Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: The Lost Brotherhood

Harrison Hickman introduces us to a world that has survived calamity.   The central point of his story is that the world has collapsed into chaos.   A visionary leader, Lady Joanne, tried to ensure the triumph of good.   Twenty-four brotherhoods were formed to keep the world safe from harm.   At the start of the book, only one of these brotherhoods – the Epsilon Brotherhood – is left.   Benedict Nettlefold is an Epsilon Commander who has fallen victim to the power politics of the Brotherhood, having made a dangerous enemy in an influential Epsilon figure, Dr. Philip MacIntyre.  Then the Epsilon Brotherhood detect something strange in the atmosphere – black light – and the Epsilon King, Christopher, decides to send a team to investigate.   Benedict Nettlefold is called back from obscurity to lead the team because he is a skilled soldier, and Dr. MacIntyre is appointed as the medical officer.

That is all the plot that you need to know.    What follows is carnage in the best traditions of a Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov story.   There is treachery, villainy, massacre, murder, sex, developing love affairs and all sorts in the 185 pages of the story.   The question at the heart of the story is a simple one: who will win?   Of course, the reader wants it to be Benedict Nettlefold, because he is the hero.   It would be more honest to say, though, that he is the anti-hero.   He is a sort of Jack Reacher figure, caught up in a war and having the super-weaponry that is available in a science fiction novel.

What you have to do is suspend your disbelief, do not worry about whether or not the science is accurate (I have no idea) and just enjoy the ride.   I think you will do that.    It is an adventure story.   Think of a young Harrison Ford in the Benedict Nettlefold role.   That should give you an idea about what you are going to get.

One thing, however, has to be said.   The production values are not good.   I doubt that anyone actually proof-read the book before publication.   There are numerous spelling and other mistakes throughout the book.   This is not the kind of slapdash, haphazard, sloppy work that I would expect to find.   A new author, trying to establish a name, does not deserve this kind of treatment.

Despite that, the book is fun

For the Joy of Reading: Inside Apartheid’s Prison

Raymond Suttner is a remarkable, extraordinary man.   He will disagree with me completely about this, and will argue that my analysis is deeply flawed.   But I will stand by what I have said.   He is a white South African.   He could have chosen to live a privileged life.   He could have chosen to ignore the political situation developing around him.   He could have chosen profited from apartheid.   He could have followed the same path as millions of his countrymen, benefitting because of the accident of his birth and the colour of his skin.   He did not choose to do this.

Raymond Suttner will argue that he was one of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of white South Africans who took the decision to challenge apartheid.   He will argue that the day-to-day suffering of millions of black South Africans were worse than what he went through, because it was their daily experience.   He will argue that he followed the example of men like Denis Goldberg and Albie Sachs, the former spending 22 years in prison and the latter losing his right arm in an assassination attempt.   All this is true.   But it does not make any difference to one fundamental fact – he did not have to choose this path.   He did not have to do it.   He chose to do it.   That is what makes him an extraordinary, remarkable man.

This is a memoir.   It is an account of how he survived two terms in gaol, the first being a set term sentence and the second being detained without trial during the states of emergency in the 1980s.   During his first arrest, Raymond was physically tortured by the security police to get him to reveal information about his comrades.   He did not do this.   But he also deals with the mental torture of incarceration, especially during his second period of imprisonment, when there was no indication of a release date.

For those of us who have never had to endure such a thing, it is extremely instructive.   You simply do not think of the importance of going for a walk or a run, because this is something that you can choose to do at any time.   You do not think of the importance of socialising or choosing to be alone, because this is your choice.   You do not think that seeing a bird, or hearing birdsong, is important because you can hear it all the time.   you do not think that there is a problem in deciding what to have for lunch because, as an adult, it is your choice.   There is so much that you simply do not think about because it is normal.   There is nothing normal about being in prison.   And being a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa meant that your visits were restricted, your letters were censored, your access to news was limited and you had the warders’ taste in music and radio programmes inflicted on you.

I have heard many people talk about the experience of being a political prisoner in South Africa.   Raymond Suttner has made it very real because he deals with the minutiae of daily life in a very small, enclosed community.   And just because you were all political prisoners, it did not mean that you had to get on with each other.   This book makes that very clear without going into the petty details of any disputes between prisoners.

The most moving section is his account of his time in solitary confinement.   This was partly a deliberate decision by the apartheid authorities, and partly the result of his being the only white detainee in the prison.   There was apartheid even in the prisons in South Africa.   White prisoners and black prisoners were not held in the same sections of a prison, even if they did get to meet occasionally because of mistakes by or the laxness of the warders.

This is a remarkable account of the sacrifices that people made in the struggle against apartheid.   It gives you an idea of what the survivors of political imprisonment went though.   Reading it is a salutary experience.

