Wreath All About It: Books Gift Guide

As a celebration of Christmas, here are a handful of Scottish books from 2017 that are timely, transformative and begging to be cracked open on a cold winter’s evening

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 04 Dec 2017

For those of us who have grown out of Santa Claus’s judgemental binary, those lazy Christmas nights often come to mean more than the day itself. Ideally, those nights will find you curled up with a glass of something old and Scottish in hand, so this year why not pair it with something else from the homeland that’s shiny and new?  

Nasty Women – 404 Ink

After Trump’s electoral 'victory' dropped like a nuclear bomb, indie publisher 404 Ink’s feminist anthology rose from the ashes like a newly-powerful, pissed-off super mutant. Personal tales told from around the world, some drove directly at the election while others took the side roads of punk, peer pressure and body politics, but all of them bent back to the shared centre of rage and defiance.

The President himself might still be far from being toppled but 2017 seems set to finish with a series of thuds as high profile abusers are knocked from their positions of power, one after the other. In the mere months it’s been around, Nasty Women seems to get more salient by the second.

The Perfect Gift For: Your sister who’s just turning old enough to understand what 'feminism' means. Your brother who’s already too old to act like he doesn’t. Anyone at all who wants to live in the outside world where the other people are.

This is Memorial Device – David Keenan

Or, to give it its full, paradox-laden short story of a name, This is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and environs 1978-1986.

Yup. A lot going on there. You’ve got that whole 'hallucinated history' thing. You’ve got a musical genre involving the term 'post.' You’ve got Coatbridge. Just a whole heap of reasons to skip down to the next book in this guide, really.

Oh, you’re still here. Excellent! Your reward is one of the most exhilaratingly inventive, rawly comedic and deeply poignant novels to have been produced here or anywhere this year. Documenting an imagined, radically alternative music scene arising in Airdrie in the late 70s, the narrative whirls between mad musicians and avant-garde porn stars, postmodern housebreakers and brain-damaged savants. It is deeply Scottish and totally otherworldly, a complex stream of consciousness that never strays into the unintelligible thanks to the hard-worn heart beating loudly under all the weirdness and wonderment.

It will resonate most forcefully for anyone who grew up in a part of Scotland – or a part of anywhere – so devoid of life and colour that the idea of creating something seemed impossible. The zen mind-flip at the centre of Keenan’s debut novel is to see liberation rather than restraint – in the places where no-one is watching and nothing matters, anything can happen.

The Perfect Gift For: Your Dad who wants to reminisce about zines and cassettes and the days when music was real, damn it. Your musician friend who worries they’ll never be internet famous.

So Happy it Hurts – Anneliese Mackintosh

Her award-winning debut collection Any Other Mouth immediately announced Anneliese Mackintosh as one of the most exciting new voices in Scottish literature. Loud, lewd, ragged and warm, stories inspired by the loss of her father and her struggles with alcohol felt ripped straight from the heart and on to the page. Three years later and her first novel So Happy It Hurts feels like the natural evolution of her style and skill.

Ottila McGregor is striving to stay sober, stay sane, find happiness and love, all without her life or her family crumbling around her. Her sister has been in and out of hospital her whole life with a mind full of demons determined to tear her apart. Her mum is still hurting from the loss of her husband, worried sick over her daughter’s dosages, her other daughter’s drinking. Ottila hates herself for not doing more to help them while barely managing to hold herself together.

Written partially in answer to insipid self-help literature, So Happy It Hurts refuses neat solutions or easy platitudes. It is a book that can make you feel better, but not because everything will always be okay or because the world isn’t full of terrors. Happiness is something you have to fight tooth and nail for – So Happy It Hurts is a bruised and muscular battle cry.

The Perfect Gift For: Your friend who’s been struggling with drink. Your friend who’s been struggling with depression. Your friend who’s been struggling with life.

The Long Drop – Denise Mina

The Scots have a real thing for crime writing. Blood-spattered stories smelling of cigarette smoke, whisky and deceit – this is where we live and breathe. It’s one thing that, for reasons good or bad or both, we are really fucking good at.

It is also one of the many things that Denise Mina is really fucking good at. Breaking out back in 1998, Mina has become one of the most acclaimed crime writers around, inducted into the Crime Writers’ Association Hall of Fame in 2014. Between those two dates, she has also written for the stage, contributed to a graphic novel, made a film about her family and become an established TV and radio presenter. Basically she’s like if James Franco was less annoying and had better hair.

This year, she turned her hand to True Crime with a 'factional' take on the tale of Scotland’s first serial killer, Peter Manuel. After William Watt’s wife, sister-in-law and daughter are brutally murdered in 1956, he is held as the police’s first and main suspect. Himself believing Manuel to be the killer, he does what any rational Scotsman would do in that situation – goes out, tracks Manuel down and… gets the pints in. The two drink and talk, ducking and diving in a verbal sparring session as they each look for weakness in the other’s story.

As it delves deeper into the ego of violent men, Mina once again exposes the darker side of a culture prone to idolising 'hard men' and the weakness that lies behind their deadly machismo.

The Perfect Gift For: Your friend who is into true crime to the point where it has begun to become unsettling but you’re totally not ready to deal with that yet.

Goblin – Ever Dundas

Magic Realist stories, especially those with young protagonists, often see their hero slipping off somewhere fantastical to escape the harshness of the real world. In a good story, you’re often not sure whether these moments of magic are real or the imaginative embellishments of a vulnerable mind protecting itself from trauma it can’t process wholesale. In a great story, you’re left feeling like it really doesn’t matter.

Goblin is a great story.

An exiled child when the Second World War breaks out, the titular Goblin learns to live among the rubble of the London blitz, befriending animals and blocking out the worst of the world as best she can. Years later, she finds herself called back to confront as an adult the shadows she suppressed as a child.

With 'cruelty-free' cafes and restaurants on the rise throughout the country, Goblin feels like a novel rushing in on the tip of a cultural wave. It’s a dark, dark novel, but it glows with a message perfect for the season of goodwill – empathy is all that ever stands between us and carnage, so be kind.

The Perfect Gift For: Your vegan-ish friend who seems like they don’t fully know what they’re doing. Your friend who’s still kind of messed up from Okja. Your younger sibling who’s ready to graduate from Harry Potter but still looking for some magic.