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  1. Eleanor Oliphant is 30 years old, lives in Glasgow, works on accounts at a graphic designer, wears the same practical clothes every day, eats the same food and spends her weekend drinking vodka and doing the crosswords. Eleanor has no friends and no social life – beyond her weekly conversation with her mother. It’s existing, but it’s not really living. Initially it has a feel of The Rosie Project. Comedy drawn from the lack of social awareness of someone with an undiagnosed psychological disorder somewhere close to Asperger’s Syndrome. But it soon becomes clear that Eleanor’s problems are borne of childhood trauma rather than underdeveloped emotional awareness. Whilst Eleanor is gauche, she is not completely socially stunted; she has self-awareness and the capacity to learn. And learn she does. This is essentially a Bildungsroman – a coming of age story – but with an abnormally late developer. There is genuine comedy gold in the process – particularly as Eleanor finds reasons to alter her image. At times, in honesty, Eleanor’s apparent ignorance of modern culture and appliances stretches credulity, but it is easy to go along with the conceit for the sake of the humour. Yet at its heart, there are real people like Eleanor. Even in Glasgow, a city with a rough and ready reputation, there are a few delicate flowers who wince at the sound of swearing, who maintain prim and proper manners to the point of prissiness, and profess never to have stepped into a pub. There are people in every city whose lives fall into lonely ruts as a way of avoiding difficult decisions and facing up to the need for personal development. As the novel unfolds, more detail of Eleanor’s past emerges at the same time as she takes more responsibility for facing up to – and improving – her situation. The reader becomes increasingly sympathetic towards her and wills her to beat her demons. This is not a novel that relies on tricks and although there is a twist at the end, it doesn’t define the novel. What really makes the story special is the narrative voice. Eleanor is defiant even at her most desperate. She does not look to others to solve her problems and doesn’t even really want to admit to having problems. Many people are in a worse situation than her, she reasons. Even as she does emerge from her isolation, it is not to address a particular problem; rather it is a strategy to achieve a particular goal. She can be self-depricating, but never whiney. Eleanor Oliphant is a really fantastic book that affirms all that is good about modern Scottish society; it is an optimistic book that will stay with me. *****
  2. This Is Memorial Device is a fictional documentary of a fictional band, Memorial Device, that hailed from Airdrie, a small, predominantly Protestant town in the west of Scotland. The documentary is compiled by Ross Raymond, a wannabe journalist whose youth was greatly impacted by the local music scene. The four band members of Memorial Device were his heroes. The band was seen as the culmination of various precursor bands, and shone brightly and briefly before the members went off to pursue different directions. Some chapters are editorial, written by Ross himself. Others are in the form of interviews or reminiscences of those who were close to the band at the time – archivists, lovers, rivals. The introduction of these chapters is not terribly well signposted, and much of the content is rambling which can lead to confusion about the relationships between the dozens of characters – never fear, there is an Appendix listing everyone who is mentioned, however briefly. The result is a fragmentary story with little plot and absolutely no direction. There’s not even a terribly clear timeline to cling to. Instead, we have microscopic level of detail and analysis, focused on the music scene in Airdrie in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally there is a hint of aspiration – an interview at a record company in London – but mostly we are talking about people who are absolute legends within a circle of no more than 50 others. Their celebrity status is portrayed without question and without irony; the detail of their lives is picked over in such forensic detail because it really matters to Ross and those who were there at the time. There are drugs, there is drink; there is deviant sex. This is not a novel for the faint hearted. But what makes it is that it is so recognisable. Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in small towns in the same time period will recognise the importance of pub bands, cafes, the local independent record shop, the local weirdo, the time Steve Sims got a pint of beer poured over him for talking to the wrong girl. The beauty is in the sincerity with which people there at the time believe in the importance of these markers, even though they appear utterly trivial and irrelevant to those who were not in exactly that point of space and time. Memorial Device is not an easy read. At times, in truth, it is bewildering, repetitive and boring. It is written with a slavish adherence to authenticity, much as Roberto Bolaño achieved with his History of Nazi Literature in the Americas or his meticulous list of murders in 2666. And almost half the length is an index of pretty much everything that is mentioned anywhere. The reader has to marvel at the effort that would have been required to produce this despite the certainty that it would be of no value to anyone. The ultimate effect of this strange text is something that is satisfying to have read, even if the journey makes the reader wonder whether it is worth the effort. ****0
  3. Fairly closely based on the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the 1960s, The Quaker offers a fictitious resolution to these unsolved murders. Three women have been slain in Glasgow, meeting their killer in the Barrowlands ballroom and never making it home. The third victim had shared a taxi with her stocious sister and The Quaker; the sister offered the best – and only – hope of catching the killer. But after a year there had been no breakthrough and DI Duncan McCormack is sent into the investigation to determine whether or not to scale it down. This leads to a complex story that is, on the face of it, a police procedural – with red herrings, corruption, distrust and a jewel heist – and part a social commentary on the changing social values of the 1960s. The Glasgow of the time had not yet reconciled itself to the abolition of the death penalty or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Single mothers were still scandalous, Catholics were still routinely disadvantaged, pubs were still not places that nice people went. In many ways, the killer represented a reaction against the encroaching modernity. The novel is well written, had a suitable number of red herrings and creates a great sense of place. The sense of time, however, doesn’t always feel quite right. I’m not sure 1969 Glaswegians wore cagoules and worried about neds – maybe they did, but just that seed of doubt can dispel a setting. The plot is quite lurid and appears to have been driven backwards from the ending. I’m not sure in the real world that a set of actions would ever have led to the consequences as they unfold. But it’s a good yarn, nonetheless, and might go some way to reigniting curiosity about the real Bible John. ****0
