December review roundup

Yippee-Ki-Yay, motherfucker, and Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal! I had Jon Anderson’s 3 Ships on the turntable the other day so it’s now officially THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY. Which will be harder than most other years considering we’re still in lockdown and Brexit is in the news again (specifically on the day of writing it’s about using Navy war ships to protect ‘our fish’ and I can’t even begin to comprehend how fucking mental that sounds) and it’s hard to pretend 2021 will bring a fresh start, though hopefully the vaccine roll out will be the beginning of the end for COVID.  Cannae wait to see the back of that prick. Roll on the new year and the gunboats, that bastarding haddock is mine!

Personally, it’s not all been a wash out. It seems crass to say so but writing-wise some good things have happened for me this year. Way, way back in January I signed with an agent – the brilliant Emily MacDonald of 42 Management & Production – after taking part in XpoNorth’s Tweet Pitch event (which is coming back around in a few weeks and I definitely recommend any authors with a finished manuscript looking for an agent or publisher give it a go) and sometime around half a century later that year I had a story accepted for New Writing Scotland, one of the most prestigious lit journals in the country which I’d been dying to get into forever. NWS 38: The Last Good Year is out now and can be bought here.

Also, despite the closure, reopening, and reclosure of bookshops along with delays and setbacks caused by the pandemic, there have been some absolutely amazing books published this year. Now I’m finally getting to the point – here are some more short reviews of books I’ve really enjoyed lately:

The Dregs Trilogy by Chris Kelso (Black Shuck Books, 2020)

Where to even start? Usually with a quick summary of basic plot and premise but I’m not sure I can manage that with this one. If you’ve not read any of the trilogy yet but want to understand the challenge I’m facing here, go write a few concise words neatly summarising Naked Lunch.

There’s horror here for sure (grisly scenes of torture and masochism which Kelso sometimes attacks with nasty flair and sometimes dispatches with a cold, dispassionate creepiness that works equally well), some crime too (in the bleak noir vein, there’s absolutely no moral order to be reasserted when the day is not saved here), a bit of sci-fi in there (time hopping narrative loops, future visions, dystopian game shows), nods to dark folklore (each book is haunted by the demon Blackcap in some guise or another), and an anteater that’s a literary critic and whose urethra is blocked with ants (?).

Let me catch my breath…

Some certifiable facts: the three books that make up the trilogy are Shrapnel Apartments, Unger House Radicals, and Ritual America. Everything else beyond is in some way interpretation. (I could write a long essay about The Dregs Trilogy and one day I just might.)

Shrapnel Apartments deals with a series of characters who are trapped in a kind of after-life game show. We hear fragments of their history, hopping between places, times, parallel words. It serves as an introduction to the main characters, the recurring plot beats, and themes of the trilogy. Unger House Radicals is a more straight forward (I say that loosely) tale about a young artist who has become obsessed with snuff films and is riding the coat tails of a near mythological murderer he has fallen in love with. Ritual America largely follows the exploits of Alfie – a drug addict, prostitute, and killer, on the search for the ‘Sound’. All of the books are spliced with drawings, collages, and photographs, all pulled together in a giant, messed-up tome.

All of them swirl around an abused and murdered teenage girl called Florence Coffey, whose death repeats over and over, the perpetrator and the details of the crime shifting and twisting with each telling. Among all of this is a sharp-eyed and unbending critique of art which will be as divisive among readers as the nihilistic horror on the surface is. Not everyone will like this book, and I get the feeling Kelso wouldn’t have it any other way.

If all of the above sounds a bit heavy, it’s worth noting that there are some moments of pure hilarity. One of my favourite chapters in the whole trilogy involves the above-mentioned anteater, Goetleib, who is a literary critic writing for The Anthill Kid Review. He can’t ejaculate because his penis is blocked with ants which makes him so grumpy he gives everything he reads a bad review. Elsewhere, Kelso paints a prescient image of a cop wanking to snuff porn while totally unaware his house is burning down around him.

