Ten novels to read over the summer holidays, including Queen Macbeth by Val McDermid

Ten recently published novels recommended by Scotsman critics

Queen Macbeth, by Val McDermid (Polygon) Everyone knows what has long been the story of Macbeth as presented to us in Shakespeare’s play. Now, in this latest volume in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series, Val McDermid tells it differently. Macbeth and his wife weren’t murdering tyrants. Shakespeare got it wrong or, to be fair, followed the wrong sources: taking the story of Macbeth the villain from Holinshead’s Chronicles and also perhaps from William Stewart’s The Buik of the Chronicles of Scotland. What we do know is that Macbeth reigned for 17 years and was secure enough on the throne to make a pilgrimage to Rome (the subject, incidentally, of a fine short story by Kingsley Amis). Of Gruoch, Macbeth’s wife, we know very little, and McDermid has made good use of the freedom ignorance grants her. (Allan Massie) Read the full review here

The Heart in Winter, by Kevin Barry (Canongate) The Heart In Winter is unmistakably a Kevin Barry novel, and it is equally clearly a Western. It has that distinctive combination of the mythic and the dislocated. That Westerns were never written in the age when Westerns were set perhaps gives them their out-of-kilter edge of strangeness, even in their dime-store origins. Barry winks at the idea of the Westerns as formulaic in a typical aside. Going through pockets not his own, the protagonist discovers “Second was a cutting from a Philadelphia newspaper of recent times that offered an article of instruction – The Twelve Rules For Writing Western Adventures. Tom Rourke took the cutting and studied it a while in grave and scholastic silence. Then, sourly – There’s fucken twelve of ’em?” Tom is a photographer’s assistant, amateur composer of ballads, ne-er-do-well and opium addict in Butte, Montana in 1891. He supplements his income by writing love letters for single men seeking to obtain a wife. According to one acquaintance “there’s a kind of witchery about him”; another maintains he “speaks to the dead… he believes that he’ll be with them soon enough. He’s not long for the stations is the boy’s own read”. (Stuart Kelly) Read the full review here

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James, by Percival Everett (Mantle) As well as being a staggeringly good opening, the beginning of Mark Twain’s Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn can almost read like a challenge: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” It is a mark of Twain’s genius that the absence of a “the” between the titles is meaningful. Robert Coover, one of the great contemporary American post-modernists, took up the challenge, in part, by writing a sequel, Huck Out West, putting and pitting the character against the Civil War (such sequels are typical of Coover: Pinocchio In Venice is a masterpiece). Percival Everett’s James is something different: the same story, through different eyes, and therefore a different story. The eponymous James is, as you may have guessed, Twain’s escaped slave Jim. (Stuart Kelly) Read the full review here

Author Val McDermid. Picture: Lisa FergusonAuthor Val McDermid. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Author Val McDermid. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Glasgow Boys, by Margaret MacDonald (Faber) The phrase “care experienced young people” rolls easily off the tongues of 21st century policy-makers. Promises are made, to and about young people in care; and some of those promises are even kept. Behind the words, though, lie whole worlds of pain and trauma, poverty and deprivation, addiction and loss, and an aching absence of the parental love and care that is every child’s birthright; and Margaret McDonald’s debut novel Glasgow Boys offers a journey into the heart of that experience, through the intertwined lives of two young boys – Banjo and Finlay – growing up in the care system in and around Glasgow. Banjo and Finlay first meet around the age of 14, in a transitional care home where they are both briefly resident. In a gruff and silent way, barely ever put into words, the two room-mates become friends and something more than friends – almost like family, or blood brothers, who look out for each other. (Joyce McMillan) Read the full review here

This Strange Eventful History, by Claire Messud (Fleet) Sometimes when you have read, enjoyed, admired a novel, and then read it again, you may go over the top and declare it a masterpiece. You shouldn’t of course. A masterpiece takes time to settle. How will you remember the novel? Will you have the same high opinion of it next year and in years to come? Nevertheless, there is the word throbbing in your head. Many a novel hailed as such has only a short life. Ca’ canny, an inner voice mutters. Be that as it may This Strange Eventful History is wonderfully enjoyable, intelligent, perceptive, moving. It may be called a family saga, the family being Claire Messud’s own one, and family sagas are sometimes viewed rather patronizingly these days. They shouldn’t be. It all depends on how the thing is done. That, in fiction, is what matters most, and this one – family history imagined, realized and created in the form of a novel – is done very well indeed. It spans more than a hundred years, though the early years are recovered only at the end of the novel and the narrative begins in June 1940 – ominous month – in Algeria, where a small boy, Francois, is writing to his father, Gaston, a naval officer, currently an attache in Salonica. (Allan Massie) Read the full review here

