BookSpace: Saltire Literary Award Winners 2018

Ben Wray

CommonSpace book reviewer Chiara Bullen reads 2018’s Saltire Society Literary Awards winners

THE Saltire Society Literary Awards have been a firm fixture of the Scottish literary scene since 1937, and the event is widely regarded as Scotland’s most prestigious book awards. This year’s awards took place in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth, the sparkling hall an ideal location to recognise Scotland’s literary stars. Here you’ll find a review of some of this year’s winners — consider it a ready-made, well-judged Christmas gift guide for bookish family and friends.


First Book Award

Sal, Mick Kitson

Fiction | Canongate | £12.99 | Buy Here

Sal planned it for almost a year before they ran. She nicked an Ordnance Survey map from the school library. She bought a compass, a Bear Grylls knife, waterproofs and a first aid kit from Amazon using stolen credit cards. She read the SAS Survival Handbook and watched loads of YouTube videos. And now Sal knows a lot of stuff. Like how to build a shelter and start a fire. And how to protect her sister, Peppa. Because Peppa is ten, which is how old Sal was when Robert started on her.

As sinister as it is charming, Sal is a heart-wrencher of a book with a beautiful relationship between two sisters at its core. Kitson’s wonderfully fleshed-out characterisation of the girls leaves the reader in no doubt of their strength and resilience. The pair are superb young heroes, oozing with humanity, warmth and intelligence. Kitson highlights the vulnerability of those left to defend themselves in a world that leans towards survival of the fittest, but manages to strike a balance between that and the often overwhelming generosity found in strangers.


Poetry Book of the Year

Wristwatch, Jay Whittaker

Poetry | Cinnamon Press | £8.99 | Buy Here

Written from personal experience without a hint of sentimentality, Wristwatch charts a course through cancer treatment and recovery, becoming a widow at 44, and taking on the social care system on behalf of elderly relatives.

Poetry at its most powerful, Wristwatch is a raw and devastating collection exploring themes of loss, illness and failure of the state. Whittaker’s words strike deep and true, tackling some of life’s most trying hardships and wrapping them with words of love and more than a hint of hope. Accessible, brave, full of wit and wonder – this is one of the best poetry collections in recent years. If you’re looking for a little more poetry in your life, don’t hesitate to pick this up.


History Book of the Year 2018

The Drowned and the Saved: When War came to the Hebrides, Les Wilson

Non-Fiction | Birlinn | £9.99 | Buy Here

The loss of two British ships crammed with American soldiers bound for the trenches of the First World War brought the devastation of war directly to the shores of the Scottish island of Islay. Based on the harrowing personal recollection of survivors and rescuers, newspaper reports and original research, Les Wilson tells the story of these terrible events, painting a vivid picture which also pays tribute to the astonishing bravery of the islanders, who risked their lives pulling men from the sea, caring for survivors and burying the dead.

With the centenary of the end of World War I this year, the media has been flooded with those war-time tales that take centre stage in the narrative of remembrance. But this stunning book brings to light a little-known tragedy faced by those in the Hebrides, and the strength shown in the face of harrowing adversity by Islay’s inhabitants. A thoroughly researched title filled to the brim with personal accounts and letters (alongside some touching poetry), Wilson’s vivid telling of events will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Fiction Book of the Year 2018

Elsewhere, Home, Leila Aboulela

Short Stories| Saqi Books | £8.99 | Buy Here

A young woman’s encounter with a former classmate elicits painful reminders of her former life in Khartoum. A wealthy Sudanese student in Aberdeen begins an unlikely friendship with a Scottish man. A woman experiences an evolving relationship to her favourite writer, whose portrait of their shared culture both reflects and conflicts with her own sense of identity.

A poignant and much-needed collection of stories, Aboulela tackles issues such as loss, loneliness and islamophobia faced by immigrants in Britain. These stories present those trying to bridge the gap between cultural differences (with a focus on Scotland in many) and the difficulties faced by those trying to adapt. Each story presents bursts of intense emotional scenes, making it easy to forget these are collections of short stories despite evoking the intensity and depth of a full-length novel. From the earnest characters in The Boy in the Kebab Shop to the exploration of childhood and national identity in Souvenirs, Aboulela’s collection comes together to present themes of love and community weaved intricately throughout each story.


Non Fiction Book of the Year 2018 and Saltire Book of the Year

All that Remains: A Life in Death, Sue Black

Non Fiction | Transworld Books | £16.99 | Buy Here

Sue Black confronts death every day. As Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, she focuses on mortal remains in her lab, at burial sites, at scenes of violence, murder and criminal dismemberment, and when investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident or natural disaster. In All That Remains she reveals the many faces of death she has come to know, using key cases to explore how forensic science has developed, and what her work has taught her. 

A mash-up of science, memoir and recollections of disasters told in harrowing honesty, this is not the kind of read you’ll be inclined to enjoy with a cup of tea and cake. However, it is an absolute must-read. A world-leading forensic scientist, Black explores the aspects of death that most of us really don’t want to think about — the abhorrent horrors of war; the common mistakes of murderers; how to come to terms with death.  There’s not a whiff of over-sentimentality, it’s a book that presents the hard truths about death that are refreshing to hear and written in a thoroughly gripping way. You’ll come face to face with your mortality in these pages, and be pleasantly surprised by the results of that encounter.  


And the rest…

Canongate picked up the Publisher of the Year award, their fantastic team earning them a firm place on the global publishing stage. Research Book of the Year went to What the Victorians Made of Romanticism by Tom Mole and the Saltire Society honoured 30 years of the First Book award by honouring Louise Welsh and The Cutting Room, who picked up the award for the first time in 2002. Finally, publishing-powerhouse Carolina Orloff of Charco Press picked up Emerging Publisher of the Year.