Monthly Archives: May 2011


Volume 7 – Issue 2 – Contributors

Jonathan Falla’s latest book is The Craft of Fiction: How To Become A Novelist.

Joseph Farrell has reviewed theatre for the Scotsman and for radio. Until recently he was Professor of Italian at Strathclyde University. He has written on Italian politics for various newspapers. He also wrote the first full biography of Dario Fo.

Rodge Glass is a novelist and biographer. His next novel, Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs, will be published later this year. He is a member of the band Burnt Island.

Rosemary Goring is the Herald’s literary editor. She is the author of Scotland – The Autobiography.

Rody Gorman is a poet and translator. He teaches at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye.

Clare Grant is a journalist and critic. She writes for the Cumbernauld News and is the cultural editor of

Aonghas Macneacail is a poet, broadcaster and translator. His most recent book, Hymn to a Young Demon, was published in 2007.

Iain Macwhirter is a political commentator and broadcaster.

Lesley McDowell is a critic and the author of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust 2011 Book Awards-nominated Between The Sheets – The Literary Liaisons Of Nine Twentieth Century Women Writers.

Barbara Melville was formerly astronomy editor for BellaOnline and is genetics and evolution feature writer for Suite 101, a website for ‘insightful’ and ‘informed’ readers.

Brian Morton is an author, critic and former broadcaster.

Theresa Munoz writes poetry, short stories and fiction, and teaches creative writing. She is completing a PhD on the poetry of Tom Leonard.

Stephen Phelan is a journalist. He lives in Japan.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of numerous bestsellers and the co-founder of The Really Terrible Orchestra.

Richard Strachan has written for Markings, The Skinny and Gutter, and he co-edits the literary journal Free State. His debut novel is Most Wicked Speed.

David Torrance is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Salmond: Against The Odds.

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Helen Armitage
CONSTABLE, £7.99 PP192 ISBN 978-1849017022

Two months ago, this review would have been written differently. Helen Armitage’s book ends with the departure for African wintering grounds of Britain’s – possibly the world’s – oldest known osprey. Already the mother of 48 chicks, hatched from 58 eggs laid over an astonishing 20 breeding seasons, the bird had seemed close to death during the summer of 2010, lying dehydrated and exhausted in her huge stick nest at Loch of the Lowes, near Dunkeld, where she is watched by a small army of fans, volunteers, birders, twitchers, bloggers and by the remote-viewing community who follow her on webcam the way some people used to follow Peggy Mitchell.

It violates a basic premise for me – of which more in a moment – to suggest that a bird can have a sense of theatre, but just as watchers started to confirm the fear that the celebrated bird had succumbed somewhere on its long migration she reappeared at the Perthshire loch in the last week of March and once again set about nest-building with her mate, for an unprecedented 21st year. ‘Just like Elizabeth bloody Taylor’, I muttered, unaware that that other diva of the gaze, who’d frequently been reported as dehydrated and exhausted, was on her last legs.

The osprey is an iconic bird. As the only species in the Pandionidae family, it has no looky-likey cousins to compete for attention. Though still rare in Britain, despite its twentieth century resurgence, it is geographically ubiquitous and emerges in umpteen folklores and literatures, an ‘abomination’ (i.e. not to be eaten) in the Bible, one of the utopian avians in Aristophanes’ The Birds. Its eggs and chicks are the ne plus ultra of wildlife theft. It is, in the UK at least, a conservation triumph, brought back from a supposed extinction and now, if not exactly as pestiferous as the red kites which crowd the skies over Oxfordshire, then by no means a startling rarity.

‘Supposed’ because my grandfather, ever a man to pour cold water on a heartwarming story, claims to have seen ospreys in Scotland all through the 1930s and war years. Perhaps, he argued, the world was just too occupied with more important things to worry about a ‘burd’. It’s possible, but now, even more than the kite, or the avocet which is the RSPB symbol, or the little ringed plover (whose tentative colonisation of Britain was turned into high drama by Kenneth Allsop), the osprey has a starry quality, an aura of specialness that tends to lift it out of ecological context.

