Scotland’s leading writers and critics pick two books – one published in 2016 and one published in the past – that they most enjoyed reading in 2016. There’ll be new selections every day until Christmas Eve. 17th December features picks by Michel Faber, Jenni Fagan and Trevor Royle.
These round-ups always give the impression that the person is reading loads of books all the time and, when pushed, will select the two they liked best. Me, I’ve only read two books in the last year. One was Kirsty Logan’s A Portable Shelter (Vintage, £8.99), which is written with supernatural verve, dark wit and violent beauty. It’s a heady mixture of fictionalised memoir, YA fantasy, Angela Carter-esque fable… There’s a lot of influences in there but Logan makes them her own.
The only other book I’ve read this year was a not-yet-published memoir by Louisa Young about her decades-long relationship with the brilliant alcoholic composer Robert Lockhart. Which leads me to the only book I read in 2015, Louisa Young’s Devotion (Borough Press), a fine novel about Fascist Jews in Mussolini’s Italy, the third instalment of the war sequence begun with My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You.
Grief is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter (Faber, £7.99) is an astonishing fable of a novel, poetic and experimental with a clear, concise stream-of-consciousness style. Each section is told from the point of view of two boys, their father, or an ominous crow (“Once upon a time there was a crow who wanted nothing better than to care for a pair of motherless children”). This book captures grief’s cruelty and ordinariness. It pinpoints the lack of compromise (or concern) death holds for human hearts — most especially those not yet fully grown. A stunning achievement for a debut novel.
My publisher sent me a copy of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (1978, Vintage 1987 trans David Bellos) as I am currently writing something he thought nodded toward it. A character called Serge Valéne wants to paint a picture of the Parisian apartment building he has lived in for 60 years. The characters grow more bizarre and unlikely and brilliant. Perec’s series-of-novels book is a master of cosmic irony.
Every so often a book comes along to illuminate a hidden incident from the past. Declan Power’s Siege at Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle (Maverick House, £7.99) is just such a book. In June 1961 the men of A Company, 35th Irish Infantry Battalion arrived in the Congo as part of a controversial UN peacekeeping operation but events soon placed them in a shooting war in the southern province of Katanga. Led by Pat Quinlan, a remarkable officer, these ill-equipped and inexperienced soldiers gave a tremendous account of themselves only for their feats to be forgotten by the authorities. It’s a great story and one that deserves to be revealed.
Before spending a few weeks in Sicily I re-read my dog-eared copy of Giuseppe Lampedusa’s marvellous 1958 novel The Leopard (Vintage, £9.99), not just for the recreation of island life during the Risorgimento but also for Tancredi’s wry summary of conservativism – “things will have to change if we want them to remain the same”.