That Was The Year That Was: The Best Of 2019 Podcasts – Books…

For our Best Books of 2019 podcast Ali was once again joined by Publishing Scotland’s Vikki Reilly to have a chat about their year in books.

As well as discussing in detail their personal favourites they look at the writers who have left their mark, awards and award winners, festivals old and new, the healthy state of Scottish poetry, the continuing prosperity of crime fiction, what’s happening in the publishing world, the prevailing trends and themes of 2019, what to look forward to in 2020, and a whole lot more. Although they don’t quite manage to cover everything they give it a right good go and we hope you’ll find something to pique your interest.

This is always one of the most pleasant podcasts to record as the two geek out on their love of books. It’s also the perfect companion piece to our earlier post The Good Word: SWH!’s 10 Best Books Of 2019… where you’ll be able to link to reviews of many of the books and writers that Vikki and Ali discuss.

And don’t forget to check out the Books from Scotland website for more of the best of Scottish books (the latest issue has lots of suggestions for Christmas).

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, with Spotify, 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 listen to our Best Music of 2019 podcast here, and the Best Films of 2019 will be with you soon…

The Good Word: SWH!’s 10 Best Books Of 2019…

I know there are plenty of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists around this time competing for your time and attention, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is one for the more discerning book lover with something for everyone. It’s a good old-fashioned Top Ten which has short stories, sci-fi, historical fiction, crime, non-fiction, noir, comedy, and tragedy. There’s even some music to soundtrack your reading!

These are the publications which stood out against the stiffest competition. They will transport you back to the past and into the future, visiting, among many other Scottish stop offs, Paisley, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen as well as Belfast, London, Italy and the USA along the way. Taken as a whole they show the artistic diversity and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today and are proof that Scottish writing is in the finest fettle. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

Beerjacket – Silver Cords

For Beerjacket (Peter Kelly) dreams are the ‘silver cords’ connecting the creative and practical aspects of a person’s psyche, firing the imagination and inspiring an individual to create something from what occurs, whether in song, story, drawing, or poetry, all of which are a feature of this extraordinary book. It’s rare that an artist sets out a thesis on the importance of the creative process as clearly and then sees the resulting vision realised so fully. The best art makes you understand yourself better through other people’s thoughts, ideas and expression. With Silver Cords Peter Kelly has created a work so unashamedly personal that we should be thankful he has shared it with us. We’re all the better for it.

Silver Cords is published by Scottish Fiction.

David Keenan – For The Good Times

For all the artistry For The Good Times 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. He also understands how people act in their different groups, and how they think and act when they are alone.

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

Alan Trotter – Muscle

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 published by Faber & Faber Books

David F. Ross – Welcome To The Heady Heights

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.

Welcome To The Heady Heights is published by Orenda Books.

Claire MacLeary – Runaway

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 earlier in this review, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.

Runaway is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

Ewan Morrison – Nina X

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.

Nina X is published by Fleet.

Karen Campbell – The Sound of the Hours

Campbell uses the central relationship (between local girl Vita & ‘Buffalo Soldier’ Frank) 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.

The Sound of the Hours is 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.

The Sound of the Hours is published by Bloomsbury.

Jemma Neville – Constitution Street

Constitution Street is a book for our times, a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us. It’s a call to care, for ourselves and others, and where better to start than at your own front door. It’s a fascinating and intrinsically human approach to examining the practical applications and implications of social contracts in modern society. It learns from the past, examines the present, and looks to the future, offering the hope that by better understanding each other we will come to better know ourselves. How many books have you read lately which offer that?

Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety is published by 404 Ink

Catherine Czerkawska – A Proper Person To Be Detained

A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A Proper Person To Be Detained is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

M.J. Nicholls – Scotland Before The Bomb

Scotland Before The Bomb is that rarest of literary beasts – a satirical, witty, and considered comic novel which is deadly serious at its core. Coming near the end of a varied and vibrant year for Scottish writing, Nicholls has delivered one of the very best examples of just why this is. While you’ll find your own touchstones it’s unlike any other novel you’ll have read before unless you have read M.J. Nicholls. And if you haven’t you absolutely should. He could just be your new favourite writer – you just don’t know it yet.

Scotland Before The Bomb is published by Sagging Meniscus Press

Just missing out on the top ten are Mandy Haggith’s The Amber Seeker, Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay, Doug Johnstone’s Breakers, Ross Sayer’s Sonny & Me, Helen Fitzgerald’s Worst Case Scenario, Alan Parks’ February’s Son, and David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall, but you should still click on those names, read their reviews and seek them out all the same.