  4. Hame is a satirical takedown of romanticised Scotticism with its bards, bagpipes, and tartan trews. The basic premise is that Mhairi McPhail, a Scot by birth but with a New York accent, is returning to her homeland to establish a museum on the Isle of Fascaray dedicated to the Isle's famous son, the poet Grigor McWatt. The novel is made up from interleaved sections of Mhairi's diary, her published work A Granite Ballad - The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt, various essays and writings of McWatt from published sources, and McWatt's poems. Together they make up the story of McWatt, compared and contrasted to the experience of Mhairi as an incomer. But they also paint a portrait of a Scottish island community; of the Scots arts and literature community; of Gaelic and Scots; of Scotland as a whole. The result is hilarious. As real islanders worry about the weather and fuel supplies; shopping trips to the mainland; how to get seven days' work done in six - McWatt and those like him spend their time banging out doggerel poetry in a mish-mash of Scottish dialects purporting to be a language; pontificate on the decline of traditional values; and drinking in the comfort of bars in Edinburgh's New Town. Fascaray itself is a fictional island, but much of it bears a close resemblance to Lewis, with a fair dose of the Inner Hebrides thrown in (especially Islay and Jura) and even the odd nod to the St Kilda archipelago. The issues feel authentic: the tension between preserving the natural beauty and exploiting natural resources; the tensions between the faiths; and the quest to curate/create a visitor attraction that will bring the tourists rolling in. Some of the events are real: the annual guga hunt is a real thing in Ness; the threat of offshore wind farms (and onshore wind farms) have divided real island communities; islanders really have protested against the establishment of Sunday ferry crossings; and the Morvern peninsula really is being slowly excavated. The literary angle to Hame also rings true. In small communities across Scotland, poets and writers are local legends despite the dubious quality of their works. Their works are published by small presses that survive on arts council subsidies, sold in souvenir shops and read by nobody. The writers augment their earnings by penning diaries and editorials for local newspapers. McWatt was a mainstay of the Auchwinnie Pibroch - his opinions given credence because of his fame, and his fame deriving from giving opinions. McWatt's poems are truly terrible: translations of great works into Scots dialect. The typical reader is unlikely to understand all of the verse - the dialect is too obscure - but will understand enough to see how the metre and the imagery have been ripped away from the original poems. And please don't be tempted to translate the verse back into English as that would be just as pointless as McWatt's original translation. The whole Scots dialect thing is paraded for comic effect; we can imagine arty Glaswegians professing to understand all the Scots because it is their language (and requires less effort to learn than the real language of Gaelic), yet failing to agree with each other about what the words actually mean. Hame is an absolute gem of a work; relatively long and at risk in the early sections of not having enough of a story to hang together. But as the book builds momentum, so the stories build and the multiple strands come together. The ending - the twist - is perfectly predictable but no less funny for its obviousness. It is rare to coe across a book with quite so much going on and for it all to land. *****
  5. Wow. I mean, seriously, Wow! His Bloody Project masquerades as a plot driven historical crime novel, but is in fact a character driven exploration of a 19th century Scottish crofting community were a small number of people are forced to live in close proximity despite not liking one another. You know, right from the outset, that this is going to be a bit special when there are a series of contradictory statements from the Culduie residents about the murder of Lachlan Broad Mackenzie and the prime suspect, Roddy Macrae. Every statement was written in a distinctive voice, but all steeped in the lilting West Highland diction of native Gaelic speakers. The novel then broadens into three main sections: a narrative account leading up to the murder, written by Roderick Macrae from his cell in Inverness gaol; a chapter from a book on the criminal mind by an arrogant academic from Edinburgh; and a journalistic account of the trial. Each of the three sections is distinctive and, although they cover some common ground, they each serve quite different purposes. They drip with authenticity - referencing real cases and real people - to the point that the reader wonders whether this is a fictionalisation of a true crime (it isn't). Culduie is a real place, though, which in 1869 comprised 9 crofting cottages. It is stuck in the tracks beyond Applecross which, itself, is cut off from the rest of Scotland by a 19 mile winding pass. The residents were trapped both by geography and by their tenancy to their crofts. They were effectively property of the Laird, who dealt with them only through the Factor who, in turn, dealt directly only with the constable appointed by the villagers. The community had no privacy and personal grievances were to be avoided at all costs as you couldn't hide from those you disliked. So, in this context, we see that there are problems between the Macraes and the Mackenzies. The grievances are real and as each family contains strong personalities, this is a problem for the whole community. It is known from the outset that Roddy killed Lachlan Broad, so the question for the reader is (a) how this situation came about and (b ) whether the bad guys were the Macraes or the Mackenzies. Depending how the narratives are read, either conclusion can be drawn. But to draw the conclusions is simplistic. The issue really is that of people being trapped by poverty. Roddy, with whom the reader is invited to sympathise, is at best a klutz (to coin a neologism). And in a subsistence farming community, there is really no place for a klutz. But the reader is also challenged to consider whether Lachlan Broad, portrayed by Roddy as a self-serving bully, is in fact a bad man or perhaps something of a visionary. It's complex and never quote resolved. There is also a considerable, and evenly handed, consideration of the nature of social class. To what extent is the laird a leech who profits from his crofters' misery and to what extent is he actually the social security safety net, holding the community together by subsidy. When we meet him, briefly, he is a grotesque and his factor is despised. Yet when the factor gives an account of himself at the trial, he comes across as plausible. Then, there are the inbetweeners. In particular, we meet Archibald Ross, an assistant to the laird's ghillie who fancies himself as part of the aristocratic retinue. This is a well paced novel that avoids shocking twists but still keeps the reader guessing for most of the journey. The characters are rich and the evocation of the place and period are spot on. If there is one criticism, it is that there is a particular part in the trial sequence at which everything pretty much crystallises, but the author then carries on for some pages afterwards. This may add verisimilitude as a Victorian novel, but where Victorian novels have multiple storylines to tie up, this feels like lingering on the same single line. It weakens the impact of what had been very taut up to that point. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent text. Long listed for the Booker, this deserves to go further. But perhaps the subject matter is too similar to The Luminaries to let it win. *****
