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  • Alistair Braidwood

Five Alive: The Best Fiction From 2014…

It’s been impossible to pick up a paper this weekend without facing a ‘best of’ list, and I imagine you’ll have had your fill, but if you can squeeze in one more here’s Scots Whay Hae!’s books of the year.

Just bubbling under are Doug Johnstone’s The Dead Beat, Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way To Burn, Dilys Rose’s Pelmanism, Alan Warner’s Their Lips Talk of Mischief and Kirsty Logan’s short story collection The Rental Heart, and if I was considering non-fiction then Zoe Howe’s The Jesus and Mary Chain biog Barbed Wire Kisses, the anthology of womens’ art and writing, 21 Revolutions, and Peter Ross’s collection of essays, Daunderlust would all be in contention, but I’ve stuck to five, they’re fiction, and they’re fabulous. Here’s what was said at the time of review:

Layla is a triumph as a novel, and as a character. It’s not always an easy read, and nor should it be. Many of the characters in it are horrific, more so to the reader than to the more trusting Layla, but they never become caricatures, partly because de la Mer’s eye for detail and understanding of the way people speak lends them distinct personalities. It’s easy to believe that they too are chasing that something intangible, (fame, wealth, power?) that we have been promised is available to us all, and which Layla is learning is a lie. If you are looking for glamour and thrills you should take yourself elsewhere. Instead Layla is an honest and powerful depiction of the life of a woman who finds her self in an all too believable situation. Where such a novel could have been judgemental and patronising, Nina de la Mer finds empathy and emotion, so much so that you won’t be able to put it down until you have to say goodbye.

The Mouse Deer Kingdom is a novel about cultural, social and political differences, and you may expect that you will be more familiar with one set rather than another, but that is not necessarily the case. As East meets West, the two are constantly changing to accommodate each other, and that makes for a shifting backdrop that it is difficult to pin down. I kept thinking of E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India as I read, with which Tei’s book shares a sense of unease which is a result of inevitable misunderstandings as often opposing social and cultural values are applied, and denied. Mysterious, sensual, at times erotic, (the humidity and heat are palpable off the page) Tei lends a magical realism to her Malacca which means you are never quite sure of what you read.

Any Other Mouth is not a book that will let you take it for granted for a moment in terms of content and style, reminding me in that sense of Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing. Stories such as ‘How To Be An Alcoholic Writer’, ‘Doctors’ and ‘For Anyone Who Wants To Be Friends With Me’ may make you feel that you shouldn’t be reading such personal thoughts, as if you had picked up a loved ones private diary by mistake, but Mackintosh welcomes you into her world, puts a conspiratorial arm around your shoulder, and makes the reader feel special, as if she is sharing her characters and their lives only with them. She has a way of making you feel things are alright, even when they’re really not, and it is rare for a writer to care in this manner for the reader. Any Other Mouth is one of the most intimate and insightful reads you are likely to experience.

Heroism is often too obvious and glib in fiction, but Maggie’s is indefatigable. Some may argue that her actions are selfish, but those people must be cynical in the extreme. Everything she does is for her son or for Michael, and although she believes that it is with them that her chance for happiness lies, that is secondary to their well being. Butlin’s triumph is to make the reader desperate to know what happens next, and how Maggie deals with everything put in front of her. This is thrilling writing about a subject which some may feel would be weighed down in sentiment and nostalgia, but Butlin keeps the pace by refusing to allow Maggie to stand still when others would simply give up. She is an unforgettable creation from a writer who once again proves that he is one of the best around.

How To Be Both – Ali Smith*

My book of the year has to be Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. In 2012 Smith published a collection of essays called Artful, and that’s exactly what this novel is. Smith takes the idea that there are two sides to every story and explores it in the most wonderfully life affirming and unexpected manner. She touches upon favourite themes of art, sexuality, death and religion, and plays with them in a manner which is vivid, vibrant and complex, with a style so elegant it takes the breath away. Ali Smith reminds us of what fiction can do at its very best.

*(From The Bottle Imp’s Books of the Year. A full review of How To Be Both will be here soon).


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