Christopher Brookmyre, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith are among a litany of Scots literary stars offering up their favourite books of the year.
Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival
One of the sharpest pieces of non-fiction writing I encountered all year was Andrew O’Hagan’s essay “Light Entertainment” on Jimmy Savile in the London Review of Books. I strongly recommend it alongside James Meek’s timely novel about modern morality, The Heart Broke In (Canongate, £13.99). Meek’s fearless, thought-provoking book has a cast of characters including an ageing rock star whose taste for very young women leads him towards his nemesis.
My favourite non-fiction books of the year were Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99) by John Jeremiah Sullivan and the wonderful Sightlines (Sort of Books, £8.99) by Kathleen Jamie. Sullivan’s superb Pulphead explores aspects of US culture as diverse as the death of Michael Jackson, and a Christian rock festival in North Carolina. Jamie’s Sightlines is an exquisite set of meditations about humans’ relationship with nature, in locations as diverse as St Kilda and the Arctic.
A couple of years ago, the poet Simon Armitage set off to walk the Pennine Way penniless and backwards. From Kirk Yetholm in the Borders back to Marsden in Yorkshire, he paid his way by giving readings and shaped the resulting journey into a book. What’s so likeable about Walking Home (Faber, £16.99) is its size. This isn’t an account of barely-human endurance, it’s the sort of walk that most people might imagine doing, but with broader views and better jokes.
In 1957, the Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges published The Book of Imaginary Beings, a bestiary full of fabled and mythological creatures. Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings (Granta, £25) is a bestiary instead of the fabulously real, from Wunderpus Photogenicus to Fatheaded Congregants and football-playing fish. It’s a celebration, a warning, and unquestionably one of the best books of the year.
I wasn’t born when Alan Garner wrote The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but my pre-teen years were haunted by his tales of wizards and dark ancient forces set in Alderley Edge. It’s taken Garner half a century to finish the story of Colin and Susan, the 12-year-old twins of those early books. In Boneland (Fourth Estate, £16.99), they are 50 years older and both lost in different ways. This is very much an adult novel in the style of Thursbitch and Strandloper; part psycho-mystery, part cosmic myth. Boneland reads as if Garner has hewn each word from rock and spent decades diamond-cutting every line. The land juts through the flesh of the story, the legend-steeped landscape of Alderley Edge being the earthly bridge between the ancient and the cosmic. Intense, obsessive and dreamlike, often maddeningly obscure, Boneland is the one of the strangest and most beautiful books I’ve ever read.
Irvine Welsh returned to rip-roaring form with Skagboys (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) possibly better even than Trainspotting. His psychological mining into Mark Renton in particular is full, elaborate and rich and his viewpoint on society and politics is far wider than in previous books. Scottish debuts of the year were Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (Windmill Books, £7.99) and Allan Wilson’s story collection Wasted in Love (Cargo, £11.99). Between them they are ushering in a bright, young generation of vibrant, socially-committed literature. Meanwhile, Ewan Morrison has had a phenomenal year. His genre-busting short-story/novel/essay collection Tales From the Mall (Cargo, £9.99) redefines the possibilities for the form.
I was living in Nigeria during the Biafran War (1967-70) and so fell upon two new histories of that bizarre and savage conflict, one highly individual, one a historical overview. Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country (Allen
Lane, £20) brilliantly reveals the personal trauma of civil war, while Michael Gould’s The Struggle for Modern Nigeria: the Biafran War 1967-1970 (I.B.
Tauris, £56) is able, four decades on, to provide a fascinating conspectus of Biafra’s doomed fight for independence.
In the last few years Saul Leiter has emerged as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. This is convincingly proved by the magnificent retrospective of his work in Saul Leiter (Kehrer, £48). A must for anyone interested in photography as an art-form.
