The best writers in Scotland, including Christopher Brookmyre, John Burnside and Janice Galloway, pick out the crème de la crème of 2013’s books
The books I have enjoyed reading most this year all seem to deal with the American Dream (as most American novels do in one way or another) and the way it leads the individual into tragedy and self-knowledge. Firstly, The Son (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) by Philipp Meyer, an epic tale of the coming-of-age of Texas. Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain (Canongate, £8.99) is probably my favourite book of the year, a smart, funny, sad tale of soldiers on a publicity tour around the States. I also admired Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (NYRB Classics, £8.99), a writer who has been re-discovered this year. Rather galling once you’re dead, I imagine. Stoner is the book that has garnered the attention but I prefer this earlier take on the Western genre. Like The Son, it has some gory, visceral passages that are not for the faint-hearted. And lastly, a shout-out for a young adult novel being published next year, Half Bad by Sally Green (Penguin, March) the first of a trilogy about witches. It’s being called the new Hunger Games and there’s not a boarding-school in sight.
Just as I only really “got” Bob Dylan after reading his book Chronicles, I only really “got” Morrissey after his quite wonderful Autobiography (Penguin Classics, £8.99) Affecting, viperish, hilarious and sad, like the man himself. I also thought that, whatever you think of the club, Follow We Will: The Fall and Rise of Rangers (Luath, £9.99) offered a vital corrective to the media’s narrative about the club’s liquidation, from the fan’s perspective. Cruel Brittania by Ian Cobain (Portobello Books, £9.99), lays waste to the moral high ground claimed by our governments, detailing how the UK pioneered and implemented various torture techniques.
This year saw a brilliant new translation of a wonderful book from the previous century. Michael Hoffman, super poet, brings his talents to bear on Joseph Roth’s 1938 novel The Emperor’s Tomb (Granta, £12.99). This is a kind of sequel to Roth’s pre-First World War masterwork, The Radetzky March (which Hoffmann has also translated) – so this recommendation is really a ruse to make you read both books. Roth is Austria’s Chekhov. The same secular modern spirit, the same deadpan humour, the same wry understanding of the human condition and its random injustices – but set in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unforgettable, really great literature – and so rare to have it so expertly rendered into English. Treat yourself.
The Tartan Special One by Barry Phillips (Teckle Books, £7.99) was a deranged comic fantasy about the battle for the soul of Scottish football: inventively profane, horrifyingly inappropriate and utterly hilarious. Dundee has seldom seemed so unnervingly nightmarish nor such a playground for jaw-dropping insanity. Adventures of a Waterboy by Mike Scott (Jawbone Press, £14.95) was an endearing and appropriately elegiac account of a treasured troubadour’s journey from punk warrior to rock god to folk alchemist and all points in between. Also in the world of music, Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues by James Fearnley (Faber & Faber. £9.99) boasted elegant prose, heartfelt emotion and honest self-analysis that lifted it way above most rock memoirs. Finally, in a world that I’d have said needs more zombies like it needs more teenage vampires, I was surprisingly delighted by David Towsey’s debut Your Brother’s Blood (Jo Fletcher Books, £14.99). This “undead western”, was less concerned with staggering horrors than with a delicate and lyrical meditation on themes of loss and mortality.
It was a good year for poetry, with fine collections on this side of the water in Robin Robertson’s Hill of Doors (Picador, £9.99) and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Drysalter (Jonathan Cape, £12), while the highlight of the year across the pond was the very welcome arrival of Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion (Knopf, £16.05), a collection I will be reading all winter, so rich and complex rewarding is her work.Meanwhile, in nature writing, Birds and People by Mark Cocker and David Tipling (Cape, £40) is almost too wonderful a book to give away, but if you know a bird lover who has been very, very good this year, this book, with its lyrical and highly informed text and Tipling’s gorgeous photographs is the ultimate Christmas gift.
Thanks to Andrew Marr, I’ve recently spent several months catching up on the last 4.5 billion years. His highly readable A History of the World (Pan, £8.99) is utterly compelling. Marr is such an engaging writer that I wish he’d been my history teacher, too. Hamish Whyte’s poetry anthology Scottish Cats (Birlinn, £9.99) is a must for all cat-lovers. Beautifully designed and scampering along from Robert Henryson to Diana Hendry here’s a tumbling litter of truly enjoyable poems. We have a dog, but still loved this collection. In Fair Helen (Quercus, £16.99), Andrew Greig tells us the story behind the ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea. He gives us what he does so well – an adventure story laced with genuine romance. Just right for a Christmas read by the fire.
