Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

Our national mirror…

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McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of Graithnock, which is a lightly fictionalised version of Kilmarnock, an industrial town in Ayrshire in the West of Scotland. The stories take place just as the ‘70s were giving way to the ‘80s – a time when hope seemed to be turning to despair in light of the Thatcherite policies that would rip the industrial heart out of Scotland over the next decade. McIlvanney rarely addresses politics directly in his work but it infuses everything he writes and, as a result, his books catch the national psyche at a given moment in time. His characters’ stories grow out of their social and cultural circumstances.

The stories here often overlap and share commonalities – many of the characters know each other, drink in the same pub, share the same histories. So they gradually build together to give a full picture of the town and to show how, in any society, the actions of the individual arise from and add to the prevailing culture. With his usual wonderfully insightful prose, McIlvanney makes us care about these people – we laugh with them and cry with them, celebrate their victories, sorrow over their disappointments and mourn their griefs. And we (certainly the Scots among us) recognise ourselves in at least some of them, as we recognise our friends and neighbours in the others.

Margaret and John Hislop had one of those marriages where there wasn’t room to swing an ego. All was mutual justice and consideration and fairness. He only golfed between the hours of two and six on a Sunday because that was when she visited her mother. Her night-class was always on a Tuesday, regardless of what was available then, for that was when he worked late. Both watched television programmes which were neither’s favourite. They didn’t have arguments, they had discussions. It was a marriage made by committee and each day passed like a stifled yawn. It was as if the family crypt had been ordered early and they were living in it.

I love McIlvanney. Having come late to his work as his long career drew to a close, I am reading his books with a retrospective eye and a feeling of profound familiarity – the twentieth century Scottish world he recorded is the one that I too lived. His culture and language and humour are mine too, his people are people I knew, his view of Scotland and the world aligns largely with my own. My only hesitation about him, and I wonder if this is the reason that despite his huge talent he’s still not as widely known as he should be, is that perhaps his books are so deeply embedded in our small society that possibly they don’t have the same resonance for people not so familiar with it. The humanity of his characters is undoubtedly universal, but perhaps a Scottish reader’s instinctive understanding of their cultural hinterland is why he’s so much more revered in Scotland than outside it.

Book 7 of 25

The first story in the book is an example of what I mean. It tells of a young lad asking his boss for a large loan and three months off work. The boss not unnaturally wants to know the reason, and the lad tells him he wants to go to Argentina to see Scotland play in the World Cup. The boss first tries to talk him out of this ridiculous dream, then realises that the boy is a younger version of himself – that he once dared to dream big too – and reflects on how his life has narrowed into a staid middle-aged routine. Standard short story fare, as I summarise it, although wonderfully written, but oh! If you’d been young in Scotland in 1978 when we qualified for the World Cup! If you’d experienced the ecstatic excitement, the national pride, the Mohammed Ali-like hubris of the team manager, Ally MacLeod, the half-believed dream that we might, like Jack, kill the giants and bring home the cup! If you’d stood in the national stadium with thousands upon thousands of others in Ally’s Tartan Army to cheer and sing the team on their way! And if, three games later, you’d wept bitter tears of heartbreak when they slunk home – out in the first round – beaten on goal difference – humiliated! Then you’d understand! This isn’t just a story of two men – it’s a story of Scotland’s crushed dreams!

Ally’s Tartan Army send off – that’s me in the crowd!
Life lesson: Never hold your victory parade before the tournament…

Few of the stories are based around such a specific event, but many of them make use of aspects of working class Scottish culture of the time, especially from the male perspective – football, pubs and getting drunk, dog racing, gambling. What they’re about, however, is men and women trying to survive the things life throws at them – love, marriage, divorce, jobs and unemployment, bereavement, petty crime, violence, prison. Makes it sound much gloomier than it is – while some of the stories made me cry, just as many made me laugh, and a couple made me do both at the same time. McIlvanney’s characters are mostly resilient – the walking wounded of the title. Life may knock them down but they crawl back up, often with a pawky quip at fate’s expense, and ready themselves to face tomorrow.

William McIlvanney

McIlvanney hailed from the same area as our national bard, Robert Burns, and I suspect that Benny’s thoughts in the following quote may be McIlvanney’s own…

Benny loved Robert Burns, not just the poetry, which he could quote at great and sometimes pub-emptying length, but the man, the hard life, the democratic stance of him, the sense he gave of effortlessly incarnating Scottishness, the fact that he, like Benny, was an Ayrshireman. Scottishness was very important to Benny. He wasn’t sure what it was but, whatever it was, it bit like lockjaw and the fever of it was in his blood. When he read Burns, he looked in a national mirror that told him who he was and forbade him to be diminished by what other people had. He was enough in himself.

I wish very much that I could have told him that, what Burns meant to Benny, McIlvanney has come to mean to me. Our bard of the twentieth century – our national mirror.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 206…

Episode 206

Well, if I’d written this little blurb yesterday as I should have done, I’d have been boasting that the TBR hadn’t increased since I last reported. Sadly, due to heat apathy, Mueller monosyllables and Boris bedlam, I’m writing it now instead… and the postman’s been! Up 3 to 227, and not a single one of them is made out of ice-cream…

Here are a few more that I should be reading soon if I don’t melt (a couple I’ve started already, in fact). I seem to be having a vintage week, by accident rather than design…

Fairy Tales

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Snow White and Other Tales is the latest in their hardback range of collected short stories which I’ve been loving so far, both for the content and for the lovely books themselves, which are always much more vibrant and gorgeous than the cover pics suggest …

The Blurb says: The tales gathered by the Grimm brothers are at once familiar, fantastic, homely, and frightening. They seem to belong to no time, or to some distant feudal age of fairytale imagining. Grand palaces, humble cottages, and the forest full of menace are their settings; and they are peopled by kings and princesses, witches and robbers, millers and golden birds, stepmothers and talking frogs.

Regarded from their inception both as uncozy nursery stories and as raw material for the folklorist the tales were in fact compositions, collected from literate tellers and shaped into a distinctive kind of literature. This translation mirrors the apparent artlessness of the Grimms, and fully represents the range of less well-known fables, morality tales, and comic stories as well as the classic tales. It takes the stories back to their roots in German Romanticism and includes variant stories and tales that were deemed unsuitable for children. In her fascinating introduction, Joyce Crick explores their origins, and their literary evolution at the hands of the Grimms.

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Fiction

One for my 5 x 5 Challenge from the wonderful William McIlvanney. So far I’ve loved everything of his I’ve read – will this one continue that trend? I haven’t read any short stories by him before. I wonder if they’ll be as short as the blurb…

The Blurb says: These are the stories of the casualties of social and emotional struggle, who defy defeat with humour, resilience, and inspiring faith in their dreams. The walking wounded. These are the stories of ordinary people.

