Archive for the ‘Canongate’ Category

Start talking about tartan noir and chances are you won’t get past the first sentence without the mention of William McIlvanney. Tartan noir began with his novel, Laidlaw and his trilogy is spoken of with reverence by those in the know. Ian Rankin credits McIlvanney as the inspiration behind his own decision to become a crime writer. Yet, two years ago, when I first heard him talk at EIBF, his novels were all out of print. I trawled Edinburgh’s second hand bookshops for a copy of Laidlaw but still had to resort to buying online. Good old abebooks, I say. However, the editorial director of Canongate books was sitting in that same audience, obviously as horrified as the rest at this state of affairs. Two years later and Canongate have republished the whole trilogy in splendid new livery.

Do these crime novels stand the test of time? Without a doubt, despite the lack of technology in the detecting methods employed. I suppose if McIlvanney had written them more recently, they would be replete with profanity. Personally I am very happy that they are not.

I first read Laidlaw (1977) last year and then Canongate announced republication. At which point I decided to save my review until the whole trilogy became available. I gave Laidlaw 5-stars last year and enjoyed it so much that I decided to reread it again for this post. And you know the 5-star rating remains intact.

The body of a young woman is discovered in a Glaswegian park.  She is a gangster’s daughter and her murderer also has contacts with the criminal underworld – some of whom wish to get him safely out of the city, others to render rough justice.  The third hunt is by the police, by the eponymous Laidlaw. The question is who will get there first?

What makes this such an outstanding read?  Simply put McIlvanney’s pacing and use of language.  Character studies nailing their subjects in just a few sentences, the streets of Glasgow appearing full of menace and threat (and definitely no advertisement for next year’s Commonwealth games) and surprising, unforgettable metaphor.  If ever anyone tells me that crime novels cannot be literary, this is the example I will thrust into their hands to convert them.

The opening sentence of The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) is a prime example of a metaphor that punches above its weight.

It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of the stare.

You don’t pay homage to Glasgow, says McIlvanney.  You meet it on even terms.

An alcoholic vagrant dies a slow and painful death but before dying he asks to speak to Laidlaw. In that conversation he suggests that someone had spiked his drink.  Then a gangster is murdered and Laidlaw uncovers an unexpected link between the two corpses – Tony Veitch.  Tony, a rich dropout student with a propensity for writing deep introspective letters to his friends and family, has disappeared.  Once again Laidlaw must find his man before the Glaswegian heavies. At last year’s Bloody Scotland McIlvanney read out the scene when Laidlaw finally catches up with Tony.  It sent shivers down my spine.  Then he explained that this was something taken from real life.  I have yet to defrost.

What of Laidlaw himself?  In his private life he is a loving father but a difficult and unfaithful husband.  The same contradictions are present in his professional life.  A fine detective, though not a team player, gruff and abrasive yet with a streak of compassion for those less fortunate members of society.  If it wasn’t for Laidlaw insisting on foul play in the death of the vagrant, where others saw none, there would have been no novel!  But let his less experienced partner decribe the man.

Laidlaw came on hard, could be a bastard, sometimes gave the impression that if God turned up he’d want him to take a lie-detector test.  But he obviously cared about people, was so unmistakably hurt by what happened to them, sometimes through his own doing, that he would have put a stone under pressure to feel things.

McIlvanney puts this teeming mass of contradictions centre stage in Strange Loyalties (1991) which is narrated in 1st person by Laidlaw himself as he tries to come to terms with his brother’s sudden death.  It may have been suicide and Laidlaw wants to retrace his brother’s last days to establish the facts. We are taken out of Glasgow into the countryside of Ayrshire and The Borders.  While the scenery may be uplifting, being inside Laidlaw’s head is anything but. There are no monsters, said McIllvanney.  Laidlaw is just screwed up.

