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.
The latest podcast sees Ali taking a break from all things festive in Edinburgh to talk to Doug Johnstone about his latest novel The Jump. In doing so they discover it’s not an easy book to talk about without giving away spoilers, but just about manage to avoid it. Their conversation touches on ‘domestic noir’, the need for serious research, why family dramas resonate the most, the importance of reading, and suggest that the real work of the writer is often in the edit.
Johnstone is one of the best thriller writers around, with a style which is deliberately lean and plot driven. The Jump, as with most of his novels, grabs you from page one and won’t let you go until the final full stop. It’s a deliberate and considered approach to writing and as such it’s fascinating to hear about the process he goes through.
For anyone interested in the realities of writing as well as the craft it’s worth staying to the end as he offers valuable insight to his life as a writer and the lessons he has learned along the way. It’s our third podcast with Doug and he’s always a pleasure to talk to, but this one felt particularly rewarding as there is no doubt that The Jump has been a challenging book to write, and has made him consider carefully how he now approaches each new novel, and why some are more draining propositions than others.
Seven novels in and it seems like Doug Johnstone’s writing is developing two distinct strands. There’s the fast paced, pulp fiction of Smokeheads, Hit & Run and The Dead Beat which are steeped in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with lashings of booze and self-loathing, and which have earned him a reputation as one of the best Scottish thriller writers around. But in 2013 he published Gone Again, a novel which focused on domesticated family life and what can happen when that life is torn apart.
He examines similar themes in his latest novel, The Jump, which once more looks at the devastation following the loss of a family member. The term “domestic noir” is one which has appeared recently, and these two novels, (as well as Helen Fitzgerald’s unforgettable The Cry) are classic examples of the genre. Mainstream thrillers concern things most people will never encounter (drug deals gone wrong, gangland shootings, private detection, etc…). Domestic noir novels are based around family dramas which are all too familiar to most of us, even if it’s only in our worst nightmares, carrying an emotional heft which more conventional examples of the form lack. They are dealing with our most basic fears; that something terrible will happen to those we love the most.
The Jump begins with parents Ellie and Ben trying to deal with the suicide of their son Logan months earlier. Ellie has taken to making regular pilgrimages to where Logan died, increasingly undertaking feats which push herself physically, and getting tattoos as a form of remembrance, but also punishment as if they are a socially acceptable form of self harming. She is in a state of shock, and it seems that such behaviour is the only way she can feel anything any more, which she needs to do to remember. Ben has immersed himself in conspiracy theories which he believes may explain his son’s state of mind at the time. He needs a rational explanation to something he just cannot comprehend.