For the Joy of Reading: No Dominion

For those of you who have been waiting for the last book in the “Plague Times” trilogy, this will not come as a disappointment.   In the book, it is seven years since a plague killed millions of millions of people, leaving the survivors struggling.   The last book “Death is a Welcome Guest” ended with Magnus and his adoptive son, Shug, arriving on Orkney and being greeted by Stevie Flint, the heroine of “A Lovely Way to Burn” – the first book in the series.   Seven years later, Shug is a surly teenager, doting on Willow who was found as a child on an Orkney farm hiding under a bed that held her dead parents.   Something had gnawed at the parents.

This is a book about survival, about rebuilding a society after a disaster of unimaginable proportions.   It is also a book about what people are prepared to do in order to survive, and about how a catastrophe of this kind can unhinge some people.   It is a book about how easy it is to destroy the fragile veneer of civilisation, and about what happens afterwards.   It is a book about the vulnerability of humankind, and how, despite everything, we will struggle to find a way to live together.

The survivors on Orkney have reverted to subsistence farming, where the need to get in the harvest takes precedence over everything else, and where strangers are viewed with suspicion and fear, because they may be bringing the plague back to the islands.   So when an unknown boat sails into the harbour at Stromness, the islanders go into full alert until Magnus vouches for one of the strangers, Belle.   Even then, the strangers have to be quarantined to make sure that they are not infected.   Then disaster strikes.   A baby is kidnapped and the strangers along with some of the Orkney teenagers disappear, including Shug and Willow.   Stevie and Magnus set off in pursuit.   The rest of the islanders remain behind, both to get the harvest in and because they are fearful that this could be a lure to make them vulnerable to attack.

What follows is a journey through hell, as Stevie and Magnus make their way south to Glasgow in pursuit of the teenagers with the baby.   And it is on this journey that we meet people struggling to find different ways to survive.   The problem is that it is the people with forceful personalities who take the lead, and causes all sorts of conflicts that I am not going to tell you about because that would spoil the book.

This may all sound very grim, and that is because it is.   This is not just a dystopian future, it is a post-apocalyptic future.   It is just that the apocalypse is plague, not a nuclear war so there is some chance of rebuilding a viable society.   There is some kind of hope.

Louise Welsh is very good at persuading you to continue reading.   This book is a page turner.   Louise Welsh knows how to write a thriller.   She does not hesitate from telling the reader that things can be very nasty indeed, but she also writes characters that you care about that you want to survive, that you want to get through the mess.   You want Stevie and Magnus to succeed.  You want Willow and Shug to go back to Orkney.   You want everything to be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.   It is just not going to happen.

The message of the Plague Times Trilogy is that we will survive, we will pull through, but it will not be the best of all possible worlds.   It will not be an idyll.   It will be very hard, and that it is best that we do not go there.   If only our political leaders would read this trilogy …………

For the Joy of Reading: Thomas Muir of Huntershill

Thomas Muir is not as well-known as he should be.   He is one of the great heroes in the struggle for one person one vote in the British isles, and his example has inspired a lot of people to take up the cudgels on the side of democratic rights.  This however is not a biography.   It is a collection of essays about the various aspects of Muir’s life.

It is probably wise at this stage to give a brief resume of Thomas Muir’s short but eventful career.   Muir came from one of the minor Scottish gentry families that had benefited from the Act of Union, and the subsequent defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.   By the end of the eighteenth century, Presbyterian families such as the Muirs were firmly in charge of their local areas, and dominated Scottish affairs.   The question was what form of government was to be followed in the Church of Scotland and, specifically, whether the Minister to a parish was to be appointed by the rich as patrons, or elected by all the male members of the congregation.

The Muirs were supporters of the Popular Party, who believed that the minister should be appointed through election and not by patronage.   Popular Party is a misnomer and probably a mistranslation from the Latin “Populares”.   It may be that they had the support of the majority in the men in the Church of Scotland, but I do not know of any evidence to prove this.   Those who believed in appointment by patronage were called the “Moderate” Party, which was merely an attempt to paint their opponents as extremists.   Their belief was simple; that wealth should give them privileges in the running of the Church, basically to ensure that the Church would be subservient to the established order.   The Popular Party were harking back to the days when Presbyterianism was illegal in Scotland and the ministers to the Conventicles, the illegal gatherings, were chosen by those who attended them.   The Moderate Party was more inclined to be tolerant of Catholics and Episcopalians [Anglicans] provided they did not make a public nuisance of themselves by worshipping openly, but were opposed to the democratisation of the Church.   The Popular Party took the opposite view.   It is important to be aware of this because it was the background to the issues that brought Muir to public attention in Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century.

