Saturday, 31 May 2014

Bookshelf: The Garnethill trilogy by Denise Mina

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Denise Mina's debut novel, GARNETHILL. Rather than repeat myself here, I'll repost the review I wrote of the Garnethill trilogy back in 2008, then follow it up with a few words specifically pertaining to the audiobook.

Prior to writing her first novel, Denise Mina researched a PhD on the ascription of mental illness to female offenders and taught criminology at Strathclyde University. These roots are very much in evidence throughout what is semi-officially referred to as the Garnethill trilogy, encompassing three books published between 1998 and 2001: Garnethill, Exile and Resolution. (The title refers to a residential area in the centre of Glasgow, most famous for the Glasgow School of Art.)

The central protagonist of the trilogy, Maureen O’Donnell, has not had what you’d call a happy life. As a child, she was abused by her father, culminating in what she later comes to suspect was a rape attack, an event which she blocked out for over a decade and which led to her father disappearing abruptly. Years later, as a History of Art student at Glasgow University, she suffered a nervous breakdown as her repressed memories of the attack resurfaced and was, for a while, institutionalised. However, her attempts to get her family to admit what had happened to her as a child fall on deaf ears, with her alcoholic mother seemingly repressing her own memories and her two sisters flat out refusing to believe Maureen’s version of events. Only her older brother, Liam, who makes a living peddling drugs, stands by her, and as a result the rift that has developed between these two factions of the O’Donnell clan is immense to say the least. At the start of the first novel, Maureen is on the mend. She’s holding down a job in a ticket office, self-sufficient enough to be able to live on her own in a flat at the top of Garnethill, and has recently decided to dump her boyfriend, therapist Douglas Brady, after discovering that he is in fact married. Then, one morning, she wakes up to find Douglas in a chair in her living room with his throat slit.

Oh, and the killer has gone to considerable lengths to make it look like she did it.

Garnethill St, courtesy of Urban Glasgow

Based on the above paragraph, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Maureen has “victim” branded on her forehead. And yet, throughout the trilogy, this is a label she refuses to accept. While the first half of Garnethill adopts the traditional “wrong (wo)man” framework of many a noirish thriller, compelling Maureen to track down the real perpetrator in order to clear her name, this is reasonably quickly dispensed with in favour of having her play amateur detective less out of a sense of self-preservation and more because she’s decided that, after being a victim for most of her life, no-one is going to fuck with her again. Over the course of the three novels, she not only identifies Douglas’ killer and deals with him in her own personal way, but also becomes embroiled in the lives of various other downtrodden individuals, establishing herself as something of a crusader for justice, siding with people who have been spurned by the rest of society. (A common theme, particularly in the first novel, is that those with a history of mental illness are automatically distrusted or considered to be unreliable witnesses, a fact that the book’s villain capitalises on in the cruellest way imaginable.) In doing so, unfortunately, she neglects herself, and by the final instalment in the trilogy she has a drink problem, is barely eating, and clearly plans to take the law into her own hands when she believes another child is at risk from her father. As the book puts it:
‘Sometimes it’s right to put yourself aside,’ she [Maureen] said. ‘It’s not always about a lack of self-esteem or destructive patterns of behaviour. Someone needs to be responsible.’
Sheila sat back in her chair and looked at her. ‘Yes, but it doesn’t need to be you, Maureen. It doesn’t always need to be you.’
What prevents the reader from becoming as depressed as Maureen is that Mina has the sense not to simply write page after page of woe. Yes, the stakes are high and yes, she depicts some of the deepest depravity humanity is capable of (there’s a scene in the third book in which Maureen discovers a video of a now-dead friend being raped by her father and brother which is nauseating to read), but she peppers each chapter with interesting and often amusing observations about human behaviour. A lot of the material is very funny indeed, finding black humour in the most unlikely of situations and often poking fun at the more ridiculous aspects of human behaviour. (There’s a scene in Resolution involving an extremely expensive wedding reception that had me nodding along and saying “Yes, they really are like that.”) All of the characters are larger than life, but never to the extent that they seem unreal. Better still, while the main villains are all rotten to the core, the rest of the roster of characters, good and bad, all have their positive and negative traits. Even Maureen’s mother, a self-obsessed, abusive drunk who doesn’t appear to have done a single kind act for her daughter in her life, is at least pathetic enough to garner a (minute) degree of sympathy. The first book has, for my money, by far the best line-up of characters, although the second does introduce the wonderfully named Kilty Goldfarb, who provides a lot of the much-needed light relief.

