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  • Alistair Braidwood

The Good Word: SWH!’s 10 Best Books Of 2020…

Updated: May 7, 2021

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 this year features dystopian sci-fi, historical fiction, northern noir, coming-of-age, unconventional travelogue, environmental thrills, the birth and death of love, psychological mystery, politics, pop music, personal tragedy, and a whole lot more.

These are the publications which stood out against the stiffest competition in what was a quite astonishing year for Scottish writing. They will transport you back to the past and into the future, visiting, among many other Scottish stop offs, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Airdrie, Ayrshire, and St Andrews, as well as all points of the UK and Ireland, Russia, Spain, and Greece, along the way.

Taken as a whole they show these books 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, and you can click the links for the full reviews:

Always North is not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘wedunnit, and it’s time to acknowledge that and take responsibility’, but if that makes it sound like a ‘worthy’ read then I have given you a false impression as it is far from it.

Vicki Jarrett has managed to write a novel which clarifies current thoughts and ideas presenting them in a way which express fear, anger, and frustration, but still offers hope, not only in what is written but how it is written. When the truth is being constantly challenged as fabrication then perhaps it is in fiction where answers can be found and serious discussion is to be had.

With When The Dead Come Calling Helen Sedgwick has written a novel which creates an atmosphere and tension which suits these times – paranoid, uneasy, at times angry, but with a humanity which offers hope despite everything. It all makes for an enthralling read and you’ll be desperate for more by the time you’re done.

Luckily we are promised this is just the first of the Burrowhead Mysteries, and the next can’t come soon enough. If you are looking for something new yet familiar for your crime pile, When The Dead Come Calling should go straight to the top.

What We Did In The Dark is an engrossing novel, one which is both insightful and moving. A mix of the romantic and the rational, it is where heart meets head with the understanding that in life we are slaves to both. Ajay Close has long been one of SWH!’s favourite writers, but I would say she has never been better than here, with writing which at times takes your breath away.

It’s not only the language, it is everything. Every description, emotion, explanation, and idea are expressed with thought, care, and artistry. If the narrator was anyone other than Catherine Carswell it might seem overly-eloquent, but these words in her mouth and mind are perfect. Fictionalised accounts of real people are tricky to get right, but Ajay Close shows what can be done, taking this little known story from history to comment on universal themes, and even fiction itself. Are you ready to be heartbroken?

When you know a favourite series is coming to an end the feeling can be bittersweet. Of course you get to spend more time with characters, and in places, that you have come to know and love, but the realisation that this is to be the last time can be a sad thought.

Mandy Haggith’s The Lyre Dancers is the final part of her ‘Stone Stories’ trilogy, following on from The Walrus Mutterer and The Amber Seeker – a series of novels which transport readers to Iron Age Northern Britain and the surrounding seas, and create a vivid world which both manages to fulfill and subvert expectations. You could start with The Lyre Dancers, but my advice is to go back to the very beginning and The Walrus Mutterer. You’ve got a whole new old world awaiting you.

Just when you think you’ve read it all Tom Gillespie’s The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce appears as if from nowhere a novel that asks us to question everything we regard as certainties and consider them anew.

It’s a novel that examines grief and guilt through the twin prisms of art and obsession. Dr Jacob Boyce spends his days in front of a baroque painting in his local gallery, taking meticulous notes and measurements, and trying to unravel what he perceives as its riddles and secrets.

As with many obsessives paranoia soon sets in and he is never entirely sure who to trust and what to believe. With a missing wife, a coterie of mysterious strangers, mathematical conundrums, and philosophical musings, The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce is the smartest thriller you’ll read this year and is one of those rare novels that feed the mind and soul in equal measure.

Set over the last 50 years Scabby Queen is an epic novel which wears its ambition lightly, and that’s because it remains relatable throughout. It’s historical, only the history is recent enough to still be fresh in many people’s minds.