From excellent Canadian short stories - DW Wilson’s poignant Once You Break A Knuckle (Bloomsbury, £14.99), Alexander MacLeod’s quietly masterful debut, Light Lifting (Jonathan Cape, £15.99) - to one of the best war novels for years - Kevin Powers’ heartrending The Yellow Birds (Sceptre, £14.99) – fiction writers made this a vintage year. And not surprisingly, given the current climate, genuinely exciting books on politics cropped up everywhere.
Choosing from the pile is hard, but Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (Verso, £12.99) and Seumas Milne’s The Revenge of History (Verso, £20) stand tall in the pack, while US political prisoner David Gilbert’s Love and Struggle (PM Press, £15.99) offered the wisdom of a tried and tested radical to a new generation of activists.
I was utterly absorbed by Tom Wright’s What Dies in Summer (Canongate, £7.99), a hauntingly lyrical rite-of-passage tale that was also a compelling and disturbing murder mystery. It was flawlessly wrought in conveying 1960s Dallas, particularly in its language, and boasted a sometimes crushingly sympathetic authentic protagonist in the form of narrator Jim Beaudry.
This year’s Theakston’s Prize for best crime novel fittingly went to Denise Mina’s The End of the Wasp Season Orion, £7.99), in which a shocking murder in an opulent Glasgow suburb provided a route for the endearingly rough-edged and very pregnant Alex Morrow to lay bare class divides, snobbery and tangled blood lines.
I also eagerly devoured The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex by Mark Kermode (Arrow, £8.99), a joyously angry and very funny sustained rant against how the advent of technology that should have facilitated unprecedented feats of cinematic storytelling has paradoxically led to a failure of imagination in big-budget Hollywood.
The best book I read this year was Elspeth Barker’s Dog Days (Black Dog Books, £11.99). Published by a small press in Norwich, the books consists of essays on all manner of subjects but, principally, and true to its title, on the late summer of life and dogs. There is nothing cosy and domestic here. Metaphysical, truculent, devoted to liberty, drink and ancient learning, and tough as nails, Elspeth Barker is an authentic relic of the Scottish 17th century transferred to the Norfolk mud. Of one of her dogs, she writes: “His great ambition was to bring down a plane.”
Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Canongate, £17.99) is a book of courageous self-examination. The former bishop goes to the heart of life itself in the course of relating his own personal journey - compelling, challenging and inspiring, this is an autobiography that will surely endure.
Mariscat Press has just clocked up 30 years’ production of fine editions. Their celebratory anthology Cat’s Whiskers (£5.99) is a must for anyone interested in contemporary Scottish poetry.
This year saw new volumes out from three of our best younger writers, Ewan Morrison’s Tales from the Mall (Cargo, £9.99). Doug Johnstone’s Hit and Run (Faber, £7.99) and Zoe Strachan’s Ever Fallen in Love (Sandstone Press, £8.99) – don’t miss them!
Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music (Faber, £8.99) is a clever, moving book. On one level, it’s a story about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. It’s really about coming home and going away. But the words also play out as music, with themes becoming pipe drones, and melodies recurring as characters in the book. I loved it. You can enjoy it as a narrative; a collection of fragments you can read and rearrange; or admire it (jealously) as a piece of art.
I read Toni Morrison’s Home (Chatto & Windus, £12.99) in one sitting and was moved to tears. It’s a novella only in length: the deceptively straightforward narrative contains worlds. Home isn’t just a place but becomes a state of mind, a feeling of true groundedness.
I only discovered Ray Bradbury a few months before his death in June. The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman, £14.99) took my breath away. They’re some of the most brilliant stories I’ve ever read: visionary, achingly beautiful in their humanity, their utter completeness.
Ron Butlin’s Magicians of Edinburgh (Polygon, £9.99) is already being reprinted, and deservedly so. Witty, intelligent and heartbreaking, this is poetry at its powerful best – and I should know: I’m the man’s wife!