  6. Bernard MacLaverty is a sublime writer and Midwinter Break is as good as anything he has ever written. Gerry and Stella Gilmore are a long-married couple of pensionable age, living in Glasgow but originally from the north of Ireland. Gerry is fond of a nightcap and Stella has quite a strong Catholic faith. They know one another inside out. They have decided to take a mid-winter break to Amsterdam, perhaps to celebrate their enduring marriage. Gradually, and gently, we start to see the flaws in the characters emerge. This is done with such grace; the reader knows, likes and empathises with both Gerry and Stella; the flaws that emerge are real, but we see the real people beneath and they are likeable. As they wander the streets of Amsterdam - both together and separately - they start to discover more about themselves and each other. Partly, they explore the present day, partly their lives in Glasgow, and partly their lives in Ireland. This is a novel about ageing. I recognise myself in Gerry. In fact, the similarity between Gerry's life and my own is uncanny - right down to the night-time leg cramps. There are themes of unfulfilled ambition, fatigue, closure. There is guilt, including the nagging guilt about minor slights and mistakes from years ago. But also there is lots and lots of love. Not bodice ripping young love, but old, mature love that is too often taken for granted. There is change, often not for the better. The change of a nature of a community, the change brought by significant events, and the change brought simply by time, with two people slowly ceasing to be who they once were. The questions that arise are whether to resist or accept those changes. It is an illustration of the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference." Midwinter Break is deeply moving. It speaks of truths that many of us will face some day soon. *****
  7. All The Galaxies is a strange and hypnotic blend of four stories that cross and merge and unmerge again.First, there is Scotland in the near future. Following a second independence referendum (which we presume Scotland lost), law and order has broken down in The Horrors, but strong city state governments have emerged from the remnants of local councils. Within Greater Glasgow, control is being reasserted, the internet has been restored and the leader of the sinister Wardens movement, Wee Lawrence, is in Barlinnie. Oh, and Rangers FC (or should that be Sevco) is no more – so it’s not all doom and gloom.Second, there is the story of John Fallon, a news editor in the fictional Mercury newspaper. Originally from England, he has landed up in Glasgow, his wife long gone and contact with his adult son Roland about to evaporate. He and his crew try to provide objectivity and sense from the chaos, all the while lurching from bar to bar, extending one night stands for as long as they will go, living in debauched squalor.Thirdly, there is the story of Fallon’s son Roland, remembering life in Tyrdale as a child, holidays to the Scottish islands and drunken student parties.And finally, there is a boy, Tarka, travelling the heavens with his spirit-guide dog Kim.The novel is really well constructed, balancing the elements carefully – no mean feat considering the multiple points of view and the strangeness of some of the subject matter. And the fourth narrative in the heavens is very strange indeed – no longer bound by the laws of physics, time, location or society. No dog lover could read this section without falling for Kim, the wise, kind, loyal and talkative border terrier (though whoever thought a cover picture of a dead dog would sell a book needs professional help).My favourite story, though, is the Scottish dystopia. Knowing Glasgow helps – particularly the immediate environs of George Square and Kelvingrove. But knowing Scottish politics – and Northern Ireland’s recent history from which so many of the novel’s scenes have been borrowed – probably helps even more. And the great thing is that unlike typical fictional dystopias, we are not on the verge of the end of the world; we haven’t seen the collapse of the system; we haven’t descended into savage people roaming through smouldering embers in search of canned food. It is a plausible situation where commerce continues, communications remain in place, people travel and work and socialise, and Glasgow City Council officials seize the power they have spent their entire careers envying. And goodness me, Philip Miller must have spent some time in the “cube” of City Chambers to have been able to evoke it so accurately.If there is a criticism, it is that the plot does not always live up to the stellar settings and descriptions. Only Tarka is allowed a personality that develops; the other characters have to be taken as found. Fallon’s life, in particular, is not always fascinating and the intrigue involving the journalists and the council was perhaps a little too murky and ended up a little too unresolved. In fact, the ending as a whole felt a bit of a let-down after much promise.But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise excellent novel that will make the reader think about the ephemerality of life, the importance of love and friendship, the machinery of government, and astral dogs. ****0
  8. PC Callum McGregor stuffed up the crime scene in his last investigation - so he finds himself shunted off to a "Misfit Mob" in Oldcastle, a bleak (and fictional) city on the east coast of Scotland. Nothing ever happens there; it is a sheltered posting for the war-wounded, incompetent and untouchable police from across Scotland. So imagine their surprise when some grisly remains turn up and they get the job of investigating. A Dark So Deadly is a long book - the guts of 200,000 words as Stuart MacBride manages to drop into the text in a spot of metafiction. This allows space for plot and character to develop; for red herrings to work their way through; for constant deferral of the final act. All this is very satisfying. But on the other hand, it does take an awfully long time to work out what is actually happening. Some 20% of the way in - that's 120 pages in old money - and it still isn't clear exactly where the focus is going to lie; what the crime might be that they are all investigating. As well as the murders, PC McGregor has a backstory that requires exploration. This is sort of intriguing, but it does also interrupt the flow of the story - presumably intentionally so. And it sort of makes sense by the end, but for much of the novel, it feels a bit like two different books, chopped and spliced together in random order like Lanark. Stuart MacBride always writes with mordant wit and clever wordplay. For example, one of the characters is called Watt. This allows a chapter to start with"So, Watt... So what?". There are references to cultural icons both Scottish and of the 1970s and 1980s in which Mr MacBride presumably grew up - e.g. repeated references to The Meaning of Life and Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex... It is all good fun. And like previous Stuart MacBride books, crimes are gruesome and grisly. You can tell he really enjoys creating the crimes far more than he enjoys solving them. Of course, the side effect of this is that the book does depart from plausibility on occasions. Callum`s own back story, in particular, could never really have happened as described. But I guess this is unlikely to trouble a reader who is going to accept the disappearance and mummification of the city's good people. Basically, this is a bit of fun. Well written and pacy - gripping towards the end. Recommended for holiday reading. ****0
