Archive for the ‘butlin ron’ Category

Let me start with my final event at this year’s AyeWrite, which featured two ex-journalists turned crime writers (Craig Robertson and Stav Sherez) both explaining that journalistic time pressures turned them away from their original trade. That pieces are frequently published that could be improved if time would just permit.

This preamble serves as an explanation as to why I can only provide this quick roundup of this year’s festival. Time for blogging has been scarce – reading and attending literary events does that, funnily enough.  And that is set to continue.  In the meantime I present the books I read for AyeWrite 2017 …..


…. bookended by two novels of epic proportions.

Starting from the bottom, Stef Penney’s eagerly anticipated 3rd novel, Under a Pole Star. Set in the mid-19th century, it is her paeon to the golden age of polar exploration but with a female lead explorer. Not historically accurate then. Still it is full of good things: exemplary descriptions of the arctic landscape, an intriguing investigation of the Innuit way of life, which had/has (?) no notion of privacy (solitude in such a climate inevitably meaning death), competitive rivalries between explorers seeking to make their name. All of which I found fascinating. BUT there’s a love affair and explicit scenes that I wish she (or her editor) had excluded. (And I said as much at the event.) Such content serves no purpose in a literary novel. Leave it to Harold Robbins or Jilly Cooper. Or have some kind of advisory note for the reader.

Actually the second epic demonstrates just how a great love can been portrayed (and understood by the reader) without recourse to extended XX-rated scenes. I finally read Dr Zhivago, now marketed as the greatest love story ever told, before attending the author’s grand-niece’s event. Anna Pasternak was presenting her book Lara, The Untold Love Story that Inspired Doctor Zhivago, and she spoke with more passion than I’ve ever seen an author display before. In biographies of Boris Pasternak, Olga Ivinskaya has been dismissed as a non-entity, of no importance. That’s the official line of the Pasternak family, whose purpose it serves to ignore her. Anna Pasternak is on a mission to rectify that. In fact, she argues that without Olga, Dr Zhivago would not have been completed. She made clear that Olga paid a heavy price for her love of Boris Pasternak, and suffered in ways that could have been avoided, had he behaved differently. “I don’t forgive him for that”, she said, “but I do understand him.”

Now I had resolved not to buy any books at this year’s festival, but that statement served the bait that hooked me. More bait in that it analyses biographical parallels and their influences on the novel. Which may help me because my reading of Dr Zhivago wasn’t issue free – particularly in relation to character development. More to follow once I’ve read Lara.

2nd from the top is Ron Butlin’s latest Billionaire’s Banquet. I’ve been on a mission to read all of Butlin’s prose since I was bowled over by The Sound of My Voice. According to its strapline Billionaire’s Banquet is an immorality tale for the 21st century. Make of that what you will! It is the story of how Hume (a unemployed philosopher), St. Francis (an ex-seminarian), and the Cat (a mathematician) become successful, but in order to do so, they must lose their moral compass and their absolute values. The novel starts in 1985 (mid-point of the Thatcher years, when the rich were getting richer and the poorer, including our main characters, poorer), jumps to 2005 (the year Scotland hosted of the G8 summit), before jumping again to 2016. In 1985 the 3 characters are sharing an Edinburgh tenement flat – one the author once lived in, though hopefully not in an understairs cupboard like his character Hume! By 2016, they are … that would be telling because those circumstances are made possible by the pivotal events of 2005, including the Billionaire’s Banquet of the title.

After establishing a successful butler service for the rich of Edinburgh’s New Town, Hume finds himself hosting this highly symbolic fundraiser, attended by Edinburgh’s hoi polloi. Ten lucky donors will receive refunds, and dine like billionaires, while the remainder will feed on rice and water, as a reminder that the rich feed off the poor. Unfortunately for Hume the event coincides with the London Bombing, and activists, in Edinburgh for the G8 summit, are outraged that the event is not cancelled to respect the dead. Hume is sabotaged by both external forces and internal – the hoi polloi are not as decorous you would expect –  and the resulting descent into mayhem is a hilarious and merciless piece of satire.

