October 21, 2016


by Liz Tipping

Review by Pat Black

Liz Tipping’s second novel Don't You Forget About Me is a girl-gets-together-with-boy affair, so you can expect a spot of the warm fuzzies. You can’t assume a happy ending in anything these days, though, and it wouldn’t be a love story if the course ran smooth. I think someone once said something about that - Nik Kershaw or Howard Jones, I forget. All in all it’s a lovely cup of hot chocolate before you head to bed.

The title alludes to Simple Minds, and by extension the John Hughes teen movies of the 1980s. Cara, the narrator, is more of a child of the nineties, but this means she was weaned on the classic home video rentals of the decade before. This was when Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club ruled the roost, and Cara uses these movies as a comfort blanket whenever her life hasn’t gone to plan. And in general, it hasn’t.

Cara has stuck it out in one of the few remaining Blockbuster branches in the country, a symbol of an industry which technological progress has rendered redundant. Cara is heading for redundancy, too, as the curtain comes down on the video shop. She is very creative and has training in events management, but just hasn’t made the leap in her career. This is a recurring theme for Cara, who seems to have run into something of a roadblock in her schooldays. When she recalls these times, this is where the novel got really interesting for me.

It was a reminder of how tough your teenage years can be at school. There’s the paranoia of your clothing, your hairstyle, and being constantly judged over them; and then there’s the type of bullying which isn’t quite as bad as a punch in the chops, but can leave a much nastier wound which turns into a lifelong scar. Cruel nicknames, for instance – Cara is known as “the bag lady” by her school year’s alpha bitch and her cohorts, owing to some insalubrious accessorising, so the name sticks. There’s also the bitching and whispering campaigns, which can blight the boys as well as the girls.

Remember also, if you can bear it, when you were the aggressor. You’ll call to mind the silly things you might have said about a person for a laugh, which can be intensely hurtful. I spoke to one old school friend recently who reminded me that I’d once called this harmless lad who had big ears “20,000 Lugs Under The Sea” before swimming practice. My mate actually congratulated me for this piece of patter which he’d remembered for a quarter of a century. Like it was something I should be given a handshake or a slap on the back for.

I was mortified by this memory of my own demoniacal cruelty, that needless nastiness of youth. That guy might still harbour a grudge, and I wouldn’t blame him if he did. One dark night he might kick my front door in and seek revenge, his gigantic ears unfurling like some kung-fu Dumbo.

But my teenage guilt aside, Liz Tipping gets this stuff absolutely right. Cara suffers in the present day for what’s gone on in the past. It tends to linger once the school gates clang shut behind you for the last time. This gives her novel and her main character lovely texture, and we invest a great deal of sympathy in her.

Cara is looking for her Moment. Like at the end of Pretty In Pink, when Molly Ringwald dazzles in the spotlight at last, or when Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson kiss in the car park in The Breakfast Club. Cue Simple Minds; and credits.

She gets her chance – there’s going to be a school reunion, attended not only by her schoolyard nemesis who christened her “the bag lady”, but also Daniel Rose, her teenage unrequited love, the lad she adored but who didn’t give her a second glance.

Cara’s teenage crush has aged very well, it seems... but she’s done not too badly either, judging by his reaction to her when he meets her in the street.

Cara decides she wants to right some wrongs. But she’ll need some help, not least from her workmate in the video shop, and also her best mate, the solid-and-reliable-and-quite-dishy Stubbs.

The course of the plot won’t be a massive surprise to anyone, but the “courtship” parts, where two people who should really be together who are chasing different people start to realise they should really be together, were terrific. There’s a brilliant but frustrating part where Cara plus a significant other have a smashing day out at the seaside, winning teddies in the amusements, but they just don’t… they can’t seem to… “For god’s sake, kiss him!”

By that part I was hooked, and also horrified – wondering if Tipping would follow Pretty In Pink’s plot, and deny her heroine her true love, in favour of the shiny boy she was fixated on.

The day at the seaside touches on another thing I loved about the book. There is no conspicuous consumption in it. Cara doesn’t have a lot of money, and nor does anyone else she knows. They socialise at a club where you drink beer from cans, poured into a plastic pint tumbler, and you mingle easily with the pensioners playing bingo. It had authenticity, which isn’t the first quality I’d associate with this genre.

One thing which puts me off modern romance novels is that some still seem to be hooked into consumerism, particularly shopping, and catching the eye of some rich bloke. (Admittedly this prejudice is based on my experience of the books an ex used to read in the early noughties – a different geological era in terms of financial climate.) There’s nothing wrong with good old fantasy, and I guess we’ve all wished we were rich at some point, or perhaps that we could spend an evening or two with someone who was. But Cara’s life and ambitions struck a chord with me. The romance felt truer because of it – taking pleasure in life’s wee miracles, like fish and chips shared out of the wrapper on a seafront, or laughter over the silly characters you run into every day in your working life  (“Have you got Free Willy?”).

The book is never preachy about it, but it is not concerned with wealth, or the acquisition of it. Cara does have talent, though, and it is harnessed before the end as she hatches a plan for a pop-up cinema event which heads for a climax as shiny bright as the school reunion. Apart from that, Cara lives modestly – she seeks out her showstopping dress and a certain pink cardigan second hand. It was a fine antidote to the likes of the Sex and the City girls, who shifted focus from beautifully acidic analyses of their menfolk to buying piles of shoes in Dubai – not a crime, of course, but they lost a bit of what people loved about them in the transition.

And so to the ending… it’s perfect. I shouldn’t say if Cara ends up with her Ducky, because that didn’t happen to Molly Ringwald’s character… but all loose ends are tied up with a nice pink ribbon. Now that’s how you finish a novel. It’s as satisfying as when Popeye Doyle zaps Charnier at the end of The French Connection 2. Cut and print. No further questions. Cue Simple Minds; and credits.

