Reading Roundup May 2021

It’s over twenty degrees in Scotland. Go to the park. Take a book. One of these:

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (2020, Picador)

I’m gonna be straight here from the off: I was a 00’s-era grunger in high school. Band hoodies, ludicrously baggy jeans, moon boot skate shoes, questionable taste for rap metal, the whole thing. To me and the people I hung out with, the crowd with peaked hats pointing up at the sky, Berghaus jackets, young team menjies on their school bags were folk we just didn’t mix with. They looked ridiculous, their taste in music was shite, and they felt the exact same way about us.

All this changes with time of course – even towards the end of our school years, when jeans became a more acceptable standardized size, there was no longer such clear lines between groups and the shared common rooms and dwindling size of the year brought people together – but I still wondered to what degree I’d be able to sink in and sympathise with the world and characters of Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team. (The last time I saw a Berghaus-guy from school – a good few years after leaving – he sucker punched me in the side of the head as I walked past him. Cunt.)

But you know what? Good writing triumphs over preconceived notions or prejudices every time. The voice of Azzy Williams bursts into your head and takes over with the flow and rhythm of Scots patter, hilarious at his brave-faced best and boldly honest at his worst.

There is, of course, violence, camaraderie, and Jurassic notions of honour and respect, but also so much more. As Azzy grows, his understanding deepens and he seeks to find what drives him and his friends into gang life, into drink and drugs, eventually into the dead end of addiction or the shark-infested waters of organized crime. This mirrors the author’s journey, Armstrong himself being the basis for young Azzy Boy, though he eventually went on to study literature at uni and is now a hugely successful author, citing Trainspotting as the book which put him on this path.

There’s very little glamour to the fighting even though it does capture the adrenaline/bucky rush of the situation (there’s a moment of belly-laugh gallows humour I loved when a character asks “Hus Tony the Tiger git a stripe or two?” after getting his face slashed) and the theme of wasted potential lies heavily piled up against any idea of violence being cathartic for bored and left-behind kids. And while Armstrong points out the obvious link between poverty and crime, he also shows it’s clearly much more complicated too.

An incredible and important read (but I’m still not convinced the Berghaus Mera Peak is cool – does sound like a very practical winter jacket for Scotland though).

Duck Feet by Ely Percy (2021, Monstrous Regiment)

The pandemic has been shite but some of the books coming out of Scotland throughout it are simply amazing. From 2020 Booker prize-winning Shuggie Bain to the above-mentioned TYT, there seems to be an explosion going on here, and recognition of it too internationally. (Scotland is gonna win the Euros, I can feel it!) Now, go on and add Duck Feet to that list.

Beginning life a series of short stories Ely Percy started writing over a decade ago, Duck Feet has finally come together in novel form, published by one of Edinburgh’s finest indies, Monstrous Regiment.

The book follows the misadventures of high school student Kirsty Campbell over the course of her secondary school life, detailing the mortifications, the falling ins and falling outs, the drama, the boredom, and the fun with incredible clarity. And to do so without slipping into nostalgia is an incredible feat.

Kirsty’s struggles of fitting in while being true to herself will be instantly familiar to most, and her old-before-her-time patter is a constant joy, the authenticity of Percy’s written Scots shining – as Armstrong’s does although employed to different ends. Humour is woven through both – Scots is certainly a language suited to it – but it serves a different purpose here. There’s no bravado with Kirsty, no front, her jokes are sarky but rarely mean-spirited, and even when her ideas about people are misguided she is always open to learning about others. (I also just find something intrinsically hilarious about the way she’s always rattling off people’s names, reminds me of my gran.)

Kirsty’s growing awareness of poverty and its limiting effect on a person’s life and growth is cleverly portrayed, Percy never slipping away from that singular voice that defines the character in order to soapbox it but still making the point nonetheless. And it’s interesting that both Kirsty and Azzy, as they grow up and become more critical of themselves, their surroundings, and those around them, both come to agree that the answer is to get away.

There’s something to be said for reading The Young Team and Duck Feet back-to-back, narratively different threads of the same jumper but each with its unique style. Percy paints a picture that will be more broadly recognizable, while Armstrong goes deep on a portrayal of a very particular lifestyle. Both will be appearing in conversation together at WayWord Festival in Aberdeen in September, and it’s sure to be a belter of a chat.

Burroughs and Scotland: Dethroning the Ancients: The Commitment of Exile by Chris Kelso (2021, Beatdom Books)

In 1962, legendary beat grandad, junky degenerate, and killer William S. Burroughs came to attend a writing conference in Edinburgh, causing a furor that pitted Scotland’s literary old guard against its new, international-looking moderns.

In Burroughs and Scotland, Chris Kelso, author of the Burroughsian nightmare The Dregs Trilogy (which I wrote about here), charts the preceding thunder clouds, the proceedings of the festival, and the lingering after-effects of this landmark episode in Scottish arts and literature in his first non-fiction book.