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Fiction

Another 5 x 5 Challenge book, and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. My reaction to Toni Morrison has been mixed – loved Beloved but wasn’t so blown away by Song of Solomon. Maybe that’s good since it means I’ll be approaching this one with more realistic expectations…

The Blurb says: On the day that Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader, agrees to accept a slave in lieu of payment for a debt from a plantation owner, little Florens’s life changes irrevocably. With her keen intelligence and passion for wearing the cast-off shoes of her mistress, Florens has never blurred into the background and now at the age of eight she is uprooted from her family to begin a new life with a new master. She ends up part of Jacob’s household, along with his wife Rebekka, Lina their Native American servant, and the enigmatic Sorrow who was rescued from a shipwreck. Together these women face the trials of their harsh environment as Jacob attempts to carve out a place for himself in the brutally unforgiving landscape of North America in the seventeenth century.

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Christie on Audio

I find these Hugh Fraser narrations are giving a new lease of life to all these Christies I’ve read and re-read over the years. This is one I don’t remember so well, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it…

The Blurb says: An old widow is brutally killed in the parlour of her cottage…

Mrs McGinty died from a brutal blow to the back of her head. Suspicion fell immediately on her shifty lodger, James Bentley, whose clothes revealed traces of the victim’s blood and hair. Yet something was amiss: Bentley just didn’t look like a murderer.

Poirot believed he could save the man from the gallows – what he didn’t realise was that his own life was now in great danger…

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A man and a nation…

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When we first meet him, Tam Docherty, the first person narrator, is on his way from his home in Grenoble back to Graithnock, the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred. As he travels, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself.

Tam is the grandson of the first Tam who was the central character in Docherty, McIlvanney’s earlier book set before and after WW1. In that book, the first Tam was determined that his son, Conn, would not follow him down the mines – that Conn would get an education and raise himself out of the hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence of his forebears. Older Tam’s dreams took a little longer to be realised, and it’s with young Tam, Conn’s son, that we see the first generation of the family go to university and move out of the working class, economically at least.

In large part a coming-of-age story, the present of the book, published in 1996, also shows us Tam in middle-age, contrasting the hopes and dreams of his seventeen-year-old self with the reality of how his life has turned out. Tam’s early story, I would guess, is heavily autobiographical – he is a working-class lad from a fictionalised version of McIlvanney’s birth town of Kilmarnock, with an education and aspirations to be a writer. The later years, I suspect, diverge more from actual events in McIlvanney’s life, but read very much as though we are reading his personal reflections, and perhaps glimpsing his own feelings of disappointment that life hadn’t turned out quite as glitteringly as he’d once dared to hope.

However, Tam’s story reflects the lives of so many Scots of his generation that it also tells the story of the nation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ‘50s in a country that had emerged from the second devastating war of the century determined that this time we really would make a better world, Tam had opportunities no previous generation of working class children had, not the least of which was free university education. For many families like Tam’s, this would be the first time when social mobility was a real possibility, with graduates able to lift themselves out of the pits and shipyards and factories into teaching, medicine, law. But McIlvanney shows the disconnect this caused for many between their working class roots and their middle class ambitions. As Tam, the wee lad from Graithnock, becomes Tom, Master of Arts, a teacher and writer, he sits uneasily between the two classes, neither fully one nor the other, and perhaps he never truly believes that he deserves the life he’s now living. As a result, he seems unable to avoid wrecking everything he achieves. And his feelings of personal failure mirror those of the nation, as those dreams of the ‘50s fade into the industrial devastation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Scotland too left disillusioned and angry.

The book is a wonderful mix of humour, nostalgia and pathos. Young Tam, with whom we spend by far the most time, is on the cusp of adulthood and in the midst of a desperate and very funny quest to lose his virginity. Although the period is a couple of decades earlier than my own teen years, I found the attitudes and social manners entirely recognisable, and described with real warmth and affection. It’s a man’s world, for sure, but the women are strong and opinionated, and give as good as they get. It’s Tam’s mother who is the driving force for him to go to University – his father, like so many men of that time, is struggling with the idea that his son won’t follow in his footsteps. Again, McIlvanney uses them to show the two opposing forces faced by the youth of that era – the push to leap into the adventure of the unknown, the pull to stay in the safety of the familiar.

William McIlvanney

I found middle-aged Tom just as believable, though less entertaining. His disappointment leads him to be argumentative and confrontational, to the point of driving away those closest to him. However, his journey home reminds him of who he once was and what his hopes were, and gives him time and space to reflect on who he now is and, to a degree, on what Scotland now is. I wondered how the tone might have changed had McIlvanney written the book ten or twenty years later, when his personal stature had grown to the point where almost every Scottish writer points to him as an influence, and when Scotland had achieved its own Parliament and revived its sense of national identity. But that would have been a different book, and not necessarily a better one. Another excellent novel from the pen of the Scottish master – an insightful and enjoyable look at a man and, through his story, at a nation. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 180…

Episode 180…

Well, the TBR has neither risen nor fallen, remaining at the astonishingly low figure of 228. I’m sure that at last I have achieved a perfect sense of balance…

Here’s a few more I should be spinning through soon…

Fiction

For my sadly neglected 5 x 5 Challenge. William McIlvanney’s hugely influential Laidlaw trilogy means that he’s probably best known as a crime writer, but in reality the bulk of his work was literary fiction.  This one is a loose follow-up to Docherty, taking up the story of a grandson of the original Docherty and moving forward in time to the mid-twentieth century…

The Blurb says: Tom Docherty was 17 in the summer of 1955. With school behind him and a summer job at a brick works, Tom had his whole life before him. Years later, alone in a rented flat in Edinburgh and lost in memories, Tom recalls the intellectual and sexual awakening of his youth. In looking back, Tom discovers that only by understanding where he comes from can he make sense of his life as it is now.

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Crime

Courtesy of Michael Joseph via NetGalley. Having been immersed in vintage crime for the last few months, I’m beginning to feel a craving for some contemporary crime (but not identikit domestic misery-fests!). This sounds intriguing…

The Blurb says: Twenty-four years ago Katharina Haugen went missing. All she left behind was her husband Martin and a mysterious string of numbers scribbled on a piece of paper. Every year on October 9th Chief Inspector William Wisting takes out the files to the case he was never able to solve. Stares at the code he was never able to crack. And visits the husband he was never able to help. But now Martin Haugen is missing too.

As Wisting prepares to investigate another missing persons case he’s visited by a detective from Oslo. Adrian Stiller is convinced Martin’s involved in another disappearance of a young woman and asks Wisting to close the net around Martin. But is Wisting playing cat and mouse with a dangerous killer or a grief-stricken husband who cannot lay the past to rest?

