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. 8th December features picks by Jackie Kay, Regi Claire and Mandy Haggith.
In a terrible political year, I found Refugee Tales (Comma Press, £9.99) salutary, invigorating, and enlivening. A courageous book, it offers the reader great solace. It gives faces to the faceless, and voices to the voiceless, humanizing the people that our society demonizes. Stories that needed to be told, told to people who can tell them. These stories are not made up. They have found the right witnesses in Abdulrazak Gurnah, David Herd, Ali Smith, Patience Agbabi and others who in turn become bearers of the Tale – the Arriver’s Tale, the Appellant’s Tale, the Detainee’s Tale, the Refugee’s Tale… Inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (Caxton, 1478) they sent me straight back to the source. Chaucer was a Makar extraordinaire, and it is a pleasure to return to him, to re-read, and to see the paths he cleaved and carved for future writers. Refugee Tales is an open-ended conversation with Chaucer.
My craving for thrillers was richly satisfied this year by John Connolly’s 14th Charlie Parker mystery, A Time of Torment (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99). Dark and unsettling, with Connolly’s distinctive brand of the supernatural, it takes on isolationism, idolatry and greed. Despite its high-octane violence, it manages to remain redemptive and humane. The cliffhanger ending is deftly done – and chilling.
I only discovered Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky (John Lehman, 1949, republished by Penguin), a few months ago. Although the beginning felt slow, inconsequential, I found myself drawn into and eventually almost intoxicated by the narrative. The writing is stunning. The characters constantly surprise. More than the plot, it is their unpredictability, their existential lostness in a hostile, unfamiliar world – post-colonial French North Africa – that makes this such a rewarding read.
This year I have been sailing as much as possible, so my reading diet has been dominated by nautical texts. Stornoway is a port I return to over and over, and I have found the same to be true of its resident bard Ian Stephen’s Maritime: new and selected poems (Saraband, £9.99). This collection of sea poems is a lovely book to handle, beautifully designed and typeset by Gerry Cambridge, with understated images by Christine Morrison. The poems are salty and fishy, dense with sea-faring terminology, as condensed and precise as an almanac, but chatty too, like harbour banter, and as wise as you’d expect from an ocean yachtmaster.
Heavy Weather Sailing, by K Adlard Coles (Adlard Coles Ltd, 1967), is a classic set of accounts of yachts caught out in dangerous conditions at sea: scary, salutary and enthralling.