Best read in one sitting, in a brightly-lit room, Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island (Salt, £8.99) is a mind-blowing, chilling tale. Strange and lyrical, it plays constant tricks on the reader. Totally addictive. What Long Miles (Bloodaxe, £8.95) by Kona Macphee is a revelation. Its vivid, powerful and, dare I say, perfect poems linger and grow in the mind like those dry flowers you put in water so they blossom afresh. John Connolly’s eleventh Charlie Parker novel, The Wrath of Angels (Hodder, £7.99), shows him once more on top form. This is another unputdownable thriller, haunting, deeply disturbing, yet full of humanity and compassion.
I loved Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island (Salt, £8.99), which has some of my favourite themes – a remote setting, literary rivalries and increasingly weird goings-on, with the boundary between imagination and reality crumbling away amid much dark humour. Linda Cracknell’s Call Of The Undertow (Freight Books, £8.99), about a precociously gifted boy and the map-maker who befriends him, is another eerie tale in a far-flung place, beautiful in its rich evocation of the natural world. My poetry highlight was Richard Price’s Small World (Carcanet, £9.95), full of linguistic invention and adventure, but also very touching in its exploration of the relationship between a father and his daughters.
Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (Virago, £12.99), the story of how she lost almost her entire family in the Tsumani, is possibly the most moving book I have ever read about grief; but it is also a very, very fine book about love. For grief is the black hole that is left in our lives when we lose someone irreplaceable – children, parents, a lover. It is the negative image which in its blackness sometimes reveals love with a greater clarity than its positive counterpart. And while in Wave love reveals itself by the bleak intensity of the pain of absolute, irreplaceable loss, it is in the end a love story, and a book about the importance of love – love of children, love of parents, love of a lover. It is a paean to the loving shelter provided by the ark of the family, revealed with terrible clarity by the utter destruction of that final emotional refuge. Meanwhile, The Broken Road (John Murray, £25) confirms that Patrick Leigh Fermor was, along with Robert Byron, the greatest travel writer of his generation and this final volume of his great Time of Gifts trilogy assures its place as one of the masterpieces of the genre; indeed one of the great masterworks of post-war English non-fiction.
Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing (Cape, £16.99) is an astonishing novel. It evokes place, character and time with beauty and precision. From a desolate Australian sheep farm to a remote island in the UK, a young woman’s dark and violent past is told in reverse. There is grim humour and flashes of light but Wyld doesn’t flinch from the difficult. The story is compelling, the structure ambitious and the imagery vivid. This is one talented young writer.
Ruth Thomas’s understated style (and perhaps her innate shyness) means she is often overlooked. The Home Corner (Faber, £12.99) shows why she shouldn’t be. Portraying being adrift in everyday life is her great strength – a real slow burn of a novel. The Other Hundred (Oneworld, £25) already has a blurb that does it best: “Selected from 11,000 images shot in 158 countries, submitted by almost 1,500 photographers.” This is a photographic album of snaps from the lives of 100 people from every continent who will never appear in rich lists. The fact that I have a very few words in it does not deter me from recommending it anyway. Loathe money/celebrity culture? Loathe saturation bombing of drivel? Try this. (And if you still haven’t read it from last year, Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal was out in paperback in this. Read it).
One of the books I loved this year was Goat Mountain by David Vann (Heinemann, £16.99). I enjoyed his previous novel and felt this one, about an 11-year-old boy about to make his first kill on his family’s annual deer hunt, was another step up. What occurs is a tragedy that exposes the social structure of four generations. Also, I finally read The Bridge by Iain Banks (Abacus, £9.99) and utterly loved its haunting, vast structure. It’s a coherent, rambling, compelling world and I highly recommend it!
