to realise that such knowledge may be his best hope.

This set-up allows David Ross to turn his ever-so-dark humour and coruscating eye to the second city of the Empire and the decade of flares and Findus Crispy Pancakes, and it proves to be the perfect pairing. For those who are already a fan of his writing they will be familiar with the way he uses comedy, and often controversy, to examine and comment on matters serious. While having a ball with his memorable array of characters running amok, a central theme is the systemic abuse of minors by members, often well-loved, of the apparently respectable establishment, particularly with regard to the entertainment industry.

As much outraged as outrageous, you can’t shake the feeling that Ross writes in part to vent anger and frustration at the darkness and desperation of some people’s lives, and at those who would take advantage of them – often without a second thought. And while there is clear commentary on the highly-publicised sex scandals of Savile, Glitter, Clifford, et al., more current concerns are broached such as the continued march of celebrity culture, the myth that we are all due ’15 minutes of fame’, and how the spate of TV talent shows continue to exploit the young and vulnerable.

Archie becomes the driver to Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, a well-known TV presenter who, it quickly becomes clear, will never turn down the chance to debase and defile when opportunity knocks. He plans, along with other members of the mysterious ‘Circle’, to turn the landmark Great Eastern Hotel, (the infamous drop-in for Glasgow’s homeless and destitute), into the first Heady Hotel, a place to lure the unsuspecting and susceptible.

You may think this premise too outrageous to be believed, but when you consider the actions of those icons named above and their like, and how institutions and officialdom, knowingly and unknowingly, facilitated their terrible desires then, if anything, it is all too believable. These men see themselves as untouchable, above the law.

It is this hubris that Archie seeks to exploit, using the knowledge he has to help promote his hastily formed boy-band, The High Five – ‘Satan’s Bagpipes’ being sadly rejected as a name. This is his last chance of becoming a success, someone of whom his father could be proud, a desire which leads him to make a series of questionable decisions. As the stakes for everyone get higher the pace quickens and the tension ramps up to such an extent that you are left breathless by the end.

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.

*This review is part of the Welcome To The Heady Heights Blog Tour, and you can read what other people think by visiting the blogs and websites mentioned below…

Being Boiled: A Review Of Alan Trotter’s Muscle…

One of the joys of reviewing on these pages is that every now and again you are sent a novel about which you know nothing, and it doesn’t just take you by surprise but makes you rethink what fiction can do. That was the case with Alan Trotter’s Muscle and even having read it twice now I’m still not entirely sure what it is or exactly what I have read. Is it Samuel Beckett meets Mickey Spillane? Is it noir as imagined by Neil Gaiman? Is it Pinter and Bukowski having a tear up in a car park? It’s all of those things and so much more.

Usually I wouldn’t mention the cover of a novel, but Muscle’s demands comment. As you can see above it’s the back of a man so large he can’t quite fit, with a shiv held menacingly in his mighty fist. It’s an image which not only suggests the violence and visceral nature of the narrative you are about to encounter, but also hints at what else awaits. Trotter brings so many ideas, themes and influences to bear that mere pages struggle to contain them. In every sense this is a novel which is packing.

From the beginning, where two men calmly contemplate the death they have just witnessed, with a curious detachment similar to Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon considering a carrot, it is clear that this is not going to be a straightforward undertaking. The cover may scream pulp fiction, but the content is more Pulp Fiction, with conversations about minutiae, apparent McGuffins, graphic violence, and a language rich, ripe, and rooted in noir, all of which can also be found in Tarantino’s masterpiece.

Certainly the central characters of Box and ____ (who we have to assume is the titular ‘Muscle’, but who is never named) bring to mind that film’s Jules and Vincent, the philosophising hard men who menace with aforethought, but there are also heavy traces of other dangerous double acts, such as the aforementioned Neil Gaiman’s Vandemar and Croup from Neverwhere, or Goldberg and McCann from Pinter’s The Birthday Party. I’m sure you’ll come up with your own points of reference as that is one of Muscle’s many joys – it’s packed so full of allusions, none of which are overt, that it’s entirely possible – or rather entirely likely – you could ask ten different readers and they would all report back something new and diverse.

From the beginning Muscle appears firmly rooted in the tradition of hard-boiled fiction. This is a world of private eyes and late-night poker, broken hands and black hearts, which will be familiar to those acquainted with Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. However, as matters progress it places one foot firmly in the realm of science fiction. Box becomes obsessed with the ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘Weird Tales’ written by the enigmatic Holcomb.

During episodes which could be dreams, or they could be visions, but definitely influenced by what he has read, Box begins to contemplate some extreme ideas, including the possibility of time travel. His desire for an object (“The Spherical Oracle”) grows stronger as he imbues it with a significance that is difficult to understand. It is similar to the unspecified pipes in which Patrick Doyle places his hopes of a happy future life in James Kelman’s A Dissafection. I then started to read other Kelman references in Muscle, but began to wonder if that said more about me than Alan Trotter. And of course it does.

Because that is at the heart of what makes Muscle such a fascinating and involving read. By taking familiar themes, tropes, styles and genres Trotter holds a mirror up to the reader and forces them to consider their own cultural history, and what that brings to any interpretation of what they are reading. It’s almost interactive, and there was more than one time when I imagined I was _____, or at least filled in the blanks myself. Muscle is a fantasy novel, just not in the way you may think.

