Category: Scotland

Ali Smith: Like

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Like. This is Ali Smith’s first novel and a very accomplished novel it is. It tells two related stories. Amy was destined for an academic career at Cambridge University. She had had lesbian relationships and, in particular, she was having an on-again off-again affair with Aisling McCarthy, a Scottish woman. It all went drastically wrong. Amy has had a breakdown and now is living in Scotland with her seven-year old daughter, Kate, working on a caravan site and apparently unable to read. Aisling McCarthy went on to become a famous actress but seems to have dropped out. We follow her lesbian relationships at school, culminating in her meeting Amy, and later following Amy to Cambridge, where she causes the downfall not only of Amy but another woman with whom she had had an affair. The story is narrated from the present day, first by Amy and Kate and then by Aisling. Smith tells an excellent story and pulls us into the story of the two women and young girl.

Angus Robertson: An t-Ogha Mór: No, Am Fear-Sgeòil air Uilinn (The Ogha Mor)

The latest addition to my website is Angus Robertson‘s An t-Ogha Mór: No, Am Fear-Sgeòil air Uilinn (The Ogha Mor). This was the the second Scots Gaelic novel written and the first to be translated into English. It isn’t a very good novel, written in a stilted, forced archaic style and starts off plot lines and then abandons them. Its basic theme is the clash between the clans, particularly following the Jacobite of Rising of 1715 and leading to the 1745 Rising. We follow the stories of a few individuals involved in the fight for or against the Stuart cause and see the evil and treacherous plotting of the anti-Stuarts (including the then Prince of Wales) and the brave and honest actions of the pro-Stuarts. It is an interesting read but it is easy to see why the English translation is long since out of print and difficult to obtain, though the Gaelic version is still available.

A L Kennedy: Serious Sweet

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The latest addition to my website is A L Kennedy‘s Serious Sweet. This is another first-class novel from Kennedy, telling the story over the course of one day of two people who are having serious difficulties coping with life. The first, Jon Sigurdsson, is a fairly senior civil servant. He is divorced, does not get on with his daughter as well as he would like, does not like his colleagues or his boss and has taken up as a hobby a handwritten letter-writing service to lonely women, whom he has no intention of meeting. Meg Willams is a lonely former alcoholic, a bankrupt accountant and recovering from cervical cancer. She now works in admin for an animal shelter. She subscribes to Jon’s letter-writing service and inevitably tracks him down. Apart from the letter-writing service, what makes this novel interesting is that we follow the thoughts of the two as they go about their daily business and these thoughts reveal two people who seem to be very unhappy with their lives and, on a couple of occasions, close to breakdown. Kennedy tells the story very well, really giving us an insight in Jon and Meg and their struggles with life.

James Robertson: To Be Continued

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The latest addition to my website is James Robertson‘s To Be Continued. This is a very funny novel about Douglas Elder, a man who reaches his fiftieth birthday on the day the novel starts and who has all that a man newly turned fifty can reasonably desire, other than a job, a settled relationship and confidence in the future. He has taken voluntary redundancy from the Edinburgh newspaper where he worked, his partner, Sonya has more or less kicked him out and he has to take care of his increasingly senile father. However, the editor of his former employer, worried that post-the Scottish independence referendum, the paper needs to do more to appeal to the core Scottish populace, asks Douglas to interview Rosalind Munlochy, former radical socialist, M.P., novelist and poet, who is about to turn one hundred. Unfortunately she lives in the remote Scottish Highlands and Douglas has no car. As a result he has a series of adventures, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Hannay, before he finally arrives there and his adventures do not end once he has arrived. It is a fairly light-hearted tale, but very well told, very funny and a a very good read.

Saltire Literary Awards

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The Saltire Society has announced its shortlist for its 2015 literary awards. While the fiction list has several of the usual suspects – Irvine Welsh, Kate Atkinson, the underrated Janice Galloway, whose novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing I read many years ago and plan to reread and review some day, Andrew O’Hagan amd Michael Faber, what is most interesting to me is the incluson of a novel in Scottish Gaelic: Norma NicLeòid/Norma Macleod’s An Dosan (Dosan is a shortened form of the title character’s full name, Domnhall Seumas Iain). Macleod, who lives on the Isle of Skye, has written all her novels in Gaelic. I have just read Moray Watson’s An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction and he speaks highly of her, not least because she is the first author to write a sequel novel in Gaelic! Her husband Fionnlagh and her nephew, Iain, have also written novels in Gaelic. Anyone who has browsed my site, will know that I very much welcome novels written in minority languages, particularly those in the middle of the culture where there is a dominant world language, so long may the NicLeóids/MacLeods continue to write novels in Gaelic. It would be nice if one or two were translated into English but it is a good thing that these small cultures can keep the tradition alive in their own language. It is also good that the Saltire Society recognises the importance of the Gaelic tradition.

