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Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Natural Causes by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 448 p

So what am I doing reading a piece of straight crime fiction?

Well, one of the good lady’s blog correspondents (far away in the USA) discovered Oswald’s writing on the internet (Natural Causes was self-published and getting good sales before Penguin took it up.) When she told us Oswald (who is a Fife farmer) would be signing copies at Kirkcaldy’s Waterstone’s the good lady offered to get her an autographed copy. We duly went along to do that and so I’ve met him. He seems a nice guy. The good lady had first dibs on the book – she reads a lot of vintage crime, not so much of the modern stuff – and when she put it down I thought I’d pick it up.

Newly promoted Detective Inspector Anthony McLean has the sort of problems with his bosses and colleagues you might expect from viewing TV detective series. His back story involves the death of his parents when he was four (and, much later, of his wife.) He is assigned to the investigation of a young girl found ritually murdered in a basement. The trouble is she was killed around sixty years ago and the trail is cold. Meanwhile several high profile Edinburgh citizens are being murdered in a strange way, their killers then committing suicide. As a result McLean spends a lot of time attending autopsies.

Oswald brings all this stuff together impressively well for a first novelist. If plot is the main attraction of detective stories then this one does it admirably. At times I was reminded of Christopher Brookmyre but it is less cartoonish and there are fewer jokes (for which Natural Causes is the better.) What I always find difficult about this sort of thing, though, is the high body count. Edinburgh, while a Gothic novelist’s paradise, truly isn’t that dangerous a city to live in – at least since Burke and Hare were apprehended.

Oswald has a good way with description and his characters aren’t wooden. Having McLean say, “Oh no you don’t!” twice is twice too many, though. There were also a couple of times when the connections were too apparent a bit too early and at least two continuity errors which a good proof read ought to have picked up.

The hinge of the novel is the ritual killing and any connection it might have to the present day. The hint of supernatural involvement in the ongoing deaths was for me the least convincing aspect of the whole tale. But I’m even less into that sort of stuff than I am to crime novels.

While, as you may expect from a first novel, there was the odd infelicity, Oswald clearly has talent, can hold the attention and make you turn the pages. Crime readers will certainly appreciate him. I did; and I’m not his target audience.

Things that irritate pedants section:-
Sunk:sprung count, 2:1 respectively, plus the common misuse of epicentre and a “who’s” for a “whose.” Not many considering it’s a debut novel.

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

Orbit, 2013, 378p.

Brookmyre’s oeuvre has up to now been the crime/thriller novel, albeit tinged with humour. Bedlam is his first foray into Science Fiction. I came across an as yet unlent copy in my local library so thought, why not?

Medical technology company Neurosphere’s employee Ross Baker, shortly after discovering by chance his girl-friend is pregnant and without talking to her about it, has a new type of brain-scan and wakes up inside a computer game which he quickly recognises as he was an avid gamer in his past. Not long after this he is killed there but immediately “respawns” to start all over again. He soon finds a way out into a series of virtual worlds which are in the process of takeover by an organisation dubbed the Integrity which is citing a phenomenon known as “corruption” to seek by force to keep these worlds forever separate one from another. In these digital adventures Baker adopts his former multiple game-player name of Bedlam. There are, though, occasional chapters set in the “real” world where Baker is/was in conflict with his boss over the rights of digital consciousnesses.

My reservations about stories set within virtual worlds were set out in the third paragraph of my comments on Iain Banks’s Surface Detail. Briefly, if there is no real jeopardy, if there is no danger of death, what threat is there? Beyond tedium of course.

Unfortunately most of Bedlam is set within the virtual worlds and as such is seriously unbalanced. I could not suspend my disbelief and found myself longing for the “real” world. In this regard the pregnancy element is a rather transparent way to try to enlist our sympathies with the digitally trapped Baker. Moreover Brookmyre’s style at times jars badly with the scenario. SF and humour are notoriously ill-matched bedfellows. A successful amalgam of the two is very difficult to achieve. Brookmyre has made little or no concession to the peculiar demands of writing SF and has adopted a similar tone to that in his thrillers. There were also signs of the book being pitched towards the US market (tic-tac-toe, medieval, asshole.)

Brookmyre’s typical readers may enjoy the virtual scenes – or not – but as SF Bedlam is perfunctory at best. Perhaps gamers will take to it.

A Snowball in Hell by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2009, 393p.

 A Snowball in Hell cover

A Snowball in Hell revisits the main characters from Brookmyre’s previous two books featuring Angelique de Xavia. As well as the detective herself we have Simon Darcourt, the Rank Bajin from A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away and Zal Innez from The Sacred Art of Stealing.

