Tuesday, August 30, 2011

For Review: Smokeheads ~ Doug Johnstone

Four friends take a trip to the beautiful island of Islay. Boys just wanna have fun, and drink a lot of whisky. Sounds perfect. And it is, for the first hundred pages. After? A bit of a bad hangover for the lads, to say the least.

Smokeheads follows Adam, Roddy, Ethan and Luke on their manly whisky weekend. They drink a lot, flirt a lot, drive too fast, share too much. All good in the hood. Until around page 103, everything is sweet. It's a fun, laddish romp. Just the guys hanging out. In the space of around ten pages, though, their weekend gets worse, and worse, and worse, and oh my God so bad. I spent the first part of the novel trying to conceive ideas of how things might go wrong, what might happen to them. I figured a bit of fighting, some falling out. That happens, yes. And so does everything else. I don't want to give the game away, put the nightmare they go through is brutal, and certainly not for the squeamish. Fact is, I couldn't get to the end without audible 'eww's and disgusted grimaces. Pretty picture.

Not to put you off. Smokeheads is brilliant. Everyone loves a bunch of unlikely lads who, I should say, just in case, are going on 40, not going on 20. This isn't some kind of Skins episode. These guys are real men, with real lives and everything, and they can still manage to mess up their lives. They're just guys on a wee weekend away, and Johnstone seems to have really enjoyed making it as messed up as possible. Not in a sadistic way, but Smokeheads does read like it was very good fun to write. Still, I was quite exhausted by the end - it's incredible how fucked up (because there's not really any other way of describing this) life can get in the space of just a few hours. What a difference a day makes. Smokeheads takes real life banter and disbanter, and really stretches it. But bizarrely, it still seems very real, and scarily plausible. This would be an amazing film, if done properly. And I wouldn't mind helping scout an actor to play Roddy either (just sayin'.)

As much as Smokeheads made me really want some whisky, I'm equally glad that I don't actually like the stuff. Just in case. But it's a good read - just four men having fun and searching to achieve their dreams. Honest?

Monday, August 29, 2011

For Review: Pack Men ~ Alan Bissett

Don't read too much into this, but I really can't resist a book that begins with a Rangers FC chant.

Pack Men picks up, years later, where Boyracers left off. If you haven't read Boyracers, then you really should, but there's no reason that you can't just jump on Pack Men straight away. The novel takes place in Manchester where the Lads have made an interesting pilgrimage to see Rangers play in the cup finals. (To any Americans reading, this is football patter, and an insanely serious matter). Hundreds of thousands of drunken Scots in an English city? Chaos would be a nice thing.

Though this scenario is frantic enough, the trip to Manchester brings the Lads together after years apart and they each have emotional damage and evolution to get to grips with. Alvin is living the Edinburgh dream (y'know, that one oh-so familiar to me of being a graduate and working in a shop and dreaming of bigger writerly thigns), Frannie is king of Tesco (argh, another venture oh-so familiar), and Dolby has an adorable little boy, product of a frustrating relationship. Where is Brian? He's hanging out with tanned blondes in California. Can you see the picture here? While women might gossip and talk and battle their way through these problems together, men seem to struggle to cope with the same. Emotion, troubles, and anything deeper than the football league, raise barriers. But, Lads and best friends as they are, they have to work through this somehow - whether it's getting completely wasted or throwing punches.

What to say that hasn't been said in my other reviews of Bissett's books? It's real, very honest, heartfelt, witty, hilarious, clever, and everything that a good book should be. If you really wanted to, you could deconstruct the various elements of the book into a How To Write a Well Good Story guide. The cast of characters remind me of many people I've met, and the relationships are like friendships that most people will have had, or have. I'm all about the people - how they think, what makes them tick, and how do they respond to riot police? Pack Men is a lot of fun, and great banter, but it's tender too; full of conviction and affection. Pick up a Pack Men (out on 1st September, oh my!), and a Boyracers while you're at it. (Thousands of you haven't read it. Tsk tsk.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

For Review: The Acid House ~ Irvine Welsh

What? What even is this? Great. Seriously. This is Scottish fiction. This is literature. Aye, it's a bit guid like.

Irvine Welsh's The Acid House is a series of fantastic short stories. If drugs and sex and 'bad things' are your bag and you're not sure of the short story, then read this. I read The Acid House on public transport, and had to hide big grins behind the pages. I also read it during my work breaks, and laughed enough that I was asked what was so funny.

