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.
Last year, in a review of Cathy McSporran’s novel Cold City for Gutter magazine, I suggested that, “There are just not enough great Glasgow novels”. I am going to have to retract that, at least partially, as recently there have been some really interesting and innovative novels based in Glasgow. In the last 8 months, as well as Cold City, there has been Jane Alexander’s The Last Treasure Hunt, Graham Lironi’s Oh Marina Girl, Douglas Lindsay’s The Legend of Barney Thompson (now a major movie, folks) and part of Karen Campbell’s Rise. To those you can also add Neil D. A. Stewart’s The Glasgow Coma Scale, a novel which, like all of the above, avoids the common clichés which surround, and for some still define, the city.
Alasdair Gray famously stated in Lanark, with reference to Glasgow, that, “..if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” Gray and his contemporaries James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Jeff Torrington, Agnes Owens, and later on others such as Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan, A.L. Kennedy and Ewan Morrison, all used the city well and perhaps we are now seeing their influence coming to fruition. Whatever the reason it seems that how some writers imagine, and re-imagine, Glasgow is no longer the problem it was.
For the past decade or so, I’ve been counting down my years in Edinburgh Book Festivals rather than birthdays. It’s a much less painful system, it means over two weeks of celebration, and the real birthday is in there somewhere for traditionalists.
While the Fringe rages all around it, this festival is an oasis of bookish bonhomie populated by like-minded folk, all obsessed with the written word. The festival team know they have a formula which works, so don’t overly tinker with it. The secret of that success? Invite the best writers available and get them to talk about their books all in the one place. What could be better?
This year it all happens between the 15th – 31st August, and, as usual, there’s far too much of the good stuff to mention it all here. I suggest reading the whole programme at edbookfest.co.uk, but not before you’ve read Scots Whay Hae’s preview of this year’s festival.
Scotland’s greatest writers are out in force, with Ali Smith and John Burnside leading the way on the opening weekend. If you have to beg, borrow and steal to see those two (and you may have to) then no jury in the land would convict you. Janice Galloway has a new collection of short stories, Jellyfish, which I highly recommend and she is always worth listening to. Others include previous SWH! podcast guests Louise Welsh, James Robertson, and Karen Campbell whose latest novel Rise is one of the best of the year so far. Michel Faber appears on the 29th, the author of Under the Skin and last year’s unforgettable The Book of Strange New Things. The day before, the equally charismatic Andrew O’Hagan will be talking about the inspiration behind his latest novel The Illuminations.
Anyone who has the slightest interest in Scottish literature will have had that question posed to them at some point, “What is Scottish literature anyway?” (for some reason, there’s always an “anyway”). The argument goes, and has done for some time, that it is simply another branch of English literature and should be treated as such. I have all my answers to this down pat, so much so that I bore myself with them, and no doubt many of you regular readers, so I won’t repeat them here. However, a very neat solution has arrived. From now on I can simply hand them a copy of Karen Campbell’s latest novel, Rise, and say, “Read this”.
Following on from 2013’s memorable This Is Where I Am, this time round Campbell embraces the history and legacy of Scottish writing, influenced by the ancient and the contemporary, a very Scottish literary trope in itself. There are themes here which will be familiar to those who have even the most basic knowledge of Scotland’s literature. The supernatural versus the psychological, the urban versus the rural, the enduring pull of the land, the present day and the past, family secrets, the cuckoo in the nest, fatally flawed central characters, betrayal, duelling polarities, even some standing stones; all of these are brought together with a deceptively light touch.