You may have had your fill already of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists already, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae’s selection is small, beautifully formed and well worthy of your attention.
These are the books which stood out against a lot of stiff competition in 2015. It could have been longer but we decided to stick to the traditional Top Ten. Consisting mostly of novels ,with a couple of music biographies thrown in, these books will take you to North Korea, Detroit, the Firth of Forth, the 17th century and Millport. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the breadth of artistic and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:
There is a geographically thorough representation of Scotland as well as a historic and cultural one as we are taken from Shetland to the Solway Firth, West Coast to East Coast, and all around the coast as well. The land and the sea; the one constantly affecting the other, and this relationship comes to define Peter MacAulay’s life… This is an epic novel in more ways than one, but then this is the story of a man from cradle to grave and as such it deserves due consideration. Some people may be put off by the scale, but the writing is concise, accessible and memorable. Give it your time and you will not regret it for one moment. You may well think back on your own life in a different manner as a result.
Campbell is a writer who always manages to wrong foot you, seemingly for fun, and the results are never less than thrilling. She builds tension, often unbearably, as lies are threatened to be uncovered, and, even worse, so is the truth. All of her characters are fully developed and all-too believable, and this makes you take closer notice than you may have done otherwise as the various dilemmas unfold. You can not be a passive reader of a Karen Campbell novel. She refuses to let you. Rise is steeped in Scottish culture, but makes no big deal about it, just as it should be. Primarily it is a novel which is thought-provoking and involving, and never less than thoroughly entertaining. Spread the word; Karen Campbell has quietly become one of Scotland’s very best writers, and deserves to be considered as such. Consider it done.
Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul is a throughly researched and fascinating insight into the music and the times of a city which came to epitomise the turmoil of a nation divided by race and class, while at the same time offering it an unforgettable, and increasingly poignant, soundtrack. Where the book really excels is in placing events and individuals in a sociopolitical context. Cosgrove proves to be a reliable chronicler of a neglected area of American culture, telling those stories which are still unknown to most. By using his love of the music as a starting point he has found the perfect way to explore further themes and ideas. One of the pleasures when reading the book was re-immersing myself in that music, and I would strongly advise you do the same. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Doug Johnstone creates momentum like few others can, taking out all unnecessary plot and superfluous detail to make sure nothing gets in the way of the story he wants to tell. But with The Jump, as he did with Gone Again, he has written a book which not only holds up a mirror to modern society and how we react, individually as well as collectively, when tragedy strikes but which makes readers ask themselves the most difficult question possible, “What if that happened to me?”. Not always easy to read, and I’m guessing not easy to write either, The Jump again proves that the dramas that matter most are more often found in family life and few writers understand that better.
Stuart David knows what happened, because he was there; one of the founder members of the band formerly known as Lisa Helps The Blind. In The All-Night Café: A Memoir of Belle & Sebastian’s Formative Year is exactly that, and it deals with many of these myths, not with the intention of debunking them particularly, but simply by telling the truth of his part of the story. What unfolds is a story of persistence, luck, happenstance and talent which serves as a reassuringly recognisable tale to those who have once been in, or around, bands, and as a handbook for those who still dream about it. The former will shake their heads in disbelief as an amazing story of “where it all went right” unfolds, and the latter will be reassured as to what is possible.
Channeling Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg and even Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s a novel which leads you down deliberate and dark dead-ends as Graeme Macrae Burnet takes great delight in wrong footing the reader at every turn. Because of that rather than despite it, it is also one of the most enjoyable and involving novels you’ll read this year. It’s a love letter to Scottish literature, past and present, but you don’t have to know the references to enjoy it as a terrific psychological thriller in its own right. It’s also proof, once again, that one of the most exciting developments in Scottish publishing of recent times is Contraband, the crime fiction imprint from Saraband Books, which proves you can be innovative and challenging in a genre which has the reputation for too often being derivative and formulaic.
The writing is reminiscent of the investigative style of Andrew O’Hagan, with Innes’ research supporting and adding to the story rather than overshadowing it, something which lends the novel an authenticity that it may not have had otherwise. It is not simply about sex, (how could it be?) but asks further questions about objectification and subjectification, gender politics and the possibility of change in the future. Once the book is finished it will stay with you for some time as you try to work out exactly what you think. It is not easy, and nor should it be. Other writers should take note as such a serious subject demands serious consideration and receives it all too rarely. Not just a good book, but an important one, and one which I hope finds the wide readership it deserves.
Janice Galloway has always been an innovative and playful writer, but never to the detriment of her prose. It is always a case of her putting substance over style. Jellyfish is a timely reminder that she is one of the finest writers around. Each story, each sentence, is beautifully crafted by someone who cares enough to take such care. Often when something is so meticulously crafted the results can be admirable yet cold. However, these stories exude a raw emotion that is barely contained on the page. Love, anger, loss, desire – there are passions on show which are palpable, and which stir the senses like few writers can. If you read a better book than Jellyfish this year you are a very lucky person indeed.
The Limits Of The World is in no way an overtly earnest read. It is quite beautifully written, with some wonderful turns of phrase and memorable imagery. Raymond Drennan finds poetry in the ordinary and displays a romanticism that cannot be denied. It is also a thrilling read, with more than a few ‘heart-in-the-mouth’ moments, especially as the story reaches its end, and it can be read on more than one level. However, the book is a serious undertaking and the questions it asks should make you think carefully. You have to ask yourself how far you would go to read your favourite writer or hear your favourite song? Does turning art into just another commodity to be bought and sold, and increasingly given away, mean it loses value rather than increases it? These are important questions with no easy answers, but they must be addressed, as you don’t miss something until it’s gone, and then it’s usually too late.
Oh Marina Girl has all the makings of a cult classic as Lironi understands the conventions of the genre he is writing in, but then he twists those in an unexpected manner as well. In fact, I haven’t enjoyed reading a novel as much as this for some time, and I found myself constantly re-reading chapters and passages to see what clues or conundrums I may have missed. It’s a book you could become obsessed with as you are increasingly determined to find all the clues the writer has left, and as I read couldn’t shake the sense that Graham Lironi got as much pleasure writing Oh Marina Girl as I was gaining by reading it, delighting in the prospect of sharing this experience. Get yourself a copy, then tell your friends. This is too good to be kept a secret.
Hungry for further listing? Coming soon… The best music of 2015