It also left me wondering at what point an immorality tale becomes an ammorality tale? Perhaps Hume, once he pins down Kant’s Perpetual Peace, would answer that?

In amongst the naughtiness and (advisory note alert) much profanity in the first two sections, the philosophy and the social politics (both – thankfully – worn lightly) is a portrait of the changing face of the Scottish capital. The Edinburgh of 1985 is markedly different from that of 2016, and the differences are documented, I suspect, quite thoroughly over the course of the novel. At times I was unsure whether Butlin was celebrating or lamenting, (perhaps both) but I can see myself using Billionaire’s Banquet as an unconventional travel guide during a future excursion.

Finally I was delighted that Stav Sherez was invited to AyeWrite! It provided the impetus to acquaint myself with his much lauded Carrigan and Miller series – starting with book 3. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do this. I think it gives too much away about book 2. That said,The Intrusions is an unsettling read, based on the realities of the web, as we possibly don’t know them. Well, maybe we suspect them, given recent reports of how smart devices on the internet of things can be used to spy on individuals.

The intrusions occur when a “ratter” uses RATs (remote access trojans) to not only to spy on his victims but to play mindgames, to bully and intimidate. Once he has broken them down, he claims them and kills them horribly. The novel is a police procedural which follows detective sergeant, Geneva Muller, as she races to establish pattern, motive, and to fathom out the technology, not just to get one step ahead, but to avoid becoming the the next victim. There are internal pressures too. An audit has been instigated as a result of anomalies in the previous case, and the career of her boss, Jack Carrigan, is on the line.

I’m not yet invested in Jack Carrigan. That will most likely change when I’ve read the first two novels. For me the fascination of The Intrusions was the technology. The novel is a showcase for tools, some possibly imaginary (though I suspect not) that can both enable crime and prevent it – but at what cost to our privacy?  Or is privacy just an illusion these days?

Question from audience: Did your research change your behaviour? “Yes,”said Sherez. “There’s always a piece of blue-tac over the camera on my computer when I’m working.” And that’s why there’s now a piece over the camera on my device as I type this.


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For the last 4 years Ron Butlin has been Edinburgh’s Makar (poet laureate), a position which he finds an honour and a privilege, and which has enabled him to pen many poems, some to commission, others inspired flights of fancy, about a city he so obviously adores. Many of these have now been published in a wonderful, illustrated collection, The Magicians of Edinburgh.

These accessible poems visit the famous and not so famous sites, resurrect historical luminaries, report on current events (not all complimentary) and project the city into an at times surreal future. In addition to being marvellously entertaining, they served as a terrific companion and a 5-star guide to this bookwormy tourist wandering the streets during festival time.

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Together with two musician friends, Butlin put together a fringe show in which some of these poems were set to specially composed pieces. The show may go in tour. If it does, I urge you to avail yourself of the opportunity to attend. In the meantime, here are details of the set:

1 The Magicians of Edinburgh
(Celebrating the revitalisation of the city since the 1970’s. Who are the magicians? Read to find out.)
2 The New Towns Response to the Threat of Global Warming
(Of Bankers and the New Town)
3 How can the words I love you …?
(The winner of a charity auction paid £610 for this love poem to his wife.)
4 Edinburgh Love Song
(In which the various districts of Edinburgh seranade each other)
5 Oor Tram’s Plea tae The Cooncillors o Edinburgh
(In which the tram which used to stand on Princes Street – until it lost its planning permission – makes an impassioned plea to Edinburgh Council.)
6 Something to look forward to
(Of moons and Majorca. This poem contains the best line in the collection – Memories are something to look forward to – and I’m certainly looking forward to memories of this year’s trip to Edinburgh.)
7 Come Evening
(A reflection on time and life.)
8 The Gondolas of South Bridge
(Sheltering from a downpour in a bus shelter on South Bridge, Butlin imagines an alternative transport initiative.)
9 David Hume takes a walk on Arthur’s Seat
(The famous philosopher takes a final hike to the top of Edinburgh’s extinct volcano.)
10 EH1 2AB
(A serious poem about the homeless woman who froze to death on Lothian Road.)
11 Beware
(Of Edinburgh’s dark wynds and closes)
12 Dancing In Princes Street
(As you do during rallies, festivals and building works.)

