Books

Books

Book review: Feel Free, by Zadie Smith

Collections of essays, reviews and various forms of literary ephemera are a hard sell, for a number of reasons. But Zadie Smith’s new collection is worth the cover price for one piece alone – “Meet Justin Bieber!” – of which more later. That she is a singular, sensitive and sympathetic writer will come as no surprise to those who have read everything from White Teeth to Swing Time. But in her non-fiction form, she is equally engaging.

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The Last of the Greenwoods, by Claire Morrall

Book review: The Last of the Greenwoods, by Clare Morrall

Two elderly, reclusive brothers, the Greenwoods, live in neighbouring railway carriages in a field outside Bromsgrove. They share bathroom and kitchen facilities, yet have not exchanged a word in decades. One day a letter arrives from Canada, from a woman claiming to be the sister they thought had been murdered 50 years ago. Meanwhile the young postwoman who delivers the letter is battling her own demons, while simultaneously helping to revive an abandoned railway line with the son of local gentry.

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The literary critic and author Stuart Kelly PIC: Jayne Wright

Book review: The Minister and the Murderer, by Stuart Kelly

In 1984, James Nelson, who had served nine years of a life sentence for murder, applied for ordination as a minister in the Church of Scotland. There was widespread media coverage, and deeply divided opinion both within the Church and outside it. After an “emotionally charged” three-hour debate at that year’s General Assembly, the Kirk voted 622 to 425 in Nelson’s favour.

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Iain Banks was a hugely successful sci-fi author as well as a best-selling mainstream fiction writer.

Amazon to turn Iain Banks' sci-fi work into new TV series

The science fiction world created by the late Scottish author Iain Banks is set to be turned into a major TV series.
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Olga Wojtas

Book review: Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar, by Olga Wojtas

I’ve never been one for “cosy crime” novels, usually finding them overly whimsical, but my interest was piqued by the idea of one inspired by Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Linking a debut novel with an icon of the Scottish literary canon is a bold move, after all, and it’s not immediately obvious how something as spiky and complex as Spark’s work could inspire something more straightforward and comfortable.

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Robin Robertson PIC: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures

Book review: The Long Take, by Robin Robertson

In the past few weeks, the poetry world has been going through one of its cyclical fits of the conniptions. In the estimable PN Review, the poet and critic Rebecca Watts launched an eloquent broadside against the best-selling and fashionable work of such poets as Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur. It was yet another iteration of a debate – or standoff – that has been going on in poetry for about 300 years. There is – or ought to be – an ongoing interplay between the blatant and the ornate, the polemical and the elusive, the outspokenness of Ginsberg, McGough and Lochhead and the riddling, askance work of Lowell, Moore and Prynne. I sighed when I saw it rearing up against a backdrop of diminishing readership, even though, to be frank, and in a personal capacity, I have always been on the side of the complicated. It is feasible to understand style and technique and yet critique the results.

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Irvine Welsh: ‘I had a criminal record aged 8’

Irvine Welsh has revealed his first encounter with the police came at the age of just eight, when he and a group of friends were charged for playing football on a grass verge on the then new Muirhouse estate.

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Iain Banks passed away in 2013 just two months after announcing he had cancer.

Unseen Iain Banks drawings to appear in new Culture universe book

Previously unseen drawings by the celebrated Scottish author Iain Banks are to appear in a brand new book celebrating his science fiction writing - to be published six years after his death.
Lifestyle
James Hogg wrote his verse admiring the youthful beauty of 15-year-old Augusta Gow in 1832, when he was 62 years old.

Unknown poem by Scots writer found in journal of Queen Victoria wet nurse

A previously unknown poem by Scots writer James Hogg has been unearthed in the notebook of a young girl who later became a wet nurse for Queen Victoria’s firstborn.

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Sally Magnusson PIC: Jane Barlow

Book review: The Sealwoman’s Gift, by Sally Magnusson

Sally Magnusson’s wonderfully accomplished first novel is an enthralling mixture of recovered history and the imagining of lost lives. It’s a delightful piece of storytelling which is also a story about telling stories.

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Dame Muriel Spark, born 100 years ago this month

Chapter One of A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by William Boyd

A Far Cry from Kensington is set precisely in 1954 and ’55. It is narrated by a woman called Nancy Hawkins who is looking back, decades on from the 1950s, on her early life. The young Mrs Hawkins in 1954 is a war-widow and 28 years old (Spark was 26 in 1954 and separated from her husband). Mrs Hawkins is very fat: “I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside.” Mrs Hawkins – which is how she is referred to through most of the novel – is living in a boarding house in Kensington. The “Far Cry” of the title reflects the distance she has travelled since then. Her reminiscences centre around life in the house, with its assorted, eccentric tenants, and her rackety career in two London publishing houses, from the small and indigent (the Ullswater Press) to the large and prosperous (Mackintosh & Tooley) and, eventually, an intellectual magazine called the Highgate Review. However, what seems aleatory and anecdotal soon begins to take on narrative shape in the figure of a self-important, talentless man-of-letters called Hector Bartlett. Bartlett, mysteriously, like a virus, begins to infect all areas of Mrs Hawkins’ life – her job, her home, the people she knows. Very quickly she begins to hate Bartlett and describes him – to his face and to everyone who has connections with him – as a pisseur de copie. “It means,” Mrs Hawkins explains, “that he pisses hack-journalism, it means that he urinates frightful prose.”