As Muscle progresses Box’s fantasies begin to morph into an unnerving, and intricate, reality. As with many noir narratives, when a happy ending is even hinted at you know things are about to take a turn for the worse. Through all of this it becomes clear that Trotter is examining not only the evil that men do, but their reasons for doing it. There is greed, pride, lust and many other deadly sins on show, but there is also boredom and frustration. Box and ____ do a lot of killing, and that includes time, waiting for their next assignation which often never comes. It’s no wonder that they embrace their work as it is at least a living.

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 out now, published by Faber & Faber Books

*Beyond Good And Evil: A Review Of David Keenan’s For The Good Times…

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*A version of this review first appeared on the Books From Scotland website. Head there & sign up to their newsletter to never miss an issue.

As regular readers will know, David Keenan’s debut novel This Is Memorial Device was not only Scots Whay Hae!’s favourite book of 2017, but many other right-minded people’s considered choice as well. It announced his arrival as a novelist in such a barnstorming manner that you couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to follow it. Well now he has, and, as we should have expected, he does so with élan, subverting all expectations. His novel, For The Good Times, is set mainly in 1970s Northern Ireland (some memorable away days aside), slap bang in the middle of that none more euphemistically titled time, ‘The Troubles’. 

For those who lived in Ireland and the UK in the ’70s-’90s there are many of the familiar and widely reported touchstones – the H-Block prison and hunger strikes, the Europa Hotel (infamous as the most bombed hotel in the world), Republican & Loyalist groups known best by three letters, gun-fire at funerals, sectarian songs, balaclavas, bombast, and bomb-blasts. Keenan captures the time and place perfectly, not only with such knowledge and detail, but also using music, fashion, and other cultural references to great effect.

The story focuses on narrator Sammy and his closest friends, a group of young Jack the Lads who just happen to be running violent, and sometimes deadly, errands for the Provisional IRA and other offshoots if they’ll have them. Buying into the more extreme mythology of the Republican cause, these boys are playing dangerous games, with a desire to be the cock of the walk as long as that walk isn’t Orange.

Obsessed with the life and style of the singer Perry Como, and dressed in only the best of gear, violence is second nature to them justified by the belief that they are committing it for a worthy cause. To most they are seen as gangsters, thugs, and smugglers, but they have a strong sense of their own worth and shared identity. If Shane Meadows and Martin Scorsese collaborated on the film adaptation of Bernard McLaverty’s Cal then the script may have been something like this, walking the fine line between condemning, or at least demonstrating, the terrible effects of self-righteous violence, and romanticising it.

This may seem like a fairly straightforward premise but Keenan uses it to explore cultural mythology and memory, place, masculinity (toxic or otherwise), the psychology of gangs and groups, and the need for individuals to belong, but also stand-alone. Just when you think you have a grasp of what is going on and understand the essence of what you are reading, things shift just enough to discombobulate. This will not be unexpected to those who read his previous novel which showed a writer almost bursting with ideas – so many that at times what unfolded came close to being overwhelming.

For The Good Times is leaner in terms of ideas and style allowing the story and the characters more time and space to breathe. The result may be a more conventional narrative (it would have to go some not to be), but it makes for an equally satisfying read, if not more so. If you tried This Is Memorial Device and found it wasn’t for you then you should give Keenan a second chance. He’s too good a writer not to.

That’s not to say that he has dispensed with the literary flourishes altogether. There are songs, poems, and comic book stories, and not many other writers would have quotations from the aforementioned crooner Como, Aleister Crowley’s ‘The Master Therion’, and Friedrich Nietzsche. They may seem incongruous bedfellows, but all tell you something about what you are about to read. There are also séances, astral connections, perversions, and rumination on the nature of art, as well as further evidence that Keenan may have an obsession with mannequins.

All of these unexpected detours remind you that this is a writer who is pushing everyone involved out of their comfort zone. He is a player of games but with serious intent, and it forces you to ask questions about what is written, and how. In my review copy the numbers on the Contents page were all “00”. I have since found out that this isn’t deliberate, but with Keenan I wouldn’t have been surprised. With doppelgangers, the bureaucracy of institutions, betrayal, the power of sex, seduction and obsession, and the need to find an identity when others simply want you subsumed, it has clear echoes of George Orwell, Franz Kafka, John Fowles and Milan Kundera.

However, for all the artistry this novel 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. It’s always a risk to take on the voices of a time and place which is so infamous, but from the first sentence to the last the mask never slips, and you absolutely believe these are lives lived. He also understands how people act in their different groups, and how they think and act when they are alone. The bold and the brave versus the insecure and uncertain – this is a world where front can literally be a matter of life and death, and makes you realise that the time and place has been chosen for good reasons.

For The Good Times is a multi-layered novel of extremes set in the most extreme of times (it is also extremely funny). It plays with form and structure, yet, for all its sensational subject matter and style, it is a keen examination of the human psyche, offering hope which is as welcome as it is surprising. 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

David Keenan was a recent guest on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast which you’ll find here – SWH! Podcast With David Keenan.