Set between the icy streets and dark forests of Norway, The Katharina Code is a heart-stopping story of one man’s obsession with his coldest case. Atmospheric, gripping and suspenseful; this is Nordic Noir at its very best.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. But I’m not giving up on vintage crime! In fact, I’ve built up a little backlog, so I’m going to spend December having a little mini-splurge of Dickens and vintage crime – doesn’t that sound fun? This one is by Julian Symons, who seems to be rather better known these days for his often critical analysis of other Golden Age authors than for his own writing. Always risky setting yourself up as both an author and a critic – I shall have my red pencil ready… 😉

The Blurb says: John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyes – the colour of murder.

But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons’ award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself.

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Fiction on Audio

I read this thousands of years ago when the world and I were young, but I remember very little about it now. So I thought it would be fun to listen to the audio version, narrated by Jonathan Pryce…

The Blurb says: From the bestselling author of Rebecca, another classic set in beautiful and mysterious Cornwall.

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet… might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

NetGalley Says Yes!

Mutual approval…

Last week, I posted about my NetGalley rejections, so this week I thought I’d talk about why I love NetGalley nearly as much as chocolate…

Of the 402 titles I’ve been approved for since I joined NG in 2013, I’ve sent feedback for 373 books (the rest are still on my TBR) and have posted reviews for 302 (though for a few I only posted a brief review on Goodreads). The others I abandoned, either because they weren’t for me or because they were too badly formatted to be enjoyable reading. Of the ones I’ve reviewed, roughly 65% were either 4 or 5 stars reads for me – pretty good, huh? Not quite as high as my ratings for books I buy, but then I’m more likely to take a chance on new or new-to-me authors through NG.

Narrowing my best picks down to a reasonable number would be nearly impossible, so instead I’ve decided to list a few of the authors I was introduced to by NG who have now become firm favourites – most are established authors but were new to me. So, in no particular order, here they are – my…

NETGALLEY HALL OF FAME

(Click on the author’s name to see my reviews.)

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

My introduction to Robert Harris came through An Officer and a Spy, a wonderful fictionalisation of the Dreyfus affair in 19th century France. Since then I’ve read every new book he’s released, plus I’ve started on his back catalogue, and I’ve loved every one. However I have loads more to go – he’s quite prolific! Next up will be his Cicero trilogy. He achieves the perfect marriage of research, plotting and excellent writing – great stuff!

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HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Given how much I’ve talked about various stories being Lovecraftian in my horror slot, it’s strange to think that I’d never heard of him till I read an Oxford World’s Classics collection called The Classic Horror Stories, with a very informative introduction by Roger Luckhurst (another entry to the Hall of Fame – I now look out specifically for books he introduces). I don’t altogether love Lovecraft – too long-winded, too racist – but I recognise absolutely the huge influence he has been on the ‘weird’ story and on horror in general. Since that first meeting, he’s made an annual appearance in my Tuesday Terror! slot.

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SC Gwynne

SC Gwynne

I was so blown away by SC Gwynne’s brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, that I gave it the FF Award for Book of the Year in 2014. The prize for this prestigious award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book, even if I have to buy it myself! Imagine my… ahem… delight, then, when Gwynne’s next book was The Perfect Pass – a book about American Football, a subject in which my interest and knowledge tie for last place. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed it! Proof that a good writer can bring any subject to life. Oh, and I didn’t have to buy it – NetGalley gave me that one too.

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John Gaspard

John Gaspard

I’ve loved every book in John Gaspard’s Eli Marks series, all of which I’ve been given via NetGalley. A little too dark to be cosies, these are plotted in Golden Age style but with a contemporary setting. Eli is a stage magician and each book is set around a particular trick. Gaspard is brilliant at bringing the magic to life on the page, while following the magician’s code of never revealing how it’s done. I still laugh every time I remember how he managed to read my mind during a trick in book 1! His next book is due this month – can’t wait! And I’ve also bought an earlier book of his that predates this series – The Ripperologists – which sounds like fun too.

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Ken Kalfus

The first new-to-me author to whom NetGalley introduced me, when I fell in love with the cover of Equilateral and took a punt on it. He’s now a firm favourite – a writer who gets a lot of critical attention but still doesn’t seem to get the public readership and recognition I feel he deserves. I’ve read and loved a few of his books since then, old and new – only a couple more to go as he’s not nearly prolific enough! He spent several years in Russia so a lot of his books are directly or indirectly about life under the Soviets – he’s one of the inspirations behind my current fascination with that regime.

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Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman has firmly established himself as my favourite historian, despite some stiff competition in what has been a golden age for history books over the last few years. My first introduction to him was The Cave and The Light – a comprehensive look at the competing influences of Plato and Aristotle over the last 2,500 years of philosophy. Phew! Not an easy read, but a brilliant one. Since then, I’ve read all his new books and most of the ones that interest me from his back catalogue. And I’m super excited that he’s bringing out a new one on the Russian Revolution this month – the perfect way to end my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

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William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney

As probably the most influential Scottish crime writer of all time, known as the Father of Tartan Noir, I’m ashamed that I had never read any McIlvanney till NetGalley offered a new edition of his 1977 book, Laidlaw. I was blown away by the quality of the writing, his brilliant use of Glaswegian dialect and the total authenticity of his portrayal of the city at the time of my own youth in it. I have gone on to read the rest of the Laidlaw trilogy and one of his fiction novels, and am looking forward hugely to gradually working my way through the rest of his stuff. For McIlvanney alone, NetGalley has been a wondrous thing for me.

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So there they are – seven great authors I may never have read had it not been for NetGalley. And that’s not to mention all the wonderful books I’ve had from existing favourites like Jane Casey, Sharon Bolton, Belinda Bauer, etc., etc. All I can really say is…

THANKS, NETGALLEY!

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What about you? If you’re a NetGalley member have you found new favourites through them? If so, I’d love to hear – either in the comments or in a post of your own.

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Some, no doubt, would simply dismiss it as a by-product of barbarism. Given Russia’s long, heartless winters, its familiarity with famine, its rough sense of justice, and so on, and so on, it was perfectly natural for its gentry to adopt an act of definitive violence as the means of resolving disputes, But in the Count’s considered opinion, the reason that duelling prevailed among Russian gentlemen stemmed from nothing more than their passion for the glorious and grandiose.
….True, duels were fought by convention at dawn in isolated locations to ensure the privacy of the gentlemen involved. But were they fought behind ash heaps or in scrapyards? Of course not! They were fought in a clearing among the birch trees with a dusting of snow. Or on the banks of a winding rivulet. Or at the edge of a family estate where the breezes shake the blossoms from the trees… That is, they were fought in settings that one might have expected to see in the second act of an opera.

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….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’
….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.
….The three looked at each other non-plussed. Then they looked around, but not a single person was in sight. Then, for some reason which, doubtless, psychology can explain, they stared hard at the water, though the water there was just as black and foul as it is everywhere else in the canal system of Bruges.
….‘Surely you’ve not dropped it!’ Eve Fincastle exclaimed in a voice of horror. Yet she knew positively that Madame Lawrence had.