Les Murray’s New Selected Poems (Carcanet, £14.95) contains some of the most remarkable poems written in my lifetime. “Eye-and-eye eye an eye/each. What blinks is I,” begins ‘Shoal’, one of a number of poems where Murray voices a multiple, non-human consciousness. Never has the herd instinct sounded so alluringly powerful. Murray was an eco-poet before it became de rigueur. Though I confess I missed out bits of it, Adam Phillips’s Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (Hamish Hamilton, £20) intrigued me. It’s full of intelligence, shrewd readings, and allows you to feel it may be OK after all not to have done all the things you thought you were going to do when you were 25. Less reassuring and more challenging are the poems of JorieGraham’s Place (Carcnet, £9.95). The versification is strangely alluring.
Director of Aye Write! And Head of Glasgow Libraries
I backed the wrong horse on this year’s Man Booker Prize, but give Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) a go, not an easy read and it can seem impenetrable at times but well worth sticking with this ambitious, challenging stream of consciousness from one of our great writers and commentators. Gird your loins and read Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls (Walker, £6.99). This award-winning children’s book, based on an idea by author Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer in 2007, deals with the heartbreaking and nightmarish experience of a young boy facing up to his mother’s death from cancer – very poignant as Glasgow Libraries are developing a partnership with Macmillan Cancer this year. A very grown-up treatment of a difficult subject and I defy the hardest hearted reader not to cry at the end. I found two psychological thrillers, Sophie Hannah’s Kind of Cruel (Hodder, £7.99) and Louise Welsh’s latest novel, The Girl on the Stairs (John Murray, £16.99), very unsettling. Both chilling and disturbing insights into the female psyche.
India: A Sacred Geography by Diana Eck (Three Rivers Press, £10.99) is the summation of a lifetime of study, observation and travel and reminds us of a much older, more profound India underlying the media-land of call centres and software firms. I also adored Artemis Cooper’s biography of my favourite travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, £25). A one-man compendium of contradictions, Fermor was a war hero who was also one of the great modern prose stylists. He had the polished brogues, well-cut suits and formal manners of a pre-war British officer, and his conversation was peppered with 1930-isms – “ripping”, “topping”, “I say!”, “Frightful rot”, and so on; but on the page he was a soaring virtuoso with hardly a single equal in modern English letters. For many of us, his descriptions of walking through midwinter 1930s Germany in A Time of Gifts have the status of sacred texts. My favourite book of the year was, however, by Fermor’s true heir: Robert Macfarlane. The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton, £20) is his search for the ancient routes which criss-cross the landscape, and shows how far he can out-write almost any other prose stylist of his generation. In my humble opinion, a work of near-genius.
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (Picador, £7.99) is about a love triangle between St John Fox, his fictional muse Mary and his wife Daphne. Murderous, experimental, subverting hues of Bluebeard – it takes risks. Dark Corners of the Land by Adelle Stripe (Blackheath Books, £5) is a poetry collection with hair knotted in celandine stems and stone walls alive with copulating toads. Stripe’s poems are grounded in the blood of real life, in rural realities and the small Yorkshire town where she grew up. Her best work yet.
My first choice would be Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury, £7.99), not just for the descriptive writing but for the extraordinarily touching ending that still haunts me, months after reading. Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green (Macmillan Children’s Books, £11.99) is an unusually thoughtful picture book, where a small boy discovers the history of his topiary obsessed grandfather. Finally, Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man (Fourth Estate, £7.99) which the hero isn’t. Swooping from one angle and time to another, the story of a priest who has assisted a suicide is revealed by layers. Emotional depth, brilliant characterisation – a tour de force.
