Birlinn's Best Books of the Year

Best books of the year – by the Birlinn Team

It’s a little bit quiet in the office today, last night was our Christmas party and we’re all a little bit festively tired. We’ve been chatting books, and we thought we would share with you some of our favourites of the year. We’re lucky that we have an eclectic list because our tastes are equally wide ranging.

Enlightenment EdinburghEnlightenment Edinburgh: A Guide
Sheila Szatkowski, Editor

Guidebooks are often tick lists assembled from a scramble through the internet and some obvious sources. It’s a pleasure, therefore, to see a book which is so well thought through and packs so much information in such a short space. Edinburgh’s architectural heritage is under threat as at no other time in its history from uncontrolled, low-grade, speculative development. Books like this stand up for the importance of this great city.

Hugh Andrew
Managing Director

Appointment in Arezzo 2Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark
Alan Taylor

Having made the trip to northern Tuscany earlier this year, this engrossing book is close to my heart. I travelled over with Alan Taylor and Jenny Niven – who heads the literature department at Creative Scotland – and spent 48 hours in the company of Penny Jardine, Dame Muriel Spark’s friend and companion for many years.

Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark, is as revealing of this complex writer as it is respectful of her talent and achievements. Alan had a great fondness for her and that liking runs through the book: ‘she felt both familiar and mysterious, so Scottish yet also so foreign. Our rapport, our affinity, was enhanced by a shared sense of humour and similar roots. “Blood speaking to blood?” as Penny put it’. Those who already know her writing will welcome this engrossing, entertaining and often moving book. For those yet to discover the sharp wit, satire and observations of human nature that fuelled her fiction, Appointment in Arezzo is an excellent introduction to her work. Read this and you will be reaching for the first of her 22 novels.

Jan Rutherford
Publicity & Marketing Director and Deputy MD

Well of the WindsWell of the Winds: A D.C.I. Daley Thriller
Denzil Meyrick

Denzil Meyrick’s Well of the Winds is the fifth D.C.I. Daley novel. It has all the hallmarks of the series to date, but it layers its gripping, twisty plot with a historical mystery. The case kicks off when a family disappears from their home on the island of Gairsay. To find out what happened to them, Jim Daley has to solve a mystery from the 1940s. I’ve always found the WWII happenings on Scotland’s coastlines to have a stranger-than-fiction vibe and that kind of hair-raising wartime intrigue fits perfectly with Denzil’s Kinloch and the characters that we’ve come to love over the years. We had a cracking launch for the book on the isle of Gigha, on a spring day so perfect that even DS Brian Scott might have enjoyed the boat trip.

Dear AlfonsoDear Alfonso: An Italian Feast of Love and Laughter
Mary Contini

In my Edinburgh childhood, the highlight of any weekend was the trip to Valvona and Crolla in Elm Row for the purchase of bread, cheese, and salami. The smell of the shop, its towering shelves of wine and pasta, the hairy boar’s leg that hung from the ceiling, the crush of the queue – it was a sensory experience unique in the city at the time. When Carlo Contini was there, turning his sunbeam smile on the bambini, you left with a full heart and a skip in your step. Mary Contini’s Dear Alfonso tells the story of Carlo’s journey from Neapolitan Pozzuoli, through WW2, to his arrival in Scotland, his marriage to Olivia Crolla and his tireless work to lay the foundation of the V&C we know today. It’s an astonishing story of hardship, happiness, resilience and love across the continent. Mary tells the tale with verve and humour: it will make you hanker for a big bowl of pasta and brings a welcome dose of Italian sunshine.

Kristian Kerr
Publicity Officer

Thirty-One Kings, TheThe Thirty-One Kings
Robert J. Harris

An irresistible ripping good yarn from our very own Robert J. Harris. A sensitive and intelligent homage to John Buchan, this tale opens with a thrilling set-piece in the Scottish Highlands and then takes the reader on a journey through London to occupied Paris. A page-turner shot through with warmth and wit.