  9. I have previously read two Kelmans - You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, and A Disaffection. From these two, I understood Kelman to be a master of the interior monologue of mundane/seedy characters. In YHTBC, it was a Scots alcoholoc in the USA, looking to return home. In Disaffection, it was a pretty hopeless teacher failing to hit it off with a pretty work colleague. I thought YHTBC was a masterpiece, but A Disaffection left me rather cold. The thing is, with these monologues, that you have to actually care about the character and his life - there's no plot or action worth speaking of, just a question of how the chaarcter got to the present situation and how they feel about it. The action is at best incidental. In How Late It Was, How Late, the central character, Sammy (Mr Samuels) is a natural victim. He is afraid of authority and is hopelessly fatalistic. He wakes up after a bender, in the street, wearing rubbish trainers instead of his good shoes. He sees some policemen and picks a fight with them. He is arrested, beaten up and loses his sight. The monologue then sets out to explore how he came to be in that situation - apparently he is an ex-prisoner who has had a big row with his girlfriend; he also has an ex-wife and son; he has a reasonable set of friends; and a benefit dependency. HLIWHL also explores how Sammy reacts to his sight loss. He initially curses his luck, but is fatalistically accepting, as he tries to find his way home from the police station. He has to decide how to become mobile and to feed himself. He is worried about losing his benefits (no longer available for work) so he sets off to the Broo. Sammy's natural instinct when dealing with authority is either to say nothing or to lie. This he does with aplomb, even though he might have been better served by telling the truth. He cannot explain how he lost his sight without mentioning the police, but he doesn't want to take on the police in a battle for compensation. One is left in admiration for Sammy's resourcefulness as he tries to avoid seeking help from others. This adds to Sammy's complexity - that he would willingly accept the broo, but won't accept the help of an individual. But gradually, Sammy comes to see that he has to accept help and you can feel his pride ebbing into the pavement as he does. Sammy brings misfortune on himself - and he knows this to be true - but without ever being malicious. He is just weak. His stoicism as he bears his punishments is remarkable, even though they seem to be out of all proportion to the original offence. To an extent this might be through cultivating a state of denial, but there is also a very practical attitude of dealing with the future rather than worrying about the past. The text is very intense, and although it is possible to gallop through pages in short bursts, I found the need to escape frequently. The result is that I spent quite a while travelling along with Sammy. I feel I have grown from the experience. *****
  10. Murdo’s mother has died. His sister died a few years earlier, both of some kind of genetic cancer. It only affects the women. Murdo and his Dad Tommy have decided to spend some time away from their home on the west coast of Scotland. They have gone to stay with Uncle John in Alabama. They arrive in Memphis Airport after a gruelling journey via Glasgow and Amsterdam; Murdo has forgotten his phone and Dad has forgotten his driving licence. They head for the buses. They don’t talk much and when they do, they seem to be treading on eggshells. It seems destined to be a long holiday. Murdo is very self-absorbed. He seems to live in a dreamworld where other people and the practicalities of life don’t exist. Changing buses in Allentown, an almost exclusively black town in northern Mississipi, Murdo is distracted in the lavatory and so goes off on a wander up the street. The connection is missed so Murdo and Tommy have to bunk down for the night in the local motel, waiting for tomorrow’s bus. This gives Murdo a chance to wander some more and stumble across a family playing music in their backyard. The vibe is like nothing Murdo has heard before. He has discovered Queen Monzee-ay, zydeco queen of the accordion – who also happens to have a very pretty granddaughter Sarah… … so Murdo picks up an accordion – the instrument he plays in a Highland band in Scotland – and joins in. He is so good that Queen Monzee-ay suggests he plays with her in a festival in Lafayette the weekend after next. Murdo would love to, but doesn’t know how to ask his father. This provides the narrative drive for the rest of the novel and, particularly, for a gruesome couple of weeks holed up with Uncle John in smalltown Alabama, eating bland food, walking the shopping mall for entertainment and being forced to endure The Gathering – an awful assembly of plastic Scots singing racist anthems and telling tales of fiery crosses back in the ancestral Homeland. Dirt Road had the potential to be maudlin, but instead it took a path that was uplifting. Murdo is a shy boy who has led a sheltered life that seems to have been largely devoid of passion. He feels a strong need to please his father even when it comes at the expense of his own personal wellbeing. Murdo has the power to be frustrating – just a little too quiet and insular. He has a tendency to make self-centred decisions that take insufficient account of other people’s feelings. However, he clearly has a charm because the reader hopes that he comes good in the end, and the reader winces each time he makes a move that might hinder him in his quest. He is unhurried and sometimes seems guileless. Yet underneath it all is a determination when it really matters. Murdo will not pretend to share the values of religious bigotry of those around him. Whilst he is appalled when it is suggested he might be joking – the implication being that joking is rude and frivolous – he will call Dad and Uncle John on their racism. He seems comfortable in his own skin and has a self-confidence that is strong for all it is not demonstrative. This seduces the true artists and musicians he meets along the Dirt Road, and it seduces the reader. Go Murdo! *****
  11. I guess James Kelman isn't everyone's cup of tea. He seems (from reading only two of his works!) to do interior monologue of down at heel, ordinary folk very well. The trouble is, the interior monologue of down at heel, ordinary folk can be quite repetitive and rather dull. And, in case anyone is wondering, nothing happens. There isn't some brilliant twist that pulls it together at the end. Wysiwyg. Having read A Disaffection, I feel that I know Patrick Doyle pretty well.I understand his failings and inadequacies. I understand how he is envious of his brother's family, as his brother is envious of Partick's education and job. I understand how hopeless is his infatuation with Alison and his inability to deal with women. But I'm not sure it was worth investing two weeks of very slow reading to get to this point. Maybe I'm just shallow... Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate the book. Neither do I imagine it will fade from the memory as quickly as the latest murder mystery. It is a deep study of human nature. But I'm quite glad now to have my hands on a murder mystery as an antidote. ***00
