Scottish Book Recs for My Pal in Vietnam

Hey man, you haven’t written anything on here in a while, are you gonna do that thing where you start off a post by talking about how or why you haven’t blogged in ages?

No.

(Though actually yes.)

Anyway, this post is for my pal, Andrew, who lives in Vietnam. Throughout most of 2020 when we were shut up in lockdown, Vietnam managed pretty well, having closed their borders and gone through a really strict period of lockdown early doors, leaving the people there free to go about mostly as normal within the country while everyone in the UK was only just beginning to realise how fucked we all were.

Unfortunately, more recently, Vietnam has had a large surge in cases and, with no mass vaccine program in place yet, has seen the return of lockdown. So in his spare time, stuck indoors, Andrew has been reading a lot, specifically getting into some of the Scottish modern classics – Lanark, How Late it Was, How Late, etc. – and is on the hunt for more.

I thought I’d help him out with a few recommendations:

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (Canongate, 1999)

The term ‘Tartan Noir’ covers a lot of ground but, for me, The Cutting Room is the book that gets closest to the true meaning of the term. Auctioneer Rilke sets out to find the provenance of some dicey-looking photographs he discovers while also making sure to still prioritise smoking weed, getting his leg over, and generally causing trouble.#

Dark, compelling, and turning mouldy old crime tropes upside down, it’s as fresh now as it was when it was first published 20 years ago. (The long-awaited sequel is due out next year and I’m already looking forward to accompanying the cantankerous Rilke on another escapade.) I’m pretty sure its vivid depiction of Glasgow in all its gothic and gritty glory will make my pal feel at least a wee bit homesick, especially at the mention of the Tennant’s Bar.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, 2020)

Bringing out the big gun: Booker Prize-winner in the year of the plague, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – the first Scot to win the award since Kelman in ’94 for the above-mentioned How Late it Was, How Late. The major difference being that while Kelman divided opinion – one of the judges quit over the decision in disgust – Shuggie seems to be universally loved. And you can see why. Bleak, poignant, occasionally funny but also painfully heart-breaking, Stuart’s debut is a masterpiece.

It follows the titular Shuggie growing up in and around working-class Glasgow in the ‘80s, coming to terms with his homosexuality, and, mostly, dealing with his alcoholic mother who he desperately loves. The book is as much hers as Shuggie’s, both characters richly imagined, real and tragic. (Andrew told me he already has a copy but has put off reading it for the time-being as he felt it would be too heavy. Fair point.)

Kill Your Friends by John Niven (Vintage, 2008)

Ok, while John Niven is Scottish, Kill Your Friends isn’t really what you might call a “Scottish book”, being set in London and concerning the deadly scheming of ‘90s era music industry A&R man, Steven Stelfox. But I’m still gonna put it on the list because it’s just too good and, also, it’s my list and I’ll do what I want.

Kill Your Friends is hilarious. Stelfox is a bigot in pretty much every sense and his absolutely toxic, filthy, wildly over-the-top narration is outrageous. A voice that grabs you and shakes you like a rag doll. It has American Psycho vibes but rather than raising an intellectual smirk from you it’ll make you belly laugh.

The Dregs Trilogy by Chris Kelso (Black Shuck Books, 2019)

Speaking of toxic filth, The Dregs Trilogy is a three book odyssey of Avant Garde, mind-bending murder and mayhem. It folds together noir and horror in a series of time loops which relive the death of teenage girl Florence Coffey over and over again with different culprits, methods, and motivations, all overseen by evil mythological entities and delivered in Beat Gen Burroughs style. And that’s putting it simply. I mean, there’s a character who’s an anteater that can’t ejaculate because his dick is full of ants and so, in his frustration, writes scathing literary reviews.

Again, although Kelso is a Scottish author, The Dregs Trilogy has a more global outlook, spanning Asia and Africa and the Americas, landing only occasionally in Scotland, jumping worlds and time and genre. But it’s going on the list cause I say so. Also, Scottish literature is bigger than the country itself, right? It’s the stories of where we come from and where we want to go next as well. And anteaters who can’t come. Ahh, Scottish Fiction [said in the voice of Edwin Morgan]…

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (Picador, 2020)

Another 2020 behemoth that’s prompted many to talk of a ‘renaissance’ of Scottish literature, The Young Team charts the misadventures of Azzy Williams as he goes from spending his weekends in drunken scraps in the schemes of Lanarkshire, through addiction, and out the other side. Armstrong’s semi-autobiographical debut doesn’t just muse on the causes of gang violence but puts the reader in the front row, experiencing the highs and lows through the cocky, rapid-fire patter of Azzy’s POV. The dialogue absolutely sings.

