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.


For the Joy of Reading: It’s Me, Marah

For those of us who were there on the day, it was an iconic moment.   It is something that we will never forget.   Indeed, songs have been written about it.   It has entered into the folklore of Glasgow.   Tour guides show people where it happened.   On 9th October 1993, Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom of 9 cities and boroughs in the UK.   It was pouring with rain.   Marah Louw came onto the stage to sing, and Mandela got up and danced with her.   It was the day Mandela danced in the Square.   It was part of his welcome to Glasgow.   It was extraordinary.   It will never be forgotten.   It was the day that Marah Louw entered into the world’s consciousness.   So who is she?  That is what this book is about.

This is the life story of a remarkable woman.   Growing up black and a woman in apartheid South Africa was a double disadvantage, and it took considerable courage to take on the apartheid state.   Marah chose to do this by making a career for herself as a singer, actor and entertainer, and by challenging the laws that attempted to deny her the career path that she had chosen.   She also challenged the apartheid state at the very heart of its ideology by marrying and living with a white, Scottish man inside the country.

As if all this was not enough to deal with, there is a mystery surrounding her birth, which her family are very unwilling to deal with.   This is a theme that haunts the book from the opening to the closing pages.   Marah puts this down to her family abiding by African custom, which is true but it is not just an African custom.   I can assure her of this.   My mother had the same experience and we are a Welsh family.   The common factor, I think, is the Methodist tradition, but I have no evidence for that.

There is much in this book that is a revelation, even to those of us who are well versed in the horror of apartheid.   It is the telling details about the petty spite that hit home the most.   There is one story about how it was assumed that Marah had to be the maid because she was black and she answered her own door.   By that stage, the Group Areas Act had been abolished and she was living with Bill in a comfortable area.   Marah opens the door and is asked to fetch “the madam”.   When the visitor found out that the “madam” was black, she ran away.   And then there are the insults – calling her a “kaffir”.  [It has always struck me that “Kaffir” is an Arabic word, and was probably introduced to South Africa by Moslem slaves from what is now Indonesia.   It is certainly not a Dutch word.   This is perhaps one of the ironies of history].

As this book reveals, Marah has not had the easiest of lives.   Her personal life has been fraught with difficulties and tragedies, as well as with joy and hope and success.   The point is that she has overcome it all.   She has survived divorce, betrayal, shipwreck (literally) and she has had her triumphs.   She was a friend of the great singer Miriam Makeba.    She has performed on stages across the world.   She has sung at Presidential inaugurations, and she has danced with Nelson Mandela.

This book is a celebration of life.   It tells how she has sweetened the waters of our lives.   It tells the wonderful story of the woman who took Glasgow by storm the day that Mandela danced in the square.

For the Joy of Reading: Home Ground

This book is a delight and, if you live in Glasgow, it is free from Glasgow Libraries.   It was written as part of the celebration of the Homeless World Cup that took place in Glasgow last year.   It was distributed at the Aye Write! Book Festival earlier this year.   Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan have done a brilliant job as editors in bringing together established and new writers to explain the transformative power of something so simple as playing a game of football in the centre of a major city.

I am not going to pretend that every story is exceptionally well-written because that simply is not the case.   What I am going to say is that these stories will make you think about the issue of homelessness.   It will make you wonder why we, as a society, are not shocked by the fact that people are sleeping in our streets because they do not have anywhere better to go.   It will make you wonder why we, as a society, do not guarantee people a roof over their heads in the warm.   It will make you wonder why we, as a society, allow people to be reduced to begging on our streets.   It will make you wonder why we have become so heartless, so unthinking, so needlessly cruel.

That, in itself, is a considerable achievement.   This book creates a bond between its readers and the people in these stories.   It is to be hoped that the bond will then spread to the real people on the streets and that we, as a society, will recognise our responsibilities and our own best interests.   It is obviously so much better for all of us if we do not have to deal with an underclass that it is so marginalised in our society that people have to sleep on the streets.   It is so much better for all of us if the self-respect of people is not so undermined that they have no dignity, nowhere to turn, no hope.   That kind of society is not safe.

If only “Home Ground” could reach out to the opinion-makers in our society, it could have a considerable impact.   And the way to do that is through its readers raising the issue of homelessness so that those who make the decisions about how our society functions cannot ignore the arguments.   It is up to us.


For the Joy of Reading: Perfect Remains

If you expect your thrillers to be plausible, this is probably not the book for you.   If you want to read a police procedural, this is definitely not the book for you.   On the other hand, if you expect your thrillers to be thrilling you have hit gold dust.   If you want your hero to be handsome, intelligent, athletic and deeply troubled, then you will love Detective Inspector Luc Callanach, a half-Scots, half-French true product of the Auld Alliance.   If you want your villain to be reprehensible and vicious, then this is the book for you taste.

