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Scotland’s Favourite Book

In a programme on BBC 1 Scotland last night the results of a poll to discover Scotland’s favourite book were announced.

These were apparently voted on from a long list of thirty books.

As usual the titles marked in bold I have read; italics are on my tbr pile.The ones marked by a strike-through I may get round to sometime.

An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Thanks to my working through of the 100 best Scottish Books and the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books I have read nineteen of these, with two on the tbr and others maybe to consider.

I suspect that in the fullness of time some of the more modern of them will fall away from public affection.

My strike rate for the final top ten was 7/10. The list (in descending order) was:-

10. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
8. Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
7. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
6. Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
3. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
1. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I am particularly pleased that James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner made it here and the strong showing of Alasdair Gray was also welcome. Personally I don’t think The Wasp Factory is Iain Banks’s best book but only one from each author was on the long list.

Gibbon’s Sunset Song was the one I predicted to the good lady would come first. Since its publication it has been an enduring favourite with Scottish readers.

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up.

(Edited to add:- Those with a *I have now read.
Edited again to add:- I have added even more than these to the “have now read” list.)

John Galt – Annals of the Parish* (1821) I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue* (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free* (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work. (As of May 2016 on tbr pile.)
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da* (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers* (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies* (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002) (tbr pile)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place* (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker* (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington* (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961) (tbr pile)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998) (tbr pile)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm* (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe* (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931) (tbr pile)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons* (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal* (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972) (tbr pile)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums* (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door!* (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood* (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy* (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this. (tbr pile)
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935) (tbr pile)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings* (1941) Of Gunn’s work I recently read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde* (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps* (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) (tbr pile)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day* (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947) (tbr pile)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam* (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956) (tbr pile)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822) (tbr pile)

The Blue Book by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2011, 375 p.

Sumptuously produced with embossed boards, gold leafing, patterned endpapers and page edges in a blue so deep it’s almost purple this is a consciously literary endeavour. It makes frequent reference to your book, the book you are reading, and also has unconventional upper pagination (the numbers at the bottom of the page are in the normal sequence.) It also explicitly mentions the fact that it has three pages numbered 7 – with a page 18 well out of sequence. In addition The Blue Book has three pages numbered 9, two 8s,10s and 27s as well as 0s and 1s towards the end; not forgetting a 666, a 676, a 678, a 798, an 888, a 919 and a 934 in a book with only 375 pages. (There may be some of these I have missed.) Numbers are an important means of communication for the two main characters and Kennedy has toyed with this notion and with us. Quite how necessary it is to do so is another matter. A further notable feature was the repetition of phrases, “Because he was young,” “A man standing in a doorway,” etc. The narration is not straightforward, sometimes describing aspects of a man’s life in detached third person, at others the internal thoughts of Elisabeth Barber as well as the ongoing narrative. There is also a rather high count of a certain expletive.

One of the scenes tells us of a boy being told about girls by his father. Girls, he says, will not be gorgeous like Dusty Springfield, whom the boy rather likes. Or if they are this will not be good news. Which seems like sound advice.

The meat of the novel is compressed into the time scale of a cruise across the Atlantic to New York but there are various flashbacks to earlier incidents in the two main characters’ lives. Elisabeth is taking the trip with her boyfriend Derek who is on the brink of proposing. In the queue to embark they encounter a man who engages them in conversation. This man’s question to Elisabeth later that day when Derek is absent seems shocking but it turns out Elisabeth used to be his partner, not only in life but also on stage in a show which was basically a con where he claimed to have messages from the dead to their loved ones in the audience. The disintegration of Elisabeth’s relationship with Derek and her renewal of that with Arthur Lockwood – implicit from that encounter in the queue – drives the novel.

A flaw for me though was the fact that The Blue Book depends for its emotional impact largely on the late revelation of a crucial piece of information up till then withheld. To be fair it is withheld from one of our duo of characters but it felt too much like a deus ex machina.

The Blue Book is not one to be read lightly, nor with lack of attention.