From A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett

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….Have I been too kind to empire? Perhaps. But there are plenty of works lambasting empires, ferociously portraying their dark and often brutal side. I have tried to show them in a different light. I have tried to suggest that they have been ways of dealing with some of the most difficult and challenging problems of modern states, how to manage difference and diversity. That that may not have been their initial goal, that empires arose for a variety of reasons, is not the point. The fact is that in acquiring and governing empires, the ruling peoples found themselves faced with a series of tasks that they had to solve on pain of the quick dissolution of their states. What I find striking is less the mistakes and occasional brutalities of empire than a remarkable record of success, one that nation-states would be lucky to match.

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….Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up to Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practising medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line than ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

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From the archives…

….“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Literary Fiction & Book of the Year 2015

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

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All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

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There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

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…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

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For the winners!

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I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

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Nothing!

THE JUDGES

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Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

LITERARY FICTION

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I’ve read far less new literary fiction this year because I’ve been re-reading some old favourites, which don’t count for these awards. However there have still been a few great novels that are either new or new-to-me. This hasn’t been such a hard decision as some of the other genres – while each of the books is excellent, the winner is a truly stand-out novel…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

f daniel kehlmannF: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann

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This is a brilliant novel, sparkling with wit and intelligence. The fact that I have no idea what it’s about really didn’t affect my enjoyment of it in any way. F is for family, or failure, or faith, or fraud, or fear, or fate. Or possibly it isn’t. The one thing I do know is it’s impossible to sum up in a few words. The story of three sons of a missing Father – one a priest who has lost his Faith in God, one a Financial broker who is waiting to be Found out for committing Fraud and one a Failed artist and successful Forger – and an event which the reader knows about but the characters don’t. The writing is superb – Kehlmann can squeeze a mountain of characterisation into a few telling phrases, allowing him plenty of space to treat us to some fairly tongue-in-cheek philosophical asides. And he forces the reader to collude with him in mocking, but affectionately, the worlds of art, literature and religion. It’s also pretentious, absurd, marginally surreal at points and wickedly funny. And one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time…

Click to see the full review

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Docherty 2Docherty by William McIlvanney

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On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.” In some ways this is quite an intimate novel, concentrating on Tam’s family and the small community he is part of, but through them it’s a fairly political look at the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the old traditions are about to be challenged, first by the horrors of WW1 and then, following close on its heels, by the new political ideas that will sweep through Europe between the wars. McIlvanney writes beautifully, both in English and Scots, with as keen an ear for speech patterns and banter as for dialect. A great novel.

Click to see the full review

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the blue guitarThe Blue Guitar by John Banville

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Olly Orme used to be a painter, but his muse has left him. He’s still a thief though. He doesn’t steal for money – it’s the thrill that attracts him. Usually it’s small things he steals – a figurine, a tie-pin. But nine months ago, he stole his friend’s wife, and now that theft is about to be discovered. This is Olly’s own story, told directly to the reader in the form of a narrative being written as events unfold. The tone starts off light and progressively darkens, but there is a delicious vein of humour throughout the book, observational sometimes, self-deprecatory at others. Olly is a narcissist, but his ability to admit his faults with a kind of saucy twinkle makes him an endearing character. In truth, other than Olly’s character, there’s nothing particularly original or profound here. But it’s the language! The fabulous prose! I could forgive a lot to someone who makes me enjoy every word, whether deeply meaningful or dazzlingly light. And Banville dazzled me while Olly entertained me – I’ll happily settle for that.

Click to see the full review

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Two Years Eight Months 2Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

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Back in the 12th century, disgraced philosopher Ibn Rushd has a love affair with Dunia, a princess of the jinn, and they have many children together. Centuries later, not far in the future from our own time, the slits between the jinn world and our own have been lost for many years and Dunia’s descendants have spread throughout the world, unaware of their jinn heritage. But after a great storm lashes the world, strange things begin to happen – people finding their feet no longer touch the ground, people being struck by lightning and finding themselves afterwards possessed of strange powers, people suffering from what are either terrifying hallucinations or perhaps even more terrifying reality. It appears the jinn are back… Rushdie ranges widely, through philosophy, politics, religion, terrorism, the importance of words, language and stories, optimism and pessimism, the disconnect of modern humanity from the planet, and so on. It’s all handled very lightly, though, with a tone of affectionate mockery more than anything else. And, much to my surprise, it’s deliciously funny. It’s being pigeon-holed as magical realism but not in my opinion – this is satire masquerading as a fairy tale. A book that surprised and delighted me.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

the way things were

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

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When Skanda’s father dies, it falls to Skanda to accompany his body back to India for the funeral rites. The death of his father and the experience of meeting up with many of the people he knew in childhood leads him to remember and re-assess the recent history of his family, from the period of the Emergency in the mid-70s until the present day. Like his father, Skanda is a Sanskrit scholar, with a penchant for finding linguistic cognates – seeking out the shared roots of words across languages ancient and modern. And this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. But the book isn’t just about India’s past. It also looks at the politics of the present from the time of Mrs Gandhi to today. A strongly political novel, it is in no way overly optimistic, but unlike so much of the misery writing coming from India, this has a sense of hope – a message that India must and can choose its own future, not by rejection of its past, recent and ancient, but by understanding it and building on it.

That might all make the book sound unbearably dull, but in amongst all the politics and philosophising are a group of exceptionally well drawn and believable characters, whose story is interesting not just for what it tells us about India, but in itself. I was particularly pleased to see a strong female figure front and centre in this one. Uma, Skanda’s mother, is without exception the most intriguing female character I have come across in Indian fiction and, for me, she is the heart of the book; and is in many ways the personification of this post-colonial class that Taseer is portraying. The quality of the prose and the depth of insight make this an enlightening and deeply thought-provoking read – an exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

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FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2015

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THE WINNER

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lamentation

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. Brilliantly written, impeccably researched, full of great characterisation, and the combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced. A superb novel – in fact, a superb series – and a truly worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

 

In memory of William McIlvanney…

… the Father of Tartan Noir

 

“His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.”

I’ve just heard the sad news that William McIlvanney died yesterday, aged 79.

william-mcilvanney-image-2-924189484

I came late to McIlvanney’s work when the Laidlaw trilogy was republished a couple of years ago. He is recognised as the progenitor of what has come to be known as Tartan Noir – gritty, realistic crime novels set in Scotland’s cities – and many of our top current crime writers, such as Ian Rankin, acknowledge his influence on their work.

But McIlvanney also wrote what would be classed as ‘literary fiction’ and indeed the quality of his writing lifts even his crime novels to a literary standard seldom reached in that genre.

 

“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

Laidlaw

 

“Coulda made something o’ himself. But a luckless man. All his days a luckless man. The kinna man woulda got two complimentary tickets for the Titanic.” The unintentional humour of her remark was like her natural appetite for life reasserting itself. Harkness couldn’t stop smiling. It was as if Glasgow couldn’t shut the wryness of its mouth even at the edge of the grave.

