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

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If it’s true that the Devil has all the best tunes, He (and it’s almost always a He) tends to get all the best films, plays and books as well – with one notable exception. Milton, Marlowe, Goethe, and Byron all depicted versions of Satan/Mephistopheles/Lucifer, and in the last 100 years the representations are innumerable.

One regular narrative trope is where the Devil leaves Hell to visit us here on Earth, notably in films such as The Omen, Angel Heart and even The Witches Of Eastwick. The stories range from the sublime, (Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle), through the mawkish (Meet Joe Black), to the ridiculous, (God help us, Little Nicky – if you ever needed proof that neither deity exists then that film is surely it).

Jonathan Whitelaw‘s latest novel, Hellcorp, takes the above idea, runs with it, and has great fun with it. Whitelaw quotes Mark Twain at the beginning of the book, “Go to Heaven for the climate. Hell for the company.”, which gets to the heart of our fascination with all things Hellish – it’s where the fun is to be had. The reason that endures is a whole other conversation.

Hellcorp opens with our anti-hero in consultation with the Pope. He wants to make Hell legitimate, and feels that in the Pope there is a man (and in this case it IS always a man) who should understand. This desire for change is rooted  in an unshakeable feeling that He is in a rut – His unreciprocated lusting after His secretary, Alice, (particularly poignant in the current climate), only exacerbating the feeling.

Constantly being the bad guy has taken its toll. He decides that His work is now so well-understood, so set in stone, that it can be carried out in His absence. To this end He sets up a company, the titular Hellcorp, which can handle things while He takes a well-earned vacation. The only problem is approval for leave is needed from His line-manager, who just happens to be God, and there are conditions. He can have a holiday as long as He solves a mystery which has even the Almighty stumped.

After some fairly one-sided negotiations, the Devil finds himself in Glasgow – where better to blend in? – where he awakes on an operating table. There He meets Jill Gideon. She will become the Watson to His Sherlock as they traverse the city trying to solve ever evolving crimes, although perhaps Moonlighting‘s David Addison and Maddie Hayes is a better comparison as the two constantly, and entertainingly, bicker and fall out. Questions of faith, (although not as you might think), trust, guilt and revenge are explored, but with an unusual theological bent.

The unconventional detectives find themselves coming into contact with a host of Glaswegian ne’er-do-wells, as well as Demons – the two often indistinguishable. These are individuals who make even the Devil shake his head in disbelief. What becomes clear is that Jill’s role in this tale is central, and as her desire for retribution becomes stronger, so her partner, unexpectedly, becomes almost valorous – a twist which no one sees coming.

Hellcorp brings to mind John Niven’s The Second Coming, (where God takes a holiday, leaving his son, JC, in charge), Alasdair Gray’s Fleck, (his take on Goethe’s Faust), but also the political tribulations and machinations of Yes Minister, Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life & Death, and even Andy Hamilton’s excellent radio comedy Old Harry’s Game.

It is yet another example of the innovation and diversity in evidence in the sometimes maligned genre that is Scottish crime fiction. In recent years we have had books from writers as distinct as Graeme Macrae Burnet, Graham Lironi, Louise Welsh, Douglas Skelton, Doug Johnstone, Denise Mina, Manda Scott, Charles E. McGarry, and Stuart David, among many others. All these writers are markedly different from one another, and to them you can add Jonathan Whitelaw. If you have read the above review and come to the conclusion that Hellcorp is not for you then I have failed you. Buy it, read it, and if you don’t then Hell mend you.

Hellcorp is published by Urbane Publications.

An Indelible Event: A Review Of Donald S. Murray’s As The Women Lay Dreaming…

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It’s a well-worn argument, but the lack of Scottish history taught in schools has undoubtedly had a negative affect on the Scottish cultural psyche. To quote Sam Henry (then President of Scottish Association of Teachers of History) in The Scotsman in 2005 this situation means, “we are not doing justice to pupils and their grasp of their own heritage and their ability to come to terms with the world.” I won’t go into it much further here, except to say that a prime example of such gaps in many people’s knowledge of Scottish history, outside of the Highlands and Islands, is the sinking of HMY Iolaire on 1st January 1919 off the port of Stornaway. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters with over 200 out of the 283 aboard dying. They were returning from the First World War, so close to home they could almost touch it. The very definition of a national tragedy.

