Saturday, August 25, 2012

For Review: There But For The ~ Ali Smith

During a rather arduous dinner party, one of the guests goes upstairs and locks himself in a room. He doesn't leave. Not for months. There's no one who is sure of why he chose to do it, but he stays there with little contact with the rest of the world. Surrounding him, however, are a group of people whose lives are somehow changed by Miles Garth.

There But For The
is divided into those four sections - There, But, For, The, and each tells the story of a different character. There's a Scottish woman, an old gay man, a dying lady, and a very clever ten year old girl. Each character reflects on their life, both present and past, and how they know, or might know Miles. But nothing is explicit, or ever fully explained; the stories are of that mysterious kind, where connections sometimes make sense, but more often that not don't, or they're there but don't go anywhere. Things just are, and plots don't need to tie and make storyline sense. But it's not confusing, despite the changes in character, place and time. Somehow, Smith has the ability to make it all fluid and, again, somehow connected.

Perhaps most of the fluidity came from the writing - Ali Smith certainly knows how to do that. I haven't read any of her other work, but if it's as clever and as sumptuous as There But For The, then I'm both amazed and jealous. Her style is very rich, and the dexterity she shows from one character's intimate train of thoughts to the next is exciting. And her writing suits her characters, in the way that there's something ordinary, and yet also quite extraordinary about all of them; there's nothing flashy or painful about the language Smith uses, and yet it's constructed in a way that is just fantastic. I don't use the word 'fantastic' often, but I feel like it has a use here.

I'm excited. Ali Smith has plenty more novels and short stories for me to go and explore, and I definitely looking forward to doing so.

There But For The was the August selection for the Scottish Book Trust's Book Talk. You can find our more and listen to a podcast discussion of the book over here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

For Review: A Disaffection ~ James Kelman

Twenty-nine year old Patrick Doyle is a secondary school teacher who is frustrated and depressed by the system, and the world, that he lives in. Yup, I finished this book on Sunday night, and started my teacher training on Monday. Nice.

Because, in case you hadn't already assumed, A Disaffection isn't a happy book. Kelman narrates in third person, but the narrative is claustrophically close to Patrick's mind. Much of the novel follows Pat's streams of consciousness which often turn into ramblings that are almost psychotic. Poor Patrick Doyle clearly suffers from anxiety and depression. The book was first published in 1989 and, as I was only two years old, I'm not sure where Scotland was in terms of understanding mental illness, but Kelman has precisely detailed the thoughts of one such sufferer.

At the start of A Disaffection, Patrick finds two industrial pipes at the back of a local pub. He takes them home, paints them, and is obsessed with the idea of performing music and sound with them. Throughout the novel, Pat focusses on his obsessions with the pipes, whimsical thoughts of suicide, and on a fellow female teacher he's in love with. Essentially, he struggles to achieve anything with any of these ideas. The novel moves on, though it's far from being plot driven as the core of the text is the inside of Patrick's head.

The result could, at points, be pretty heavy going. The book isn't divided into chapters, and pages upon pages could go by without a break. Doyle's head isn't the easiest or happiest place to be. That said, there were some funny and compassionate places in the narration which were always very welcome. For all the difficulties (expressed through some beautiful writing), Patrick Doyle is a character that I want to give a lot of love to. A Disaffection has a lot to say about people and politics, and Kelman has an ability to say it in a way that is clever, and just brilliant.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ed Book Fest: World Writers' Conference

Wow, I had a busy weekend at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Saturday evening was Irvine Welsh, who read a fantastic (and quite digusting but very funny) section of his recent novel Skagboys. Sunday evening was James Kelman chatting with Liz Lochhead, and it was fun and very charming - one day I'll be sitting talking with an author friend and a whole room full of people will want to know all about our careers, just wait. But, during the day, I took myself along to the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference.



A collection of writers from across the world gathered together to discuss various bits and pieces about literature. On Saturday was Ali Smith's great keynotes on Style vs Content. She spoke of 'style as a marker of existence', and how style is integral to a work, and is 'never not content'. Essentially, style differs from writer to writer, it's what marks us as really human. Style is 'voice and form, and more than both.' Yeah, I know. So many great ideas to comprehend in such a short space of time! I'm a big advocate of style - for me, literature is about the craft of the writing, not about just telling a good story. The best writing has both style and content, but I know that if I'm to choose one, which one I'd choose.

Of course, this lead to many comments about that 50 Shades book which is knocking about. Folks are pleased that the trilogy has got people reading, but there's a bit of bitterness about her 'sell-out' success. Like some of the writers there, I'm also concerned about commerciality and style. In fact, I know that the content of my novel has been one of it's biggest obstacles as to finding a publisher. What I needed was a publisher who wanted a book that was made of good writing style stuff. So I could write novels about vampire pirates having sex with each other, but that's not what I want to write, so I don't. For me, it's about protecting my creativity and style, regardless of how much money or not I'll make (and we're leaning towards the not, here).