The Papers of Tony Veitch

 

From his vantage point in Ruchill Park, Laidlaw looked out over the city. He could see so much of it from here and still it baffled him. ‘What is this place?’ he thought.

A small and great city, his mind answered. A city with its face against the wind. That made it grimace. But did it have to be so hard? Sometimes it felt so hard…It was a place so kind it would batter cruelty into the ground. And what circumstances kept giving it was cruelty. No wonder he loved it. It danced among its own debris. When Glasgow gave up, the world could call it a day.

The Papers of Tony Veitch

 

“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”

Docherty

 

But, imagining Scott’s nights here, I populated the emptiness. This had been one of his places and some small part of his spirit had been left here. Holding my own brief séance for my brother, I conjured vivid faces and loud nights. I saw that smile of his, sudden as a sunray, when he loved what you were saying. I saw the strained expression when he felt you must agree with him and couldn’t get you to see that. I caught the way the laughter would light up his eyes when he was trying to suppress it. I heard the laughing when it broke. He must have had some nights here. He had lived with such intensity. The thought was my funeral for him. Who needed possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do and how you be were the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.

Strange Loyalties

 

William McIlvanney was one of those few writers who could truly move the stars to pity. He will be greatly missed, but his words and his influence will continue to live on.

William McIlvanney 1936-2015 Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph
William McIlvanney 1936-2015
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

 

Docherty by William McIlvanney

Docherty 2Scottish wrath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.”

Tam is a miner in the fictional town of Graithnock in Ayrshire. He’s a hard man but a good-hearted one, with a fierce belief that the working man deserves better from his masters – a belief that he passes on to his sons, though each comes to interpret it in different ways. In some ways this is quite an intimate novel, concentrating on Tam’s family and the small community he is part of, but through them it’s a fairly political look at the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the old traditions are about to be challenged, first by the horrors of WW1 and then, following close on its heels, by the new political ideas that will sweep through Europe between the wars. Graithnock may be a small place, remote from the centre of power, but these influences will be felt even there.

McIlvanney writes beautifully, both in English and Scots, with as keen an ear for speech patterns and banter as for dialect. All the speech in the book is in dialect and since it’s largely the dialect I grew up with it’s hard for me to know for sure whether it would cause problems for non-Scots to read, but I don’t think so. Other than speech, the book is in standard English. The characterisation throughout is superb, from Tam himself right down to the people who make only a brief incidental appearance. McIlvanney has the ability to get to the heart of a character in a few sentences, often using powerful metaphors to paint vivid portraits. The book is emotional but never mawkish – these are real people and the things that happen to them are real too, never exaggerated for effect.

He thought he understood why it was he had always liked Tam Docherty so much. He was more than anything in his life showed him to be, and he knew it. The effect on Andra was as if he had come across some powerful animal in a cage, kept fit on its own frustration, endlessly restless, knowing instinctively that the bars are an invention, nothing final, and feeling contempt for its keepers. Andra sensed quite simply that Tam was not defeated. And if Tam wasn’t, neither was he.

Although the female characters are strong and well drawn, fundamentally the book concentrates on maleness, in a community where physical strength is of vital importance for economic survival. The men forge strong bonds as they work in the dangerous conditions down the mine and at night gather together on street corners, where they tell each other again and again the same stories that give them their sense of communal identity. McIlvanney shows effectively and movingly how, when physical strength begins to fade, the men are somehow diminished, giving way to the new generation in the first flush of their power, with all the rivalry this causes between fathers and sons. And as men reach the point where they can no longer go down the mine, they become dependent on their children to keep them out of the poorhouse.

High Street, Kilmarnock - the town on which fictional Graithnock is based. "High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary."
High Street, Kilmarnock – the town on which fictional Graithnock is based.
“High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.”

The book covers the period of WW1 and McIlvanney takes us there with one of Tam’s sons. Again, where other authors might become self-indulgent with descriptions of the horrors, McIlvanney practices admirable restraint, using brief episodes to illustrate the wider picture – an approach that I found as effective as many of the books that have wallowed too luxuriously in the blood and the mud. His perspective is more to look at the after-effects of the war on those who lived through it or lost someone to it, both in terms of emotional impact and on how it fed into the politics of the post-war society.

“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

It’s strange how sometimes it depends on when we read a book as to how it affects us. While I think this is an excellent book, I found its impact on me somewhat lessened by having so recently read The Grapes of Wrath. Docherty was, for me, the easier and more enjoyable read, but I found I was drawing comparisons all the way through; the major themes – of exploited workers and the strength that comes through the bonds of male physicality, of women as the nurturing backbone who hold families together, of the despair that drives men towards more extreme political systems – are at the heart of both books. Different societies but with similar issues and both showing man’s fundamental struggle for survival in an unfair and unjust world. And though I would say Docherty is by far the better structured of the two, and mercifully much briefer, I must give the award for emotional power to Steinbeck, even though I object to the manipulation he used to achieve it. And, though McIlvanney’s writing maintains a much more consistently high standard throughout, he never quite reaches the sublimity of some of the passages in The Grapes of Wrath. I suspect I would have found Docherty both more powerful and more emotional if I could have avoided the comparison. Definitely still a great novel, though, and one that I highly recommend.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 62…

Episode 62

 

151. 151. 151!!! No matter what I do that dratted TBR just keeps getting bigger! It’s not my fault – I think the cats log on to NetGalley when I’m asleep. Getting close to the end of the 20 Books of Summer Challenge now and might just do it! Though the US Open starts soon…


rafa gif

Here are a few that should reach the top of the pile soon…

Factual

 

the year of learCourtesy of NetGalley. I love the sound of this one and am hoping it’s not too academic in style. Must watch the plays again in preparation – Macbeth is my favourite of all the Shakespeare plays…

The Blurb says Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro shows how the tumultuous events in England in 1606 affected Shakespeare and shaped the three great tragedies he wrote that year—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the years leading up to 1606, since the death of Queen Elizabeth and the arrival in England of her successor, King James of Scotland, Shakespeare’s great productivity had ebbed, and it may have seemed to some that his prolific genius was a thing of the past. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn—King Lear—then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. It was a memorable year in England as well—and a grim one, in the aftermath of a terrorist plot conceived by a small group of Catholic gentry that had been uncovered at the last hour. The foiled Gunpowder Plot would have blown up the king and royal family along with the nation’s political and religious leadership. The aborted plot renewed anti-Catholic sentiment and laid bare divisions in the kingdom. It was against this background that Shakespeare finished Lear, a play about a divided kingdom, then wrote a tragedy that turned on the murder of a Scottish king, Macbeth. He ended this astonishing year with a third masterpiece no less steeped in current events and concerns: Antony and Cleopatra.