The first I heard of it was in song (in my mid-30s) and I found it embarrassing that was the case, if understandable. However, learning about it in this way does suggest that such stories told artfully can help fill in those gaps in people’s knowledge and awareness. So it is with Donald S. Murray’s new novel As The Women Lay Dreaming (Saraband Books) which gave me an insight into the Iolaire disaster which no history book could manage, in a manner similar to the way Iain Crichton Smith’s novel Consider the Lilies gives perspective to, and understanding of, the Highland Clearances. Murray’s is a powerful book, one which tells of a survivors’ story and the effect such a terrible event can have even through the generations. Continue reading

Pop Life: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Carla J. Easton…

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For the latest SWH! podcast Ali caught up with musician Carla J. Easton to talk about her new album Impossible Stuff, which is released on the 5th October on Olive Grove Records.

As well as explaining the Canadian roots of the record, and how time spent in residencyimgID106497291.jpg.gallery there changed her life, she also talks about the importance of home, her many collaborations, her musical history, Teen Canteen (right), Ette, and the documentary she is working on with Blair Young about women pioneers of Scottish pop.

Carla is one of the most innovative and interesting musicians working today and it was a pleasure to talk to her and get a better understanding of how and why she does what she does. If you love music you just have to take a listen, but it’s also a fascinating insight as to what is involved in the artistic process. Continue reading

New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…

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The evocative seasonal change from summer to autumn needs a suitable soundtrack to match, and I think SWH! can provide just that. It’s another strong selection which once again proves that we are living in good times when it comes to Scottish music. We have the return of old friends under new names, debut appearances, new discoveries, and the reissue of a lost classic. Coming from all over Scotland there’s electronica, indie pop & rock, Americana, country, soul, harmonies and heartbreak, and some of the finest songwriting you’ll find anywhere. If any or all of that appeals to you, read on…

Allan J. Swan has been making music for many years in various shapes and sizes, not least with the mighty, and much missed, YAK. His latest release comes under the wonderfully monikered Bang Bang Cannoli. The album is called Something Better, and this first release, ‘Oblivion Now’, is a taste of what’s to come. An old school electronic track which gently builds, adding strings and drums as it does so, with Swan’s understated and plaintive vocals, it’s where Vangelis meets Aidan Moffat, or if Tangerine Dream were fronted by Stuart Braithwaite. Swan identifies himself as “..one of many bald beardy suicidally depressed men that has blundered about in the Glasgow music scene for the last 20 years.” There may be many, but few make music as good as this. This is ‘Oblivion Now’:

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A Life In Film: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To May Miles Thomas…

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4oyoqq68z6zvhepr87pdFor the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer & director May Miles Thomas (left) about her incredible film Voyageuse and the issues and themes it addresses, such as family, sibling rivalry, ageing, grief, and much, much more.

During their chat the two also discuss different approaches to making film, May’s previous projects, using setbacks as inspiration, the problem in getting heard in a crowded market, and the primary importance of story in her work.

It’s a fantastic listen, one which is essential for anyone who is interested, not only in the process and reality of filmmaking, but all aspects of creating art in Scotland. There is also mention of Hitler, satanism in Glasgow, Sian Philips, and the CIA. What more could you want from a podcast?

If you are in London on Friday 14th you can see Voyageuse on the big screen as it is showing at the Picturehouse Central, when there will also be a Q&A with May Miles Thomas and Dame Sian Philips. For everyone else, you can watch the full film over at Vimeo as well as view the trailers for other productions from Thomas’ Elemental Films, and the full-length version of the much discussed The Devil’s Plantation. If you visit the latter’s website you will find all the information you need to follow in Harry Bell’s footsteps (and for that to make sense you’ll have to listen to the podcast first). In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Voyaguese: Continue reading

Take Two: A Review Of Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet…

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If ever a novel deserved a long life it is Kirstin InnesFishnet. A winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, and one of The Independent’s Top 10 Debut Fiction Books of 2015, it was, like far too many others, a casualty of the liquidation of Freight Books. So it is most welcome news that it is being republished by Black & White Publishing, in a beautiful new edition, which makes it the perfect time to republish the SWH! review of Fishnet from 2015*. Having read it again, we stand by every word:

As if confirmation was needed, the 50 Shades phenomenon proved once more that when it comes to fiction, sex sells. It was also a timely reminder that there are too few novelists prepared to write seriously about sex. This is particularly true with regard to the sex industry and those who work in it, both of which are all too often stigmatised and stereotyped without a second thought.

Kirstin Innes’ novel Fishnet gives the subject the serious consideration it deserves, and in doing so she has written a book which will challenge the reader, making them reassess what they thought they knew as it refuses to offer easy answers but raises many uncomfortable questions. If after reading you haven’t reviewed your own attitudes, to the selling of sex and so much more, then I’m afraid it says more about you than it does Fishnet. Continue reading

Scots Whay Hae! Presents… Starry Skies’ new single & video, ‘Starry Skies’

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Against all odds, and just when we need it most, kindness is having a welcome renaissance, at least in terms of our culture. At this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, talking about his collection of essays The Passion Of Harry Bingo, journalist Peter Ross explained that the key to his work is kindness. He never belittles or condescends to those who he writes about, no matter how alternative their lifestyles or interests may appear. From S&M clubs to the subject of self-harm, Ross approaches his interviewees from a position of empathy and understanding.