Some poems and some poetic non-fiction have made the biggest impression on me this year. Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings came out in paperback (Granta, £10.99): a series of Montaignesque essays that celebrate the diversity of life while at the same time journeying through the cultural and technological landscape of humanity’s achievements – and threats we make on the planet. Robin Robertson’s Hill of Doors (Picador, £9.99) contains meticulously crafted and finely balanced poems, describing places as diverse as Ancient Greece, a cardiothoracic intensive care unit, Aberdeen and the Hebrides. I used to be a GP in Stromness in Orkney, and delighted in Andrew Greig’s latest collection, Found At Sea (Polygon, £8.99) A homage to George Mackay Brown, to friendship, to our seafaring heritage, and to Orkney; it combines lyrical descriptions of the light in the Northern Isles as well as an unforgettable account of trying to stand up to pee on a moving boat.
Though presented as a novel, Sebastian Faulks’s A Possible Life (Hutchinson, £12.99) consists of five stories set between 1859 and 2029. Once I got over the distraction of trying to work out the links between them, I enjoyed this vividly varied taster menu of a novel. For the sheer quality of the prose, I revelled in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (Vintage, £7.99), an ingeniously plotted, amusing spy story, with an unlikely and rather touching female protagonist. My biggest treat this year was I’m Your Man, Sylvie Symons’s biography of Leonard Cohen (Vintage, £10.99) – though reading about his greedily complex love life finally made me accept I was probably better off out of it!
Three outstanding one-offs: Shire by Ali Smith (Full Circle Editions, £18) – four ludic prose pieces mingling fiction, biography, myth, with Smith’s characteristic generosity of wit, intelligence, humanity and sheer writing ability. Bones & Breath by Alexander Hutchinson (Salt Publishing, £12.99) – the most energised, intriguing, enjoyable and unpredictable collection I’ve read this year, from a true original. Night Boat by Alan Spence (Canongate, £14.99) – a novelistic life of the key Zen teacher and poet Hakunin, and the fruit of Spence’s lifetime spiritual journeying. A unique, deeply absorbing work.
N The books published this year that I will be wrapping up in Christmas paper and putting under the tree all have a strong sense of place and atmosphere. First, there’s Sicily and the streets of 1970s Palermo in Giorgio Vasta’s weird and fabulous Time on My Hands (Faber, £12.99), a coming-of-age story that has a quiet sadism electrifying the lives of a group of young boys that leads them to doing something that will change them forever. Then there’s the London of Margaret Drabble’s Pure Gold Baby (Canongate, £16.99), a London that is rather more quiet and textured than the loud and globalised bankers’ capital it has become today, and described perfectly in Drabble’s distinctive, finely grained prose. Then back to Scotland, first Caithness, where my family are from, in Linda Cracknell’s Call of the Undertow, a terrifically accurate portrait of that remote and wind-sculpted part of the world. Finally, to Dundee where I teach, for a marvellously engaged story of one our great philanthropists. Mary Lily Walker: Forgotten Visionary of Dundee is by Eddie Small (Dundee University Press, £8.99), my colleague in writing studies at the university there. His book shows us how imagination and thoughtfulness can bring about change even when circumstances seem insurmountable. A great lesson for a UK society flattened by the excesses of capitalism – and inspiring indeed.
My most compulsive read this year was Olivier, Philip Ziegler’s outrageously enjoyable biography of Laurence Olivier (MacLehose Press, £25). Criticised by some for failing to engage with the plays rather than the psychology of the player, what Ziegler does superbly is give us the sheer animal power of the man who was for many the best actor of them all. Just occasionally on a long train journey I’ll pick up a thriller, so I was glad to get acquainted with an American new to me, Tom Franklin, whose novels are set in Mississippi. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Pan, £7.99) evokes the heat and complexity of the Deep South, as well as being a compelling whodunit. I’ll look out for more from Franklin. My most serious read was the book of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Edinburgh Gifford Lectures Silence: A Christian History (Allen Lane, £20). My conclusion? There’s been too much of the wrong kind of silence in the Church and not enough of the right kind.
The blurb said “an astounding journey of discovery” so I was ready not to be astounded. I was wrong. I loved every page of Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside (Fourth Estate, £12.99) which was personal, revealing, intuitive, mystical and quite beautifully written; a worthy sequel to Leviathan, which won him the Samuel Johnson prize in 2009. Next comes an astonishing work you need wrist supports for. Mark Cocker’s Birds and People, is 535 pages of text and David Tipling’s luminous photographs: a true magnum opus, revealing the whole ghastly story of man’s long exploitation of our feathered friends.