Author Denise Mina

It’s ultimately all about Maureen, though, and the eye-opening - not to mention perilous - journey upon which she embarks from the moment she discovers Douglas dead in her flat. All three novels provide a degree of continuity in that each deals with a different chapter in her life, one following on from the other. To a degree, Exile is the odd one out in that it has less of a connection to the overarching narrative of Douglas’ murder, although it does continue to explore the same themes of victimisation and responsibility as its predecessor and sequel, providing a parallel of sorts to Maureen’s own experience in Garnethill via her latest ‘charity case’, the husband of a murdered woman who swears he didn’t do it. Resolution, meanwhile, may in fact be the strongest instalment in the trilogy, although it does take longer to get going than the other two. It does what many concluding chapters to trilogies fail to do, and that is to provide a satisfying sense of closure, albeit without tying up every single loose end.

I don’t often write book reviews, but this series of novels compelled me to break with tradition and actually set down my thoughts on them. Ultimately, it does at times suffer from a tendency to wallow in its own seediness (believe it or not, not every part of Glasgow is festooned with squalor and debauchery), but then, you could argue that Mina is dealing with unpleasant subject matter and is simply applying an expressionistic approach to it. Regardless, it’s a cracking trilogy written in an unflowery and highly readable style. I’m still not sure whether I prefer Mina’s Garnethill trilogy or her more recent Paddy Meehan series (which I’ll probably review once that series reaches its conclusion in, oh, 2012 or thereabouts),* but one thing I can be sure of its that her reputation as Glasgow’s best crime novelist is not unwarranted.

* Alas, six years after I originally wrote this review, we're still waiting on the final two instalments of the Meehan series... though Mina did mention at a recent talk in the US that she intends to tackle the recent phone hacking scandal through Paddy's eyes. I hope she gets round to it soon, as I've never managed to take to her current series, focusing on DI Alex Morrow.

* * *

Listening to the audiobook version allowed me to speed through GARNETHILL at a faster pace than I'm accustomed to reading. I planned to pace myself but ended up listening to the whole thing in the space of three listening sessions, the whole thing is so compelling. The reason for that (beyond the writing itself, of course) is the delivery of the narrator, Katy Anderson. In addition to having a warm, chatty style of delivery that marries perfectly with that of Mina's prose, Anderson also gives each and every one of the colourful cast of characters a distinctive voice. She makes some slightly left-field choices -- her Angus Farrell is a plummy Englishman, while Maureen's mother Winnie speaks in a strong Belfast accent, neither of which were ever conveyed in the novel -- but they all add up to create a rich tapestry of different sounds, with Anderson effortlessly flitting from one to the other without taking a breath, and never leaving you in any doubt as to which character is speaking. The highlight is probably her take on Suicide Tanya, which I'm not even going to attempt to describe. You just have to hear it for yourself.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The (un)holy trinity

Happy birthday to Christopher Lee (92) and the late Vincent Price (103), both of whom celebrate their birthday today... and a belated happy birthday to the late Peter Cushing, who would have been 101 yesterday.

Ooh la la, Lara!

The radiant Lara Pulver, who appeared in the final series of SPOOKS, TRUE BLOOD and that scene in SHERLOCK. She's currently appearing in the Starz historical fantasy series DA VINCI'S DEMONS, which is yet another recent critically acclaimed series I haven't seen a single episode of -- an oversight I really must correct, for obvious reasons:

Monday, 26 May 2014

Two simple words

As has been widely reported, on Friday a fire raged through the Glasgow School of Art, gutting much of the iconic building and destroying large numbers of priceless works of art, not to mention the portfolios its students had spent the past four years working on. The damage could easily have been so much worse, and the fact that it wasn't is thanks to the efforts of the fire service who battled to tackle the blaze and save as much as they could.