  12. The Illuminations feels like two short novellas that have been interleaved, presumably in an effort to add bulk. On the one hand, we have Anne, an elderly mother who is succumbing slowly to dementia. Her family knows that she had lived in the United States and England before settling down in Ayrshire, but as her recent memories fade, she exposes the hints of old secrets. And on the other hand, there’s the story of Luke, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, witnessing brutality and betrayal – then failing to adjust to life back home. Luke is Anne’s grandson. Of the two stories, Anne’s is more intriguing, but perhaps promises more than it delivers. The denouement in Blackpool (hence The Illuminations) feels contrived and when the secrets are revealed, the biggest mystery is why they were ever secret to start with. Luke’s story is pretty standard Afghan fare that is doing the rounds at the moment; others have done it in more depth and, perhaps, with more credibility. The characters in Luke’s story seem a bit cartoonish; the events a bit too much like a reheating of news headlines. It may be readable (actually, it zips along), but it doesn’t seem to add much to the canon. The real sticking point, though, is that the two stories never cohere into a whole; but neither do they offer any real counterpoint to one another. They are just two separate stories, with a familial relationship built in as a framing device to justify their inclusion within the same covers. The end result is a short, readable novel but one which won’t offer much insight into the human condition; won’t wow anyone with its beauty; won’t impress anyone with its skill; and won’t provoke strong feeling towards its characters. Graham Greene divided his novels into “serious literature” and lighter “entertainments”. Were Andrew O’Hagan to do the same, I suspect The Illuminations would be in the entertainments category. ***00
  13. These Demented Lands is a bit of a mixed bag. We meet an unnamed woman, swimming from some wreck, landing up on an unnamed shore that is probably somewhere in Argyllshire. The land is populated by weird eccentrics who seem to have no connection with the wider world, just sitting there being weird in this closed community. Our narrator hears that there is a hotel and decides to set off on a perilous journey across the dangerous land to reach the hotel. As the novel progresses, we reach the hotel which attracts honeymoon couples who fly in to the nearby airstrip. It seems there was an accident at the airstrip some years previously and a man has come to investigate - he is especially transfixed by the missing propellor. This all sort of goes nowhere. By the end, we know more about the air crash investigator and we learn the identity of the woman who was washed up on the shore. But neither resolution seems quite satisfactory, It's all just a bit too trippy and never quite joins up. Plus, the change of narration at various points of the book, and ending in a long letter feels a little bit choppy. But on the other hand, the portrayal of the landscape and atmosphere of remotest Argyll is pretty spot on and some of the imagery is striking. I haven't read all of Alan Warner's novels, but loved Morvern Callar and connected with his later works. It's the ones in the middle that I haven't read and, judging by the ones I have read this represents a bit of a blind alley. John Banville went through a phase of novels set in closed communities of mad people. Or maybe it's Iain Banks's The Bridge it reminds me of. Either way, this feels a little imitative. ***00
  14. I had expected to be writing a gushing review exhorting people to read a great novel from one of Scotland’s liveliest writers. I have loved almost everything Ali Smith has written. Alas, How To Be Both has not hit the mark. Basically, it is two novellas, stitched together. In one of them, we find a 15th century Italian girl, dressed as a boy in order to pass herself off as a painter, working on frescoes for the local Duke. This girl, who adopts the name of Francescho, spends time exploring her sexuality in brothels, consorting with a pickpocket, and demanding more money. Oh, and she is dead. Possibly. From time to time, we are reminded that Francescho is in purgatorio, but mostly we find ourselves reading a straight autobiographical narrative, chopped up into little pieces and scattered into a random order. The narrative is written in a preudo-mediaeval voice interspersed with modern colloquialisms such as “Just saying”. Sentences themselves are fragmented and drift off into the ether. It is very confusing. Then, abruptly, the story finishes and we find modern teenager, George (really Georgia), remembering a holiday to Italy with her mother shortly before the mother died. They saw the frescos that Francescho had painted and wondered about the life of this painter. Cutting between present day grief, greatly exacerbated by the heavy handed school counsellor, and happier past memories, it feels choppy. There is a story of growth and loss; there is a sexual ambiguity; an awakening of an adult from the chrysalis of childhood. The gimmick is that you can read either story first. The Kindle edition prints the entire text twice – first 15th Century-Current, then Current-15th Century. You can read whichever version you wish. Not that I imagine it would be a very different experience since the stories seem only very loosely connected. Perhaps we are supposed to wonder whether the 15th Century narrative was just made up by George. Certainly it never felt quite authentic as a mediaeval narrative. And although the George narrative felt more real, it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Normally Ali Smith’s writing is clear and unambiguous, drawing beauty from human life rather than from arty language. However, this seems to have been abandoned for How To Be Both where much is opaque. It is especially difficult to tell what is happening at any given point in the Francescho narrative as it seems to be so half formed and to wriggle about so much. I’m not quite sure what Ali Smith was trying to do here. Her short fiction is excellent and her novels are playful and innovative. Perhaps this is trying to be both but it isn’t succeeding. ***00
  15. Last year, ahead of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, the Organising Committee announced that the launch ceremony would feature the detonation of the remaining 30-storey Red Road tower blocks as the spectacular centrepiece. There was an outcry from past residents of the blocks who felt this would not be a dignified end to the homes they had lived in, often for many years. The Red Road blocks had become so unloved that this backlash surprised many people. This Road Is Read is the story of those blocks. Beginning in 1964, we find nothing more than a pile of sand. From the sand rose girders, and from the girders rose the highest residential blocks in Europe. We see the first residents draw keys in a lucky dip – some wanted to be high, some wanted to be low. They could swap keys with others until happy compromises were reached. We saw the establishment of vertical villages, residents using rotas to see who would clean the landings outside their “houses”. It was a brave concept, and the idealism, the excitement at the novelty of high rise living, was touching. Then, section by section we see the problems start to emerge. There are gangs; there’s vandalism; there are families moving out to be replaced by students; there are students moving out to be replaced by asylum seekers. But the start of the problems, the pin that burst the bubble of hope, seemed to be the slow and faulty