The Good Word: SWH!’s 10 Best Books Of 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 American myths and legends, '70s rock 'n' roll, tales from the psychiatrist's couch, familial secrets and lies, troublesome returns, teenage trials and tribulations, the highs and lows of the sporting life, the enduring power of books, suspense, the supernatural, social commentary, and a whole lot more.
These are the publications which we felt stood out against the stiffest competition in what was another outstanding year for Scottish writing. 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.
Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth arrived in early 2021 but more than any other book it has stayed with me throughout the year. It's a stunning work of imagination, with every aspect leaving its mark. The structure allows for a number of stories to be told which unfold over different decades of the 20th century and on the various floors of No 10 Luckenbooth Close, a building with a dark history which becomes tangible within its walls.
The mood Fagan creates is strange and sensual, with a cast of characters that include the Devil's daughter, William Burroughs, spies, poets, murderers, witches, Triads, psychics, and even Hugh MacDiarmid. It's a great Scottish novel, but very specifically a great Edinburgh one, reimagining it as a supernatural city tapping into its often dark and dangerous past. It's a place where secrets are hidden, but never for too long. The truth will out.
I can tell you that Luckenbooth rewards multiple readings offering readers something new each time. Jenni Fagan has written a truly remarkable novel, one which will be read, discussed, and celebrated for years to come.
From the opening quote, from literary critic and rhetorician Hélène Cixous, readers are conscious that McClory has written a novel where both writer and reader are aware of their relationship, and the act of reading itself (art critic and theorist John Berger also gets a mention). In Bitterhall everyone and everything is there to be read and deconstructed. There is even a book within the book, one which exhibits a strong hold over people and events, and which could be considered a character in its own right.
Bitterhall brings together the literary and the metaphysical, but it’s also an eerie and unusual thriller, where the tension builds towards an authentically tense climax as we have come to care for all three protagonists individually and collectively. Almost without readers realising it Helen McClory has taken three distinctive and different characters and made us care for them. You might be drawn in by the writing, but you’ll stay for the stories, and what more can you ask of a novel.
Set mostly in Lennoxtown, a town at the foot of the Campsie Fells, Cat Step introduces us to narrator Liz and her daughter Emily who have travelled north to take care of family business in a place small enough to notice new faces, and where news - good, bad, and fake - travels fast. Liz and Emily are involved in an incident which casts doubt on Liz’s fitness as a parent. From this single event their lives become increasingly difficult and complex as they have to cope with the past and consider the future, and the present is about just surviving.
Cat Step is a thriller but one set in the everyday, and which is all too believable in the way it depicts a life unravelling despite a person trying to do their best, while having to cope with grief, guilt, and the death of their dreams. But the thing that stays with you once you finish Cat Step is the characters and their humanity – flaws and all, particularly with regard to Liz, Emily, and June who becomes a (grand)mother figure and friend, despite hiding her own secrets and a genuine fear of the past. Cat Step catches you unaware – you are only a few chapters in before you realise you are completely invested not only in the people, but also the place.
There’s Only One Danny Garvey sees David F. Ross making another significant step forward in terms of the quality of his prose and the complexity of the themes he deals with, and in doing so he has written his finest novel to date. Using those twin Scottish obsessions of football and family, and the highs and lows which accompany both, Ross examines how individual responsibility and the need to belong often pull us in different directions.
[...] David Ross has written a morality tale for our times, but one that offers no easy answers. He gets behind the bravado and bullshit that is often integral to portrayals of Scottish masculinity, and which fellow Ayrshire writer William McIlvanney wrote about perhaps better than anyone else, to look not just at how men are, but why. It’s a powerful read, one which might surprise regular David Ross readers, but that’s what the best writers do.