I detest the naming of wild creatures and though I have an obsessive’s library of bird books, I tend to avoid those where any animal is given a name and human characteristics. The Loch of the Lowes bird just gets away with it on the grounds that Lady of the Loch is a title rather than a name. But it takes Helen Armitage 120 pages to concede that naming is a ‘contentious issue’, which doesn’t stop her turning Lady and her initially feckless mate Laird into soap-opera characters. The issues are complex here – and I’m a hypocrite, since I regularly ‘do the voices’ of neighbourhood badgers, stoats and buzzards for the children’s entertainment – and one has to accept that if anthropomorphising animals and birds is the ‘hook’ to a change of attitude that will allow them to survive and thrive, then it is worth the small philosophical embarrassment. After all, Elizabeth Taylor continued as an AIDS campaigner long after she stopped convincing as an actor or as a great beauty.

On balance, and personal hypocrisy aside, I have to disagree. Our webcammed voyeurism and sentimentalisation of wildlife (the ‘tragic’ death of a chick, describing a male raptor as if he was played by Richard Briers) is merely a milder form of extermination; nature Disneyfied and made two-dimensional. That said, Helen Armitage tells a good story, adds lots of authoritative detail and her heart is unquestionably in the right place. As for Lady, I will of course be watching out for eggs and chicks. By the time you read this …

Brian Morton

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Bella Bathurst
HARPER PRESS, £16.99 356PP ISBN 978-0007305889

Cycling is dangerous. If bicycles had just been invented they’d never be allowed on the roads. Where cars have seat belts, crumple zones and airbags to protect the occupants against injury in a collision, cyclists have lycra and occasionally a plastic helmet that doesn’t fit properly.

So why do so many people cycle?
Since 2000, the number of people cycling in Britain has ‘doubled and doubled again’, according to Bella Bathurst in The Bicycle Book. The answer is that cycling remains the cheapest, most efficient, most convenient form of mechanical transport ever invented. In cities, it is also the quickest, which is why courier services use cyclists to deliver messages. When people ask me why I cycle, I don’t say it’s because of the environment, or to get fit, but because I’m too impatient to go by car.

The Bicycle Book is written by an enthusiast for enthusiasts. It is based on interviews with cycle couriers, racing cyclists (including world record-breaking Scot, Graeme Obree), and other bikers. Bathurst looks at the bicycle in wartime, doping in the Tour de France, and how to make the best frame. The origins of mountain biking, one learns, lie not in California, home of extreme sports, but in Britain at the start of the last century. She even travels to Calcutta in order to try out a tricycle rickshaw.

If there’s an air of familiarity about The Bicycle Book, it’s because there have been a number of books like it, such as Richard’s Bicycle Book, a cycling manifesto, written by Richard Ballantine thirty years ago. Both books may even share some of the same reproductions of quaint Victorian illustrations. Cycling, Bathurst’s book suggests, seems to get rediscovered anew by each generation.

Bella’s Bicycle Book is a very readable addition to the genre. It updates Ballantine’s original for a less political, more individualist age. This is not so much a manifesto, more a celebration of the sense of personal fulfilment that comes from being your own means of transport. Bathurst is a journalist, and her book reads like a series of connected features articles. She has an engaging, slightly breathless style which occasionally lapses into jolly-hockey-sticks flights of fancy. ‘Instead of road-tripping it around America as in the old days, family holidays are now spent hurtling through the Austrian Tyrol like two-wheeled von Trapps.’ Hmm. Not sure many are, actually.

But at least she has avoided the nerdy aspects of cyclophilia: arcane debates about gear ratios, wind resistance and how often to shave your legs. This might be because cycling itself has been undergoing a back-to-basics phase with the courier-inspired fashion for ‘fixies’: stripped down bikes with no gears, no freewheel and, for purists, no brakes. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Beware, cycling can change your life. Bathurst cites the case of Eva Ballin, who came to Edinburgh sixteen years ago to do a Ph.D, taking up cycling as a way to relax. She ended up quitting her academic career to become a bike courier. Cycling is a bit like that – compulsive, addictive even, perhaps because of the combination of endorphins and, no other way to put this, the sense of superiority that comes from sailing past overweight commuters sitting in traffic jams.

