The Sins of the Father – book launch

Out and About [the official end to BookRambler’s  hibernation]

The Sins of the Father book launch

With experienced journalist/producer/writer George Rosie chairing, this could have been an hours’ love-in of light banter with knowing questions and in-jokes and ‘friendly’ planted questions from kent faces in the audience. I thought that’s how it would go and it would have been a pleasant way to pass an hour. Happily, I was wrong. The launch of Allan Massie’s latest book: The Sins of the Father (Vagabond Voices) in Edinburgh’s Waterstones (West End) was a masterclass in book launches.

Rosie assumed a knowledgeable audience. He introduced Massie (critic, novelist, and historian) and then talked about the book’s ideas and gave it a global and historical context instead of just telling us the story and highlighting the best bits as so often happens at a launch. The discussion ranged over the politics of war and its messy aftermath,  damaged relationships and what happens to the people involved in atrocities: what should/would/could we do if it was our father/mother/uncle?

Questions ranged from easy: ‘have you ever been to Argentina?’, to more challenging questions about ‘how we represent the aftermath of war’ to the absurd ‘do the French write questioningly about their role in war as you do?’, to the intelligent reader: ‘why does Becky act as she does at the end of the book?’ All the questions (even daft ones) drew lengthy intelligent responses.  Massie spoke of how he was ‘given the idea for the book’, why he considered that ‘ethics are more important than ideology’ and his desire to create  ‘a moral centre in the book’.

First published in 1991 The Sins of the Father is republished by Indie publishers Vagabond Voices to a new readership. Massie could have gone the route of other writers and self-produced this out-of-print title as an e-book. That would, I think, diminish it. Vagabond Voices have produced a beautiful, high quality book with side flaps and an introduction written by Alan Taylor.

Taylor writes that, The Sins of the Father is an “intelligent, intellectually-challenging and disturbing novel. It is meant, of course, to make us think as well as to entertain us.”

The double act of Rosie and Massie certainly did all of this last Thursday evening.

The Sins of the Father – Publisher’s note:

A Nazi war criminal’s son and a Holocaust survivor’s daughter decide to get married in the pleasant, middle-class conformity of sixties Argentina. When the two families come together, Becky’s blind father recognises the voice of the former SS officer, and sets off a chain of events that to varying degrees damage everyone at that meeting. Franz has to discover the real past of his rather distant father, who is kidnapped by Mossad agents and taken to Israel for trial. The action shifts to that country, and then to England. Allan Massie uses this drama to explore a wealth of ideas concerning such themes as guilt, retribution, identity, power, political motivation, memory and above all, as the title implies, the effects of brutal conflicts and war crimes on the following generation. Massie does not dwell on the savagery of the crimes, but forensically analyses the scar they leave in history, suggesting that, post Holocaust, we inhabit a different moral world – a world in which we can no longer ignore the enormity of the crimes of which we are capable.

26Treasures at the NMS

What can you say about a rock in 62 words?

That was the challenge set by the 26 Treasures Scotland project, a collaboration between the National Museum of Scotland and 26, a not-for-profit group that champions the cause of better writing in all areas of life. The creative response was to an object included in a treasure trail (of 26 objects)

that span Scotland’s story, from its geological roots to its technological future, taking in iconic objects and hidden gems along the way.

The plan is that visitors will use the 26 Treasures as a guide to wind their way around and through the museum galleries. Beside each object and interpretation panel a QR code plays an audio clip of the writer reading their creation piece. My object was the Lewisian Gneiss, the oldest treasure in the collections of NMS, Edinburgh.

On Saturday we went ‘live’ with performances and readings. Listening to each writer introduce their creative pieces and say a bit about their creative process brought another dimension to the project. It was like looking at a painting for the thirtieth time and finding something new. Some of the creative pieces had interesting back-stories, some of the writers made emotional connections to their objects – sometimes, both. It wasn’t so much a case of bringing history alive, but rendering Scottish history anew – looking at it through a fresh angle of perspective and revealing ideas and information long known yet little discussed.