It’s refreshing to hear, and other examples can be found in the work of Grammy winning singer/producer Adam Bainbridge, who is better know as Kindness, and in recent books by Helen Taylor and Helen McClory. What unites them is a desire to understand the choices and lifestyles of others, and include them in any conversation – benevolance without patronization. In short, and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, the theme is, “Be excellent to each other”.

To those you can add the forthcoming Starry Skies’ album Be Kind which is out in UnknownOctober on Fox Star Records. Starry Skies are a bit of a Supergroup, as well as a super group, with members of Sister John, The Gracious Losers, and Attic Lights involved, as well as a various guest appearances when playing live. They are ably led by singer-songwriter Warren McIntyre,  a man who has played with legendary bands The Ducks, The Moondials, and many more. This is a band of multi-talents who come together to make a greater whole. Continue reading

Paint It Black: A Review Of Helen Taylor’s The Backstreets Of Purgatory…

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I recently attended the Glasgow launch of Helen Taylor’s debut novel The Backstreets Of 39330800_598687323859088_5110516692849524736_nPurgatory. It was a fascinating and refreshingly different approach to a book event. Instead of the usual chat with chair/readings/Q&A format Taylor replaced the former with a talk on the life and work of the infamous Italian painter Caravaggio (along with an old-school approach to slideshows – see right) to a packed Byres Road Waterstones.

This decision was not as left-field as it may sound as Caravaggio not only plays a major part in the plot of The Backstreets Of Purgatory, but also the structure, with chapters being named after the artist’s paintings (a selection of which are at the bottom of this review). But the important question is, “Is the book any good?”. The short answer is “Very”. The long answer begins now.

I had no knowledge of The Backstreets Of Purgatory before its launch, and only a little more than that afterwards as Taylor avoided spoilers even after her reading. The back cover proclaimed it as “Caravaggio In Glasgow, A Tale of Art, Insanity And Irn-Bru”. While pithy, that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Struggling Glaswegian artist Finn Garvie dreams of being the city’s answer to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, but spends most of his time contemplating work rather than creating it, occasionally caricaturing patrons of the local Bingo. His long-suffering girlfriend, Lizzi, senses he views their relationship in a similarly lackadaisical fashion. This is in part due to Finn discovering a new muse in the shape of au pair Kassia, who, to his chagrin, doesn’t want to know. Continue reading

New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…

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This is proving to be a summer of love with a soundtrack to match. With incredible albums already from SWH! favourites Modern Studies, The Scottish Enlightenment, Tracyanne & Danny, Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert, and Kathryn Joseph (more of which below), and the promise of releases from The Gracious Losers, The Starry Skies, L-Space, and Carla J. Easton this long hot summer is shaping up to be a memorable one in terms of Scottish music. You want proof? Keep on reading and be convinced.

I first heard Lynnie Carson at one of Warren McIntyre’s Seven Song Clubs which are held at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre every month. It was a solo set and I was immediately blown away. Her voice has a warmth which is rare and welcome, and this is to the fore on her latest single ‘Love Is’, which she recorded with her band, the excellently monikered Hawking Gimmicks, made up of some fantastic musicians as was shown with their set at the recent Seven Song Club Weekender where they were a highlight. If you get the chance to see Lynnie, either on her own or with the band, don’t miss it as this is someone with music in her very bones, and the love she has for what she does is infectious. This is ‘Love Is’:

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American Horror Story: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Andy Davidson…

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For the latest podcast Ali met up with the American novelist Andy Davidson before his event at The Edinburgh International Book Festival. In an ironically dreich Charlotte Square the two discuss Andy’s terrific debut novel In The Valley Of The Sun which is among the best of the year so far.

DhhU22jWAAAKJSQPublished on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books,  In The Valley Of The Sun is set in the small towns of the Texas desert. We’re calling it a vampire thriller unlike any other, but, as you’ll hear, that’s not necessarily how Andy sees it.

If you want a point of reference think Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, or even Jim Jarmusch’s 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, among many other cinematic and literary influences. Dripping with blood, sweat and tears, it is as shocking as it is compelling, and in Travis Stickwell Davidson has created an anti-hero for the ages. If you are a fan of horror and/or crime fiction then you don’t want to miss out on this one. Continue reading