Precision of place, dialogue and detail make Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal (Cape, £12.99) a book where Oban – or somewhere like it – reveals the sharply universal. Warner’s trademark gothic seems more bonded to the form than ever before (glass coffins and the eponymous pedal are metaphors made real) and his pinpoint powers of description – whether of the affectionate ties between working/shirking men, the inexorable dance-sequence of a fight, the fragility of young love – are models. Make it win prizes. Let it welcome Mr Warner back home. On the subject of surreality, Vicky Jarrett’s Nothing is Heavy (Linen Press, £9.99) blends everyday miracles into the entwined fates of monkeys, chip-vendors and working girls in a humorously recognisable Edinburgh. Last, a lovely wee book full of unexpected poems published over 30 years marks the Mariscat Press pearl anniversary. At £6 from the Scottish Poetry Library, it’s a bargain.
Writers are often criticised for mentioning their friends in these round-ups and I usually avoid it. However, this year several friends have published wonderful books, so with no apologies, here goes: I’m knocked out by the simplicity and magic of Kathleen Jamie’s work in The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99). Ron Butlin’s The Magicians of Edinburgh (Polygon, £9.99) is a deeply enjoyable and witty take on 21st century Edinburgh, and having had a taster of Jacob Polley’s The Havocs (Picador, £9.99), out this month, I’m slavering for more. Regi Claire’s The Waiting (Word Power Books, £7.99) is a provocative story based on real life friendship and the first novel from Edinburgh independent Word Power Books; and Gavin Francis’s Empire Antartican (Chatto &Windus, £16.99) is a fascinating account of his stint as a base-camp doctor.
A book I’ve carried with me nearly everywhere for the last year is House Inspections (BOA Editions £10), a book of prose poems by Carsten Rene Nielsen, from Denmark. His woozy, image-based pieces made me rethink the way I write, and why I write that way. Not only that, they made me rethink the way I look at the world, a sign of a great writer. House Inspections is his second book translated into English by the US poet David Keplinger. It’s a thing of beauty. As is Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time (Bloomsbury £18.99). A novel about the death of publishing written by a writer who has just become massively commercially successful. It made me laugh and laugh; Jacobson does that to readers more than any other writer I can think of.
I’m picking Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica (Bloomsbury, £8.99) and Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes (Harper Collins Children’s Books £6.99) – both about frozen things, both with surprisingly warm cores. Walker’s approach is to tug at your heart and conscience; she points out that the Antarctic is warming three times faster than anywhere else on Earth, yet finding herself in a white-out, she speaks of being cradled by the intimacy of the continent. Nix’s thrice-born protagonist, the ice-hearted Prince Khemri, trying to follow the preordained path to becoming Emperor, finds himself emotionally defrosted by contact with a human. Heartwarming stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the company of Malcolm Fox, but it felt good to have the dour whisky-soaked soul of Rebus back. Standing In Another Man’s Grave (Orion, £18.99) by Ian Rankin is a welcome return for one of the most engaging characters of all time. Reviewing kids’ books I’m often amazed by adult readers who seem happy to miss out on so much great, great stuff. Like Jack Gantos’ brilliantly twisted autobiography Dead End in Norvelt (Yearling, £5.99). Or Margo Lanegan’s dark, mesmeric The Brides Of Rollrock Island (David Fickling, £12.99). This year’s most wonderful writing no matter who the supposed audience.
Gabriel Josipovici’s Infinity (Carcanet, £12.95) is a wondrous Möbius strip of a narrative that turns ideas of biography, memory and the making of art into a story that one reads with rapt attention, in one sitting. I also admire the curiosities and highly wrought surfaces of Alan Warner’s prose and his new novel The Deadman’s Pedal (Cape, £12.99) delivers all that and a groovy coming of age drama that is sexy and funny and dark. I’ve also been re-reading Paradise Lost with my students at Dundee – and pure heaven it’s been to dive back into Milton’s gorgeously wide awake epic of the fall of mankind. Never before has the sheer run of the poet’s words along the line struck me as being so ripe and round and full of music.
