Talk of the Toun by Helen MacKinven


I’m delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for a brand new author, Helen MacKinven, and her debut novel ‘Talk of the Toun’. ‘Talk of the Toun’ was released by Thunderpoint on October 29th, 2015.

Effortlessly capturing the religious and social intricacies of 1980’s Scotland, this debut novel is a perfect mix of pathos and humour as two girls wrestle with the complications of growing up and exploring who they really are.

I’m even more pleased that Helen has agreed to provide a guest post for me on the fascinating topic of unlikeable characters in novels, which you can read below.

About Helen:

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Helen MacKinven writes contemporary Scottish fiction, with a particular interest in exploring themes such as social class and identity, using black comedy and featuring Scots dialect. She graduated with merit from Stirling University with an MLitt in Creative Writing in 2012.

In her day job Helen MacKinven works with numbers, travelling all over Scotland to deliver teacher training in maths.

About ‘Talk of the Toun’:

Seonaid Francis, Director of ThunderPoint Publishing said, ‘Helen MacKinven has caught the pain and angst of growing up in small town Scotland with charm, courage and humour.’

Well known Scottish author Karen Campell says Talk of the Toun is: ‘Fresh, fierce and funny, this deftly-drawn clash of small town life versus big ambition is a sharp and poignant study of growing up in 1980s Scotland. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry… you’ll cringe.’

Novel Summary

She was greetin’ again. But there’s no need for Lorraine to be feart, since the first day of primary school, Angela has always been there to mop up her tears and snotters.’

An uplifting black comedy of love, family life and friendship, ‘Talk of the Toun’ is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale set in the summer of 1985, in working class, central belt Scotland.

Lifelong friends Angela and Lorraine are two very different girls, with a growing divide in their aspirations and ambitions putting their friendship under increasing strain.

Artistically gifted Angela has her sights set on art school, but lassies like Angela, from a small town council scheme, are expected to settle for a nice wee secretarial job at the local factory. Her only ally is her gallus gran, Senga, the pet psychic, who firmly believes that her granddaughter can be whatever she wants.

Though Lorraine’s ambitions are focused closer to home Angela has plans for her too, and a caravan holiday to Filey with Angela’s family tests the dynamics of their relationship and has lifelong consequences for them both.

Effortlessly capturing the religious and social intricacies of 1980’s Scotland, ‘Talk of the Toun’ is the perfect mix of pathos and humour as the two girls wrestle with the complications of growing up and exploring who they really are.

A guest post from Helen – Unlikeable Characters:

When I read a novel, I’m hoping to meet an interesting new character. I don’t need to like the character to make them interesting; in fact I often find the more unlikeable, the more interesting. Nice is boring.  But introduce me to a flawed complex character I want to know more, why do they behave the way in which they do? What’s the root cause of their antisocial, illegal, immoral actions? What makes them tick? I know that goody two shoes won’t step out of line so unlikeable characters are the ones I want to follow their next move. I might be horrified but like rubber-necking a car crash, it’s hard to resist a peek.

One of the most unlikeable characters I’ve encountered in the movies has to be Jordan Belfort in Wolf in Wall Street.  I watched the film in a cinema in Falkirk and whilst I felt repelled by the debauchery on display, many in the audience laughed and in my opinion completely missed the point.  But the common factor between those guffawing and those who were cringing was that we were all fascinated and glued to the screen. I loved the film, not because I admired Jordan Belfort but because it was an excellent portrayal of how greed can create a monster.

I’m drawn to unlikeable characters in fiction too.  One of my favourite books from my teenage years was Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. What’s to like about the cynical Holden Caulfield?  For me, he captured the naivety of youth and as antihero he evoked a sense of empathy in me for his struggle to find his place in the world.

Another of my favourite books is The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe where we meet Francie Brady whose troubled childhood stimulates a violent fantasy world. Again, you might ask why a reader would want to spend time with a boy who commits a brutal murder. Because he makes you think, he makes you wonder and he gives a new perspective on an unfamiliar world.

When I started to write Talk of the Toun, I wanted to write a book I would want to read.  But I didn’t set out to create an unlikeable character in Angela, simply an authentic one. That was why I was surprised to read a review that Angela, “did not come across to me like a nice person in the slightest”.  However the reviewer added, “That said, the dislike wasn’t something to put me off reading this novel. If anything, I wanted to see what would happen to Angela and to her friends and family”. I sat back with a contented sigh, uttering, “Excellent, my work here is done”.

If I’ve managed to provoke a strong reaction in a reader I’ve achieved my goal. Angela is as flawed as Jordan, Holden and Francie but her gran shows her unconditional love. Her gran sees beyond Angela’s attitude and actions and recognises that her granddaughter is an insecure teenager who has a lot to learn in life. I’m not expecting readers to like Angela, but I would like them to appreciate that she’s not inherently a bad person; she simply makes major errors of judgement through a lack of maturity and self-confidence.  Unlikeable or not, Angela is a complex character and one I hope readers will want to spend time with to discover whether she pays for her mistakes or not.

My Review of Talk of the Toun:

For the first few sentences I didn’t think I was going to like Helen MacKinven’s book because of the strong dialect in direct speech, but within moments I was hooked. The first person voice is impossible to ignore and before you know where you are you’re living Angela’s life with her. I would defy any reader not to find part of themselves or someone they know in her personality.

‘Talk of the Toun’ is so enjoyable on many levels. Firstly the consistency of the writing with such an identifiable personality of Angela coming through, means that a reader has to admire Helen MacKinven’s authorial skill. All the characters are such real people. Seventeen year old Angela is a liar, a glutton and a bully to her younger sister. She is also loyal, brave and caring. Lorraine is spoilt and fickle, but also burdened with the responsibility of a handicapped younger sister and a mother whose religion is surface deep only and not so well reflected in her actions. No wonder Lorraine behaves as she does at times.

Other than a caravan holiday, the events are actually relatively few, but somehow completely remind the reader of what it was like to be on the brink of independent adulthood. I found the songs, the descriptions, the food all combined to take me right back to the early 1980s and although I was a few years older then than Angela and Lorraine then, I could identify completely with their hopes and fears, their internal emotional battles and their approach to the world around them. It really did feel as if Helen MacKinven had been inside my head. This is such evocative writing.

At times, the language is quite strong, as are references to bodily functions and sexual practices, but nothing is gratuitous or out of place. I found ‘Talk of the Toun’ thoroughly engaging. Occasionally I laughed out loud. I frequently shared memory jerking passages with my husband and once or twice I even shed a tear. Great stuff!

Further Information

ThunderPoint Publishing Ltd., a Publisher Member of Publishing Scotland, was established in 2012, has six novels in print with ten further titles scheduled for publication from 2015 through to 2018.

Seonaid Francis grew up in Glasgow and graduated from Strathclyde University and later with a MLitt (Distinction) from UHI. She has worked around the world in China, Hong Kong, Turkey and France.

Talk of the Toun is available in ebook and paperback from selected bookshops, Amazon UKAmazon US and other online retailers.; 07909588822;

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