Today, an anonymous individual left this sign around the neck of the Citizen Firefighter statue outside Glasgow Central Station -- an incredibly simple but incredibly touching gesture.

A morning of shame

In the EU elections, UKIP have come first in England with 29% of the vote. This, apparently, is a stunning victory for Nigel Farage and his mob.

In Scotland, the SNP have come first, with 29% of the vote. This, apparently, is a hammer blow to Alex Salmond.

Comprendes? Me neither.

However, none of this changes the fact that Scotland woke up this morning to discover that it now has a UKIP MEP -- the first time that loathsome party has won any kind of representation in this country. By taking slightly more than 10% of the vote, they took the Liberal Democrats' sole seat and narrowly prevented the SNP from securing a third. This is a dark day in Scottish politics. We used to be able to claim that UKIP weren't a serious problem here. Those days are over. We must now work doubly hard to expose their hatred and bigotry for what it is.

Where does the "blame" lie for this state of affairs?

Is it with the BBC, who rammed UKIP down our throats for months on end, giving a party with no elected representatives in this country four times as much coverage as the party that forms our democratically elected government? Perhaps.

Is it with the Liberal Democrats, for rendering themselves unelectable by being such arse-wipes in cosying up to the Tories and allowing them to inflict untold misery on these islands? They played their part, for sure.

Is it with the Green Party, for claiming that only a vote for them could stop UKIP, despite the fact that they were never serious contenders? Splitting the progressive vote between the SNP and the Greens certainly didn't help matters, but there's little to be gained from encouraging bad blood between people who are on the same side.

Is it with certain people opposed to independence who are today crowing about this state of affairs as if it is some glorious victory for the union? Probably not, though these people need to take a good hard look at themselves in the mirror and ponder what precisely they're fighting to retain.

Is it with the approximately two-thirds of the population who shrugged their shoulders and didn't bother to vote? They certainly didn't help, and I hope they're happy with the outcome.

But no, ultimately the blame lies with the roughly 140,000 who, when presented with their ballot paper, decided that the best option was to place a cross next to a far-right, racist, homophobic, misogynist, anti-NHS, anti-workers' rights party. Every single one of them deserves nothing but contempt.

EDITED TO ADD: A rather more upbeat (and amusing) take on the election results, courtesy of the Wee Ginger Dug.

EDITED TO ADD #2: Wings Over Scotland makes the important point that, despite having been the incumbent government for seven years, and despite being the only party in the UK actively campaigning for MORE immigration, not less, the SNP not only held on to their two seats but "suffered" a mere loss of 0.07% of their proportion of the vote. In fact, due to an increased turnout compared to the last round of EU elections, they actually secured tens of thousands MORE votes. And yet the meedja and more than a few of their political opponents are busy trying to paint this as some sort of a crushing defeat.

EU elections: Scotland results

The final tally:
SNP - 2 (NC)
Labour - 2 (NC)
Conservatives - 1 (NC)
UKIP - 1 (+1)
Scottish Green Party - 0 (NC)
Liberal Democrats 0 (-1)

Jesus wept. Amazing to think that this time yesterday I was viewing this election solely through the prism of pondering which party I'd rather the SNP took a seat from -- Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems. Never in my worst nightmares did I countenance this scenario.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sophie's day out

This is Sophie, my elderly Basset Hound, in Ayr today visiting her friends Danny and Kitty, two Lakeland Terriers even more aged and decrepit than her. A grand day out was had by all, though Sophie was more interested in the food than in her four-legged friends.

Funnies: angry Natalie

If you ever wanted to hear Natalie Portman scream "Suck my dick!" now's your chance. It's an oldie but a goodie: the LEON and BLACK SWAN star's infamous Saturday Night Live rap from 2006 (circa V FOR VENDETTA, hence the very fetching short hair).

Do celebrities influence voter intentions?

Does anyone know where this dog stands on Scottish independence?
I really need to know.

