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  • Alistair Braidwood

Booker Prize: The Top Five Books of the Year…

It’s that time of year where people obsessed with lists get to share. First up are the Scots Whay Hae! books of the year. There are two great novels, a debut collection of short stories, an autobiography that is so much more and a collection of poetry. Something for everyone.

First off is The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy which continued a run of incredible writing following on from her previous novels Paradise and Day. You can read the full review of The Blue Book here but the digested assessment follows:

‘The novel is a love story, but what unfolds is a tale which is an unconventional exegesis on human nature and which attempts to answer 1980’s electro-pop pixie Howard Jones’ question; ‘what is love anyway?’. As usual Kennedy manages to walk a fine line between scepticism and hope, an act which is difficult to pull off without appearing non committal, especially when dealing with something as abstract as love, but by giving no easy answers she ultimately lets the reader decide for themselves’.

Next is Allan Wilson’s Wasted in Love. Every now and then someone comes along and makes everyone sit up and take notice. This year there was Mummy Short Arms in music, more of which to come, and then there was new writer Allan Wilson. I first encountered his work in one of last year’s best books, The Year of Open Doors, where his story ‘The End’ stood its own amongst more famous names. You can read my full review of Wasted in Love here but if you don’t have the time this gives you the gist:

‘Wasted in Love is all about the writing. There are glimpses into lives and relationships which are dissected with a surgeon’s precision. Wilson understands people; their hopes, dreams, insecurities and fears. He knows what makes people tick, and what makes them fall apart and touches upon the good, bad and ugly sides to human nature confronting all three with great honesty. There is often a tenderness to be found in difficult circumstances, the belief that love, either given or received, holds the possibility for salvation. Unfortunately, for some, that love is wasted’.

If you want to hear Allan talking about life as a writer and much more he was interviewed on the 4th Scots Whay Hae! podcast.

Kevin MacNeil featured in this list last year with his novel The Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde, but this year sees him appear as editor rather than writer. These Islands, We Sing is a superb anthology of the best poetry from the Scottish islands. If you love poetry of any kind then you should have this handsome volume of your shelves. If you still know people who claim that Scottish literature is nothing more than English literature in an accent or in dialect then this is the book from the last 12 months that proves how misguided that view is. There was a full review back in August but here’s a potted version:

‘Kevin MacNeil states his belief that ‘Scotland’s island literature is ever evolving’. On this evidence, and when you consider the recent novels from the likes of Karin Altenberg, Robert Alan Jamieson, Richard Neath and not least MacNeil himself, this seems evidently true. I would suggest that this is yet further proof that Scottish literature is similarly in a state of evolution, and this celebration of the poetry from one of Scotland’s most misunderstood and under-represented cultures adds further fuel to that apparently unstoppable fire’.

Ali Smith’s There but for the was accused by some of being too close in style and content to her previous novel The Accidental. I can understand this as there is another mysterious stranger who changes the people’s lives he comes into contact with, but if you couldn’t get past this to enjoy and immerse yourself in the great characters and beautiful use of language which are Smith’s trademarks then I think the problem may not lie with the writer. There are passages which are painfully poignant and which stay with you long after the final page is turned. There but for the does not repeat themes from The Accidental, but rather works as an accompanying text highlighting how Smith brings magic onto the page and into our lives. Here’s a taste of the initial review:

‘Smith loves language, and plays with it with more style and ease than any other writer I can think off. But Smith’s mastery of language is only half the story, she has a wonderful ability to create characters who stay with you after the last page has turned, and often manages to do so within only a few paragraphs. Like Brooke (a young female character in the novel) she is in thrall to the power of words, and also shares the youngster’s love of puns, similes and allusion all of which can give the illusion that the story which unfolds is surreal, but that’s because once more Ali Smith has managed to tell a story with more beauty, wit and understated skill than we are used to and have any right to expect’.

I’m going to cheat a little bit now as Alasdair Gray’s A Life in Pictures was actually published at the end of last year; but since it won The Saltire Prize this year, after some toing and froing, I think I’m justified in including it. It is one of the most important books of recent years in that it shows and tells the life and influences of one of Scotland’s greatest writers and artists, and now you can pick it up for less than £20. You can read the full review here but here’s an extract:

‘If A Life in Pictures tells us one thing it’s that the great artists are not famous for 15 minutes, theirs is a lifetime project. This is a book that shows and tells, and more than any book of recent times reminds us that art and life are inseparable. You could have had the words without the pictures, or vice versa, but both lift the other to mean more than they would have otherwise’.

You can buy all of these books at the Scots Whay Hae! Bookshop or from all good bookstores, wherever you may find them. Coming soon will be the top five songs of the year.


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