In our recent podcast with Helen McClory the subject of literary fiction, and what makes it so special, arose. You can still hear the full discussion by listening here, but a brief summary of the conclusion of the conversation is that it is in literary fiction where the human condition is best explored, and more fully understood, with a depth and resonance which is almost impossible in other art forms where such exploration is more fleeting. You may disagree with that assertion, but when it works at its best literature inspects shared human experience and gives us a better understanding of what that means.
Alison Moore’s latest novel Missing fulfils the above criteria, and proves to be an iron fist in a velvet glove. Told in an apparently straightforward and deceptively modest manner, the emotional punch it delivers is all the more significant because of it. The best writers never allow style to overcome substance. Even those who experiment with the form, such as Joyce with Ulysses, or Gray with Lanark, are looking at what it means to be human, to live. Jessie Noon is living her late 40s in the Scottish Borders with her cat, dog, a large collection of books, and possibly a ghost. But Jessie is haunted more by her past rather than what resides in the spare room, and her inability to come to terms with that past is apparently preventing her from moving forward. However, Moore understands that life is rarely that straightforward. Continue reading
Let’s lay our cards on the table before we begin – Doug Johnstone is not only one of SWH!’s favourite writers, but among our favourite people, holding the joint record for podcast appearances with the equally loved and admired Louise Welsh. As such, a new novel from the man is a cause for celebration round our way, so we have dug out the bunting out for his latest, Fault Lines, which is finally with us.
To say “finally” is admittedly harsh for such a prolific writer. From 2011-2016 he had written and published a book a year – Smokeheads, Hit & Run, Gone Again, The Dead Beat, The Jump and Crash Land – a remarkable run of some of the most genuinely thrilling writing of recent times. 2017 was the first year with no Doug Johnstone novel for six, and while it is stretching a point too far to say we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, he was definitely missed. This is because a large part of the appeal of his writing is that there are many traits of true noir/pulp fiction in his work – quickly devoured leaving a keen desire to read what comes next. Continue reading
These music roundups often seem to throw up themes which are unintentional, but undeniable all the same. This latest batch of songs, when taken together, engender a reflective and almost melancholic mood, something which probably says more about your reviewer than the music itself. Again there is proof that singer/songwriters are in the ascendency, with a few band contributions to balance things out. But whether it’s folk, pop, indie rock, acoustic or electric, all of the following would be at home on an album called Now That’s What I Call Slightly Pensive Yet Still Sanguine…
Zoe Bestel’s album Transcience came out last month on Last Night From Glasgow, and it’s rarely been off the SWH! turntable since. It’s a collection of songs which are aching in their beauty and fragility, yet there is a core strength and assuredness which makes you feel, if just while the record plays, that everything really is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, despite evidence to the contrary.
Musically, there are similarities with Stina Nordenstam, Emiliana Torrini, early Laura Veirs and late period Kate Bush, but Zoe Bestel is as original as they come, and as comfortable in her music as she is breathing. There is no artifice in evidence, just songs where the key is life. From Transcience, this is ‘Grey Skies’, and it makes all the above points, and more, better than I could ever manage:
Yesterday (Sunday 6th May) saw the last in the current run of Scottish Opera‘s Sunday Series: Opera In Concert, and, as with the previous concerts of the 2017/18 season, it came from Russia. This time around it was a double bill of Rachmaninov’s one-act operas, Aleko and Francesca Da Rimini, and what a way to finish what has been a breathtaking season. As with the recently reviewed Eugene Onegin, these operas were packed full of passion, with familiar themes of love, regret, the vibrancy of youth, the cruel passing of time, but now there was added murder, betrayal, sizzling affairs, sibling rivalry, damnation, and a journey into hell. It’s what Sunday’s are all about.
The parallels between these two operas and Eugene Onegin are marked, with Aleko being based upon another, lesser known, Pushkin poem, The Gypsies (which some consider an influence on Carmen), while Francesca Da Rimini (given its Scottish premiere here) has a libretto from Tchaikovsky’s brother, the brilliantly monikered ‘Modest’. The former opera is about the traveller, Aleko, who falls in love with the gypsy woman, Zemfira. As her love for him fades she gives her heart to another, younger, suitor, and when Aleko finds out… Well, let’s just say things don’t end well. Continue reading
Back in 2011 I wrote a post for the much missed Dear Scotland website on Ron Butlin’s 1987 novel The Sound Of My Voice as part of the monthly Indelible Ink column. In it I made the claim that it was “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”. A new edition is being published by Polygon, and I thought this was the perfect time to revisit it to see if that assertion still stood strong.