This morning I switched on the TV and caught a couple of minutes of the actor James McAvoy squirming and avoiding giving any sort of an answer when asked by the interviewer, Sophie Raworth, where he stood on the Scottish independence debate. He's Scottish, you see. Never mind the fact that the reason he was being interviewed was so he could promote the latest X-MEN film -- Raworth (or her producer) clearly felt that his voting intention in September must be broadcast to the world. Alas, poor Sophie came away empty-handed -- McAvoy waffled on for an excruciatingly long time trying not to offend anyone's sensibilities, until the interview was mercifully brought to a close.

My first thought was "Does anyone really care which way James McAvoy is voting?" My second thought was "Presumably people DO care, otherwise they wouldn't spend so much time making hay out of it."

A veritable cavalcade of Scottish and non-Scottish celebrities have been courted to give their views on the independence question, and quite a few have obliged. The No side "boasts" John Barrowman of the SECC Christmas panto fame and Sharleen Spiteri from the band Texas (and clearly not the sharpest tool in the box, given that she said, and I quote, "We don't have the resources -- like oil and gas -- we'd need to keep Scotland afloat")... and David Bowie, who may or may not have intended his "Scotland, stay with us" plea as an open invitation to the whole of Scotland to lodge with him in his New York penthouse. (Though given that he communicated his thoughts through the medium of Kate Moss, it's possible something could have been lost in translation.) The Yes side, meanwhile, has the support of musicians like Annie Lennox, Julie Fowlis and Billy Bragg, actors like Brian Cox, Simon Pegg and Rhys Ifans, and a variety of others, some of whom have been listed here by National Collective. Yes Scotland was today touting Morven Christie as the latest recognisable face to publicly back a Yes vote.

But throughout the whole affair, the main sentiment I've been feeling is that it's all neither here nor there. I'll admit that I did, for a moment, think "Good on ya, Morven, I always knew you were a good egg" but at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter a jot to me one way or the other. I watch actors for their acting ability, not their political opinions. If they happen to chime with mine, that's great, and I'm more than happy for the likes of Pat Kane and David Hayman to weigh into the debate, given the insight they have to offer... which, I should point out, is entirely unrelated to their chosen professions. (And conversely, Sharleen Spiteri is the living proof that some people really should just keep their mouths shut if they're incapable of engaging their brains.) But I don't lie awake at night wondering how Ewan McGregor or Laura Fraser or (yes, Sophie) even James McAvoy is going to vote.

I very much doubt anyone would ever admit to basing their voting intentions on any matter on what actor X or singer Y thinks, but I'm curious as to how people feel about the whole affair. Do celebrities' voices have a genuine place in the constitutional debate, or is the fact that they're asked to express an opinion at all simply more proof that we live in a vapid, celebrity-obsessed culture?

And, more importantly, which is James McAvoy's preferred type of apple? Golden Delicious or Granny Smith? Surely THAT is the burning question of our times. And the answer will certainly affect which I buy next time I'm at the supermarket.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Pretty as a picture

Stunning background art from THE WIND RISES, the latest animated feature from Studio Ghibli and the swansong of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki. You can see more art in this gallery courtesy of the BFI.

As their blurb explains...
The Wind Rises is Miyazaki Hayao’s plaintive parable about the conquest of flight and the corruption of dreams. But it’s also a detailed historical testament to the Japan of the 1920s and 30s – Miyazaki’s father era, and a time marked by poverty, natural disasters and the country’s traumatic transition to modernity.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Danish splendour

The fantastic Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, one of the stars of the equally fantastic Danish political drama BORGEN. In my opinion, she consistently gave the best performance over the course of the show's three series, facing off stiff competition from a remarkably talented cast and imbuing her character, ambitious journalist Katrine Fønsmark, with a wealth of complexity that went beyond what was written on the page.

She's currently rumoured to be up for a role in the upcoming twenty-fourth Bond film -- news that I must admit leaves me feeling decidedly conflicted. While the Daniel Craig run got off to a brilliant start in terms of Bond girls with Eva Green getting plenty to sink her teeth into as Vesper Lynd (as my mate Mark pointed out in his similar post), subsequent female roles (with the exception of Judi Dench's M) have been a bit ho-hum. I'd hate to think of an actor as talented as Birgitte being reduced to nothing more than eye candy hanging on Bond's shoulder.

That said, speaking of eye candy, this post couldn't possibly be complete without:

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Musical musings: Tomorrow

The official video for "Tomorrow", the first single from The Cranberries' 2011 album "Roses" (their first since reforming), and in my opinion by far the best track on the disc.

And just for good measure, here's Dolores:

Friday, 16 May 2014

Fault lines

Political musing for the day: I'm intrigued by how readily Labour have inherited the mantle of the "nasty party" from the Tories in Scotland.

I'll explain...

"Right wing" and "left wing" are relative concepts, determined based on where on the left-right spectrum the current political consensus lies. In England, the influence of UKIP (among other factors) has and continues to drag politics ever further to the right, to the extent that we now have a situation where, in many respects, the Conservative Party of the 70s, if it existed today, would be to the left of the current Labour Party. (From a US perspective, where many conservatives hilariously refer to the right-leaning Barack Obama as "socialist", the entire UK political system probably still looks pretty left-wing.)

How the parties have shifted since the 70s (courtesy of Political Compass)

In Scotland, despite all the claims of the Better Together/Project Fear mob to the contrary, the political climate is substantially different, and the Lib/Lab/Con hegemony that defines Westminster politics doesn't exist. The Tories, while not wholly extinct (yet), are now little more than a protest vote north of border, and the two main parties, between whom every election is primarily contested, are not the Tories and Labour but rather Labour and the SNP. The SNP, despite having attracted the nickname "Tartan Tories" in decades gone by, have long since outflanked Labour on the left, campaigning on a platform that is pro-immigration, social justice, Welfare State and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Scottish Labour, whose policies are designed in their entirety by the broader British Labour Party, find themselves in the unenviable position of having to sell policies decided to appease UKIP supporters to an electorate that is largely social democratic in its principles, if not full-on socialist. This, no doubt, is why so much of what comes out of SLab representatives' mouths is so hopelessly muddled and the calamitous Johann Lamont (SLab's "leader" -- though she has no real power) routinely contradicts herself and has to deny ever saying things that are a matter of record. (Her call to end free universal benefits and her "something for nothing country" comment, which she denies ever having made despite it being available on YouTube for all to see, are a case in point.)

The result of this is that Labour is in terminal decline in Scotland. They may not have suffered a Tory-style wipe-out yet, but I'm convinced that they're well on the road to it. The writing was on the wall in the aftermath of the 2011 Holyrood election, where the SNP won an outright majority in an electoral system that was supposed to prevent such an outcome ever happening, taking seats in areas that had been held by Labour (in Westminster and local elections) for nigh on a century. The "I vote Labour 'cos my da voted Labour" contingent is still substantial, but the party's grip on the electorate is weakening, due to a combination of anger at Blair's lies, the Iraq war and widespread corruption in local politics, and the fact that there's little point in voting for a party whose greatest aspiration is to be minutely less brutal than the Tories when there exists a credible centre-left alternative in the form of the SNP (and smaller parties like the Greens and Scottish Socialists, who have a far better chance of being elected in Holyrood which uses the D'Hondt system of proportional representation than in Westminster with its archaic and profoundly anti-democratic First Past the Post).

If the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour represent the right, centre and left of Westminster politics, then I would argue that the right, centre and left of Scottish politics are effectively represented by Labour, the SNP and Scottish Green Party respectively. (Let's ignore for a moment the fact that the Lib Dems and Tories still have more seats at Holyrood than the Greens -- by demonstrating a willingness to work constructively with the government rather than opposing it for opposition's sake, the Greens have managed to make themselves a far more significant force in Scottish politics. The Equal Marriage Bill, for instance, was carried through parliament by the Greens' Patrick Harvie.)