Can you imagine a more varied and entrancing sequence of poetry? There are many more in the volume and, thanks to the generosity of the publishers, Polygon, and to celebrate the fact that 700 copies have been sold in the first two weeks of release (exceptional figures for poetry), I have two signed copies to giveaway. So whether you’d like to revisit Edinburgh or make a virtual first visit with Butlin’s poems as an introduction, just leave a comment below. Competition open internationally. Winners will be chosen in some random fashion on Monday 3rd September.

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And a wonderful fortnight it was too!  Reading two first class collections of short stories: Regi Claire’s Fighting It! and Ron Butlin’s Vivaldi and the Number 3, in preparation for a live event at Wishaw library, part of the North Lanarkshire Words 2011 festival, and the first event I have ever chaired!  I think that calls for a picture.

Courtesy of North Lanarkshire Council on Flikr

More on the event later.  Primary focus, as always here,  to the books.

This was my second read of Fighting It! (published 2009).  I don’t often reread but when I do it of my own volition (i.e not for a book group), it is because the book has on first reading become a firm favourite.  And reading these stories confirmed my first impression.  Full of drama and intense emotions – anger, frustration, sorrow, longing, regret, despair – these stories are completely absorbing.  Claire explained that some are based on real life.  The title story took as its starting point a newspaper cutting sent to the author by her mother regarding a young Swiss murderess and her very unpleasant crime.  My favourite story, the poignantly sad Snow White and The Prince, was inspired by a chance meeting with an old woman in George Street, Edinburgh.  The final story is based on the final day in the life of Claire’s first golden retriever (and is a must read for any dog lover – though make sure you have a tissue to hand).  Shortlisted for the Saltire Book of the Year Award (alongside Scottish literary giantesses A L Kennedy and Janice Galloway), these stories are full of drama and really do deserve a wider audience.  I’d quite happily read them again, and as proof of that have added Fighting It! to the reading list of my own book group.

Butlin’s Vivaldi and The Number 3 (published 2004) must be one of the quirkiest collections ever.  In it famous  musicians and philosophers of the past relive their lives in the alternative universe of modern times. Butlin’s passion for and deep knowledge of classical music provide the baseline in this volume, which does not demand similar afficionadoship of the reader.  (Thankfully, given that I am tone deaf.) Top notes and melodies are light and playful, bouncing with anachronism, mischief and much hilarity.  In musical terms, it is a concept album.  Turns out that Butlin has set the stories of Vivaldi (who counts flying red-caped cardinals instead of sheep before sleeping) to music and now performs recitals with a difference at musical events around Scotland.  Keep your eye on the Celtic Connections programme, he said.  It’s a done deal.

On the night in Wishaw library, we discussed all of the above plus the voice in each author’s debut novel.  Butlin’s tale of the descent into alcoholism, The Sound of My Voice (published 1987), declared by Irwine Welsh as “one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the ’80’s” and reviewed here, was my Book of 2010. Claire’s The Beauty Room (published 2002), was longlisted for the Allen Lane Mind Book of the Year.  In it she tells the story of Celia whose grief at the death of her mother is complicated by guilt at having disliked her.  It’s a complex read and I found that my relationship with Celia mirrored hers with her mother!  Best summarised in one word as conflicted.   In common with Fighting It! there isn’t a bland word or image to be found in Claire’s writing.  The opening scene, based on a childhood incident in which Claire almost choked on a boiled sweet, is exceptionally strong.

There was still time for Butlin, Edinburgh’s Makar (poet laureate) to read a couple of as yet unpublished poems and to delight with tales of strange things that happen when the city “wheels him out” for an appearance.