Alison Rae
Managing Editor

Walking Mountain

 

Walking Mountain
Joan Lennon

Joan’s writing evokes in me the same feeling I experienced as a kid, reading some of my favourite fantasy and sci-fi novels for the first time. From the get go, her concept in Walking Mountain is simple, yet so unique and intriguing – you’re desperate to believe in Drivers, and hungry to find out what could possibly come to life in the aftermath of their mistake, as well as how their stories are to intermingle with the adventures of Pema.

Calum Bannerman
Sales Representative

Memphis 68 FINAL COVERMemphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul
Stuart Cosgrove
and
Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology
Selected by Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy Casares
Edited by Kevin MacNeil

It’s no surprise that, as a bit of a 1960s obsessive, I have a real soft spot for Stuart Cosgrove’s Soul Trilogy. I loved Detroit 67 in 2016, and its follow-up, Memphis 68 is another brilliant tribute to another iconic soul label, Stax Records. Stuart’s love of soul music shines off every page, and in exploring the connections between the music and the political struggles of the era, his storytelling packs a real emotional punch and historical resonance. The chapters concentrating on the different perspectives around the assassination of Martin Luther King are especially impressive.

Robert Louis Stevenson AnthologyAnother book that surprised and delighted me this year was Kevin MacNeil’s Robert Louis Stevenson Anthology as compiled, in the 1960s, by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. I admit, I had no idea about Stevenson’s influence on those world-renowned writers, and this anthology joyfully highlights how books and authors continue to talk to each other through the ages. Great stuff!

Vikki Reilly
Events Manager

OysterOyster
Michael Pedersen
Illustrated by Scott Hutchison

Reading Oyster you can’t help but get carried away on the wave of enthusiasm that poet Michael Pedersen has created. His love of language is explored through the debauchery – and as the blurb stats – a ‘disputation of characters’, which as you may be aware, is the collective noun for lawyers. A law graduate himself, it was at university that he came across the character that lead to ‘Finding Grace: A Love Story’ that talks of students in their halls ‘late-night swotting, lovers snuck-in / clammy movie-watchers, the smug, sticky, / bored and lonely …’ while outside in the bushes a burgundy hooded prowler lurks. Michael’s good friend and head honcho of Frightened Rabbit illuminates this collection with his unique and humours illustrations.

Edward Crossan
Poetry Editor
Digital Manager

DARK ENCOUNTERS art_2Dark Encounters: A Collection of Ghost Stories
Introduction by Alistair Kerr
William Croft Dickinson

I’ve always been a big fan of ghost stories, so when we picked up this collection from the little-known William Croft Dickinson I was delighted. It’s a brilliant, varied and downright creepy selection of tales cut from the same cloth as HP Lovecraft and MR James. None of the stories are too long, so it’s a great book to dip in and out of when you’ve got a spare hour here and there. It’s also been really rewarding to help bring a Scottish author, who otherwise might have been lost completely, back into the light.

ONE LAST DRAM BEFORE MIDNIGHT finalOne Last Dram Before Midnight: The Complete Collected D.C.I. Daley Short Stories 
Denzil Meyrick

Our other collection of short stories this year was very different but just as brilliant. Denzil Meyrick takes us on a tour of D.C.I. Daley’s past in this bundle of crime shorts and novellas. With all the character, wit and gripping tension that characterises his novels, Denzil’s pulled together a perfect companion volume that gives us glimpses not only into Daley’s previous cases, but the lives of D.S. Scott, Hamish, and many others. It’s the perfect thing to tide you over if you’re waiting desperately for the next book in the series!