I should lay my cards on the table before we start. The Sound Of My Voice is one of those cultural touchstones which have become part of my identity. As with the music of The Blue Nile, the writing of James Kelman, the films of Bill Forsyth, and everything that John Byrne has ever done, it is something I evangelise about, attempting conversions whenever possible. These are important relationships and returning to them after time away brings the possibility of disappointment and disillusion if you find they no longer affect you as they once did. It’s a risky business. Continue reading
I have written a few reviews of Scottish Opera productions, and they are more often than not along the lines of “I may not know a lot about opera, but here’s what I liked”. With their latest opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, I at least can claim to know the source material, Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 ‘verse novel’ of the same name, which is arguably (and I will argue it) one of the greatest treatise on the nature of love ever written.
This makes it the perfect story for opera, something which Tchaikovsky clearly understood. He was nicknamed ‘the little Pushkin’ as a child by his governess, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he felt an affinity with this Russian writer in particular, but, with its themes of love, regret, vanity, obsession, selfishness, the passing of time and youth, duty, ennui, and passion vs convention, it is perhaps more suitable for realists rather than romantics. Continue reading
The west coast of Scotland has always had a close and often adoring relationship with Americana culture, particularly the imagery and music of classic rock ‘n’ roll and country and western. From Roy Rodgers and Trigger staying at Glasgow’s Central Hotel and the legend of Elvis landing at Prestwick Airport, through legendary nights at The Grand Ole Opry, Rock Garden and Blackfriars, and with generations dressed in clothes from Flip, the fascination with these two strands of US culture endure, with arguably no one capturing the love affair better than John Byrne with his classic TV shows Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart.
The current Scottish music scene, and Glasgow’s in particular, suggests this rockabilly romance shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, and Holy Smokes Records are central to the best of what is going on. Recent releases have included excellent albums and EPs from The Strange Blue Dreams, Les Johnson & Me, Awkward Family Portraits and Harry And The Hendersons, each one worthy of your attention. Continue reading
When writing in any genre, new writers in particular have a balance to try to get right. They want to introduce something fresh while still making the writing recognisable to regular readers who expect certain tropes and conceits from their fiction. If you can get the balance right then there is every chance you have a successful novel on your hands.
One of the finest crime fiction debuts of recent years was Claire MacLeary’s Cross Purpose (right). Published in 2017 on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books, it introduced two new crime fighters in the unfamiliar form of Maggie Laird and “Big” Wilma Harcus, an odd couple in a fine and long tradition from Holmes and Watson to the vast majority of recent TV detectives (Morse/Lewis, Scott/Bailey, Creek/Magellen and Hayes/Addison being just a few personal favourites). Continue reading
There are often claims that ambition and risk are increasingly resisted and discouraged in contemporary fiction – sure things are what booksellers are after leading to books being published which are easy to market and sell. While I’m sure there is evidence to back this up, I would suggest Scottish writing has rarely been as healthy in terms of different voices and visions, and this is cause for celebration.
In the last couple of years, on these pages, we have reviewed novels as diverse and challenging as David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device, M.J. Nicholls’ The House Of Writers, Olga Wojtas’ Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, Polly Clark’s Larchfield, Helen McClory’s Flesh Of The Peach, Ever Dundas’ Goblin, Charlie Laidlaw’s The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, Kenneth Steven’s 2020, David F. Ross’ The Man Who Loved Islands, Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant & Forever, and many more. All of them are distinctive and diverse, and add fresh and invigorating perspectives to the Scottish cultural conversation. Or, to put it another way, and in the words of Chic – “These are the good times”. Continue reading
Most of our music reviews are a mixed bag when it comes to style and content, but the one you are about to experience definitely has a theme. It features great singers and great songs – deceptively simple yet they are all the more powerful for the manner they are produced and presented. This is music which stays with you longer after the last note sounds. Put simply, all of the people you are about to hear – they mean it, man.
Stay on till the end for a bonus track which is a fitting conclusion to this review. It’s not just thrown together, you know…
Alasdair Roberts has featured on these pages many times before, either for one of his many solo projects or in collaboration with others, such as with Ross Whyte, and The Furrow Collective. The latest of the latter sees him alongside composer Amble Skuse and Concerto Caledonia head-honcho David McGuinness for the album What News which the three played in full at the launch at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe. Roberts is known for staying faithful to the folk traditions, but this latest record, with McGuinness’s wonderful piano and Skuse’s understated electronica, breathes new life into old songs.
To my untutored ear, there is something about the loops of all three which works together beautifully – the structure and format of the ballads enhanced and developed by the new accompaniment, and lending the stories themselves extra strength and vigour. Whatever the reason, the result is a quite remarkable record – one of the best of the year, and one of the best of Roberts’ career to date. I urge you to seek it out, and if you get the chance to see them live then make sure you book your seats in good time. To give you a taste as to what to expect, this is ‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’: