December 8, 2016

STARGAZING

by Peter Hill
336 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

Scotland has a long, treacherous coastline. It looks fantastic on that gumby watercolour your granny might keep above her mantelpiece, but in real life, the lights have to be kept burning. You could make an island with the bones of sailors drowned in those waters.

Being a lighthouse keeper seemed like a romantic job to me as a kid. We think of the sea, of course – calm and gentle as your mother one minute, an unstoppable, raging fury the next. Then there’s the fog, the solitude, old CB radios, and of course, the sweeping light. It helps that Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” is one of my favourite pieces of writing.

The job has long been outmoded by technology – everything’s automated, and has been for decades. This phenomenon of redundancy is something many of us will have to get used to in the coming years if progress continues at its current pace, unless a nice nuclear war sets the clock back a few millennia. Whatever humanity survives might have to go back to burning beacons to show wooden ships the way to safety. Assuming they’d harbour good intentions towards strange vessels.

Stargazing, Peter Hill’s memoirs of his days spent as a keeper on several lights on Scotland’s west coast, is a step back in time. It looks at 1973, when Hill halted his art school studies in Dundee in order to take a job on the lights. He’s just 19 years old, his head full of Jimi Hendrix, Kerouac, the Watergate hearings and Vietnam. Peter wants to write haikus, paint pictures and write novels in his downtime on the lights, and he does. But he also gets to know the crazy characters he has to share the living quarters with. This is the lifeblood of the book. It’s good to consider a starry night, with the moon drizzling silver over indigo waters; but it’s better to have someone to talk to about it - or Coronation Street, whichever you prefer.

You’d think there’s not much to describe once you get past the rugged coasts, the seas and the lights, but… imagine the stars. Imagine basking sharks the size of lorries knifing their way across the water. Imagine thousands of seabirds nesting overnight on the rock, using the lighthouse as a sort of avian Travelodge to break up their journeys across the continents. Imagine the things people might say to each other in the dead of night, their psyches on the fringes of sleeping and dreaming. It’s magical stuff.

“At least you’ve got your art,” one late-night companion tells Peter. “You’re lucky. It’ll sustain you for life.”

In truth this book only takes up a few months out of Hill’s life – a matter of weeks, really - but you can imagine the impression it made on the young man. I was a postie for one summer when I was a similar age, over a similar period of time, and I was a turn of a card away from doing it full-time. My destiny took a different course, but I think I learned more about life, the universe and everything that summer than I have in nearly two decades since, sat on my arse in offices, getting fat, cynical and bitter.

Hill’s fellow keepers are incandescent characters. We meet Finlay, the highlander and gourmand, who teaches Peter how to cook as well how to look after the light; then there’s the tough guy who used to work on the boats, whose taciturnity becomes comical rather than threatening; the Doctor Who enthusiast, who could answer any question on the show in between blasts of the fog horn; the colonel Blinky type, who used to be a sailor during the war but now does all his fighting with Scrabble; the traumatised wartime secret agent who had Done Stuff; the polymath professor, who you suspect could have done anything but ended up working on the lights; and many more.

It’s not an essential, but having an idea of the locations described helped anchor some scenes in my mind. I know Arran and Ailsa Craig - the latter being familiar to golf fans from any time the Open is held at Troon, as it is during Hill’s time spent on the light; Peter Alliss even gives the keepers a mention live on the telly. Corsewall in the Borders is mentioned in passing; it’s a hotel and restaurant complex now. I’ve stayed there, on one of my best ever birthdays. These are all dramatic, gorgeous settings which Hill sketches beautifully.

As for the lights I don’t know about – what about those titles? Pladda! Muckle Flugga! Everything about these places is a pleasure. Saying their names out loud; looking them up on the maps; and, surely, going there.

There’s even some action and adventure, as a fishing trip to intercept a juicy shoal of herring turns into a potentially fatal incident as Peter and a workmate are almost swamped by a rogue wave.

You might ask: How do lighthouse keepers deal with having no sex for weeks on end? The same way anyone else does, is Hill’s reply. There’s a big, obvious, vertical, shiny bright metaphor we could use here, but Hill ignores it, and so shall I. I’m reminded of an interpretation I once heard of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from years ago, but I shan’t go into it; I promised myself I’d get through this one without any smutty jokes.

Most of all, this book is a tribute to youth. The hope, the potential, the energy, the ambition, the chutzpah. Some parts transported me back in time to my own younger days – an encyclopaedia full of mistakes, stupidity and fool’s errands, to be sure, but wonderful and unforgettable and romantic in their own way. There’s one part where Hill uses shore leave to go hostelling in Amsterdam with a female friend, who he might be in love with. She knows this, of course, and tells him in that beautifully nonsensical way that she can’t sleep with a friend, as it’d spoil the friendship. Some people must think this tactic amounts to “letting you down gently”. This stirred memories and feelings from my own youth I’d almost forgotten. It was a lightning bolt, a sudden rekindling of how you felt when you were that age, doing the same things.

Stargazing reminded me of the good stuff; the parts a man of 39 thinks he might have left behind with the lad of 19. But I’d recommend this book to anyone, of any age, from any background.

It’s a reminder to keep your light burning; you never know who’ll need it out there in the dark. 