Read the author interview with Liz Tipping here

October 13, 2016


by Alexander Trocchi
153 pages, Oneworld Classics

Review by Pat Black

There are a couple of versions of Young Adam - one sexy, and one not quite so sexy. I’m not sure which one I picked up, but it seemed plenty sexy to me. I wonder if there’s an even sexier one out there? Maybe we can keep adding layers of sexiness until we reach an edition which is all sex, like a cake made entirely out of icing.

Alexander Trocchi is the high priest of the Scottish beat. Irvine Welsh, the east coast’s bard of the unspeakable, was certainly influenced by him. A friend and contemporary of William Burroughs, Trocchi was a notorious junkie for much of his life, going so far as to pimp out his wife in order to feed his habit. Sick Boy would be proud.

Although the Glaswegian has a formidable record in editing and publishing in Paris, New York and London in the 1950s and 60s, Trocchi had bills to pay and smack to shoot. He wrote pornography in order to do so, and this informs much of Young Adam.

That Trocchi was a skilled writer is obvious from the opening lines, and barely seems worth examining here. I read a telling comment about Trocchi recently: that he wrote erotica “a little too well”.

Young Adam tells the story of Joe, an educated drifter working on a barge as it putters between Glasgow and Edinburgh on the Forth and Clyde Canal in the 1950s. This is when the canal was a working waterway, and the barge feeds great sooty heaps of anthracite to the factories which thronged the banks during those two cities’ industrial heyday – now long gone. This novel might as well be set in the middle ages for younger readers, but I was fascinated by its scenes of a primitive Glasgow just odd enough to be interesting, just familiar enough to be understood.

The barge is owned by Leslie, a scarred old lion of a man who’s more interested in drinking in sawdust-carpeted dives than in pleasing his much younger wife, Ella. Joe sleeps in a bunk next to Leslie and Ella’s room on the boat. The wall which divides them is paper-thin. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s going to happen next.

That’s the way of the world – but Joe’s not a very nice person. Told from his perspective, the story starts with Joe and Leslie discovering the body of a woman in the water, naked except for a flimsy petticoat. The police are called, and the body is taken away; it looks like murder, but Joe isn’t so sure about that. That’s because Joe knows exactly what happened to the woman in the water.

More often than not, Joe’s thoughts take a priapic turn, going into great detail about what he’d like to do with Ella. Joe’s already had a good look at the package, spying on Ella while she masturbates, as her husband snores alongside her. Perched outside the window with his trousers at his ankles, Joe flails himself in tandem with his landlady, and, in football parlance, times his run into the box well.

Young Adam is straight-up erotica, lurching between fantasy scenarios (even Leslie gets a turn in the spotlight, recounting an experience with two prostitutes in his youth) before finally settling on real sex, as Joe and Ella make their move. For all that the build-up involves so much sweaty speculation, the description of their first sexual encounter is brief, almost curt, but memorable; a testament to Trocchi’s flair. “Our bodies fused, like pieces of lead.”

The author may be a poet, but his chief subject is hardly a sensitive lover. Joe tends towards sadism, thrashing his women with belts, fashioning dog collars for them, and, in one unforgettable passage, covering them with a drab rainbow of kitchen condiments. Trocchi details the women’s pleasure as well as their pain, but there’s a lot of pure meanness in the mix. More than once, Joe’s mouse heads for the wrong house, taking the women by surprise. Perhaps, in Trocchi’s famous statement that the basis of all his writing was “sodomy”, there was more to it than a glib, sophomoric need to shock and provoke.

I was struck by how the game has changed completely for this type of writing. Arguably, in the era in which this book was written, erotica was penned by and for men. Dirty books for dirty old men in dirty old macs. Nowadays, it’s all about the girls – almost exclusively, I would venture. I once tried my luck at writing a long story for Harlequin, but I was bashful as a knock-kneed teenager struggling with a condom wrapper when it came to describing women’s feelings, passions and even their simple observations about men. It felt like an awkward, discomfiting dream, or perhaps that I had gotten dressed in the dark, and put on the wrong clothes. What can I tell you? I’m a bit of a square. Trocchi is most decidedly not.

Joe’s sexual voyage takes him from the mystery lady in the water, to Ella, and then to Ella’s step-sister. From there he beds the wife of a man whose flat he lodges in (the husband fully consents to his wife being placed at Joe’s convenience: “Give it to her rough, she can take it”). And finally, there’s a 20-year-old student, whom he approaches on the Kelvin Way in Glasgow, explaining that he wishes to f*ck her.

In the background, the newspapers are dominated by coverage of a sensational murder trial. A man named, appropriately, Goon, has been charged with the murder of the woman Joe and Leslie pulled out of the canal. It’s here that Trocchi finally forces his narrator to engage with something which could be mistaken for a conscience.

Joe goes so far as to pen an anonymous postcard to the trial judge, explaining that the woman’s death was an accident, in the hope of getting Goon off the hook, but to no avail. Bouncing along inside his own wee existential bubble, Joe wonders what guilt and justice really are, when ranged against those tasked with acting in its service. This is the kind of argument a petulant philosophy student might raise when trying to deflect awkward questions about who ate the last of the cheese, but these and other ruminations help raise Young Adam above the level of unusually lyrical smut.

It also raises a problem I have with the beat writers in general. I understand the social strictures they were fighting against, and their contempt for society’s conventions, whether crystallised in the form of laws or not. And of course, I can’t fault their skills with a pen. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them.

Joe meanders from one experience to the next, shakes a little blunt poetry out of them, and moves on. Whoever and whatever he’s trampled over in the service of his desires are an utter irrelevance. The human side of things is neglected; these characters are almost bemused that such chaos could be wrought out of their actions.

This kind of aloof, but destructive stance might be what stopped me from buying into On The Road when I was 18 or 19, dead centre in the target age, despite the breathless reviews from my peers. Young Adam’s main character is cut from the same existential cloth as Sal Paradise – ie, he’s an absolute pr*ck. As indeed lots of young men are. Perhaps there’s a line to be drawn between Joe’s nihilism and that of spoiled US high school jocks, drugging girls, raping them and filming it. That horrid, fundamental disconnect. Or maybe it’s just the way of the world.