With a great sense of humour, Armstrong exposes the vulnerability beneath the bravado and while his place in the Scottish literary renaissance will only really be understood in the future, the Scottish literary Berghaus jacket renaissance is purely down to him.

Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment, 2021)

Another coming-of-age tale, this time set in a high school in Renfrew in the noughties. Kirsty Campbell is a chatty, opinionated old soul in a young body who must navigate complicated friendships, schoolyard politics, and being a VL in a series of closely linked short stories some fifteen years in the making. (Percy is a testament to never giving up – it’s not their first work to finally see publication after more than a decade of writing, revising, and pitching. Though with two novels now out on shelves and having just won the John le Carré Scholarship to finish a third, it looks like their time has well and truly arrived!)

Written in Renfra Scots, Percy captures the very real anxieties and embarrassments of teenage life without condescending or scoffing in scenes that will be relatable to anyone who’s lived through high school (with an extra nostalgia kick for those who, like me, did so way back in the early-mid 2000s). Oh, and there’s an excellent chapter entirely dedicated to farts. [Edwin Morgan saying “Scottish Fiction…”]         

The Only Gaijin in the Village by Iain Maloney (Polygon, 2020)

Originally hailing from Aberdeen, novelist Iain Maloney has lived in Japan for a good chunk of his life now and, as he writes in The Only Gaijin in the Village, will probably die there. Tired of city living, in 2016, he and his wife decided to move to Gifu, out in the country, to live the good life. The book charts the trials and tribulations of adjusting to a new lifestyle in their first year, from ingratiating themselves into the local community and learning to look after the land to battling big fucking terrifying snakes and other mandibled, nightmarishly overlarge atrocities with too many or too little legs.

With honesty and good humour, Maloney shares his triumphs and failures while painting a picture of a side of Japan not often seen by tourists, away from the neon and skyscrapers and the famous, grand temples. I think Andrew, himself having left Scotland over a decade ago for China, Hong Kong, and now Vietnam, would really appreciate this one.

The Ossians by Doug Johnstone (Viking, 2008)

Up-and-coming Edinburgh band The Ossians, named for the eighteenth-century poet who may or may not be real, head off on a tour of Scotland culminating in a headline gig at the fabled King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow. Sounds like a laugh except gobby fuck-up and frontman Conner has gotten himself in debt to a local drug dealer and must act as his mule in order to pay it off.

I was playing in bands myself (with Andrew, actually) when I first read The Ossians, and a lot of the music the fictional band listen to in their van as they drive gig to gig, from the capital all the way up to Thurso and back, is stuff I was really into at the time, so this story made a huge impression on me. Johnstone also isn’t afraid to explore big questions about Scottish identity and how we view our own history – Is it shite being Scottish or is not? – wrapped up in a crime caper with real heart.

Xstabeth by David Keenan (White Rabbit, 2020)

A song recorded by an anonymous musician becomes famous in cult circles for its artistic purity. But who is the performer? There are many rumours – a guitarist who sold his soul to the devil, a mental patient on day release, a famous magician in disguise – but Aneliya knows it was really her father, an ageing musician who never quite broke in. The song and its spirit they call “Xstabeth”, and it leads them on a journey from St Petersburg to St Andrews.

Another beast from the pandemic year, Keenan’s novel is a meta mind-fuck, drawing on ’80s-style postmodernism, refusing to use any punctuation except full stops, and broken up with faux academic essays on the book itself, which in a separate, higher narrative is the product of a St Andrews-based author called David Keenan who committed suicide. Arty and intriguing and definitely one that will divide readers – I’d recommend it to everyone.

Hings/HWFG by Chris McQueer (404 Ink, 2017/2018)

The first Chris McQueer short story I ever read was ‘Hawns’ from his second collection HWFG. Told like an urban myth, it’s the story of coked-up surgeons getting into trouble with some gangsters after a botched surgery – think famous Simpsons character Mr McGreg, “With a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg.” It’s brilliant, funny, and even a bit spooky.

McQueer has the sci-fi writer’s ‘What if?’ mentality but filtered through a few pints and delivered with quality patter, so you end up with stories about mosquitos controlling people’s brains, goths turning into bees, and a new twitter user getting himself into a prize fight with Kim Jong-Un after declaring online that he could batter him. Big, genre-hopping fun with lots of laughs – it’s definitely the kind of read you could do with while stuck in lockdown.


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