So. Thank you Sara Sheridan, for introducing me to 26 and, with Jamie Jauncey, for sorting out the Scottish strand; thanks also to the NMS staff who worked hard to pull it all together, especially to Claire Allan for ensuring a smooth and well-planned day.

  • You can read the blogposts and listen to readings on the 26 Treasures section of the main NMS website.
The 26 Treasures project this year involved three museums – National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Wales and the Ulster Museum in Northern Ireland – together they appear on the 26 Treasures Website.

What has this to do with books, dear Bookrambler, I hear you say…

Breaking News! An exciting development is the proposal to publish all the creation pieces from 26 Treasures 2011 as a collection with Unbound. John Simmons introduces the proposal and the project on the  Unbound website where you’ll also find details about how to vote and lend your support.

Why It’s a Great Time to Be a Reader – The Atlantic


Peter Osnos’s recent article in The Atlantic (link below) on books and bookselling flags up the positive results of digital and looks at the publishing world from a reader’s perspective – which makes a refreshing change from all the messages of doom and gloom and ‘death of the book’ that circulate on a daily basis.

Why It’s a Great Time to Be a Reader – The Atlantic.


Book Launch: How to Make a Golem (and Terrify People), by Alette J. Willis – 2011 Kelpies Prize-winner

Thursday was the launch for this year’s Kelpies Prize-winning book: How to Make a Golem (and Terrify People), by Alette J. Willis (Floris Books)- you might remember, I met Alette at Linlithgow Book Festival.

Imaginatively hosted by Floris Books, the launch was quirky, informal and good-humoured. Importantly,  it was really well-attended.

Well, who could resist the Golem-themed food & drink?

How to Make a Golem (and Terrify People) is Edinburgh-based Alette’s first children’s book. In her introduction, Alette talked about how she’s been writing for ten years working with a critique group online and via skype, but that it was working to the deadline of the Kelpies Prize – from September to February, that gave her the impetus to complete the typescript in just five months.

The story ‘came to her’, she said, while she was sitting with her dog under her favourite tree on Corstorphine hill’ – where some of the action takes place.

How to Make a Golem (and Terrify People) fuses Scottish legend and European folklore and taps into Alette’s academic research on story, identity and ethics as well as her work as a volunteer Talking Trees Storyteller at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Chani McBain of Floris Books said that Golem

won the judges’ hearts with its quirky storyline, engaging voice, sparkling sense of humour — and giant mud monster!

The book is thoughtfully illustrated by  Nicola L. Robinson, who found it  ‘very funny’.

Here’s the tempting taster in the publisher’s blurb:

“You think you’re a fairy godmother or something?” I asked.
“Or something,” Michael agreed.
Edda is tired of her nickname, “Mouse”, and wants to be braver. But when her house is burgled on her twelfth birthday, Edda is more afraid than ever. That is until new boy Michael Scot starts school. There’s something peculiar — and very annoying — about know-it-all Michael. He claims to be a great alchemist who can help Edda overcome her fears by teaching her to build a golem.

But surely they can’t bring a giant mud monster to life? Can they?

Check out Alette’s author website for more information about her work with story and as a storyteller.

NOTE: The Kelpies Prize for 2012 is now open for entries. See the website for full details and terms and conditions.

Q & A with Ian Rankin

Q & A with prize-winning Scottish author Ian Rankin

Writing professionally since the 1980s, there’s not much we don’t already know about Ian Rankin or his writing. His best-selling Inspector Rebus novels are published in 22 different languages across the globe and more recently he’s started writing about a new kind of crime-fighter in DI Malcolm Fox of The Complaints (Internal Affairs).

You can find all you need to know about Ian on his Official website: biography, the books that inspired him, his writing life and love of music – you can even follow a map to ramble around Edinburgh in Rebus’s footsteps.