For me, the best books this year all came out of America. Among my favourites was Train Dreams (Granta, £12.99), the extraordinary novella by Denis Johnson. Despite being only 116 pages long, it manages to evoke an entire century of the broken American dream, seen through the eyes of railway labourer Robert Grainier. It has the feel of a modern fable, and is unbelievably moving. Equally as epic is AM Homes’ May We Be Forgiven (Granta, £16.99). A huge, sprawling tale of the most dysfunctional family imaginable, it is a white-knuckle black comedy about the vagaries of 21st-century living.
Ghassan Zaqtan’s Like a Straw Bird It Follows me and Other Poems (Yale University Press, £18.99) is extraordinary. Here is a Palestinian poet, who in his vision, painterly and precise, profound and mythic, captures the very essence of what it means to be human. The poems compel you, outrage and upset you, but also fill you with wonder. Zaqtan (fantastically translated by Fady Joudah) is not simply a great Palestinian poet, he is simply a great poet, mapping a complex terrain; he makes you see the world differently. The Book of Barely Imagined Things (Granta, £25) is another wonder. Surreally real, the creatures in this book come from the depths of the ocean to the surprising land. A very different kind of surreal world is imagined in The Panopticon (Heinemann, £12.99) a “holistic” home for young offenders where the inspectors can see the prisoners at all times without being seen. Written with great verve and brio, Jenni Fagan brings her heroine Anais Hendricks crackling to life. An astonishing debut, I have a feeling that Fagan is a name we will hear more of.
CEO Scottish Book Trust
Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money (Bloomsbury, £7.99) is thrillingly good and gave me the most joy this year. A small, perfectly-formed masterpiece, it deals with bastard bankers, but also manages to be a wise, compassionate and very funny satire on where we are culturally. Culture of a different sort comes to the fore in Iain M Banks’ latest SF novel, The Hydrogen Sonata (Orbit, £20), which deepens our understanding of the civilisation he has explored, magisterially, in numerous novels. Taken together with Ken MacLeod’s brilliantly dystopian Intrusion (Orbit, £18.99), which deals with surveillance, the ethics of genetic and social engineering, and coercion, one has to say that Scotland is producing some of the best SF ever written. Finally, Claude Lanzmann’s memoir, The Patagonian Hare (Atlantic, £25), kept me up at night. Best known for his monumental documentary film Shoah, a lacerating look at the fate of European Jewry, Lanzmann, a friend of Sartre and De Beauvoir’s lover, gives an account of keeping good faith amid the moral disasters of the 20th century and in so doing pulls off an incredible trick. Conversational and digressive, it is also very literary; flawed and partial, it is still a masterpiece.
I love a good short story collection, and Furnace by Wayne Price (Freight Books, £8.99) is definitely one worth reading. Each story is insightful, moving, and has a burning fascination with character. Bee Journal, by Sean Borodale (Jonathan Cape £10.99) is an account of Sean’s first year as a beekeeper. Each poem was written at the hive, wearing gloves and veil, a poetry collection, a performance, and a journey. The poetry collection I’ve gones back to most is The Swerve, by Julith Jedamus (Carcanet, £9.95). Read it, and if you get the chance, go hear her read.
SIR JOHN LISTER-KAYE
I loved Jim Crumley’s latest: The Great Wood: The Ancient Forest of Caledon (Birlinn, £9.99), a fine, on-the-ground analysis of a vital complexity of Scottish environmental history, handled with characteristic attention to detail. I am hooked on Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of the life of Thomas Cromwell. I thought Wolf Hall was as good as a historical novel gets, but Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) is even better. Prepare to be whisked back to 16th-century Tudor England and dazzled by Cromwell’s bright, witty personality. And two more brilliant Scottish reads: Sarah Fraser’s The Last Highlander (Harper Press, £20) the splendid biography of Simon, Lord Lovat who hedged his bets at Culloden and sent Frasers to both sides; and Karin Altenberg’s Island of Wings (Quercus, £7.99) a perceptive and passionate novel about a minister sent to St Kilda with his pregnant young wife in 1830. I live in Fraser country and I have been to St Kilda many times. Both these important books taught me much that I didn’t know.