You Are Here, by David Nicholls (Sceptre) You Are Here is an unusual novel, unusual for our time anyway. It is amusing and true to life. It is gentle, free from fashionable extravagance. There is no showing-off and no oddity. The characters are recognizable middle-class people, the two principal ones being a teacher, Michael, and Marnie, a freelance copy editor. Both are in the second half of their thirties. Both are solitary, after failed marriages. Both are likeable and have friends who worry about them. Michael is clearly unhappy, Marnie less obviously so. A friend they have in common reckons, perhaps rightly, they need to snap out of their willful isolation. Michael’s takes the form of long solitary walks. Marnie confines herself to her small London flat. She is an admirably conservative editor: “it would be a knife through her heart should a ‘whose’ pass for a ‘who’s.’” There is a vey funny passage, to long to quote in full here, when, on a train north, she is editing what is described as an “erotic thriller”. She is on the train because Cleo, her friend and also Michael’s, has nagged her into joining a weekend walking party crossing the north of England from the Solway to the East Coast, though it is clear from the start that only Michael may last the full trip. However, Cleo’s intention is clear. They will both snap out of themselves, though she has also supplied an alternative friend for Marnie: Conrad, a South London pharmacist. (Allan Massie) Read the full review here

Caledonian Road, by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber) It is a surprise to see a duke listed in the cast list of Andrew O’Hagan’s vast new novel. Anyone shocked may be reassured, however. Anthony, Duke of Kendall, is stupid, greedy, dishonest, in hock to a Russian tycoon and swims in corruption – an emblematic figure of Britain today, if also a comic one. O’Hagan has written an enthralling, up-to-date and yet very old-fashioned novel in the grand Victorian manner, recalling Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and Ouida’s masterpiece The Massarenes. It is 21st century Vanity Fair without the bitter comedy, Disraeli’s “two nations – the rich and the poor”, both now drug-addicted and mostly engaged in criminality. There are only a few honest, respectable, hard-working people, so not all life is here and much of what is on view is rotten. If the rich stink of Russian money, laundered with the help of corrupt Labour and Tory peers, energetic lower-class criminals around Caledonian Road have their Russian sponsor too, as they engage in people smuggling and run cannabis farms in Kent. O’Hagan’s London is a horrible place, but he does make it compellingly alive. (Allan Massie) Read the full review here

Percival EverettPercival Everett
Percival Everett

Enlightenment, by Sarah Perry (Cape) Towards the end of Sarah Perry’s new novel, there is a moment of outrageous chutzpah. “On the second evening in August”, she writes, “Thomas abandoned his manuscript with a cry of disgust – at his imagination, vocabulary, wisdom, phrases, capacity for characterisation, and in fact the whole absurd enterprise of literature.” For this not to be a flagrant hostage to fortune, the writer has to be not just confident and competent but somehow both sportive and at ease with their own abilities. It also stakes a claim which is almost old fashioned: that literature is in fact not an absurd enterprise, and that even a novel as delightful as this can have a serious purpose. Thomas is Thomas Hart, a resident of Aldleigh and an amiable columnist on the Essex Chronicle, mostly writing until recently about local history and folklore; although when younger he had written a few opaque novels. Given this is a novel much concerned with ellipses, the other focal point, the F2 to his F1, is Grace Macaulay, a teenage girl who “disliked books, and was by nature a thief if she found a thing to be beautiful but not hers”. Both are congregants at the Bethesda Chapel, of the Strict Baptist denomination. Thomas is a godfather manqué to Grace, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father, Ronald, “the most pious and the most stern” member, brought her to the chapel at six days old. There is something self-consciously Victorian about a semi-foundling and a confirmed bachelor. (Stuart Kelly) Read the full review here

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Rabbits, by Hugo Rifkind (Polygon) Hugo Rifkind is an accomplished journalist whose columns and reviews I always read, usually with pleasure. Now, in his forties, he has written his first novel, a coming-of-age story set in, mostly, Edinburgh, Perthshire and Cambridge in the mid-1990s. It is hard not to identify the narrator, Tommo, with Rifkind himself, but important to remember that while fiction draws on life, it also transforms it. Here a subtitle might be “illusions and losing them”. Tommo is at a boarding school in East Lothian, gone there from a recognizable day-school because his mother is ill and frequently in hospital and his father has had success with crime novels (to Tommo’s embarrassment), featuring a butler as detective, and is often in London on account of films and TV. The boarding school is rough and wild, much smoking, drinking and drug-taking. It belongs in the Victorian age, Victorian fiction anyway, except that there are girls, lots of them. I got confused throughout the novel about which girl was which. Perhaps Tommo did likewise. His best friends, however, are male: Alan, who is cool and intellectual, and Johnnie who is different. Reflecting now, Tommo calls him “charismatic” and wonders if he may have had a crush on him. (Allan Massie) Read the full review here

Long Island, by Colm Tóibín (Picador) Long Island, a sequel 20 years on to Colm Tóibín’s most popular novel Brooklyn, begins strikingly with a challenge that is both practical and moral. Eilis, heroine (I suppose) in both novels, opens the door to an Irishman who tells her that her husband Tony has got his wife pregnant and that he proposes to bring the baby to her doorstep. From the first she is clear it is no concern of hers. Her children are 18 and 16. Tony is ashamed and nervous of her. She is on good terms but not wholly at ease with Tony’s close-knit Italian family, a little wary of her mother-in-law Francesca, who announces she will see to the baby’s adoption. But what does that mean? In this difficult position Eilis will return to Ireland for the first time in two decades. It will be her mother’s 80th birthday – good excuse – and the children will follow her when school ends for the summer to meet their Irish grandmother. But what will she decide when she is there? And will she return? (Allan Massie) Read the full review here

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