Young Adam’s title is a misnomer. Joe might be at play in the Garden, but he’s not Adam. He’s the serpent, and the knowledge he offers is poison. 

October 6, 2016


by Steve Alten
Tor, 367 pages

Review by Pat Black

“Esteban! Esteban!

When I was much younger, I stayed with an uncle who is, by anyone’s estimation, an accomplished, clever and well-read person. I returned to his house one afternoon with a bag from Waterstone’s, and he asked me what I’d bought. One of the books was the original Meg. Feeling like a kid caught reading a comic in class, I passed it to him.

He gazed into the eyes of the gigantic prehistoric shark on the cover, and asked: “What’s it about?”

Nightstalkers is the fifth novel Alten has written about Megalodons, giant great white sharks from prehistory which have somehow survived to the present day for some scientific reason or other. Over the years, he’s dropped more exotic ingredients into the soup, dredging old dinosaur spotters’ guides from his childhood for ever-bigger and nastier aquatic monsters. He’s topped out with a Liopleurodon, acknowledged as the biggest carnivore the world has ever seen, rendered here as a 120ft crocodile with flippers and extremely bad manners. 

Alten’s increasingly squamous symphony has seen his nightmare menagerie eat dozens of people as they clash with mankind. Deliciously, they also clash with each other. The previous entry in the series, Hell’s Aquarium, finished with a scrap between the Liopleurodon and Angel, the biggest, baddest Megalodon in the sea. It was terrific, the underwater death-match Ray Harryhausen would have dreamed of.

There’s more of the same in Nightstalkers, as we follow the Lio’s progress towards Antarctica. As ever, the story centres on ace submersible pilot Jonas Taylor and his family. They used to run an aquarium which housed Megalodons, but the creatures escaped thanks to some animal rights saboteurs. The sharks showed their gratitude by eating a few of them. Taylor – beset by legal problems thanks to his assets’ habit of straying off the menu - is offered lots of money to help recapture the creatures, and in order to survive financially he gets involved in the mayhem against his better judgment.

Taylor is part of a plot to recapture Lizzy and Bela, Angel’s children, dreamed up by the ambitious scientist Paul Agricola, the man partly responsible for luring the original Megalodon from the depths (you can read about that in the ebook-only short, Meg: Origins).

In the earlier novels it seemed that focus would switch to Taylor’s daughter, but his son, David, is now the star man of action. David has been left traumatised by his experiences in the previous novel, which might have been better suited to the title A Monster Ate My Girlfriend. His skills as a mini-submarine pilot are required by his Middle Eastern backers to capture the monsters of the deep for a brand new state-of-the-art aquarium in Dubai. The stories of father and son move inexorably towards a collision.

How did the monsters survive? Ach, it’s not really important, but Alten does a commendable job in trying to align hard science with his lovably daft concept. At first the megs are confined to temperate zones in the Mariana Trench, with hydrothermal vents and sea-bed gigantism among both predator and prey allowing the monsters to survive a long way from the surface, and human attention.

Then it turned out there was an entire sea, hidden from view beneath the earth’s crust, where all the giant sea reptiles survived, having evolved gills (does that mean they’re still reptiles, then?). In Nightstalkers, we set our cryptozoological sights on the Antarctic ice shelves – and what might be unleashed as the world heats up and melts them.

The Meg stories have been very careful to outline the technology involved, particularly the zippy mini-subs which leap past snapping gnashers with inches to spare, like that bit in the intro to Stingray. Alten sometimes overdoes the facts, figures and statistics. He’s very keen to tell you how much water a super-tanker or a naval destroyer displaces, how much it weighs, what it’s constructed with, or how it works, in big bites of data. Some people like those details; personally speaking I’m fine with “it was a big boat with guns and some nice boys in dress whites”. There’s no need to blind us with science, but Alten’s done his working and he can show it in the space provided. Many other authors (including this one) probably wouldn’t make that much of an effort.

Other nasties unleashed include packs of ichthyosaurs and the star prize, livyatan melvillei, a prototype sperm whale, but a whole lot bigger with a fang-studded lower jaw on loan from an orca. This is the kid who came into the yard and fluked sand into Moby Dick’s blowhole, and Moby Dick didn’t do sh*t about it. A big part of my enjoyment of this book was the suspicion that the big-ass whale, the two big-ass sharks and the biggest ass of all, the Liopleurodon, were going to butt heads in a sort of prehistoric World Cup. There is a creature feature smackdown at the end, though I shall not go into detail here.

That’s ignoring the plentiful moments of peril and death where various characters either end up in a shark sandwich or escape by the skin of some very pointy teeth. When the attack scenarios are outlined, it’s fun trying to guess who the “redshirts” are going to be. Sometimes they all get out alive; sometimes they all die; but it’s best when one luckless soul draws a short straw. My favourite moment in the series (I think it’s in the third book, Primal Waters) is the part where an old lady and her wheelchair get inhaled by Angel. Nightstalkers is similarly stuffed full of unlucky buggers oblivious to the fact that their name is on the specials board. My favourite part was when a hippyish animal lover who’s into free-diving with great whites tries to feed the… with predictable...

I enjoyed the return of Zachary Wallace, one of the lead characters in Alten’s Nessie misfire, The Loch. Alten has wisely dialled down the Scots dialogue this time, though he still makes the odd error (no-one in Scotland says, “I’m off home for me tea”; it’s “I’m off home for ma tea”. The “me” is an Anglified corruption of “my”, rather than Caledonian). Not that it matters to anyone outside of a country an eighth of the size of Texas, but if you’re going to tackle such a complex demotic, it’s best to get it right.

Wallace’s character introduces an element into this story which blew my mind a wee bit. In a curious way it took me back to Ballard’s The Drowned World, which I was listening to in the car at roughly the same time I was reading Nightstalkers – a bonkers idea which upends the concept of the fictional world you thought you knew.

This idea (which I won’t spoil) doesn’t belong in a straightforward boy-meets-monster affair, but fair play to Alten for trying it out. It seems it’s linked to another novel of his, Vostok, which also features the Nessie-wrangling Scot. The concept made me think of the Genesis device in Star Trek, which may as well have been called Deus ex Machina, but the scientific/philosophical treatise on our perceptions of time and reality was fascinating.