That's a lot to take in for a two hour conference, and it was a little bit stressful - I don't like seeing people being forceful enough that they're making others uncomfortable; that's not what debate's about.

So Sunday was A National Literature? That question mark there, with Ian Rankin as chair, and Irvine Welsh with as keynote speaker. Welsh spoke about British literature, about how it's not really a thing, because the country is made of various cultures. Even to say US literature, I think, is being a bit silly, because it's such a huge place made of regional identities, so there a literature might be of a state, or even a city. Irvine Welsh's books are considered very Edinburgh, or even very Leith, and yet they're popular the world over. He admitted that publishing novels in Scots is a different ball game these days, just because it is limiting, and publishers aren't keen on limiting their readership by any means.

But Welsh did it. Really, what's important, is being able to have a human, 'universal' appeal, but to still be of a place. So I think of my first novel, and it's definitely set in Edinburgh, and while it's important to me that it is Scotland, I don't think it alienates anyone with any kind of human experience. Of course, the whole topic of Scottish independence came up (how could it not?) but regardless of my political views, I think it's hugely important to be able to proud of my country's literature. And hello, am I just? I'm always excited to champion Scottish literature.

There were writers who claimed no fixed national identity, and those who firmly did. But there's no escaping the fact that every writer is from a place, or places, and every writer is living somewhere in the world, so all those socio-cultural aspects are going to bleed into writing naturally. Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie suggested that a 'national' literature isn't about nationalism, or even the government, but it's about responding to what is happening in  your country - and absolutely, I agree. If I wasn't Scottish, and living in Scotland, there's no way my writing would be what it is - I write about what I care about, and that derives from the messes and beauties of my country.

So there we go. What a great couple of days. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to the debate on censorship (because I started teacher training today!) but I bet it was thoroughly interesting too. The World Writers' Conference is an important thing, and highly entertaining; something I think should be kept up, because there's always plenty to say, and more besides to shout about.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

For Review: Filth ~ Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh's Filth: a corrupt policeman who suffers from a bad rash, tapeworms, and panic attacks, and he's determined to stamp out all the bad guys, including friends and colleagues that he just doesn't like.

Bruce Robertson wants to be detective inspector, and that means finding the murderer of a young black man. But, of course, this is Welsh and not Rankin, so the polis here pick up drugs along the way, visit prostitutes, and borrow police cameras for pornographic use. Behind all the fun and games, however, Bruce is trying to come to terms with the fact that his wife and daughter have left him. The reasons why are hinted at, but as the reader's in Bruce's mind, there's perhaps a little bit of bias.

The poor (albeit violent, racist, sexist) man also has a nasty rash that takes over his backside and genitals, which lead to some scenes that were pretty repulsive. Eww. And tape worms. The tape worms grow inside of Bruce to the point where they have their own consciousness. They narrate part of the novel too with their inside knowledge (haha pun) and their desire to grow. Besides, tape worms need a healthy and happy host, and between page 1 and 393 Bruce deteriorates rapidly. Nothing will be said of the end here, but I was wondering often how things would 'resolve' themselves. Bad and unexpected things happen, and the tape worms give a glimpse into Bruce's past, creating a background that might give rhyme and reason to the man he has become - I'm always a fan of a bit of nature vs nurture chat.

Bruce Robertson is a horrible, horrible man. The kind of man I've had altercations with in a pub a few times, as most women probably have. But he's fascinating, and great to read. We won't get into politics here, but it's interesting to read a character who much of the time I hate so vehemently, but actually somehow like, and sympathise with. Don't ask me how Welsh did it, because it's probably magic.

To follow up the book (published in 1998), the film version of Filth (starring James McAvoy) is due for release next year. It'll be hefty. If it's done right, it'll be some watch, and I'm keen. In the mean time, Irvine Welsh is speaking tonight at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ed Book Fest: Ned Beauman/Nick Harkaway

Book festival time again! Missed the first weekend because I had to work (which makes me really sad - I really missed out!) but yesterday I finally got the chance to go visit Charlotte Square Gardens. For some reason (though it makes sense given the nature of what I read) most events I book are late at night/evening. For the first time, I had an event in the morning. And wow, what a different place the festival looks. Especially the Spiegeltent; instead of wine-fuelled revelry, folks were sat drinking free teas and coffees, and there was even a very tasty biscuit too. That, and I'd never noticed how pretty the tent is in the sunlight.

