A Book’s Not Just For Christmas: The Top 5 of 2012…

Just in case you are wondering what to settle down and read after all the festive madness then I have a few suggestions from the last 12 months that may be of help. I probably said something similar last year, but it’s hard to disagree that the quality and variety of Scottish writing this year has been superb. There has been fabulous returns to form from big names, some astonishing debuts, and some writers who have never been better. Add in some great collections of new writing and this has been a hell of a year. It was genuinely hard to put together this list, but I have, and I need to post it before I change my mind. So, in order of when they were reviewed, these are my top five Scottish books of 2012.

First off is a book which came out in May, and it was perhaps the most anticipated novel of the year. It was Irvine Welsh’s prequel to Trainspotting, it was called Skagboys, and it was barry. Here’s what was said way back then;

‘Welsh is asking fundamental existential questions, one of which is ‘if there is free will what stops us all from acting purely for self gratification?’. Or perhaps we do? It is this aspect of his writing, these questions he asks, that is the reason I have, and always will, read everything Irvine Welsh writes. Strip away the junk, jizz and Jambo bashing and these are characters who would not be out of place in the novels of Camus, Sartre and Trocchi.  Even Welsh’s failures are more interesting than many others’ successes and this is what makes him one of the most important writers around’.

Next, another book which came out in May, and although it can’t really be called a novel, or even purely fiction, it was one of the best and most talked about books of the year. It is, you will not be surprised to hear, Ewan Morrison’s Tales From The Mall and I still feel the same about it now as I did in May;

‘Many critics and reviewers have called this book important, necessary and game changing. It is all of those things but, it should never be overlooked that Tales From the Mall is a damned enjoyable read; amusing, and at times unexpectedly emotional. You may be drawn in by the fascinating, and borderline obsessive, research that Morrison has clearly undertaken, and be intrigued and appalled by the ways in which you, yes you, are manipulated by the psychological and physiological systems and techniques that are central to global capitalism, but what will stay with you are the tales, both real and imagined, of the individuals who work, shop, and sometimes simply exist in shopping malls’.

June saw the return of another ‘Generation Chemist’. He is Alan Warner and the novel was The Deadman’s Pedal. It is arguably his best book yet, and it is arguably the best novel of the year. Who would argue such a thing? Well…;

‘Warner effortlessly essays a hugely influential period in Scotland’s social and political history, one where the writing was on the wall for nationalised industries and when private companies were beginning to take over. The novel may predate Thatcherism by five or six years, but with hindsight it is clear how the latter part of the twentieth century was going to play out politically, both nationally and globally, no matter how strongly some of us would have wished it otherwise. […] I doubt I’ll read a better book all year, and I doubt you will either’.

The final two of the top five were reviewed in the last months of the year, although one was published much earlier. But I’ll keep this in the order of review.  Ali Smith is possibly my favourite living writer, and this year just strengthened that belief. Artful is a collection of four essays that she gave to Oxford University, but don’t let that put you off. If you take your reading, or writing, seriously then this is for you, which I sort of said here;

‘In other writers’ hands Artful could have been the most painfully pretentious tosh and I would undoubtedly still have enjoyed it because I’m a sucker for this type of discussion, but I doubt I would have loved it as I do. You don’t just read Ali Smith, you fall head over heels for her, longing for her next visit. At the moment nobody does it better. She makes writing, at least her writing, seem so effortless and that’s always appealing. This book just confirms that feeling while simultaneously seeking to explain how she does it, or at least who has inspired her. But even after finishing the book, replete with a index of sources and illustrations, you still can’t see the strings’.

And finally, Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon was published earlier in the year but it was on my fairly substantial to do list until December. This was partly because I had heard so many things about it that I wanted to give myself some distance, but also because it sounded to good to rush. And it was well worth the wait;

‘Fagan has written a book which breaks your heart while simultaneously restoring your faith in the human spirit. The full spectrum of human behaviour is here, there are angels and demons and often they occupy the same space. […] She forces you to engage emotionally, and the characters in the book will live with you long after you’ve turned the enigmatic final page’.

And that’s the best of 2012. Special mention should also go to Neil Butler’s The Roost, Nina De La Mar’s 5a.m., Catriona Child’s Trackman, Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs, Iain Banks’ Stonemouth, Rodge Glass’s Bring Me The Head Of Ryan Giggs and James Kelman’s Mo Said She Was Quirky.

There were also great short story collections from Jackie Kay, James Robertson, someone called Alasdair Gray, and the four volume collection Elsewhere. I must also mention two superb collections od poetry from 2012 that I treasure, one being Bevel from William Letford and the other is by one of Scotland’s most underrated writers, Ron Butlin, called The Magicians of Edinburgh. Something  for everyone, and which I promise will get you through the dark days of the New Year.

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