I bought The Dregs Trilogy after reading an excerpt from the final book of the trilogy, Ritual America, in 3am Magazine (here) and it remains my favourite of the three. Kelso’s style is in full flow, his love of beat generation writing on show, channelling early Burroughs, and even putting me in mind of William Gibson in the way the sentences hit the ear, the rattling references of exotic places and in-the-know cool creating an imagined subculture patois:

“Drugs keep the spiders at bay. In Asia, they understand what it’s like to have a soul infested with spiders: in most parts of Indonesia they’ll fry magic mushrooms into your omelettes and you can get a ‘happy special pizza’ in Siem Reap for practically nothing. There’s always a Xanax in your beer.”

Tell me you don’t want to read the rest of that book!

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, 2020)

Winner of the Booker Prize 2020: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, the first Scot to win in 26 years, the last being James Kelman in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late which caused so much upset that one of the judges resigned in disgust at the choice.

By comparison, Shuggie Bain has been embraced with open arms. And rightly so. Stuart’s debut novel meets all that Booker Hype and exceeds it. It centres the relationship between a young boy, Shuggie, and his alcoholic mother, Agnes, living in Glasgow in the 80s, the plot spanning the decade as the Bain family move around, their circumstances ever declining as Agnes succumbs to her drinking problem.

In the hands of another writer, the same story could have been either relentlessly miserable or sickeningly nostalgic, but Stuart swaggers on the tightrope, bringing childhood in working class 1980s Glasgow vividly to life without relying on any ‘jumpers for goalposts’ pish.

Even better than Stuart’s portrait of Glasgow are his characters. Gallus, flawed, often miserable, sometimes quietly hopeful – there isn’t a member of the cast that doesn’t feel like flesh and blood. Even absent patriarch of the family, Big Shug, is no pantomime villain – though he is an awful bastard. (The physical, mental, and sexual abuse suffered regularly by the novel’s women at the hands of their men is galling and painful, its matter-of-fact portrayal another way Stuart steers clear of blindly reimagining ‘the good old days’.)

Shuggie Bain himself, doing his best to care for his mother while struggling to come to terms with being gay – something he’s constantly bullied for and so attempts to hide – is a wonderful creation, even if he is a wee grass.

Stuart’s depiction of Agnes’s alcoholism is bare and honest, unvarnished but not cruel. He does a hard subject justice, bringing out the reader’s sympathy for the addict without diluting how awful it is for those caring for them, particularly for the children they should be looking after who are now the ones being depended upon.  

Without spoilers, there is a particular scene in a restaurant with Agnes and her boyfriend Eugene which skewers Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol perfectly – why is not wanting to take a drink still deemed to be so odd?

All in, Shuggie Bain is wonderfully written book. Unbearably sad at points, the quiet moments of hope shine through the coal dust of Pithead like diamonds.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Jo Fletcher Books, 2020)

The set up here is irresistible: In 1950s Mexico, socialite Noemí receives a strange, rambling letter from her cousin who wants her to come to a sprawling, rotten mansion in the mountains called High Place to rescue her from her new husband, a handsome Englishmen she knows little about.

The Gothic tropes are all present – the crumbling, creaky house with faded beauty and dark secrets, the doomed romance, the hints of incestuous family trees, the gaslighting (in both the classic and modern sense) – and Moreno-Garcia is not afraid to play with them and sometimes subvert them outright.

Noemí, however, is not the classic heroine or the everywoman protagonist. She’s a dilettante, she likes a cocktail and party, she is a bright student who can’t settle on a subject to study, she likes to wear nice dresses and enjoys flirting with men unashamedly. She can sometimes be childish in a haughty, privileged way but mostly she is charming and funny – and very aware of these attributes. She doesn’t apologise for them or feel the need to pretend to be meek. Not all readers will like her, and that is her strength as a character: it makes her real, it makes her interesting, it makes me care what happens to her as the action ratchets up from tense and creepy to batshit crazy. (Man, it really gets crazy!)