Ely Percy's Duck Feet captures the trials and tribulations of teenage years as few others manage, capturing the thoughts, deeds, language, and lifestyles of those formative years. The central character of Kirsty Campbell is one of the most memorable fictional characters of recent times, but Percy surrounds Kirsty with family, friends, adversaries, and others who are never stereotyped and always believable. Central to this is the dialogue which sings off the page. There have been many notable novels written in Scots this year, including Colin Burnett's short story collection A Working Class State of Mind and Emma Grae's be guid tae yer mammy, and like those, Duck Feet celebrates the language which was spoken by those around them - something which, sadly, some which is vital to any country's literature.
The winner not only of the Saltire Society's Scottish Fiction Book of the Year but, also their overall Book of the Year, Duck Feet has rightly made its mark, and with it Ely Percy proves they are among Scotland's most exciting and notable writers.
When Henry met Sonny - George Paterson’s The Girl, The Crow, The Writer and The Fighter is a love letter not only to the Great American novel, but to America itself. A timely reminder that no country’s culture has had as profound an effect on Scotland’s as that of the USA. At the same time both epic and intimate, it's a novel that references not only Henry Miller, but also shows the influence of American heavyweights Mailer, Chandler, Ludlum, and more. Possibly the finest American novel not to come out of America.
George Paterson's debut was arguably the most unexpected publication of 2021, and one of the most unashamedly entertaining books of the year.
To say Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study has been eagerly awaited is a considerable understatement. The success of His Bloody Project – Man Booker Prize shortlisted in 2016, and among the most critically acclaimed novels of recent times – means that subsequent publications are bound to create excitement and expectation. I’m delighted to say, that anticipation has been more than matched.
Based around a series of notebooks which were sent, unsolicited, to a certain ‘GMB’ to aid in his biographical research on the “[…] forgotten 1960s psychotherapist Collins Braithwaite”, what unfolds is a literary and psychological mystery that taps into questions about the relationship between patient and therapist, and the potential for the power dynamic between the two to be abused. Macrae Burnet is focused on the experience of the former more so than the latter, a standpoint which has been all too rare.
Charlie Roy’s The Broken Pane is about the stories we tell ourselves, and others, to make sense of how our lives have turned out, and the roles we are assigned in family life. Narrator Tam has come to believe that the reason her mother left, and her father drank, is her fault by simply being born, and the guilt she carries is overwhelming.
The tragic fate of her beloved brother Nicky is the latest emotional trauma she has to face, and although she is not alone – her indomitable Nana especially being there to support – it feels like it. It’s a brave writer who reveals such a tragedy in the first chapter, but that propels the events that follow, and adds a pathos which makes Tam’s experiences all the more poignant. You really come to care about her and as the book moves towards a conclusion the tension becomes almost unbearable.
Despite initial impressions Monument Maker is not an exercise in world building, but one of exploration – of the past, present and future, of the internal and the external, and of art and writing itself. It’s a sensual book that comes close to being overwhelming at times. Poetry, plastic surgery, and pornography. Love, lust and Lionel Ritchie. Music, movies and micturition – all and more are present and frequently incorrect.
The prose often reads like a stream of consciousness with a dreamlike quality that can be deceptive, and Keenan’s uncommon way with grammar and punctuation are an important part of the process. Great care has clearly been taken with every single comma and clause as it takes great skill to make writing seem this effortless. David Keenan is pushing boundaries and pushing readers, but no more than he does himself. A towering achievement.
The central character in Kitchenly 43, Crofton Clark, has been looking after Kitchenly Mill Race, a baronial country getaway belonging to Marko Morell, star guitarist in ‘70s rock giants ‘Fear Taker’, since 1973. With Marko and his family regularly on tour or at one of their other homes, Crofton is left to manage the estate, seeing himself as ‘faithful retainer’ rather than simply the steward.
If you are honest, you may recognise something of yourself in Crofton Clark and you may not like it. He is an individual who is keen to impress, to be a 'big deal', but who refuses to take responsibility when things go wrong, or at least his errors are uncovered. He is uneasy with himself, and with others, and therefore is the perfect hero for Kitchenly 434. It's a novel that never allows you to settle; which makes sense as, with Alan Warner, you should always expect the unexpected.
Our review of the Year in Books Podcast with Vikki Reilly will be with you very shortly…