December 1, 2016

CRESCENDO

by G R Jordan
286 pages, Carpetless Publishing

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

As much as I admire H.P. Lovecraft’s works of cosmic horror, I would never describe myself as a Lovecraft fanboy. In creating the monstrous Cthulhu and his Elder pals, Lovecraft secured his place in the fantasy hall of fame and the huge influence of his works shows no sign of diminishing. However, Lovecraft is a divisive writer. One doesn’t have to dig very deep in his oeuvre to realise that he held some pretty unpleasant views about race and social class. It’s hard to wholeheartedly ‘enjoy’ Lovecraft’s work when these things keep bubbling to the surface. We can try and fool ourselves that he was just a product of his time, but there are plenty of authors from his era whose work isn’t mired in such backward-thinking.

My other criticism of Lovecraft is a purely literary one. Although we can look at his florid prose as being the means by which he crafts the particular atmosphere of dread and terror, many of his stories can be bogged down by his verbosity. This is, of course, just my opinion, and there will be others who maintain that Lovecraft’s prose is perfect. I find issue with the pacing of his stories, even those considered to be his greatest works. There are passages in “At the Mountains of Madness” that lose much of their power through over-long, turgid descriptions. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy his stories of the sinister Elder gods; I just don’t believe Lovecraft was the best writer of the pulp-era.

I was only a few pages into Gary Ross-Jordan’s “Crescendo” when I realised it was dipping its toe into Lovecraft’s world(s). This isn’t particularly radical, plenty of authors, artists and game designers have borrowed from and contributed to the Lovecraftian universe. What gets me excited about Ross-Jordan’s approach is that he makes no attempt to mimic Lovecraft’s style, choosing to write a witty, fast-paced, action-adventure romp rather than a brooding tale of horror. I’m fairly sure that the words “witty”, “fast-paced” and “romp” have never before been associated with anything Lovecraftian, and that is precisely why you need to read “Crescendo”.

Moving at an often bewildering pace, “Crescendo” does not mess around with lengthy expositions of a character’s backstory. Ross-Jordan pulls us from one scene to another, scarcely giving us time to catch our breath or make sense of exactly what is going on. Whilst you would think this would serve to alienate readers, it had the opposite effect - I was drawn in from the start and was gripped throughout.

“Crescendo” is the first in a proposed series of books featuring Austerley and Kirkgordon, a dynamic duo who tick many of the boxes of classic ‘buddy cop’ films. Austerley is a fantastically intelligent, socially inept oddball academic with a comprehensive knowledge of arcane and weird lore. His close encounters with things from other worlds have also left him teetering on the brink of insanity and the start of the novel sees his release from Arkham asylum. Kirkgordon is Austerley’s longsuffering companion. A man of action, Kirkgordon spends much of the novel rescuing his friend from a variety of dangerous situations and the rest of the book cursing Austerley for the detrimental effect their friendship has had on virtually every other significant relationship in his life. But the two characters aren’t a simple division of brains and brawn. Austerley’s curiosity about the Elder beings and his insatiable thirst for forbidden knowledge means that he is as much of a hinderance as he is a help. Kirkgordon has a sensitive side that serves to give bit of humanity and stop him being a one-dimensional action hero. He’s still smarting from the breakdown of his marriage and finds himself torn between remaining faithful to his estranged wife and his attraction to the mysterious Callandra. Kirkgordon is also a man of faith and Ross-Jordan handles this part of his character with sensitivity and intelligence. As a double act, Austerley and Kirkgordon work extremely well, Austerley dabbles in the unknown and Kirkgordon kicks ass and gets them out of the ensuing chaos. The dialogue between the two lead characters is suitably snappy and captures the love / hate dynamic that is par-for-the-course in any mismatched partnership.

The McGuffin in the story is a piece of music with mysterious powers and Austerley and Kirkgordon’s pursuit of the manuscript sees them embark on a globe-trotting adventure to rival those of Indiana Jones. From Arkham to Moscow to a fog-shrouded island off the coast of Scotland, the narrative never stays in one place for long enough for it to grow dull. Indeed, the novel’s Hebridean finale is a riff on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” that brings the book to a very satisfying conclusion. It is at this point that one really appreciates how meticulously Ross-Jordan has structured the novel. I mentioned earlier how the frenetic pace of the story leaves the reader a little bewildered, but this grand finale effectively answers all the questions that are raised and ties up any loose ends. What has hitherto seemed chaotic and unstructured suddenly falls into place in the titular “Crescendo”.

Although it is set in the same universe as Lovecraft’s works, Ross-Jordan’s novel is a radically different beast. Where Lovecraft’s dense descriptions help to conjure a sinister atmosphere and mood, Ross-Jordan focuses instead on action to propel his narrative along at a rollicking pace. Although dabbling in Lovecraftian themes, Ross-Jordan’s work is so radically different that comparisons between the two are redundant.

“Crescendo” is a wonderful, accessible piece of fantasy. I will certainly be checking out the next installment of Austerley and Kirkgordon’s adventures. With the vast scope of Lovecraft’s universe at his disposal, it will be interesting to see where Ross-Jordan takes the due next. There’s bound to be some die-hard fans out there who feel that it isn’t properly Lovecraftian without dense prose and an over-reliance on words such as “cyclopean” or “eldritch”. This is a shame as those people will be denying themselves the opportunity to dive into a refreshingly modern take on Lovecraftian themes.

Read the author interview here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews G R Jordan, author of “Crescendo!”

Interview by Hereward L M Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

G R Jordan: My name is Gary Ross-Jordan, writing under G R Jordan for my fantasy series, and as well as putting pen to paper I’m also a Coastguard, an archer and a Dad of four. This all keeps me extremely busy especially as at my age life has only just begun. I live in the Northwest of Scotland on the Isle of Lewis, keeping chickens amidst the marauding winds.