The Year of Lear sheds light on these three great tragedies by placing them in the context of their times, while also allowing us greater insight into how Shakespeare was personally touched by such events as a terrible outbreak of plague and growing religious divisions. For anyone interested in Shakespeare, this is an indispensable book.”

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

Two Years Eight Months 2Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve never made it through a Rushdie novel, but I suspect that my tastes have changed enough since I last tried long, long ago to give this one a fair chance of success… it sounds brilliant!

The Blurb says “In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub–Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor’s office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious, wanton creatures known as the jinn, who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centuries ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world. Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia’s children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the cone gatherers 2One of the 20 Books of Summer list. I don’t know much about it, but it appears on lists of “Best Scottish Fiction” quite regularly, so we shall see…

The Blurb says An immensely powerful examination of mankind’s propensity for both good and evil, inspired by the author’s wartime experience as a conscientious objector doing forestry work.

Calum and Neil are the cone-gatherers—two brothers at work in the forest of a large Scottish estate. But the harmony of their life together is shadowed by the obsessive hatred of Duror, the gamekeeper. Set during World War II yet removed from the destruction and bloodshed of the war, the brothers’ oblivious happiness becomes increasingly fragile as darker forces close in around them. Suspenseful, dark, and unforgettable, this is a towering work of fiction, a masterpiece of modern Scottish literature.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

Docherty 2I was blown away by McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, and this one comes with a personal recommendation from BigSister, my earliest reading guru, so can’t wait to get to it…

The Blurb saysWinner of the Whitbread prize, by one of Scotland’s greatest living novelists.

Tam Docherty’s youngest son, Conn, is born at the end of 1903 in a small working-class town in the west of Scotland. Tam will stop at nothing to make sure that life and the pits don’t swallow up his boy, the way it did him. Courageous and questioning, Docherty emerges as a leader of almost unshakable strength, but in a close-knit community tradition is a powerful opponent.

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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JANUARY

SMILEYS

Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with the brilliant idea of looking back over her reviews of the last five years and picking out her favourite books of the month from each year. She kindly agreed to let me borrow her idea (which saved me from stealing it!). I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite January reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

broomsticks over flaxboroughNo reviews in January 2011, so here’s one from May 2010. I have loved the Flaxborough Chronicles since my teens and Broomsticks over Flaxborough is my favourite – as always, Colin Watson pulls back the respectable net curtains of the town of Flaxborough to let us see the wickedness behind. In this case, we are treated to a coven of middle-aged, middle-class, sex-obsessed Satanists, nicely contrasted with the ‘Lucys’, a superclean team of door-to-door marketers selling soap powder. These books could be cosies were it not for the vein of sly humour that runs through them, giving them a distinct edge and making them wonderfully enjoyable reads.

 

2012

 

dead scaredThe second instalment of Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, and perhaps my favourite. The plot about a spate of students committing suicide couldn’t be much darker, and there are bits that are very unsettling and downright creepy. Having been unsure about Lacey’s character in the first book, Now You See Me, I felt in this one she had become more open and much more likeable, less of a loner and now with a sense of humour and considerably less angst – all to the good. A great entry in a great series.

 

 

2013

 

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn, in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. This was the second of Tóibín’s books that I read, after the astonishing The Testament of Mary, and confirmed his place as one of my favourite writers. His prose is beautiful, and his small, quiet plots allow his characters to become utterly real. A writer who never fails to move me deeply.

 

 

2014

 

the papers of tony veitchTony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. Tony’s name has come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. McIavanney’s use of language is superb, particularly the way he catches the tones and patterns of Glasgow dialect. Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity.

 

2015

 

lamentationHenry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. The most recent entry in the Shardlake series is also the best – the fiction is woven seamlessly into the fact, and the picture that Sansom paints of the last days of Henry VIII’s reign is both authentic and terrifying.

 

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for January, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Crime/Thriller Category – Books in a Series

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Crime Fiction/Thriller Category – Books in a Series.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Books in a Series

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Standalone Novels

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

 

As usual, there are far more books in contention for this category, and many of them are installments in series that I follow. So, since I found it almost impossible to narrow the entries down, I’ve decided to have two sub-categories of nominees, Series and Standalones, each with a winner, and to split them over today and tomorrow. Here goes then…

BOOKS IN A SERIES

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the killThe Kill (from the Maeve Kerrigan series) by Jane Casey

When an off-duty policeman is shot dead in his car it looks at first as though the motive must be something to do with his personal life. His widow seems angry rather than grief-stricken and his daughter has some unexplained bruises. But a few days later a team of officers is attacked while out on patrol and it becomes clear that someone is targeting the police in general. But no-one knows why…or do they? This is the fifth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series and continues the high standard that Jane Casey has set herself in the last couple.

Click to see the full review

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Saints of the Shadow Bible (from the Rebus series) by Ian Rankin

saints of the shadow bibleWhen the ‘double jeopardy’ law is relaxed, the Solicitor General asks Malcolm Fox to reinvestigate a case from the ’80s, one involving a young DC Rebus. Meantime, in the present day, Siobhan Clarke and Rebus are back working as a team. With the new rules on retirement age, Rebus has been taken back into CID but has had to take a downgrading to Detective Sergeant, meaning Siobhan now outranks him. They are called out to what looks at first like a straightforward road accident, but a couple of things about the scene make them suspect there may be more to it than that. A fine entry in the series that, as always, has great characterisation, a complex plot and a real insight into modern Scottish life.

Click to see the full review

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the papers of tony veitchThe Papers of Tony Veitch (from the Laidlaw series) by William McIlvanney

Tony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. He knows why he’s looking for Tony – his name’s come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. But Laidlaw doesn’t know why some of Glasgow’s hardest men seem to be wanting to find Veitch too, and the question is – who’ll find him first? Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity. A great book.

Click to see the full review

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A Dark and Twisted Tide (from the Lacey Flint series) by Sharon Bolton

a dark and twisted tideAfter her recent experiences, Lacey has stepped back from her role as a detective and joined the Met’s Marine Unit, patrolling the Thames. She’s also moved to live on a houseboat moored in Deptford Creek and taken up the highly dangerous sport of river-swimming. And it’s when she’s out swimming alone one early morning that she finds the first body…

This is another excellent entry in the Lacey Flint series, with all the regulars back in fine form. By a tiny margin, not the best in the series perhaps, but still one of the best books I’ve read or expect to read this year.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER BOOK IN A SERIES

 

gallowglass

Gallowglass (from the Douglas Brodie series) by Gordon Ferris

Post-WW2 Glasgow. Douglas Brodie is back working at the newspaper and beginning to recover from the psychological after-effects of his recent involvement in the Nazi war-crime trials. But he still hasn’t learned how to avoid danger. So when Lady Gibson asks him for help, he finds himself unable to turn her down. Her husband, Sir Fraser Gibson, the Chairman of the Scottish Linen Bank, has been kidnapped, and Lady Gibson has decided to pay the ransom without involving the police. So Brodie sets off with a briefcase full of cash to make the rendezvous on her behalf. Needless to say, it doesn’t go according to plan..

