Every year tells a different story in terms of books, and it’s always interesting to reflect upon that story as the year comes to a close. Over the last 12 months there have been striking debuts, the welcome resurrection of short story collections, and notable literary fiction side-by-side, or even crossing over with fascinating, and often personal, non-fiction.
With this in mind, SNACK presents you with Ten of the Best Scottish Books of 2023.
Rachelle Atalla – Thirsty Animals
Set to the backdrop of global drought, what makes Thirsty Animals so pointed and powerful is the way the details and the everyday dynamic of teenage Aida and her family are so recognisable and relatable, but with a sense of wider foreboding always present. By focusing on individuals we come to care for, the eventual horrors and revelations hit all the harder, but through it all the inevitabilities of life, death, and hope remain – even when the latter appears increasingly faint. It’s a novel which explores what people are capable of in the most extreme circumstances, yet by setting events in Scotland in a near future it all seems absolutely credible. By avoiding the pandemic, Rachelle Atalla has written the most insightful and empathetic pandemic novel to date.
Leila Aboulela – River Spirit
The writing is a thing of beauty, transporting you to late 19th-century Sudan with all its sights, sounds, smells, and tastes – you can almost feel the heat coming off the page. By telling the story of one of the most important periods in Sudan’s history through everyday people’s lives and the events which shape them, the story becomes relatable. But it’s the characters who stay with you. There’s enigmatic Mahadi and aspiring Scottish painter Robert, but most of all this applies to Akuany, who becomes known as Zamzam, and who is one of the great literary characters of recent times.
Denise Mina – Three Fires
Three Fires works as a companion piece to Rizzio, Denise Mina’s entry in Polygon’s Books’ Darkland Tales series. Both are historical fiction, but with modern sensibilities. Three Fires references the present day in order to put the life and times of the central character, Savonarola, into perspective and context. Few writers manage to convey the joy they have in writing as Mina does, and this encourages her audience to read more: more about the subject, but more from Denise Mina as well.
George Paterson – Westerwick
In Westerwick, places become characters as affecting and eerie as any individual, adding to an atmosphere of the uncanny. Sensual and shocking, this is a novel which doesn’t just wrong-foot you – it takes you away at the knees. As the plot – along with protagonist Thomas Leven – unravels, you are faced with events so unexpected that not only do you have no idea what’s coming next, but often no idea what has just occurred. From first page to last, the power of Westerwick compels.
Westerwick is published with Into Books
Heather Parry – This Is My Body, Given For You
One of the finest short story collections I have read in years. These stories are inventive, incredible, weird and wonderful, taking the theme of the body and exploring the fear, strength, vulnerability, fragility, and mythology which relates to it, as well as the relationship between the physical and the psychological. There is also dark and surreal humour. Like the best short story collections, This Is My Body, Given For You is one to return to again and again.
Eleanor Thom – Connective Tissue
Connective Tissue is bursting with love across generations, looking back to better understand not only who you are but who you wish to be. But there is also the fundamental, even existential, fear of loss and the dread of despair which many will recognise. The ‘connectivity’ of the book’s title does not only apply to the central characters, or even the real people who inspired them, but also that between the writer and readers. Few novels are so deeply and identifiably human.
Angus Peter Campbell – Electricity
Angus Peter Campbell is an acclaimed poet as well as a novelist, and a poet’s precision with language is woven throughout. The ‘electricity’ of the title not only refers to the new technology and invention coming to the islands, but to the sparks and spontaneity which accompany youth. Electricity is about family as much as it is community. It’s a wonderful and warm read that will raise spirits and gladden the heart, and is a reminder that there is no such thing as an ordinary life – every single one is extraordinary. Angus Peter Campbell is a true craftsman and Electricity is storytelling at its finest.
Zoë Strachan – Catch The Moments As They Fly
It’s an historical novel, but it doesn’t feel like it – there’s a contemporary feel to the novel as a whole, which is unexpected. This is in no small part down to Strachan’s style of writing, which is clever but never showy and moves the narration along almost imperceptibly. Dramatic events are often only fully revealed with hindsight, making you reassess what you have previously read. Depicting lives all too rarely found in fiction, it feels like Catch the Moments as They Fly is the novel Zoë Strachan has been working towards from the beginning.
Lynsey May – Weak Teeth
Every so often a book is written that seems uncanny in its familiarity. One where you feel the narrative, and narrator, speak directly to you. Weak Teeth had such an effect on me. It’s a book which examines mental health, familial disputes, generational conflict, dealing – or not dealing – with grief, bad breakups, working an unsatisfactory job, fixating on social media, and living with troublesome teeth. The most striking debut of the year, it marks the arrival of an individual and original new voice in Scottish writing, a book which leaves you wanting more. But while it is exciting to consider what comes next, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Right now, this is a novel which deserves to be read far and wide.
Allan Radcliffe – The Old Haunts
The best writing holds a mirror to the reader, and Allan Radcliffe’s debut novel, The Old Haunts, is a beautiful example of this. The central character of Jamie escapes to the country after the loss of his parents, and is trying to work through his grief while inevitably reflecting on the past. Few novels examine how familial relations evolve over time in such a recognisable way, and this one reminds us that feelings of grief and loss are as complex a mix of emotions as we’ll ever experience. It’s one of the reasons great writing is so important – that ability to evoke empathy and understanding.