Literature lovers were spoiled for reading choice this year (at least, this one was), with many titles mirroring our current world’s tumultuous state. 2018 was the centenary year of the birth of Scotland’s Muriel Spark, and the country rightly went to town, republishing her twenty-two novels including some which were previously out of print, thus giving us the opportunity to read titles we may have previously missed, and re-read our old favourites. The crème de la crème indeed. One hundred years before Spark’s birth, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born and an incredible publishing achievement created, celebrated this year with many biographies and re-imaginings.
Women writers featured highly on my reading list this year – Anna Burns’ deserved Booker winner Milkman looks at the influence of hearsay and attitudes to single women during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and Holly Bourne’s first foray into adult fiction How Do You Love Me Now? felt groundbreaking due to how it deals with its theme of single women in their thirties. This year we also kissed goodbye to detective Jimmy Perez in the final instalment of Ann Cleeves’ phenomenally successful Shetland series and Sally Rooney made a triumphant return with Normal People.
New Scottish talent Chris McQueer brought us mair hings with short stories heralded by Glasgow’s rallying cry of HWFG, and Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey’s (rapper Loki) hard hitting extended essay on “Britain’s underclass”, was recently crowned Scotland’s “most rebellious book” in a public vote. McGarvey gives credit to libraries, and no book will make you want to visit one more than the delightful Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, a biography of childhood reading.
These are just some of the titles that have made a lasting mark on readers this year – here are my personal top 5:
5 The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
I more or less read children’s fiction for a job, so prefer not to review it for fun here, but I can’t let a review of the year pass without mentioning this gem of a picture book. Following a child’s lone journey from her war-torn home to a place of safety, it doesn’t shy away from the danger and destruction of warzones, and the hostile (un)welcome many refugees face when arriving in a new country. A helpful way to explain the refugee crisis to children, and a reminder to adults to offer a chair to those in need.
4 Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
This uplifting selection of guiding and comforting lists, poems and anecdotes will soothe the soul. Based on Haig’s own mantras which have helped with his own anxiety and depression, this book is a must for navigating our busy world whilst keeping mental health in check, whatever your circumstances. A refreshing look at mental health, Notes is a book to be dipped in and out of, when required, with short passages that are ideal for times when concentration is not at its best. Haig tells us that “reading is love in action”, and there has been no finer line written this year. Take Haig’s advice to slow down, put your phone away, and read a book. And make it this one.
3 The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
A beautiful, layered love story, featuring love’s many forms: romantic love between main characters Mara and Pearl, messy love between Mara, her parents and siblings, fatuous love featuring mermaids, the sea, and the islands, and destructive love with its heart-breaking raw grief. Deeply atmospheric, this modern day fairy tale of escaping a troubled past brings magic in the form of Logan’s bewitching prose, and features a delicious range of Scots words like “mauchit”, “numpty” and “pokey-hat”. A stunning read of a wild, Scottish maritime adventure.
2 The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
Although I read and reviewed this last year, its publication date was May of this year, so it gets a place on this list. Tallack’s fictional debut is a love story to unobtainable romance and coming home. Sizzling chemistry between characters alight its pages, but it is the beauty of his prose that is the highlight of this reading experience. The use of Shetland dialect brings authenticity to the story and places you right in the centre of Tallack’s world, with scenes are so evocatively crafted you feel that you could easily navigate the rugged, windy Shetland landscape on your first visit.
1 Transcription by Kate Atkinson
An exciting and dramatic tale of war-time espionage that was worth the wait for fans of Kate Atkinson. A secret comes back to haunt Juliet the spy in her later years, upon receiving a note warning “You will pay for what you did”, and her past, present and future is fascinatingly explored through the time-travelling journey that the author does so well. Juliet’s war” is wrapped up succinctly, for that is not the story; as usual for Atkinson, the main focus of her tale is characterisation. Atkinson is a master of her craft and the fast-paced, lightly humorous Transcription is a joy for her fans.