Sometimes you read a novel which catches you unaware – enough that you have to pause, take a breath, and start all over again, taking the time to calibrate to the language and imagery used. More often than not it is a sign of writing which isn’t afraid to experiment and take risks. Such a novel has to convince you that it is right and it’s up to you to adapt your expectations. All of the above applies to Helen McClory’s debut novel Flesh Of The Peach, and it pays back the reader prepared to engage in spades.
It’s a novel about grief and self-loathing in southwest America, and how dealing with those emotions is as difficult and potentially destructive as life gets. Flesh Of The Peach opens in New York where English artist Sarah Browne is left reeling from the end of an affair with the married Kennedy, a woman in whom Sarah had staked unrealistic hopes of happiness, not realising, or perhaps realising all too well, that this was a doomed relationship from the start. For someone who sees herself as a failure it is exactly the sort of liaison which will simply prove that beleif to be true once more. Continue reading
A good anthology is a wonderful thing, bringing together often diverse writers united under a theme or concept. I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading two very fine examples alongside one another, both of which use place as their subject, but the approach to the very different locations sets them apart and makes them interesting to compare.
One is The Book Of Iona, a collection edited by Professor Robert Crawford, which looks at the literary history as well as the geography of this iconic island, featuring writers as diverse as William Shakespeare, Sara Lodge, Edwin Morgan and Queen Victoria, and there will be a review of this in 2017.
The other is Umbrellas Of Edinburgh, and it concentrates on the there and now. The premise is simple, with various writers invited to “choose a location in Edinburgh and write about it.” What this allows is a wide range of voices and perspectives lending this book a variety which arguably gives the most complete and rounded depiction of this famous city to date. The more iconic landmarks and locations are present, but so are those places the tourists rarely tread. Continue reading
A defining feature of 2016 has been the quality of debut fiction on offer. As November hoves into view people start to enquire as to your favourite books of the year and many of mine have been written by first time authors, something which bodes well for the future as well as making for an exciting present.
The time for full disclosure of such lists is not yet with us, but I can all but guarantee that Deborah Andrews’ debut Walking The Lights will feature. Set in mid-’90s Glasgow, this was always a novel I was going to have at least an affinity with, but what began as a trip in personal nostalgia with regard to time and place quickly moved to become something more profound and affecting.
The central character, Maddie, is a young actor who, as with many who choose that life, is defined by the well-worn euphemism ‘struggling’. The problem is, she is struggling more than most. She is slowly coming round to the realisation that all those criticisms of her boyfriend Mike from family and friends may not be a result of jealousy or lack of understanding after all. She feels ostracised from her immediate family because of the very real threat of violence from her step-father Rab, and the most important consideration the majority of the time is where the next joint is coming from – and it’s not from a meat raffle in The Halt Bar. As the book opens, in the Autumn of 1996, it looks as though things can only get better, but, as with all the best fiction, nothing is so straightforward. We’ve a dramatic arc to negotiate first.
Anyone familiar with Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film Withnail & I will recognise Andrews’ depiction of the hand-to-mouth existence of the unemployed actor, and the gallows humour which, out of necessity, goes with it. The scenes where Maddie is part of a murder/mystery weekend are particularly memorable, featuring a host of grotesque characters whom even Uncle Monty might refuse to entertain. Continue reading
There were some great books published in the summer which deserve your attention but which, due to reasons beyond our control, we didn’t get around to reviewing. One of these is Lara Williams’ short story collection Treats.
For a long time the short story collection was perceived by many readers either as a stop-gap between a writer’s novels, or a cash-in when someone became unexpectedly popular and a publisher wanted to get as much of their material out while the name was on everyone’s lips.
The former group would include collections such as James Kelman’s Not Not While The Giro, A.L. Kennedy’s Indelible Acts and Janice Galloway’s Blood; in the latter – you only have to remember how quickly Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House came out after Trainspotting to suspect there was some validity to that claim. However, I’ve picked all of these examples deliberately as each one sees these writers at their very best, and they should be found on any respectable bookshelf. The idea that the short story is somehow an inferior form of writing is outdated, ridiculous and just plain wrong.
This has been borne out in recent years when some of the most memorable books have included Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, and the aforementioned Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish, each of which appeared in the more discerning critics books of the relevant year. Instead of being overlooked, as may previously have been the case, all three were held up as the best in contemporary fiction, and you cannot help but get the feeling that the short story’s time has come again. Continue reading
The Scottish traditional children’s song ‘Three Craws’ is a classic example of folk tradition being run through with dark themes. If you are unfamiliar with the fate of the birds then, depending on the version, one “canne find its maw”, one “fell and broke its jaw”, and the other “couldnae ca’ at a'”. Disney, it is not. However, nothing which befell those famed corbies matches the fates of the ‘three craws’ in James Yorkston’s novel of that name. If it’s a children’s lullaby you’re after, look away now.