Our review of the year in books podcast with Vikki Reilly will be with you very shortly…

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.

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.

*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.

Talking Books & Telling Stories: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To David Keenan…

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer David Keenan about his latest novel For The Good Times. After the success of his previous book This Is Memorial Device, (Scots Whay Hae!‘s Book of 2017), it was always going to be fascinating to see how he would follow it, but he has done so in fine style.

The two discuss the setting of Belfast in the ’70s, the personal connections Keenan has to that time and place, and the way language shapes the story. They also consider as diverse and disparate subjects as masculinity, magic, Modernism, sectarianism, Sufism, and song, and that only scratches the surface of their conversation.

It’s always a pleasure, and an education, to listen to David Keenan as there are few writers who talk with the insight, honesty, knowledge and passion about their work as he does. So make yourself comfortable and strap in – this is a podcast not to be missed.

You can read Ali’s initial review of For The Good Times over at the excellent Books From Scotland website. A slightly longer version will appear on these pages in the coming days.

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:

Our next podcast will be with one of the most exciting and inventive bands around at the moment. We’ll tell you who that is very soon…

The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s Best Books Of 2017…

 

dsc_06491.jpgYou may have had your fill of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is small, beautifully formed, and well worthy of your attention.

These are the books which stood out against stiff competition in 2017. The list could easily have been longer but we like to stick to a traditional Top Ten. Consisting of five novels, two short story collections, a musical/historical biography, a collection of journalism, and a peerless book of essays, they take you to Memphis, Airdrie, Springboig and the Alsace, with detours to Firhill, London during the Blitz, New Mexico and Millport along the way. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the breadth of artistic and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

DSC_0382David Keenan – This Is Memorial Device

This Is Memorial Device is spot on in terms of time and place, but it’s so much more than that. It’s rare for a writer to capture both in a manner which avoids nostalgia and feels relevant, but Keenan manages to do so. This is a novel which is about what it means to be young, about the hows and whys – the when and where is less relevant. It’s about youth. Real youth, not the sort of arrested development that is all too common these days. I’ve read it twice and will do so again before too long. At the age of 46 it’s had a palpable effect on me. If I had read it when I was 15, (as happened with The Busconductor Hines and The Wasp Factory),  there’s every chance it would have changed my life. That’s your definition of a cult novel right there.

You can hear David Keenan talking about This Is Memorial Device on the SWH! podcast. Continue reading

Write On: Scots Whay Hae!’s Top 10 Picks Of The Edinburgh International Book Festival…

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From the 12th – 28th August in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens once more becomes the place for book lovers to meet, greet, and be merry as this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival takes up its annual residence. It’s an oasis of calm and conversation in a city gone daft, and it is one of SWH!’s favourite places to be. With that and much more in mind, and 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.

We have tried to avoid the already sold-out and high-profile to give you an alternative and achievable schedule.

FICTION’S MASTER CRAFTSMAN: James Kelman
– Fri 18 Aug 1:30pm – 2:30pm
UnknownHaving said we have tried to avoid big names, the first pick is one of Scottish literature’s living legends. James Kelman is in town to talk primarily about his latest collection of short stories That Was A Shiver, and Other Stories. There is a body of thought, to which I belong, which believes that while Kelman is one of our great novelists he is an even better short story writer – a master of the art. It is a form which suits not only his style but also the content. What is unarguable is that this is a rare chance to listen to a true artist read and discuss his work. Astonishingly tickets still available at the time of writing, but I would get in there quickly to avoid disappointment. Continue reading

Back And Forth: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To David Keenan…

bHQj2XzwFor the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer David Keenan about his novel This Is Memorial Device. Anyone who has read the Scots Whay Hae! review of the book will know how highly we rate it, and it’s fascinating to hear David talk about the influences behind it, why it was always going to be an Airdrie novel, the reasons the book is structured as it is, and so much more.

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The two race through many subjects, including the legacy of post-punk, the importance of the art and music of Scottish small towns and David’s compulsion to write. This includes further novels, his journalism, and non-fiction,  (England’sHidden Reverse  is especially highly recommended) although whether talk of a West Of Scotland take on Lord Of The Rings is serious we’ll leave for you to decide.

We’re calling it one of the most interesting and engaging podcasts yet, but listen for yourselves and see if that’s a bold claim or not. If you aren’t intrigued enough by the end to read This Is Memorial Device then, frankly, we haven’t done our job. Continue reading