I would completely recommend Vultures Picnic from Greg Palast (Constable, £9.99). If you want to understand what really happened to the Greek economy, what really happened in the Gulf oil spill, what really happened at Fukushima, where bail-out money really goes … and a lot more. This book will make you furious, but better informed. And I think Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) was a great thing – really a wonderful piece of sustained writing and passion. Just dive in and let it take you to good places.
Being a serial consumer of diaries and journals I greatly looked forward to the
publication of Events, Dear Boy, Events: A Political Diary of Britain from Woolf to Campbell (Profile, £10.99) and I wasn’t disappointed when it finally landed on my desk. Edited by Ruth Winstone, it covers the story of the UK from 1921 to 2010 and reads like a well-paced thriller. Sticking to politics, I greatly enjoyed Jeff Himmelmann’s book about the Washington Post, Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee (Random House, £16.87). It brought back the excitement of the Watergate years underlined the importance of a free press to a healthy nation. But, if truth be told, my most enjoyable reads this year were a systematic devouring of the novels of Jane Austen on my Kindle. Now that I’ve finished I might just have to start at the beginning and do it again.
Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (Granta, £12.99) is an extraordinary novel about an “ordinary” man – Robert Grainier, who lived in the American West between the 1880s and 1960s, who worked on railroads and logging,who lost his wife and his daughter and home in a forest fire. And that is about it really, except that it is breathtaking. It is very short, only 116 pages (but definitely a novel, not a novella), though it may take you a long time to read because you will have to keep stopping to recover from the assault of beauty, from the spare, clean prose that punches so far above its apparent weight, and from the tender, perceptive description of a sad little life, which is not little at all. I do not understand why it is not everyone’s favourite book of 2012.
ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH
Ron Butlin occupies the position of Edinburgh’s Makar. Office of that nature can be an invitation for the composition of leaden civic poetry; Butlin, however, has brought forth anything but that. His new book, The Magicians of Edinburgh (Polygon, £9.99) is a delightfully lively collection of poems that will entertain, move, and frequently amuse. Butlin’s range is extremely broad and this book confirms him as one of our finest contemporary poets. I enjoyed, too, Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy (Allen Lane, £20). This book provoked a considerable amount of timely debate on the question of how far we should allow market theories to be applied to social goods. Sandel is a highly regarded social philosopher, and his musings on the corruption of our lives by the notion that the market can decide what is worthwhile are timely. Do we really want advertising to penetrate every aspect of life? Should we able to sell anything? Where will the line be drawn?
Finally, two further Scottish books: Alistair Moffat’s Britain’s Last Frontier (Birlinn, £17.99) takes us on a journey along the Highland Line. This is an extremely interesting historical trip along the divide between the two Scotlands; another triumph from a highly accomplished writer. Guy Peploe’s magnificent book about his grandfather, SJ Peploe (Lund Humphries, £35), is a wonderful addition to the literature on the Scottish Colourists.
Until Further Notice, I Am Alive (Granta, £12.99) by the art critic Tom Lubbock faced its author’s premature death with full attention and love of life, in a way immeasurably generous to the reader; it shows nothing less than how to die. In The Deadman’s Pedal (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), a powerful novel of one boy’s maturing and work on the West Coast railway, Alan Warner gives us the recent past of Scotland, the roots of its present, love, our landscape, politics and music, in a prose that comes fresh and unstrained, perfectly original yet beautifully recognisable as being from this land. I also recommend Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). I’m late to graphic novels – bad ones are legion. But find everything this author has written. Every jot she makes on the paper enriches the baroque, painful, exhilarating story she has to tell.