I’ve always written poetry and told stories from very young but it has been the past few years when I have decided to put things out there for public consumption with a dream that one day my passion can also pay the bills. With that in mind I produced a poetry book, “Four Life Emotions” to get to grips with self-publishing and followed this up with “A Darker Shade of Light” a collection of short Christian allegories in the style of H.P Lovecraft (Not sure anyone has had that sort of mix before!).

Having learnt a great deal from these experiences, I set about putting together a full length novel and was successfully crowdfunded. The fruits of the crowdfunding is “Crescendo!” of which I am extremely proud but I haven’t sat back on my laurels with the second Austerley and Kirkgordon novel “The Darkness at Dillingham” in its final production stages. I also write slightly less weird material and hope to be releasing the tentatively titled “Hook, Line and Sinker”, a tale about mermaids coming to an island community which looks at exploring the variety of views and lifestyles by the peoples’ reactions to these creatures. Of course there’s plenty of action and fun on the way.

Like most of my counterparts, I’m no expert on this writing journey but the experience of composing and then pulling a book together has been fantastic and I am now immersing myself in understanding how to share and promote a book and myself. This writing life isn’t all easy but it is a lot of fun!

Booksquawk: Do you have a particular routine for writing?

G R Jordan: I genuinely don’t which is contrary to most of the advice given on how to write. But there is a good reason for it – life as a husband and Dad of four. My wife has her own business, my kids age from aged ten to 6 months and I am a shift worker, operating on quite diverse and non-routine shifts. So I will grab whatever time I can throughout the day. Be it travelling, late at night, early morning, meal breaks at work or whenever, I have developed the habit of just sitting down and writing. That being said my favourite thing to do is to go to a coffee shop and sit down with my tablet. Noise doesn’t bother me but I do think a good latte is an appropriate partner for writing. I write at approx. 1000 – 1500 words an hour (pretty good but no express train) normally writing novels of approximately 60,000 words. Once the first draft is written I print it off and read it in a hard copy, pencilling any changes. After a second draft I usually let my beta readers see it before giving it a third draft. After that the editor gets involved. The book then gets knocked back and forward and we end up with the final cut ready to be made into a book.

Booksquawk: What are the Austerley and Kirkgordon novels about?

G R Jordan: I like to say the premise that the series is based on is “When you see the Darkness, do you run to it or run from it?” Hence we have Austerley, university professor, shambling oaf and complete genius when it comes to anything occult, weird or otherworldly. Not only is he an expert in these matters but he is constantly sucked into their world often risking others to know more.

Beside him is Kirkgordon, former bodyguard, man with a questioning faith, wary of any danger and who has had his life messed up by accompanying Austerley on an ill-fated trip to explore some of the Darkness (after finishing “Crescendo!”, I wrote their back story in a short story entitled “Footsteps” which is a tribute to Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and available online and in the hardback version of “Crescendo!). Because of his faith and belief in a form of decency, Kirkgordon struggles with Austerley’s outlook and actions, whilst also feeling compelled to protect him. This allows me to write some of the most fun dialogue as they nip and pick at each other and also give some outright abuse. The novels have many connections to myths or worlds both created and from our human past and present. In “Crescendo!” Lovecraft’s mythos is used extensively but there is also some Russian mythology. And sometimes I just throw in some of my own, after all I need to let my mind go nuts too sometimes. But the novels are also about action and adventure. I aim to provide an entertaining rollercoaster of Austerley and Kirkgordon being put through the mill with good connections to ideas and fantasies known and unknown.

Booksquawk: Austerley and Kirkgordon are a great double-act. Did you take your inspiration any buddy-cop / unlikely partnership movies?

G R Jordan: I don’t remember ever thinking about a particular partnership but I have watched / read about a lot of partnerships and seeing the dynamics. If you are going to base your books around a duo you need to make sure that there is plenty of internal conflict. With Austerley and Kirkgordon I write mainly from Kirkgordon’s viewpoint because Austerley has to remain a curiosity. Kirkgordon’s family troubles, job dissatisfaction and trouble with strange people I think we can all understand. But Austerley is something else. Discovering and understanding Austerley is a key component to the stories.

Booksquawk: “Crescendo” moves at quite a frenetic pace. Do you have any good tips for authors struggling with pacing in their stories?

G R Jordan: Pacing really depends on what you are trying to do and is greatly affected by how you write. What is it you want to have your reader do? In the A & K world, Kirkgordon is always out of his depth, bemused by all this weirdness. As it’s written from his point of view then my readers need to feel that. And so I gallop along hoping that it will all make sense at some point.

If that’s what you want your readers to feel then write like that. i.e. I actually didn’t have any plot when I started. I knew some Lovecraftian mythology, had the idea we would end up on a Scottish island and had a really good understanding of my two main characters. But until I had gotten to writing chapter two I had no idea we were off to Russia, or where in Russia. Similarly Calandra who appears in Russia suddenly developed into a major character. The fun and games begins when you need to hold the whole novel in your head as you get to end and have to pull everything together.

So to sum up, write to what your characters are doing. Are they panicked and confused, then write and plan that way. Do they indulge slowly and take everything in, then put in the extra description and nuances.

Booksquawk: “Crescendo” exists in the same universe as the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. What are your favourite Lovecraftian works?

G R Jordan: I love the “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” unsurprisingly. The whole decrepit feel is amazing and the sense of horror without ever being gory or sick. For me it’s Lovecraft’s best.