Suspicions are aroused as Laidlaw meets a conspiracy of silence from his brother’s wife and friends. Unhinged by his grief,  Laidlaw appears to lose whatever mechanism enables detectives to differentiate between personal and professional with the result that his unofficial investigation comes with a heavy personal price tag. When he unearths the dark secret at the centre of his brother’s death, he wishes that he’d never looked.

Can he recover?  Someone must persuade McIlvanney to write the 4th novel to answer that.

Laidlaw  / The Papers of Tony Veitch  / Strange Loyalties 


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I spend lots of time with books that aren’t meant to be read cover to cover but are to be enjoyed by browsing during a spare ten minutes here and there – between books, over a quick cup of coffee, during the telly ads.  But I get an enormous amount of pleasure from them and never write about them because up till now I have only reviewed books I’ve finished reading.  However, this new coffee table book of the month feature allows me to break the habits of a six-and-a-half year blog and do something new!

I’m starting the feature with an absolute cracker.  It dropped through my letter box on Thursday morning and has already made a difference.  How so?  I’ll get to that. 

First there was biblioholism, then there was bibliotherapy, which the practitioners, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin have transformed into The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies for all kind of ailments of the mind and body.  That’s quite a claim .  I spent the weekend putting it to the test.

Ailment No 1: Overwhelmed by the number of books in your house.

After a wonderful summer of gallivanting here and there, reading books and collecting more along the way, I couldn’t see the floor of my library or my bedroom.  I was considering moving out!  What advice is offered in The Novel Cure?

Reader, cull your books.  Do it every six months, and aim to cut your library by at least 10 percent each time.  Give away any books you failed to finish or forced yourself to finish.  Take to a charity shop those books that disappointed you.  Keep only those books that fit into the following categories: books you loved, books which are beautiful objects in themselves, books you consider to be important, edifying or otherwise necessary, books which you might return to one day, and books to keep for your children.  Everything else is just bits of paper taking up space.  This way you will keep your library fresh and make room for new additions.  

Turns out this is good advice.  I applied the principles and soon had 176 books packed ready to donate to the library.  Just under the 10% target.

Ailment No 2: Seduced by new books.

The irony is, of course, that if I hadn’t been seduced by this new book, I would have made no progress with ailment no 1.  Still some battles take longer to win than others.  Here’s some advice for the future: 

It’s tempting to see new books the way we see gadgets; that we need the very latest, most up-to-date version.  But just because a novel is new doesn’t mean it’s any good: indeed, with a new novel being published every three minutes (except  on Sundays) the chances that it’s good are actually rather low.  Far better to wait and see if a novel stands the test of time, and in the meantime read one that’s already proved itself to be worth reading.  Because the art of re-reading is a neglected one, and arguably even more important than the act of reading the first time around.

Timeous advice again.  As I was taking the cure for ailment 1, I kept coming across all these pre-blog books that I would love to reread.  I might just take the time to do that in the coming months …

There you have it.  It’s been in the house for only 72 hours and my behavioural patterns are already changing.   I see this one winning Lizzy’s self-help book of year award.  What’s your ailment?  Tell me in comments and let’s see what novel cure is recommended for you.

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The EIBF is full of wonderful moments.  Listening to favourite authors, chatting to them at the book signings,  making new discoveries, particularly in the EIBF book shop, catching up with fellow bookworms. From my perspective, most of this is planned, and it does take some planning (particularly if you are to dodge the rain!), though it is no less enjoyable for that.

Yet there is always an unplanned something that comes along and makes the whole experience extra special.  Here are those moments from 2011.

1) Canongate Popup Shop

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The 2011 EIBF coincided with the launch of the Canongate Canons series.  So for one week only (and one year only – though hopefully not) they set up The Canongate Popup Shop, a couple of blocks away from the square.  It was an innocuous looking place, though a veritable Aladdin’s cave of literary treasure once inside.  Boasting perhaps the most comfortable sofa in Edinburgh, it was a great place to drop in and read, assuming of course that the sofa was empty.  Invariably it was not, in which case the chances are you would find yourself chatting away to a Canongate author or two.  There was a  daily program of readings. At 5:30 authors would appear to read from their favourite writers.  There was complimentary cake and wine.   Most importantly every book in the shop was discounted.  £10 for hardback, £5 paperback.  Up to this point I had been very controlled in my purchases, but I transformed into one of the 40 thieves on crossing the threshold …. well, not quite.  I did pay for my plunder before stepping out again!

