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.

Teenage Kicks: A Review Of Ross Sayers’ Sonny And Me…

It’s hugely heartening that Young Adult fiction is alive and well and flourishing in Scotland, with recent examples, including Helen MacKinven’s Talk Of The Toun, Claire McFall’s Ferryman, Daniel Shand’s Crocodile, Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope and Ross Sayers’ Mary’s The Name, among the very best.

The latest, published by champions of the genre, Cranachan, is Ross Sayers’ follow up to Mary’s The Name, Sonny And Me and the bottom line is it’s simply a fantastic read no matter what label is applied to it. It’s exactly the book I wish was available when I was a teenage reader (although you don’t need to be a teenager to read it) as it accurately and believably portrays not only what it’s like to be that age but what it’s like to interact with an increasingly adult world which you can see heave into view all too quickly. It’s also in a language and setting which is immediately relatable and anyone who thinks that isn’t important is wrong

That ‘inbetweener’ age which pulls in different directions is perfectly portrayed – wanting to be a kid for just a bit longer, with all the freedom and fantasy that entails, and an increasing desire to be part of this apparently mystical club of ‘grown-ups’ (and what a useless term that is) with its ages of consent, forbidden establishments, and being able to speak your mind and not get sent to your room.

The narrator is Daughter who we are introduced to along with his best friend Sonny, and immediately they find themselves in a situation which could go all sorts of wrong. It’s a scenario which exemplifies the time when the innocence of childhood clashes with the growing awareness that the adult world carries more judgement and condemnation than has previously been the case, and that behaviour which may have been dismissed as (as Frank McAvennie might say) “daft-boyness” will have greater consequences the older they get.

Imagine The Inbetweeners meets Alan Bissett’s seminal 2001 novel Boyracers and you have some idea as to Sonny And Me. It’s arguably, and I am happy to argue it with you, the best Scottish coming of age novel since. It is funny, thrilling, and entertaining, but more importantly it’s honest and unflinching. Fair play to both writer and publisher in not diluting the language in any way, a decision which pays off in spades. This is writing which feels vital and real.

There is more than a little of the classic teen cinema of John Hughes in evidence as well, with friendships strengthened through detention, unrequited and unspoken crushes, clubs and cliques, and cliches which are played with and often overturned. The comparison shows that the teenage experience (at least in the western world) is not so different. Another film reference I would point you in the direction of is Rian Johnson’s superb Brick – a high-school noir crime caper which blurs the lines between childhood and adulthood in a similar manner to Sonny And Me. Both have a serious crime as an important plot point experienced through young adult eyes, with the attitude, language, and point of view to match.

Sonny And Me is one of the best books you’ll read this year. At its considerable heart it is a book about friendship, those which are not calculated or carefully considered but which just happen – the connections made naturally not knowingly. If you’re the age of Sonny and Daughter then you’ll recognise all too vividly what they experience and have to deal with. If you used to be Sonny and/or Daughter (and that’s surely all of us) it’ll all come flooding back.

It’s about the experience of being a teenager and all too often, and all too quickly, that time can be forgotten, but it is important we remember and Ross Sayer has written a novel which will help you do just that. By all means buy a copy for the book-loving teenager in your life, but make sure you read it as well. It will not only help you understand them better, but also yourself.

Ross Sayers’ Sonny And Me is published by Cranachan.

The Ties That Bind: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Breakers…

As Scots Whay Hae! moves towards its 10th year one writer in particular has been with us most of the way – the estimable Doug Johnstone. Since 2011’s Smokeheads he has published novels at a rate of almost one a year (a fantastic run which should be celebrated) all of which have been reviewed on these pages, and, (along with Louise Welsh), he is the writer who has guested on the most SWH! podcasts to date. As such, a new novel is always eagerly awaited and welcomed, and with Breakers (his second with the excellent Orenda Books) he may just have given us his best yet.

You could argue that his novels can be split into two categories. First off there are the no-holds-barred joyrides of the aforementioned Smokeheads, Hit & Run, The Dead Beat, Crash Land and last year’s Fault Lines, each of which leave you breathless as the action unfolds at breakneck speed. It’s as if he has taken Tom Petty’s cri de cœur concerning rock music,”Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and applies it to those books.

The other strand of his work focuses as much on family drama as crime, and are arguably when his writing is at its most powerful. Certainly I would suggest that Gone Again and The Jump are his most affecting and memorable novels to date. With Breakers, however, he has managed to marry these two strands together as never before, taking the poignant and heartfelt familial drama of the latter and adding the thrills and spills of the former. As such it is the most ‘Doug Johnstone’ book yet, and suggests the best may be yet to come.