In any rational transport policy bikes would figure prominently because of carbon emissions alone. But there is a problem which enthusiasts like Bathurst underestimate: safety. Today’s paranoid parents are reluctant to allow their children onto the road on a bike. I used to take my toddler on a bike to nursery school through London traffic years ago, but times change, and today I probably wouldn’t be allowed to.

In an ideal world, car use would be reduced and we would all get on our bikes, but for now biking remains for many of us a slightly dangerous habit – a bit like taking recreational drugs. Which may explain why cyclists tend to be a little anti-establishment. And young. Older people find the idea of puffing up hills undignified as well as unsafe. Bella Bathurst doesn’t mention electric bikes, which is a pity because they are getting better all the time and could get many of us back in the saddle.

Iain Macwhirter

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Sam Meekings
POLYGON £14.99 400PP 9781846971723

In his first novel, Under Fishbone Clouds, Sam Meekings used the experiences of his wife’s family to explore the dislocation and violence of China’s Cultural Revolution. A country with so prodigious a history that it can seemingly absorb any number of catastrophes without visible effect, China possesses a spatial and temporal vastness that forms the basis for a wider exploration of change and fate in Meekings’ second, more ambitious novel.

The eponymous Book of Crows is a hidden, mythical text purportedly outlining every event in human history, past and future. The search for it links a narrative that skips back and forth between the first century B.C., the Middle Ages, and the 1990s. Disappearances, abductions, and vanishings all play a part in the book’s various strands, as if the utmost tenacity is required if you are not to be swallowed up by enormity of China.

In the first narrative, set over 2000 years ago, The Whorehouse of a Thousand Sighs is a run-down brothel in a rural backwater. A prostitute, Jade, who was kidnapped from her village and sold into sexual slavery, nurses an injured soldier charged with finding a book which can predict the future. Jade’s brutal, but ultimately unselfish, response to learning his mission marks the first hint that the Book of Crows will bring nothing but disaster to those who seek it.

In the 1990s, an alcoholic civil servant searches for a missing friend. He suspects his friend has been caught up in a mining disaster. Investigating the Black Light Mining Company, the civil servant discovers they’ve been looking for the Book of Crows. As official obstruction and industrial incompetence conspire to keep the truth from the civil servant, it grows clear his drinking is fuelled by a sense of betrayal. The Revolution’s descent into mercantilism and state-directed capitalist exploitation has disillusioned him.

In the third narrative, set in the thirteenth century, a Franciscan monk is slowly dying in the middle of a desolate Chinese landscape. Tomasso di Lovari has been sent to the Middle Kingdom ostensibly to seek the Emperor’s permission to establish a mission in China. On his deathbed he confesses to a younger colleague that he is in fact a member of a secret order within the Church, dedicated to locating the Book of Crows, which they believe is the missing Fifth Gospel in which Christ narrated all the secrets of the past, present and future. For Lovari, this Fifth Gospel is what will set man free from the tyranny of churches and kings. Like a proto-Calvinist, he believes that life is preordained, and that knowledge of this is the key to salvation. For his younger colleague, orthodox in his outlook and wedded to the hierarchies of Church and state, doubt is the basis of belief. Man must struggle with what he does not know for certain, in order to find the true path to righteousness.

This is the crux of Meekings’ book: if we could know the future, would it be to our benefit or to our distress? Intimately linked to this is another question: to what lengths will decent people go to in order to find out, and is the quest for this knowledge what makes the book malign in the first place?

Meekings’ prose is confident and elegant, with an unusual empathic range that allows him to inhabit characters at great remove from his own experience. Ironically, the book’s weakest section is that which is set in the 1990s, closest to our own time; the feverish, conspiracy thriller elements and the casual slang jar occasionally. This is a minor complaint though. The Book of Crows is a profound novel, and Meekings demonstrates a greater degree of ambition than some of his contemporaries.