No more of that. Alten now seems very close to a 20-year dream becoming reality; seeing Meg appear on the big screen. At time of writing, Jonas Taylor will be played by Jason Statham in a movie due to come out in 2018. I’m not getting my hopes up, as Meg is notorious for appearing on production slates, then being dumped unceremoniously in the dock. That dreaded phrase, “in development”, has been attached to the title for nearly 20 years. The disappointing performance of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie is understood to have torpedoed plans for the original version; Peter Jackson’s good-but-not-great King Kong remake did for another, 10 years ago. At one stage, Jan de Bont was meant to direct; at another, Eli Roth. It remains to be seen whether this film ever gets made – and if it does, whether it angles more towards Jaws or Sharknado. Personally, I would be braced for a title change. But these are exciting times for Megheads.

Alten held back publication of Nightstalkers in order to coincide with a Meg movie which might never come, so I’m glad he decided to just stick it out anyway, six long years after Hell’s Aquarium. And he promises that the story will continue, with Meg: Generations. When it does, I’ll be there.  

September 26, 2016


by Paula Hawkins
416 pages, Black Swan

This review is of the audio version, read by Claire Corbett, India Fisher and Louise Brealey

Review by Pat Black

This year’s mega-seller, The Girl on the Train is a British companion piece to Gone Girl, forming a transatlantic sisterhood of damaged women.

Like Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ novel has more than one narrator – three, in fact – but none you can trust. It also follows a similar split time-scale as Gillian Flynn’s book, starting with the girl in the title, Rachel.  

She is a complete mess. She’s divorced, and her former husband and his new wife have a baby, living in what used to be her marital home. It’s fair to say this bothers her.

Rachel wanted a child in her marriage, but could not conceive. The fact of her ex-husband’s new baby is a particularly vicious slap in the face for someone who’s suffered more than a few of those. Traumatised and shattered, with her life in ruins, Rachel is a full-bore alcoholic. She has lost her job after she turned up to work drunk. In many cases, drunkenness at work is The Final Straw alcoholics need to push them towards seeking help… but not in Rachel’s case.

Afraid to tell her landlady that she’s been sacked for fear of ending up on the streets, Rachel continues to travel into the centre of London every day on the train, pretending to be at work. She intends to use this time to apply for jobs in libraries, but sometimes she ends up in the pub instead. She often has a drink on the train during her phantom commute, to take the edge off; usually those pre-mixed gin and tonics.

Rachel’s daily journey takes her past the street she used to live on. Although seeing the old house with its new family unit is painful for her, she becomes interested in another couple she spies a few doors down. Rachel admits she’s a fanciful lass, and she constructs identities and lifestyles for this couple which don’t match the reality. She’s not only nosey, but a fantasist, too. We can’t trust a word Rachel says.

One day, Rachel is shocked to notice the girl in the house kissing a man who isn’t her husband.

Then the girl disappears.

This girl is called Megan, and her strand of the story takes place earlier, leading up to the crisis point which Rachel is trying to resolve. Megan has a troubled past, stemming from the death of her brother in a motorcycle accident when she was just a girl. She has a history of running away and getting involved with inappropriate men; there’s even a soliciting charge on her record. Megan seems on-track now, has plenty of cash and, until the smug-sounding patrons put her off, used to run an art gallery. But she cannot settle.

More than once she refers to the wanderlust in her, a desire to run away. She is a risk-taker and a cheat, embarking on a relationship with a therapist after her husband urges her to seek professional help for mental health issues.

Megan blithely causes chaos to serve whims which most people keep hidden, if they have them at all. Her relationship with the therapist soon becomes obsessive. But there is a suggestion that, in turn, her husband Scott is a controller, constantly checking up on Megan’s emails, keeping a tight rein on the type of friends she sees in her spare time, organising, scrutinising and criticising. Megan doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong.

Rachel and Megan are so chaotic that parts of their stories were difficult to listen to. Megan speeds towards trouble at 100mph, utterly oblivious, while Rachel makes some godawful decisions and then tells a pack of lies about them.

But Hawkins has a trick up her sleeve. Soon, we meet Anna. She’s the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. In contrast to the other two, Anna seems composed, fulfilled and happy. As a result, she is almost unbearable. She’s a yummy mummy, going to spin classes and engaging in competitive parenting with her NCT group; someone who enjoys baking and crafts and yoga. Anna’s not disturbed or unreasonable. But we don’t quite trust her, either. She somehow makes Rachel and Megan seem more human, more appealing, in spite of their colossal flaws.

Anna feels no sense of shame or guilt over wrecking Rachel and Tom’s relationship. Rachel was an obstacle, something to be clambered over and forgotten about. And Rachel knows this, even as she engages in some bad behaviour over the new family which crosses the line into stalking.

Rachel’s behaviour stretched credibility, at times. We’re not talking let’s-investigate-that-funny-noise-in-the-basement silliness, but not far off it. She produces a steady stream of pish for the police investigating Megan’s disappearance, and I couldn’t help but think: why? Why on earth did you say that? Why are you even getting involved in this?

Rachel makes unbearably stupid decisions, so much so that I grew exasperated with the character. She’s a meddler, at times almost completely estranged from common sense. But at least this holds true to her character - and her affliction. She’s out of control, but she thinks she’s trying to help, even if she is a bit nosey and interfering; even if her view of events doesn’t tally with reality.

I know a few people like that. And if you’ve never been that sort of hapless drunk at some point in your life, however briefly, you’ll know someone who has.

Rachel holds the key to the whole affair - but it’s locked up in her head. On the night Megan disappeared, Rachel was blind drunk and loitering in her street, harassing her own ex and his wife. Through the mists of Rachel’s blackout, there’s something violent lurking, a horrible thing she did, or had done to her. There is the terrifying suspicion that she might have something to do with Megan’s disappearance.