Thomas Muir was born in 1766.   His father, James Muir, was a merchant who sold hops to the brewers of Glasgow and who lived above his shop near St. Mungo’s Cathedral.   Muir became a student at the University of Glasgow, which was then located near the Cathedral.   He was going to study theology but he fell under the spell of John Millar, one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment, and decided to study law.   It was at University that Muir first became involved in radical politics, challenging the appointment of a Rector by the University authorities rather than the appointment being made through election by the students.   The University authorities were, of course, members of the Moderate Party, and so it was natural for someone from a Popular Party family to challenge their authority in this way.   It was also at Glasgow that Muir met Irish Presbyterian students, some of whom in due course were to become involved with the United Irishmen.

Muir refused to apologise to the University about his opposition to the appointment of Edmund Burke, the Tory MP and philosopher, to the post of Rector, and transferred his studies to the University of Edinburgh.   It was at Edinburgh that he passed his law degree and he returned to the Glasgow area to practice as a lawyer, offering his services free of charge to those who were too poor to pay.

He also became embroiled in the appointment of a new minister at Cadder, where the Moderate Party wished to impose a minister without consulting the congregation.    By now, Muir had moved to Hunters Hill and was an elder of Cadder Kirk.

Then on 18th July 1789, the Bastille was stormed and France was engulfed in revolution.   This was the defining moment of Muir’s life.    Radical politics in Scotland was very sympathetic to the French Revolution.   People began to ask that the vote should be extended from the some 3,000 men who had the vote to the whole adult male population.

Thomas Muir found himself at the forefront of these demands.   He joined an organisation called “The Friends of the People” and began organising for a National Convention to petition Parliament for the extension of the vote.   He also acquired a copy of Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”, read it and then loaned it to members of his family for them to read.   Thomas Paine had supported the American Revolution, following the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was definitely viewed by the British Government as a traitor.   So when Muir received a letter from the United Irishmen and read it aloud to “The Friends of the People”, he incurred the wrath of the Government and was accused of sedition.

Muir, at this time, was heading to France to plead for the life of Louis XVI, arriving in paris a day too late to prevent the execution.   Muir then returned to Scotland to face trial.   The presiding judge, Lord Braxfield, was to become notorious because of his conduct of the trial and became the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Weir of Hermiston”.   Braxfield became infamous for replying to a comment in the trial that Jesus Christ was a reformer “an muckle guid it did him, he was hangit” [and much good it did him, he was hanged].   The trial was a travesty and Muir and his co-accused were sentenced to transportation for 14 years.   Muir, in his speech from the dock, said: “I have devoted myself to the cause of The People.   It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph”.

Muir was then sent to the Woolwich hulks to await transportation to Botany Bay.   This was unprecedented.   Members of the gentry were simply not imprisoned on the hulks.   All you have to do is think if Magwitch in “Great Expectations” to realise the kinds of criminal that were sent to the hulks.   And the authorities thought that they had heard the last of Muir when he was shipped off to Australia, where he was imprisoned somewhere along the shores of Sydney Harbour, where there is a place called Huntershill to this day.

But that was not the end of the story.   He escaped.   He made his way across the harbour in a small boat to an American ship, The Otter, and sailed for the Pacific Coast of America.   He travelled across land through California and Mexico (then Spanish colonies) and eventually found himself in Havana where he was imprisoned by the Spanish Governor.   Then the French interceded for him and secured his passage on a ship to Cadiz.   Just off Cadiz the ship was intercepted by the British Navy and there was a sea battle in which Muir was badly injured, losing his left eye and part of his face.   The ship however made it to Cadiz where Muir was treated for his injuries.   The French then interceded again, securing his passage to Bordeaux, where he was given a hero’s welcome and sent on his way to Paris.

In Paris, Muir began to plan for a revolution in Scotland supported by a French invasion.  The French, however, preferred to support similar plans being made for an uprising in Ireland by Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, which ended disastrously.   There is no evidence that Muir would have fared any better in Scotland.

In January 1799, Muir left paris for Chantilly to meet with representatives of the United Scotsman.   But he had never recovered from the wounds received at Cadiz in the naval battle.   He died in Chantilly at the age of 33.

Muir’s life was dramatic.   He suffered for the cause of democracy, and he died from the wounds that he received in battle.   He was an orator of some power, and of course he was right.   There is now universal suffrage in the UK, because of Muir and men and women like him.   This collection of essays will guide you through the various aspects of Muir’s life and his beliefs.   It does not have the drama of a biography, but it is interesting to get the views of the various and different authors about the contribution made by Thomas Muir.   All of them agree that he was a hero.   He deserves to be better known.

