Books for Christmas: A Literary Gift Guide
Books are the ideal gift, reflecting a certain intelligence upon the giver, and alluding with a sly wink that the recipient is the same. We look at the output of local publishers from Scotland and the Northwest to suggest the ideal literary Xmas gifts
Local is best. The laws of probability mean that even clichéd platitudes have to ring true every once in a while. You can see it in those weird supermarket campaigns labelling your grapes with the name of the farmer whose hands picked them from the not-so-distant vine, and in the ever-so-long waiting list to plant bluebells and Pink Ladies a-plenty at the nearest allotment patch. Foodies and musos have been preaching the virtues of localism to the choir for a long time; it’s time bookish folk got in on the act.
The Christmas season can be a disheartening time for literary bods: presents usually come down to a selection of the year’s releases from big names that have already been purchased and read, or a gift from a family member who mistakenly equates the latest autobiography from a reality TV star with the word 'book.' Such blunders are avoidable, and to help you choose wisely, The Skinny’s Books editors have compiled a list of literary wonders from their local publishing houses; a cultural cross-pollination between our Scotland and the Northwest issues, you might say. The book lists of small, independent publishers are more vibrant and diverse than ever, so we invite you to be that canny outlier of a present-purchaser and opt for writing that’s a little closer to home.
Holly's Northwest picks:
Carcanet Press has continued this year to live up to its reputation as one of the finest poetry presses around. Les Murray’s latest collection, Waiting for the Past, looks at the bumps in the geographical and linguistic terrain in the process of growing up. This one’s a perfect match for your tree-hugging aunt, who spends weekends wandering among forests and lakes, or the friend refusing to be separated from their alien- zapping computer games to help them reconnect with, well, greenery and that.
For a walk on the magic side, or a step into the maze of hidden history, we advise you to turn to Manchester-dwelling poet Grevel Lindop. Luna Park is best read at night, preferably with a mind-set ready to be reframed by haunted libraries and derelict funfairs. And if all this hasn’t managed to convince you that the Shakespeare sonnets you read circa your sixth-form years isn’t all that poetry has to offer, Sophie Hannah’s Marrying the Ugly Millionaire is worth a crack, if only to read about following the Dalai Lama on Twitter. What’s not to like? (carcanet.co.uk)
Cornering the short-story market and adding in a slapdash of tech, we have a lot to thank the folk at Comma Press for – namely, an assortment of some of the best short-story fiction and new writing around. First up is David Constantine, whose woefully underrated work has reached a wider readership this year because of Oscar buzz about Andrew Haigh’s film 45 Years, an adaptation of Constantine's short story In Another Country. You can double up on his novel The Life-Writer and collection In Another Country: Selected Stories; curl up with a bucket of roast potatoes and immerse yourself in the unspoken tension and quiet emotional shattering that Constantine is such a master of.
David Constantine, author of The Life-Writer and In Another Country: Slected Stories.
Alternatively, those with a fondness for transgressing national and language barriers (surely everyone’s favourite pastime) could do worse than opting for the translations of Sema Kaygusuz’s The Well of Trapped Words and Diao Dou’s Points of Origin. Both have a touch of the surreal and allow readers to dip their toes in the literary tradition of another country. (commapress.co.uk)
Elsewhere, Liverpool University Press’s new imprint, Pavilion Poetry, has burst onto the scene all pages blazing. Mona Arshi’s debut collection, Small Hands, won the 2015 Forward Prize for best first collection. Exploring themes of grief, hardship and tradition, it may not be your top choice for getting into the Christmas spirit, but Arshi’s startling voice will stay in your head long after the seasonal tinsel begins to wilt. She’s a poet tipped for big things; hop on the wagon early and impress the culture vulture in your life.
Eleanor Rees’s Blood Child and Sarah Corbett’s And She Was make up the rest of the Pavilion Poetry trio. Rees meshes barren concrete and creatures of a more wild kind, while Corbett returns to her partialness for night-time wanderings and noir. Warning: winter nights will never feel the same. (liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk)
Alan's Scotland Picks:
It is impossible to extract the work of certain writers from the cities they call home. Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh, the uptown New York of Tom Wolfe or the downtown Harlem of Chester Himes – they explain just what it means to belong to a place, to be one of its people. With his outstanding new paperback retrospective, Glaswegians (@Hogsbackpress), artist Stuart Murray is more economical – he gets right to the core of (a certain section of) the city’s culture and character through simple, monochrome caricatures, coupled with the odd sparse line of broguish dialogue. He has been drawing the Glaswegians he meets for many years, the everyday characters roaming its streets and more often docking themselves in its pubs. This is razor-sharp social commentary; hard, truthful yet, most importantly, empathetic.
For another view of Scotland, try the poetic take on the country in words and pictures that is This is Scotland (www.luath.co.uk), by author Daniel Gray and photographer Alan McCredie. With this travelogue of sorts, the contributors look into those seemingly less notable, but notably worthy corners of the country, from Govan in Glasgow to the further highlands and islands. This is a social history from the bottom up – real people, chip shops and bingo halls. The unexpected beauty of the everyday. An alternative cultural map of the country for both those living within its borders or those simply planning a visit.
For fiction, what about A Book of Death and Fish (www.saraband.net), the debut novel from acclaimed poet and storyteller Ian Stephen and the history of an individual life alongside that of the Scottish islands. The book was nominated by Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian as his book of the year and highlighted as both a major landmark in Scottish literature and, more broadly, in contemporary fiction. These rare occurrences should not be overlooked.
(l-r) Kevin Williamson and Michael Pedersen of Neu! Reekie!
Then of course there's the mystifying trend for adult colouring books – which I can only equate with a long prison stretch, narcotic overindulgence or a serious head injury. But then what do I know? Create and Colour Scotland (www.blackandwhitepublishing.com) is by its own claims 'Relaxing – Inspiring – Calming.' Perfect for those three aforementioned conditions, or simply the stress of the Xmas period.
For a far cheaper gift option than all of these, why not go for poetry? Simply write a poem yourself, for loved ones, friends or family – to recite drunkenly around the Xmas dinner table. It’s absolutely free and so, so easy. Just place words that rhyme at the end of each line. Or maybe not. Harry Giles shows just how complex and meaningful the process is with his debut collection, Tonguit (www.freightbooks.co.uk). The spoken word scene is going strong, but printed-form poetry seems still to elude or intimidate. Giles uses black letters on white paper to hugely creative effect: leaving spaces between them, forming them into shapes, creating a Leaning Tower of Pisa – yes, honestly. His argot is a form of Scots he describes as mongrel and magpie – allowing all readers to revel in the discovery of a language, and of course of a fine poet.
Or as an alternative you could pick up a copy of Edinburgh avant-garde rabble rousers Neu! Reekie!’s #UntitledOne, (www.birlinn.co.uk), a collection featuring everyone from Jenni Fagan and Kirsty Logan to Hollie McNish and Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison. It is already a collector’s item. Explain that your gift will be worth multiples of its cover price in years to come, and demand an instant upgrade to those being offered back to you. An honourable mention must go to Ryan Van Winkle’s The Good Dark (www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk), a collection our Skinny review suggested moved between ‘stabbing pain, deep melancholy and cautious optimism.’ Sounds, relevantly enough, like Boxing Day morning to me; minus the optimism, of course.