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Stuff I Wish I’d Written

Stuff I Wish I’d Written: The Crow Road by Iain Banks

The Crow Road

I love plot, which is why I love genre novels more than ‘literature’, but Iain Banks’ The Crow Road is the kind of literature I could read at the drop of a hat. It doesn’t have much in the way of plot (until you get to the end) and concerns itself mostly with the meandering life of Prentice McHoan and his philosophical views on religion, sex, politics and idiots. So it’s a story about a young man finding himself, a theme done to death before and long after its publication.

But it’s so much more than that. Banks is a funny writer, always ready to off on a tangent and make you either nod in agreement, or roll your eyes at a rant he sneaks into many of his stories. But he’s always entertaining. Prentice can come off a little whiny sometimes, railing against a multitude of life-is-unfairs. And God. God plays a major part, with Prentice a believer. Or is he a believer only to piss off his dad, a strident unbeliever?

Coming home for his grandmother’s funeral (the famous exploding opening sentence), Prentice reflects on his life so far, and where it is going. He has no idea of course, but in the process of learning you get a feeling for his politics (“in certain areas [being an idiot] is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement”) and his connection to the beautiful Scottish countryside (“The flames had passed over those flattened blades and consumed their heather neighbours on either side while they themselves had remained, made proof against the blaze and guaranteed their stark survival just by their earlier oppression”).

I love the conflict between freedom and the ties which family require. His difficult relationship with his father represents everything he doesn’t want at the start, admiring instead the freedoms of his world-travelling uncle Rory. Slowly, the novel unravels his romanticism, coming to realise his uncle’s loneliness and the envy he held for the warmth of his brother’s, Prentice’s dad, family. Revelations that could come so pat are here portrayed in such a fashion as to make the reader get lost in the novel and realise them with Prentice, rather than seeing them phoned in from three hundred pages back.

The book never lets you settle into a linear path. It jumps back and forth at different timelines, sometimes making you wonder where the hell you are, but never annoying you. His depiction of children is fantastic. The way they react to storytelling from old Mr McHoan, who can pull a story from any object lying about the Scottish countryside and make it epic, while engaging in amusing banter from sceptical ankle-biters, gives the book so much depth you want to hang out with everybody in it. It’s as if you’ve known them all your life.

In the end, the novel turns into a mystery. Banks doesn’t make it abrupt, turning it from family saga to a crime novel at the flick of a switch. It comes at you entirely naturally, just like Prentice’s realisation of who he loves.

The book, then, is a must, something that put me in a trance rather than speeding up the pulse. I never saw the TV series, fearing it would ruin the book forever, but I think I might have to put in my Netflix queue and get on with it.

An absolute classic.

Further Reading:

A Funny Book with a Lot of Death in it, Jo Walton

The Independent’s misguided review from 1992

A traveller’s guide to The Crow Road

Iain Banks: the Final Interview


Stuff I Wish I’d Written: Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom

Winter in Madrid

Fantastic slow-burn historical spy novel revolving around three men who attended the same school and end up embroiled in the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.
The characters pull you in from the start, even the seemingly bland main protagonist Harry Brett, an Everyman persuaded into spying on his old school friend Sandy Forsyth – not for the first time. The British fear Forsyth is on the verge of finding enough gold to fund Spain into the war on the Axis side and want to either sabotage the project or entice Sandy into the service.
I love how Sansom pulls you into the grim city and plays with your political affiliations. When you’re with Bernie, you’re a communist. When you’re with Sandy, you’re a pragmatist taking opportunities under any regime. And when you’re with Harry and Barbara, you see both sides’ flaws. Sansom’s writing is subtle enough to persuade you in all directions without battering you over the head with politics. You will come to view the Republic as a painful lost chance in the history of Europe, destroyed not just by the Fascists and Monarchists, but also the communists.

Strong women complement the bumbling and deeply flawed male protagonists: Sofia, who burns to take any revenge on Franco’s regime, and is fiercely loyal to her loves; and Barbara, an Englishwoman lost in Spain’s contradictions, who finds her purpose and stability in fighting for the man she loves.

The story unfolds from a number of perspectives, all united in portraying Madrid as a scowling city divided by the triumphant pressing down on a cowed working and middle class populace whose Republic lays shattered around them.

The plot is slow-paced, and some readers might lose patience, especially with the ending. But the deep characters and rich setting keep you on the page until the climax forces sweat from your palms.
A great read.

Buy Winter in Madrid from or

Note: Image taken from Goodreads

Stuff I Wish I’d Written: Mythago Wood

I’ve never been a fan of fantasy novels, though I like the idea of them. The ones I’ve read all teetered on the edge of ridiculous, and most lost their balance. One of the exceptions is Mythago Wood, written by the now deceased Robert Holdstock. It’s hard to explain it without eyes everywhere glazing over and telling you to get a life, but here goes: it’s about two brothers and their relationship to the small wood by their Oxfordshire village in England. The wood is not all it seems, populated by physical images of myths, ‘mythagos’, sprung up by the collective remembering of mythical figures and places in nearby human populations.