“Pickman’s Model” is another favourite, as it has the best kicker I have ever read at the end. Lovecraft’s genius was the punch to the mind at the end of a story. You sit back for just a second and then the actual horror hits you as you put the pieces together.

I have plenty of other favourites but I think “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” is a prime example of the mindless horror that Lovecraft could write which was I think the most terrifying. People for no good reason grab a rope and try to haul in a “something” in the water but get pulled in, hypnotically hanging on until they are dragged to the depths below. No reason given, no explanation. Sometimes when writing we try to explain everything but Lovecraft teaches us that our own minds can dream up far worse things than are ever put to paper.

Booksquawk: Did you find it a challenge to write in someone else’s fictional world?

G R Jordan: Not really. I’m never bound by that world. You need to step yourself in it but always remember it’s your story. I try to build on what went on before rather than go back into it. As A & K is set some time after Lovecraft’s writings, I get to play about with things a lot easier. And if any mythos is not fully explained you can fill in the gaps!

Booksquawk: Although set in the same world as Lovecraft’s works, “Crescendo” is a different sort of novel. I found it leaned more towards the action-adventure than traditional cosmic horror. Was this intentional?

G R Jordan: Totally. It is more Indiana Jones than Lovecraft and like Indiana Jones delves into mythology. One of the main points about the Indiana Jones films (which are fantastic!) is that while they do bring in archaeology and mythology, it is basically a romp and you hold onto your hat while you do it. That’s the sort of adventure I love but I also love mythology and history. Hence to combine them together feels very natural. I am following the age old advice for a writer – write the book you want to read!

Booksquawk: What next for Austerley and Kirkgordon?

G R Jordan: We’re off to the English seaside to a place called Dillingham. Having globetrotted, I decided to challenge myself to remaining in an obscure place and staying there. But there’s still plenty of trouble and some new characters. This time there’s a witch, some ghostly pirates and conglomerated creatures – but scariest of all, a girl becoming a teenager. Dillingham further develops our characters and starts looking at how “off-piste” they will go, Austerley with the Dark arts and Kirkgordon with women. But there’s plenty of adventure, DIY shopping, someone madder than Austerley and a cauldron pouring out revenge and forgiveness. There’s also a third adventure in the pipeline where our twosome go to another world with the stakes at their highest yet for Kirkgordon. All three books come together as a trilogy and will set the guys up for something totally new thereafter.

Booksquawk: A bit of fun - let’s imagine for a second that the movie rights to “Crescendo” are bought by a high-profile Hollywood studio. Who would be your first choices to play Austerley and Kirkgordon, and who would you want to direct?

G R Jordan: I was actually asked by my artist Jake Clarke to tell him who Kirkgordon looked like and I told him, Mark Strong as he has that brooding presence but can also give the action run around a good go. He also seems to play the vulnerable character well as his run in “A View From A Bridge” recently showed.

Austerley is much harder to cast. John Candy playing it really dark would have been good or maybe Robbie Coltrane. If the booming voice went a bit more evil then Brian Blessed might be an option. But really I think Austerley would be better with an unknown actor.

To direct I would have to go with Spielberg as he is a pure genius. I saw Tintin and was blown away by how he got the film to really be an extension of the comic books. By letting someone produce a film of the book I would get quite nervous (although the money would be good!) as my baby would be being dressed by someone else. But I think Spielberg could do it well and faithfully while making it a great movie.

Read the review of Crescendo! here.

November 21, 2016

GRACE AND MISS PARTRIDGE

by George Friel, 187 pages
590 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

I no longer live in Glasgow, but I still belong to her, and she won’t let me forget it.

I’m almost five years gone, now. If I was an astronaut and Glasgow was the Earth, she wouldn’t appear blue any more – just another twinkly dot among a million others on my scanner. It’s nice to know she’s still there, even if I’m not.

George Friel is a somewhat forgotten part of the city’s literary canon. Born in 1910 and dying in 1975, he would have seen the city utterly transformed in his lifetime (some say the council planning department did more damage than Hitler). A teacher by trade, Friel knew a little bit of success in his literary career with The Boy Who Wanted Peace after it was dramatized on Scottish television. He drew favourable notices for his work, particularly from Anthony Burgess, but his books remained in relative obscurity for most of his life.

I was stunned to learn that Friel was known as a rather unsentimental chronicler of Glasgow in the post-war years. For me he seemed to pander to a toxic nostalgia which chokes a lot of the city’s popular art. One of Glasgow’s most successful home-grown theatrical shows is The Steamie, a musical about the women who worked in the city’s laundries in the 1950s. This is close to blasphemy for some, but when washed down with the comedy of Dorothy Paul, it gives me bellyache. When I was a young man it spoke to me of the austere generations which came before, still stunned by the idea of a house with its own lavatory, and deeply envious of they young yins and their ambitions. This was the language of people who seemed to have nothing but contempt for me.

“Aye!” yells the old woman down the stairs, leaning on her mop. “I remember you when you were a snotty wean! Don’t gie me any o’ yer lip! I know your faither!”

I guess everyone had a wee woman like that in their close, who we remember with affection despite the fact she was a horrible, nosey, bitter old harridan. Weren’t you?

“In the name o’ the wee man! You need a good boot in the erse, so ye do!” 

Grace and Miss Partridge is an ensemble piece, looking at the two characters in the title and the people round about them. Grace is a little girl who lives in a tenement close, somewhere in north Glasgow in the 50s or 60s – Maryhill, I suspect, or maybe Possil Park.