Darcourt has come back from the dead and commits mayhem on various minor celebrities. A De Xavia disillusioned with her job in France is enticed back to the UK to take him on but realises she needs the help of Innez, now making legal rather than criminal use of his talents for misdirection, to do this. By way of illustration Brookmyre gives us glimpses into the uses and history of the magician’s art.

In the novel he also excoriates rent-a-quote anti-pc newspaper columnists, the vacuousness of early Saturday evening entertainment programmes, their contestants and “reality” TV shows. Easy targets perhaps, but arguably necessary ones. In this regard the sarcastic plea for Take That to re-form sits oddly four years after the novel was published, as does a mention of Jade Goody.

There are twists and turns aplenty as the plot rattles along but much less humour than in other Brookmyre books.

Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre

Or: Fuck This For A Game Of Soldiers. Orbit, 2005, 391p.

 Be My Enemy cover

Being the continuing adventures of Jack Parlabane, investigative journalist and gobshite.

After The Road To Berlin I needed some light relief. Brookmyre’€™s comedic touch is still here though less so than in others of his I have read. The plot – as in most Brookmyre novels – doesn’t really bear much scrutiny being merely an excuse to let the mayhem begin. Parlabane is sent by his newspaper to review the experience provided by a new provider of those team bonding outward bound courses. The paintball sessions soon grow more sinister and the participants discover what has brought them all there.

File under: diverting entertainment.

Sadly there were two “shoe-in‘€s plus two examples of that mishearing, “off his own back.” (My dictionary gives it as “€œoff his own bat”. Maybe Brookmyre never played cricket at school.)

I did also notice an, “€œAin’€™t I?”€ Was this perhaps Brookmyre’s way of avoiding that grammatical idiocy, “€œAren’€™t I?”€

The Angels’€™ Share

Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions and Wild Bunch. Directed by Ken Loach.

I saw this on one of my occasional jaunts to the local part-time cinema, which is a theatre most of the time.

This apparently won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

This reminded me a lot of Christopher Brookmyre’s books. Comedy is mixed in with violence but here the violence isn’€™t overplayed. It starts off with a very funny scene set on a railway platform where a remote Station Master berates a drunken would-be passenger over the tannoy to stand back as there’€™s a train coming. The bemused recipient of this warning behaves as you might expect but it‒s very well played. This character, Albert, is the butt of a lot of the humour in the film as he is presented as incredibly thick.

The plot revolves around a group of four convicts on community pay-back sentences being introduced to the arcane delights of whisky tasting by their overseer, Harry, a somewhat unbelievably sympathetic character. One of their number, Robbie, has just become a father and wishes to leave behind his life of brushes with the law and make a stable home for his girlfriend and child. He turns out to have an excellent nose for whisky and hatches a scheme to (ahem) spirit away – the angels’€™ share is a whisky industry term for the portion of a barrel which evaporates between it being laid down and finally tapped off so the phrase seems apposite – some of a recently discovered barrel of an extremely rare and well regarded whisky.

The movie does trade a lot in Scottish cliché – whisky, kilts, Irn Bru, violence -€“ but is very entertaining. A knowledge of West of Scotland demotic and a tolerance for expletives are necessary for full appreciation, though.

Boiling A Frog by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2006*, 402p.

 Boiling A Frog cover

The usual Brookmyre shenanigans, this time involving the nexus between politicians in the then new Scottish Parliament, the tabloid press and religious organisations. Boiling A Frog is a third outing for Jack Parlabane; except outing is not quite le mot juste, as for most of the book Parlabane is in prison after breaking into the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

The book is flawed by the fact that the plot mostly happens in flashback or offstage while Parlabane is in jail and concerns a conspiracy to restore the primacy of “family values” to public life by framing various MSPs. It was as a by-product of the conspiracy and an unsettled state of mind due to problems in his private life that Parlabane was trapped into attempting the break-in.

If you stop to think for a minute the whole thing becomes unbelievable but believability has never really been the point with Brookmyre. You go along for the ride.

While not as amusing as other Brookmyre stories Boiling a Frog nevertheless has its moments.

Nowhere in the text is the strange title alluded to. An explanation is, however, given in the author’s note before the start.

*I read a reprint. The book was originally published in 2000.

The Country of the Blind by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 1997.

