Ullapool Book Festival must-read pile gets bigger

Louise Welsh has a post-apocalyptic thriller out. Picture: Steve Lindridge
Louise Welsh has a post-apocalyptic thriller out. Picture: Steve Lindridge
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IT’S the morning after the morning after – Saturday, in other words. The sun is shining on a stilled Loch Broom like a VisitScotland photoshoot, the blossom is in full bloom on the plum and cherry trees of Market Street, and inside the Village Hall, Val McDermid has just stuck up her hand to ask a question. Actually, it’s not a question. It’s about the biggest dollop of pithy praise any author at this year’s Ullapool Book Festival could ever hope for.

“Daunderlust,” she tells Peter Ross, “is the best non-fiction book I’ve read in years in terms of explaining ourselves to ourselves and what makes us Scottish and not British. I’ve spent the last six months being exasperated at how little people south of the Border understand what’s going on here. Cases of Daunderlust should be airdropped on England immediately.”

The audience had already heard Ross read two fine examples of the kind of journalism that’s all too rare on either side of the Border – one about a larger-than-life Glasgow chip shop owner, the other about an old shepherd on Mull at lambing time. They knew exactly what she meant.

Asked about the influences on his journalism (those two examples originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday) Ross himself sang the praises of New Yorker writer Joe Mitchell. A biography of him (Man in Profile, by Thomas Kunkel) is just out. So there’s two for the must-read pile right there. Or three, if you throw in Mitchell’s classic, Up in the Old Hotel.

And that’s the only problem with the Ullapool Book Festival: the must-read pile, and the books you won’t have been able to resist after hearing its authors, gets longer and weightier by the year.

Listen to Newfoundlander Michael Crummey talk about the sometimes wayward individualism and thrawnness of the island’s remotest communities, and you would be hard-pushed to stop yourself adding his latest novel, Sweetland, to that list. Ullapool has a fine track record of bringing the very best Canadian writers (Alistair MacLeod, Wayne Johnson, Linden McIntyre) to these shores and Crummey firmly belongs in that category: his explanation of the background to Sweetland not only neatly encapsulated the province’s history but highlighted what is lost when its oldest fishing communities are forced to resettle. An engagingly unpretentious writer of hauntingly lyrical prose (damn the man’s talent, he’s a fine poet too) he was one of the stars of this festival. So maybe better add the whole backlist to the pile too.

Then there’s Chris Brookmyre. In Dead Girl Walking, his central character, Jack Parlabane, now “in the hazy borderlands that lie between the term ‘unemployed journalist’ and ‘former journalist’”, is changed man. In his early novels, Brookmyre admitted, Parlabane was just a way into exploring a topic rather than a fully drawn character in his own right. For the new novel, he also wanted to depict rock stardom with a lot more emotional finesse than mere fandom (and, let’s face it, most fiction) can provide. He’s done both. Throw that in the suitcase too.

But there’s so many others. Next year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Muir, radical lawyer and founding father of Scottish democracy, and former Guardian associate editor Murray Armstrong, made a convincing case for adding his historical novel about him, The Liberty Tree, to the reading list. Poetry’s slim volumes are easier to pack, so in go the latest by Jen Hadfield and John Glenday, especially after the latter’s delightful love poem lamenting the lost years before he met his wife by noting the fact that the can opener was invented a full 40 years after the tin can.

One of last year’s unexpected treats was a reading by West Highland Free Press deputy editor Michael Russell, who has been covering the festival for all of its ten years. Largely as a result of it, he got a publishing deal with Polygon. Lie of the Land, set in a post-apocalyptic Highland village, is published this week. Into the bag with it.

But you can’t stop there, because Louise Welsh, the festival’s new honorary president, has her own post-apocalyptic thriller out (A Lovely Way to Burn) with a sequel due next month.

And there’s plenty more, for this was a weekend on which I heard, for the first time, Kerry Hood read from her impressive-sounding new novel Thirst, Zoe Wicombe hyper-lucidly expound on parallels between Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel and her own novel, October, set in a working-class black South African family, and Val McDermid ferret out the facts of death in Forensics. In they all go too.

All of which might explain why your luggage is a lot heavier on the way back home from the Ullapool Book Festival than it is when you arrive. But so – because on every level that matters, this is such a perfect weekend that leaving it always hurts – is your heart too.