2) Book Sculptures

We all like a good mystery and  someone is taking a lot of trouble to create the most intricate book sculptures, leaving them quite anonymously in public places.  They have been popping up all over Edinburgh this year with two more were left in Charlotte Square this month.  

Book Sculpture made for City of Literature

Lost In A Good Book

bookfest sculpture

Tea And Cake

(Images Courtesy of the Book Festival’s HQ Photostream)

3) A Very Special Book Group

Judith HermannLeipzigburgh  (the mini-German literature festival in Edinburgh)  continued into the second week.  As I was waiting in signing queue at one event, a lady from the Goethe Institute, who had seen me at previous German literature events,  handed me a leaflet.  You’re obviously interested in German, she said, why don’t you come an learn the language with us?  But I speak German, I replied.  At which point the conversation switched and within two minutes I was invited to the book group with Judith Hermann herself, scheduled to follow the signing.  The irony is that it was the only German fiction I hadn’t read prior to the festival and so I was a rather silent participant at the group.  Still I was delighted to be able to follow along.  Actually that’s an understatement.  I was on cloud nine!

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Today’s destination is Ischiano Scalo.  Where?  A village in Tuscany, not really on the tourist trail and never likely to be.

There’s nothing to do here — no houses to rent, no air-conditioned hotels, no esplanade to walk along, no cafes to sit in drinking of an evening. In the summer the plain gets as hot as a gridiron, and in winter an icy wind stings your ears.

Home to 12-year old Pietro Moroni, a lad we meet in the throes of anxiety on the day the end-of-year exam results are published.   It is an unmitigated disaster.  He is the only one to fail.  As he slumps to the floor, the question is why he is so broken?

This first section, all of five and a half pages long, induced in me a state of anxiety for Pietro that never really diminished.  As the timeline went back six months, and Ammaniti began to fill in the blanks, my anxious state returned whenever Pietro appeared on the page.  Unsupported by his family (his father a drunker waster, his mother, beaten into subservience, and his elder and unintelligent brother dreaming only of escape to the Arctic), Pietro is left to fend for himself.  Except he believes that when bullied and at the end of a beating, he should curl up into a ball and wait for the storm to subside.  His only friend is Gloria, from a rich family and, therefore, cushioned from the stress of Pietro’s  existence.

In a parallel storyline, Graziano Biglia, has decided to put his womanising drug-fuelled days behind him by returning to his hometown to marry and start a designer jeans shop.  His story injects some welcome light relief into the novel and yet there is always a sense that he is here to help Pietro.  In fact, they meet only the once in an episode that is a long time coming and which lasts for the literary equivalent of just 5 minutes.  While that event is seminal in the boy’s development, Biglia’s role is not as Pietro’s saviour.  Rather he is there to start something that it is Pietro’s destiny to complete  ….something as unexpected, as it is devastating.

Ammaniti’s style is playful, exhuberant and always vivid.  His character descriptions capturing the essence of and the contradictions within his personalities in just a few sentences:

To see Mimmo Moroni (Pietro’s brother) from a distance, on the green hillside, sitting under a long-branched oak tree with the sheep grazing beside him and that pink-and-blue sunset gilding the woodland leaves, you felt as if you’d stepped into a painting by Juan Ortega da Fuente.  But if you drew nearer you discovered that the shepherd boy was dressed like the lead singer of Metallica and that he was weeping as he munched some Mulino Bianco Crumbly Delights.