Despite being set in Mexico, most of the action takes place in an English manor – you can imagine it being transported brick by brick from some sprawling estate where aristocrats holidayed in the summer to get out of London – and in the company of English characters, most of whom are daft on eugenics and bloodlines, etc. Noemí and her cousin become the ‘other’ even in their own country – a damning indictment of the hangover of colonial attitudes. What makes it ‘Mexican’ Gothic are the horror elements drawn from Mexican folklore – shamanistic rituals and symbols – which subsume the house from the ground up. Noemí, and the reader, can’t see it at first but soon the rotten wallpaper starts to peel back… It’s a clever metaphor for the book itself – a reinvention of the Gothic genre from the perspective of a different culture.

If you love slow building tension, the hint of mystery, the creepy shadows and shabby grandeur of a haunted house, then this one is definitely for you.

I recently saw on Twitter that Moreno-Garcia’s next book is a noir set in Mexico City about vampire gangs and I’m already very excited about it. (I know, I know, all our favourite undead monsters have gone through a period of overuse but if anyone can bring – ahem – life back to the genre it would be a writer with Moreno-Garcia’s talent.)

Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby (Headline, 2020)

Bug is a retired wheelman now making an honest living as a mechanic in a small town in Virginia. He lives with his wife and sons who he cares about more than anything. However, things aren’t going well. Business is slow, the bills are piling up, and at just the right moment temptation comes along in the form of an old partner with the offer of one last job. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

It’s a classic set-up and Blacktop Wasteland blasts along in high gear, Cosby hitting the familiar beats with aplomb while throwing in some unexpected curves to keep the reader strapped in till the end.

Bug is a brilliantly flawed protagonist, caught between his desire to be a good father and his addiction to the thrill of being a hot shot getaway driver. He’s a tough guy who recognises the destructiveness of that and is afraid he’ll pass his taste for violence along to his sons as his daddy did to him. He swithers between legitimising taking on the job as a way to provide for his family (including a sick mother in an expensive hospice) and being brutally honest with himself about how much he just wants to do it for the danger.

Around him are a cast of small-time crooks, maniacal mob men, losers, liars, and people caught in a cycle of poverty/addiction/crime/self-destruction. Cosby lays bare the complete lack of safety net for Americans hanging onto the bottom rung in a compelling rural noir set among trailer parks and endless rust-belt highways fringed by dead farmland with plenty of quiet places for dirty jobs. Cosby’s deep understanding of this particular world and its people put me in mind of the way Dennis Lehane writes about working class Boston.

Cosby’s writing is sharp and clean and he has a talent for a clever simile in the Chandler mode but refrains from overusing them – something Chandler never ever did. There’s the occasional cheesy line which jars with the overall tone but it’s not going to ruin the read – and anyway, Bug is a father and it’s yer auld da’s prerogative to have cheesy patter. The action scenes are tense – bungling, sweaty, and real rather than slick Hollywood fisticuffs – but Blacktop Wasteland really shines in the quieter moments, in Bug’s relationships with his family, in particular the more difficult ones with his bitter, unwell mother and his daughter from his first marriage.

His ex is white and her family are racists who pressure their teenage girl into trying to hide her mixed race. While racism may not be the main focus of Blacktop Wasteland, it bubbles as an undercurrent throughout several scenes.

With rave reviews from the likes of Stephen King and Lee Child, Blacktop Wasteland is another book, like Shuggie Bain, which has a lot of hype to live up to. And it’s a cracker! A fresh lick of rust-coloured paint on the heist formula backed up with brilliant characterisation and a sense of place so well drawn you feel you could go for a walk in it (or, rather, a drive).

Currently Reading: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (Scholastic, 2001)

I saw the film adaptation on Netflix recently and it put me in the mood to reread Reeve’s entire YA quadrilogy about cities that roll around on wheels and gobble each other up. I loved these books when I was teen, particularly drawn to Hester’s crazed, twisted love for Tom and to the sheer horror of Shrike the stalker – a corpse brought back to life and armour plated, retractable blades in his fingertips.

I’m also still keen to get on with reading the big Scottish hits from this year, which I began with Shuggie Bain, and issue 19 of Shoreline of Infinity just came through the door so no matter how long lockdown drags on for I won’t be short of stuff to the read.

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