Paula Hawkins expertly places her pieces on the board – absolutely anyone could be involved in the disappearance. No-one is exempt from suspicion. There’s even a mysterious man with red hair involved in the story. Maybe he should have been called Mr Herring? All said and done, The Girl on the Train passes the mystery test – it keeps you guessing, right to the end.

Like Gone Girl, this is a story completely without heroes. I didn’t like any of the main characters. Even the detectives leading the case are grim, sardonic snipes. The canny DS Riley is all over Rachel’s fairy stories, picking over the parts where she doesn’t make sense.  But you always see her as an antagonist - even when Rachel gets herself in deeper trouble with every lie she tells.

And, as with Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train makes no apologies about painting women in an unflattering light, with terrible, often unforgivable flaws. There is no Madonna/whore complex here, no Mary Sues. Rachel and Megan are uncontrollable – what a filthy word to spring to mind, a heartless word, a man’s word – but they’ve been scarred and let down by life, and their world is a frightening, brutal place. To Hawkins’ great credit, you cannot entirely abandon sympathy for them. 

September 19, 2016


by Ric Rawlins
216 pages, The Friday Project

Review by Pat Black

In an alternate universe, the Super Furry Animals are the biggest band in the world, and they’ve changed it for the better. I’d like to pay a visit to that universe. I’d probably stretch it to a long weekend. But as it stands, we’re stuck in this existence, and we’ll have to make do.

A lot of great bands emerged from the UK in the 1990s, in what turned out to be the final rich belch of recording acts just before the internet shattered the music business into a million pieces, like those records in the intro to Top of the Pops. This era didn’t begin or end with glowering northern hominids and camp Thames estuary jackanapes; a lot of different acts emerged, playing a range of music. I spent too much money on them, but I regret nothing.

I feel blessed to have been a drunken teenager swaying in front of bass bins in this era. Although I’m sure there are cracking scenes and bands on the go today which my increasingly hairy ears will never unfurl for, and grooves my old bones will never creak to, I do pity today’s international bright young things. It could be my age. But nothing on offer today appeals to me.

My favourite band from the 90s will forever be The Wildhearts (you’ll hear more about them in a Squawk yet to be), but the Super Furries run them a close second. For sheer creativity, they are second to none; there’s no-one like them, and despite the many opportunities the internet provides for multi-platform formats and experimentation, there’s no-one around with as many mental ideas.

Think Kanye’s punched things up a bit with pop-up stores and the like for The Life of Pablo? Try a disco tank, or an album released as a series of films on DVD, or lyrics hidden inside packaging, or secret 7in vinyl records sewn into the inside sleeve of gatefold albums. Has your favourite band ever appeared in a cheat mode in a football video game, as a playable team alongside some of the world’s worst dictators? Only if that band is the Super Furries.

Ric Rawlins’ Rise of the Super Furry Animals charts the band’s career, from its earliest iteration with Ankst records through to signing with Sony. In easily digestible bites, the author reveals the history of five lads from Wales as they go from demo tapes and pub gigs through to shows featuring moon landing sets complete with lunar buggies, 50ft inflatable bears, police-proof battle tanks pumping out techno at festivals and full choirs dressed as psychedelic gods. It’s as strange as it sounds. There are no stories of fights, divorces, overdoses or Rolling Stones-style black magic to be found here, but their tale is so tightly woven with weirdness that it doesn’t need any of that stuff. In fact, it’d be a disappointment if Gruff, Huw, Guto, Cian and Daffyd had done typical rock star things. It’s not them.

If I could turn the Furries story into bullet-points, one of the top ones would be that they have turned down seven-figure offers to attach their songs to global advertising campaigns.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned what sort of stuff the Furries play. There’s no point. Ostensibly a singer, two guitars, bass, drums and keys, they can and do play absolutely everything in any style you like. Punky two-minute numbers can turn into evil techno tracks running to 10 minutes and longer on stage; a song about the Northern Lights can be illuminated with the Caribbean sound of steel drums, like a skoosh of raspberry sauce on your ice cream.

It defies description. I can’t say, “They sound like…” because no-one really sounds like the Super Furry Animals. A pre-breakdown Brian Wilson might have imagined that this was how the Beach Boys would sound in 1984. But this book is a fine evocation of the madness – planned, structured and otherwise - that surrounded the band in its 1996-2009 salad days with Creation and Sony.

A frustrated rock star myself – isn’t everyone? – I once gazed into the woodchip wallpaper of my family home in Glasgow’s wild west and connected the flakes to plan a novel about a band’s rise from their first pub show to stadium concerts. It took me a while to realise that, even if this was the best story in the world, it would be missing something very important.

Any book about music similarly features the omission of that one crucial element: sound. Rawlins understands this, and puts together a cracking Furries playlist at the end. I guess you could listen along as you read.

If you’re a fan of the Furries, you’ll probably have this book already. If you’re not, then it won’t do you any harm; it doesn’t outstay its welcome, in and out in about 200 pages, including full-page illustrations at the chapter heads. If it, or this review, piques your curiosity, then we have done our jobs as Super Furry Apostles.

What you really should do, though, is check out the music. Grab Songbook: The Singles Vol 1, if you must (I can’t decide if this or Primal Scream’s Dirty Hits is the greatest greatest hits album ever released). If you need to start at the beginning – and not all great stories do – then have a pop at Fuzzy Logic. If you want to be a Contrary Mary and impress the impressionable, buy Mwng, their Welsh language album (their most straightforward, stripped-down record). But however you choose to make your first step into a furrier world, please don’t let this lovely band pass you by.

Comparing any act with the Beatles is a glib exercise, but I find it difficult to think of a band who can better recapture the Fab Four’s Ready Brek glow of benevolence than the Furries. Even when singing about horrible exes blighting their lives, the Furries exude an aura of everything being… just right. Everything’s perfectly welcome. Everything understands you, loud and clear.

The Super Furries still play live, and there’s a tour on the way this winter. But they’ve been ominously, disappointingly quiet when it comes to new records; just the one single since Dark Days/Light Years, the sublime silliness of this summer’s best Welsh football anthem, Bing Bong.

