There Will Be Blood: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene…

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The first opera I reviewed for Scots Whay Hae! was Scottish Opera’s The Devil Inside, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, which was a collaboration between writer Louise Welsh and composer Stuart Macrae. Not only was it a wonderful marriage between Scottish literature and opera, but it introduced me to an art form about which I had previously known little but have now come to love. With that in mind I was excited by the prospect of Welsh and Macrae’s latest opera, Anthropocene. This time around it is an original story, and knowing Louise’s written work well I expected the unexpected. What I didn’t expect was what unfolded.

One of the things I have come to learn about opera is that it is more often than not a wonderful yet visceral assault on the senses – the sights, sounds, sets, and singing combining to affect you emotionally, but also physically. This makes it the perfect platform for Welsh’s gothic sensibilities and Macrae’s memorable music. Anthropocene is a horror story set on the boat of the same name which is on an exploratory voyage into the heart of the Arctic, with the ice closing in making the disparate crew prisoners. Continue reading

The Write Stuff: Scots Whay Hae!’s Top 10 (+1) Picks Of The Edinburgh International Book Festival…

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From the 11th – 27th August in 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 you’re special).

67dac432Robin Robertson, Sat 11 Aug 12:00 – 13:00 – The Spiegeltent
A renowned poet whose work often hauntingly evokes the lives of Scottish outsiders, Robin Robertson strikes out with a breathtaking new project, The Long Take. In this verse novel, Walker is a war veteran from Nova Scotia who sets out for Los Angeles in 1948. Robertson’s book demonstrates the origins of ‘noir’, presented here with period filmic and musical accompaniment.

And you can read the SWH! review of The Long Take here. Continue reading

Closing Time: A Review Of Louise Welsh’s No Dominion…

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There are always mixed feelings when a favoured series comes to an end. You want to see how things pan out, but there is also the terrible realisation that these characters you have come to know and care for will no longer be part of your lives. All you can hope for is a fitting conclusion to make that investment worthwhile. Louise Welsh’s ‘Plague Times Trilogy’ has reached its denouement with No Dominion, and while I have been waiting eagerly since 2015’s Death Is A Welcome Guest to find out what had happened to Stevie Flint, Magnus McFall and their new lives in Orkney, it is bittersweet to think that I won’t get to read what happens next. Luckily, Welsh sends them off in fine style.

After escaping the mainland, hopefully leaving the plague known as “the Sweats” behind as well, No Dominion begins seven years after the end of the last novel. Stevie and Magnus are integral parts of a small community on Orkney, a strange mix of adult survivors and local orphans who are attempting to play happy families while all time the sense of impending threat remains. Some of these children are now reaching young adulthood, which brings with it the normal teenage thoughts of familial and social rebellion combined with raging hormones, a dangerous coupling at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Continue reading

Three Is The Magic Number: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Louise Welsh…

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The latest podcast is an interview with one of our favourite guests, the writer Louise Welsh. Previously she has been on to talk not only about her earlier fiction, but also the joys of reading Robert Louis Stevenson, and all thing Empire Cafe. Her latest novel, No Dominion, is the final part in her Plague Times Trilogy which began back in 2014 (not, as Ali suggests, five years ago) with A Lovely Way To Burn, and continued in 2015 with Death Is A Welcome Guest.

The conversation focuses on the central themes in the trilogy, which include family, Louise_400x400morality, society, and what could happen in the face of a global pandemic threat. Just the usual. Louise also reveals the influences on each book, including the Scottish literary connections in part three, and admits that recent political events, at home and abroad, had some bearing of the final draft No Dominion. There is also talk of ghost stories and opera. What more do you want from a podcast? Continue reading

Literally Literary: A Preview Of Aye Write! 2017…

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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

One Green Bottle: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s The Devil Inside…

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In 2013, Scots Whay Hae! and the Association Of Scottish Literary Studies collaborated in a series of recordings to commemorate Robert Louis Stevenson Day. Writers Alan Bissett, James Robertson and Louise Welsh read a Stevenson short story each; ‘Thrawn Janet’, The Tale Of Tod Lapraik’ and ‘The Bottle Imp’ respectively. ‘The Bottle Imp’ was already a favourite for Welsh, but reading it aloud must have bonded her more closely with the malevolent sprite as it appears she couldn’t leave it alone for long. She had to return to it at least one more time.

The result, in collaboration with composer Stuart Macrae, is Scottish Opera’s co-production with The Music Theatre of Wales, The Devil Inside, a dark, unsettling and unexpectedly moving production, which opened in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal this week. It is mesmerizing from start to end as words, music, performance and setting all work together to present this deceptively simple tale in such a manner so that the unfolding horror is heightened rather than unnecessarily distracted from.

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We Have Lift-Off: A Preview Of The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015…

image.phpFor 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.

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Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad: A Review Of Louise Welsh’s Death Is A Welcome Guest…

The first part of Louise Welsh’s ‘Plague Trilogy’, A Lovely Way To Burn, was the definition of a fast-paced thriller; a breathtaking rush through a plague ridden London as Stevie Flint tries to escape the city before it is too late. After you had caught your breath, you were already starting to think about what happens next.

Well, now you don’t have to wait any longer…sort of. The second part of the trilogy is now published, and for those waiting for news of Steve Flint you will have to show some patience. However, by that time you won’t care as Welsh has decided to look at the plague from another point of view, and in doing so seems to have included a whole new set of influences.