Director, Scottish Poetry Library
Hilary Mantel’s mesmerising Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) deserves all the praise heaped upon it: author and reader inhabit the moment, and that moment is immediate, although 500 years old. You wait for ages for a book by Kathleen Jamie, then two appear – her poetry collection The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99) is just out; her essays, Sightlines (Sort of Books, £8.99), include an extraordinary description of sailing among icebergs, and her walk beneath whalebones is equally riveting. A first collection by William Letford, Bevel (Carcanet, £9.95), has the poems people loved to listen to this year: funny, unpredictable, energetic, touching.
As a judge on the SMIT Creative Scotland Book of the Year I must have run out of tantrums because Angus Peter Campbell’s wonderful collection Aibisidh (Polygon £9.99) should have won. It is simply beautiful, pungent and memorable. A complete contrast is Jack Straw’s Last Man Standing (Macmillan £20). Like Alistair Darling’s Back From the Brink of last year, it is honest and not self-serving. And finally, Tom Pow’s In Another World: Among Europe’s Dying Villages (Polygon £12.00) is a stunningly eloquent elegy.
It’s been a year of conflict, hope and its destruction; old forms are dying and volatile new ones are emerging. Any books that have not confronted these facts have been labelled “mere entertainment” and ended up in my bin. Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) marked a welcome return to modernist fundamentalism in fiction. The rush of ideas, the clashing of words and forms within are both inspiring and terrifying. At least revolutions are still happening on the page. Since the London riots, and the failure of the Occupy movement, it seemed that all that righteous anger against neo-liberalism was dying out. I was thankful then to find China Miéville fanning the embers with London’s Overthrow (The Westbourne Press, £7.99). His slim book is a weighty critique and a reminder that the tensions in society are going to flare up again and again, until we do something about the underlying problems.
Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child (Granta £12.99) is a strange and beguiling novel which gleefully and surreally escapes the tyranny of plot under which most detective stories are compelled to exist. It starts with a drive-by shooting but that’s the only conventional thing about it. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. £12.99) is a more mainstream thriller but done with expert guile and craft. Nick Dunne’s wife has gone missing, and the evidence points to a brutal demise. Nick is the chief suspect, but what has really happened? Flynn’s book is full of satisfying twists, turns and shocks. Grandville: Bête Noire (Jonathan Cape £16.99) is the third in Bryan Talbot’s series of anthropomorphic steam-punk graphic novels, featuring Detective Inspector LeBrock. The art is stunning, the story ingenious, and the in-jokes delicious, as our badger hero visits Paris to solve a series of art murders, including the demise of a crow called Gustave Corbeau.
I greatly enjoyed Jennie Erdal’s novel The Missing Shade of Blue (Abacus, £12.99), a clever, funny, thoughtful novel in which Humean philosophy interacts with complex human relationships against a finely sketched Edinburgh backdrop. The Deadman’s Pedal is Alan Warner’s finest work to date, a rites of passage novel set in the West Highlands in the 1970s, engrossing in many ways, not least in its portrayal of railwaymen in an age when their unions were strong. And I was delighted to see the late Alastair Mackie’s Collected Poems 1954-1994 (edited by Christopher Rush, Two Ravens Press, £22), an impressive assembly of original poems and translations, the bulk of them in Mackie’s fine, hard-edged yet ornate Scots: an under-appreciated voice from the second wave of the Scottish Renaissance, and well worth the wait.
Two good, and very different, books about poetry were published this year: Beyond the Lyric by Fiona Sampson (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), and On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell (Oberon, £12.99). I’ve also been enjoying two books of translations – or, more accurately, loose versions: Alice Oswald’s Memorial (Faber, £9.99), based on the Iliad, and David Harsent’s In Secret (Enitharmon, £9.99) – a selection of work by Yannis Ritsos.