This is the fourth and, I believe, final entry in the Douglas Brodie series, and the award is as much for the whole series as for this individual book. Now that we have all four books, we can see how Brodie’s character has changed in the few years since the end of the war – at first an all-action man, careless to a degree of his own life and others; then having to face the source of his nightmares and realise the damage that he’d suffered in the war – and finally, in this excellent last instalment, asking himself whether he can find some kind of peace and redemption, and have a future worth living. Although each works as a standalone, I would strongly suggest reading them in order to see the skilful way that Ferris develops Brodie’s character throughout. A great series, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And a very worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

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Tomorrow: The Standalone Award and Book of the Year 2014

Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw Trilogy 3) by William McIlvanney

Moving the stars to pity…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

strange loyaltiesIn the third and, to date, last outing for Jack Laidlaw, he is grieving for the death of his brother, Scott. Although Scott’s death was accidental – he was knocked down by a car – Laidlaw believes that his brother’s state of mind played a major part in his death. And so as the story begins, he has taken some time off work to try to find out what had led Scott into the depression and heavy drinking that marred his final months. As he talks to the people who knew Scott best, Laidlaw finds there were things he never knew about his brother and begins to realise that the answers he is seeking may lie far back in Scott’s past…

Nobody had said ‘crime’. But that dying seemed to me as unjust, as indicative of meaninglessness as any I had known. And I had known many. For he had been so rich in potential, so much alive, so undeserving – aren’t we all? – of a meaningless death. I knew.

I should know. He was my brother.

The first book in the trilogy, Laidlaw, would certainly be in contention on any list I might draw up of best crime novels, possibly even best novels overall. The second, The Papers of Tony Veitch, came very close to matching it in quality. So for me, this one had a couple of hard acts to follow, and it was with some trepidation that I began to read. And, although this is undoubtedly an excellent novel in its own right, in truth it didn’t reach quite the same heights for me, though only by a small margin.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is very much a matter of personal preference. The Laidlaw brothers grew up in Ayrshire so, unlike the previous books which were very firmly set in the Glasgow of my youth, this one takes place mainly away from the city. McIlvanney himself was an Ayrshire lad so for him the emotional connections are just as strong, perhaps stronger, but for me, there wasn’t the same resonance as in the other two. It also meant there was very little of McIlvanney’s wonderful use of Glasgow dialect which so enhanced the earlier books for me. The other reason is that this one is written in the first person from Laidlaw’s perspective, whilst the first two were third person. I found Laidlaw a more believable character seeing him from the outside, as it were. Being told his philosophical thoughts in his own voice meant I found that, just occasionally, he came over as a little pretentious.

William McIlvanney Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph
William McIlvanney
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

However, slightly less good from McIlvanney is still about a zillion times better than excellent from most authors, so I certainly wouldn’t want either of these quibbles to put anyone off reading this one. McIlvanney’s prose is wonderful – there is a poetic edge to it that makes the reading of it an intensely pleasurable and often emotional experience. I don’t usually use such longs quotes as this but I feel this gives a true flavour of the deep understanding and love of – pity for – humanity that pervades these books:

But, imagining Scott’s nights here, I populated the emptiness. This had been one of his places and some small part of his spirit had been left here. Holding my own brief séance for my brother, I conjured vivid faces and loud nights. I saw that smile of his, sudden as a sunray, when he loved what you were saying. I saw the strained expression when he felt you must agree with him and couldn’t get you to see that. I caught the way the laughter would light up his eyes when he was trying to suppress it. I heard the laughing when it broke. He must have had some nights here. He had lived with such intensity. The thought was my funeral for him. Who needed possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do and how you be were the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.

His characterisation is superb – each person flawed but believably so, and he writes them with a sympathy that makes it hard for the reader to condemn. He is very much of the school that believes criminals are made, not born, and for his characters there is always the possibility of redemption. Some of the most moving scenes in this book are of a petty criminal back in Ayrshire to look after his dying mother in her last weeks. No McIlvanney character is black or white – they are all multi-shaded and multi-layered, and Laidlaw has the empathy to see them in the round. And it is Laidlaw’s empathy and understanding that makes these books special, because through him the reader is also brought to feel a sorrow and a pity for the way the world is.

One of my favourite quotes is Flaubert’s “Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity”. In this trilogy, McIlvanney’s writing surely moves the stars.

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 31…

Episode 31

 

Tragically, the TBR list has grown to an incredible and devastating 105 during my absence from the blogosphere. No, don’t laugh – it’s not funny! It’s also not my fault! All the October pre-Christmas publications appeared on Amazon so the pre-ordering went a bit crazy. On the upside that’s months away, so plenty of time to get the list back down before they all arrive…isn’t there? Of course, there were other temptations too – and somehow I couldn’t resist. So here are a few that will reach the top of the list in the next few weeks…

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Crime

 

strange loyaltiesThe last book in the Laidlaw Trilogy, I’ve had this one since last Christmas (thanks, BigSister!) but I don’t like to read books by the same author too close together. So now’s the time to find out if this one can live up to the high standards set by the first two…

The Blurb saysThis third book in the series begins with Jack Laidlaw’s despair and anger at his brother’s death in a banal road accident. His questions as to the dynamics of his bother’s death lead to larger questions about the nature of pain and injustice about meaning of his own life. Laidlaw is determined to learn more about the circumstances surrounding Scott Laidlaw’s death. His investigations will lead to a confrontation with his own past and a harrowing journey into the dark Glasgow underworld.

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the ties that bindCourtesy of NetGalley, I was inspired to read this one by this review from one of my chief temptresses, Cleopatra Loves Books…

The Blurb saysLuke is a true crime writer in search of a story. When he flees to Brighton after an explosive break-up, the perfect subject lands in his lap: reformed gangster Joss Grand. Now in his eighties, Grand once ruled the Brighton underworld with his sadistic sidekick Jacky Nye – until Jacky washed up by the West Pier in 1968, strangled and thrown into the sea. Though Grand’s alibi seems cast-iron, Luke is sure there’s more to the story than meets the eye, and he convinces the criminal-turned-philanthropist to be interviewed for a book about his life.

Luke is drawn deeper into the mystery of Jacky Nye’s murder. Was Grand there that night? Is he really as reformed a character as he claims? And who was the girl in the red coat seen fleeing the murder scene? Soon Luke realises that in stirring up secrets from the past, he may have placed himself in terrible danger.

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Fantasy

 

the adventures of siskin and valderanI’ve enjoyed reading Alastair Savage’s blog for a long time, particularly the hugely imaginative short stories he sometimes posts. In fact, one of his creations, an alien with lactating armpits, has gained a permanent place in my nightmares memory! So I’m looking forward to reading his newly published book, The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan

The Blurb saysSiskin and Valderan, swords for hire, are on a desperate chase to find mystic relics throughout the known world. Powerful forces are watching the heroes at every step, with monstrous servants at their command.