He does so in an entirely creative way though, his personal writing style and imagination bleeding into the history. I mentioned ‘preceding thunder clouds’ because he links the coming of Burroughs to Scotland in ’62 psychologically with the murders of serial killer Peter Manuel, whose gruesome killings so shocked the country in the 1950s. I hadn’t heard of Manuel – surprising since I grew up in East Kilbride where his first victim was killed on one of the town’s golf courses, likely one of those where I attended many 18th and 21st birthday parties – and his yoking together of these events makes for an interesting experiment.

Kelso also conducts almost séance-like interviews with other Scottish writers whose work was influenced by Burroughs, with some particularly great features involving Ewan Morrison and Hal Duncan.

It is, of course, an intensely personal account for Kelso too, for whom Burroughs is a major touchstone, an influence and spirit guide since a young age. He grapples with his own obsession with the man’s work and asks whether there is something about Burroughs which the Scottish psyche is particularly attuned to. What is it about this old American whose work and life was truly transgressive, explosive, far out, and honestly quite miserable-sounding (Kelso points to guilt over the maybe-or-maybe-not-accidental killing of his wife, Joan Vollmer, as the reason Burroughs was always looking for some fix, medicinal or spiritual) that so appeals to a boy growing up in the west of Scotland in the 90s/00s, and to those still discovering him for the first time today.

The other thing that really interested me here was the coverage of Burroughs’ return trip to Edinburgh to pursue his interest in Scientology. I had no idea about Burroughs’ dalliances with the Hubbard cult or its org in Edinburgh, really fascinating stuff. All in, the whole book presents a slice of beat history even ardent fans might not know about.

(I also absolutely loved this comparison with Scotland’s own junky modern, Alexander Trocchi: “Trocchi was an abyss in a skinsuit: dangerous, unpredictable. In love with chaos and single-minded in pursuit of his interests. Burroughs at least had room in his life for friends and cats.”)

Sing Your Sadness Deep by Laura Mauro (2019, Undertow Publications)

In Jim McLeod’s (of Gingernuts of Horror fame) intro to Kelso’s The Dregs Trilogy, he cites two authors whose work he will always instantly buy because he knows it’s going to be that good. One name, of course, is Chris Kelso, the other is Laura Mauro.

This recommendation led me, back in January, to pick up a copy of Mauro’s latest novella, On the Shoulders of Otava – a horror tale set during the Finnish Civil War where members of the Women’s Guard are haunted by strange lights and bloodthirsty bears, the whole thing beautifully entwined with Finnish folklore – which I absolutely loved. (And raved about in this previous post.)

So I was absolutely delighted, and a little nervous, to be asked to interview Mauro for Cymera Festival this year, to talk about her writing career to date and her huge achievement of winning two BFAs for her short story collection, Sing Your Sadness Deep, this year.

SYSD is collection of contemporary folktales, drawing inspiration from various cultural traditions, including, once again, Finnish fairytales and myths. Mauro approaches these tropes and tales and creatures with a fresh viewpoint, tackling difficult subject matter through horror – depression in The Grey Men, miscarriage in Ptichka, terminal illness in In the Marrow and the BFA winner for Best Short Fiction, The Pain-Eater’s Daughter.

This blog post isn’t really the place to write a dissertation on this brilliant, mesmerizing collection, so I just want to quickly focus on In the Marrow, which (for the moment) is my favourite of the collection, a story about twin sisters, one of whom becomes ill with leukemia. The other sister becomes convinced that she is unwell not because of cancer but because she is a changeling who needs to return to her people. This story has an amazing tension and successfully evokes the terrible grief of the situation in an unorthodox way, its ambiguity a master stroke.

Cymera kicks off THIS WEEKEND and my pre-recorded interview with Laura will be part of it – keep an eye out!

(Also, Jim McLeod will be pleased to hear his two faves, Mauro and Kelso, have recently collaborated on a short story, which sounds incredible.)

Ten Low by Stark Holborn (2021, Titan Books)

I had the absolute pleasure of reading an ARC of Ten Low in order to review it for Shoreline of Infinity. A wild west SF adventure, touched by the sun and a little bit of Fury Road – Ten, a medic with a shady past, must cross the desert to deliver an enhanced child soldier back to her people while outrunning the price on her head, invisible creatures who feed on chaos, and her own demons.

Here’s a wee snippet of what I wrote:

“The hardscrabble towns we visit, where everything is second hand, watered down, cobbled together, and the meals consist of snake meat and snake wine (why did it have to be snakes!? The snake wine, with dead, marinating baby snake coiled up in the bottom of the jar is a genuine terror to me, an ophidiophobe) are full of rough charm and even rougher characters…”

Furthermore, after speaking briefly to its author, Stark Holborn, on Twitter, it turns out snake wine is an entirely real thing. Fucking hell. Still, it’s a smashing read, full of grit and grimness but still swashbuckling good fun.

Ten Low is officially out tomorrow!

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