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  • Alistair Braidwood

The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s 10 Best Books Of 2018 (+1)…

I know you’re bombarded with ‘Books Of The Year’ lists around this time, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is one for the more discerning book lover. It’s a good old-fashioned Top-Ten, but, as with Nigel Tufnel’s amp, this one goes to 11. Which is one better…

These are the publications which stood out against the stiffest competition in 2018, consisting of four new novels, three short fiction collections, the conclusion of a soul music and civil rights trilogy, a book of spell poetry, a history of Scottish pop, plus our bonus entry – a re-issue of a modern Scottish classic.

They will transport you to Harlem, Lewis, Bangour, and post-war America, with detours to Orkney, the Scottish Borders, Edinburgh, Paris, Moscow past and present, and through the looking-glass, along the way. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the artistic diversity and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today and proof that Scottish writing is in fine fettle indeed. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is a crime novel for those people who think they don’t like crime novels. It is also a novel of manners, a comedy, a romance, (although not necessarily a romantic-comedy), and a work of science fiction. With so many influences at work, and genres juggled, it really shouldn’t work but it never falls down and Olga Wojtas should be praised for pulling such a feat off. I’m pretty sure I won’t read anything like it this year, unless it is ‘Miss Blaine’s Prefect’s’ next mission impossible, and I’m hoping that we won’t have to wait too long for that.

McClory doesn’t waste words which makes her fiction perfect for the shorter forms. Some of her stories, such as ‘The Language Of Heaven’ ‘The Purvey’ and the unforgettable ‘A Coven Of Two’, are only just over a page long but they all pack a punch. ‘Museum Piece’ is like a supernatural James Kelman story, and if you can’t imagine that then you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

These stories are intensely sensual but also visceral, and are often uncomfortable as a result – there’s blood, sweat and tears on these pages. They do what the best writing should, making you face your own truths, and asks questions to which you may not like the answers.

There are few things better than a novel which surprises you, which catches you unaware and makes you think about the world and yourself in a different way. Missing had just such an effect – as artful and emotional a book as I have read in some time. This is beautiful writing, eschewing the need to give reasons and explanations for what occurs, letting the reader come to their own conclusions.

It’s not a novel which asks for sympathy, but one which offers empathy, in a manner not dissimilar to Ron Butlin’s Ghost Moon. If you are already aware of Alison Moore’s writing, (her first novel The Lighthouse made the Man Booker shortlist in 2012 and she has had many other accolades) the quality of Missing will not surprise you, but if you aren’t then be prepared to be knocked out.

Missing is published by Salt Publishing

The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is a comic novel which takes its subject matter very seriously, and demands to be read in the same manner. It is a literary undertaking which needs the reader to engage fully. To do otherwise would be to miss out on what is, at times, an exhilarating experience.

Although there are other Scottish novels which come to mind, such as Kevin McNeill’s The Brilliant & Forever, Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island, and Graham Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, M.J. Nicholls is doing something which feels and reads as new and exciting. If you love books then The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is one to read, before it’s too late.

Rip It Up is more thorough and exhaustive than we have any right to expect from a book released to accompany an exhibition, and it more than stands on its own right and merits. Of course there are bands and musicians missing, but you can’t include everyone and Galloway admits as much in his introduction. While he can’t hide his obvious love for punk and indie music he remains non-judgmental throughout, and readers can pick the musicians and genres they are less familiar with and explore further for themselves.

Where the book works best is as an extensive overall look at something close to our hearts and always on our minds. This review could have been a book in itself as every page of Rip It Up has information I want to discuss and share with you. This is partly because it’s a subject I love deeply, partly because Galloway’s passion is infectious, but mainly because it’s a fascinating story well written, and what more could you want from any book? Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop – every home should have one.

At the centre of As The Women Lay Dreaming is a call for greater understanding and empathy. Tormond, who had witnessed too much at a young age, still had the capacity for love, and forgiveness. As important was the way he used his art and writing to try to help him come to terms with the world around him. This, in turn, would not only allow his grandson to better comprehend a man who had a huge influence on his life, (although he knew him only briefly), but also better understand himself.