Kenneth Roy’s The Invisible Spirit: A Life of Post-War Scotland 1945-75 (ICS, £25) was so good I could all but not put it down: every home should have one. I bought it because Ian Jack mentioned it and his recommendations have never once failed me. In Museum Without Walls (Unbound, £18.99) Jonathan Meades shows that he has broad and deep knowledge, a good eye, rich rage and is not corrupt – what an antidote to the high-end fashion-cum-casino mentality that is debasing any serious thinking about art. And he writes well, which is to say originally and without falsity, inducing enlightenment and pleasure. David Plante’s Becoming A Londoner (Bloomsbury, £20) was a shameless wallow in lost time for me, since, in reading about this world, I see that it is one I too both did and did not inhabit: high-bohemian, mainly male, homosexual London Seventies society. Plante, a French-Canadian, sees it with an outsider’s acuity, hankering and disconnection, already nostalgic for his own present. And there is a strong account of one great, lifelong love.
Orwell, Rand, Atwood, Wells and Huxley created future dystopias which in turn shaped the world we inhabit. Modern societies sit somewhere between Orwell’s surveillance state and Huxley’s controlled hedonism, while our neo-con economies and our tech revolution are inspired by the Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Dave Egger’s new novel, The Circle (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is a timely dystopia concerning a supertech corporation (like a merged Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter) which is on the verge of “completing the circle” – connecting and sharing all information on everyone in the world. Anyone who has watched their kids spend hours a day divulging every banal fact about their private lives on social media will find this a chilling picture of where society is headed. A world in which “Privacy is Theft” and the hive-mind determines all. We will abandon our civil liberties and our selves, The Circle tells us, and we will do this without a bayonet at our backs but with full consent because “Sharing is fun.”
The Lockerbie affair will not go away despite the best efforts of governments and the Crown Office to ignore it. Twenty-five years after the bombing, two new books amass further reasons for doubting the official narrative of what happened: John Ashton’s Scotland’s Shame: Why Lockerbie Still Matters (Birlinn, £7.99) explains why Lockerbie is such a stain on the Scottish justice system, while Morag Kerr’s Adequately Explained by Stupidity? Lockerbie, Luggage and Lies (Matador, £12.99) effectively demonstrates how the bomb was loaded not in Malta but directly on to Pan Am Flight 103 at Heathrow. John Herdman’s Another Country (Thirsty Books, £7.99), is a lively memoir of Edinburgh literary nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, with some wonderful anecdotes about MacDiarmid, MacCaig, Goodsir Smith and the incredible but real Major FAC Boothby and Ronald MacDonald Douglas. And I am delighted to see The Collected Plays of Robert McLellan, edited by Colin Donati (Luath, £25), which gives us a long overdue opportunity to read McLellan’s fine, rich Scots dramas and which perhaps will encourage the National Theatre of Scotland to stage one or more of them.
The book that cheered me up most this year was actually published almost half a century ago. It disappeared in 1965 and it’s been bobbing up and vanishing ever since. I first heard about it over a pint of Guinness in a beautiful Enniskillen bar called Blake’s of the Hollow, when John McGahern, the great Irish novelist, suddenly asked if I’d ever read a novel by a man called John Williams. “It’s called Stoner,” John said. “It’s the real thing.” When I finally tracked down a battered copy, I found – of course – that John was right, and I recommended it to the newly established Vintage Classics. Re-published in 2003, with an introduction by McGahern, Stoner reappeared – only to vanish again soon after. This year, miraculously, it seems to have come back, permanently (Vintage Classics, £8.99). Too late for both Johns, but a great gift for the rest of us.
ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH
John Armstrong is an interesting Scottish philosopher now working in Australia. He and the prolific Alain de Botton have written an elegant and instructive book, Art as Therapy (Phaidon, £24.95) on how art can help us in the messy business of living. I loved it. Two books that involved a great deal of research are William Dalrymple’s magnificent Return of a King, (Bloomsbury, £25) an account
of the First Afghan War.