Bartlett’s intrusion into Mrs Hawkins’ life provides the narrative momentum to A Far Cry. He blackmails a fellow lodger; his liaison with a chic, successful novelist called Emma Loy gets Mrs Hawkins fired from two jobs; Bartlett’s appalling manuscripts keep landing on her desk; but, in a significant way, the plot of A Far Cry is not what makes it beguiling. The novel is dominated by the character of Mrs Hawkins and her tone of voice and is full of her bons mots and theories about how to make the most of life. For example:

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do.”

And,

“Cultured people are not necessarily nicer people . . . Frequently, the reverse.”

And,

“[Friendship and loyalty] are ideals that can put too much of a strain on purposes which are perhaps more important.”

Mrs Hawkins is hugely confident and, in a real sense, a life force. People are drawn to her; people confess to her; people think she is wise and all-knowing; people ask her advice about what they should do in all manner of difficult and compromising situations. And so, as the story of Mrs Hawkins’ reminiscences plays out, this comedy of manners in post-war London, with its bomb-sites and poor food, its meagre pleasures and low-rent aspirations, delivers many riches. Spark has the publishing world dead to rights; she understands the feeble ploys and manoeuvres of people on the make in the most modest and unassuming of ways; she relishes life’s inherent absurdity.

In this sense she reminds me of Chekhov – that other gimlet-eyed observer of the human predicament – who wrote, in 1888, that the writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness… It’s time for writers, especially writers of real artistic worth, to realise that in fact nothing can be understood in this world.” - William Boyd

Books
Dave Eggers

Book review: The Monk Of Mokha, by Dave Eggers

The very first book I reviewed for this newspaper was A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. It was a remarkable memoir about being orphaned at an age when he became his younger brother’s carer; both smart-alecky and touchingly innocent, it flirted with fiction as much as it was achingly honest.

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Neil Ansell

Book review: The Last Wilderness, by Neil Ansell

Nature writing is a crowded old field these days, thanks in part to the explosion in popularity of the so-called “new nature writing”, which, over the course of the past decade or so, has taken a long-neglected genre smelling slightly of mildewed canvas and damp tweed and elevated it to dizzy new heights of literary seriousness.

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The reworked front cover of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights after experts updated the novel to show how the plot would have played out in the digital age. Picture: Drama/PA Wire

Classic novels rewritten to show internet’s impact on romance

They are three of the nation’s most iconic love stories, set in a time when life was far more simple and all communication was done face to face or by letter.

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Les Wilson

Book review: The Drowned And The Saved, by Les Wilson

The trenches and the slaughter on the Western Front dominate our memory of the First World War; understandably. It was a war like none before it and, happily, none since, a war fought by huge armies, mostly men who were civilians until the autumn of 1914 who had volunteered or been conscripted for service. Our understanding of it has been fixed by photography and the writing of the war poets. But even the British war wasn’t fought only in Flanders and Northern France. It was a naval war too, and the war in the Atlantic and northern waters was as terrible and important as the war on land. It was vital because both Britain and Germany were seeking to win an economic war, a war of blockade which would deny food and material to civilian populations. And the war of blockade was a close-run thing.

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Jojo Moyes. Picture: Stine Heilmann/PA

Novelist Jojo Moyes opens up on new book Still Me

Romance is the skeleton on which author Jojo Moyes drapes her novels. It’s what she racks up awards for and is what impelled actors Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke to portray her best-loved characters, Lou and Will, on the big screen – but that doesn’t make her a romantic.

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Professor Gerard Carruthers said Robert Burns' employers were well aware of his radical views.

Robert Burns’ politics were ‘open secret’ to civil service

Robert Burns hid his radical and progressive political views “in plain view” while working for the Crown as an exciseman, according to a leading expert on Scotland’s national bard.

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Peter May PIC: David Wilson

Book review: I’ll Keep You Safe, by Peter May

With its intriguing central character and a compelling, atmospheric setting, the Lewis trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen) by Peter May was a great success, and the author returns to the island in this latest novel.

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Kerry Andrew PIC: Urszula Soltys

Book review: Swansong, by Kerry Andrew

This is a very striking debut novel by an author better known for her work in music and theatre – she has won three British Composer Awards and her alternative-folk album Hawk To The Hunting Gone came out in 2014. It is a swift, lithe and engaging read, and promises more – and perhaps more idiosyncratic – work to come.

Books
James Oswald PIC: Steven Scott Taylor / JP License

Book review: The Gathering Dark, by James Oswald

Workmanlike” may seem tepid praise to bestow on a book. Yet if the novel is, sometimes at least, a work of art, writing a novel is a craft, and craftsmanship matters. Evelyn Waugh believed that a novel should be as well-made as fine furniture, and the first pleasure of James Oswald’s novel is that the author knows what he is doing and how to bring it off. This is satisfying, all the more so because Oswald takes risks. His novel is a hybrid. On the one hand it’s an unusually competent and humane police procedural; on the other there is an element of the supernatural. In a lesser craftsman this might make for an uneasy marriage, indeed an unconvincing one.

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