Browsing in an Edinburgh bookshop (one of life's few remaining free pleasures), I eavesdropped on the conversation of two uniformed schoolgirls.
One told the other she'd just read Fifty Shades Of Grey (Arrow, £7.99). The other made a noise that managed to combine shock with surprise while maintaining a modicum of teenage sang froid. "What," she asked of her chum, "did you think of it?" "It was alright in places," came the bored reply.
I wish I could confirm this, but I have yet to get round to tackling EL James's novel, which has spawned many imitators and which the author – recently named "publishing person of the year" for making erotic fiction "hot" – says she wishes men would not read because it reveals her private "fantasies". But that's the trouble with books, isn't it? Sooner or later they fall into the wrong hands, the dread result of which is that it begins to snow dosh.
Loading article content
What James will do next we can probably all guess. Were I her publisher I'd tell her to see what other fantasies she has, there being no appeasing the reading public's appetite for a touch of sadomasochism.
What one would have given to be a fly on the wall when JK Rowling pitched her successor to Harry Potter at her new publisher. "So it's about a small town in the west country in which parish councillors are at loggerheads over a council estate in their bailiwick." Bring it on!
Or perhaps not. The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, £20) was not as bad as it could have been but neither was it much cop. Had it been written by anyone other than Rowling it would have sunk without trace. As it is, people who thought they'd never graduate from Hogwarts have been reading it as if it were by Trollope. Joanna Trollope. On an off day.
Such curiosities aside, this has been a good year for fiction. The best Scottish novel of the year – and quite possibly the best novel of the year – was by James Kelman. Mo Said She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) is set in London inside the head of a young woman called Helen. Nothing much happens to her. She works in a casino and on her way home one night thinks she spies her long-lost brother. She has a young daughter and a Muslim boyfriend. Helen is neither hard-up nor well-off. She gets by and is not addicted to anything. Mo, moreover, is a nice man.
You might say there is not a lot to chew on here but how wrong you'd be, how wrong. Unlike anyone else writing on the planet today, Kelman conveys in language that is simple yet muscular and full of meaning the small anxieties that beset us all. This is literature as it is meant to be: testing, beautifully written, original, memorable.
Another novel by a Scottish writer I particularly admired was The Deadman's Pedal by Alan Warner (Jonathan Cape, £12.99). Set in the Highlands in the 1970s – an era effortlessly and subtly evoked – it centres on 16-year-old Simon Crimmons, who would like to escape his background. But it seems there is fat chance of that. He has a motorbike, though, and a girlfriend and a job working on the railway, the milieu of which Warner lovingly and pungently and unsentimentally recreates. Hence the appeal of The Deadman's Pedal to fans of trainspotting with a lower case T.
The Man Booker was won again by Hilary Mantel, with Bring Up The Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20), the sequel to Wolf Hall, both of which I enjoyed. I'd rather, however, the palm had gone to the likes of Kirsty Gunn's hugely ambitious and aptly lyrical The Big Music (Faber, £20), which wasn't allowed even to grace the long-list. Located in what might be called Gunn Country, the far north-east of Scotland, it is inspired by the eerie, emotionally wrenching, primeval sound of pibroch, which is to bagpipe- playing what Shakespeare's sonnets are to his plays.
A new novel by Richard Ford is always worth seeking out. Canada (Bloomsbury, £18.99) did not disappoint. On the contrary, it demonstrated yet again Ford's incomparable talent as a storyteller. It's all in the voice of the narrator, who on this occasion is Dell Parsons, a sixtysomething teacher of literature who is relating the story of his life. And what a life it is, starting with his remorselessly optimistic father, who in order to provide for his family persuades his wife to help him rob a bank. Suffice it to say, they are no Bonnie and Clyde.
Banks feature prominently, too, in John Lanchester's Capital (Faber, £17.99), which is set very much in the here and now. London is its locus and, in particular, a street called Pepys Road, in which one day the residents wake up and find that because of the rise in property values they have become millionaires. It is a novel with a Dickensian cast of characters drawn to the Great Wen from around the globe in search of streets paved with gold. Or, in one case, cars parked illegally. Money is what makes this world go round, and few in the fiction business understand it better than Lanchester.