Up the stairs lives Miss Partridge, a tapped old maid who has visions of family ghosts and various other entities. Miss Partridge was once married and lived on a farm in America, but something went wrong, and she came back to live out her spinsterhood as a clerk for a laundry firm. She’s a figure of fun among the local population, and is particularly tormented by the hordes of children who swarm over the back greens. Miss Partridge is the type of old besom who provides the best sport of all for semi-feral wee bastards the world over; the type who rises to the bait, howling across the middens at her short-trousered provocateurs.

One of these children is the apple of Miss Partridge’s eye; wee Grace, who lives downstairs from her. She dotes on the little girl with an uncomfortable intensity, and dearly wishes she had one of her own to love. Miss Partridge’s only living relative, her younger brother Tommy, worries when he finds out about this. Miss Partridge has a past only Tommy knows about, involving a stint in a mental hospital following an incident involving another little girl.

Friel’s canvas broadens to take in Hugh Main, a round, cheerful medical student who calls on another of the close’s residents, his cousin, Donald. This douce highlander is a hulking figure taken to joining in the children’s games in the back court, in a fashion which seemed a little odd back then but which would be viewed with the deadliest suspicion nowadays. I remember that sort of stuff when I was growing up; guys who would come down and play football with the boys on their own. Might have been totally innocent; might not. I’ll never know. Curiously, this echoes Percy in The Boy Who Wanted Peace, a weirdo who converts boys much younger than him into his Brotherhood of El. As in that novel, strict religious observance in both Donald and Miss Partridge are taken as a sign of madness in this one.

Big Donald is in love with another girl in the close, Roberta, or Bobo, a beautiful 19-year-old who turns heads wherever she goes. But he’s too repressed, too bound by dogma, to do anything about it. His fellow bible thumper Miss Partridge sees the frank, fleshy Bobo as the devil incarnate, and wastes no opportunity to tell her so. She fears that Bobo represents Grace’s destiny; she believes the little girl must be Saved before her innocence is sullied by adult life.

Bobo drives big Donald mad, little skirts, tight sweaters and all. Donald encounters her one evening as she leaves the close’s communal toilet in her nightdress; the effect is like a thunderbolt, but not from above. Bobo basks in the attention, from admirer and detractor alike.

Hugh Main, a sensitive but playful man, gets on very well with Bobo, but in a strictly platonic way. Main’s lack of physical attraction despite their obvious rapport made me wonder if perhaps he preferred men (although Friel never so much as hints at it). Main, bored to tears with his cousin’s queasy dual obsession with scripture and the pleasures of the flesh – Bobo’s in particular – seeks to set him up with the girl, even though she has a highly significant other. Bobo’s boyfriend, Dross, is a juvenile delinquent who is being drawn into a life of crime with three other low-level hoods, taken to tanning sweetie shops and post offices after dark.

The three strands of the novel – Grace and Miss Partridge; Donald and Bobo; Miss Partridge and Bobo – all head towards potentially deadly outcomes.

The story is narrated in the first person by an unseen character, and through him Friel manifests his affinity for working class people in Glasgow’s great post-war schemes. It’s this light-hearted rendering of the characters and sympathy for their motivations and backgrounds, whether fair or foul, which I mistook for sentimentality in his earlier work. But Friel is not afraid to dish out some ugly scenes. His wry, semi-detached humour gives way to something far more caustic, and the flimsy curtain of nostalgia is crudely torn away to reveal the Glasgow of No Mean City.

There is an equivalent scene featuring withering, merciless treatment in The Boy Who Wanted Peace, where the motherless boy offers to fight the school bully - and is duly punched up and down the playground. Grace and Miss Partridge’s grim lesson was far more shocking, a senseless, unjust fate in an unforgiving setting. Friel once said that there was no point being dishonest about things and “playing Mr Glasgow” – the city was, and still can be, a frightening and violent place. It’s worth noting in passing that Bible John was active around about the time this book was published.

I wonder if the tough guy stuff is simply the other side of the coin to sentimentality. I picked up on this in my own storytelling a while ago. Many of my early short stories concern folk who are either heading for a beating, or preparing to give one out. Once I spotted this pattern, it became tiresome, and I’m at pains to correct it.

I hate it, that black streak of cynicism. It suggests that every victim of violence is somehow to blame - for not stopping it, for not seeing it coming, for not being sufficiently violent themselves. I can picture the smirk slashed across the face of that thrawn old bugger with the mop as she intercepts you creeping back into the close, trying not to drip blood on her pristine stairs. “Aye! That’s what ye get!”

Friel finishes off with a cheeky coda, where we get a view of the hidden narrator’s adult life. He has a conversation with his mother after she’s read the same manuscript you have, oozing irony as she tears him apart for writing fiction where real history might do better.

This is where Friel flexes his muscles a little, reminding us that there’s a bit more to his game than fish suppers, cracked lintel and flickering stairhead lights; and giving the briefest acknowledgement that Grace and Miss Partridge was published in 1969.

Friel’s single-end symphony is a beautifully composed piece of work. There’s no doubt he was a fine prose artist, but also a man of his time. He could fly far above Glasgow, but not for too long. He was in with the bricks, twitching the curtains, unhooking the key to the communal lavvy, never daring to miss his turn for the stairs. 

November 12, 2016

HERE I AM

by Jonathan Safran Foer
571 pages, Hamish Hamilton

Review by Marc Nash

And yet you chose to give it 4 stars...