So Labour are on the left of UK politics but on the right of Scottish politics. (I'm not going to get into Wales and Northern Ireland because I don't know enough about their respective political climates to comment on them.) And yet the dismal Ed Miliband continues to campaign under the spurious "One Nation Labour" banner... nicked, incidentally, from former Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. If that slogan is not the perfect illustration that Labour have become the Tories (while the SNP has become Labour, and the Tories have become UKIP, and UKIP have become... well, they've always been a far more dangerous version of the Monster Raving Loony Party, I guess), then I don't know what is.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

At one with nature

South African model Candice Boucher, 2010.

Japanese multiplication trick

Seriously amazing. If they'd taught me this method of multiplication at school instead of having us memorise times tables, I suspect I'd have been a whole lot better at maths.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Cara and friends

An incredibly alluring screen presence and a very talented actor to boot, Cara Horgan has worked mostly in TV, with guest roles in a number of series including LEWIS, FALLEN ANGEL, AFTERLIFE, WAKING THE DEAD and PEEP SHOW (you may remember Jeremy eating her pet dog). She also featured in the big screen adaptation of THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS.

This has long been my favourite photo of her, perfectly capturing that otherworldly allure she always brings to her roles. (It's actually a colourisation job by yours truly. The original black and white version can be seen here.)

RIP H.R. Giger

The demented genius behind the creature from ALIEN died yesterday, aged 74. Both he and his uniquely twisted vision will be sorely missed.

Full story at the Guardian.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Delicious, just delicious

From today's Sunday Herald, best bit highlighted.

The Blue Nile

Fantastically atmospheric photograph by Damian Shields of Glasgow's Renfield Street, taken from the headquarters of the Herald newspaper. (Source)

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, visiting the city for the first time, commented that there was no real sense of cohesion to Glasgow's architecture -- it was like someone had just grabbed a bunch of random buildings and dropped them down in a random order. I'd never considered it before, but I instantly saw exactly what he was talking about (and liked the observation so much I ended up pilfering it to use in a script I wrote). In addition to showcasing how striking the sight of light being reflected off rain-drenched streets at night can be, I think this photo shows off the city's characteristically "mongrel" nature to great effect.

Friday, 9 May 2014

The art of protest

Nigel Farage is up in Edinburgh this evening spreading his hatred and bile. The last time he came north, he was chased out by a small group of protesters from the Radical Independence Campaign, whose audacity in challenging his lies with honest debate was such a shock to him that he had to flee in the back of a police van and later launched a series of blistering attacks on Alex Salmond, accusing him of orchestrating the whole affair. (And later slammed the phone down on a BBC interviewer whose line of questioning he objected to. Something of a pattern emerging here, methinks.) The decided to organise a rematch for Farage's second visit to the capital, their turn-out swelling this time to include several hundreds of protesters from all walks of life, united by their opposition to UKIP's xenophobia.

I've been perusing the RIC's gallery from the rally, which contains some great pictures. (I particularly like the one with the "United against UKIP because..." placards, one of which reads "I'm a slut who doesn't clean under the fridge".) I wanted to highlight one in particular, though, because the placard itself is so beautiful. If you're going to hold up a banner at a protest rally, it might as well be a work of art in and of itself:

You have been warned

There seems to be a misconception among many of those planning to vote against independence in September's referendum that, in the event of a No vote, the status quo will continue. While I normally prefer to leave the scaremongering to the Bitter Together mob, seeing as it's their forte, I'll make an exception in this case. Those who are happy with the way things are (and if you're happy with nuclear weapons situated 30 miles from our largest city, the proliferation of reliance on food banks, one in four children being born into poverty etc., then in my humble opinion you need your head examined) really need to realise that, if we remain in the UK, things are very likely going to get worse rather than stay the same, let alone improve.

A case in point is the NHS. I've heard many people say that, since health is a devolved issue, they think the Scottish NHS is safe from the ruin being visited on its English counterpart by the blue, red and yellow Tories. In this video, Dr Philippa Whitford disavows that notion in the strongest possible terms. As she puts it, "In five years, England will not have an NHS as you understand it. And if we vote No, in ten years neither will we."

Regardless of where you live in the UK, this video is worth watching, as it's not purely about independence (though obviously, as it was shot at an independence meeting, that's its main point). It's also an excellent overview of just what is being done to the English NHS -- something that the media seems curiously reticent to report on.