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Reader Reviews

Read a good (or bad) Scottish book recently, write a review and post it here!

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(Luath Press, 2014)

 Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal UK is a departure for the journalist and commentator David Torrance. Usually found on screen or in print analysing political developments in a relatively detached fashion, this short book finds him advocating reforms that he believes can save the UK by restructuring it. The referendum debate has shaken the constitutional future and some interesting things have fallen out. Federalism might be considered one of those things and the attraction for those opposed to independence is easy to see. Torrance proposes it as a compromise solution, delivering to both sides elements of what they desire. Whether it would confound the predictions of figures such as Tam Dalyell is impossible to predict. But allied to other reforms, it has the potential to address some the anomalies of the UK’s constitutional framework while delivering greater control to nations, regions, provinces and localities.

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Linda Colley, one of our most eminent historians, has produced a short book that places the current referendum debate in the context of changes that have affected the UK’s internal and external relationships and altered the way it perceives itself. 'Acts of Union and Disunion' has three sections. Each section contains five chapters which correspond to the theme of one of the fifteen minute programmes being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at the time of writing. Individual chapters often leave the reader wanting more but the overall effect is surprisingly satisfying.

The middle section of the book comprises two chapters on England (one of which discusses the division between North and South) and single chapters on Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This is arguably the weakest section of the three, or, to be more charitable, the least stimulating. To a certain extent, this is attributable to the format of the book itself and the short length of the chapters, which inevitably requires sacrifices and omissions. Nevertheless, browsing the further reading section at the end of the book suggests that these are the distillation of substantial publications by leading academic historians such as Alvin Jackson and Tom Devine. The chapter on Scotland is obviously of significant interest because of the forthcoming referendum, but it ends on a bizarre note when Colley recounts that she often hears complaints about Scotland being a colony. This certainly happens and referring to it might make internal sense in relation to the topics covered elsewhere in the book. However, having it as the main comment on the current constitutional debate in Scotland puts her judgement in question.

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Judi Benson’s collection of poetry is a heartrending contemplation of the effects of death on those who are left behind. Her poems deal with grief, shock, anger, bewilderment and learning to cope without the person who has died. They deal with the transience and impermanence of life. They show that all our plans are subject to one event which we cannot control and cannot predict.

Clearly, the poems will have a particular resonance for anyone living in Glasgow at the moment as we all try to come to terms with what happened at the Clutha Vaults. They remind us of what the families have to go through before they adapt to the irrevocable change in their lives. They remind us of what we have all been through when we suffer bereavement. They remind us of our humanity.

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If an Edinburgh tourist organisation ever considers approaching a Mafia hit man to eliminate an author, Tony Black has to be high on the list. In Last Orders he does not present an Edinburgh that is typical of the shortbread tin tartan tattery shops on the Royal Mile (a particular target of his ire) and he is definitely not in the tradition that Sir Walter Scott inflicted on Scotland in preparation for the visit by George IV. Tony Black is the kind of author who makes Irvine Welsh look benign, which is a considerable achievement.

The characters in these short stories, in which the private detective Gus Dury figures prominently, make Trainspotting look like an afternoon tea party in Morningside where you will have had your tea (sorry, but I couldn’t resist it). One of the themes that run through these stories is that of fathers forcing their daughters into a sexual relationship, and the consequences of such actions.

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Delicate hints of the supernatural tease the reader in Linda Cracknell’s debut novel Call of the Undertow. However, her beautifully realised depiction of the friendship between a traumatised woman and an other-worldly boy is strongly grounded in the real world, in the physical land and seascape they both love and the treacherous emotional terrain they negotiate in their disconnected ways.

Cartographer Maggie Thame has shed the skin of her previous life in Oxford and fled to a remote Caithness village, renting Flotsam Cottage where she works online, producing maps of places she has never been to. Her current project is an atlas for Nigerian schools.

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Each part of this collection is bracketed by an enlarged list of definitions of words like ‘breaker’, ‘capillary wave’, ‘erosion’, and of course ‘littoral’. By providing these precise definitions of a vocabulary that she will draw on and analyse in her poems, Patricia Debney suggests that the experience of what they convey is ultimately more gestural, and that, contrary to the dictionary, firm definitions are often impossible. Definitions never stay in one place; they can shift, like an eroding coastline.