Richard Strachan

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Luke Williams
HAMISH HAMILTON, £18.99 348PP ISBN 978-0241143001

Gullane resident Evie types her memoirs in an attic. In her fifties, Evie’s ‘power of listening’ has been eroded by tinnitus. She’s a very good listener. Her talent is not, as that description would imply, empathetic. It’s more literal. Her powers of hearing are astounding. She could even hear in the womb and recounts what she remembers listening to, a hint that she may not be an entirely reliable narrator. So begins The Echo Chamber, an ambitious debut novel by Luke Williams.

Evie connects listening and memory, and writing her autobiography is a way of exploring both subjects. Her fixation with sound means she has taped recordings of those who influenced her. These, along with letters and diaries stored in that attic, act as a channel to the past.

Her story spans three continents, and it begins in 1946 in the then Nigerian capital of Lagos where her father works for the government. Evie is born two months after her due date. Her birth kills her mother and breaks her father. In his grief, he neglects her. So much so that Evie claims to be nameless until she is six when she has an unconventional christening.

While playing with a young Nigerian chum, Ade, Evie discovers a box of rubber stamps dumped in her garden. Delighted by the discovery, she prints the letters onto her arm. Pointing, Ade reads out the last two letters, E and V, which, she says, is how she acquired her name. Ade’s intervention made her feel loved, which Evie will have a long wait to experience again.

Nigeria’s declaration of its independence from the British Empire in 1960 does not bring peace to the country, Evie or her father. The duo return to Scotland but this has never been home for Evie nor is her father a Scot, as we shall learn. Evie suffers a few miserable years at a Scottish boarding school before someone encourages her to find out more about her father’s past.

That someone is flighty on-the-rebound starlet Damaris who Evie meets while working as an usher after leaving school. Demaris supplements her wages as an actress by standing still on Princess Street, pretending to be a statue for pennies. Falling for her, Evie declares her feelings by stationing herself on the pavement beside Demaris and copying her (non-)moves. It’s an unconventional approach but it works and soon the young women are lovers.

Unconventional approaches are not Evie’s solely. Williams himself tries an unusual tack. In his Acknowledgements, he admits two chapters called ‘Damaris’ Diary’ were penned not by him, but by Natasha Soobramanien, to whom this book is dedicated. This section charts the only love affair Evie will ever have. In urging her to make recordings, Demaris indulges Evie’s obsession with sound and helps her to confront the shadows cast by her family’s untold stories. Transcripts of these recordings tell us that Evie’s father was taken from Poland to Dundee by his Jewish migrant family in 1923 – and of how alienated he, like his daughter, had felt when he was stranded in Scotland.

The diary also catalogues the couple’s trip to America where Damaris is taking part in a touring show. Unfortunately, she is tiring of Evie and is more interested in casual hook-ups – with men – than her girlfriend’s sonic preoccupations and mood swings. After the inevitable parting, Evie will never again find anyone again to share her memories with. So her desire to re-live these is matched by her determination to record them for posterity. And The Echo Chamber is the finished product. Williams admits to being influenced by W.G. Sebald and the theme of looking back on a chequered life through props is something his novel shares with Austerlitz.

Williams dramatises the false dawn of Nigerian independence through the device of a harrowing letter from the grown-up Ade. And he is sensitive to the pains of those who feel rootless and different. He knows that Evie’s claim to hear more than others is not merely quirky; it’s a metaphor for the distance she feels from closest to her.

The Nigerian chapters mark the most successful part of the book: they are poignant, involving, and historically illuminating. The story, however, is not fully realised as Williams doesn’t explore the latter decades of Evie’s life. Scenes set in Edinburgh closer to our time, where Evie visits her maternal grandfather in an institution, lack the momentum and emotion of the African sections. Some of the details in the Scottish chapters that explore Evie’s family’s past feel tacked together; they’re more conceptual than organic and they lack the cohesion of earlier chapters. That said, The Echo Chamber serves notice of a new Scottish literary talent. Future novels are to be eagerly awaited upon, for Williams’s ambition is – how else to describe it? – sound.