This decade is entering its closing stages. Certainly it should be thinking about a substitution. There have been collaborations and solo material, even a book by Gruff - but still no new Super Furry Animals album.

Was Bing Bong a one-off? Or will they swoop back in to save us? And more importantly, will they be wearing the yeti suits for the whole encore? How does one wash those things anyway? Do they wash those things?

September 11, 2016


Booksquawk interviews The Wolves of Langabhat author D.A. Watson.
Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

D.A. Watson: Well I’m pushing forty, I live in the Inverclyde area with my family, and I’ve been doing this writing thing seriously for about four years now. I was doing a music and digital media degree at Glasgow Uni, and showed an early unfinished draft of my first novel to Louise Welsh, who was writer in residence at the time. She thought I had something, and told me I had to finish it. So it was self-published on Amazon after being knocked back by just about every publisher and agent in the UK. It still seemed to go down well with folks though, so I wrote the The Wolves of Langabhat, landed a literary agent and got it published. When I’m not scribbling, I work in an office, play guitar with my band Remembering Joone, and enjoy reading, Mexican food, Candy Crush, and Nerf battles with my five-year-old son.

B: Viking werewolves is a great concept. Where did the idea behind “The Wolves of Langabhat” originate?

D.A.: I like to base my stories on existing folklore, and I found the story about the wolf men of Loch Langabhat on a paranormal database of the UK. As I’ve never actually been to Lewis, I figured I should find out about the place, and it turned out there’d been a lot of Viking activity back in the day on the island, which is always a good jumping off point for violence. I wanted to do something different with the whole werewolf mythology, and when I was researching Vikings and berserkers, I found all the stuff about King Harald’s Ulfhednar and the wolf god Fenrir, and it all just fell into place.

Booksquawk: Werewolves don’t get as much attention as zombies or vampires. Are there any werewolf movies or books that influenced you?

D.A.: Hell yeah. I grew up watching An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, which are still brilliant films. Dog Soldiers is also a firm favourite. Book-wise, The Howling III : Echoes was the first horror novel I ever bought with my own money when I was about ten. I also love Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf trilogy, and there’s some tremendous David Gemmell fantasy novels featuring weaponised lycanthropes and ultra-violent battle scenes. They were definitely an influence.

Booksquawk: “The Wolves of Langabhat” is quite a lengthy novel, particularly for a horror story. How long did it take to write?

D.A.: I think it was a little over a year to get the first draft done, then about another two in re-writes and edits. 

Booksquawk: Writing convincing action is a real challenge for many authors. The novel is chock-full of great action sequences - do you have any tips for writers who struggle with this?

D.A.: Learn from the masters. I’m a fan of good up-close and detailed action scenes, and guys like Joe Abercrombie, Richard Laymon, David Gemmell and Dean Koontz should all be studied. Simon Scarrow’s Roman novels are also required reading for anyone who wants to know how to write a really good and brutal battle scene. You could also actually act out some of the movements to get the mechanics right. I found myself jumping about the room, locked in mortal combat with imaginary enemies quite a few times while writing this story. Anyone passing by the window must have thought I was mental.

Booksquawk: Was it a challenge to write a book with a real location that you haven’t visited?

D.A.: Well, that’s where Google Earth came in handy. I spent a lot of time virtually flying around the Isle of Lewis, watching videos and looking at pictures of the place. From the feedback I’ve had, it seems like I did a decent job. Go, technology!

Booksquawk: The book’s ending leaves plenty of scope for a sequel. Have you considered writing another werewolf book?

D.A.: Maybe a short story, but I’ve no plans at the moment to write another werewolf novel. Got other fish to fry.

Booksquawk: Do you have a particular routine for writing?

D.A.: Having a full time job and a family makes it tricky to get any real writing time in, so my creative process really just involves waiting until everyone in the house goes to bed and staying up way too late, hoping to get a thousand words down.

Booksquawk: What other writers inspire you?

D.A.: Other than the guys namedropped above, The King, of course, who’s just the man, and his boy Joe Hill’s not too shabby either. Some of my other favourites are Irvine Welsh, Christopher Brookmyre, Wilbur Smith, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon and Adam Nevill. Joe Donnelly, a little known Scottish writer who wrote some brilliant horror novels, is probably the one who inspired me to try my hand at writing, as his stories are set in the area where I grew up.

Booksquawk: Have you got any other books in the pipeline?

D.A.: My first novel In the Devil’s Name, has finally found a publisher and the new edition’s just gone live on Amazon. The launch night’s at Waxy O’Connors in Glasgow on the 25th August if anyone’s around! I also just started writing the epilogue of my third novel Cuttin Heads, a supernatural rock n roll story. After that, I’ve got a few short story ideas I want to get down, and the next big project with be either a post-apocalyptic screenplay called The Shift, that’s been started, or a horror/fantasy/western revenge novel, which in my head is currently titled Adonias Low and features a badass bounty hunter out to violently right some wrongs.

Read the review of The Wolves of Langabhat here.


by D.A. Watson
378 pages, Wild Wolf Publishing

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Although zombies and vampires continue to get more page and screen time in the horror genre, the myth of the werewolf remains undeniably popular. Booksquawk favourite Guy N. Smith’s werewolf trilogy (“Werewolf by Moonlight”, “Return of the Werewolf”, and “Son of the Werewolf”) is utterly dreadful but also bloody good fun. Many moons ago, I looked at Glen Duncan’s fantastic “The Last Werewolf” and the anthology of werewolf stories “The Werewolf Pack”, but it has been while since I dipped into some werewolf fiction. A recent return to Neil Marshall’s wonderful “Dog Soldiers” on DVD reminded me how much I enjoyed stories about furry flesh-eating beasties, so I fired up my Kindle and downloaded this little beauty.

D.A. Watson’s “The Wolves of Langabhat” can best be summarised in two words: Viking werewolves. If you’re like me, your inner-geek is probably punching the air and wondering why nobody hit upon this concept sooner. Werewolves are awesome. Vikings are awesome. The synergy of werewolves and Vikings still sends me a little bit giddy with excitement. If, however, you rolled your eyes at the concept of werewolves wearing armour and wielding swords and battle-axes, it’s probably best you go right now. This book is not for you.