Jamie Harris
Sales Co-ordinator

EriskayEriskay Where I Was Born
by Angus Edward MacInnes

Eriskay Where I Was Born by the late Angus Edward MacInnes, first published in 1997, has always been one of my favourites among books I have been involved with. A master storyteller, Angus Edward recalls his upbringing in Eriskay and his long and colourful career as a seaman. In prose inflected with his native Gaelic, he interweaves haunting tales of tragic drownings and the second sight with very funny stories, including a hilarious account of the shipwreck that inspired Whisky Galore. This new edition, expertly edited by Dr Decker Forrest of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig College, adds new information about the author and his Gaelic background.

Tom Johnstone
Editorial Manager

Whiskies GaloreWhiskies Galore: A Tour of Scotland’s Island Distilleries
Ian Buxton

Ian Buxton is well known for his bestselling books on whisky and Gin. Whiskies Galore is a more reflective work of travel writing. In it, he beautifully captures the flavours of the Scottish islands: the unique character of the land, people and culture that, as if by alchemy, infuses the local spirit. Travelling from Arran through the Hebrides to Orkney, Buxton draws on his love of the islands, personal family memories, local history and his intimate knowledge of the industry to produce a magical book.

Neville Moir
Publishing Director

Day of the TrollsThe Day of the Trolls
Ron Butlin
Illustrated by James Hutcheson

Instantly loveable, and beautifully illustrated with their pointing blue hats and rosy cheeks, don’t be misled . . . Trolls are unruly. Here is everything to make children laugh: mischief, burps, Fart-Fart, comedy splats, and ending with an incident with an escalator. It’s non-stop fun! The momentum of Ron Butlin’s perfect rhymes propels you through the book almost as quickly as the ‘hundred small trolls that curl into a ball that whirls up and down the length of the mall’. Top choice from my five year old!

Deborah Warner
Editor

Course of HistoryThe Course of History: Ten Meals that Changed the World
Struan Stevenson and Tony Singh

And

Diary of Archie the Alpaca, TheThe Diary of Archie the Alpaca
With Kevin MacNeil
Illustrated by Moose Allain

This year we’ve produced such a wonderfully diverse list that I couldn’t possibly pick just one favourite, and the two books I’ve chosen couldn’t be more different.

The Course of History was a delightful surprise. I’m no history boffin, and in the past I’ve been put off by the cold, academic tone of historical accounts, but Struan’s writing is so accessible and entertaining that for the first time I found myself completely engrossed in world history. We are taken along as a fly on the wall to ten world-changing dinner parties, bearing witness to the ‘dinner table diplomacy’ that took place amongst some of history’s most intriguing characters, and – most importantly! – the sumptuous banquets consumed. As a lovely addition to the book chef Tony Singh has recreated the menus and included full recipes, allowing us a truly immersive historical experience from the comfort of our own kitchen. I’d steer clear of Chairman Mao’s ‘Hundred-year-old eggs’, though!

Also published in 2017, I find myself quoting The Diary of Archie the Alpaca on a daily basis. Archie is a seriously wise creature and I’ve no doubt that the world would be a better place if we could all be a little bit more like him. His diary is a melange of joyous satirical musings and clever linguistic puns, but what I love most about this book are Archie’s profoundly rational and uplifting pieces of life advice: ‘You are already adequately equipped’. Thanks, Archie.

Abigail Salvesen
Junior Designer

imageA Sketchbook of Edinburgh
Foreword by Alexander McCall Smith
Iain Fraser & Anne Fraser Sim

Edinburgh is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and this beauty is captured perfectly in A Sketchbook of Edinburgh. With a foreword from Alexander McCall Smith, one of the city’s most famous authors, and stunning watercolour artwork from four local artists, A Sketchbook of Edinburgh features both iconic landmarks and lesser-known streets from around Edinburgh and is the perfect gift for anyone with a fascination for the city. It will inspire those who have never been to visit, and remind those that call it home why they love it so much!

Lori Anderson
Intern

The tragic death of Otis Redding – one of soul music’s greatest tragedies

Otis Redding, arguably the best soul singer ever, died in a plane crash December 10, 1967. The plane crashed into Lake Monoa in Wisconsin, 3 miles short of the airport. 7 of the 8 passengers and crew died. Ben Cauley survived. In this extract from Memphis 68, author Stuart Cosgrove describes the aftermath of this fatal crash and its aftereffect – soul music’s greatest tragedy.

