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
For 10 days in March there is only one place to be as Glasgow’s Aye Write! takes up its annual residency in the Mitchell Library between 9th-19th to cement its reputation as one of the best book festivals around. Pedants will point out that there are also events at the CCA, Kelvin Hall and Royal Concert Hall, 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 this city.
Here are a few selected highlights to give you something to think about, but you can peruse the full programme at your leisure here. They are all at the Mitchell unless stated otherwise. Continue reading
It’s the time for ‘Books Of The Year’ lists and we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection for 2016, while small, is beautifully formed and well worthy of your attention.
These are the books which stood out against a lot of stiff and perhaps better known competition. The list could have been longer but we like to stick to a traditional Top Ten. Consisting mostly of novels, with one remarkable collection of short stories, and one unforgettable musical (auto)biography, these are the books which have left their mark. Here’s what we thought at the time:
Young Soul Rebels – Stuart Cosgrove
Stuart Cosgrove writes as he broadcasts – eloquently, forcefully and at pace, and as such he makes persuasive and forceful arguments. If you have a music fan in your life, then I would suggest this book is the perfect gift. If they are a soul fan, then it is a must. Anyone who has ever pored over liner notes, obsessed over b-sides, searched out limited editions and rarities, or cued hours for tickets or entry will recognise themselves at least in part on the page, no matter what their musical tastes. Stuart Cosgrove is here to remind you that while music may not be a matter of life and death (and there are poignant reminders of that in Young Soul Rebels) it certainly makes the former worth living. Continue reading
There are few things I look forward to more than a new Doug Johnstone novel. Over the last decade, beginning with 2006’s Tombstoning, he has produced a body of work which manages to be familiar yet absolutely individual, and has written thrillers which defy formula. Since 2011’s Smokeheads in particular it has felt as if this was a writer who had found his voice and a style which made him stand apart in a very busy marketplace. That style is literate and lean – Johnstone doesn’t waste a word in order to move the plot along. Legendary Motown Svengali Berry Gordy used to appeal to his songwriters, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and it appears Johnstone has a similar approach to writing.
Taking his eight novels to date as a whole, you can begin to see two distinct threads emerge which can loosely be divided into domestic/family noir, and more straightforward thrillers. His latest, Crash Land, is definitely in the latter camp. It’s a breathless tale of “boy meets girl – boy and girl flirt and drink gin – boy and/or girl crash plane”, and it will delight fans of Smokeheads, Hit & Run and The Dead Beat in particular as it is a return to the breakneck action of those books, where an unsuspecting individual gets embroiled in life-changing events which are mostly of other people’s making. Continue reading
You may have had your fill already of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists already, 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 a lot of stiff competition in 2015. It could have been longer but we decided to stick to the traditional Top Ten. Consisting mostly of novels ,with a couple of music biographies thrown in, these books will take you to North Korea, Detroit, the Firth of Forth, the 17th century and Millport. 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:
A Book Of Death And Fish – Ian Stephen
There is a geographically thorough representation of Scotland as well as a historic and cultural one as we are taken from Shetland to the Solway Firth, West Coast to East Coast, and all around the coast as well. The land and the sea; the one constantly affecting the other, and this relationship comes to define Peter MacAulay’s life… This is an epic novel in more ways than one, but then this is the story of a man from cradle to grave and as such it deserves due consideration. Some people may be put off by the scale, but the writing is concise, accessible and memorable. Give it your time and you will not regret it for one moment. You may well think back on your own life in a different manner as a result.
Rise – Karen Campbell
Campbell is a writer who always manages to wrong foot you, seemingly for fun, and the results are never less than thrilling. She builds tension, often unbearably, as lies are threatened to be uncovered, and, even worse, so is the truth. All of her characters are fully developed and all-too believable, and this makes you take closer notice than you may have done otherwise as the various dilemmas unfold. You can not be a passive reader of a Karen Campbell novel. She refuses to let you. Rise is steeped in Scottish culture, but makes no big deal about it, just as it should be. Primarily it is a novel which is thought-provoking and involving, and never less than thoroughly entertaining. Spread the word; Karen Campbell has quietly become one of Scotland’s very best writers, and deserves to be considered as such. Consider it done.
