9 best Scottish fiction books
From celebrations of Weegie dialect to referendum ruminations, these are our favourite new releases
Publishing is alive and well in Scotland. Most, but not all, of the writers on this list are Scottish (some are only Scotland-based), but they each explore aspects of Scottish culture and identity through fiction, varying widely in subject and scope.
Through these novels we travel to British Columbia and Japan, the Shetland Isles and the heart of Glasgow, go back in time to 18th-century Edinburgh, explore the great political upheaval that was the Scottish independence referendum and revisit one of the greatest of all Scottish classics.
There is something for everyone here, whether you want history, comedy, fast-paced drama or a quiet, reflective read. We’ve focused on books that have been published in the past few months, or that are set to hit the shelves in the near future.
Peacock’s Alibi by Stuart David: £8.99, Polygon
This is the second story about Peacock Johnson, self-styled “man with a plan”, Glasgow wide boy, and a would-be major league criminal whose ideas never quite get off the ground. To add to his problems, Detective Inspector McFadgen has only one aim in view, and that is to get Peacock put behind bars. When one of the Glasgow underworld meets a sticky end, Peacock finds himself relentlessly hounded by McFadgen, and needs to come up with a plan – fast. Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and others have put Scottish crime fiction on the map, and this is a witty variation of the genre, cleverly written and hugely entertaining. Peacock is a fast-talking, wisecracking, thoroughly likeable character – and proves that the author is not only one of Scotland’s most talented musicians and songwriters, but a natural storyteller too.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek by Anthony O’Neill: £8.99, Black & White Publishing
Robert Louis Stevenson needs no introduction as one of Scotland’s greatest writers, and his 1886 classic, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with its unsettling story of dual identity and demonic possession, is the inspiration for this rumbustious sequel. Set in London and Edinburgh, it follows the fortunes of a respectable lawyer, Mr Utterson, whose quest to unmask an imposter who has returned from the grave claiming to be Dr Jekyll, draws him into a dark world of murder and madness. Mr Hyde is dead, as Utterson can confirm, and as Jekyll and Hyde were one person, then how can this charming and persuasive stranger be anything other than a fraud? As Utterson doggedly pursues the truth, he finds himself dismissed as a crank, and in desperation makes his final – and fatal – move. Written with verve and humour, this is an entertaining tale which weaves an ingenious web of mystery and suspense. It is guaranteed to keep the reader hooked until the last page.
Doubting Thomas by Heather Richardson: £11.95, Vagabond Voices
Thomas Aikenhead was the last man to be hanged for blasphemy in Britain, meeting his end in Edinburgh in 1697. Doubting Thomas is a masterly evocation of a time and a place, bringing late 17th-century Edinburgh vividly to life, with its teeming tenements, its booksellers and apothecaries, its coffee houses and students. From the opening scene where one of the voices of the story, Doctor Carruth, participates in a particularly grisly autopsy, to the surprise of the closing chapter, the narrative sweeps along at a lively pace. We first meet Thomas as an engaging child, then as a young firebrand student, whose freethinking in an age of religious oppression ultimately leads to his downfall. For lovers of historical fiction this is a must – and its themes of freedom of thought and worship have dark reflections in our own times.
Bone Deep by Sandra Ireland: £8.99, Polygon
When Lucie accepts a job as girl Friday to eccentric elderly historian Margarita “Mac” Muir, little does she imagine that she will be caught up in past tragedy. Lucie is escaping from an illicit love affair with her sister’s boyfriend, but the Miller’s Cottage in rural Scotland is not the refuge she had hoped for. For one thing, the defunct Mill holds some terrible secrets which will be gradually revealed as the plot unfolds; for another, her own mistakes are not so easily put behind her. Mac is working on a version of a centuries’ old tale about sibling rivalry and murder, which has disturbing echoes in Lucie’s life. As Mac’s mind begins to unravel, so Lucie’s fate is in her hands. Part thoroughly modern story of contemporary relationships, part gothic thriller, and a great read at every level.
Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack: £14.99, Canongate
The crofting life in present-day Shetland isn’t a romantic fantasy for the characters in this powerful novel, but a daily reality of hard work and hard choices. Sandy quickly finds this out when he chooses to stay after his girlfriend has left, and David, born and brought up in the valley, becomes his guide and mentor. There is Alice too, an incomer with a book to write, and Terry, escaping from his problems into the whisky bottle. When Maggie, the oldest resident, dies, everyone in the valley has to reassess their links with the past, and come to terms with inevitable change. Shetland is a huge presence in the novel – its dialect, its weather, its landscape and its history. This is a gritty portrayal of island life – and not for the faint-hearted.
Cinico by Allan Cameron: £10.95, Vagabond Voices
The debate around the Scottish independence referendum is at the core of this intriguing and challenging novel, which follows the fortunes of a present-day Candide figure, an Italian journalist, as he travels to Britain and encounters a range of different characters and opinions. The aptly-named Cinico finds himself questioning his own beliefs as he wades into the political and philosophical maelstrom that is Scotland before the crucial vote. Accompanied by a professor of politics and falling into a brief affair with a passionate Yes campaigner along the way, Cinico meditates on nationalism, democracy and the sense of belonging in a troubled world.
Two Closes and a Referendum by Mary McCabe: £9.99, Ringwood Publishing
Glasgow, during the referendum campaign, is at the centre of a political awakening, with deep emotions stirred and families divided. Through a cast of characters inhabiting a couple of typical closes, Mary McCabe brings the arguments to life while weaving a human tapestry of discord and drama. She captures the language of Glaswegians of all backgrounds and uses Weegie dialect to great effect. There are Ewan and Donald, a gay couple with diametrically opposed allegiances; 16-year-olds Malky and Kirsty, keen to vote for the first time and enthused by the Yes campaign; immigrants from former Czechoslovakia and from Pakistan with differing views on nationalism, and many other residents whose stories are told with warmth and humour. It’s an engrossing snapshot of modern Glasgow at a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history.
macCloud Falls by Robert Alan Jamieson: £14.99, Luath Press
The Scottish diaspora in western Canada is the setting for this ambitious narrative. Gilbert Johnson, an antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh recently diagnosed with cancer, has always been an armchair traveller. On his first and possibly last real journey, he sets off for British Columbia on the trail of a man he suspects was really his own grandfather, a man called Jimmy Lyle, who became famous as a champion of the First Nations at the beginning of the 20th century. En route he meets Veronika, a Canadian woman and his “cancer twin”, and the two forge a tentative friendship as they pursue Gil’s quest together. Rich in historical detail and vivid description, this is a dense, lyrical and multi-layered novel, slow-paced but rewarding.
The Accidental Recluse by Tom McCulloch: £8.99, Sandstone Press
Johnny Jackson is an ageing film director, long exiled to luxurious living in Japan, and far removed from his Scottish roots. He tells the story of his life, cutting between past and present, and we learn of his beginnings in a croft with his father and brother Duke, making a precarious living doing vaudeville acts in local venues. Then the big-time hits – it’s the Sixties, when everything seems possible – and Duke becomes a star, can’t take the pressure and crumbles into drink and drugs. Johnny makes well-regarded films and succeeds on his own terms. But the past comes calling and his return to Scotland to make one final film unearths some ancient skeletons. Contemporary Japan, Sixties London, the Highlands of Scotland in that uneasy transition from rural backwater to marketing opportunity for the tourist trade – all expertly delineated by this talented novelist. This is a fast-paced story with snappy dialogue and an absorbing narrative that mixes humour with pathos. The Accidental Recluse is Johnny Jackson’s autobiography, telling of fame and its downside, of love and loss, and the ultimate reckoning of a life lived – if not always well – at least to the full.
The Verdict: New Scottish fiction
What could be better than a good laugh – think Billy Connolly meets Inspector Clouseau, and you have Peacock’s Alibi, which is just wonderfully funny. Stuart David has the Glaswegian banter down to perfection, and his characters are all larger than life yet completely recognisable. Peacock is his own storyteller and addresses the reader as if holed up in the corner of a pub, his chatty, confiding style perfectly suited to his comic persona. A book to curl up with and enjoy.
All listed prices are RRP
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