lifts. Too often, people were inconvenienced by the lifts, causing a loss of pride, causing a loss of standards, causing terrible social problems. This Road Is Red features stories told in snippets of some of the residents. Most are told contemporaneously, a few are told in italicised reminiscences. There are sad stories, happy stories, playful stories, smutty stories. There are suicides, there are illegally painted tennis courts, there are kestrels and pigeons and dogs. There are fires, thefts and third parties. There’s even a birth. Whilst the stories seldom join up and there’s no obvious fictional thread, there is a common story of Glasgow and its working class. We see societal changes reflected through the occupants of the building. We see the world changing at the foot of the giant towers. This is a social history par excellence. The characters are engaging, the reader is drawn into the ebbs and floes of the towers’ fortunes and the ending is really quite teary as the great monoliths return to the sand of the opening pages. Those of us who did not understand the reaction to the Commonwealth Games plan would do well to read this book; it will bring us to the same space as the former residents. The towers may not have been perfect but the residents had invested their blood, sweat and tears into making them home – and they did have some pretty amazing views. Glasgow is a wonderful city that sometimes hides its inner beauty under a rather challenging exterior. This novel is a key to unlock that beauty. *****
  16. Fishnet is a novel with an agenda. It seeks to humanise the world of prostitution. If that doesn’t fit with your own world view then please don’t read this novel – it will just make you froth at the mouth and increase your risk of stroke. At the outset, Fishnet is weird. It starts with a section narrated in second person and then moves on to copy from web adverts for sex workers. It feels very disorientating and confusing. I imagine some readers will be put off by this – but it does calm down. When the novel gets going, it settles down into six chapters, each consisting of two interleaved narratives with contrasting headings (e.g. Village/City; Public/Private; Mind/Body) – one narrative set in the recent past as our protagonist, Fiona, attends a wedding with her old school friends in Aviemore; and one set in the present as Fiona works as an administrator in the office of a building contractor in Glasgow. Fiona is preoccupied by the disappearance of her sister Rona some years ago, and whilst in Aviemore she picks up information that Rona might have worked as a prostitute. And on getting back to work, Fiona encounters some sex workers outside her office who are campaigning against the redevelopment of their drop-in centre. Maybe they could help trace Rona… The novel is not long and is well paced; whilst the structure might appear forced at first, each chapter is used to move the story a significant step forward or, perhaps, peel back another layer to expose people’s motives. It is readable, clear and engrossing. The description is wonderful and really brings locations to life. The depiction of Aviemore, especially, was brilliant – a grim strip of tourist ski equipment shops and bars staffed by unhappy transient workers. Innes depicts a Scotland that exists alongside the tartan and shortbread. It’s not cut off completely like Trainspotting set in Leith. The touristy Scotland is there in Fishnet if you look for it – but whilst our characters and the tourists occupy the same physical space, they seem never to quite touch one another. The characterisation is mostly excellent. Whether we are looking at the under-ambitious staff at the building company; the bitchy ex-school friends; the venal and angry sex workers, Fiona’s lazy parents. For the most part, the stereotypical traits they may have (and they do) are balanced by hidden depths or character development. The characters are neither blameless innocents nor wholly detestable; for example, whilst Fiona’s quest to find Rona is not borne entirely of sororal love, neither is it entirely borne of self interest. As Facebook might say: “it’s complicated”. The only doubts I had regarding the characters were towards the end where Fiona seems to behave somewhat inconsistently with her earlier belief system and Camilla, a high end escort who bears more than a passing 2-dimensional resemblance to Marjorie Majors (played by Joanna Lumley) in Shirley Valentine. The depiction of the sex industry feels authentic. In a past life, I have worked with the industry in Melbourne and Fishnet seems to have mapped all my experiences across to a Scottish setting without fault. I could readily identify with the peak body meeting in the conference room at an anonymous chain hotel; the mouthy and flamboyant spokeswoman; the jeans and jumpers of the off-duty workers; the obsession with each other’s hourly rates; the odd balance between brazenness and being camera shy. The drop-in centre was especially familiar with the second hand furniture, information posters on the walls, a mixture of silent workers coming in for a furtive coffee and the crowd of regulars using the place as a social club… I was just waiting for Fiona to be offered a mug of instant coffee – when it inevitably happened, I felt like ticking a box. There are a couple of reservations. Firstly, there is a tendency to introduce editorial comment either in the form of reporting a character standing up and delivering a political speech or in a sex-worker’s blog that ends each chapter. In particular, there is some strong and repeated polemic against the Swedish Model (criminalising the men who pay for sex) and an assertion that sex workers are not victims. If the counter-opinion is ever given, it is done ineptly by blundering bluestockings. Whilst I am sympathetic to the author’s opinions, they might have had more impact if the reader had been allowed to draw his or her own conclusions – a case of show, don’t tell. The other reservation is that whilst the ending is good in parts (the Rona mystery is tied up brilliantly), I never quite believed in Fiona’s ending. Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise impressive novel that shines a light on a part of society that many of us never see and even fewer of us ever understand. ****0
  17. I am surprised there isn't a thread on this already. I started off thinking I would be a No come September 2014, not for any discernable reasons other than I don't like change, what is the point, I hate Alex Salmond. I was pretty unshaken in my view and listened to all the arguments for and against. I have found, though, that I am increasingly becoming a Yes. I can't pinpoint exactly why...I think it comes down to dissatisfaction at being governed by a party that won no seats in Scotland, growing disgust at the various antics of the government down south (not sure a Scottish Government would be any less abhorrent though), and the main feeling that I have growing faith in Scotland to take this historical opportunity and run with it. I do feel that Scotland as a whole is a more progressive, tolerant and socialist society and I think we could do good things with Independence. Ultimately though I think everybody wants change and good things don't tend to happen unless risks are grabbed. Yes, I despise Alex Salmond but he eventually would be an historical footnote and other leaders will take over. I can't say No just because I hate the present and temporary leader. At this point I am undecided, swaying to a Yes, but interested in other opinions too.