The pace is unhurried.  Some set pieces stretching for 30 pages and more and one, in particular, with absolutely no bearing on the main plot. Two stoned rich kids are pulled over and bullied by a cop envious of the Mercedes they are driving.  It may be a metafictional tangent, at the end of which the driver “turned on the ignition, slotted the R.E.M. album into the CD player and drove off out of this story” but it belongs.  This is Ammaniti and he writes to his own delicious rules.

At 405 pages, Steal You Away is a long novel but I would happily have Ammaniti double its page count.

I’ve now completed all 3 Ammanitis translated into English.  All of them 4-star or above.  Please let there be more in the offing.

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Now here’s a book with a cover designed to take the chill out of the air.  Look at those lovely warm blues and terracottas. Thanks to Canongate, I have five of them to giveaway to readers in the UK and Europe.  It would be wonderful too, if after reading it, you participate in a book discussion on the wonderful Worldliteratureforum and an author Q&A here on Lizzy’s Literary Life, which is likely to take place sometime in the second half of February.

I haven’t started reading the book yet so here’s an extract from the press release:

A sweeping, compelling story which brings to life the Iranian Revolution, from an author who experienced it first-hand. 

Iran, 1969. In the house of the mosque, the family of Aqa Jaan has lived for eight centuries. The house teems with life, played out under the watchful eyes of the storks that nest on the minarets above. But this family will experience upheaval unknown to previous generations. For in Iran, political unrest is brewing. The shah is losing his hold on power; the ayatollah incites rebellion from his exile in France; and one day the ayatollah returns. The consequences will be felt in every corner of Aqa Jaan’s family.

The author is an Iranian political refugee who lives in the Netherlands and now writes in Dutch; his pen-name,  Kader Abdolah, created in memoriam to friends who died under the persecution of the current Iranian regime.  So let’s add intriguing to the list of adjectives of the press release.   If you fancy a read, some sociable chat and a chance at putting your own questions to the author, leave your names in comments.  I’ll put random.org to work on Wednesday to give Canongate a chance to get the book to you in good time for the author Q&A.

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Mari Strachan by Adam Ifans

Mari Strachan by Adam Ifans

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to welcome Mari Strachan to Lizzy’s Literary Life. For the next two hours, Mari will be here to chat and answer your questions about her own literary life and, of course, her debut novel The Earth Hums in B-Flat.  Mari’s novel was included on the Amazon Rising Stars promotion and rightly so.  It’s a fabulous read!

In order to keep some semblance of order, please post your questions here. Your question and Mari’s answers will then appear in comments on this post. (It’s probably a good idea to have two windows open.) Don’t worry if things go awry – Lizzy, your editor-in-chief for the evening, will try and keep proceedings smooth.

Don’t be shy – there’s a prize on offer for the question that Mari enjoys the most.  More about that later.

And so, without further ado, let me hand over to Mari ….. (Cue applause!)

EDIT:  Interview now complete and Lesley’s question about ambiguous endings wins the surprise prize.  It’s a real surprise because  even I don’t know what it will be.  I’m going to bring back a souvenir from the Ullapool Book Festival.  So, Lesley, congratulations and I’ll be in touch early next week!

Thanks everyone.  I hoped you enjoyed this.  Could I ask you to show your appreciation with another round of applause for Mari and the generosity of her answers …..

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Hopefully my 3 giveaway winners now have their books in hand and are busy reading to their heart’s delight.

Questions on the book / the writing life are invited from everyone. No need to be a blogger. No need to have read the book. No need to be UK-based. Please enter your questions in comments and I shall provide a book-related prize for the best question. Mari will be the judge of that – and, of course, my own questions will be excluded from the competition!

The Q&A session proper will take place on the evening of Wednesday 6.5.2009 – exact time and method to be confirmed but Mari will be here, live, so you can talk to her in realtime too …..

Are you as excited as I am?

The time for the live Q&A has been confirmed.  Wednesday 6.05.09 7-9 pm BST.  You can post those fiendishly difficult questions in advance if you wish …

EDIT:  This post is for questions only – the live Q&A is happening here.

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