What Becomes by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2009, 218p

 What Becomes cover

The back cover blurb of What Becomes makes explicit reference to the old Jimmy Ruffin (among many other performers) hit What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and this collection of short stories does mainly examine fractured or doomed relationships within or outwith marriage. The emblematic story title here would be Whole Family With Young Children Devastated though in the story concerned it actually refers to a notice about a lost pet displayed on local lamp-posts. Two stories are exceptions. Another concerns the careful reconstruction of a new life and relationship after the woman’€™s husband has died, while As God Made Us is about the camaraderie of a group of ex-soldier amputees and the prejudice they still face.

Kennedy’€™s style in her short stories is oblique. Very little is stated outright either by her narrators or by the characters but it is all exquisitely, carefully written. The overall sense is of people clinging on, desperate to make connections.

There was one peculiar phrase where a character was described as, “€œconstructing these laborious smiles which I think were designed to imply he was a dandy youngster and blade about town,”€ – of which I can only make sense by assuming that similes was the intended word. But if it’s not in fact a typo it’€™s brilliant.

Day by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2008

Day follows the fortunes of Alfred Day, a former tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War 2. This might lead you to believe he will die in the novel’s denouement – rear gunners were notably short lived, being the first target a night fighter might hit in an attack run and unsuitably positioned to exit a doomed Lanc easily should the worst happen – but it is quickly revealed that after the war he returns to Germany to take a part in a film set in a POW camp. The book roams back and forth through Day’s wartime life, the filming and his relationships with the bomber’s crew, his parents, and the married woman he takes up with.

The prose shifts in various ways. The narrative is not linear, the point of view changes, as do tenses and even the person in which the novel is related. Passages related by “you” – ie in the second person rather than the more familiar first person, I, or third person, s/he, are notoriously difficult to bring off – but Kennedy slides into them and out again with facility.

The post war scenes are the least engaging. They seem to be present to allow Day to recollect his wartime experiences from some distance though they do reveal part of his character and the ugly compromises made by the war’s winners as their old allies turned into adversaries and vice versa.

The front cover tells us Day won the Costa Book of the Year 2007. While the fractured nature of the narrative may render it difficult to read for some, the gradual unravelling of the story does build to its conclusion; where there are no unsignalled authorial surprises waiting for us.

Everything You Need by A L Kennedy.

Jonathan Cape, 1999

This blog is supposed to be about writing, fiction, football and whatever; yet so far I’ve posted nothing about writing. Here’s the corrective. I don’t know whether I ought to or not but I intend to post reviews of the books I have read recently. This is the first.

Everything You Need
by A L Kennedy

Everything You Need cover

Kennedy comes laden with praise and plaudits but I’ve always found it difficult to find a way into her work. There can be an opacity about her prose that obscures understanding (or is that just me?) Everything You Need has this opacity at the start but does become more transparent once the story gets into its stride.
It’s mainly set in Wales on an island retreat where a group of writers support one another in their literary efforts. As such it breaks one of the little spoken rules of writing – don’t write about writers – but, of course, as one of the characters says near the end, there are no rules. There are also occasional forays to a London publisher’s or to literary parties.
A newcomer, Mary, brought up elsewhere by two uncles – one of whom isn’t – comes under the tutelage of Nathan, an established male writer whose connection with her we know to be closer than she ever suspects. The novel teases out the development of their association over several years as they each successfully conclude a novel – Mary’s first and Nathan’s long awaited “serious” one. We are given extracts of Nathan’s novel – but not Mary’s – at various junctures. This delineates his past and present, and will finally reveal his secret to Mary (but only after Everything You Need ends.)
In terms of characterisation the homosexual relationship between the two “uncles” is handled matter-of-factly and without tripping into sentimentality later on where it might have, though strangely – the book is set in the 1990s – the treatment of Mary’s relationship with her boyfriend Johnno felt a little old-fashioned. There was a touch of the 1950s about it. The novel also had echoes of The Wasp Factory – even before the obvious incident late in the book where this comparison is most apt.
I must say the picture it portrays of literary London is not flattering. (Perhaps Kennedy wishes not to be invited to any more literary dos.)
Since it is over 500 pages long (though the type face is large) and my reading time is short, I had put off reading this novel for years. However, it does not feel like time misspent. The characters were well drawn and mostly engaging, though Nathan’s dithering was a touch annoying. But without that there would have been neither plot nor tension so I’ll have to forgive Kennedy there.
Everything You Need contains nothing particularly startling or revelatory about the human condition beyond displaying how difficult communication can be between people – especially if they care for each other – but there are worse ways to while your hours away.

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