For the Joy of Reading: Reality, Reality

Jackie Kay does not need me to extol her works so that other people are persuaded to read them.   But this book is really special in all kinds of ways.   It is a series of short stories about women, some of which are linked to the short stories preceding them in this collection.   They are extraordinary.   There is something about them that captures the everyday lives of these women whether it is through the power of language, the choice of dialect or the sheer overpowering beauty of the stories.

I really do not need to say anything more.   Just make sure that you read this book.   It will enrich your life.

For the Joy of Reading: Four Steps

This is a cross between a lesbian love story and a thriller.   That does not give anything away.   The Prologue leaves you with no doubt that something terrible has happened.   Then the first three very short chapters, which describe the meeting of the women hikers in the bothy (a shepherd’s hut) on a Scottish mountain leaves you in no doubt that there is an attraction between Lori and Alex.   The question is whether these two themes will weave together to create a coherent story, and they do.

To deal with the love story first.   It is a very good description of two people getting together.   It covers the uncertainty, the embarrassment, the tentative approaches, and then the pleasure as Lori and Alex luxuriate in each other’s company.   Of course, because it is a same-sex relationship there is a difficulty to overcome other than the usual ones: will my family and friends like this person?   Will they come to terms with the relationship?   Or will they be difficult?   How will old flames cope?   All of these issues come up as part of the story.   There is very little however about the difficulties that same-sex couples actually face.   If you are expecting Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” you can forget it.   Lori’s brother, Scott, reacts badly but he has a back story which is hardly surprising given that he was at a boarding school.

There is nothing here that would shock Queen Victoria, although she may have found the bedroom scene educational.   It is very simply a love story written with a certain lyricism that will charm you.

The thriller is another matter entirely.   It centres around an extremely vicious and nasty misogynist, a bit like the villain in Helen Fields’ “Perfect Remains” – the only difference is that this is a working class villain.   Given that the seminal moment occurs in the Prologue, this does not give anything away.   The question is how the villainy will develop.   This is a Mr Hyde without the more civilised qualities of Dr. Jekyll.   He is vicious from the word go, and it is his addiction to homicide that brings the book to its conclusion.

Like any good myth, and I mean that in the best possible sense, it all ends well,and they all live happily ever after.   Well, those of them who live do that.   It is very much in the tradition of Voltaire that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.   Well, that is what Candide thought.   I am not convinced that Voltaire believed that.   Wendy Hudson is not Christopher Brookmyre of Doug Johnstone.   She believes that people can and do recover from trauma.   I am not sure that I share that view of the world, but it is unquestionable that the end of this story is a positive one with everyone coming to terms with their lives, and then getting on with them.

This is an extremely easy book to read given the subject matter.   The writing leads you into the story and you simply want to keep turning the pages.   That is one of the requirements of a good storyteller.   And that is what Wendy Hudson is – a very good storyteller.

For the Joy of Reading: The Long Drop

Denise Mina is a phenomenal writer.   She can take a subject as unpleasant as Peter Manuel’s killings and turn it into a compulsive read.   She just hooks you in and convinces you that you must read the next page.   If you think that you are going to be able to put this book down, you are very much mistaken.

So who was Peter Manuel?   He was a multiple murderer, who committed his crimes in Glasgow in the late 1950s.   He does not fit the usual profile of a serial killer in that there was not always a sexual motive in his crimes.  Some people he murdered for the sheer pleasure of it.   Some he raped and murdered.   It seems to me that his motivation was to make himself important, to boost his own self-esteem by bullying people and making them afraid of him.   He was a nasty little man, both in his physical and mental stature.

What is extraordinary about this book is that Denise Mina convinces you that you want to read it.  She introduces you to the Glasgow of the 1950s, a city that was still hankering to be the “second city of the empire”; a grimy, dirty declining industrial city; a city of hard men and long-suffering women; a city riven by sectarian violence; a city of slums, where inside toilets were unheard of, and a city of wealth, and merchants and lawyers and power.

This was the city in which Peter Manuel grew up, the son of a Glasgow hard man and a devout Catholic mother.   He grew up and went from bad to worse, graduating from petty crime and robbery to rape and murder.  This is the story of his progress through the Glasgow underworld.   But he is no Jack Shepherd, cocking a snook at the authorities, nor does he have the charm of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.   He is someone who aspires to be important in his own vicious way.

Denise Mina takes us through the story, introducing a Rogues’ Gallery along the way – bent lawyers, gangland bosses, thieves and petty criminals.   Then there are the authority figures – priests and policemen and politicians who are certainly no better than they ought to be and probably not as good.   And casting its shadow over all of this is Glasgow itself, from the tenements of The Gorbals to the wealth and power of Trades’ House and Merchants’ House.

Peter Manuel could have been born and brought up anywhere, but he was a Glaswegian and this is a Glaswegian story.   I am not sure that the Glasgow Tourist Board will be too happy with Denise Mina.

But you as the readers have a treat in store.