The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s 10 Best Books Of 2018 (+1)…

DSC_0809 2.jpgI know you’re bombarded with ‘Books Of The Year’ lists around this time, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is one for the more discerning book lover. It’s a good old-fashioned Top-Ten, but, as with Nigel Tufnel’s amp, this one goes to 11. Which is one better…

These are the publications which stood out against the stiffest competition in 2018, consisting of four new novels, three short fiction collections, the conclusion of a soul music and civil rights trilogy, a book of spell poetry, a history of Scottish pop, plus our bonus entry – a re-issue of a modern Scottish classic.

They will transport you to Harlem, Lewis, Bangour, and post-war America, with detours to Orkney, the Scottish Borders, Edinburgh, Paris, Moscow past and present, and through the looking-glass, along the way. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the artistic diversity and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today and proof that Scottish writing is in fine fettle indeed. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

Olga Wotjas – Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar

37795464Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is a crime novel for those people who think they don’t like crime novels. It is also a novel of manners, a comedy, a romance, (although not necessarily a romantic-comedy), and a work of science fiction. With so many influences at work, and genres juggled, it really shouldn’t work but it never falls down and Olga Wojtas should be praised for pulling such a feat off. I’m pretty sure I won’t read anything like it this year, unless it is ‘Miss Blaine’s Prefect’s’ next mission impossible, and I’m hoping that we won’t have to wait too long for that.

Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books Continue reading

Tales Of The Unexpected: A Review Of Andrew Crumey’s The Great Chain of Unbeing…

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When is a book of short stories not a book of short stories? When it is written by Andrew Crumey. As those who have read his previous work, (which includes Sputnik Caledonia, Pfitz, and The Secret Knowledge), will know he is a writer who appears to derive great delight in the undertaking of writing and the possibilities it offers, and also in playing with the expectations of readers. He unashamedly embraces ideas and examines them with a forensic, yet playful, eye. This has never been shown to better effect than with his latest book The Great Chain Of Unbeing  – a collection of stories which are bound intrinsically, yet almost imperceptibly, by interrelated situations and characters. Just who, how, why, where and when – these are all for you to uncover and unpick.

It begins at the ‘Unbeginning’ and ends with an ‘Unending’. Between the two are the stories which make ‘The Great Chain Of Unbeing’, a title which hints at the connections which run through these tales, and which asks questions about what we can claim as real. “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”. Crumey tackles that question, but not head on – more a tackle from the side. These connections are not linear, they are a network with strands leading you in unexpected directions. Continue reading

Caledonia Homesick Blues: A Review Of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia…

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Parallel worlds, or the Multiverse theory, feature prominently in recent Scottish writing. The best known examples are Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Iain Banks’ The Bridge, two books where real life runs parallel to another, more fantastic, although often dystopian world, with the central character inhabiting both. Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia is another example to add to the list.

Set initially in a recognisable 20th century Scotland, Robbie Coyle’s story also takes place in a military-controlled fantasy future. The past is cloaked in nostalgia for an ideal and idealised childhood, which most readers will identify with to some degree, while the future examines what pressures come to bear on an individual once that childhood ends. The former is fantasy set in reality, the latter a harsh reality set in a fantastic world, and Crumey uses this device to ask interesting philosophical, political, scientific and moral questions.

It’s a structure that initially poses a problem as Crumey’s depiction of Robbie’s childhood is so vivid you may be tempted to linger there. The young Robbie obsessed with space and dreams of becoming a cosmonaut – a particular stance swayed by his fervently socialist father. Crumey sees the world through a child’s eyes quite beautifully, inviting long forgotten memories and musings to come to the fore. These include believing your parents are not who they say they are, trying to understand why certain family rules apply only to you, and the confusing approach of lust and attraction from an already uncertain adult world. Robbie struggles to come to terms with his growing up, armed only with his increasingly vivid imagination.

Just as we are getting comfortable in Robbie’s childhood, he and we are suddenly thrown into the future. Although jarring at first, you begin to get your bearings when you realise this world just as involving if much more threatening. It is a society where paranoia rules, something the state openly encourages and supports. Robbie still dreams of going into space and is competing against other candidates to fulfil his ambition. Many tests and tribulations are placed in his way, in all aspects of his life. Sex, for instance, is used as collateral, to blackmail, and sometimes even more bizarrely. Without going in to details here, the phrase “I think I saw the Red Star” may be one you use in the future.

It could be read as a warning against the communism that Robbie’s father desires, but I don’t believe Crumey is being that specific. Rather, this is a warning of how the individual can be controlled and suppressed by any government that professes to act for the greater good, and Robbie finds himself having to break their rules to survive. The comparison with Iain Banks is a particularly apt one as Crumey not only shares his sense of humour but also his political rigour, and like The Bridge, Sputnik Caledonia tests free will against state control.

It is a novel which is as ambitious as the young Robbie Coyle himself, and similarly threatens to fail at times, but when you reach the unexpectedly emotional finale you are in awe that Crumey has, once again, pulled it off. When taken with his other novels Pfitz and The Secret Knowledge, it could be argued that Andrew Crumey is not only one of the most interesting and challenging novelists around, but one of the very best. He may be your new favourite writer; you just don’t know it yet. Universally approved.

*This review first appeared in Gutter Magazine

Below is the audio version of this review: