Book Review: Queerbashing

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Queerbashing, by Tim Morrison, is a raw and searing account of the life of McGillivray, a homosexual who refuses to bow to the conventions of his time and remain silent about his sexual orientation. It would be a challenging book to read given the levels of contempt and violence he encounters, but the author writes with such a dark humour and wit that, at times, he had me laughing out loud.

McGillivray is born in the late 1950s, in Stromness on the island of Orkney:

“second from the top and over to the right on any competent weather map of the British Isles.”

The descriptions of living in a tight, religious community where even the clergy were regarded as too forward thinking by many of the locals, provided a spot on account of the attitudes I encountered growing up in Belfast. Children were raised to fear, above all, eternal damnation. Their god of love had been known to flood the world and kill all but his chosen family and a few animals. They were commanded to love thy neighbour but not in that way. Interest in the opposite sex was discouraged. Had McGillivray admitted to interest in the same sex then his neighbours would have solemnly prayed for his soul, and for the souls of his family, for goodness knows what had gone on for him to turn out like that.

McGillivray was miserable at school but he drank in the teaching, particularly from the religious zealots. When he left the island it was to study theology at Aberdeen University. He knew that he was gay but kept this guilty secret to himself. As part of his formal sex education his class in school had been informed by a kindly doctor that

“Everyone goes through a homosexual phase before becoming normal. You should not be worried by those feelings. Some unfortunates seem to get stuck at a particular stage of development but this is unlikely to be you.”

When McGillivray did decide to come out he opted to do so publicly. He was interviewed by a student magazine and challenged those who would quote biblical texts as proof of his sin. He accepted the stares from his peers who regarded him as a dangerous exhibit. He also had to accept that he would not be allowed to graduate as a minister of the Church of Scotland.

He moved south to London, experiencing anonymity for the first time, and then settled into life in Northern England where he found a job with the local council. He rented a house in a rough part of town, a decision that changed his life.

Where the chapters set in Orkney, Aberdeen and London are filled with caustic but clever humour, the narration of life in Grimsbrough is more poignant. Openly gay men were regarded as legitimate targets by many, including the forces of law and order. McGillivray had his friends but amongst wider company was required to accept personal insults cloaked as jocularity as a matter of course. When these attitudes spilled over into violence he was considered to have brought it on himself for being what he was. It reminded me of the assumptions of many that girls shoulder some of the blame for their rape because they looked attractive to their attackers.

The fallout from events in Grimsbrough provided a powerful account of the effects on an individual of such prejudicial attitudes. McGillivray was forever changed.

The story concludes with an account of a strange event in his later life. I struggled to navigate these words. I could guess at an interpretation for these last few chapters but am unsure what the narrator wishes to convey.

Despite this somewhat perplexing denouement I would recommend the book. It is short compared to many modern reads but packs a mighty punch. The skill of the author in presenting a dark story in such an entertaining way is to be commended. This is saporous, satisfying food for thought that merits wide recognition and debate.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint.

Book Review: The Bonnie Road

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The Bonnie Road, by Suzanne d’Corsey, is a highly readable tale of modern day witches, and society’s attitude to their activities. It weaves elements of belief and the supernatural into evolving religion and ritual through the ages to offer an intriguing take on what some regard as “nefarious, unnatural activities”.

Set in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1979, the story focuses on two forty-something year old women. Morag is a witch who is just beginning to open herself to the full potential of her powers. Rosalind is a struggling widow who has left her mother and son in California to offer support to her dying uncle. She had only previously met him when she was a babe in his sister’s arms. Morag and Rosalind descend from families who have been next door neighbours for generations. Their homes form an integral backdrop to their shared history.

On arrival in St Andrews Rosalind befriends Helen, a lecturer at the university. Through her she meets the handsome Angus, an archaeologist on the brink of a significant discovery in a field outside the city. Angus is the son of a minister and has strong ideas about what is proper and how he should treat the fairer sex. Romance blossoms but Rosalind finds herself experiencing a sexual awakening which shocks them both.

Morag’s innate abilities enable her to understand what is happening to those around her, sometimes better than they understand themselves. She is keen to draw Rosalind out and encourages her to put aside her inhibitions and grasp the experiences on offer. As well as Rosalind’s awakening, Morag is dealing with the tragic consequences of a philanderer’s games, and is attempting to prevent him from damaging others with his selfish proclivities.

Alongside the bubbling witchcraft is a view of the established church, led by a cleric who is about to experience what he considers a holy enlightenment.  Reverand Paterson regards Morag as evil, a threat to the stability of the society he wishes to preserve. He fondly recalls the days when such people could be thrown off a cliff or burned at the stake.

It is suggested that women played a key role in Celtic ritual, something that Christianity sought to deny them. The attitudes of the men towards the women in this tale make the ancient ways appear more appealing than they are often portrayed.

What sympathy I developed for Morag was lost in the denouement. Despite the obvious evil being dealt with I would have preferred a less direct retaliation.

I wonder how much of my aversion to drug fuelled, naked dancing and abandoning oneself to enhanced sexual urges is down to the societal conditioning which this tale explores. I am comfortable with my antipathy towards the coven’s method of retribution. I found the conclusion of Rosalind’s tale more satisfying than Morag’s.

This is a well written, unusual and compelling story that contains a fascinating level of historical detail. The mix of pagan old ways and its modern renaissance presented alongside the changing role of the church provoked reflection. Behaviours considered acceptable change over time. Not all change has been progress.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint.

Q&A with ThunderPoint Publishing

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Today I am delighted to welcome Seonaid from ThunderPoint Publishing to my blog. I discovered this publishing house when I reviewed ‘Talk of the Toun‘, by Helen MacKinven. Look out for my thoughts on another of their books ‘The Bonnie Road’, by Suzanne d’Corsey, later this week.

Without further ado, let us find out more about this independent imprint whose aim is to publish books radical in ideas, concepts and message.

1. Why did you decide to set up Thunderpoint Publishing?

I am a literature graduate and Huw works in business, and for years we had talked about running a bookshop, but moving around the world and living in unusual locations (Hong Kong, Turkey, France and now the Outer Hebrides) this was not realistic. Following our move to the Hebrides and with a lack of job opportunities I signed up for a Masters degree in literature of the Highlands and Islands with the University of the Highland and Islands.

After graduation I was no closer to finding a job, so Huw suggested setting up a publishing company so we could combine my love of literature with his business skills. Hence, ThunderPoint!

2. How do you go about finding and signing authors?

When we started out we launched our website, Facebook page and Twitter account to put ourselves out there. Authors found us and sent us their manuscripts. We were lucky that some great manuscripts arrived in our inbox and we have signed an eclectic mix of authors over the years. We joined Publishing Scotland in our first year and this has also brought us to the attention of authors. We have had lots of manuscripts sent to us over the years, but we have always only picked authors whose manuscripts really grabbed us, that we would be proud to publish, that had a voice that grabbed us.

3. What sort of books do you want to publish?

We don’t really limit ourselves to a particular genre, if a manuscript grabs us and we want to read past the first few pages, we ask for the full manuscript and take it from there. You can see from our list that the titles we have published are diverse, and we haven’t shied away from challenging topics, or books written in Scottish dialect either. In fact, those can be the very reasons we have been attracted to the books in question.

4. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

We have not set out to be different, per se, but every publisher is probably looking for the next great new book/author, whatever the genre. You could say we have not gone for the obvious. We have published books written with strong Scottish dialect, short stories, a novel revolving around the auld ways in modern Scotland, and magical realism, as well novels set in less well-knowns locations and dealing with challenging subjects (e.g. child abuse and mental health).

5. Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out?