Clare Grant

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Nick Holdstock
LUATH PRESS £9.99 256PP ISBN 978-1906817640

Until recently, Xinjiang – the northwestern-most province of China – was known more for the mysteries of its past than its present. This remote land is dominated by the Taklamakan Desert, a burning wilderness of dunes whose name is said to mean ‘you go in, you don’t come out’. The Silk Route skirted the fringes of the desert, and here in the early twentieth century, Aurel Stein pillaged vast stores of ancient manuscripts from sand-smothered libraries. But lately, news from Xinjiang has been of tension between local Uighur people and the Han Chinese.

Nick Holdstock first went to China as a VSO English teacher in Hunan. Hearing of the troubles of the Uighur and wishing to investigate, he obtained a new posting to Yining, a city of half a million near the Russian frontier.

Yining has seen Muslim rebellion in the 1860s, annexation by Russia soon after, further clashes with Russia in the 1960s, a wave of killings in 1997 and again in 2001. Today – as with nearby Tibet – Beijing policy is to push Han immigration, and to swamp the Uighur population, its culture and its Islamic faith. From time to time the Uighurs boil over with rage, as do the Tibetans next door. In 2009 there was a new outburst and many deaths in Urumqi, the regional capital.

In Yining for a year, Holdstock observed and recorded Uighur-Han relations, the Han patronising the Uighurs as good for singing and dancing, but little else. He has a sharp eye for tension and local colour. Much of his writing is clear, pithy, by turns grim and farcical. There are vignettes of coping with bowls of lung soup, of blundering into porn cinemas, of playing snooker. There are memorable characters, such as the Dean of the college where Holdstock teaches, who likes to take the faculty on team-building evenings at local brothels, and who finally drinks himself to death. He makes good friends among the Uighurs, in particular the chess players who thrash him routinely but who present him with a magnificent hand-crafted set on his departure. No close Han friends, though, nor among the other expatriate teachers. Why that antagonism? Because – the author realises – they are there under false pretences: they are all Christian missionaries. He declares war on their subtefuges.

There are problems with the book. Holdstock’s prose is fluent and often funny, but he indulges in some ill-advised literary devices, such as switching to a second-person narrative voice every time he makes a journey: ‘It is three days since you left Beijing.’ ‘A small woman you almost mistake for a child lets you into your flat.’ This is affectation.

The book is trumpeted as a ‘quest for an unreported massacre’. If earlier troubles were little known, that is hardly the case now: Googling ‘Xinjiang riots 2009’ produces 70,000 results. The reader seeking detailed reports of the conflict must rummage through the bulk of the travelogue; there is no index. The book is organised by season, not by theme; there are 123 numbered sections, some just a page long and in no very obvious arrangement. This makes for directionless reading.

For every page on the troubles, there’s a dozen on topics such as bread making, the spread of HIV and Holdstock’s efforts at sex education, restaurants and bars and excursions, wedding anecdotes and so on. Much of this is entertaining and interesting, but it is hardly in-depth discussion.

The book is also in some ways a tad naïve. In the intimate picture of Han-Uighur antipathy, there is little discussion of why the Han are so determined to absorb Xinjiang so thoroughly – the probable mineral wealth, for instance, that is key to Beijing’s policy in Tibet. Or the impulse felt by all empires to expand and secure their frontiers. Granted, the Han encountered in Yining were hardly forthcoming, but the account is very partisan. And Holdstock’s presentation of himself – cheerfully blundering feet-first into conversations, or rubbishing the missionaries’ library – muddies questions as to his own position: VSO teaching of English is a form of missionary activity too, while Holdstock had his own hidden agenda.

An entertaining, often disturbing, heartfelt but in some ways frustrating account.

Jonathan Falla

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Domhnall Iain MacLeoid
CLO BEAG, £6.00 64PP ISBN 978-0-9505640-0-5

Given that Gaelic had been, in the distinguished folklorist John MacInnes’s appraisal, subjected to an extensive and debilitating official campaign of ‘ethnocide’, it should perhaps not surprise us that key figures in the battle for its survival came from outside Gaeldom. Most Gaels are aware that we are beholden to an Englishman, Edward Dwelly, for the (still) definitive Gaelic dictionary, first published in 1911.