There’s a nice Q&A on Waterstone’s author page too:  where we find out that Ian’s favourite word is ‘lacrosse’…

… so, it’s almost impossible to find out something we don’t already know.

Or is it?

I caught up with Ian between events on the book-launch tour for The Impossible Dead.

J:-      The Impossible Dead is set in contemporary Scotland with much of the plot looking back to the social and political scene of the 1980s, the same time that you published your first novel, The Flood. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

IR:-    Don’t drink so much.  A lot of blank spaces back then where memories should be.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t remember all the domestic Scottish terrorism that was going on.  A lot of the period 1980-85 seems to have passed me by.


J:-       Who would you invite to your Come Dine with Me Dinner and what would you serve them?

IR :-   I watch that show.  I’m not a great cook but I do have a few ‘bankers’.  Maybe a rich beef and wine stew.  Or a chilli con carne.  Plenty of good white and red wine.  To start: smoked salmon.  Cheese and oatcakes for afters.  Around the table would be arranged Robert Louis Stevenson (so I can ask him about the first draft of Jekyll and Hyde – the one he’s supposed to have thrown on the fire), Frank Zappa (he might even play a few licks – I never got to see him in concert), and Billie Holiday.       


J:-        Your house is on fire! Your family and record collection are safe but you only have time to save one book – what is it?

 IR:-    My 1st edition hardback of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. My wife bought it for me when I was doing my PhD on Spark.  Many years later, I met the lady herself and she signed it for me.  (At the risk of getting a hand singed, I might also grab my signed and dedicated copy of Keith Richards’ Life in passing…)


J:-      The Impossible Dead is set outside of Edinburgh and nicely opens up the possibility of taking the Malcolm Fox series across Scotland. You’ve visited bookshops and book festivals in all the major Scottish towns and I wonder, which Scottish town have you always wanted to visit but haven’t yet found the time?

IR:-    I’ve visited most of them, at one time or another.  But I’ve never been to the Outer Hebrides… so maybe Stornoway.  Also, I visited Falkland once (when I was in primary school) and I keep meaning to go back.  Johnny Cash claimed he had roots there, you know.


J:-        I love the new covers! The whole back catalogue has been rebranded. How much input did you have on the final result?

IR:-     I once tried designing my own book jacket  –  it was for the original hardback of Strip Jack.  Orion went along with it and it was terrible (basically a Lion Rampant flying from the Houses of Parliament).  I’m useless at that kind of thing, so I usually go along with the opinion of people who are paid to come up with the right visual treatment.  It is frustrating that if you get a really great look, it only stands out from the crowd for a year or two, because people start to copy aspects of it.  Orion showed me various possible jacket looks, and we did discuss it a little.  I’m happy with the outcome.

J:-       If you were paper what would you fold yourself into?

IR:-    I’d fold the paper in half, then in half again, and cut the edges to make an eight-page blank book, ready to be filled with cartoons, drawings, and lines of text.


The Impossible Dead (Orion) is published on 13th October

Review: The Dead Beat, by Cody James

REVIEW: The Dead Beat, by Cody James (Eight Cuts Gallery Press, 2010)



“Art and lit are lack-lustre now. Passion replaced by facile intellectualism. Throwaway culture resulting in throwaway art.” [@codyjames77: Tweet: 20:52; 15 Oct. 2010]


‘I’m pretty sure I wanted more out of life than this’ (The Dead Beat)

Crafted out of a time during 1997 when comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the night-sky above San Francisco, The Dead Beat is pitch-perfect in its portrayal of the frenetic aimlessness of restless minds for whom the most pressing issues are getting the laundry done and fretting over ‘trying to decide what to do’.

