It’s the time for ‘Books Of The Year’ lists and we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection for 2016, while small, is beautifully formed and well worthy of your attention.
These are the books which stood out against a lot of stiff and perhaps better known competition. The list could have been longer but we like to stick to a traditional Top Ten. Consisting mostly of novels, with one remarkable collection of short stories, and one unforgettable musical (auto)biography, these are the books which have left their mark. Here’s what we thought at the time:
Stuart Cosgrove writes as he broadcasts – eloquently, forcefully and at pace, and as such he makes persuasive and forceful arguments. If you have a music fan in your life, then I would suggest this book is the perfect gift. If they are a soul fan, then it is a must. Anyone who has ever pored over liner notes, obsessed over b-sides, searched out limited editions and rarities, or cued hours for tickets or entry will recognise themselves at least in part on the page, no matter what their musical tastes. Stuart Cosgrove is here to remind you that while music may not be a matter of life and death (and there are poignant reminders of that in Young Soul Rebels) it certainly makes the former worth living.
With The Waves Burn Bright Iain Maloney has written his best book to date, not only an entertaining and thoughtful one, but, I would suggest, an important one. Many of us will never forget the night of Piper Alpha, but there will be those who are unaware of it. This is an important part of Scotland’s history and Maloney has not only paid respect to the memory of that terrible event, he has offered fresh insight into how individuals and their families and friends cope, or more often fail to cope, with trauma – the humanity behind the headlines.
I’m certain this was not an easy book to write or research, and in the afterword to the novel Lynch talks about feeling a responsibility to the victims of sexual and psychological abuse, stating; “My biggest wish for Armadillos is for survivors of abuse to feel I’ve been sensitive and truthful.” Lynch remains as good as her word to the very end. Helping to understand terrible things is something written fiction can do better than any other art form, and Armadillos is a reminder of this. It is not always an easy read, and nor should it be, but any novel which makes you think more keenly on a subject is a success, and Armadillos is certainly that.
The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas is the second part of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first part, The Last Days of Disco, to enjoy it. Mention of a trilogy made me think of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown books, and there are parallels between The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas and Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments. Like that, it is written with an eye for the absurd but a genuine love of the music both writers reference. The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas is a blast. Sometimes you want a book which unashamedly entertains, and David F. Ross has done just that. There’s a riot going on, and The Miraculous Vespas are at the centre of it.
As a songwriter, James Yorkston is a master at telling tales, and is also well aware of the ballad tradition, so it should be no surprise that he writes as well as he does, or that his debut novel touches upon the themes that it does. There is a lyricism in his use of everyday language which is rare and believable, and he uses his musicians ear to master the phraseology not only of how his characters talk to each other, but how they ‘talk’ to themselves. Three Craws is in some ways a ballad for modern rural life, but like the children’s song with which it shares its title, it’s one which isn’t afraid to show you the dark as well as the light. It also introduces Yorkston as a welcome new voice in Scottish fiction, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
With Dominic Queste, Douglas Skelton has created a character you want more of, in a similar manner to Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane. This is modern pulp fiction at its best. It’s fast-paced and flippant, and with all the clichés any reader would come to expect; tough guy priests, reformed hard men, dames in distress, but brought bang up to date in place and time. The fact it succeeds is a testament to Douglas Skelton’s understanding of noir fiction, and it’s another example which proves that Scottish crime writing is as diverse and as any other area of literature. Here’s hoping Dominic Queste continues to boogie for some time yet.
With Treats Lara Williams manages to capture the emotion, humour and pathos found in the drama of everday lives in just a few pages, and in that regard it is reminiscent of A.L. Kennedy’s 1990 debut collection Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. Williams’ displays brevity, wit, and a desire to find something romantic in life, even though it may not be conventional, or exactly because it is unconventional. One of the reasons for reviewing Treats some months after I first read it is that it didn’t leave me, and I have returned to my favourite stories again and again much as I do with certain tracks on a cherished album. There is something in them that makes me want to remember previous times, places and people. Like perfect pop songs in literary form, this is storytelling at its finest.
The Making Of Mickey Bell is possibly the most packed novel you will read this year in that it is bursting with ideas, stylistic flourishes, unusual narrative voices and literary experimentation which makes it stand out in the crowd. What is most impressive is the desire to do something different. Actually, it’s the desire to do something different and pull it off. Kellan MacInnes has been willing to experiment with form, structure and language and you can’t help but feel he has had a ball doing it. There is a lust for life, and for writing, which runs through the book, and which keeps you turning the page.
There are few things I look forward to more than a new Doug Johnstone novel, and if you like your thrillers fast and furious then Crash Land is the perfect book for you. I used to doubt reviewers who said that they finished a book in one sitting, but in all honesty I cracked the spine at 8pm on a Thursday night and headed to bed an exhausted yet happy reader around three o’clock on Friday morning. Make no mistake, Doug Johnstone is one of the best writers around, both in terms of style and substance. No one’s thrillers are quite as thrilling.
The Brilliant & Forever – Kevin MacNeil*
With The Brilliant & Forever Kevin MacNeil has pulled off the difficult trick of making readers laugh first, then making them think. It’s rare to read a book which has me laugh out loud, but MacNeil manages it, and this makes the novel’s twists and dramatic moments more shocking when they occur. It’s a novel that is philosophically interesting and engaging, examining how we consider art and culture increasingly as commodities while treating some people as if they were less then human at the same time. You may not think the two are linked, but you’d be wrong. The Brilliant & Forever shows Kevin MacNeil writing with insight, skill, passion and a playfulness which at times conceals an underlying exasperation and anger. It is evidence of a writer at the very top of their game.
*(The full version of this review will appear in the next edition of The Bottle Imp.)
p.s. There may be some of you thinking, “Why is there no mention of the Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet?”. That’s because it appeared in last year’s list, but you can still read our full review here.
p.p.s. This post is not sponsored by Laphroaig. However, we’re open to offers…