What many do not know is that it took a Lowland Scot, Aberdeen-born historian and novelist David Masson, having attended the 1890 Welsh National Eisteddfod, to prod Scottish Gaels into establishing An Comunn Gaidhealach (The Gaelic Association), in 1891, with a view to promoting the National Mod. For the next half-century, for better or worse, that organisation ran its national, and local, events while doing what it could to muster official support for the language.

Though numbers continued to erode, An Comunn did lay the groundwork for future developments, with action on music, education and publishing, including school textbooks, magazines and a monthly newspaper. It also lobbied for changes to the 1872 Education Act, which had excluded Gaelic from the classroom, eventually, in 1918, achieving an act which committed authorities to make ‘adequate provision for Gaelic in Gaelic-speaking areas’. A youth organisation was also established. And a new Gaelic literature began to develop, culminating in the appearance of Sorley MacLean. Domhnall Iain MacLeoid’s/ Donald John MacLeod’s compact account of The Gaelic Revival 1890–2020 introduces the individuals and organisations that have done so much to ensure the language has a future.

MacLeod cites Joshua Fishman, the American sociolinguist, who imparts much wisdom about language preservation. MacLeod infers reasons for cautious optimism when he measures the achievements of the various associations, councils and boards that now service the Gaelic populace, as well as a flowering of writers, musicians, educators and broadcasters against Fishman’s scale of needs for ‘threatened languages’. With Gaelic schools in place, and an increasingly vigorous adult learning community, Fishman’s essential requirement that Gaelic-speaking parents can themselves deliver a new generation of Gaelic speakers is attainable. Fishman, one also notes, is recorded observing that teaching materials ‘appeared to reflect the standard values of Scottish middle class society rather than a distinctly Gaelic dimension’.

MacLeod’s book may be a short account of the recent history of our ancient language, but it’s dense with information, and it features an intriguing cast of characters, from Lord Archibald Campbell, son of the Duke of Argyll and first President of An Comunn, to Fionnlagh MacLeoid, who virtually single-handedly created theGaelic pre-school movement around 20 years ago. There were, from an early stage, internal critics like the aristocrat Ruairidh Erskine of Mar, who was determined to rid Gaelic of ‘the curse of the modern ghetto, the Music Hall’. His objective was a world-class literature. The publications he promoted may have failed, but they laid the groundwork for future developments.

MacLeod’s book is a personal project, drawing on research and personal experience, and designed to encourage further debate. If it can be faulted, it’s in that it too often tantalises with a sense that there is more that could be told, of agitation and acrimony as well as achievement, and that MacLeod, having been in the thick of it, as academic and editor, activist and administrator, is well equipped to do the telling. As a sketch it succeeds brilliantly in showing how Gaelic language provisions and objectives have developed in scope and sophistication, but we may wish one or other funding body to commission its author to do the detailed research and writing his subject deserves.

Aonghas Macneacail

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Jane Rogers
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99 272PP ISBN 978-1905207589

Jane Rogers has an impressive backlist. Best known for her novel Mr. Wroe’s Virgins, she has been shortlisted and longlisted, won prizes (Somerset Maugham and Writers Guild), and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam. Why, then, with such a pedigree, is Rogers’ new novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, coming out through Highland-based Sandstone and not by a larger London publisher?

It is a question that has to be asked, though, however unfair it may seem. Is the novel too experimental for the big publishers to handle? Is Rogers’ sales record affecting her prospects with a mainstream publisher? And, finally, does any of that really matter? Writers want to get their books out there – how important is it who facilitates that? Rogers thanks the Hawthornden Retreat and the Arts Council England for their support while she was writing this book, as well as the Banff Centre in Canada for a Fellowship Award. Why, I ask again, is it a small press that has picked up The Testament of Jessie Lamb?

Rogers’s tale centres on teenage Jessie, who, as the book begins, is being held captive by her parents for an as-yet unknown reason. Eventually we learn her captivity has its roots in a devastating act of biological terrorism: an unknown group has created a virus (MDS, or Maternal Death Syndrome) that attacks women expecting children. Once women become pregnant, the virus, like CJD, attacks their brain, death occurring shortly afterwards. Naturally, women grow terrified of becoming pregnant and the human race faces extinction.