Whereas A Lovely Way To Burn took dystopian television such as Barry Hines’ Threads and Terry Nation’s Survivors as a starting point, this time round there are echoes of cult cinema, specifically cinema about cults, such as The Wicker Man, Race With The Devil, Children of The Corn and even The Crucible. As with all of the above, in Welsh’s book religious belief when allied to fear of disease and death is twisted to provide persuasive arguments for fundamentalism and sacrifice.

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Inside Out There: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Zoe Strachan + Live Readings…

The latest podcast is one of two halves. In the first, Ali talks to writer Zoe Strachan, (wearing her editor’s hat), about all things Out There, the anthology of LGBT writing which was published late last year, and which Scots Whay Hae! reviewed on the 18/01/15.

The two discuss the influences on and the inspirations behind the book’s conception, the perceived problems with anthologies, writer biographies, the trouble with editing, and the process of bringing so many writers together to make a coherent whole.

The second half is made up of some terrific readings from Nicola White, David Kinloch and Louise Welsh (see below), all of whom have their work included in Out There, and which were recorded at the launch of LGBT History Month at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow at the end of January. Continue reading

Babylon’s Burning: A Review Of Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way To Burn…

Although I’m sure there are are some who would disagree, attending an author’s reading of a book you are going to review is always informative. You can gain further insight into the reasons the writer has for writing the book in question, and while it may not change how you view the book, it can add useful context to the review.

This was particularly, and thankfully, true about the launch of Louise Welsh’s latest novel A Lovely Way To Burn. Welsh began to read the opening passages, and I didn’t recognise any of it despite having finished the book. It was only afterwards I realised I had managed to miss the prologue; which not only sets the place, time and tone for this novel, but for the trilogy of which this is the first part. So, what I actually mean is that attending an author’s reading of a book you are going to review can be informative, but especially if you’ve made a stupid oversight when reading it in the first place.

In said prologue, three high profile, apparently unconnected and unexpected, shootings take place in London in the summer the book is set, which make it clear that what is about to unfold won’t be pretty. But then this is a Louise Welsh novel. That can probably be taken as read.

A Lovely Way To Burn follows the trials and tribulations of Stevie Flint as she tries to solve the murder of her doctor boyfriend Simon just as a plague is visited upon London. The strapline is ‘It doesn’t look like murder in a city full of death’, and this is a thriller set against what is increasingly looking like the end of days, at least in W1. People are coming down with a deadly dose of  ‘the sweats’, which may sound like the natural result of over indulgence, but proves to be worse than the worst morning after you’ve ever had. It’s the end of the world as they know it, and no-one feels fine.

Actually, it is likely that this plague is a result of over indulgence, at least by some in this society, or perhaps society as a whole. Welsh herself has admitted that her ‘Plague Time Trilogy’ is at least partly inspired by the dystopian visions of the films, but particularly the TV, of her youth. These are programmes such as Terry Nation’s Survivors and the later Threads, and it does have the grim realistic feel of that time when the world was under the shadow of the bomb, and the threat of nuclear holocaust was only too believable.

However,  the idea that we are only ever days and an unnamed disaster away from the breakdown of society is one which endures, and more recent reference points could be The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later or even Sean Of The Dead. What makes Welsh’s vision more chilling than those is that she is not dealing with zombies or other metaphorical monsters. What unfolds in A Lovely Way To Burn seems to be the result of a viral epidemic, as in the 1995 film Outbreak or 2011’s Contagion, and that possibility, with recent global scares such as Bird Flu and SARS still fresh in the memory, feels all too realistic.

As Stevie focuses on Simon’s story, she finds herself on the streets and the tragedy which is unfolding all around her is the backdrop to her plight. Her determination to solve the mystery behind his death brings her into contact with people from organisations which seem to be institutionally dishonest at their heart; police, public school educated bigwigs, and, most pointedly, those who practise private health care; a place where the two aims of helping the sick and making profit inevitably pull in different directions.

The more she uncovers about Simon’s personal and private life, the less it becomes about justice for him as Stevie uncovers a conspiracy which, considering what is occurring in the city, goes much further than one man’s death. It is the determination and doggedness of Stevie to find the truth when nearly everyone she meets tries to dissuade her which stops the novel being relentlessly depressing. In the TV and films mentioned above there are always heroes who refuse to just accept their fate, and who continue to look for solutions or answers when others would fold. Stevie represents hope and humanity against the odds, and it is vital that we believe that no circumstance, no matter how bleak it may seem, is completely without those things.

A Lovely Way To Burn once more proves that there are few writers who can unsettle as Louise Welsh does. Although this is a story told through the eyes of an individual, the concerns are universal, and it makes you ask what you would do in such a situation. Do you find a cause to take up, do you flee, or do you take refuge in your local, waiting for the plague to pass your door, or do you simply await your fate? These are questions you are forced to ask, even when you may not like the answers.

Welsh’s novels have always been concerned with man’s potential for inhumanity to their fellow man, but her most recent novels, Naming The Bones, The Girl On The Stairs and now A Lovely Way To Burn,  have taken that a step further to look at the reasons some people harm children, perhaps the most upsetting and emotive crimes of all. In this novel she asks questions about the institutions where it is almost expected that children will at the very least be exploited, at the very worst much worse, especially if there is the chance of a profit at the end of it. As London burns she asks us to consider why, and it is to her credit that there are no easy answers. It is this desire to cast her always insightful and incisive eye on what society tacitly accepts which raises her writing above most thriller/horror writers. What she portrays is only too believable, and terrible, and that’s where the real horror lies.
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You can read about and listen to the Scots Whay Hae! podcast with Louise Welsh that was recorded in 2011 by clicking here.