I love book lists – browsing them for things I haven’t heard of, getting an idea of other people’s reading habits. Today I decided to make my own.
Monday saw the start of Book Week Scotland, an initiative run by the Scottish Book Trust to promote reading in Scotland. There has been lots going on on twitter, and you can read what it’s all about here.
A lovely example of some of the things they are doing is the treasure hunt to find paper sculptures (the first to be won this week was based on Alasdair Gray’s Lanark). This all links back to a story a last year when a mysterious sculptor left a paper sculpture in the Scottish Poetry Library (pictured above) with a message in support of libraries. You can read the full, charming story on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website and take a look at some of the beautiful paper sculptures here.
So naturally, all of this focus on books and reading in Scotland has gotten me thinking about my top Scottish books and what I would recommend to people as a starter. My list, and a few thoughts on each book, is below. As ever, I have missed out so many that I love but wanted to include a few that are a bit different from what might be set texts when it comes to Scottish literature. Quite the mixed bag! Here goes…
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
A classic, and voted the by the public as the Best Scottish Book of All Time – quite an accolade! This is one of my all time favourite books – the story of a young woman coming of age and her inner conflict between her love of the land and education. I could go on. This book is the reason I decided to study English, and Scottish, literature at Uni, and I love it still and am very grateful to my high school English teacher who made it so inspiring.
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
I read this for the first time just a few weeks ago and was astounded by it. The novel builds, slowly upping the tension between two brothers gathering cones on an estate and the gamekeeper during the Second World War. It is an account of how innocence and justice sometimes get sidelined, and the guilt felt by the men left behind whilst their brothers are fighting is palpable. Humanity, treachery and equality are all covered, not to mention the fact that the ending is just brilliant.
The Accidental by Ali Smith
The story of a woman who becomes mysteriously acquainted with a family and has different effects on them. I love the playfulness of language in this book and the exploration of how one person can influence people so much.
And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson
I read this at the very start of the year and loved it – the social history, the way the characters all seem to intertwine in a way that depicts how Scotland can feel like a small place where everybody knows somebody who knows somebody… The writing is rich and each character has their own distinctive voice. A really enjoyable way to learn about modern Scottish history and devolution. Read my full review here.
Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty
I found this gem of a book in a local charity shop and really enjoyed how musical it was – the first book that had me listening more and hearing things in a different way. You can read my full review here.
The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn
I read this off the back of Sunset Song as I went in search of more Scottish literature. It is set in a fishing village and really shows the endurance of crofters. I loved it at the time, about 6 years ago now I reckon, and I think it will soon be getting re-visited.
The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown
Again, this was a choice inspired by Sunset Song – it mocks the Scottish literary tradition of kailyard novels (think along the lines of twee and homely). It is another novel that builds up to an incredible, unexpected ending.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
This is such a surprising read – leading you into the mind of a twelve year-old boy with some serious issues. It’s dark but it drags you in.
Born Free by Laura Hird
I feel like this was the first proper grown-up book I read, it was gritty and unlike anything I’d read at that time. I think I must have been about 16 at the time my librarian recommended it to me. It’s quite grim, but sharp and darkly funny, following a family struggling to communicate with each other or deal with what life throws at each of them.
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
This is another one that I read this year, inspired by a project called Scotland’s Bookshelf by the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and the Aye Write! Book Festival. It is another text which is dark and a little disturbing, inside the mind of a man who coldly relates the time following his girlfriend’s murder, spent on a boat where he has an affair with a married woman. To me, it feels so unlike any other work of Scottish fiction, almost more American and linked to the Beats but perhaps I am somewhat influenced by Trocchi’s reputation and drug-addled life.
And a little extra one for luck…
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
I haven’t technically finished reading this book yet, not at all a judgement on the book but on my ill-chosen timing to start reading it (right in the run-up to uni exams…). It is such a stalwart of Scottish fiction that I felt compelled to include it on my list, and Alasdair Gray is really a central figure of the Scottish literati.
So much so in fact that as part of Book Week Scotland he’s doing a talk at Summerhall in Edinburgh tonight at 6.30pm, discussing and reading from his new book, Every Short Story: 1951 – 2012. It’s very short notice but I’ll be there, so if you are too, come and say hello! Event details are here and I think there are still tickets available. It’s only £4 and it will undoubtedly be an entertaining talk.
Still need more inspiration? Check out The List Magazine’s 100 Best Scottish Books.