Still with us? Good. Because D.A. Watson isn’t content to thrill us with Viking werewolves alone. This novel features immortal monster-slayers fighting Viking werewolves. Not quite bombastic enough? What about if one of the immortal monster slayers is also a rock star with a death wish? The words “high concept” don’t even come close to doing it justice.

What first drew me to “The Wolves of Langabhat” was its setting, the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. I’ve a real soft spot for the location because a) I’ve lived there for seven years and b) I’ve also written a novel set on the island. Those who have ever visited Lewis will know that it is quite a unique place. It is rich in culture and history but also lashed by Atlantic storms and full of wide-open spaces that can feel peculiarly desolate. There aren’t many trees and those that do grow here are relatively young. Local legend tells that the Vikings torched the woodlands on the island and the glow from the fires could be seen at night from the mainland.

Watson’s novel is apparently based on another local legend - the wolf-men of loch Langabhat. I say “apparently” because I had never heard of this legend before reading this book and, being an enormous sponge for local folklore, I was surprised not to have encountered this story before. The veracity of the legend doesn’t really matter, it’s a cool concept that is skillfully brought to life in the novel. The book is split into two main narrative threads. The first is set in the early eleventh century and tells the story of an attack on the island by the marauding Viking werewolves and the efforts of the local people to fight back against the beasts. The other half of the novel details the return of the wolf-men to modern day Lewis and the carnage that ensues. Watson does a good job of juggling the two narratives, hopping back and forth in time but never allowing the transition to be jarring or unwelcome. Both stories are equally enjoyable and Watson brings the two narratives together at the close of the novel in a predictable but ultimately satisfying ending.

The titular wolves of the novel are formidable beasts. Towering over their human prey, the wolf-men are vicious, smart and well-organised. Unlike the uncontrolled slavering wolf-beast seen in “An American Werewolf in London” or “The Beast Must Die”, Watson’s wolf-men are tactical hunters and there are a couple of tense moments in the book where the humans realise they have stumbled unwittingly into a trap. As in other werewolf fiction, lycanthropy is a communicable affliction. When a victim is bitten or scratched by one of the werewolves, they are infected with a pseudo-virus which transforms them into a vargulf, a savage dire-wolf the size of a calf. This is a canny move on Watson’s part. There will always be people who favour the all-fours werewolf to the bipedal man-wolf; Watson seems keen to accommodate both.

One of the strengths of the novel is the author’s ability to write convincing, enjoyable action sequences. A few of these are particularly memorable and are worth a mention. In the eleventh-century part of the story, there is a desperate last stand of men versus Viking werewolves as they scramble for control of the higher ground in a bloody pitched battle. The melee combat is extremely well-realised and reminded me of the visceral, brutal action seen in the works of the late David Gemmell. However, it isn’t all swinging swords and axes. Watson seems equally comfortable describing action involving high-calibre automatic weapons. Another sequence sees the modern-day heroes sprinting through a forest, harried by a horde of vargulf wolves that spring from the darkness. Watson paces these sequences perfectly. There aren’t too many that the reader grows numb from the relentless action, nor do they overstay their welcome.

Another strength of “The Wolves of Langabhat” is the snappy, punchy dialogue. Watson’s got a keen ear for the Scots dialect and isn’t afraid to scatter f-bombs aplenty. The banter between the main characters is both endearing and amusing, and helps to anchor the often-fantastical story in the real world. Watson’s own narrative voice is equally full of character and shows a sly awareness of the pulpy ridiculousness of the whole situation. It never descends into broad comedy, but Watson is a smart enough writer not to take the more outlandish aspects of the narrative too seriously.

My one criticism of “The Wolves of Langabhat” is that Watson’s Isle of Lewis seldom feels like the real place. This is a difficulty when using real locations in books, the locals will always pick up on the details you get wrong. Small, but important cultural details are missing, such as the strong influence of Gaelic language or the fact that most locals’ surnames are Macleod or Morrison. Likewise, locations appear in the novel that don’t bear any resemblance to the real place. My enjoyment of Watson’s novel was not drastically affected by the differences between his fictional Lewis and the real place. This is, after all, a work of fiction about Viking werewolves, not a detailed cultural appraisal of the Outer Hebrides. However, there were a few moments where my inner pedant made it hard to maintain my suspension of disbelief. Given that most readers will not have visited the Isle of Lewis (or if they have, they won’t be such sticklers for detail) this is a problem that will be unlikely to affect many readers’ enjoyment of the book.

This quibble aside, I had a blast reading “The Wolves of Langabhat”. It’s an exhilarating, wild, violent read and one that will undoubtedly thrill anyone looking for some pulpy lycanthropic action.

Hereward L.M. Proops

Read the author interview here.

September 2, 2016


by Alistair MacLean
352 pages, HarperCollins

Review by Pat Black

It’s often forgotten what a publishing colossus Alistair MacLean was. I’d bet there are some younger readers out there who have never heard of him.

The Scot wrote action and adventure stories, many of them set during the Second World War. Some of these were adapted into movies, the most famous of which is Where Eagles Dare. You’ve surely seen it - it’s the one where Clint Eastwood shoots the entire Third Reich.

Iron Maiden even wrote a song about this movie – an honour which should have gone on MacLean’s tombstone.

The novel was more or less written to order after Richard Burton said he wanted to star in an action and adventure picture “where I don’t get killed at the end”. MacLean was hired, and in a very smart move, novelised his own screenplay in time for the film hitting cinemas. Where Eagles Dare was the result.

It sees British man of action Major John Smith leading a squad of daredevil paratroopers behind enemy lines to penetrate a seemingly impregnable mountain castle, the Schloss Adler. This is where the Gestapo high command is based. The keep is teeming with specialist alpenkorps soldiers and guarded by slavering Dobermans; somewhere inside is an American general, awaiting questioning after being captured by the Nazis. Anyone fancy having a go at breaking him out?