  18. I wanted to love A Book Of Death And Fish. Stunning reviews, promising the definitive Hebridean novel, centred on Stornoway where I spent a happy year of my life. What could there possibly be not to like? Sadly, the reality was a hotch potch of short articles, mostly telling us things we already knew (the fate of the Iolaire) or things we could never possibly want to know (the intimate details of fishing for business and pleasure). It read like journalism, not fiction. The voice varies from wooden and factual to outlandish Scots. This, despite (as far as I could tell) the supposition of a single narrator. For a novel, there is precious little narrative drive. It’s basically one man’s observation of what is going on around him, sliced and diced into little packages and put into a seemingly random order. And repeated. And repeated. And repeated again. I should confess at this point that I read only the first 20% of the book. Perhaps things pick up after this. Perhaps the Martian landing on Barbhas Moor galvanised the Lewis people to set up a people’s army in defiance of the policy of appeasement being fed to them by the Scottish Office, leading to meetings in smoke filled rooms to plan the unilateral declaration of independence, supported by clandestine importation of arms from Libya. But if this is where things went, I will never know. The first 20% was simply so boring, disjointed and clunky. And sprinkling in a couple of helpings of Gaelic words and Lewis dialect may persuade some that this is a work of fine poetry but to this reader it looks like window-dressing to hide a very plain view. Stornoway deserves better. It should be possible to relate the social changes alluded to in this book through a more engaging protagonist and a supporting cast of real people, not just cardboard cut-outs. The subject matter cries out for a real, human voice with a soul, not some newscaster reciting facts set out on a script. Can I have my money back? *0000
  19. Charity collections of short stories are a bit of a gamble; this one pays off. Ten writers, all top rate (many of whose full works I have previously read) and all contributing good stories. The theme is crime; in many cases this means good old murder, but one or two of the writers have taken a more oblique angle. In the case of Christopher Brookmyer's and Alison Kennedy's stories, it's not actually clear what crime, if any, has been committed. Nevertheless, these are perhaps two of the standout stories. Only a couple of the stories didn't quite work for me; the rest may not all have been deep, but they were diverse and entertaining. And in this case, having ten different voices worked well and avoided the sameness that you often get from reading ten stories by the same writer. There is supposed to be an Edinburgh theme to the stories (the collection is to raise money for a city trust) but this never feels forced and, in truth, a couple of the stories didn't really seem to have an Edinburgh angle at all. This is an inexpensive collection; it's a quick read, but well worth it. ****0
  20. Jim Drever is a stillman at an unnamed distillery in the Scottish Highlands. It is a solitary job, allowing much time for introspection between recording measurements of alcoholic strength in the logbook. Jim’s job is important; he is respected in the workplace by his colleagues and the management. He has a perfect family; a wife, a daughter who is about to get married; and a younger son. Jim has a placid nature; he has no great wish to travel or see the world; he simply accepts the cards that life has dealt him. But beneath the calm exterior, Jim has a lot going on. He is haunted by a visit he had made overseas some years ago to clear up his estranged mother’s affairs. He has a mysterious e-mail he dares not open. He is bored by his family. He has an expensive wedding to plan, and the distillery is working on short time. Jim is a smart man, but for the most part he wastes his wisdom on quiet observation, letting events take their own course. The reader is left wondering just how sustainable this strategy is going to be as things go from bad to worse. The novel has three distinctive strands: (a) the here and now, heavily focused on the distilling process, snow and the selection of kilts (b.) the trip to Cuba some years before; and (c.) the sometimes opaque diary of Jim’s dead mother. The three strands work together well; in particular, the sunshine and vitality of Cuba offer a contrast to the cold and cheerless Scotland. The diary is the crucial bit storywise, but it is also the least engaging part of the piece. Jim’s dead mother never quite comes alive, never really feels real. Perhaps even worse, it feels a bit contrived. Overall, The Stillman is a good novel. Like its protagonist, it is unspectacular, solid, and with hidden depths. It is a short read, well paced and quite charming. ****0
  21. This novel blew me away. It is a story, narrated in first person, by Cal and Manny, two young squaddies in Germany in the early 1990s. Cal is a Glaswegian; Manny is from Essex. They are in the Catering Corps, have no great military ambitions, and live for the dirty rugs (drugs) they score in Hamburg’s seamy nightclubs. Cal and Manny are best buddies. As one of the characters explains, 4am is a transitional time. It is no longer still night, but not quite day. It is a time when things change; it is a time when many people who die in their sleep pass away. In the nightclubs, it is the time to decide whether to return home to bed or to stay and party into the new day. In this novel, we meet Cal and Manny at their own, personal 4am – as they transition from boys to men. They discover relationships; make significant life choices; choose sides. Cal and Manny have very distinctive voices, and address the reader directly. Cal speaks in a Glasgow dialect; Manny is pure Estuary English. They are an odd pair, but are united in their love of the rave culture. The communal living arrangements in the army barracks allow friendships to be formed quickly and with intensity; they also let small matters of resentment build quickly into deeply held enmity. Cal and Manny both make choices that most readers would not make. They have brash exteriors and seem superficially worthless. But underneath, both are complex characters with deeply held insecurities. Neither has a happy family background and the army represented an escape – the escape now sought in the drugs and clubs. It is interesting to see the fierce loyalty and love that Cal and Manny have for each other and for their closer comrades; loyalty and love that seems to out-muscle their love for their girlfriends. Both form a close bond with the reader. Nina de la Mer gives a wonderful, compelling portrayal of the army’s need to break young soldiers and rebuild them in the desired form. This comes at a human cost, and the reader sees it and feels it. In a sense, the army here represents a metaphor for life as a whole; even on civvy street, young people are shaped and formed into acceptable members of society. Rebellion can only be tolerated up to a certain point. The contrasts between the regimented life in barracks and the freedom of Hamburg is done especially well. The swagger of the squaddies in the town, living it large, blowing their paycheques, riding the trains and driving off to Amsterdam all comes crashing down each night in barracks, and the next morning’s diet of inspections, parade ground drill, and boiling potatoes in the kitchen. It’s not Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman: it’s a fraction of the glamour but so much more meaningful. This is a novel that, at first, is warm and humorous. But with time and growing realisation, it becomes pretty bleak. The ending (I won’t spoil it) is deeply moving and handled with great sensitivity. Right now, it is January. Have I already read my book of the year? *****