Scientists, such as Jessie’s father, are working on a cure. Meanwhile, Christian groups blame man’s godless ways for the epidemic. Jessie and her friends, the younger generation who will never become mothers, are angry and blame their parents for the mess the world is in.

A solution offers itself: Sleeping Beauties. These are young women who volunteer to get pregnant and be induced into a coma, so that their child can grow in the womb without being infected by the virus. The only problem is that the Sleeping Beauties will, of course, die. A surprisingly high number of young women volunteer, and gradually Jessie too comes to believe that she should join up. When her parents discover her plans, they imprison her. Which is where the novel begins.

Rogers is good on interface between the seemingly opposed camps of science and religion. For example, ‘sacrifice’ is a religious term, but it’s also used here when discussing acts performed for the good of science. And the novel’s basic premise is strong and comparable with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Trying to sell a feminist dystopia to publishers these days might not be easy, but Rogers’ subject matter – particularly the anger of the young once they realise their future has been stolen – is timely.

There are real problems with this novel, however. Part of it is structural. Trapped in her room, Jessie tells her story in flashback. We know whatever she does, it will lead her to captivity. Dialogue is over-used to explain what’s going on. Both Jessie’s parents feel insubstantial, and key events, such as her friend’s rape and her aunt’s death, happen off-stage, only to be reported to us. Jessie herself moves too quickly into the mindset of a sacrificial lamb, and doesn’t even change her opinion when she begins a passionate relationship with Baz.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a novel that misses too many of its targets, which is a pity as it had potential. Why Rogers, with all her experience and talent, should so get it wrong, is a mystery. But perhaps the publishing question has at least been answered.

Lesley McDowell

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David Eagleman
CANONGATE, £20 272PP ISBN 978-1847679383

David Eagleman’s first book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a short story collection, was met with critical acclaim. In his day job Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, and has published papers on a number of topics such as time perception, synaesthesia, and visual illusions. Combining accessible language and linguistic flourishes, Incognito is a work of non-fiction, vastly different from Sum. It discusses recent developments in neuroscience, offering us some insight into what’s really going on in our brains.

Incognito regards the conscious self – ‘The I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning’ – as the tip of a neural iceberg. What lies beneath the surface of our consciousness is out of bounds to it. Still, we question and study ourselves.

As Eagleman puts it, ‘Imagine that your desktop computer began to control its own peripheral devices, removed its own cover, and pointed its webcam at its own circuitry. That’s us.’ Neuroscience is a discipline in its infancy, but it is growing up fast. Eagleman’s book takes us on an incredible journey through what we’ve learned so far.

For example, consider people with a form of amnesia that blights them with no recall whatsoever of recent events. Experiments show if you get them to play the computer game Tetris every day, they retain no memory of playing, yet their play will improve over time – the unconscious brain keeps learning. Blind people can learn to see thanks to a device which stimulates the tongue with electrical impulses, which are interpreted by the brain as vision.

And then there is the hemispherectomy, a treatment for seizure disorders where half a child’s brain is removed. Not only does this treat the disorder, but the child can go on to have a relatively normal life.

Eagleman portrays the brain as a complex and multi-faceted problem-solver. He asks us to picture it as a ‘team of rivals’ which allows us to argue with ourselves and make decisions based on examining options.

At times this criss-crossing is echoed by the book’s structure. As Incognito progresses, Eagleman recalls examples from earlier chapters, reminders of how the machinery of the mind works together. This is helpful in a book containing so much information; it helps the reader’s own mind absorb what he or she has learned so far.

The book’s organisation isn’t perfect, however. Eagleman devotes a chapter to exploring responsibility and the law, proposing the involvement of neuroscience in informing a customised system of social policy. While he raises a number of interesting ideas, this is an area so complex it merits its own book. He ties up his ideas in the final chapter, but also introduces new information which would have made more sense if we’d been given it earlier. For example, he raises here the relationship between genetics and the environment, which would have better fitted the fourth chapter, which looks at evolution. He also uses the final pages to question the usefulness of a reductionist approach, which he would have done well to place near the beginning of the book, as his position on this subject was unclear.