Breakers focuses on the life of Tyler, a 17-year-old whose home life is a Daily Mail reader’s’ worst nightmare/wet dream. His incestuous elder siblings use him as their own Artful Dodger when they go to work, which happens to be housebreaking around Edinburgh’s more salubrious areas. Tyler would leave this life, acutely aware as to what he is involved in and carrying the guilt that goes with it, although also acutely aware that those they target are the haves who have more than they could ever need.

But his reason for reluctantly accepting his terrible lot is that he can’t abandon his young sister to the uncertainty of a life with their addict mother, or to the mercy of the social services, a fate which is surely only a phone call away. Johnstone asks serious questions about what can push people to criminal behaviour, the pressures brought to bear, and asks us to consider what would we do in Tyler’s shoes. The answers aren’t easy, and nor should they be.

When a housebreak goes spectacularly wrong Tyler and his family face new threats, from the police, but more worryingly from one of Edinburgh’s most feared criminal families. With the turmoil that is his life just turned up many notches, Tyler picks a fine time to fall in love with the enigmatic Flick who, although living in the same city comes from another world entirely. Yet, as with the better John Hughes’ movies, they find that they have more in common than their backgrounds would suggest. While never trivialising or lessening the impact of the dark and disturbing themes in Breakers, their relationship offers hope and, for Tyler, a shot at redemption.

If you are a fan of crime fiction then Doug Johnstone will always deliver the twists and turns that you are looking for, and there are few writers who do this with the brio he does. However, his writing always marries brutal honesty – and barely concealed anger – with compassion, eschewing simplistic ideas of good and evil, gods and monsters, to confront the more complex reasons why people do what they do. He understands people and how relationships work, and fail, and that very often it is the ties that bind families which can be the hardest to address.

Breakers is published by Orenda Books.

Fiercely Independent: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Ringwood Publishing…

For the latest SWH! podcast Ali spoke to Chief Executive of Ringwood Publishing Sandy Jamieson, one of their authors Dr Anne Pettigrew, and their Assistant Managing Director Laure Camail. Celebrating their 20th birthday this year, Glasgow’s Ringwood show that it is possible to publish and survive in a city which has notoriously had problems sustaining and maintaining a publishing culture in recent years.

The panel discuss the reasons for starting Ringwood, their co-operative business model and how that has evolved, Anne’s novel Not The Life Imagined and the publishing process from the writer’s point of view, how Ringwood has had to adapt to the changes in the marketplace, and their plans for the future.

With their focus on publishing and supporting first time authors, and a willingness to address the themes of “politics, football, religion, money, sex and crime”, they are an independent publisher with a strong idea of who they are, and what they do. We’re saying this is a must listen for anyone interested in publishing as the talk offers rare and honest insight, touching on many practical aspects of the process, both positive and negative.

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:

You can follow Ringwood on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The next podcast will be the second in association with Scottish Opera and it will be with you very soon…

Cult Hero: A Review Of Ewan Morrison’s Nina X…

With all the turmoil, storm and stress of recent times one literary voice has notably, and unexpectedly, been missing from much of the public and artistic debate – that of Ewan Morrison. While that’s not entirely fair as he has been working widely in film and TV, it is with his fiction that he has previously made the most telling and memorable contributions to the cultural conversation.

His most recent novel, Close Your Eyeswas published in 2013, which, considering the seismic shifts socially and politically (globally and locally) since, makes it seem a lifetime ago. This makes his return to publication most welcome as there are few writers who deal as intelligently, courageously, and often confrontationally, with the modern world as Morrison does.

All of which applies to his latest novel, Nina XIt’s a fictionalised account of what became known as the ‘Lambeth Slavery Case’, where, in 2015, self-styled Maoist cult leader Comrade Bala (real name Aravindan Balakrishnan) was sent to prison for abuse and false imprisonment. Morrison’s collective consists of Comrade Chen, four women followers whom he has a powerful and dangerous hold over, and a child who they view as ‘The Project’ – the person into whom they pour their hopes and dreams of a better future.

We first meet that child years later, now known by others, if not yet herself, as Nina, trying to come to terms with her first days of ‘Freedom’ after years kept prisoner. The novel is constructed from entries in Nina’s journals – numbered jotters that often have addendums from her ‘Comrades’ where they offer ideas and suggestions as to how her behaviour, and each other’s, should be modified. Certain words and sections are faint on the page, difficult to read and understand. It is as if they are being whispered, or fading from Nina’s mind, and the story has to be pieced together as scraps are discarded, lost, and found, and Nina’s fractured mind and memory offer varied, and often conflicting, explanations of people and events.