So I had my tea and biscuit, and there was some quiet buzz around me of people chatting about Booker Prize possibilities - Beauman's fans are really gunning for him. Then there was Beauman and Harkaway and the great Stuart Kelly. Each author read from their book, and Beauman's section on drugs and sex was so refreshing to hear at that time of morning - I'm always ready for it, but not every reader is so keen on such banter (a thing I have learned from various reading parties and workshops). There was chat of philosophy and the ever-present question of genre. Each author was keen to be sure that if they were going to have a genre that it shouldn't be something so wide as simply 'sci-fi' because, really, that could mean anything, and it doesn't necessarily come with great literary credentials.

Each author has tendencies far from realism, and Harkaway commented on the trend for literature being very realist, at least in the UK. So I'm guilty as charged. Novel number one is realist, novel number two (when it's finished) will be too. My reasonably vague plans for novel number three will stray slightly, but I'm beginning to think that maybe it should do more. Why can't my novel be literary and be some way far from real? The discussion between Beauman and Harkaway was really engaging on levels of genre and influence, and gave this writer good food for thought.

Time to stray from my realist ways, and have a bit of an adventure into the unknown and unlikely.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Teaser Tuesday: 14 August

Throw away your television:

They would all be sitting in front of the telly, in the middle of a movie, The Wizard of Oz or The fucking Sound of Music, a tray full of various sandwiches, cakes and chocolate biscuit. Happy Families. The television is good for that sort of carry on, everybody being together without having to communicate conceptually. People have suggested Patrick buys a television. And he has been considering it.... But it could put you off reading and listening to music and what Pat likes is playing music and reading books at the same time which is a bad habit maybe but very comforting. And comfort is important. He is not getting any fucking telly unless comfort is guaranteed. Do you guarantee comfort with your tellies? No! Then away and fucking fuck yourself Charlie!
 A Disaffection, James Kelman (79-80)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

For Review: Tales From The Mall ~ Ewan Morrison

Yesterday, I went shopping. I knew that when I picked up bags of sweets that it was just an impulse buy, and when looking for the escalators I knew they'd be the opposite end of the department store so that I had to walk past more stuff that I might buy. These are things that I'd been doing for years, but didn't actually really think about until reading Tales from the Mall.

Ewan Morrison presents the reader with facts about retail, anecdotes from shopping malls, and fictional short stories around consumerism. We all buy things, whether we like it or not. I'm not a high street kind of girl, and the thought of spending too much time in a shopping centre makes me quite anxious, but really, we all enjoy buying stuff. Morrison's Tales from the Mall consider retail, how malls work, or don't work, across the world. I think of the teenage years spent at the Howgate centre in Falkirk, and the massive city centre building that is the new Union Square in Aberdeen. Unless you're Scottish, and have visited either of these, that might not mean anything, but the difference in retail culture there is huge. Like I said, we all do it, but Morrison's really thought about it, and stories he tells are sometimes funny, other times sad, but always thoughtful.

And addictive. Maybe it was because I was offered a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, but there was always something interesting to read - journalism, psychoanalysis, stories of suicides and terrorists, men in food courts, a woman trying on a bra that could change everything. The section on Twenty-Two Simple Innovations in the Science of Consumer Manipulation was fascinating. I've been shopping on my own since I was twelve or thirteen, and I've worked in a supermarket for six years, and while some things seem to make sense (like stacks of tasty offers by the checkouts) I'd never really considered how much of an effect certain 'innovations' make on me as a consumer. Like some of the characters in Morrison's Tales, I'm okay with that. But like some others, I find it really quite scary.

We're living in a material world, and there's no escaping that. Morrison mentions brands and names in his disclaimer, and I couldn't be gunning more for his point of view. In fact, in a blog post I wrote a whole two years ago, I wrote about branding in novels and, funnily enough, made the same comparison that Morrison makes with American Psycho. The retail world is more than just numbers and making money,  and Morrison shows how it can affect us as human beings, and how consumerism is such a staple part of our culture.