Equal parts pitch-black comedy and tragedy, Yorkston’s Three Craws concentrates on the intertwining lives of Johnny, Stevie and Mikey. The first two are close childhood friends – bonded by the bad times more than the good. Johnny is returning home after trying and failing to make it in London as an artist. Home is Strathhillock in Fife, where Stevie, himself only recently returned due to the death of his aunt and uncle, has promised to give him a room should he want to visit. This is all the encouragement Johnny needs to leave a life of out-of date sandwiches and less than welcoming boozers behind. Continue reading
Jellyfish – Janice Galloway
Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish, her recently published short story collection, feels like a call to arms on at least two fronts. In the Acknowledgements she states, “Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they’d love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels.” It’s a theme she returned to while promoting the book. In interview with The Scotsman, she confesses, “I’m delighted to get this book published because nobody wants to publish short stories these days. Publishers always say to me, ‘what we’d really like is for you to get on with that novel you’re writing.” She is only partly correct in that in recent years some of the best new fiction has appeared in short story collections, but more often than not they are by new and unknown writers and are published by small, independent publishers. In that sense, with Freight Books, she has found the perfect home.
It’s something she acknowledges when describing herself as “hugely grateful to Adrian Searle at Freight for taking them on…”. Recently Freight have been responsible for memorable collections from Anneliese Mackintosh (Any Other Mouth), Vicki Jarrett (The Way Out) and Rodge Glass (Lovesextravelmusic). Other notable recent collections include Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart And Other Fairytales, published by Salt, and Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love by Cargo Publishing. But the fact that my list is so short suggests Galloway’s complaint is a valid one. It was not always this way.
Where Galloway is undoubtedly correct is that the short story is a form which is currently largely overlooked by the more established publishers. At the end of the last century, and concentrating on Scotland, James Kelman’s short story collections were regularly published and contain arguably his greatest work. Lanark and 1982, Janine aside, the same could be said of Alasdair Gray. Their contemporary and friend Agnes Owens’ short stories are some of the best examples you will read anywhere and from anytime (get a copy of Lean Tales to read some great examples from all three – it might just change your life). The next generation of Scottish writers were also well served, with A.L. Kennedy and Ali Smith (whose latest collection Public Library & Other Stories is also out now) both publishing memorable short stories in a number of collections in the ’90s and early noughties. They were not seen as lesser books, just great writers’ fiction presented in a shorter form.
There can be little doubt that Iain Macwhirter is one of the most important political commentators of our historic times. You may or may not agree with his editorial stance, but there are few who share the breadth of knowledge and understanding of his subject. This allows him to put Scotland’s politics into clear context which, when married to a sense of perspective and a winning writing style, makes his work accessible to all.
Macwhirter’s 2013 book Road to Referendum looked at the historic and cultural background to 2014’s historic vote, and his follow-up Disunited Kingdom was one of the more thoughtful and insightful reactions to the Scottish Independence Referendum, the ‘No’ result and the underlying political trends. When all around him were losing their heads, Macwhirter managed to give a detailed account of the key events in the immediate run up to the Referendum and make it engaging despite readers being all too aware of how that particular book ends.
Now, with Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution, he attempts to contextualise the astonishing events surrounding the 2015 General Election; the all-conquering SNP, the demise and near death of Scottish Labour, and what the future is likely to hold for Scotland as its people and politicians react to such a seismic shift in the political landscape. You may feel you already know this story with it being so recent, but Macwhirter gets behind the scenes while remaining apart. He is a political journalist who, while never hiding his own point of view, is able to see all sides, particularly when it comes to the illogical or hypocritical. This is already borne out in his regular Herald and Sunday Herald columns, and those earlier books I mentioned, but it seems to me that Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution sees him relax as a writer and allow his personality to come through more than it has previously.
This post is a joint book and film review. It’s not going to say that one is better than the other, but looks at what there is to recommend both of them, which, (short version of this review), I do. For those who don’t know, the film The Legend of Barney Thomson is now in cinemas across the country. It’s adapted from Douglas Lindsay’s 1999 novel The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, which itself has been re-published by Freight Books to tie in with the film’s release, and which has been renamed to reflect this.
Let’s start with the source material. The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson was the first of many Barney Thomson related books Lindsay wrote, including 7 novels, short stories, novellas and an ebook filled with those monsters du jour, zombies. The Legend of Barney Thomson, as it now is, is the first I have read of Lindsay’s work, but it has encouraged me to read more. It’s outrageous and reprehensible, in the best possible way, with recognisable stereotypes as well as original characters. It’s pulp fiction just as it should be, with the all important plot throwing the reader all over the place. Set in Glasgow, it focuses on ageing Bridgeton barber Barney Thomson who comes under suspicion from his co-workers, friends and the local polis as the body count mounts, apparently at the hands of a serial killer who posts body parts to the deceased’s loved ones from the coastal towns of Scotland. Is Barney guilty? That’s a question he has to ask himself.