It would be easy to dismiss this slim but certainly not slight novel. The diseased text is riddled with adverbitis and over-written to the point where every major point is driven home so that, WE GET THE POINT. But, that is the point, I think. The protagonist/narrator Adam is a drug-addled, blocked writer who lives among the detritus of revered literary revolutionaries in a cockroach-infested house in Berkeley, San Francisco. He draws his three housemates from the ‘s’ for ‘stereotypical slacker’ in the new writer’s manual-: Lincoln, a manic-obsessive who stalks Mia, the ‘ordinary’ girl up the street, Sean, a suicidal bisexual, and Xavi, whose OCD consigns him to a living nightmare in their boarded-up hovel. Adam works a ‘crummy job at the record store’ and tries to write. When he’s high, he’s abusive and picks fights with his housemates. Crashing down, he’s crippled with guilt and self-loathing and he self-harms. He suffers hallucinations and paranoia, is plagued with ‘The Spiders’ and ‘little black animals’ and the strains of ‘a whole classical symphony’ that plays loudly inside his head.

‘My brain was racing so fast that it felt like I was standing still, kind of like those old, cheesy depictions of time-travel, or kind of like comet Hale-Bopp’.

Resonances to the Beat Generation add both texture and depth to the story. Adam’s self-portrait is straight from Kerouac’s note No. 27: ‘In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness’ (from ‘The Belief and Technique of Modern Prose’) while other connections/references are overt:

Ginsberg ‘had died earlier that month… ‘[w]hen I was a kid, I had read three things in that reading room that had blown my mind. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, America by Allen Ginsberg, and a short poem by Philip Whalen called, Plus Ça ChangePlus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same’

‘ “I wonder if the Haight was this dirty in the ‘60s?” he [Xavi] said out loud, looking around at the urban debris—fast food wrappers, used needles and condoms, vomit, those lone, floating, plastic bags from supermarkets—that littered the verdant surroundings.’

I’m probably not the ‘Ideal Reader’ whom Cody James had in mind while she was writing The Dead Beat. The story is a world away from my safe, Presbyterian-guilt-ridden corner of Scotland and it has everything I go out of my way to avoid – foul language, profanity, careless drug abuse, not to mention gratuitous sex and female stereotyping. Yet, the style, substance, language, dialogue and characterisation are all relevant to the story she tells. And she tells it well. James’s achievement in The Dead Beat is two fold: she gives a voice to the dead-beat generation and, in juxtaposing abhorrent lifestyles with poignant introspection, evokes sympathy for the human tragedy that lies within its blackest heart.

The Dead Beat, by Cody James is available as an e-book [I read an advance proof copy of the paperback edition]

From 1 November it will be available as a paperback [in a one-off hand-numbered edition with extra material]

There’s more information on Eight Cuts Gallery Press on their website.

See also Cody James’s website

Book Review: The Looking House, Fred Marchant

Fred Marchant. The Looking House. Graywolf Press (2009)

Fred Marchant’s latest collection begins where he left off in House on Water, House in Air: New and Selected Poems (2002) so that the prologue poem, “House on Water, House in Air,” acts as a link or gateway to his earlier work and takes us deeper into his compassionate exploration of human suffering. Arranged in three interconnected sections, The Looking House moves in a deliberate path from intellectual uncertainty to revelation, from a place “where the riverbank is firm,/but crumbling,” where “a boy among the living/thinks that nothing is near, or worth/believing in,” to poems that expose human indignities, such as, old age, mental breakdown and death, and poems raging at larger indignities, such as war and torture, to a final, dawning realisation of nature’s soothing balm. Marchant’s great achievement in The Looking House is to create a new anti-war poetics out of seemingly disparate subjects and images.

The first poem proper, “Ard na Mara” begins with remembrance and return, at a house both “beside the sea” and “above, during a summer spent in Ireland, far away from war.

The war in Viet Nam still ongoing, but I was well out of it,

as far as I could get. I went in 

to Donegal once a week for newspapers and wine gums.