Marketing is always hard work for new start businesses and publishing is a crowded, competitive market, with some large players dominating the marketplace. Bookselling is dominated by two main players in the UK, both of whom have near monopolies in their sector. Breaking into this has been challenging, frustrating and time-consuming and sometimes surprising. However, publishing and bookselling is an ever-changing market and there is always opportunity for new publishers and authors. Penguin changed the bookselling world when they brought out paperbacks, the chain bookstores changed buyers habits and Amazon has put more books within immediate reach of readers than ever before. This dynamic and changing market is good for independent publishers like us and we look to other Scottish publishers who are a few years ahead of us as an example. Sandstone Press, Freight Books and Cargo Publishing have all shown what can be done with determination and energy, and we hope to emulate their success.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

As to what books sell, it’s like any other product. Does it catch a reviewers eye, are the reviews well-written, are they seen by potential customers whose attention is caught? An author’s presence is also important and the more visible an author is the more books they will sell.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

We sell both hardcopy and ebook, through a range of retailers and wholesalers. Amazon dominates ebooks, but we sell through Kobo, iTunes and B&N too. We sell paperbacks through Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells and a growing range of independents. We and our authors also sell books at literary events, readings and any (non-bookshop) outlet that will stock a title. Our books are even sold on some Scottish ferries.

8. Plans for the future? 

Looking forward we have six exciting new authors signed up and titles scheduled for publication forward to 2018. We’ll have more Scottish crime fiction, and we also have some amazing Scottish historical fiction, and our first title of 2016 will be a moving literary LGBT novel, Queer Bashing, that we will shortly begin promoting.

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Thank you to Seonaid for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this small press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: ThunderPoint Publishing

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter: ThunderPoint (@ThunderPointLtd)

TOTTFC   bonnieroad  queerbashing

If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers « neverimitate

Book Review: Talk of the Toun

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Talk of the Toun, by Helen MacKinven, offers a mordant look at 1980’s working class Scottish life for a seventeen year old Catholic girl whose aspirations go beyond what is regarded as possible within her insular family and community. Written using the local dialect and language of the time, the tale is raw and uncompromising. It is hard now to believe that many of the goings on were then deemed unavoidable. One can only hope that attitudes have progressed.

When the story opens the protagonist, Angela, is looking forward to the end of the school term and the beginning of the long summer holidays. Her best friend, Lorraine, is to join Angela’s family on their annual trip to a northern English caravan site. Lorraine and Angela have been friends since they were four years old. They tell each other everything, and Angela dreams of them leaving home together to live in Glasgow where she hopes to go to Art School. Her parents have other ideas for her future closer to home.

The reader is shown life through Angela’s eyes. When Lorraine cries there are tears but also snotters to be wiped away; father snores and farts, emanating pungent smells; bathroom odours and stains are described in unpleasant detail; rooms reek of sweat, carpets squelch, clothes are marked by spilled food and skids. The lack of cleanliness and hygiene is regarded with distaste but accepted.

When Lorraine befriends another girl from school Angela feels betrayed. She remembers how she once saved Lorraine’s life during a play incident in a quarry and wonders at her ingratitude. Angela sees everything as it affects her with little empathy for the lives others around her lead.

When the girls meet the handsome Stevie, just released from borstal, he is immediately attracted to the slim and pretty Lorraine. Angela, large and overweight, is used to such a reaction but wishes to have her share in Stevie’s attentions. She contrives to meet up with him alone where he brushes her aside. When Lorraine then starts to spend time with him Angela feels she must act, for Lorraine’s own good, and sets in motion a series of events which will have devastating consequences for her friend.

Family life is explored. Angela derides her talented and determined little sister, who also aspires to a life beyond her upbringing. She despises her parents with their soap operas and nail pictures, not noticing that they are doing the best they can for her. Angela is close to her grandmother but too preoccupied to take action when potential health issues are revealed.

The writing evoked a life that I found hard to stomach: the casual acceptance of priests ‘fiddling’ with alter boys; the culpability of young girls who went alone with a boy and were then raped; the coarse and cruel language of sexism, racism and bigotry that was prevalent and merely shrugged away.

The reader is given an insight into the poverty of attitude and aspiration that a lack of money can engender in some. However, I questioned if my desire for Angela to change was simply a wish that she should become more like those I am comfortable with, and acknowledged the conceit and intolerance this lays bare.

A strongly written, discomfiting, coming of age tale in a setting close to home yet unfamiliar. I am glad to have read it, and now need to work my way through the thoughts engendered.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint Publishing.