Tag Archives: Fiction

For the Joy of Reading: Gutter 18

Listen do you want to know a secret. Gutter Magazine is an essential read, especially if you are a librarian or a bookseller, and you want to know who the up and coming voices are in Scottish Literature. Of course, this assumes that you have not outsourced your purchasing so that you can cut costs to the bare minimum, and reduce the number of professional staff that are employed in your outlets. Gutter has survived the tribulations of the last year or so, and it has produced a wonderful issue for Autumn 2018, timed to appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and coupled with the Freedom Papers, sponsored by the Festival, to celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote in the UK and the birth of Nelson Mandela.
All you have to do is look at the content. There is an interview with Louise Welsh on the art of writing crime stories, showing that crime novels are an examination of the human psyche, and that they are much more than a Cluedo-type mystery. There is a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ostensibly about body parts deciding to co-operate for the greater good, but really about how the individual cannot function without the community, the African concept of ubuntu. This stories has been translated into Shetlandic and English from Gikuyu. I would recommend reading the Shetlandic first, not because I can really understand it because you can hear it rolling off the tongue.
William Letford has written a short story that is essentially about how we, as a society, deal with manhood and masculinity, and how they are not the same thing. William Letford is a poet that I came across through Gutter and the Discombobulate evenings at the Arches in Glasgow. All I can say about him is that he is brilliant and if you have not read his poetry collections, Bevel and Dirt, then you have a treat in store. And that is something that can also be said about Gutter.
Then there is the poetry. These are names that are worth discovering: Penny Boxall, David Hale, Bridget Khursheed, Lavry Butler, Charles Lang, David Ross Linklater, Jay Whittaker, Kevin Williamson, Ross Wilson, Hamish Scott, Sara Clark, Maria Sledmore, Iona Lee, Lucy Cathcart Froden, Rosa Campbell, Hannah Van Hove, Vahni Capildeo, Caroline Hume, Ingrid Grieve, Barbara Johnston and that old favourite, Anonymous. All of these will be names worth watching out for. If publishers have any sense, all of these will be names worth nurturing. I presume that the same can be said for Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, but I do not know because this poem is in Gaelic, and I cannot read it.
Even the reviews tell you what to look out for. You do not have to agree with them. Indeed, how can you if you have not read the books, but if a book is reviewed in Gutter then that is a good indication that it is worth reading.
Gutter Magazine is a phenomenon. Just be glad that it has survived the last year. Read it. Make sure that it survives to continue promoting good Scottish literature. Libraries should buy it, if only for their purchasing staff. Readers should read it so they know the names to look out for.
If you have not read Gutter, have never come across it, and you love books, then this is a treat and you should wallow in it.

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For the Joy of Reading: Smoke and Ashes

Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not (Surindranath) Banerjee are about to have their third adventure.   It is coming to the end of 1921 in Calcutta (as it then was) and Gandhi has called on the British to “Quit India” by the end of the year.   Time is running out and the situation is getting tense.   We, of course, know what Sam and Surrender-Not cannot which is that the British will not quit India for another 27 years.   To make matters worse, and despite the tension, the Prince of Wales is due to visit the city for Christmas.   So the scene is set for a major demonstration and a confrontation between the British imperialists and the Indian nationalists.

Sam Wyndham has also become increasingly addicted to opium, frequently visiting the opium dens in Tangra.   This is not wise for a captain in the British Imperial Police.   The story begins with Sam fleeing a raid by the Vice Squad across the roof, and stumbling across a mutilated Chinese male corpse.   Sam does not stop to investigate, but the next day he is assigned a murder case in which a woman has been similarly mutilated.   So we are launched on a convoluted murder mystery that becomes entangled in the politics of the Raj, and in Sam’s personal life, with a bewildered Surrender-Not doing his best to help Sam through all his difficulties.

That is enough about the plot, or at least about the murders that form the engine for the plot.   There is also the matter of the deft and convincing way in which Abir Mukherjee weaves real historical characters into the plot.   Gandhi is mentioned but it is Chitta-Ranjan Das, known as the Deshbandhu (the friend of the nation), his deputy Subash Bose and of course the Prince of Wales, around whom the story revolves.   It is the visit of the Prince of Wales to Calcutta that gives the story the possibility of going horribly wrong.   Mukherjee manages to maintain that tension although we know that the Prince of Wales went on to become Edward VIII and to abdicate, so he could not possibly have been assassinated in Calcutta in 1921.