My final questions to Claire had to be asked in the run up to German Literature Month.  Why does she choose to write in English and not her native Swiss German and does she think her stories would be different if she did?  The decision to write in English was organic as she began writing only after she married Butlin and moved to Scotland in 1993.  Swiss German is a spoken language.  To write in German would mean writing in Hochdeutsch which is not as natural to her as writing English now. But she has thought about it and may do so in the future.  Would her stories be feistier than they already are, I asked, given that German is a more aggressive language than English?  (To my ears anyway …) I don’t know about that, she said.  Take the stories of Peter Stamm, they’re very quiet.

And on that note, the librarians called time.  The audience clapped and Butlin thanked me for being a reader! Believe me, the pleasure is mine and I enjoyed myself tremendously that night.  I hope the audience did too. (Still awaiting feedback from North Lanarkshire.) It was a great end to an enjoyable fortnight ….. and this post commemorating Lizzy’s first time as live event chair is a fitting 600th entry on the blog.  Who would have thought that this was the destination to which that first, tentative post was signalling?

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Time now to start on those reading trails that opened up during 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival. 

You may remember I enjoyed Ron Butlin’s reading from his yet unpublished novel, The Invisible Woman.  Discussing this at length with a friend, he recommended Butlin’s 1989 novella, The Sound of My Voice.  He even went so far as to suggest it was much better than Martin Amis’s Money in documenting 1980’s excess.   I have no point of comparison apart from the fact that I abandoned the only Amis novel I tried to read after about 70 pages and have never returned. There was never any likelihood of me abandoning Butlin’s work and there is every likelihood that I will now hunt down and devour his entire backcatalogue.

From paragraph one, the force of The Sound of My Voice picked me up and did not let go.

Morris Magellan is a 34-year old business executive, married with two young children.  He is also an alcoholic, about to lose control.  His wife, Mary, is – well, I can’t decide exactly.  In denial at the beginning, bravely holding the family together and keeping things hidden from the kids in the middle, disillusioned at the end.  She is always seen from the outside.  We watch her actions, we are left to infer her feelings.

In contrast to her husband.  We know why he turned to drink and, indeed, we drink every drop with him.  The omniscient narrator – the voice – talks  at him.  The entire story is told in second person and while there is an element of understanding for the drunk, the revelations in paragraph one alienate the reader, so that he is never a sympathetic character, never entirely a victim,

which all results in a incredibly emotive read.

The voice is sometimes understanding:

At first you wanted to drink the ocean dry, but as you did so all manner of horrors – both living and dead – were exposed.  These creatures groped sightlessly towards you.  The more horrific they were, the more you drank – as though trying to swallow them, to remove them from sight. You don’t drink to forget – it doesn’t happen that way any more – instead the ocean has become everything that has ever happened to you, and when you drink you can swim effortlessly wherever the mood suggests.  You do drink like a fish, for drink allows you to breathe underwater.

Sometimes accusing:

even now her tears are still the nearest you have come to feeling grief at your father’s death

Sometimes sarcastic, bitter even.  Always, but always incisive.  No detail too small and every sour note in a deteriorating marital relationship and an escalating crisis heard and observed as Morris Magellan, in contrast to the historical Ferdinand, is reduced to taking it one step at a time.

Your namesake, you almost laugh aloud, has already circumnavigated the Earth.  You must keep forcing yourself forwards, your hands stretched out in front.  If the brandy won’t come to the stranded traveller than the stranded traveller, you almost laugh aloud ….

It can only end badly. And it does, with a twist.   While the final word identifies the voice, there’s no letting go and I suspect I shall be musing on the issue of redemption for weeks to come.

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The opening weekend of the Edinburgh Book Festival is always special but this year particularly so. For starters, the sun was shining and the lawn was mobbed. It has been at least 3 years since I saw scenes like this.

