Natural world and cultural identity take centre stage alongside Tartan Noir fiction

Natural world and cultural identity take centre stage alongside Tartan Noir fiction

Over the coming months, Scottish authors and publishers are releasing books reflecting on identity and belonging, as well as crime and nature writing, in addition to titles centred around witchcraft and climate change.

Crime and nature writing remain strengths of Scotland’s publishing. As Canongate publishing director Francis Bickmore puts it, the country is “a hotspot for the crime fiction genre”, while “nature is more precious than ever in lockdown”. As such, Canongate has its “biggest crime offering” in 2021 with The Dark Remains, William McIlvanney’s final unfinished novel, which has been completed by Ian Rankin (see Author Interview), plus new titles from Ambrose Parry, Alan Parks and Caro Ramsay. Birlinn is publishing two more books from its biggest crime author, Denzil Meyrick, this year—the ninth instalment in his DCI Daley series, For Any Other Truth, and a standalone gangland thriller, Terms of Restitution—as well as the third Rebecca Connolly mystery  from Douglas Skelton, A Rattle of Bones, under its Polygon imprint. 

In nature writing, Birlinn is issuing a trio of non-fiction titles about rewilding projects: Regeneration by Andrew Painting; A Sky Full of Kites by Tom Bowser; and A Scurry of Squirrels by Polly Pullar. Meanwhile, Saraband is publishing the latest title from Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley, Lakeland Wild, in which he seeks out hidden places in the Lake District. Sandstone Press is bringing out The Secret Life of the Otter by Andy Howard in May, which includes his photography of the creatures, shot over a decade in locations such as the Isle of Mull, Shetland, and Canada’s Vancouver Island. 

The nature theme can be found in fiction too. Children’s publisher Floris Books has just issued Home of the Wild by poet and author Louise Greig with illustrations from Júlia Moscardó, a novel about a boy who finds and cares for an orphan fawn. It is described by Floris as “an uplifting story of belonging, wildness, humanity and learning when to let go of those you love”.

In August, Canongate is publishing the winner of its inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles, as a lead non-fiction début. Powles is a London-based writer, editor and publisher of mixed Malaysian Chinese heritage from New Zealand. Her poetic essay collection blends memoir with writing on the natural world and “explores the bodies of water that separate and connect us”. It spans from London to New Zealand and Shanghai to Malaysia; in it, Powles “reflects on a girlhood spent growing up between two cultures, and explores what it means to belong”.

Other Scottish publishers are also issuing titles that explore themes related to cultural identity and belonging. In June, Luath Press will publish Scottish by Inclination by Barbara Henderson, which is pitched as “a passionate examination of what it means to be Scottish today, wherever you were born”. Henderson is a teacher and an author of children’s books who was born in Germany and has lived in Scotland for 30 years. In the book, she reflects on her time in the country and celebrates the contribution of the many EU citizens who have also made it their home. In the same month, children’s publisher Cranachan will release The Race by writer and teacher Roy Peachey. It tells the dual narratives of Olympic hero Eric Liddell as he prepares to run his final race in a prison camp in China in 1944, and 12-year-old Lili, who is preparing to defeat her rival in a race in front of the Queen while also dealing with the racism she faces due to her identity as a Chinese-born adoptee.

In October, Birlinn will publish Blood and Gold by Edinburgh-based narrative artist Mara Menzies, based on her acclaimed storytelling performance which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019. The publisher describes the title, illustrated by Eri Griffin, as a “powerful, dynamic fusion of African and Scottish myth and fantasy [that] explores themes of racism, immigration and colonialism, and the acceptance of self, grief and loss, and asks us to re-examine our own identities and attitudes”. 

Spanning cultures
As part of its new series of pocket-sized non-fiction deep dives into timely topics, Inklings, micropublisher 404 Ink will release No Man’s Land by Anne East in November. In it, the author—who is British born with Malaysian Chinese heritage and says she grew up “in a cultural limbo”—explores the experience of those, like herself, who have no ties to their parental culture yet do not fit the stereotypical appearance of an “ethnic” British citizen and feel a painful disconnect between self-identity and social assumptions.

Following on from University of Dundee academic Alice Tarbuck’s exploration of the resurgence of witchcraft and what it means to be a witch today, A Spell in the Wild (Two Roads, out now), there are a number of new books around witchcraft coming from Scottish writers and publishers. Children’s publisher Floris Books has just released The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle by Hannah Foley, which won the Kelpies Prize in 2018 (an award run by the publisher, with support from Creative Scotland, which seeks to encourage and reward Scottish writing for children). The fantasy middle-grade adventure is set in Edinburgh and it follows Avery, who is part-girl and part-cat, as she teams up with her shape-shifting best friend and her witch guardians to uncover a forgotten magical secret and bring back a great lost wizard. 

The Burns influence
In November, Cranachan will publish a kids’ historical adventure with a supernatural twist, Hag Storm by author and teacher Victoria Williamson, based on the life of Robert Burns and his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The synopsis reads: “Twelve-year-old Rab spends all of his time doing back-breaking work on his family’s farm instead of attending school, but when he finds a hag stone in one of the fields, everything changes. Looking through its circular hole, he sees witches gathering in a coming storm, and they have set their sights on his family.” 

In adult publishing, Polygon will publish Hex by Jenni Fagan as part of its new Darkland Tales series next spring. The book follows a teenage girl caught up in the 16th-century witch trials in the Scottish coastal town of North Berwick, and is described as “a visceral depiction of a culture of fear and superstition that explores the lingering connections between womanhood and the occult”. 

With the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November, Luath Press is publishing The 15 Minute City by Natalie Whittle. In it, the bookshop owner and former FT journalist explores how having all the amenities to live comfortably within a 15 or 20-minute walking or cycling radius would improve the health and wellbeing of residents and the environment. Meanwhile in fiction, Jamie Mollart’s forthcoming novel with Sandstone Press, Kings of a Dead World, also has a climate change angle. Set in a future in which the Earth’s resources are dwindling, periods of hibernation are imposed on the humans who remain, but dissatisfaction is growing and the city is about to wake.

With such a range of strong forthcoming titles across fiction and non-fiction in both adult and children’s publishing, it is no surprise that Publishing Scotland’s marketing, events and sales liaison manager Vikki Reilly concludes: “As ever, there are a lot of great Scottish books coming out this year; it feels  like we’re in a purple patch at the moment.”