 Dominated by images of past conflicts, there’s no respite in his selfimposed


across the rocks, and then looking up, you’d feel dwarfed

by the one wall left standing—

a fragment of Sweeney’s castle—just a stone wing-blade,

but you got the idea: fortress,

and the fear of raids. Later when I first read the opening

of the Agamemnon, I thought

 the Greek signal fires must have been lit on points like this,

 the war won but not over

Since his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector, Marchant has quietly raged against “war won but not over.” His indignation stalks this assured fourth collection. In The Looking House he continues to prick at his own and the wider American consciousness; looking back from present conflicts to when he struggled to understand by writing it down, “to tell why I joined/and how I came to quit the war.”


Marchant tells us, in “Credo,” that he’s interested, not simply “in words alone,” but “what lives in between them.” The controlled imagery and motifs include thresholds, doorways, a windowsill, apertures that provide closure as well as openings; beginnings and endings: “hiatus: opening, rupture, fissure, gap,” “Knock on the doorframe and step out.” The magnificently imagined title poem, “The Looking House Stanza,” gathers up the disparate subjects of memory, war and mental breakdown into a “room without roof,/by a window minus its wall,” where, Lear-like, boundaries break, lives unravel with the revelation of “how little we knew about fatal/sorrow, and indignity without end.” The final two poems return to the hopeful expectation of “a boy’s face, turned up” in the prologue-poem. “Pinckney Street” depicts nature’s “respite,” the “shook ‘foil’ Hopkins wrote about—/ the minutes we have of grandeur, hope, gratitude” while in “First Song Again” the “lofted/Blue heron wing” recalls “the long, sleek, and pointed call/that rose, as if in response, out of the estuary/ of night and storm” of that summer spent in Ireland away from the Viet Nam war. So, perfectly, full circle, Marchant ends as he began, pondering humanity, urging us to

Trust above all the imminent return

Of the small, but persistent

            Impulse to sing.

The complete review is available in the current edition of Pleiades, Vol. 30:No.1, 202-204

Martin Beck Series

I’ve been meaning to blog about the Martin Beck Series since I started reading the first one last year. I blipped about it [] by way of a ‘holding’ comment so apologies for cross-posting and repetition. I could blame eye problems and catching up at work but the fault lies squarely with not sticking to my self-imposed rule of writing up a review or comment straight after finishing a book. Anyhow, below is my attempt to write about the series but I’ve failed to give it the justice it deserves. I think, above all, what stands out the most are the characters. Grumpy, moody, miserable, childish, huffy, mannerly, naive, vulnerable, and utterly appealing, they’re all fixed in my memory as real as if I’d met each of them personally.

This series of crime books are police procedurals set in Sweden; a Decalogue of crime books by the Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Subtitled, The Story of a Crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set out to show that ‘under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer where poverty, criminality and brutality existed beneath the glossy surface.’ The characters develop from book to book, adopting new characteristics and habits, or deepening collegial relationships. These are tightly plotted police procedurals that follow the investigation from grisly discovery to final solution. Each one is completely different and yet the same. Each one follows the same characters uncovering secrets and following dead-ends, but each too uncovers another aspect of the characters, develops Beck’s personal life, and reveals how Swedish society is sliding away from the welfare ideal.

Each of the books is its own individual story but I probably wouldn’t have read beyond Roseanna if I hadn’t received the first three together from ‘InsideBooks’. Roseanna builds slowly, plodding procedurally from the discovery of a woman’s body to resolution of the crime. Looking back at the first in the series from where I am now with no. 7: The Abominable Man, it takes on a whole new aspect. The characters, the murder squad, their families and relationships are introduced but not fully formed. In fact, they’re not all there yet. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t just about Beck but about his team and the individual characters. Lennart Kollberg, Frederik Melander, Gunnar Ahlberg, Gunvald Larsson, Einar Ronn, and the comic double act of Kristiansson and Kvant, all play important individual and integral roles in various novels in the series. Some, like Beck and Kollberg feature in them all, while others, like Gunvald Larsson aren’t introduced until no. 3. Åke Stenström is an important character, both for his own sake and for introducing his wife to the group.