It’s this duet between precision and unreliability that gives the prose poems in ‘Littoral’ their tension, and for the most part Debney’s approach works well. The first sections are dominated by the elements, by wind and water, and by our mistaken assurance that landscape exists for our own appreciation. ‘This is not about you,’ we are told in ‘Outshore Wind.’ ‘This blows a wind past you that was going to blow anyway.’ Here, the world shifts and alters to the priorities of invisible rhythms, and a feature of the collection as a whole is the acknowledgement that much of the geological facts remain a source of mystery or indifference to the layman. ‘So much comes down to physics,’ she writes in ‘Hindsight’. ‘Of course, there are equations for all this … /But you don’t think to ask.’

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Joaquín Pérez Navarro, trans. Paul Sharkey

 

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A Northerly Land, by George Gunn, seems, at first glance, to be an unprepossessing collection. The production of the book is not good – the text of the poems is badly centred, to the point where some of it is some of it is cut off at the edges; the copyright information, the acknowledgements and epigraphs are crammed into one page; the cover image is uncredited, and the many footnotes are intrusive and poorly placed. This sloppiness looks occasionally as if it extends to the poetry, which is printed without punctuation and with inconsistent capitalisation, and it is a poor introduction to the work itself, some of which is outstanding.

Gunn writes in a style reminiscent of Kenneth White, and there are echoes of his Walking the Coast in Gunn’s Winter Coast, but Gunn is an angrier and more political poet than White, more friendly towards myth and metaphor, and concerned as much about the humans living in the landscape as much as the coasts, wildlife and weather of Caithness. Gunn’s free-flowing, undirected style works well in some shorter poems, such as September, and We Are All in This Together and exceptionally well in the lovely Rain in August where the transformations and interpenetrations of rain and land and sky – and fact and symbol – are echoed in the unsignposted and ambiguous form:

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Heaney is dead and buried. ‘Death of a Naturalist’ holds no comfort, only brings streams of tears. Instead, I have turned to Greig for solace, for escape and for meaning. Greig has a similar honesty. He has the depth of emotion I crave, but without the watering eyes.

Greig’s Found at Sea lives on the shelf in my bathroom. It lies next to Chopra, Toksvig and Simon’s Cat. In the absence of a log fire I think some poetry is best read in a hot bubble bath. The first poem is called ‘The Arctic Whaler (i) The name’. I may have read it forty times or more. From the opening line “Tales of Orkney men under aurora” my imagination was spiked into action. The romance of it all hooked me.

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Iain Bamforth - The Crossing Fee

There is something terribly haunting in this new collection from Iain Bamforth. Taking the plunge from the old Germanic odyssey where a hero falling in the Black Forest emerges in the China Sea, this collection turns on the simple, elegant and yet sophisticated imagery and language that is abundant throughout. 

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In his preface, Renzo Modiano asks what he can add to the testimonies of Anne Frank, Primo Levi and the Warsaw Ghetto.   Why write another book about the Holocaust?   The answer, of course, is “Because it matters”.   

This is the testimony of a seven year old boy who survived partly through luck, partly through the judgement of his parents who ran when there was still time, and mostly through the bravery of those who helped his family at the risk of their lives.   And that is why it matters, because it is the memory of a child and a testament to the heroism of ordinary people.

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Snake Road is the second novel from Sue Peebles. Her first, The Death of Lomond Friel, won the Scottish and Saltire First Book awards. This slow paced study of Aggie who is devastated by a miscarriage, echoes some of the earlier book’s themes: grief and loss; old age and the infirmities that affect not just the health but the mind and personality of a loved one; partners, parents and grandparents whose emotional inner lives we only really glimpse.

In Snake Road all the main characters are silent with one another about significant experiences, past and present. Have they been swallowed up by the silences or does keeping things to themselves sometimes help and give space for working through deeply personal traumas? Peebles doesn’t provide answers, just gentle, often wryly humorous, descriptions drawn with psychological understanding.

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Mills and Boon this is not.   In fact, I cannot think of any story that is less like Mills and Boon than this one.   So don’t let the title fool you.   It is not about love amongst the tents of the Occupy Movement.   It is a different sort of “Romance” altogether: much more like Kidnapped.   