Indubitably Foer is a skilled, talented author. Lots of bon mots, observations, modern homilies and pocket-sized bites of philosophy in this tome, "…that man finds it hard to accept insults" being one little gem. But for all the weight of literariness and learnedness, somehow it seems like he wasn't even trying. Firstly, the subject matter of Here I Am is as it ever was with him, middle-class New England Jewish family life (at least this time he moved it from NYC to Washington, but that's about the limit of radical departure). In the same way that Tarantino needs to make a movie without a single gun or a knife in it, Foer needs to write fiction outside of the bubble of New England Jewishness. Of course he can write what the hell he likes, but to be considered a true literary force, that is my recipe. Roth did it, even if most of his characters were Jewish, many still had an everyman feel so that they spoke for all of America. I just don't know how much of the tight Jewish focus (cultural and religious) here will be accessible to non-Jewish readers. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars...

Okay I don't mean he put no effort into this. But he certainly doesn't seem to be moving out of his comfort zone. This reads like the output of a thousand and one Friday Night Sabbath dinner conversations, talks across wedding and bar mitzvah party tables, taken verbatim and set down here, some actually within the settings of Sabbath meals and funeral and bar mitzvah tables. Except... the style being wholly a mix of extended dialogue or inwardly directed reflections, this is a book entirely without joy, which through their humour Jews usually manage to insert into their exchanges no matter how morbid they may be overall. Take the dialogue - it is always bitter and grudging one-upmanship. The humour is lacking. The children wisecrack as if they were adults, wordplay to the fore, but again without true feeling. The kids are wise before their time intellectually, but emotionally they seem completely bereft (not unlike what I extrapolate Foer himself to have likely been as a child, intellectually precocious, but emotionally stunted – more of which later). For the self-reflection, it is handled in leaden fashion. In conversations with others, more often than not his wife as their marriage falls apart, someone says they lack one thing but have plenty of its opposite, which only goes to prove that they have the other thing in spades after all. This gets very tedious rather quickly as a device or form of logic I can tell you. The other unconvincing technique is for the character to take you out of the present by recalling something from the past, more often than not from their own childhood, and then that further devolves to another past association even further back, neither of which were experienced as such back at that time, before eventually coming back to the comparison in the present. It all seems like the most clunky way to set up a metaphor. For example, a memory about the day they got their rescue dog starts with speculation as to how dogs get their names, before eliding not so smoothly into how tropical storms get their names, the worst of which have their names retired like baseball jerseys, which returns us to the original notion that the character's grandfather who has just died is a one-off whose name will also be retired and not passed on. Now the whole point of the book is about being in the present, trying to be real and the person you are rather than the distorting roles of parent, spouse, etc., because of the compromises duly entailed in such relationships, and naturally there is a search back into childhood for clues to inner consistency and the person you truly were constituted to be, but 600 pages of this just drags. His eldest son lives online and plays "Second Life" – there he actually summed it up in one metaphor. He could have left it at that. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.

But it's not just remembered conversations at social functions. When you read Foer's email exchanges with the actress Natalie Portman with whom he was collaborating on a film of his non-fiction work and for whom he walked out on his wife without checking that Portman was of similar mind towards him (which she wasn't), you realise that the intense exchanges in the book are exactly how Foer thinks and expresses himself in real life. The book is him talking aloud to work himself out having depth charged his own marriage. I gauge that the period of writing this book (his first long fiction in 10 years) coincided with his secret one year separation from his wife, and therefore I am forced to conclude the creation of this book seethed and roiled in those feelings. Foer seems to be asking the reader to forgive the character (who is perpetually asking for forgiveness for things he is unsure of and as to why). Or perhaps it is Foer himself who is asking us the reader for forgiveness in the guise of this book. For how emotionally sophisticated could he be not to check that the inamorata feels the same way towards him? And this guy is supposedly a great observer of the human condition on all our behalves? So it is not as I first suggested that he's not trying, for indeed he is working very, very hard to try and figure it out. But it smacks of indulgence. Of a laughable private grief we really shouldn't be asked to rubberneck in on. Do I care that he and his literary power couple wife have crashed and burned their relationship? Not really, but then I don't live in NYC and have never been invited to any of their dinner parties at which books like this are seemingly composed. Is the subject matter of what it means to be a parent and a long-time married spouse legitimate for literary treatment? Of course they are. Am I particularly interested in them myself? Not terribly much unless they're attacked in a really off-kilter or politically radical way (i.e. whither marriage, why have kids? Etc.). But again, I am beached by the narrow Jewish filter which Foer brings to these themes and feel he has filed off any such universally interesting burrs that the subject could possibly offer. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.

There is an interesting speculative backdrop of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East which Foer takes in a fascinating direction. But sadly he doesn't really develop it, and apart from stranding an Israeli family member in America, I actually question why it is in the book at all. Yes it allows Foer to compare American Jews with Israeli Jews (or just 'Israelis' as he makes the point), but again who really cares, apart from perhaps US and Israeli Jews? I'm a British Jew and I'm not really all that bothered by these distinctions. But, and here I give him credit, his speculations on one future for the Middle East provoked my imagination. Albeit I think he made a miscalculation. He talks of an 'inverted' or 'reverse' diaspora, that when Israel is under a major threat of destruction at the hands of its hostile neighbours, American Jews are called upon to rush to the holy land and come to its defence. But that is not what I understood by the term 'reverse diaspora'. So I was stimulated enough to go away and write a 2000 word short story on what I take that term to mean and if you're really interested you can read it on my blog from next week. So a bit of a law of unintended consequences there. The only positive way I felt provoked by this book. Maybe it bumped up my rating, earning Foer an extra half a star or so. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.