Piece of cake, says Smith. Aided by the American Lieutenant Schaffer and two undercover agents, his team is dropped in, ostensibly to rescue the general. But Smith has a secret mission of his own, as he seeks to unmask a traitor hiding within his own party.

One thing that surprised me about the novel is that it’s less violent than the big screen version. Hardly anyone is killed. In comparison, the movie is notable for boasting the highest single kill count of Clint Eastwood’s career. We’re talking “Arnie in Total Recall” levels of squibbage, here.

Smith and Shaffer’s characters are notably lighter in tone than the cynical, cold-blooded assassins you see on screen. Shaffer has a goofy, corn-fed, aw-shucks persona, prone to one-liners and tics like talking about himself in the third person. He’s a little more world-weary, but more agreeable than Eastwood’s laconic, less-talkin’-more-shootin’ interpretation.

The story goes that the script was reworked so that Burton got most of the lines, while Eastwood did most of the shooting – which, you have to admit, plays to both men’s strengths and worked really well. You can’t help but hear Burton’s superb vocals whenever Smith has any dialogue on the page. This is particularly true in the big set-piece in the bowels of the castle where the Major outfoxes his Nazi opponents in order to ferret out the name of the German mole. And Burton’s voice practically haunts you as you read that most famous line: “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.”

There’s a Boy’s Own Adventure feel to Where Eagles Dare, particularly when it comes to the moral imperative of the heroes. They will not kill unless it’s absolutely necessary. At one point, Smith even risks his life and the fate of the entire operation to rescue a German they left unconscious in a store room as Shaffer sets off some bombs nearby. These guys are do-gooders. They will not compromise their moral code.

The big action set-pieces work really well, particularly Smith’s grim fight with the traitors on the roof of a swaying cable car and a breathless escape aboard a bus as the survivors seek to rendezvous with their flight home.

Major Smith is a character type which I gather appears repeatedly in MacLean’s work – the hero who holds all the aces. Smith is never outfoxed, always having some fall-back plan or an angle he can work to outwit his enemies. Regardless of the setback, he’s got a ploy in place to get around it.

It seemed too convenient to me, and sometimes Smith’s reasoning didn’t make much sense. In an early part where the undercover party goes to a bar stuffed with German soldiers, Smith draws attention to himself by pretending to have a row with their insider barmaid, getting his face slapped for his trouble. His thinking is that the Gestapo are always watching, and so a drunken soldier causing a ruckus wouldn’t make too much of an impression - as opposed to a quiet bunch, who could be up to no good, and would inevitably arouse suspicion. This seemed to be stretching counter-intuition too far. Rule number one of espionage: don’t draw any bloody attention to yourself, full stop!

The plot is laced with delicious twists and turns. It becomes apparent that there is at least one rat in the house, who manages to kill someone in Smith’s party before their boots have even hit the ground. The treachery keeps coming, too, with crosses, double-crosses, agents and double-agents galore, as Major Smith’s ultimate aim in invading the Schloss Adler is revealed. At one point you are led to believe that Smith has actually gone double-double, in cahoots with the Germans.

It’s a gripping, exciting novel – something of a contrast to the only other MacLean book I’ve read, his debut, HMS Ulysses. That was a grim but still compelling story of a wartime battleship as it engages the Tirpitz in the freezing North Atlantic. Where Eagles Dare is pure Hollywood in comparison, but I enjoyed it better for that.

Alistair MacLean was a complex man. His death in 1987 at the age of 64 is widely rumoured to have been brought about by his alcoholism, and I recall Scottish newspaper articles not long afterwards accusing him of violent behaviour. 

Following active service at sea in the war, MacLean had a fortunate career, winning a short story competition with his first effort, having a novel commissioned on the strength of that, and then enjoying staggering success with HMS Ulysses a year later. From there he averaged one book a year until the end of his life, and made an absolute fortune.

It seems that while MacLean’s literary career brought him great wealth and worldwide fame, he struggled to deal with it. First of all, he was very harsh on his skills as a writer, never thinking he was good enough despite a readership of millions; secondly, the wealth that came with success troubled him. Glasgow-born, but brought up in the Highlands, with Scots Gaelic as his mother tongue, MacLean’s father was a Church of Scotland minister. This type of cleric is not known for feasting, merriment or light-heartedness. A strong work ethic and a lack of adornment in life is the order of the day for these guys - Calvinist to the core.

Having known austerity, and taught that virtue can only be found in honest toil, it seemed MacLean was haunted by success. He even gave writing up for a couple of years in order to run a hotel in Cornwall, before coming to his senses. According to the film critic Barry Norman, MacLean could not accept that he had made so much money simply by writing stories - a very Calvinist stance indeed.

Whether this informed his alcoholism, who can say? But MacLean was fearfully fond of the bottle. As is often the way with drunks of a certain vintage, his mood could turn dark on the flip of a coin - even violent.

His story is both strange and sad; and it’s amazing how quickly his work seemed to fall out of favour, from being one of the best-selling writers of his generation. MacLean’s books are not even in print any more in the United States, where they had regularly topped bestseller lists.

Equally interesting is what has happened to the action-adventure genre. Lee Child and Wilbur Smith still write stories of that stripe, and as far as I’m aware Clive Cussler and his collaborators are still rattling books out. But the genre isn’t what it was. The Da Vinci Code had an exciting plot and great action scenes, but Dan Brown’s books couldn’t really be counted as action-adventure. You’re more likely to see them in “crime/mystery” sections.

Lots of similar books tend to get plonked onto the sci-fi, horror or thriller shelves – you rarely see an out and out action novel in the top 10. It may be that they have become – shudder – “the kind of thing your dad reads”. Like all those large-print westerns by people you’ve never heard of in the library.

You wonder where and how we lost our taste for action. But for all that, MacLean’s books are still out there on Kindle, and well worth dipping into. I found it refreshing to read something with morally upright, dependable heroes.

I might read The Guns of Navarone next, and hopefully reclaim it in my mind from being a metaphor for erect nipples.