Braw (adj, Scots) – great, brilliant, pleasing. When I think of the famous novels and pieces of writing from my country’s canon, there’s an undeniable, innovative charge that runs through the popular, or indie, literature throughout the years. The writing of us Scottish folk tends to be dark and expressive, what with James Hogg conjuring devils with The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or starkly defiant, such as Muriel Spark introducing the world to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I have to wonder if the weather is to blame for such wild and stormy reads. However, aside from the classics, there is a huge, flourishing influx of contemporary Scottish books that similarly embraces the gloomy and the gothic, represents the compassion that small communities in Scotland can offer, and challenges convention, genre, and what writing can do. The literary scene here is alive, well, and raring to go! Read on to find some new, fantastic reads from great, modern writers on the scene, from, living in, or writing about Scotland.
Duck Feet by Ely Percy
A coming of age tale of working class Scottish life, Duck Feet follows Kirsty as she grows up and chases her future, battling the slings and arrows of typical adolescence; fallouts, first loves, and figuring it all out. Additionally written using the Scots language, Percy’s work is energetic and immediately homely, and will provide non-Scots language readers with a unique experience, and plenty of new vocabulary to learn! Genuine and astute, with a lot of heart to love, this new novel from a rising star of the Scottish literary scene promises an engaging and triumphant tale of self-discovery, humor, and friendship.
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Ali Smith, from Inverness, is most notable for her acclaimed Seasonal Quartet series, a collection of standalone – yet intersecting – novels reflecting on life in contemporary Britain following Brexit. However, I find that her novel, Girl Meets Boy, is an under-hyped book from her collection of work. A whimsical tale a romance between a woman and a genderfluid environmental activist, this poignant story retells Ovid’s myth of Iphis and uses this as a fantastic springboard to explore contemporary issues regarding feminism and the pursuit of change, even in small Scottish towns. It is a short novel, but an impactful one, full of dreamy prose and sharp points to make about consumerism and love.
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
Set in colonial India, Sam Wyndham is a former detective who gets wrapped up in a dangerous mystery that threatens the security of Calcutta. As a white British man in India, Wyndam is a fish out of water and is keen to put his years of experience from wartime behind him, but he and his associates must team up to get to the bottom of the case – only to have his trust in Blighty thoroughly rocked. Mukherjee, a writer from the West of Scotland, uses this atmospheric historical detective story as a means of exploring how colonial Britain operated in India, and discusses scapegoating, how prejudice is permeated and normalised even in those who see themselves as ‘allies’ to marginalised groups, and the horrors of imperialism. Fans of shows such as Death in Paradise are sure to enjoy this one!
Murder at the Mela by Leela Soma
Another one for crime fans, this mystery introduces DI Patel, a new officer on the hunt for answers when a woman’s body turns up in the grounds of Glasgow’s revered Kelvingrove Park. Determined to prove himself as a capable inspector, both to himself and to his family, Patel is soon caught up in a story of social divides and suspicion. Fast-paced and intriguing, Soma’s novel explores Glasgow’s treatment of different religious groups, people of colour, and residents who struggle with housing concerns and drug use, and overall examines the ways in which the city represents or stifles them, making for a well-researched and much needed assessment of Scotland’s darker sides, all while balancing a fun whodunit!
All the Hidden Truths by Claire Askew
Scottish fiction has a reputation for being dominated by crime stories (which is evidenced by the number of crime or detective tales on this list, too), most likely because our gloomy weather and old, old cities make for atmospheric backdrops, perfect for murder and misery. Similarly intense, Askew’s novel takes the standard format of a crime story and instead splits the narration up across three perspectives from people involved in a school shooting in Edinburgh; the inspector on the trail of the killer’s motivations, the mother of the murderer, and the mother a victim. This ensures that the book is gripping and engaging, offering various angles from characters who may normally be sidelined by other crime plots. It is a unique and harrowing read, exploring the grisly dimensions of pain and how crime is never isolated, but instead sends ripples throughout entire communities.
Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay
Part biography of the late singer and part memoir of Jackie Kay’s own experiences growing up as a Black woman in Glasgow, this book is a delightful and emotional testament to the ways in which art can reach across time and geography to connect us in ways we never knew we needed. Peppered with poetry, Kay weaves the tapestry of her own life through the lens of her love of Bessie Smith’s music and legacy, presenting a compelling and relatable love letter for those who inspired us to keep going and keep creating, despite the struggles we may face in daily life. Kay’s nonfiction is as lyrical as her fiction writing, such as Trumpet, making this book a great one to dip into to learn about two legends.
Goblin by Ever Dundas
A time-blurring, reality warping story of memory and identity throughout a fractured life, Goblin is an obscure story of our search for comfort in a confusing world. Eponymous Goblin lives in Edinburgh and has lived a life preferring the company of feral creatures and books, and is content to spend her days reading and painting, until memories from her past threaten to shake the foundations of this existence. As the boundary between the real world and the imaginary one falls apart more and more, GOBLIN resists genre and embraces compassion. Bringing to mind similarly genre-challenging work like Poor Things by Alasdair Gray, Dundas’s novel is a fantastic contemporary piece of liminal storytelling.
Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan
Returning to the gothic streets of Edinburgh, Luckenbooth is a strange and moody story of one building over the course of many years, as sinister forces creep close and make their home in the dark and bloody corners of it. Following several characters, including the daughter of the devil, Fagan’s novel is visceral, menacing, and drenched in shadows, allowing for an exploration of history that does not shy away from the brutality of Scotland’s underbelly. Fans of the obscure and the morose are sure to love this modern take on Gothic horror and will be immersed in the gorgeous, haunting prose as the mystery of this cursed building is revealed.
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
A sweeping, lyrical story of interconnecting timelines in Sierra Leone, this novel follows two men and a woman who are brought together by a British psychologist, and explore themes of grief, the perpetual endurance of love, and how the violence of war breaks apart generations of people. Born in Glasgow, Forna’s work is passionate and, in this novel, she tackles how memory and identity are fractured by conflict and the walls we build to protect ourselves from further harm, fears of vulnerability and the lies we tell to disguise our pain. A multi-layered tale of mental health and recovery, this book will keep readers engrossed and on their toes as they learn how each person’s narrative threads together.
Looking to explore even more of the world through books? Check out our list of recommendations for books set in the midwest to complete our Read Harder challenge, or the latest post in our literary tourism series to daydream about reading adventures far and wide!