In particular, there is a terrible incident which Nina witnesses and which the Comrades try to make her forget, or at least re-remember – with self-preservation trumping nurturance. Morrison has always had a keen eye for portraying human weakness, and piercing pomposity, and the Comrades descent from high-and-mighty pontificating to petty squabbling, and increasingly desperate, and violent, measures to try and regain some control over the situation, is as believable as it is dispiriting. However, things are little improved when Nina becomes caught up in the world of social services, hospitals, and the law where different rules and regulations are enforced. Morrison is interested in constructs, philosophies and faiths of all kinds, but more so with how the human element is always destined to undermine, compromise and ultimately sabotage them.

Nina X is not simply an examination of nature versus nurture, but rather how a vulnerable mind can be pulled apart by conflict and confusion, and that human frailties (a term which seems horribly inadequate) such as envy, lust, jealously, hubris, anger and pride guarantee failure. The portrayal of Nina/The Project is as complex as it is heart breaking, with a long-suppressed individual voice trying to break through, to be heard and understood. In that sense Nina reminds me of Ron Butlin’s Morris Magellan in The Sound Of My Voice trying to get to a personal truth that has been suppressed for years in an attempt to survive.

It is also a novel about the importance of language and the written word, how they are used to understand, but also to obfuscate – deliberately or otherwise. The nomenclature of people and things takes on greater significance in a world as limited and suffocating as Nina’s. The naming of pets as Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg, or the forbidden contraband of Dairy Milk, Coca Cola, and glossy magazines, all carry multiple meanings. Nina has been told her whole life that some words are acceptable while others come at a cost. With her newfound freedom she finds that it’s not just the rules that have changed, the language has too, and even how she refers to herself becomes a battle.

With Nina X (as with Close Your Eyes, to which ‘Nina’ makes a great companion piece) Ewan Morrison challenges readers to think about what writing is for, believing that an engaged writer has a responsibility to address difficult issues. Some may regard him as a professional contrarian, using his mastery of the written word and ability to understand all sides of an argument to push people’s buttons for his own pleasure, but that would be to underestimate him as a writer, and a thinker. Rather he challenges prevailing cultural trends and beliefs, no matter who holds them. If you have a sacred cow to hand you might want to secure it as Morrison takes great delight in running them through, which makes him one of the exhilarating and exacting writers around.

As artistic as he is antagonistic, he believes in intellectual discourse and the rigorous thinking that accompanies it. Nina X is a reminder that the best writing should challenge and confront, and that there are few who do this as well as Ewan Morrison. He asks the questions that others avoid, or would never even think of asking, and offers no easy answers in return. This doesn’t always make his novels easy reads, but it does make them important ones and I know which I prefer every time.

A version of this review first appeared on Publishing Scotland’s Books From Scotland website.

Nina X by Ewan Morrison is published by Fleet.

Second Thoughts: A Review Of Mandy Haggith’s The Amber Seeker…

You wait ages for a good trilogy to come along then, appropriately, three turn up at once – or almost at once. In the last month or so SWH! has reviewed Runaway, the third (although likely not the last) in Claire MacLeary’s Harcus & Laird series, Star Of Hope, the final book in Moira McPartlin’s Sun Song Trilogy, and now we have The Amber Seeker which is the second part of Mandy Haggith’s Stone Series. If you read part one, The Walrus Mutterer, then you’ll be eager to return to the land-and-seascapes of Haggith’s wonderfully evocative Iron Age, and you won’t be disappointed – but you may be surprised.

The reason for that is all in the telling. Last time around the story was that of Rian, a young woman who is unexpectedly sold into slavery, and who has to learn harsh life lessons quickly as she is used and abused while trying to make some sense of how her life has transpired. In The Amber Seeker the narrator is Pytheas of Massalia, a character who also features in The Walrus Mutterer, and not a sympathetic one at that. This makes it a brave and fascinating decision from Haggith to look at events from his point of view.

If you think of famous films such as Rashomon, The Usual Suspects, or Jackie Brown, and how they look at events from different characters’ perspectives, you’ll have an idea as to what is going on with these narratives (when taken together) as the same story, or at least parts of it, are told from different points of view. Both Rian’s and Pytheas’ stories are riveting from beginning to end, but it’s where they overlap that makes for the most interesting reading. Is one more reliable than the other or are they just two sides of the same story? Or is the full picture to be found somewhere in-between?