Carl Cunningham’s
Cardboard Requiem
8 January

Memphis 68 FINAL COVERIt was a routine delivery. A parcel truck parked illegally outside a dilapidated cinema on East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis. No one even looked at the driver as he stacked a tower of cardboard boxes and delivered them to the foyer, to the ramshackle offices of one of the most prodigious independent recording studios in the world. This was Stax Records, the flagship home of Memphis soul and a beacon of hope for hundreds of young musicians and teenagers who hung around its doors as if it were a fairground. The boxes were addressed only to the company and they lay by the entrance, unacknowledged, for several days. It was only when a curious staff member opened them that their sad significance came to light. They contained the remains of the drum kit of Carl Lee Cunningham, the deceased drummer of the Bar-Kays, the backing band of Stax’s most famous star, Otis Redding. The cardboard lay scattered over the lavender carpeting, a banal requiem to the tragic events of the previous month, when seven young people plunged to their death in a plane crash. The drum cases were in a bad state, battered by the waves and rusted by cold waters, with their skins partly torn from the rims. The red strips of tape that had once secured the cases top to bottom had peeled off in the deep, and now hung pathetically.

Carl Cunningham’s death hurt Stax to the core. He was a familiar face around the studios, a boy obsessed with music and bewitched by the beat, who came from a famous family of drummers well
known at Stax and on the streets of Orange Mound. Like many of his generation, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, holding down a low-paid job as a shoeshine boy at King’s Barbershop on the
corner of College Street and East McLemore. Cunningham’s drums were the last items to be salvaged from the crash site. His horn-rimmed glasses had disappeared, and the drumsticks he had
cradled in his hand as the plane plummeted were never recovered. They were presumed lost in the frozen waters of Lake Monona, Dane County, Wisconsin.

Talking to the press was a tough thing to ask anyone to do and that role fell heavily on the shoulders of Cunningham’s friend, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, who was still only twenty. He had been hospitalised in the immediate aftermath of the crash and had spent a difficult Christmas recuperating. Now that 1968 had arrived, he was facing up to the loss of his best friends. He stood in the
reception area at Stax, head bowed down in grief and holding back the tears, barely managing to answer the questions in a stammering, fading voice. He was dressed in a double-breasted military raincoat with epaulettes and an Ushanka hat that perched perilously on his head and looked as if he had bought it second-hand from the Russian army. It was in fact a hat that he had bought in Wisconsin as the winter winds grew stronger. On his left arm he wore a new wristwatch, to replace the one he lost in the deep waters of the lake. Ben held his hands in front of him as if he were at a wake and his eyes gazed wearily at the floor. He started to explain his ordeal. He had all but passed out in the freezing lake but miraculously survived by clinging on to a soaking wet seat cushion. Hallucinating with hypothermia, he had watched each of his friends try to escape from the wreckage, but fail to keep their heads above the surface. All drowned before the rescue party arrived. Cauley spent twenty-five minutes in the water. When he could no longer hold the sodden cushion in his numb and frozen hands any longer, he drifted into unconsciousness. ‘Just as soon as I let it go, somebody yanked me up,’ Cauley remembered, still bewildered by the randomness that had saved his life and killed his friends. He admitted to the journalists that his near-drowning provoked recurring nightmares in which ‘the rush of the lake’s icy water, the chill of fear, and the helplessness’ lapped through his mind.