One final gripe. The book never really builds up a head of steam, largely with its reversing and forwarding back over the same incidents and time itself, like trying to tow a car stuck in mud, gunning the accelerator and just getting further mired. Additionally, it's also because of its monochromatic tone, but whatever energy it has is completely leached out by a painfully spasmodic, desultory and irrelevant last 45 pages or so that go absolutely nowhere.

And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.

November 4, 2016

THE EIGHTH PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES

Edited by Herbert van Thal
236 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

1967. Deep breath.

The summer of love unfolds. The Doors, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd and The Velvet Underground release their debut albums. Four unknowns from Liverpool release an obscure record called Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It sinks without trace.

The space race continues – although both the Americans and the Soviets lose servicemen in tragic accidents. Protests continue across the world as the United States steps up its bid to win the Vietnam War. Israel shows them how it’s done in the Six Day War. Elvis and Priscilla Presley are married. In London, the world’s first cash machine is installed, and homosexuality is decriminalised.

Charles Manson is released from Terminal Island jail in Los Angeles and heads for San Francisco.

At the movies, The Jungle Book, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, Valley of the Dolls, In The Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate are all massive box office hits, while Clint Eastwood squints at A Fistful of Dollars. On TV, The Fugitive reaches its thrilling conclusion, just as The Prisoner makes its debut.

Muhammad Ali refuses to be drafted into the US army. In football, Scotland wallop reigning world champions England 3-2 at Wembley. And on May 25th, Celtic become the first British team to win the European Cup, defeating Inter Milan 2-1 in Lisbon.

Those were the days, my friend.

And the Pans rolled on. So does my lonely quest to collect and read them all. Here’s my thoughts on the eighth edition, first published in that incredible year.

Your Yucky Cover: Head. In. Hat. Box.

Many people think it’s a bucket. But look closely – it’s a hat box. There’s a lid laid alongside it. So the artist even factored in a surprise for some unfortunate soul. There’s a ginger man’s head in the box; he is staring straight ahead, not in any obvious distress. He might be waiting for a notice board to change at a train station. He has a hipster beard, 50 years ahead of his time, though about five feet short of his body. He looks like one of my mates, which makes it even funnier. Sorry, I mean more horrifying. It’s not the most gruesome in the Pan covers pantheon – there is not a drop of blood, and the head looks almost serene - but I think it’s the best.

We start with “The Assassin”, by Raymond Williams. This is a period piece in which an 11th century duke is holed up in a castle – and some lad is on a quest to kill him. There’s a woman involved, so things are going to get messy. They get particularly messy at the end, as the poor boy with the knife is shown the sometimes brutal consequences of having a crush on the wrong person. A hunk-a hunk-a burnin’ love.

John D Keefauver’s “The Most Precious” is a mood piece, involving broken teeth, blood and dentistry. I don’t have much to say about it. Herbert van Thal was sometimes minded to put in an arty piece as a riposte to his critics, perhaps the literary equivalent of a cat showing its bottom. It’s not my scene.

W Baker-Evans’ “The Children” was classic Pan. It features a typical middle class Englishman on holiday. He strays well off the beaten track, out in some woods. He is approached by some children, who seem friendly enough…

Van Thal pens an introduction to one of the big hitters, next – Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man”. The classic tale sees the poor lump in the title having his grim destiny inked on his body by a witch. One of Uncle Ray’s best – and it’s clear that van Thal loved it.

AGJ Rough’s two-page “Playtime” was a very tight, horrifying piece of work, looking at an imaginative child processing a prosaic horror.

Maurice Sandoz’s “The Tsantsa” touched on themes addressed in Frances Larsen’s excellent Severed ­– the craze for collecting shrunken heads among rich white people. This one sees a man looking for an unusual present at the request of his horrible girlfriend – a white, blond head, preferably from a child.

“The Bean-Nighe” by Dorothy Haynes placed me on home ground with its examination of Scottish folklore and mythology. It played with second sight, and reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Drovers” as a girl meets a witchy apparition whose appearance foretells death in her house. But whose death is it anyway? The girl is told to find out by her mother – but she has to look lively. To ask the Bean-Nighe a question means you have to outrun her, and if you don’t…

What is it about Scots and the second sight? We’re so uptight about it. We dangle it in front of you, then snatch it away. “You want a sweetie? Well, you can’t have it - it’s bad for you.” But what use is information if you don’t use it? Why place it out there if it’s not useful? Even the malice makes no sense. It’s so uptight. Still, it makes for a fine idea in a story, and this is a wonderful, lyrical tale.

Raymond Harvey’s “The Tunnel” sees a hard-working man on the railways given an unexpected night off. He’s happily married when we meet him – so of course when he gets home his wife is having it off with his best friend. He could have gone crazy. He could have cracked some skulls. But he doesn’t. He has a job on the railways. And he puts a timetable together.

Bruce Lowery’s “The Growth” sees a doctor tackling a tumour which appears to be engulfing a poor patient. But is there more to it than cancer? And when is it going to stop?

“Lover’s Leap” by Frank Quinton sees two brothers reunited – but it seems that one did the dirty on the other by stealing his wife. The cuckoo accepts an offer of a drink, and, poor bugger, suspects absolutely nothing.

Basil Copper is one of the most respected names in the Pan canon. And “Janissaries of Emilion” is a fantastic title, with the ring of poetry to it. The story sees a man plagued by a series of dreams involving pursuit by some Saracen types, and heads towards an inevitably grisly confusion. It’s fine work, but not one of Copper’s best. The concept and conclusion seemed all too obvious the minute the mysterious warriors with swords appear in pursuit of the man in the dream world.

