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:
A Book Of Death And Fish – Ian Stephen
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.
Rise – Karen Campbell
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.
Jellyfish – Janice Galloway
Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish, her recently published short story collection, feels like a call to arms on at least two fronts. In the Acknowledgements she states, “Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they’d love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels.” It’s a theme she returned to while promoting the book. In interview with The Scotsman, she confesses, “I’m delighted to get this book published because nobody wants to publish short stories these days. Publishers always say to me, ‘what we’d really like is for you to get on with that novel you’re writing.” She is only partly correct in that in recent years some of the best new fiction has appeared in short story collections, but more often than not they are by new and unknown writers and are published by small, independent publishers. In that sense, with Freight Books, she has found the perfect home.
It’s something she acknowledges when describing herself as “hugely grateful to Adrian Searle at Freight for taking them on…”. Recently Freight have been responsible for memorable collections from Anneliese Mackintosh (Any Other Mouth), Vicki Jarrett (The Way Out) and Rodge Glass (Lovesextravelmusic). Other notable recent collections include Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart And Other Fairytales, published by Salt, and Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love by Cargo Publishing. But the fact that my list is so short suggests Galloway’s complaint is a valid one. It was not always this way.
Where Galloway is undoubtedly correct is that the short story is a form which is currently largely overlooked by the more established publishers. At the end of the last century, and concentrating on Scotland, James Kelman’s short story collections were regularly published and contain arguably his greatest work. Lanark and 1982, Janine aside, the same could be said of Alasdair Gray. Their contemporary and friend Agnes Owens’ short stories are some of the best examples you will read anywhere and from anytime (get a copy of Lean Tales to read some great examples from all three – it might just change your life). The next generation of Scottish writers were also well served, with A.L. Kennedy and Ali Smith (whose latest collection Public Library & Other Stories is also out now) both publishing memorable short stories in a number of collections in the ’90s and early noughties. They were not seen as lesser books, just great writers’ fiction presented in a shorter form.