Aided by their talking monkey Jackanapes, Siskin and Valderan must cross the desolate steppe in search of a mysterious mound and the secret which it conceals. István, a bizarre creature from the tropical lands fears the discovery of the contents of the mound and will do anything to prevent Siskin and Valderan from reaching it.

Alone in the wilderness, far from their friends and allies, Siskin, Valderan and Jackanapes must fight for their lives as István’s ruthless servants lie in wait, ready to ambush them at any time.

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Manga

 

p&p mangaYes, really – manga! No, I don’t know what I was thinking either! But you never know – it might be brilliant. And whatever – it can’t possibly be as awful as Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. Can it?

Again, courtesy of NetGalley.

The Blurb saysBeloved by millions the world over, Pride & Prejudice is delightfully transformed in this bold, new manga adaptation. All of the joy, heartache, and romance of Jane Austen’s original, perfectly illuminated by the sumptuous art of manga-ka Po Tse, and faithfully adapted by Stacy E. King.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

The Papers of Tony Veitch (Laidlaw Trilogy 2) by William McIlvanney

A love letter to a city…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the papers of tony veitchTony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. He knows why he’s looking for Tony – his name’s come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. But Laidlaw doesn’t know why some of Glasgow’s hardest men seem to be wanting to find Veitch too, and the question is – who’ll find him first?

After being stunned by the first in the trilogy, Laidlaw, I approached this with some caution, for fear it couldn’t match up. But it does. We’re back in Laidlaw’s world – a good man trying to make sense of the hard and violent world he inhabits, trying to find justice for the people left on the margins. He’s not a loner, exactly, but he stands a little apart from the world – an observer with a compassionate eye, a philosopher. He’s not a team player – how could anyone live up to the exacting standards he sets? Even he continually fails to be the man he’d like to be, and his self-awareness won’t let him hide from that.

One was young and pretty, made up as colourfully as a butterfly. The other was older. She had been pretty. Now she was better than that. She looked mid to late thirties and as if she hadn’t wasted the time. She had eyes that suggested you might find Ali Baba’s cave behind them, if you knew the password, and had managed to arrive before the Forty Thieves.

The language is wonderful. It slips in and out of dialect seamlessly and the dialogue catches the tone and patterns of Glaswegian speech in a way I’ve never come across before. I can hear these people speak – hear the humour and the bravado and the aggression. He shows beautifully the odd mix of the Glaswegian character, with its kindness that must always be kept carefully hidden for fear of seeming soft. His villains are frighteningly hard without ever tipping over into caricature, and the ever-present threat of violence is chillingly believable.

“Coulda made something o’ himself. But a luckless man. All his days a luckless man. The kinna man woulda got two complimentary tickets for the Titanic.” The unintentional humour of her remark was like her natural appetite for life reasserting itself. Harkness couldn’t stop smiling. It was as if Glasgow couldn’t shut the wryness of its mouth even at the edge of the grave.

The plotting is complex and takes a different direction than the reader is at first led to expect. Tony is from a privileged background, in the financial sense, though not perhaps in terms of love. But somehow he’s got himself mixed up with the underworld of gangs and hardmen and now his life seems to be in danger. As Laidlaw hunts for him, the reader gradually gets to see different aspects of Glaswegian society, from Tony’s rich, successful but cold father to the gangsters dispensing their own form of justice towards anyone they feel has betrayed them.

Photo: www.blueskyscotland.blogspot.co.uk
Photo:www.blueskyscotland.blogspot.co.uk

From his vantage point in Ruchill Park, Laidlaw looked out over the city. He could see so much of it from here and still it baffled him. ‘What is this place?’ he thought.

A small and great city, his mind answered. A city with its face against the wind. That made it grimace. But did it have to be so hard? Sometimes it felt so hard…It was a place so kind it would batter cruelty into the ground. And what circumstances kept giving it was cruelty. No wonder he loved it. It danced among its own debris. When Glasgow gave up, the world could call it a day.

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

But oddly, what this story is most about is love. The love of a sister for the brother who has fallen through life’s cracks into alcoholism and vagrancy. The love of a son which leads him to try to protect his parents from learning the truth about his brother. The love for a woman, which can lead a man to destroy his life. And most of all, the love of a city – the clear-sighted, complicated yet profound love that Laidlaw has for this place of contradictions where kindness and cruelty meet head-on. Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity. A great book that gets my highest recommendation.

Amazon UK Link
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Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

Wha daur meddle wi’ me…

😡 😡 😡 😡 😡

“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

laidlawWhen Jennifer Lawson’s body is found in Kelvingrove Park, it falls to Laidlaw and his colleague Harkness to find the man who raped her and beat her to death. But they’re not alone in the search. Jennifer’s father, Bud Lawson, wants to get there first, to mete out his own form of justice. And both Lawson and the killer have contacts in the city’s underworld – men for whom violence replaces judge and jury. So the race is on…

McIlvanney’s Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice. A place of contradictions, where love exists but doesn’t flourish, where loyalty is a product of fear and betrayal is met with uncompromising brutality. Laidlaw is our everyman, our observer – a player, yes, and a flawed one, but with an understanding of humanity that allows him to look beyond events to their causes, and to empathise where others condemn.

Set in the late 1970s, this is the Glasgow of my youth and I found it reeked of authenticity. The language, the attitudes, the hard-drinking culture centred around the city’s pubs, the humour and bravado that defended against the ever-present threat of violence – all more extreme in the book (since I didn’t mingle too much with the underworld!) but all very recognisable. And, sad to say, the sectarianism and homophobia were as present and as open in the real world as in the book.*

“Across the street the door of the Corn Exchange opened suddenly and a small man popped out onto the pavement, as if the pub had rifted. He foundered in a way that suggested fresh air wasn’t his element and at once Harkness saw that he was beyond what his father called the pint of no return.”

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

The characterisation throughout the book is particularly strong, each character as believable as the next. Though there’s an air of menace throughout, there are only a couple of graphically violent episodes and they are all the more shocking for their rarity. Fear runs through the book and, as with all the best crime fiction, moral certainties become blurred round the edges. McIlvanney’s use of language is brilliant – the Glaswegian dialect is completely authentic, and I particularly enjoyed how Laidlaw slips between educated English and dialect depending on whom he’s speaking to. I now fully understand why this book is considered the progenitor of the Tartan Noir genre – I can see it’s influence on so many of the current crop of Scottish crime writers, not to mention the early Taggart series – and I’m duly ashamed that it took me so long to get around to reading it. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley.

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*Before Visit Scotland sues me, I’d just like to point out that Glasgow has changed now and is a wonderful, sophisticated place full of welcoming, warm-hearted, friendly and non-violent people!! Honest!

Amazon UK Link
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