'God! God's in a pub, and apparently he doesn't give a shit!'

'What?'

'It's hilarious!'

Said colleague then asked me to read out the section I had found so funny. I did this. But he stared at me blankly. He didn't get it. But English is his second language, he didn't understand the accent and, obviously, isn't Scottish. There is an element of stuff that is lost, some kind of Scottish humour that only us Scots find quite as hilarious. But that's okay. The Acid House includes stories in London, British characters, insects, and all sorts. All sorts, seriously. One might not believe one's eyes with some of the anecdotes. But that's part and parcel of what makes Welsh so fascinating.

I've never taken acid. Definitely don't intend to. But drugs don't have to be your thing to enjoy this. Much like Trainspotting. (I do wonder the percentage of heroin addicts that read that book). Welsh is brilliant at taking a human being, battering him a bit, kicking him when he's down, offering hope, and then granting that in any way imaginable, or taking it away entirely. That's real life, and that's what the best writing should illuminate. The Acid House is dirty and brilliant - touching where you don't expect it, and deliciously fun.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On Being a Master of Letters (or almost).

So I got my MA two years ago for a very fun, but very useless, degree. From there, I decided to do it again. Scottish as I am, I didn't have to pay for the education first time round, but a fee of close to £4000 was needed for my MLitt. In creative writing.

There lies the can of worms.

On Tuesday, I handed in my final portfolio for the MLitt course in Creative Writing at Glasgow Uni. I haven't felt so relieved, so elated, and so terrified in a very long time. Not only had I battled through sweat, blood, and tears to get there, but I paid nearly £4000. Why? The most commonly asked questions - why bother, why go through all that, when you can do it for free?

Because I couldn't do it for free. Creative writing courses have always been in debate - one can't teach genius and all that. But I didn't enter into the course as an absolute n00b - I've been writing for years. Essentially, I knew how to write a story. What I didn't know was how to edit it, how to view my own writing critically, how to be ruthless with my babies. The workshop element of the creative writing course has been absolutely indispensible. Without it, I wouldn't have completed my novel, I wouldn't have developed the skills that I have, I wouldn't have the confidence to show my work, and I've never even consider the concept of reading aloud.

Sure, I could have just joined a workshop, I could have created this enviornment for myself. But, and this but is big, I would never have been guaranteed the same calibre of writing. Yeah, so we paid, but we also went through a submission process and that wasn't necessarily easy.

Creative writing courses don't and can't teach you how to write, but they can teach you how to become a writer, and to develop the skills that you do have. Think of this before you slag off my course to me. I've been through hell and back on this course, and I damned right deserve recognition of my hard work. This wasn't a joke, and it wasn't funny. Middle class? Puh-lease. I worked 50 hours a week in order to pay for this course, at full risk of my mental health. Stupid? Maybe. But when I want something, I get it.

Don't talk to me negatively about creative writing courses, don't assume that I was just slipped through because I had the right background, and don't suggest that it was all roses and daffodils - I will gouge your eyes out.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Red Pen and Squiggles

...the worst thing about editing my own work is that it is my own work.

I get much more of a kick out from scribbling on other people's pages.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

For Review: Everyone Loves You When You're Dead ~ Neil Strauss

Everyone is interested in celebrity. Whether you're inspired, or just love to loath them, everyone loves a bit of celebrity gossip. Neil Strauss is one man that brings the juicy bits to us, and Everyone Loves You When You're Dead is a fascinating little collection of interviews.
    
From Neil Young to Marilyn Manson, from Britney Spears to Gwen Stefani, this book is full of interviews that get straight to the nitty-gritty of what each celeb is really about. I've interviewed a fair share of famous and quasi-famous people before, and it's not an easy game. Who cares about Tom Cruise's favourite colour? - Why is he so connected with Scientology? Who cares about Lady Gaga's favourite designer? - Is she as resilient as she appears? Strauss approaches these people like they're human beings with passions and quirks and histories.
    
The interviews are arranged in a series of scenes and they are cleverly put together, linking themes and influences. Strauss poses some very insightful questions which provoke even the most stubborn of stars. Strauss knows what he's doing; he knows how to interact with each of his interviewees as individuals, and it shows in both questions and answers.
    
Really, Strauss is very good at his job, and Everyone Loves You When You're Dead is interesting, sobering, and amusing proof of that.