There are also the recurring characters throughout the three books.   There is Lord Taggart, the Commissioner of Police.   I have no idea if there was a real Lord Taggart, but I just love the idea of a Mark McManus figure running the Calcutta police in the 1920s.   We do not get the iconic line “There’s been a murder” but it lurks there in the background of our mind.   There is the pipe-smoking Major Dawson, the head of the security police who is more of a Dr Watson figure than Sherlock Holmes, but who is certainly not a man that you would want to cross.   There is Annie, the Anglo-Indian woman, to whom Sam is attracted without much hope of success, and of course there is Sam and Surrender-Not, who are a sort of Laurel and Hardy partnership, but intelligent, and up to their necks in corpses.

“Smoke and Ashes” is a joy to read because Abir Mukherjee has researched and knows the historical background, has a firm grasp of place and in Sam and Surrender-Not gives you believable characters that you care about.   He also writes a damn fine murder mystery

For the Joy of Reading: The Baghdad Clock

If you were going to pick somewhere to be born in the late 1980s, it is hard to think of somewhere that would have been worse than Baghdad. Except Afghanistan. A child in Baghdad, in 1991, had to endure “Desert Storm”, the First Gulf War. [And let us be honest, the name “Desert Storm” is a misnomer. Iraq is not a desert. It is the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris. It has been a centre of civilisation for nigh on 4,000 years]. This is the story of two girls growing up, Nadia and the unnamed narrator. It begins when they meet in an air raid shelter, during the first Gulf War. It continues through the sanctions imposed by President Clinton to the attack launched by President George W. Bush. It is the story of the attempt to lead a normal life in the midst of war and the threat of war. It is the story of a neighbourhood around the landmark Baghdad Clock.
It is the story of Nadia and her friends growing up in the midst of war, then devastating sanctions, then war again. Unsurprisingly, people did not want to, could not endure all the dangers and privations that they were subjected to living in the area around the Baghdad Clock. So slowly but surely, families begin to leave fleeing north and west to supposed safety in cities like Mosul and Damascus. Where, of course, they will not be safe for long.
We meet characters like the soothsayer, who can predict what is going to happen to the people around the Baghdad Clock. We meet Biryad, the dog who makes his home in the neighbourhood and who is loved by everyone until they and their families move away, leaving him behind. We meet all the women called Umm (mother), in the Arabic tradition, followed by the name of their eldest child, and all the men similarly called Abu (father). We meet Ahmad and Farooq, the boys that Nadia and her friend fall in love with. With meet Uncle Shawkat and his wife, Baji Nadira. We learn to be happy with them and to cry with them when things go wrong. And how could they not go wrong with Saddam Hussein as President, and President George W. Bush lusting for revenge?
This is the story of a terrible 30 years, and of the people who suffered both war and privation. It is a story that shows the humanity of ordinary Iraqis, and the horror of what has been inflicted on them. It is a story of the triumph of ordinary people and of hope, in the face of adversity. It is uplifting. It is triumphant because people survive.
That is what makes this book a must read.

For the Joy of Reading: Devil on the Cross

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a phenomenal writer.   It is such a great shame that so many people will not even attempt to read him because they cannot pronounce his name.   That is just so foolish.   he is one of the seminal writers currently living, and Devil on the Cross is extraordinary.   It is partly a satire of post-colonial Africa.   It is certainly a denunciation of neocolonialism.   It is devastating in its critique of capitalism as it works in Africa and across the world.   This may be the real reason why people do not want to read Ngugi wa Thiong’o.   They do not want to confront what has been done to Africa, and the racism that is endemic throughout the capitalist world, the so-called First World.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o forces on his readers, not through a tirade, but by carefully presenting his story.

This is the story of Wariinga, a young woman, full of ambition until she meets a rich old man, who seduces her and leaves her pregnant.   She does this with difficulty, but one day is a disaster.   She loses her job because she refuses to become the mistress of another old man and loses her home by an illegal, violent eviction.   So she decides to make her way to Ilmorog, her parents’ home.   On her way to the taxi rank, she receives an invitation from the Devil to a thieves’ convention in her home village.   She gets a matatu (a minibus) to her home, meeting various people who decide collectively that as they are going to Ilmorog, they may as well accept the invitations they have all received to the event.

