The Good Word: SWH!’s 10 Best Books Of 2019…
Updated: May 7
I know there are plenty of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists around this time competing for your time and attention, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is one for the more discerning book lover with something for everyone. It’s a good old-fashioned Top Ten which has short stories, sci-fi, historical fiction, crime, non-fiction, noir, comedy, and tragedy. There’s even some music to soundtrack your reading!
These are the publications which stood out against the stiffest competition. They will transport you back to the past and into the future, visiting, among many other Scottish stop offs, Paisley, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen as well as Belfast, London, Italy and the USA along the way. Taken as a whole they show the artistic diversity and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today and are proof that Scottish writing is in the finest fettle. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:
For Beerjacket (Peter Kelly) dreams are the ‘silver cords’ connecting the creative and practical aspects of a person’s psyche, firing the imagination and inspiring an individual to create something from what occurs, whether in song, story, drawing, or poetry, all of which are a feature of this extraordinary book. It’s rare that an artist sets out a thesis on the importance of the creative process as clearly and then sees the resulting vision realised so fully. The best art makes you understand yourself better through other people’s thoughts, ideas and expression. With Silver Cords Peter Kelly has created a work so unashamedly personal that we should be thankful he has shared it with us. We’re all the better for it.
For all the artistry For The Good Times wouldn’t work without the characters being believable, especially when they are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Keenan shows he has a keen ear for how people speak, but to do so in an accent other than your own throws in another ball to keep in the air. He also understands how people act in their different groups, and how they think and act when they are alone.
But more than anything else there is a truth at the novel’s core. Every sentence – every word – is there for a reason. Clearly written from the heart it will force you to reflect on the people and places which made you, for better and for worse. For David Keenan it is another magnificent, and memorable, achievement and cements his growing reputation as one of the finest writers around.
I often write notes as I read through a book which I’m going to review and the final one I had for Muscle simply said, “Begin Again”, and that’s exactly what I did. The second time around I read deeper and got more than I had the first time, and different than I got the first time. You’ll get back from Muscle as much as you are willing to put in, but effort on your part is required and so it should be. Alan Trotter has written a novel for people who are in love with fiction, who are in love with reading, and if that applies to you then you are in for a rare treat.
As evocative of the ’70s as Alvin Stardust riding a Chopper, Welcome To The Heady Heights is where those well-known Williams, Connolly and McIlvanney, meet. Ross uses Glasgow’s infamous No Mean City reputation as the backdrop to a story which lifts the lid on the worlds of showbuisness and politics and finds what lies beneath rotten. It’s one of the most thoroughly and unapologetically enjoyable novels you’ll read this year – riotous, courageous, and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also gritty, gallus and Glaswegian to its core – with Welcome To The Heady Heights David F. Ross has given us a novel to revel in.
What is often asked when you review a novel in a running series is, “Do you need to have read the earlier books?”. With Runaway the answer is two-fold – “No you don’t”, but also, “You should anyway”. Runaway stands on its own as a great crime novel, but I’ll bet that once you have made Maggie and Wilma’s acquaintance you’ll want to get to know more. In just three novels they have become two of Scottish fiction’s most engaging characters, who, as suggested earlier in this review, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.
With Nina X (as with Close Your Eyes, to which ‘Nina’ makes a great companion piece) Ewan Morrison challenges readers to think about what writing is for, believing that an engaged writer has a responsibility to address difficult issues. Some may regard him as a professional contrarian, using his mastery of the written word and ability to understand all sides of an argument to push people’s buttons for his own pleasure, but that would be to underestimate him as a writer, and a thinker. Rather he challenges prevailing cultural trends and beliefs, no matter who holds them. If you have a sacred cow to hand you might want to secure it as Morrison takes great delight in running them through, which makes him one of the exhilarating and exacting writers around.
Campbell uses the central relationship (between local girl Vita & ‘Buffalo Soldier’ Frank) to examine wider concerns. She looks at how carrying fundamental positions and prejudices, whether religious, political, or ideological, can tear families, and nations, apart – themes that have rarely been more expedient than they are today. She also considers the role of women in times of war, and how that alters family dynamics and relationships.
The Sound of the Hours is a novel to get lost in – one that transports you to another time and place, and you cannot help but become involved and emotionally invested with the lives of those who live there. It’s also a timely reminder that any discussion about the best contemporary Scottish novelists should include Karen Campbell.
Constitution Street is a book for our times, a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us. It’s a call to care, for ourselves and others, and where better to start than at your own front door. It’s a fascinating and intrinsically human approach to examining the practical applications and implications of social contracts in modern society. It learns from the past, examines the present, and looks to the future, offering the hope that by better understanding each other we will come to better know ourselves. How many books have you read lately which offer that?
Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety is published by 404 Ink
A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Scotland Before The Bomb is that rarest of literary beasts – a satirical, witty, and considered comic novel which is deadly serious at its core. Coming near the end of a varied and vibrant year for Scottish writing, Nicholls has delivered one of the very best examples of just why this is. While you’ll find your own touchstones it’s unlike any other novel you’ll have read before unless you have read M.J. Nicholls. And if you haven’t you absolutely should. He could just be your new favourite writer – you just don’t know it yet.
Just missing out on the top ten are Mandy Haggith’s The Amber Seeker, Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay, Doug Johnstone’s Breakers, Ross Sayer’s Sonny & Me, Helen Fitzgerald’s Worst Case Scenario, Alan Parks’ February’s Son, and David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall, but you should still click on those names, read their reviews and seek them out all the same.
Our review of the year in books podcast with Vikki Reilly will be with you very shortly…