Dalrymple is a breathtakingly good writer, who injects wit and compassion into his account of a complex imperial disaster. Then there is John Eliot Gardiner’s towering work of scholarship, Music in the Castle of Heaven (Allen Lane, £25), which reveals Johann Sebastian Bach in all his genius. Lovers of Bach will find in this book everything they could possibly want to know about the music considered by some to be “the voice of God”.
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, £10.99) is a response to the death of his wife. Clear-eyed, honest and unsentimental, it’s a moving meditation on love and loss, the reality of grief, the power of art. The exact same might be said of Artful by Ali Smith (Penguin, £9.99). The book contains four lectures she gave at Oxford, but they read like a novel. It’s playful and profound, touching and funny, erudite and engaging, a pure delight. Finally, The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £7.99) is a single short story published in book form, and it’s a tour-de-force, combining the personal and the political to great effect (and showing they are inseparable).
A pair of orphaned teenagers have caught my attention this year. ‘Friday Brown’ (Hot Key) is Vikki Wakefield’s extraordinary debut. The Brown women’s deaths are always water related and always happen on a Saturday. Friday is on the run in this brutal but beautiful story of myth-making and companionship. Joe R Lansdale is a genuine genre-abuser – no one writes
violent, filthy, hilarious, horror-westerns quite like he does. If you’ve never read any violent, filthy, hilarious, horror-westerns ‘The Thicket’ (Mulholland Books) is an excellent appetizer. Turn of the
20th Century East Texas, and when Jack’s parents succumb to small pox he rides out with a trigger-happy dwarf and a carnivorous hog to rescue his sister from a vicious outlaw gang. It takes a heck of a lot of craft to write something so obviously escapist, especially when it’s continually asking questions about family, faith and justice.
I read Richard Ford’s Canada (Bloomsbury, £8.99) with a mixture of amazement and awe. Also some excellent stories – Alexander McLeod’s Light Lifting (Vintage, £8.99) and there was the partnership of Claire Keegan and Faber(£7.99) allowing one story ‘Foster’ to occupy a whole book. But what a story. I read a novel everybody seemed to be reading, Stoner by John Williams (Vintage Classics, £8.99) – written in 1965. As I shared in the admiration for it I wondered how many more great novels are submerged out there. Another voice from the past I have been enjoying is Denton Welch. His writing is intense, precise. It’s what draws you in.
JAMIE BYNG, Publisher
There are so many books I want to give for Christmas this year but Maps by Alexandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinsk is the book I will give most copies of. Originated in Polish, it is the most charming cross between an encyclopaedia and atlas with each page beguilingly hand-drawn and I cannot think of a better or more fun way for a child (or anyone!) to learn about the world. On the fiction front Donna Tartt’s magnificent The Goldfinch is the novel I have got most reading pleasure from this year. And if you are remotely interested in letters, I would urge you to seek out both Simon Garfield’s To The Letter and Shaun Usher’s Letters Of Note, two beautiful and beautifully complementary books that celebrate this dying art form.
JENNY LINDSAY, Poet and events programmer
Unstated: Writers On Scottish Independence, edited by Scott Hames attracted notice for all of the wrong reasons, with the majority of mainstream reviews or commentary limited to the “settlers and colonists” line in Alasdair Gray’s essay. However unfortunate this was, the debate that ensued shone a light on the importance of listening to non-party voices in the run up to the independence referendum, and many of Scotland’s prominent writers, alongside Gray, feature in this collection. Having read it only one month after I had decided which way to vote, I found it helpful and stimulating, yet often pleasantly confusing in equal measure! While some of the entries are of higher quality than others (Don Paterson’s reflections on ‘creativity’ and the state being of particular enjoyment) each essay is thoughtful and thought-provoking, regardless of your voting intentions.
ANDREW CRUMMY, Designer, Great Tapestry of Scotland
When flicking through the two books about the Great Scottish Tapestry It reminds me of how I came into contact with of some of the references. It being a community arts project, I designed and drew the overall structure of the tapestry leaving space where the stitchers could influence and put in references and stories. Some of the works I knew, others I came across for the first time. One book which I enjoyed revisiting was the first part of The Scots Quair, Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Requested by a group of stitchers in Aberdeen, they were keen on the final part of the trilogy Grey Granite, which I enjoyed for the first time.