Raymond Williams’ second story, “The Coffin Makers”, was a fine morality play in which a grave robber is made to pay for his crimes, horribly, after his fellow coffin maker recognises the new ring on his finger.

“Sad Road To The Sea” by Gerald Kersh was extraordinary – tracing the sad, desperate path of a luckless man who could have avoided the fate outlined for him had he just taken one sidestep here, or accepted an offer of help there. It resembled bitter, true life misfortune, and it was a cut above most other stories in this book.

Dulcie Gray’s “The Brindle Bull Terrier” was a right nasty piece of work, where a harsh boarding house mistress is pitted against a spirited girl who opposes her strict regime. In a chilling ring of truth, the dragon lady has a favourite in the house – the girl’s little brother, whom the dragon lady dotes upon and coerces into a murderous plot. This was grim human nature, true horror.

AGJ Rough weighs in with another two-page shocker, “Sugar and Spice”, in which the kind of kid who pulls the legs off spiders… well. You won’t have to wait long to find out.

Rene Morris’ “The Computer” takes us to a future where death is decreed by machines, as the ultimate arbiter of justice. Foolproof, of course - what could go wrong?

Pan regular Martin Waddell’s “Suddenly – After A Good Supper” was a real grim-fest. Premature burial? Yeah, we’ve seen that before. Stuck in a family vault? Okay, that’s unusual. No-one around for miles to help? Keep going… In the coffin above your recently deceased granny? Now, how on earth would you sustain yourself before rescue?

Walter Winward’s “The Benefactor” was truly grim, and it’ll set your teeth on edge in these post-Savile days. A bloated guy who is clearly up to no good weasels his way into the confidences of an orphanage to take a young girl out as a treat. This would have played on fears then, as now, that he’s a pervert – and he is. But not quite the pervert you suspect. His true purpose is masked until the final scene.

Horrible. But it says “Pan Book of Horror Stories” at the top, after all.

Charles Braunstone’s “Suitable Applicant” sees two beautiful young women answer a too-good-to-be-true job advert to keep a famous surgeon company in his lonely old house, staffed only by a homunculus butler. It’s heading for trouble, and it gets there.

Priscilla Marron’s “How Dead You Look, And Yet How Sweetly You Sing” had a more interesting title than contents – a sort of off-beat weird two-page waste of time, which rounds off an excellent collection on a needlessly absurd note. It must have seemed avant-garde at the time. I guess it was the sixties. 

October 27, 2016

THIS TWISTED EARTH

Devised and Edited by Dion Winton-Polak
Createspace, 424 pages

Review by Paul Fenton

Imagine Brexit was more than an economic and political separation.  Imagine Britain was physically torn from its place alongside the continent, and dropped into an empty gap in the middle of the Amazon.  In the Mesolithic period.  Also, add monsters.  Think of the horrors which could be unleashed, and not just on prominent UKIP members.  Mouth-watering, isn’t it?

This Twisted Earth” is an eclectic collection of stories all anchored by one central premise: that the world as we know it has experienced a kind of cosmic calamity, creating a temporal and geographic Eton mess, blending past, present, future, and parallel dimensions, and dropping them all together in the same physical plane.  Prehistoric vs post-historic.  Mundane vs fantastic.  Dogs vs cats.  In short, anything goes, and as the contributors to this volume have fired up their imaginations – fueled, I imagine, by whisky and Hunter S. Thompson’s first aid kit – anything usually does.  The stories move between familiar yet warped geographies and periods – was-Africa, was-Japan, was-Britain, was-Wild West – and in each of them there is a defining weirdness, some weirdnesses weirder than others.

Each story could warrant a review in its own right, but here is a grab-bag of examples:

In “Fatal Planet”, a twisted Aztec encounters a Star Trek-esque spaceship which has been dragged into this dimensional mashup, and the reader is given a drone’s-eye view of the landscape to come.  In “The Ghost in Michelle”, a fiery Welsh girl is dropped into a medieval fantasy-scape, surviving the relocation only to be promptly decapitated by a deranged knight-of-sorts.  “Little Boy” follows a mother’s journey to find her lost son, across a violent and deadly was-Japan.  “Stagecoach Mary and the Ride over the Mountains” is the retelling of a legendary tale of Mary Fields, a no-nonsense skull-cracker from the Wild West, who makes a perilous journey by wagon to trade meat for artillery with a Boston from the year 2133, encountering beasties from some other time and place on her way.  Then we have “The Man who would be King of the Monsters” by Booksquawk’s own Hereward Proops, an awesome account of a battle in a kind of twisted British Raj, where gargantuan mammoth-like monsters called balaa battle one another to the death, ridden by teams of warriors from rival villages.

Some authors directly reference the twisting event, setting it as a post around which they pivot their stories, while others consider its implications and cut loose with the monsters and weirdness.  Some stories are fantastically pulpy, while others take on a darker edge – but they are all conceived and executed with a sharp eye and ear, resulting in an oddly harmonic whole.  The collection’s curator and editor, Dion Winton-Polack, ties the stories together with invented articles, poems, essays and other fictions.  The end result is a glorious tapestry of weird and wondrous, where the map of the world and its history is reimagined piece by piece, then torn apart and stuck back together again with the aid of a blindfold and a hefty whiff of ether.  It’s a clever stage on which to host such an anthology, and it really works.  I genuinely hope there will be more pieces added to the twisted map in the future.

October 21, 2016

DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME

by Liz Tipping
Carina

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