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
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

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

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


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

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