Now, please bear with me (those 50 Shades can wait). As I said, the story centres around two brothers, one of whom (the eldest, Christian) has an obsession with his father’s research papers into the place. His perplexed younger brother Steven potters about, finding the odd diary entry from his deceased father, until his brother disappears. Steven’s obsession starts when a sensual mythago woman from Britain’s Celtic memory emerges, searching the lonely house and spitting at the mention of Christian.
That sounds better right? A bit of human drama. Steven falls in love with her as he realises she is the woman his elder brother has been so traumatised by. Christian disappears into woodland barely three square miles. However, getting through its defences opens up a parallel world inhabited by variations of the Robin Hood myth, King Arthur, lost Saxons, and a British WW1 Tommy who heartbreakingly discovers what he really is.

I don’t know why I picked this book up years ago, because its premise sounds ridiculous. Maybe it was the cover’s haunting look that grabbed me. It isn’t like fantasy at all, in the sense that it feels real and haunts you from the first page as a ghost story would. The build up is slow and it might test your patience. Everybody I lent it to has given it back unfinished, confused at the praise I gave it. All I can do in response is shake my head in equal confusion and wonder if they have a soul (you all do, love you really, mwah and all that), but they missed out.

Once the story gets going you don’t want to leave. Christian returns looking years older, steals the girl (the feisty Guiwinneth), carries her back into the woods (the core of which holds the last ice age) along with his army. Leaving Steven and his mate Keeton for dead, Christian becomes the hunted through an adventure that ends with a hand over the mouth (metaphorically obviously).

What a book. A strange one, yes, but one of the best I’ve ever read. If you like that haunted feeling you maybe got when watching The Others, I guarantee you will love this one. The best fantasy book ever. The only great one?

Note: I haven’t read Game of Thrones yet. And I’m open to persuasion about others (I do not like The Lord of the Rings – but the films were great).

Further reading:

Read an extract of Mythago Wood

A university paper on George Huxley, the brothers’ father in Mythago Wood. Worth a read.

Review by Jess Hyslop

Image taken from


Stuff I Wish I’d Written: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory
The Wasp Factory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s not to like about a loner on an island he protects with ritual killings of animals and insects? Who tries to tell the future by killing wasps in a factory he has created from an old clock?
How could you not be interested in the mad fantasies of a 16-year-old who blows up bunnies and thinks the female of the species is useless? Who killed three children before he was 10, and is blasé about it?
The reader ought to hate this character and his family. His dad is distant and is hiding something, and his brother is equally mad and on his way home.
When it came out, everybody seemed to. At least the snooty literary critics did, and the book loved hosting all their disgusted quotes inside it’s cover. Genius.
The book’s themes are many, covering gender, isolation leading to savagery, and Frankenstein (what mad experiment is Frank’s dad playing on him?).
It’s greatest achievement is to make you like such a central character, who you would cross the street to avoid in real life.

It is a book I wish I had written.

Arguments for reading it:

Born Free

Behind it all

Arguments Against Reading It:

Is The Wasp Factory redeemed after all these years?


Stuff I Wish I’d Written: American Tabloid, James Ellroy

Cover of "American Tabloid"
Cover of American Tabloid

The Black Dahlia was the first James Ellroy book to grab me by the back of the head and bring it to a business meeting with a knee. Its rat-a-tat language is like a Pete Bondurant punch in the face.
Aaaahhh, it’s hard to write like James Ellroy. I don’t know if I’d want to, but I love reading him (apart from White Jazz, which was rrrrubbbishhh).

American Tabloid is his masterpiece. It gets you in a headlock and forces you to eat gravel sandwiches. It’s about three seriously flawed men: Kemper Boyd, Ward Littell, and Pete Bondurant, all mobbed up and compromised by money. It’s about the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination, and the mob, FBI, and country music’s involvement in them (I made the last one up a little bit).

Whether the story stands up to historical inspection is not the point – Ellroy’s conspiracy is a fever that won’t cure until you’ve finished it.

The nuts storyline hammers the reader with its style. There are. One. Sentence. Paragraphs all over this thing, and it is hard to grasp for the first few pages. Once you do, you’ll hold on to the end.

It’s not to everyone’s taste. Some feel his rhythm keeps the characters distant, thus not letting them develop, and that the plot is just too wild and densely layered to keep impatience at bay. Well, the language is fast, but it has the immediacy of being written on one of those old typewriters as it happens (maybe by some hardboiled journalist). And when is any conspiracy simple? You just need to keep up and enjoy the names popping up: Frank Sinatra (mobbed up), Miles Davis (mobbed up, if I remember correctly), Jimmy Hoffa (errrr… mobbed up), and others I can’t quite remember.

His language is homophobic, racist, and expletive-ridden – but set within the context of the times it rings true. As one reviewer on Goodreads has put it: “I can’t decide if James Ellroy is the greatest living American crime writer, or a racist, misogynist, homophobic jerk. I guess both are possible”. However, read Blood’s a Rover and you’ll see only the first part of that is true.

If you haven’t read it, and you like crime fiction, I cannot recommend it enough.

I wish I had written it.

Further reading:


Is James Ellroy the best judge of his own novels?

American Tabloid sample


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