  22. The Amber Fury is a first novel and, I’m afraid, it shows. Set in contemporary Edinburgh, we find Alex Morris starting off a new role providing drama therapy within an educational unit for kids who have been thrown out of mainstream schools. We soon learn that the role was made available by her former university tutor as a favour to allow Alex to escape from London and her grief following the death of her fiancé Luke. But how far has she exchanged one uncomfortable situation for another? The real trouble with the novel is that the plot, pacing and structure seem to operate in competition with one another. Attempts to drip feed information to create dramatic suspense lead to the earlier narrative feeling wrong. For example, why would Alex be focusing all her thought and all her narrative on one class when, as an educator, she would have taught many classes? There is a reason that becomes apparent towards the end of the novel, but only at the expense of the bulk of the novel feeling awkward. But had the reasons been laid out early on, it would have ruined the tension. A bit of a dilemma. This also has an impact on the pacing, which is slow with the first half of the novel (at least) giving little indication of where it was going. This was addressed with asides to the reader along the lines of ‘at this point nobody had to die’, or ‘if only I had walked away at that point’. I paraphrase, but the tendency to rely on prolepsis to cover up a slow story is pretty clunky. And the language is clunky. Alex’s narrative feels leaden and soporific. There’s a great focus on the geography of Edinburgh (which is impeccably correct) with little actual sense of place. Aside from the basement teaching room in Rankeillor Street, the rest of the city seems to be nothing more than the location of specific transactions. Where the text is interwoven with the diary of one of the kids, it provides some level of relief, allowing a fast track to understanding motivation. But this is the only real source of three dimensional characterisation. Alex’s narrative – perhaps blunted by grief – is just flat. There are also some elements of legal and police process that don’t feel right – and indeed seem to be inconsistent from the first part of the novel to the second. Some of the behaviour doesn’t quite feel right either, particularly Alex’s compulsive Friday meanderings. On the positive front, the story is intriguing and when (eventually) the story takes off, it is quite compelling. At the end, it feels as though it was more enjoyable than it felt whilst being read. The parallels between the Greek tragedies and modern day play out well, albeit they are spelled out quite heavily in the final pages. There is enough in the way of ideas to make one curious to see where Natalie Haynes takes it next – and hopefully she will iron out her difficulties in technique in due course. Overall verdict – worth reading, but only just. ***00
  23. The Red Road is a police procedural murder story. It's Tartan Noir. I hadn't realised when I began reading that this is the fourth outing for DCI Alex Morrow and so I might have missed some of the backstory, but the book still stood up in its own right. As so often in these Scottish detective pieces, the lead detective is an outsider with regard to office politics and has personal connections with the story that start to generate conflicts of interest. The plot itself is a little far fetched and relies on one big event that is revealed late in the piece - but seemed to be pretty obvious right from the first few chapters. The surprises as they come tend not to be surprising. The cast seems too large; everyone seems to be involved in some shape or form (I can't remember any red herrings) and seems to involve a lot of frenetic activity for fairly opaque reasons. The depiction of the Red Road flats is evocative, if somewhat fleeting to have given the book its title. There are also atmospheric scenes on the Isle of Mull, and some of the grander houses in and around Glasgow. The characterisation is also better than average, particularly a hippy in a castle and an aristocratic defence counsel. The structure also works, with plenty of cliffhangers ending chapters to keep the pages turning quickly. But overall it is just a bit meh; you feel you've read books like it before and will read books like it again. It is too convoluted, too clever-clever and when it reaches its denouement it just feels a little bit too late. ***00
  24. It is difficult to sustain quality through a collection of short stories and I'm not sure Kirsty Logan has managed it. There is one gem of a story - Una and Coll are Not Friends - that shines far brighter than any other story in the collection. It is gentle, subtle, humorous and human. It has a depth and makes one think about the nature of being an outsider. There are a couple of other interesting stories, particularly the Tiger Palace. Most (but not all) stories have some current of lesbian love. And most seem to have some reference to fairy stories as a genre, although few seem to be readily identifiable to specific stories. The problem is that the collection is very patchy and, like a 1980s pop album, seems to be mostly filler. Many stories seem to be quirky for its own sake - e.g. the Rental Heart or the Coin Operated Boy - but don't actually seem to go anywhere or have anything to say. Maybe they just didn't press my buttons, but the whole did seem somewhat dull and repetitive. Few of the characters seemed to have much humanity or warmth which tends to further disengage the reader. **000
  25. A Capital Union is a novel about conflicting loyalties. Told by Agnes, a young Ayrshire girl who has found herself in 1942, under the age of 18, married to Jeff, a University of Edinburgh lecturer. Jeff’s field of study is linguistics – specifically recording Scots dialect. He “found” Agnes whilst recording Ayrshire Scots and whisked her off to his late mother’s tenement in affluent Morningside. Agnes is out of her depth; she is expected to be genteel, refined and able to keep house despite the privations of rationing. She depends heavily on Jeff, whom she barely knows, to guide her in her new station. So, Agnes is surprised to find that Jeff is involved in nationalist politics, being prominent in a campaign to not recognise the Westminster government’s conscription to arms. Agnes is mortified to be associated with such an unpopular campaign and is afraid on the one hand that she will be ostracised from a community in which she already feels uncomfortable, and afraid on the other that she will be left on her own if Jeff is jailed as a conscientious objector. From the outset, there are conflicts between the national and the personal. Jeff is also not too keen on the idea of imprisonment and this will test his political resolve. But he is also tested by the fact he is supposedly taking his stand – just as he is recording Scots dialect – to protect the Scottish birthright of people like Agnes who seem so ambivalent to his objectives. Meanwhile, the astute reader will pick up that, as a Sgitheanach, he is already compromising himself by working to preserve the Scots dialect (or Lallans, as he would have it) whilst ignoring the early signs of the demise of his own Gàidhlig language. Agnes, for her part, is terribly young and extremely naïve. She married simply because she thought marriage was inevitable, but being barely more than a child she looks for love wherever she can find it. Although having grave misgivings with Jeff, she looks to others who are more extreme still. She seems to deal with people purely on the basis of her last contact with them – if they were nice to her she will be loyal to them; if they were unkind to her she will betray them. This, despite bringing her into conflict with her purported wartime patriotic duty. The relationships are intriguing and Agnes is an engaging character. The men seem much more to be ciphers and feel less real – perhaps because we are forced to see them through Agnes’s uneducated eyes. But the writing tends to clunk. The early pre-occupation with Scots dialect feels like random words dropped into an English sentence. It doesn’t flow or feel authentic. Later on, a character speaks in German and always follows up each German sentence with a direct translation into English. This *really* grates. And the ending feels rushed and rather improbable. On a positive note, Victoria Hendry does a good job in describing Edinburgh at war – a city that still had life and activity, famous buildings and whisky; that felt at one remove from the rather more familiar image of wartime London. A Capital Union is a good effort, but just doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It skirts important issues and important conflicts without quite getting into enough depth. It could have been more focused on the identity of a nation; it could have been more focused on the identity of a person. In the event, it didn’t quite manage either. ***00
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