There are key events which underpin the narrative, from the Poll Tax protest marches to the Scottish Independence Referendum, but it is ultimately all about individuals, as all stories are, and Innes seems to understand that better than most.

While it touches on politics and prejudice, it’s also about growing up and growing old, and not letting time pass you by. The fire that burned in Clio Campbell is one which Kirstin Innes clearly shares as the novel fizzes with ideas and no little indignation.

Scabby Queen is available now published by 4th Estate.

The Young Team is not about nostalgia, or taking a tour in someone else’s past. It’s much too immediate for that. You may never have raised a fist in anger, but you’ll recognise the need to belong versus the need to remain an individual, the hopes and fears of teenage years, and the choices made which could, and perhaps did, lead you where you wish you hadn’t gone. You’ll also remember the vitality of youth and why the desire and dream to stay young is such an attractive, if impossible, one.

I could go on at length about just how good The Young Team is, and if you meet me out and about I will likely do just that. (I may even go into the comparisons with the early albums of Bruce Springsteen which I decided not do here for everyone’s sake). Suffice to say that Graeme Armstrong has written a novel that in years to come is going to be considered a landmark in Scottish writing, and you really need to read it to understand why.

The Young Team is out now, published on the Picador Imprint of Pan MacMillan

I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect this. David Keenan’s latest novel, the intriguingly titled Xstabeth, confirms that he is a writer who defies as much as delights. It’s experiential, almost existential, in that you don’t read so much as feel. It is sensational in a very specific way – a book which seems to create a bond between writer and reader which is rare.

Phrases, sentences, even individual words, seem to come from nowhere, they take you by surprise and make you giddy with delight. To try and explain it seems almost crude, this is writing not meant to be defined – that would be to do it a disservice. But, of course, that’s why I’m here. Xstabeth has the feel of a writer at peace, at least with the undertaking of writing and the role it plays in his life. And in writing for himself he is writing for us all.

Xstabeth is out now published by White Rabbit.

It is so much more than a ‘Guide To My Favourite Graveyards’ – it’s all about people, those who are here and those we are missing. Ross uncovers a variety of myths and often forgotten tales about the latter, and forms bonds with those who have found a place to meet, or be alone, which brings them succour, the search for peace, and provides evidence that death is not the end.

Peter Ross could rewrite the phone book and I would want to read it. Each word counts as he doesn’t just want to tell stories, he wants to do so in the right way. He is interested in the things that unite us as much as individual experiences, and proves the two are never exclusive. With A Tomb With a View he has written a book for everyone – one that will make you laugh, cry, think, feel, reflect on your own life and the lives of others.

A Tomb With A View is out now published by Headline.

The energy and excitement of the teenage reminiscences gives way to the sobriety and seriousness of middle age and confronting the fears that come to us all – to some sooner than others. This is where emotions deepen and take hold. It will be a story familiar to many, but rarely written about in this honest and candid way, at least in fiction. It is with passages of writing such as the final chapters of Mayflies that Andrew O’Hagan’s storytelling really comes into its own.

His closeness to the subject, which could have led to over-sentimentality or even mawkishness, is balanced by his literary style and the poise evident in his writing, and the results are compelling. Mayflies is one of those books you want to tell other people about not just because it’s a great read, but because you feel they’ll get as much from it as you did. It’s a novel for sharing with your own best mates – they’ll thank you for it, and it may just be the rekindling of a beautiful friendship.

Mayflies is out now, published by Faber.

Just missing out on the top ten are Stephen Watt – Fairy Rock, Olga Wotjas – Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace, Doug Johnstone – A Dark Matter, Alan Parks – Bobby March Will Live Forever, Elisabeth Gifford – The Lost Lights Of St Kilda, Scott Hames – The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution, Martin McInnes – Gathering Evidence, Claire MacLeary – Payback, and Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain (yet to be reviewed) but you should still click on those titles, read the reviews, and seek them out all the same.

Our review of the Year in Books Podcasts (Parts I & II) with Vikki Reilly will be with you very shortly…


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