The thieves at the convention are all stealing from their own people to enrich foreign corporations and are the stewards of capitalist exploitation in Kenya.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o introduces us to the corrupt, the venal, the exploitative, the oppressive and the downright murderous capitalists of modern Kenya.   He shows us, through Wangari, another passenger on the matatu, how the ideals of the Land Freedom Army, who fought for the independence of Kenya, have been betrayed in the post-colonial neocolonial settlement.   He shows how the collaborators with British colonialism came to dominate the government, through control of the structures of government.   He shows through Muturi, a further matatu passenger, how resistance is possible.   To that extent it is a highly political novel.

But it is also a love story.   Wariinga meets Gatuiria, a young man, on the matatu.   Slowly, they fall in love and decide to get married.   Gatuiria encourages Wariinga in her ambition to become a mechanic, in which she succeeds.    Then they go to meet Gatuiria’s parents, and that is the climax of the novel.

One of the things that comes through quite clearly is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a very good grasp of the New Testament.   Much of the thieves’ convention narrative is a riff on the parable of the Talents, and it does not make comfortable reading.   That also applies to the Devil’s version of the Beatitudes.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o exposes our shame in using the Bible to dominate.   As Desmond Tutu put it, “when the whites arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land.   Now we have the Bible, and they have the land.”

The final thing to say is that the women characters, especially Wariinga and Wangari, are very strong.   And the ending is a feminist battle-cry.   This is an extraordinary book by a consummate writer.   You would be very foolish to decide not to read it because you cannot pronounce the names.   That would be your parochialism and your loss.

For the Joy of Reading: Black Robe

This is a story about a clash of cultures, about misunderstandings and incomprehension.   It is about French Jesuit missionaries coming into contact with Native Americans along the St. Laurence River in the seventeenth century.   The story is set in the early seventeenth century at the same time as the Three Musketeers.   Father Laforgue and D’Artagnan are contemporaries.   Cardinal Richelieu even makes a fleeting appearance in Black Robe.   But these are separate worlds.

A closer comparison would be to “The Last of the Mohicans” set a century later, and in the British colonies to the south.    But do not expect the noble savage, as envisioned by Rousseau.   Neehatin and Chomina are not Chingachgook and Uncas.   They are not even noble villains like Magua, someone you can hate but respect.   They are foul-mouthed, and can be quite cynical and vicious.

The world views however are quite different, and this is made very clear in the course of the telling of this story.   The Jesuits, obviously, and the French in general have a Christian worldview, a view of salvation gained through the sacrifice of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection.   They believe in the Sacraments, and especially that in the Eucharist or Communion the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.   Neehatin, Chomina and the others find this utterly incomprehensible.   For them, the world is sentient, filled with what we would call divinity.   They believe in the power of dreams, and they use dreams to guide the way in which to live their lives.   Basically, they believe that the Jesuits are sorcerers, and they are afraid of their power.

So when Father LaForgue sets off upriver to join a Jesuit settlement, he sets in motion a series of events over which he has no control.   The worst of this, for the Father, is the sexual relationship between his young assistant, Daniel, known as Iwanchou, and Chomina’s daughter, Annuka.   Chomina also does not believe that Iwanchou is a suitable husband for his daughter and does his best to finish the relationship.   This has deadly consequences.

There will be some passages which will shock you.   There is torture, there is murder, there is cannibalism.   This is a culture that is red in tooth and claw.   What hangs over this story, however, is the fear that one culture will destroy the other.   In this world, that makes this an important book to read.

For the Joy of Reading: Hings

The problem with writing in Glaswegian is that you limit your audience.   The advantage is that you write in a vibrant, poetic, exciting language that gives you a feeling for the street, for the everyday speech of an extraordinary people.  There will be some people who will not make the effort to read these stories, and that will be their loss.   Chris McQueer is a genius at the writing.   He has lines like “Look pal, if ae wanted tae hear an arsehole talk…ah wid’vd farted”.  How can you not like something that reflects Glasgow pub patter so well.   And, if you don’t, take that as fair warning not to read this book.    Because the language is far worse than that, as is the everyday language of Glasgow.