The Stax songwriter David Porter watched the press conference in disbelief. From that day on, he described Cauley’s survival as divine: ‘Ben is a miracle. It’s really that simple.’ Yet Cauley was not alone in his luck; bass guitarist James Alexander had travelled by a different route and survived, and the Stax singer Mary Frierson, who had been given the stage name Wendy Rene by Otis Redding and was pencilled to appear as a warm-up act and a backing singer, stayed in Memphis, having just given birth to a baby boy. Frierson eventually drifted away from music as a consequence of the crash, leaving only a few obscure songs as her legacy. Cauley then told the press that he was rushed to the Methodist Hospital in Wisconsin, suffering from exposure and shock, where he remained for several days. His first visitor was James Alexander, another member of the Bar-Kays, who had missed the doomed flight. The group had drawn lots. Alexander lost out and, with no seat available on the private plane, flew safely by commercial airline via Milwaukee. On his arrival at Mitchell airport, Alexander had been met by police who drove him to visit his friend in hospital. Then he was taken on the grimmest visit of his life – to the mortuary, where he was asked to identify the naked bodies of his friends, name tags hanging limply from their big toes. When he was asked what had caused the crash, Cauley hesitated, then looked around to Stax’s staff members for guidance. He explained nervously that he had been visited by aviation investigators and had told them that the aircraft had been cold when they first boarded. The Bar-Kays had asked the young pilot if he could crank up the heat, but ominously he told them that the battery reading was too low for extra heat and almost certainly too low to guide the plane to safety.

The crash that killed Otis Redding and six others was a mess of misinformation. Even eye witnesses were unsure of what had happened. It seems that around 3.30 p.m. on 10 December 1967, just three miles from the safety of Dane County’s regional airport Truax Field, a twin-engine Beechcraft-18 plane plunged through low-lying clouds and fog. The gusting rain and squally conditions seemed to tip the plane into a tailspin and it crashed down into Lake Monona. Only a few witnesses saw the crash, but many more claimed to have heard the engine fighting with itself as the pilot tried desperately to descend into an instrument-led landing pattern. What no one knew at the time was that the plane was a private jet owned by soul singer Otis Redding, one he had bought several months earlier from James Brown. The distinctive green-and-white livery, recently painted and emblazoned with Redding’s name, was barely visible in the low-lying clouds, and, according to one of the few eye witnesses, the plane seemed to break apart as soon as it hit the surface of the lake. If it had continued for another mile it would have crash-landed into Madison’s heavily populated East Side. By some small mercy a major catastrophe was averted. That was cold comfort to Stax, whose heart had been ripped out by the crash. Police divers and volunteers, including a small contingent of local doctors, quickly gathered at the scene. Defying the freezing cold, they plunged into the water to look for survivors, but when it became clear that there was little likelihood of saving lives, a crane was hired from a local contractor, and police began what was to become a painstaking rescue operation. A razor-thin film of ice formed on the bitterly cold waters of the lake, the temperature plunged, and after a day of searching, the search was called off. Later, they managed to winch the wreckage up from the lake. The body of Otis Redding, one of the greatest soul singers in the world,
was slowly dragged up from the water. A police photographer captured the moment. Redding’s head was inelegantly trapped between the winch and the police barge, his mouth battered and blood clotted around his lips – those lips that had sung the saddest of songs with such elegance and pleading – ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa, I keep singing them sad, sad songs y’all, Sad songs is all I know.’ The police barge headed at a glacial pace to the shore, obscured by the dense fog that hung over the lake’s surface. The remnants of the Bar-Kays’ stage suits, bought at Lansky’s on Beale Street back home, floated pathetically to the surface. Only these freezing waters knew the full story of what had actually happened. On board was the plane’s log, which had been found near the aircraft. It was
eventually turned over to Federal Aviation Agency officials, but by the time it was in their safe hands, the impact of one of soul music’s greatest tragedies was reverberating around the world.

Read more in Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul by Stuart Cosgrove

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Join Birlinn’s authors in Book Week Scotland

Book Week Scotland begins on Monday 27th November and we, at Birlinn, are really excited about all of the amazing events that our authors are involved in. From all things Italian with Mary Contini, to Crime and Wine with Charles E. McGarry and everything in between, there’s bound to be something of interest to you coming up in the next week. And, most of the events are free which is wonderful and a great excuse to do something different on a weeknight and to celebrate all things literary in Scotland. So, read on to find out about all of the exciting Birlinn events happening around the country next week.