Ice-creams, sun-bathing and, of course,  pre-requisite noses in newly purchased and signed books.  The Slap very much in evidence on Saturday afternoon as Christos Tsiolkas had the honour of opening the 2010 Book Festival at 10:00 am. 

Three Jim’s launched James Robertson’s new novel And the Land Lay Still on Saturday afternoon at an event which may receive my event of the year accolade.  The standard has been set. You just know that when James Naughtie steps onto the stage to chair that the audience is in for a treat … and the author for a grilling.  Fortunately there is an obvious friendship between Mr Naughtie and James Robertson, so the banter remained good-natured. Naughtie pressed Robertson to explain some of the obvious symbolism in his book after  Robertson read a section in which a tramp gives a pebble to a young boy.  Is it a symbolic act, Naughtie wanted to know, particularly in a novel about the changing political landscape of Scotland during the 50’s and 60’s, a country whose political identity is tied with the stone of destiny.  Sometimes, Robertson replied, an author doesn’t see all the implications of what he has written until after the event.  So maybe it is symbolic, maybe not.  What a cop-out! replied a very naughty Naughtie.  And so it continued.  The third Jim, singer James Hutchison, pitched in with two beautiful songs.  Absolutely exquisite.  The singer and his voice – pictured right – best described by Robertson in And The Land Lay Still.

The singer is a burly, fine-looking character with snowy-white hair and moustache …. Don tries to join in, humming the tune, but the sound sticks in his throat.  So he mouths the words instead, he has them as suddenly and effortlessly as if he sang them only this morning in the shower,but he never had a singing voice like this man’s, slow and rich and gentle and glorious.

Sunday saw another first. Cornelia Funke ‘s new novel Reckless will be released simultaneously in 12 countries on September 14.  The embargo is so strict that the book festival was not allowed to sell copies in advance (which is almost unheard of).  However, the author spoke of it and even read from the first chapter to an enthralled younger audience.  I suspect I’ll enjoy this more than Inkheart.  Funke has created a brand new world, more modern than the medievalism of the Inkheart Trilogy and resonating with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.  I’ve been meaning to construct a reading trail based on fairy tales for a while.  I suspect this may be the book to start me on my way. 

Adults can learn much from the enthusiasm of child audiences.  At least 40 minutes of the hour was devoted to audience questions and there was absolutely no letup.  None of that embarrassed silence that can prevail – if the chair isn’t adequately prepared –  at adult events.

There wasn’t much time for audience questions at Regi Claire and Ron Butlin’s event.  Normally this is a problem for me but not so here.  Both authors – they are husband and wife – read two pieces – one short, one longer, one from published short stories and one from finished novels, which have now been lodged with their agents.  More literary exclusives, if you will, and all I want to say to those agents is get a move on! I want to read them both …. now!

In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with reading those unscheduled purchases from both authors backlists ….  I know they will be good.  I read Regi Claire’s short story anthology Fighting It!  during last year’s festival.  My review fell victim to time constraints as I dashed back and forth to Edinburgh.  However, a year later, parts of it are still vivid in my memory – evidence of the power behind the words.  I agree wholeheartedly  with this review on Vulpes Libris.  Regi Claire read – and it must be said – acted out the title story in which a convicted murderess is working out her frustrations in an exercise cage.  The story that stayed with me most from last year’s reading is the final one chronicling the struggles of an aging dog.  Very poignant and as the owner of an 16-year old pouch, I can vouch for its accuracy.  Regi Claire confirmed it is solidly based in her own personal experience.  Ron Butlin is the current Edinburgh Makar – poet laureate, but he writes novels and short stories too.   His collection Vivaldi and the Number 3 consists of zany stories in which famous people from the past are pitched into absurd situations.  So we heard how Vivaldi reacted when he was prevented from going on holiday because all flights have been grounded due to the declaration of war.  I see now from the blurb that  the stoicism of Seneca is tested when he moves to 21st century Edinburgh.   I can’t wait to see how he gets on because one day Edinburgh may seduce me into doing the same thing …..

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