These stories have a wonderful logic, of which Myles na Gopaleen and Gerard Hoffnung would have been proud.   [And if you don’t know who I am talking about, Google them because I can’t be bothered to explain.   Or as Chris McQueer would undoubtedly say “arsed”].   You can feel the characters on a trajectory to, not necessarily, disaster but to a sort of unavoidable future, whether it is Postman Pat, stoned out of his mind, Sammy having been given a samurai sword or Maureen, Annie and Daz ending up in Tokyo because they were filmed by Japanese tourists in Easterhouse.   Chris McQueer is Billy Connolly on speed, with a touch of the Sean Connery gravitas to make it believable.

Sammy is one of the characters who appears in three of these stories, and we follow him from his Da dying of food poisoning, through the funeral to his uncle’s Christmas present.   As Sammy says, it is mental.   Big Angie, the bowls player, is the one who dominated this collection of short stories for me.    This is partly because she is the main character in the longest of these short stories, and partly because she is not as hard as she seems.   She is a comic creation on a Falstaffian scale, and not just because they are both fat.

Anyway, if you have not got by now that this book is a treat, then you never will.   So I will “haud my wheesht”.   Just read it, unless you are a “prissy wan” offended by bad language.   Because this has bad language at Point 15 on the Richter Scale.

For the Joy of Reading: Fault Lines

Doug Johnstone requires you to believe two improbable things at the start of this book.   First, that a volcanic island has erupted in the Firth of Forth, turning Edinburgh into an earthquake zone.   And secondly, that Louise, a geologist going into labour at the time of the eruption, decides to call her daughter Surtsey.   This is the volcanic island that emerged to the south of Iceland during such an eruption in, if I remember correctly, the 1960s.   Personally, I find the former more likely than the latter, but then people from Edinburgh are capable of anything.

Surtsey is the central character of this story.   It begins with a murder on the said volcanic island, which is called The Inch, from the Gaelic, Inish, which means island.   The one thing that we know is that it is not Tom Lawrie, one of Surtsey’s two lovers, because he is the corpse.   We also know that Surtsey was going to meet him on the Inch, for a romantic tryst, and that when she finds the corpse she rows away as fast as she can.   That happens in the first five to ten pages.   The question is, who did it?   And why?

One other person can be ruled out, and that is Louise because she is terminally ill in a hospice overlooking the Firth.   But otherwise, there are plenty of suspects.   Is it Alice, Tom’s vengeful wife?   Is it Halima, who likes getting Surtsey doped to the eyeballs?   Is it Iona, Surtsey’s sister, who is not coping with Louise’s illness?   Is it Brendan, Surtsey’s other lover?  Is it Donna, the old school friend?   Is it Bastian, the leader of the New Age protesters, who want the Inch left in peace?   At one point, I thought it might even be either Yates or Flanagan, the Rebus-like policemen, but lacking his vivacity and charm.   This should give you a clue about how difficult it is to work out whodidit?   I did, but it took me quite some time.

There is also a logic to the way that the story progresses.   From the discovery of Tom’s corpse, being devoured by seagulls and crows, and Surtsey running away, the possible options for her become more and more limited.   She has fled from a crime scene.   There are questions that run through her head.   When will the body be discovered?   Was she seen on the Inch?   Can she cover her tracks?   And, of course, who killed him?   This is not the usual progression in a detective story.   We know that she has something to hide, and we know what it is.   But this is not a detective story: it is a thriller.   There are certainly are thrills – plenty of them.    Doug Johnstone knows how to keep you on tenterhooks.

But enough of the story line.   You will need to read the book to find out what happens.   I am not going to tell you.   What I will tell you is that Doug Johnstone writes very much in the tradition of Raymond Carver.   To describe the writing style as short and pithy does not do these sentences the justice that they deserve.   They are sharp and to the point.   There is not a word wasted.   There is no fat in them to be trimmed away.   Yet, they manage to be elegant, conveying precisely the trajectory of the story.

One final thing: I got this book at the launch event last night in Edinburgh and I finished it over breakfast this morning.   I did get some sleep last night, but it was not enough.   I blame you, Doug Johnstone.