Dear AlfonsoJoin Mary Contini at the National Library of Scotland to hear all about the history of her wonderful Italian family, and be transported to the Amalfi coast on this dark, November evening. With recipes, family anecdotes and laughter, Mary paints a vivid picture of life in wartime Italy and Scotland.

Mary is also doing an event at Greywalls Hotel in East Lothian. You can either attend just for the talk and get a hot drink, or you can stay and have a full lunch with wine after hearing Mary speak about her enchanting family history and her latest book, Dear Alfonso: An Italian Feast of Love and Laughter.

Find out more here!

Ghost of Helen Addison

Charles E. McGarry will be appearing in the unusual location of the Arlington Baths Club in Glasgow’s West End. This makes the ideal location however, as his protagonist, Leo Moran, walks the streets of Glasgow’s West End throughout The Ghost of Helen Addison. This event also involves a tour of the baths, some refreshments and a chat from Charles about his debut novel.

A Hint of Wine with a Taste of Crime is another event that Charles E. McGarry will be involved in, along with another fantastic member of the Tartan Noir club: Neil Broadfoot. Join them at Waterstones Dunfermline for a night of crime, nibbles and of course, some wine!

Find out more here!
Poacher's PilgrimageAlastair McIntosh is doing three talks around the Hebrides for this year’s Book Week Scotland. Join him in Stornoway Library (Isle of Lewis), Tarbert Library (Isle of Harris), or Liniclate Library (Isle of Benbecula) to hear all about his book, A Poacher’s Pilgrimage: a book of journeys and a reflection on land, people and culture.

Find out more here!

Scottish Soup Bible
Sue Lawrence is appearing at Central Library in Dundee to talk about all things cooking. Known as the Queen of Baking, Sue is no stranger to the kitchen however her latest book focuses on more savoury treats: The Scottish Soup Bible. Learn some cooking and baking tips from Sue and become inspired by her latest publication to make some hearty winter warmers!

Find out more here!

Course of HistoryStruan Stevenson is appearing in both East Lothian and Milngavie, just outside of Glasgow to talk about his latest book, The Course of History: Ten Meals that Changed the World. Many historical events took place over a good dinner and in this book, Struan explores some of these meals featuring great historical figures. Hear all about these fascinating events and explore some of the recipes, recreated in this book by Chef Tony Singh. Learn about some critical moments in world history and be inspired by the recipes to create some of the meals at home!

Find out more here!

Diary of Archie the Alpaca, The

Kevin MacNeil is appearing at this year’s Book Week Scotland alongside Australian food writer, Kate Young. Kate will be sharing recipes from her latest publication, The Little Library Cook Book which includes meals and recipes enjoyed by your favourite fictional characters. Kevin will be sharing Haiku-kery recipes inspired by his latest book, The Diary of Archie the Alpaca. Both of them will be joined by Streetreads, a charity dedicated to getting good books into the hands of homeless people. Tickets are free and a full meal is included for everyone.

Find out more here!

Cairngorms, A Secret HistoryMike Cawthorne and Patrick Baker are appearing alongside Geof Allan, John Allen and Alan Rowan to talk about the wonderful effect of living in a landscape surrounded by majestic mountains. Join them at The Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore to hear all about the impact these mountains have had on the life and work of these mountaineering authors.
Hebrides copy

Find out more here!

 

Both Paul Murton and Mairi Hedderwick have celebrated the wonderful Hebrides in their books, The Hebrides and Eye on the Hebrides. Join them in Longniddry Community Centre for a discussion on why the Hebrides hold such a strong appeal to people all over the world, and the effect these magical islands have had on both of these authors.

Find out more here!

Happy Book Week Scotland!

The Birlinn Team