The Country of the Blind cover

A wealthy and powerful newspaper owner is murdered in a luxury house in Perthshire. The police have apprehended the four burglars responsible. But one of them has left a package with his lawyer, to be opened if he didn’t make a quick return to her office. And the security consultant Donald Lafferty, friend of journalist Jack Parlabane, dies minutes after uttering an oblique message to the assembled TV crews outside the police station where the suspects are being held. A tale of intrigue and conspiracy follows where skulduggery at the heart of government is revealed and unravelled. While the plot and its resolution is not entirely convincing the book is vastly readable with the occasional joke or reference thrown in to lighten things. I particularly liked, “I’m a man of stealth and haste.”

It is interesting that this was written in the dog days of the 1990s Conservative Government yet reads as well now as it might have done then; as if nothing has changed, which of course, in some respects, it hasn’t.

I have noted before Brookmyre’s usage “borne of” when “born of” makes more sense. He adds here, “up to high doe” (which gave me an image of a deer on a plinth) and “thrusted” as the past tense of thrust.

This was only Brookmyre’s second novel so a few infelicities are to be expected. But he has the increasingly irritating habit here of beginning every new scene in medias res and then flashing back to its beginning. He also feels the need to provide backstory for every new viewpoint character when they take up the narrative thread. While this is a timeworn literary technique it is no more than a form of info dumping.

The Country of the Blind is a Brookmyre. It does what it says on the tin. All well and good. Sometimes that is what hits the spot.

all fun and games until somebody loses an eye by Christopher Brookmyre

Little Brown, 2005. 407p.

Well, this was a first. Never before have I thought of a Brookmyre novel, “this is a bit slow.” There have been digressions and lacunae interspersed in the plots but these have always been leavened by the humour permeating his writing. Once the action gets going this one does perk up a bit but then slows down again before picking up once more.

Two chapters (crucially including the first) are almost entirely devoted to information dumping disguised as back story. Where such information is essential to the plot (and here some is) it would be better unfolded in the narrative, shown to us rather than told. Admittedly that would have made the book even longer than it now is, but still.

The plot itself revolves around a worker in the arms industry, Ross Fleming, who has invented a device that threatens to turn that murky world upside down. The heroine, though, is his middle-aged and previously homely (yet ex-punk) mother, Jane, who is “€œrecruited”€ by the team tasked with the job of recovering Ross after he disappears suddenly.

In the end it all becomes more than a little unbelievable – and Jane’€™s transformation into Action Woman is too quick – but Brookmyre plots have never really withstood much close scrutiny.

The book is still characteristically readable but somewhere along the way the author’€™s distinctive humour seems to have been mislaid. It is almost as if Brookmyre might have thought his usual comedic approach is somehow unworthy and he was making an effort at being a more “€œserious”€ writer. There are still flashes, though; a nice aside on the Catholic Church’€™s propensity to move doctrinal goalposts and a rant on the disproportionate contribution of Scots to human progress.

If I were recommending a starting point for potential Brookmyre readers I’€™d suggest other books of his, though.

A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

Little, Brown, 2006. 344p

This starts with a blizzard of expletives as a pair of former classmates attempt, comically unsuccessfully, to get rid of two bodies. One of them is soon picked up by the police but the other is gravely ill in hospital after being stabbed in the eye. The first suspect asks for another former classmate, Martin Jackson, now a successful media lawyer in London, to help clear him.

The female Detective Superintendent in charge of investigating the case is also a former classmate.

While I did not require it I can understand why Brookmyre (or his publishers) thought it necessary to include a glossary at the back. Anyone not brought up in Scotland – probably the west of Scotland at that – might otherwise barely decipher a fair bit of the dialogue and prose. Said glossary is a mine of delightful usages, Brookmyre’s predilections (diddies is defined not only as mammary glands but also as, “See Greenock Morton FC,” plus there are repeated references to St Mirren wins over the Old Firm and sore points about refereeing decisions against them about which Brookmyre is clearly not bitter, not at all, and various derogatory terms are said to apply to Scottish broadsheet literary critics, about whom ditto) and is also extremely funny to those in the know, especially about the seat of the intelligences of Old Firm supporters.

The portrayal by Brookmyre of a West of Scotland (Paisley) Catholic schooling is bleak, not so much because of the adults in authority – though they get their fair share of disapprobation – but for the apparently unremitting viciousness and one-upmanship of the children one to another.

As to the novel’s flaws, jump cuts are frequent and sudden, there are too many characters, the murder plot which is used to draw us in to the action is perfunctory at best and some of the clues necessary to unravelling the mystery are given far too late but Brookmyre’s focus is more on the children’s school lives.

The glossary at the end is alone worth the admission, though.

One quibble. North of the Clyde the word skoosh is very definitely reserved for a carbonated drink – scoosh is what it does when you open the bottle after all – and never, as Brookmyre has it, for the uncarbonated variety.

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