This asks questions about the nature of truth, perspective, and the power of the narrator to influence where readers’ sympathies lie. As you would expect, Pytheas is portrayed as a more appealing personality this time around, but it is difficult to forgive or forget his behaviour as Rian experienced it. There is still a strong whiff of toxicity surrounding him, especially when convincing himself of the rights and wrongs of his actions, and Rian’s subsequent reaction. But it is not just he who regular readers will reassess – for those familiar with The Walrus Mutterer many of the main players, such as Toma, Ussa, Gruach, and Fraoch, are changed, to greater or lesser degrees, in relation to their interactions and relations with Pytheas.

At times the world that Haggith creates feels like fantasy as much as history – a sort of Game Of Thrones before the dragons – with warlords, curses, feuds, revenge, and the promise of prosperity in other lands. This is in part due to Haggith’s choice to use English no matter the speaker, with where an individual is from, and who they are, explained using backstory, plot, beliefs, costume, and character. It makes for a world which is strange and intriguing, but familiar enough for readers to immerse themselves fully.

When a book is part of a series then a pertinent question is always, “Do I have to have read the others?”. My answer to this is that, while it usually helps, the best novels need to stand alone. However, while that is true for The Amber Seeker, I would urge you to also read The Walrus Mutterer to get as full a picture as possible of the story up to now. Taken together they make The Lyre Dancers, the final volume in this trilogy, a novel which is eagerly awaited as this is a story which demands a fitting ending. But who gets to tell it, and how? Only Mandy Haggith knows, and that mystery is as intriguing as any.

The Amber Seeker is available now, published by Saraband Books

Call Me Ishbel: A Review Of Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope…

When you come to a trilogy at the end it can feel like you have missed too much to truly understand what’s going on. I can’t imagine seeing the The Godfather III without having seen I & II first, or, gawd help us, The Matrix Revolutions before The Matrix. However, that’s not always the case, and the best books and films in any series should work individually as well as part of the series, with the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy books, or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours’ films, being perfect examples.

After reading Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope, the final part of her ‘Sun Song Trilogy’, without having read the first two I can say that it passes the test of working as a stand-alone but one which also makes you want to spend more time with the characters, to discover fully how they, and their world, got to this point. If one of the characteristics of a good writer is to make you care, then Moira McPartlin does that in spades.

That’s partly because it’s a story that is all too believable – and terrifying. Set in the dystopian near future of 2089, Star Of Hope is close enough for many of its themes and concerns to be all too recognisable. Concerns over artificial intelligence, the distant between the have and have-nots (in this case the ‘Privileged’ and the ‘Natives’), genetics, the plight of the bees, and what happens when the lights go out, are all central to the story.

As with many such fictional worlds they increasingly feel like predictions rather than prose. In that sense Star Of Hope is similar in tone to Louise Welsh’s No Dominion, the third of her ‘Plague Times Trilogy’ in that both are about a final mission, or in this case missions, with groups travelling across the land. Along the way they encounter ever-increasing dangers, double-crossing, and death. Long-held beliefs are challenged and no-one reaches the end unchanged.

In Star Of Hope the story is mostly told in alternative chapters which focus on 16-year-old Sorlie and his aunt Ishbel. They undertake separate missions to find the legendary ‘Star Of Hope’ which, we are told, holds the key to returning to a better life, one which will benefit all and not just the few. Without giving anything away, while this proposed solution is not necessarily what you might expect, the world they encounter is just recognisable enough to believe that this possible world is worryingly probable.

Creating such a familiar world for her characters to inhabit allows McPartlin to have some fun with place and language. There is a visit to ‘Beckham City’, when people frown their eyebrows “pringle”, (a perfect image which I intend to use in future), messages are ‘pinged’ to each other, and there are lots of rumour and myth about the history of technology before the servers went down which emphasise just how, and how quickly, this world became the way it is.

There are no frivolities, nothing unnecessarily sensational, to sidetrack the reader. Sorlie and Ishbel’s missions are deadly serious, with nothing less than the very future at stake. But this is not the worthy and finger-wagging undertaking that it could have been. Sorlie and Ishbel are characters you care about, and I can only think this will be strengthened for those who have been with them from the start. However, there are plenty of other strong characters to invest in, from the taciturn and increasingly complex ‘Dawdle’, the damaged and confused ‘Noni’, the Machiavellian ‘Merj’, and the dependable ‘Reinya’. It’s a fine cast which gives not only the journey but its end a power it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

The final scenes are worthy of a Sam Peckinpah movie (or John Wick, for a more recent comparison), with bullets and bodies flying around and no-one sure what is going on. It’s a suitably dramatic ending to a novel which builds the tension right from the start and which never lets up (with a couple of notable and memorable beats for everyone to catch their breath). It’s one of the most exciting bits of writing I have read in some time, and a fitting conclusion.