With As The Women Lay Dreaming Donald S. Murray has pulled off a similar feat. It not only brings to life the disaster of the Iolaire, but also a place and its people over two periods of time, using personal and individual stories to examine wider themes. This is a novel which reveals new layers with every reading. It is history brought to life through fiction, and when it is done in a manner as moving and beautiful as this it is invaluable.

Chris McQueer’s stories are driven by his vivid and visceral characters. Individuals whose lives are rarely written about – mostly outrageous and often shameless. His growing army of followers can be reassured that these are further tales of the dark side of life – divine comedy so black that it’s often difficult to see.

With HWFG he proves that Hings was no one-off, but only the beginning for a writer who appears to have found his voice immediately. It also shows evidence that he is growing more confident in his craft, often addressing the reader directly, making for a more immersive read. After two superb short fiction collections I can’t wait to see what he does next – no pressure! And to those who remain unsure, have no fear – Chris McQueer is the real deal.

In my opinion Crumey is one of the most underrated and overlooked writers at work today, although his being shortlisted for this year’s

Saltire Fiction Book Of The Year may see that change. There are a couple of comparisons with other authors who have appeared on these pages I could offer in terms of style and substance; David Keenan and M.J. Nicholls are the two who spring to mind – but if I’m being truthful Andrew Crumey stands alone.

If you haven’t read his work before then I think The Great Chain Of Unbeing an ideal place to start. All his books can be read on different levels, but that applies to this one more than most while still giving you the full Crumey experience. Put simply, he makes you think. More than that he challenges you to think, and that’s what a great writer should do. We all need a challenge, otherwise what’s the point?

Anyone who has read the previous books will know what to expect in terms of form. Cosgrove takes us through the year of 1969 chronologically, month by month, and looks at events which may have begun in Harlem but which had ramifications way beyond the neighbourhood boundaries.

I was wondering how he was going to wrap things up before the close of this third act, and he does so by looking to the future, linking events and individuals to people, places, and music from the next five decades which only reinforces his central thesis that these are three years which shaped America, and shook the world, musically and politically. All the issues that Cosgrove touches upon, in this volume especially, are still felt keenly, and there is a sense that he views 1969 as a year zero for America – socially, politically, and culturally – and things would never be the same again.

The spell poems in Jenni Fagan’s latest collection There’s A Witch In The Word Machine do their job as there’s something magical on these pages, with an honesty and integrity at their core that makes you confront your own. Fagan looks at people and places, love and loss, all with an unflinching eye married to her innate understanding of the power of words to communicate and to help heal. The central poem of the collection, ‘Bangour Village Hospital’, is the most moving and emotional piece of writing I read in 2018, and it is exemplary of the power of Jenni Fagan’s poetry.

The best poetry collections take hold in a manner similar to favourite albums in that you are compelled to return again and again, finding something new each time while also taking comfort in growing familiarity and significance. There’s A Witch In The Word Machine is highly personal, yet its themes are universal, and no other book captured the cultural spirit of 2018 as it has.

The Sound Of My Voice is as astonishing an undertaking to me today as it was when I first read it in the late ’90s.  It is artistic, insightful, philosophical, psychological, even spiritual, and I could go on and on. But, above all, it is human and it is compassionate. At its core is a kindness and an attempt at understanding the worst of times with the belief that only then can we appreciate the best of times. Few writers have the ability, and, indeed, the desire to examine and understand what it means to do more than simply exist as Ron Butlin does, and this is evident in his poetry and other writing, particularly 2014’s novel Ghost Moon.

The Sound Of My Voice remains “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”, but now you have and I hope I have convinced you that it is essential reading. Returning to it after seven years only confirms my feelings that, after all the Scottish novels I’ve reviewed on these pages and elsewhere, if I had only one to recommend to you The Sound Of My Voice is it.

The Sound Of My Voice is republished on the Polygon imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

2018 really was a strong year, with Helen Taylor’s The Backstreets of Purgatory, Douglas Skelton’s The Janus Run, Mandy Haggith’s The Walrus Mutterer, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take and Daniel Shand’s Crocodile just missing out, but you should click on those names, read their reviews and seek them out all the same. 2019 has a lot to live up to…


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