Alan Stewart (a tribute to Kidnapped if ever I heard one) goes on the run with a dubious character after getting mixed up with his aunt in possible cyber-criminality.   So you have characters just like David Balfour, Uncle Ebenezer and Allan Breck Stewart.   But you can push the comparison with Robert Louis Stevenson too far, as this is not really the story of an innocent abroad getting involved in the politics of the age.   This is the story of someone who really should know what he is doing getting out of his depth and in to very choppy waters.

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The first thing that is astonishing about this book is that it made me think that I understand astronomy, which is clearly not the case.   That, in itself, is a tribute to the clarity and assurance of the writing.   But this is a story about much more than astronomy, or rather where astronomy is a motor of the plot.   Jeanette is an astronomer, or rather, she becomes one because she comes to love the solitude that staring at the stars requires.   This is a story about someone growing up, and becoming the person that she is.

Jeanette grows up in an ordinary family where her sister Kate is the star.   Family life revolves, as far as Jeanette is concerned, around her sister Kate, and her swimming ambitions.   Jeanette loves her sister, but is determined not to be like her sister, which is what drives her interest in the skies, and what can be seen in them.

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Paraphrasing Diderot, the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens once warned that he would “go on keeping score” about the refusal of some countries to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq “until the last phoney pacifist has been strangled with the entrails of the last suicide-murderer”. Among the “phony pacifists”to whom Hitchens referred were a number of his former friends on the Left, now, in his eyes, as a result of their opposition to the Bush administration's “War on Terror”, apologists for authoritarianism and theocracy in the Middle East. Hitchens' post-9/11 conversion from socialism to neo-conservatism was indicative of a broader split in the Western liberal commentariat, occurring at the start of the 21st Century, over the use of American military power to 'promote democracy abroad'.

In the US, where Hitchens lived and worked, the anti-interventionist Nation magazine squared off against the interventionist Atlantic Monthly. In Britain, pro-war journalists such as David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen went up against the Independent and the New Statesman. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of American militarism in the mainstream British press was the Guardian. Indeed, due in no small part to the efforts of its comment editor, Seamus Milne, the Guardian's opinion pages became a leading international forum for criticism of British and American policy. Milne himself, in his weekly Guardian columns, led much of that criticism and was even personally admonished by Tony Blair's government when, following the fall of Kabul to NATO forces in late 2001, it prematurely declared the Afghan war a success.

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It’s appropriate for Frank Kuppner’s chronicle of life that it would be both a study of the absurd and the absolute, for these are the two areas which Kuppner truly brings to life.

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Review by Alan Gillespie

James Robertson’s short story collection ‘Republics of the Mind’ presents an eclectic ragbag of voices that are unexpected, unheralded and unhinged. With a shamelessly Scottish outlook, Robertson’s writing delves into the relationships we have with society, with each other and with ourselves. This is an unflashy collection, built on neither sex nor gratuitous violence, but rather a careful and honest portrayal of the way peoples’ minds work when faced with the awkward and uncomfortable truths that daily life brings.

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The Eejit Pit by Jenny Lindsay; The Glassblower Dances by Rachel McCrum; Treasure in the History of Things by Katherine McMahon

Stewed Rhubarbis a small Edinburgh publisher founded by Rachel McCrum and James T Harding which specialises in publishing spoken word artists and in collaborating to create beautiful poetry objects. These three short pamphlets are the first fruits of this outfit, and very beautiful objects they are too, printed on good quality paper, and with sturdy and beautifully designed covers. Treasure in the History of Things even comes with a cd of the artist reading her poems, with music and atmospheric sounds - a very good move, reminding us that performance poetry is not the same as a reading from page poems, but a genre in its own right, with its own demands and excellences.

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Read David Greig's 'Victoria Leaving' here

 

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Cailean Gallagher wrote a fine article last year in the Scottish Review about Alasdair Gray, socialism and public libraries. I suspect that few readers and not many writers understand how rapidly our libraries are changing, and the threat that these changes bring.

Let’s start with the basics. Our libraries contain books that have been written by writers, and those writers give their permission for libraries to lend their books, free of charge, to their members. This system is known as Public Lending Right (PLR), and the writers are paid a small amount in compensation for allowing their work to be loaned in this way. I don’t know what the average payment is to writers in the UK, but it is very small, and it is under serious attack from the UK government.

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