Tales from the Mall is thorough, and very enjoyable. Addictive, because there's so much to learn, and some great stories full of characters who, like many of us, are defined by the things that we buy. Morrison knows what he's talking about, and he really knows how to write. I'd recommend buying it, but online is boring - why not take a trip to your local shopping centre, and browse, visit the food court, buy a pair of earrings while you're at it? That's what I did.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Scottish Writers on Scottish Writers: Helen McClory

As part of my summer of Scottish fiction, I asked Scottish writers to tell me about some of their favourite Scottish books/authors. Helen McClory was kind enough to review Muriel Sparks' The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:


I wanted to write about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, for the Scottish Fiction Challenge because it's a totty wee thin book that slips quietly into your pocket (if your pockets are big enough) but also because I read it recently with a student I'm teaching English as a Second Language, and so had to spend a good long time with the book despite how quick a read it could have been. When you spend a long time with something so good, going line by line, it grants a special sort of love, flavoured by the voice of the uncertain reader for whom the story is gradually unfolding, by the rain pattering on the flat roof next to the school room.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of those books I had read in another schoolroom when I was a girl, so what is known, technically, as yonks ago.  And well now, isn't memory a funny thing? Because I had totally forgotten how many reference to sex there are in this book. From giggly schoolgirl ponderings about the sex lives of teachers, to affairs, to almost-affairs, to a flasher, to flash-forwards to the adult lives of those same school girls, sex is everywhere. 

How was it I'd remembered only the acid humour and cleverness? Maybe, because it's a Great Book of Middle Class Scottish Literature I managed to file it away under the wrong categories.

I will have particularly fond memories of reaching the part where Sandy and Jenny are writing an imagined, and terribly overly-formal letter from Miss Brodie to her hapless lover, the school singing teacher Gordon Lowther, and feeling myself shake with suppressed laughter all the way through and at the very last line of the letter...

Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.

...exploding into snorts, along with the student. So, there is that aspect to the book. Be wary, using this as a core text for educational purposes. Ahem.

But of course, being Muriel Spark, whose eyes glint with steel in them, there's more than the (rather taboo at the time) exploration of sexual awareness in girls.  There's the perfectly adroit use of language, and tight plotting.

There's even room for the strategic use of repetition, which in lesser hands would be wearying, here bolsters the feeling that what we have here is not merely a little sliver of a moment - in the classrooms of a private school, but an indisputable image of scope: of betrayals, politics, faith, and the grande dame, Edinburgh itself. 

If you haven't read it, I urge you to do so. If you've the chance, within a schoolroom, or something like it - echoing, pale-lit, terribly Edinburgh in appearance, that would make the perfect setting. If nothing else, at least fetch yourself some scones, and archly pour yourself some tea of the Scottish Breakfast variety, and enjoy.


Helen McClory is a writer and book reviewer currently based in Edinburgh.  The manuscript of her first novel KILEA won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: http://schietree.wordpress.com/ .

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

For Review: Before I Go To Sleep ~ S J Watson

Christine Lucas wakes up one morning, and she has no idea where she is. There's a strange man in the bed next to her, and she doesn't recognise him. She doesn't recognise herself either because her reflection is twenty years older than she is expecting. The man introduces himself as her husband Ben, and fills her in on a history that she can't remember. But none of this is new, because Christine wakes up like this every day.

Christine, of course, wants to find some way out of her terrible amnesia. She gets involved with a Dr Nash who talks her through various methods of possible antidotes. He suggests that she begins writing a journal so that, every day, she can learn about her self and the past she doesn't remember. The majority of Before I Go To Sleep is Chris' journal, and through it she attempts to figure out her life. Every day she accepts what Ben tells her, only she realises that he tells her different truths every day. Not necessarily always lies, but there's a lot of things he seems to keep secret some days. Obviously, this is cause for concern, and more than ever Christine is determined to find out what is going on. The only two people she sees are Ben and Dr Nash, and a paranoia builds as she tries to figure out who is telling the truth, if either of them are. As stories go, this is a good 'un. The idea of waking next to some guy who claims to be your husband is a bit creepy in the first place. And then putting your faith into a man who claims to be a doctor who can help. It's impossible not to think over the things that Ben and Nash say and do, with the obvious fear that someone somewhere is taking advantage of her illness.

Christine's likeable, at least, even if she does wear tights under her trousers (do women really do this? I can't imagine anything more uncomfortable). At times she seemed more paranoid and anxious than necessary, but who can blame her? Someone who wakes up confused every day is quite a bland, blank slate, but as she begins to see flashbacks of memories, the reader can begin to collect more of an idea of Christine's personality. I felt for her, and I shared most of her concerns regarding Ben - is he really her husband? Is he having an affair? Though Nash was a bit weird at times that I wondered that she didn't have more distrust for him than she did.

Before I Go To Sleep is unsettling, and it's enjoyable to see things unravel, and fit together pieces of her journal. By the end, I didn't feel especially wowed or surprised, given that there were suspicions about certain characters that I'd harboured throughout most of the book. Still, it was quite fun. The plot was interesting, but the novel didn't deliver all that hype it carries with it. A fine read for a couple of free afternoons. Oh, and it's going to be made into a film (starring Nicole Kidman) which doesn't surprise me in any way - in fact, I think there's potential for the story to better itself at the cinema.