James Barke: Major Operation

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The latest addition to my website is James Barke‘s Major Operation. Barke is a Scottish novelist who has sadly disappeared from view, though Canongate did reissue his Land of the Leal. This novel is set in Depression-era Glasgow and is overtly left-wing. We follow the tale of some ship workers who lose their jobs when the Depression hits and a bourgeois coal broker who loses both his firm and his wife. George Anderson, the coal broker, ends up in a charity hospital, with a duodenal ulcer and inflamed appendix, where he meets several members of the working class and, in particular, Jock MacKelvie. To his surprise, he not only gets to like them but soon becomes close to them and very close to Jock, so much so that he espouses Jock’s socialist views. However, life outside the hospital is still harsh and George struggles. Barke tells an excellent story of Glasgow in the Depression and, while he is certainly is not impartial, and is happy to damn the bourgeoisie, he does have a soft spot for George and his rich cast of characters on both sides of the fence gives us an excellent portrait of Glasgow of the period.

Sophie Cooke: Under The Mountain

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The latest addition to my website is Sophie Cooke‘s Under The Mountain, her second and most recent novel. This is another fine novel by the very much underrated Cooke. This is a novel somwhat reminsicent of The Go-Between, in that it involves a child, sick in bed, during the summer holiday, who witnesses a key event. The child is the nine-year old Catherine Farrants. She lives with her parents, George and Natasha, and her older sister, Bernadette (Bernie). Staying with them are their somewhat older cousins, Rosa and Sam and Rosa and Sam’s widowed mother, Ellie. Catherine sees from her sick room Sam with his beloved dog, Julab. However, Sam is furious and jealous because Rosa is having affair with a visiting Spaniard, Humberto. When Julab grabs his sunglasses and won’t let go, Sam throws an urn at him, badly injuring him. The blame falls first on local boys and then on Humberto. Catherine keeps quiet till later, when she is not believed. However, though the plot is important, much of the book is about the tensions, sexual and otherwise, between the various members of the larger family and it is this that Cooke superbly portrays. This is another fine book from Cooke and it is a pity that it is not better known and she seems to have given up novel writing while focussing more on teaching how to write novels.

Sophie Cooke: The Glass House

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The latest addition to my website is Sophie Cooke‘s The Glass House. She did not make the Granta Best Young British Novelists list but I think that she should have done, as this novel is definitely better than some of the ones I read by those who did make the list. This novel tells the story of the Gordon family. Mary, the mother, is living with her three daughters, Lucy, Vanessa and Bryony. Mary’s husband is an engineer, working in Saudi Arabia and his visits home are spasmodic. The novel is told from the point of view of Vanessa who, at the start of the novel, is fourteen. Vanessa has just been expelled from her boarding school (her two sisters remain there) and has now got to go to the local school. She does not like it, not least because she is teased for being too posh. However, she does get to know Alan better, whom she had had known for some time but lost touch with, and they start a relationship. At the same time, her mother starts an affair with a family friend, married with two sons. Mary has already shown signs of psychological instability. She loses her temper and severely beats Vanessa on several occasions. When Vanessa’s and Mary’s relationships both go wrong, both drift into a form of depression, as does Bryony. Only Lucy remains more or stable. We follow the three as things gradually – but only gradually – get worse. Vanessa makes a mess of her school-leaving exams and Mary attempts suicide. Cooke gives us an excellent portrait of a dysfunctional family which is slowly failing to deal with its psychological problems, even though, from the outside, they look relatively normal.

Jenni Fagan: Panopticon

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The latest addition to my website is Jenni Fagan‘s Panopticon. Jenni Fagan is the only Scottish writer nominated for the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list. This novel is not going to be everyone’s idea of fun, telling the story of Anais Hendricks, a fifteen-year old girl who has spent her life in care homes and foster families, not knowing anyone she is related to. Anais is what we might called troubled. She has a long arrest record – drugs, assault, failing to obey curfew orders and arson – and, at the beginning of this novel is strongly suspected of having assaulted a policewoman, who is now in a coma. She is sent to a panopticon, a C-shaped prison, where the guards can observe all residents. (The observer is a Nurse Ratched-like figure called Night Nurse.) The story concerns Anais’ life in the panopticon, her relationship with the other residents (generally good, despite the occasional fight) and with the staff (generally bad) and her attempt, aided by her social worker, Angus, to clear her name of the assault on the policewoman. Fagan spares us little detail of the continual aura of violence, the drug use and petty crime and the fairly hopeless lives that many of the residents live, though Anais, despite her faults and criminal record, is someone we must admire, as she struggles to escape from the negative environment she finds herself in. This novel is presumably at least semi-autobiographical, as Fagan herself was in care homes and has worked as a prison writer, so has seen people in similar situations. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here, if she is going to maintain her reputation as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

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