It is a rollercoaster ride through the murderous psyche of an extremely unpleasant man. There is absolutely no question that you, the reader, will want Luc Callanach to catch this man before any other woman falls victim to his misogynistic, lethal hatred.   It is this obsessive need to control the other sex that lies at the heart of the story, and Luc Callanach is one of the victims of this obsession.   It is why he is troubled and has ended up back in Scotland, which he left as a four-year old, in the first place.

All of this becomes very quickly apparent in the story, so I am not giving away any vital details of the plot.   This is much more of a thriller than a detective mystery.   You know who the villain is more or less from the start of the story.   You know who the goodies and the baddies are.   What you do not know is how the goodies will bring the baddies to book, and that is what keeps you turning the pages.

As I have indicated, there are points in the story where you may not be able to suspend your disbelief.   For me, that came when the Episcopalian (i.e. Anglican) Bishop of Edinburgh agrees to pay for a psychological profiler because one of the victims is an Episcopalian priest.   It is my view that Bishop John would have persuaded the Professor to do this pro Deo and the character is certainly arrogant enough to do exactly that without any concern for payment.   That would have been far more believable.   It is details of this kind that may give you pause for thought.   [I am obviously too well-acquainted with the Scottish Episcopal Church to find this even remotely believable].   But it really does not matter because the story rolls forward like an unstoppable juggernaut,   And you will enjoy the ride.

The major theme of this book is the simple one – will the killer be caught?   But there is also an underlying plot.   Is Luc Callanach going to be redeemed?   And how is this going to happen?   Is Detective Inspector Ava Turner the woman to do it?   Will her career be ruined  because she pursues cases of infanticide with too much rigour, taking on the full power of the Catholic Church in Scotland?   This is a good dramatic story.   I do not find it hard to visualise the film or TV adaptation.

I return to my original point.   Do not expect this story to be plausible, but it is enjoyable.   Read it for the fun of it.

For the Joy of Reading: Bringing in the Sheaves

Richard Coles is the quintessential gay English country vicar.   If you didn’t know that, you simply have not been paying attention and you certainly have not been listening to his radio broadcasts.   At least, that is his public persona.   But there is nothing that could possibly be considered as ordinary about Richard Coles.   For a start, not many country vicars played in the Communards, one of the leading, and blatantly gay, groups of the 1980s.   Nor has every country parson received his training, and therefore been versed in the intricacies of Anglo-Catholicism, at the Community of the Resurrection house at Mirfield in Yorkshire.   Nor does every country vicar have a regular broadcasting slot on BBC Radio Four every week.   And the common or garden country vicar certainly does not receive a call from Tom Hollander, the actor, saying that he has to be quick because he is in Tom Cruise’s private jet.   So he may be quintessential but he is certainly not ordinary.

One of the things that always astonishes me is that people seem surprised to discover that Richard Coles, wit, broadcaster, commentator and one-time pop star, is a deeply religious man.   He is a vicar.   It goes with the territory.   It is part of the job description.   And although he is on the front cover of this book in his dog collar and cassock, and the sub-title is “Wheat and Chaff from my Years as a Priest” some people will be surprised by the content of this book.   They should not worry that they will be preached at.   They may find that they are preached to, but it is not Richard Coles’ style to hector or bamboozle.

This is a charming, delightful book.   It takes us through the liturgical year of the Church of England, although not in the right order as it starts with the Transfiguration, not Advent, and it includes those necessary parts of a vicar’s life in town and country – baptisms, marriages and funerals.   There are so many stories about the idiosyncrasies and idiocies of parish life that you cannot help but be charmed.   Richard Coles’ experiences make you realise that to be a priest you have to be a special kind of person.   You do not have to like your parishioners, but you do have to love them and some of them seem to go out of their way to make that very difficult.

One of the beauties of this book is that the author does not expect his readers to understand the details of church life.   He goes out of his way to explain everything in language that ordinary people will understand (and yes, I am making a reference to Cranmer’s Prayer Book).   Some of the descriptions, as you would expect from this author, are downright funny.   I particularly liked his describing a chasuble as a poncho.   Anyone who has seen a spaghetti western will understand this.

Richard Coles is a deeply religious, deeply human man, and this book shows how he copes with his calling to be a priest in the modern world.   And, in this difficult task, he is assisted by his partner David, also a priest, and by his dachshunds.