I particularly enjoyed Richard Ford’s novel Canada (Blooms-bury, £18.99) for its masterly prose and glacial inevitability; Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) for its exhilarating recreation and re-invention of history; and Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House (Faber, £18.99) for its deft politicised re-working of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria (Canongate, £17.99) was as honest, moving and well written a memoiras you could hope to read; and, embarrassingly late, I discovered the poetry of Sharon Olds who is my top tip for next year’s TS Eliot Prize.
Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (Heinemann, £12.99) is a terrific book in all the senses of the word terrific, and I am still reeling from reading it. The story of a 15-year-old girl up against all the contemporary odds, it’s a shining, vigorous work, about spirit and itself calm and spirited. I love it. The other novel I really loved this year is Peter Hobbs’s In the Orchard, the Swallows (Faber, £7.99). I think this tale of love and division in northern Pakistan, about the roots of violence, hospitality, healing and story, is pretty near perfection when it comes to what the novel can do. And DM Black’s Claiming Kindred (Arc, £8.99), my first introduction to his witty, kind and scrupulously intelligent poetics, lit my year with its “gallant assertion of life”.
Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) deserves all the praise and prizes that have come its way. It’s a magnificent sequel to Wolf Hall, moving on from that volume’s broad sweep to tight close-up and intense focus. She’s raised the bar for historical fiction and set up anticipation for the third part of the Cromwell trilogy. I read two impressive debut short story collections this year: Light Lifting (Vintage, £8.99) by Canadian Alexander MacLeod – visceral, beautifully written and elegantly crafted – and Furnace (Freight Books, £8.99) by Welsh-born Wayne Price – post-Carver, post-Bowles and entirely his own man. Finally, there’s I’ll throw in On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell (Oberon, £12.99), a wee gem of a book, essential reading for anyone who reads or writes poetry.
Director, Wigtown Book Festival
Every week, it seems, another novel set in 19th-century appears, an avalanche of Victorian pastiche. Clare Clark’s Beautiful Lies (Harvill Secker, £14.99) is a psychologically nuanced melodrama about an ambitious MP (based on the radical Scottish parliamentarian Robert Cunninghame Graham) and his exotic South American wife, both of them threatened by a secret from the past. But what I love most about this book is the way it shrugs off Dickens to create a distinctive portrait of Victorian London, a city transfixed by a royal jubilee, the Olympian scandal of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, tabloid excess and political scandal. Clark very delicately spins out the parallels with today. For sheer fun, I’d also pick Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (Constable, £7.99), a compendium of bizarre utterances she has collected while working insecondhand bookshops (“Have you got anything by Jane Eyre?”). The funniest insight into the book trade since Black Books.
Two of the books I’ve selected are Scottish. I don’t see myself as particularly patriotic, they just happened to be the best. Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, The Panopticon (Heinemann, £12.99) is a breathtakingly poetic narrative about a troubled but humane Scottish girl in care of the state. Its big themes and uncompromising nature have proved too challenging for the literary establishment, trapped in their trivial and repetitive obsession with middle class couples in loveless relationships. Ewan Morrison’s Tales From The Mall (Cargo, £9.99) opens up new possibilities for the novel as an art form. Finally, Canadian writer Christine Pountney’s Sweet Jesus (McLelland & Stuart, $29.95) is a beautiful tale of two sisters and their adopted brother in a spiritual quest in the USA. A book of sublime potency, which addresses the great void and confusion in US life.
No historical novelist has written more powerfully of the trauma and pity of The Great War than Pat Barker. Toby’s Room (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) tells of an artist’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of her brother and the physical and psychological wounds of the soldiers she sketches for surgeons. Barker’s prose is as stark as an anatomical drawing; her mixing of fictional and real characters seamless and her story disturbing but tender: brilliant. Stylistically very different, but I admired every bright thread of Hilary Mantel’s rich tapestry of English court life, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20); the politics, intrigue, inventiveness of her language, above all the artistry with which she offers us the 16th-century mind. And for the unvarnished facts: Marc Morris’ lively history, The Norman Conquest (Hutchinson, £20).