Young Adult fiction, (or at least fiction with young people at its core), is thriving in Scotland – with some publishers having their own YA imprint, which speaks well for the future as well as the present. Recently memorable examples include Ross Sayer’s Mary’s The Name (his latest Sonny & Me is out now), Helen MaKinven’s Talk Of The Toun, Claire McFall’s Ferryman and Daniel Shand’s Crocodile, and Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope belongs in that company. Does it all end well? You’ll have to find that out for yourself, but it’s a journey well worth making.

Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope is published by Fledgling Press

Keeping It Corporeal: A Review Of Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other…

As regular visitors to SWH! will know, 404 Ink have, in a fairly short space of time, come to be recognised as a reliable mark of quality, publishing books which are not only well written and enjoyable to read, but which challenge readers and the literary status quo, allowing for marginalised voices to be heard, loud and clear.

Recent publications include Nadine Aisha Jassat’s poetry collection Let Me Tell You This, the Queer words anthology We Were Always Here, Chris McQueer‘s second short story collection HWFG, Helen McClory’s The Goldblum Variations (the international rights to which have just been sold to Penguin Books) and the rightly acclaimed collection of essays Nasty Women. By any standard that is an admirable list, and it only scratches the surface.

Their latest is Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other and it is a welcome and worthy addition. It’s a novel which hits you full in the face so hard it makes you fear for your front teeth. The arresting opening sentence sets the uneasy, and often queasy, tone which doesn’t let up till the last. A visceral read which is at times dreamlike as you become intoxicated by the sensual and sensory images and language. You may want to look away but you’ll find you can’t, desperate to know how things resolve themselves. However you’ll soon realise this isn’t about where the narrative is going, but why.

The writing is exemplary – lean and mean, reflecting the content – it’s where Ernest Hemingway meets Kathy Acker. It also pulls off the difficult trick of making you think you have experienced or read things which you haven’t. As with the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Nash makes you believe you have witnessed visceral acts of violence, and sex, when in fact she cuts away and lets your imagination run riot. In terms of editing as much as writing, Animals Eat Each Other is an example to all.

We are introduced to ‘Lilith’, although that is a name given to her by others, and which, she learns, is one rich in meaning and which comes to define her, and even shape her. Nash makes it clear that language is important, the things which are said and those that remain only thoughts, as well as how people are referred to and the way in which relationships are defined. The latter hold the promise of, if not happiness (which is rarely considered a possibility), escape, belonging, change, submission, and subsummation – the chance not only to be with someone else but to become someone, or something, else.

There are shifts in power and thought happening constantly, sometimes in the space of a single embrace. This is in no small part down to the fact that ‘Lilith’s’ is a mind never at rest, except when quietened by drink and drugs, or distracted by pain or pleasure. The world as she has experienced it has her constantly anxious which in turn has made her uncomfortable in her own skin – a skin she is, as with her identity, keen to shed, or to have others remove for her in the belief that psychological change can happen through physical manipulation.

Despite what you may initially think this is not a novel about sex and violence, but one which examines obsession, self image and worth, fantasy vs reality, want and the need to be wanted, and the complexity of human appetites and infatuation. You could say it is concerned with the politics of desire, the rules and regulations – some made clear, some unsaid – which play out in various, and arguably all, relationships. I have seen Animals Eat Each Other described elsewhere as ‘erotic’ but that doesn’t do it justice it at all as Nash digs much deeper than that. She is not concerned with the aesthetics of desire, but with the psychology – more Erica Jong than E.L. James.

If you are looking for recent points of reference then those of you who have read Helen McClory’s novel Flesh Of The Peach, Pauline Lynch’s Armadillos or Anneliese Mackintosh’s short story collection Any Other Mouth, will find similar themes in Animals Eat Each Other. With it Elle Nash has written the literary equivalent of a great Punk single – fast, furious, and unforgettable, one which sticks in your head and creeps beneath your skin. Animals Eat Each Other – you couldn’t ignore it if you tried.

Animals Eat Each Other is out now, published by 404 Ink.

You can still hear the SWH! Podcast with 404 Ink here