Though some of the information could have been better arranged, Incognito is fascinating in content and eloquent in style. The questions Eagleman raises about the constitution of the brain and free will are unsettling but have to be asked. It may be a mistake to reduce our understanding of the self to strictly material terms, but we mustn’t go the other way and play down the role of biology. The brain is flexible, capable of finding multiple solutions, and it doesn’t give up. And neither should we. We still have a lot to learn from it.

Barbara Melville

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Volume 7 – Issue 2 – New Poems – Rody Gorman

Born in Dublin in 1960, Rody Gorman is a poet who writes in English, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. His first collection, Fax and Other Poems, was published in 1996. A selection of his poems in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Chernilo, was published in 2006. He also works as a translator: Cavafy, Yeats, Neruda, and Milosz are among the poets he has translated into Gaelic. The Cape Breton University Press is publishing his latest collection is Beartan Briste / burstbroken judgementshroudloomdeeds this year. He teaches at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye.


Air ais ann an taigh-‘n-aifrinn
Air an dèanamaid frithealadh tràth,
Siud mi fhìn air mo ghlacadh
Eadar na dhà cò a bu threasa
Na gathan a’ nochdadh an sin gun fhiosta
Tron uinneig ghlainne dhathte,
Na bha de shluagh an làthair
Nan tàmh nan ìomhaighean
Gun charachadh an aghaidh
Nan creag a’ sileadh
No a’ tuiteam ris an làr
Le trasgadh is dìth na h-àile.


back in the masschapelhouse where we childbedserveattended earlymealprayerltimeonce there i am feelcaught eitherbothbetween which is the stronger of the two, the arrowbarbstingknotrays which would nakedviewappear therethen suddenlywithoutknowing through the colourstained glass recesswindow, how many spiritfolk were livevictorylocationpresent dwellsleepresting as ghostcountenanceimagestatues without moving faceagainst the rocks raindropweeping or duskdawnchancefalling to the earthcentreground with thirstfasting and diewant of windscentair


Cho snog –
Meadhan an latha ghil,
Bodachan glas ri taobh na sràide,

Ri feitheamh air an t-solas dhearg,
Ag atharrachadh, a’ dol
Na fhear uaine.


so/as bonnynice – waistmiddle of the whitebright day, a greygreen halfbottlespectreoldcodboy by the side of the walkstreet,

watchwaiting for the red moonphaseknowledgelight, budgeflitchangeturning, gobecoming a greenwoodenpin oneman


A’ togail ceann
Bho mo shaothair is a’ coimhead a-mach
Air an uinneig is a’ chathair aice fhèin
Eadar mi fhìn ‘s a’ ghrian
‘S i dol a laighe ‘s na dathan
A’ mùthadh air a cùl, siud nam fhianais
Air èiginn carraig
No ‘s dòcha gur e th’ agam eilean beag
A’ gobadh a-mach às an linne
Nach nochd ach ainneamh
Ainneamh nuair a bhuaileas
An solas ud ball àraidh
Ri dealachadh-nan-tràth
Fada bhuainn air fàire.


headend upbringlifting from my tidalislandbirthpainsouevre and preservewatching out the window and her thronechair eitherbothbetween me and the seabottomsunland going down and the dyecolours changeperishing behind there in witnesspresence just about is a cockroachknotheadlandrock or maybe a youngwee island gobsticking out of the centurysound that appears only rarely when that moonphaseknowledgelight hits a particular peniscablebowlspot at onceearlyprayermealpartingtime farawaywanting from us on the horizonridge


Air ais cuide ri càch anns a’ chlachan,
Chaidh mi gan lorg anns a h-uile bad
Mar gum b’ ann air falach-fead.

Chuir mi ceist air an fheadhainn
A bh’ ann o chionn fhada. ‘S e thuirt iad:
Ghabh iad an t-sligh’ ud!


back with the rest in the goggle-eyestonechurchyardtesticlevillage, i went to tracelook for them in every flockbushspot like at whistlehidenseek

i asked them that were there in it a longtimeback and they said they singburnholdwent that journeyway!

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