The latest podcast sees Ali taking a break from all things festive in Edinburgh to talk to Doug Johnstone about his latest novel The Jump. In doing so they discover it’s not an easy book to talk about without giving away spoilers, but just about manage to avoid it. Their conversation touches on ‘domestic noir’, the need for serious research, why family dramas resonate the most, the importance of reading, and suggest that the real work of the writer is often in the edit.
Johnstone is one of the best thriller writers around, with a style which is deliberately lean and plot driven. The Jump, as with most of his novels, grabs you from page one and won’t let you go until the final full stop. It’s a deliberate and considered approach to writing and as such it’s fascinating to hear about the process he goes through.
For anyone interested in the realities of writing as well as the craft it’s worth staying to the end as he offers valuable insight to his life as a writer and the lessons he has learned along the way. It’s our third podcast with Doug and he’s always a pleasure to talk to, but this one felt particularly rewarding as there is no doubt that The Jump has been a challenging book to write, and has made him consider carefully how he now approaches each new novel, and why some are more draining propositions than others.
Seven novels in and it seems like Doug Johnstone’s writing is developing two distinct strands. There’s the fast paced, pulp fiction of Smokeheads, Hit & Run and The Dead Beat which are steeped in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with lashings of booze and self-loathing, and which have earned him a reputation as one of the best Scottish thriller writers around. But in 2013 he published Gone Again, a novel which focused on domesticated family life and what can happen when that life is torn apart.
He examines similar themes in his latest novel, The Jump, which once more looks at the devastation following the loss of a family member. The term “domestic noir” is one which has appeared recently, and these two novels, (as well as Helen Fitzgerald’s unforgettable The Cry) are classic examples of the genre. Mainstream thrillers concern things most people will never encounter (drug deals gone wrong, gangland shootings, private detection, etc…). Domestic noir novels are based around family dramas which are all too familiar to most of us, even if it’s only in our worst nightmares, carrying an emotional heft which more conventional examples of the form lack. They are dealing with our most basic fears; that something terrible will happen to those we love the most.
The Jump begins with parents Ellie and Ben trying to deal with the suicide of their son Logan months earlier. Ellie has taken to making regular pilgrimages to where Logan died, increasingly undertaking feats which push herself physically, and getting tattoos as a form of remembrance, but also punishment as if they are a socially acceptable form of self harming. She is in a state of shock, and it seems that such behaviour is the only way she can feel anything any more, which she needs to do to remember. Ben has immersed himself in conspiracy theories which he believes may explain his son’s state of mind at the time. He needs a rational explanation to something he just cannot comprehend.
For the past decade or so, I’ve been counting down my years in Edinburgh Book Festivals rather than birthdays. It’s a much less painful system, it means over two weeks of celebration, and the real birthday is in there somewhere for traditionalists.
While the Fringe rages all around it, this festival is an oasis of bookish bonhomie populated by like-minded folk, all obsessed with the written word. The festival team know they have a formula which works, so don’t overly tinker with it. The secret of that success? Invite the best writers available and get them to talk about their books all in the one place. What could be better?
This year it all happens between the 15th – 31st August, and, as usual, there’s far too much of the good stuff to mention it all here. I suggest reading the whole programme at edbookfest.co.uk, but not before you’ve read Scots Whay Hae’s preview of this year’s festival.
Scotland’s greatest writers are out in force, with Ali Smith and John Burnside leading the way on the opening weekend. If you have to beg, borrow and steal to see those two (and you may have to) then no jury in the land would convict you. Janice Galloway has a new collection of short stories, Jellyfish, which I highly recommend and she is always worth listening to. Others include previous SWH! podcast guests Louise Welsh, James Robertson, and Karen Campbell whose latest novel Rise is one of the best of the year so far. Michel Faber appears on the 29th, the author of Under the Skin and last year’s unforgettable The Book of Strange New Things. The day before, the equally charismatic Andrew O’Hagan will be talking about the inspiration behind his latest novel The Illuminations.