The setting plays a crucial role in each of the novels, while the period detailing enables Sjöwall and Wahlöö to inject cutting social commentary. For example, mention of a Vientamese tourist in Roseanna is a not too subtle reminder of international politics. Christmas, for the Marxist authors, is like the ‘Black Death’, the consumer ‘epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and flats, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path… The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere’ (The Laughing Policeman, p. 119).

In discussing how they planned the series, Sjöwall and Wahlöö describe how they wrote the books one at a time, each writing a chapter after the other. Writing one book on your own is hard, so how much planning must have gone into deciding who would write which scene, what to leave out and what to add, when to change a character (as Beck does in no. 6, Murder at the Savoy) without alienating the reader? There’s also the stringent planning and organisation of material; sorting out the intricate details for ten interconnected books is a feat of great ingenuity. The Martin Beck series is, rightly, an acclaimed landmark in European crime fiction. Here’s a link to an interview with Maj Sjöwall inThe Observer, November 2009.

Originally published in Sweden in the 1960s and early 70s, the edition I’m reading through is reprinted by Harper Perennial (2006-07) from English translations (of mixed success, I hate to report), with an introduced to each provided by a contemporary crime writer, such as Colin Dexter, Val McDermid, and Henning Mankell, who introduces the first, Roseanna.

The whole series is highly recommended. I won’t review each book but give a mini introduction to whet your appetite:

Martin Beck Series, No 1: Roseanna (1965)

“On a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from beautiful Lake Vatern”.

The first book of the series is slowly paced but skilfully plotted. The investigation into the brutal rape and murder of Roseanna McGraw stutters from dead-end to dead-end until a final flurry of activity in the closing chapters brings a resolution. In this first book we are introduced to Martin Beck and the team of detectives and to the Swedish landscape and society.

Martin Beck Series, No. 2, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

Beck travels to Prague to track down a missing journalist. Alone and abroad, he muses on his failing marriage. A moody, broody book that builds Beck’s character.

Martin Beck Series, No. 3, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

An uncomfortable and disconcerting read. Someone is attacking and killing young girls in Stockholm and leaving their bodies in “once-peaceful parks”. No. 3 is when the detective characters begin to gel as a team and Larsson is introduced to upset the balance.  Kristiansson and Kvant bring comic relief to a very dark tale.

Martin Beck Series, No. 4, The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Someone murders eight people on a Stockholm bus, including one of Beck’s team. For me, this is where the whole series begins to make sense. If you get this far, read the first one again. What strikes is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s restraint. They hold back so much from the first three which makes the action of the fourth so affecting and effective. Brilliantly done. The Vietnam War looms again in anti-war protests while Beck’s character deepens at the same time as his relationship with Kollberg and Larsson intensifies.

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)

Larsson takes centre stage as hero in a house-fire; there’s a double meaning to the Fire Engine and black-marketeering; social injustice and politicalisation of the police add to the mix to give one of the best plotted books of the series. The action moves from Stockholm to Malmö. Incisive social commentary cuts through the fiction:

“Students put on their white caps and trade union leaders get their red flags out from the moth-balls and try to remember the text of Sons of Labour. It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no-one spits on the American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in amongst the demonstrators.” (pp. 182-83)

 Martin Beck Series, No. 5, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

Again set between Stockholm and Malmö. The murder of a businessman during his after-dinner speech at an hotel takes Beck and Larsson into an investigation of seedy corruption. We learn more of Larsson’s background, while Beck lightens up. Kristiansson and Kvant are their usual bumbling inept selves – it’s their unprofessional actions that hinder the whole investigation.

So now you’re up to where I am – at No. 7, The Abominable Man (1971).