Alexander McCall Smith, novelist
Ben Macintyre has a wide following for his extraordinarily readable books about espionage. This is not surprising, as he is quite the most enjoyable writer – one who manages to make every subject he touches glow with life. If you enjoyed his Agent Zig-Zag – as so many did – then you will very quickly find yourself immersed in his latest offering, Rogue Heroes (Viking, £25), which tells the story of David Stirling and his commandos. I read this on a long plane trip, skipping the meals, ignoring the time-zones, utterly transfixed by Macintyre’s story. Of a very different stripe, but a beautiful book nonetheless, is Scotland, Mapping the Islands (Birlinn, £30) by Christopher Fleet, Margaret Wilkes and Charles Withers. This is a triumph of a book, a beautifully illustrated account of how our Scottish islands have been understood by cartographers. It is a book that gives sheer, unadulterated pleasure to both eye and mind.
Lorraine Kelly, broadcaster and author
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The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Orion, £17). I studied Russian at Claremont High School in East Kilbride (three of us in a school of over 1000 pupils) and was always fascinated about this particular 300-year royal dynasty which lasted until Tsar Nicholas 11, when he and his family were brutally butchered in 1918 after the revolution. This is a rip roaring, colourful account of ultimate power, passion, sex, war and peace. A real epic. Women I've Undressed by Orry Kelly (Allen & Unwin, £25). I adore the golden age of Hollywood and the Stars like Garbo and Dietrich shimmered and shone and broke boundaries. Film buffs know that when designer Orry Kelly's name was on the credits, the costumes are sumptuous, elegant and exquisite. He won three Oscars for costume design and created the unbelievably sexy gown worn by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and the ultimate make over clothes for Bette Davis in Now Voyager. This book is deliciously indiscreet and a sheer indulgence. Broken and Betrayed by Jayne Senior (Pan, £7.99). Jayne Senior is a remarkable woman who bravely blew the whistle on the appalling Rotherham abuse scandal, when almost everyone else looked the other way. Thanks to her, the young women who were treated so shamefully by the disgusting criminals who groomed and raped them, and also by police and local authorities who did little or nothing to help, have at least had some sort of justice. This is not an easy read, but it's an important one.
Jackie Kay, Makar, above
My favourite books have seen me through this terrible and turbulent year. Ali Smith’s brilliant Autumn (Hamish Hamiilton, £16.99) takes the body blow that was Brexit and makes for her readers something beautiful, extraordinary. She tells the story of our time and gives us back the seasons. Margo Jefferson’s excoriating and enlivening Negroland: a memoir (Granta, £12.99) is a candid memoir about 'race' in America that zooms into sharp focus right now and makes you question everything, even the too easy term ‘race in America’. The book rings and chimes and finds strength in contradiction. Ian Duhig is a one-off, a true original. In The Blind Roadmaker (Picador, £9.99) he charts the journeys of 18th century blind Jack Metcalf who learned to read by feeling headstones faces, as well as those of today’s dispossessed with a hat’s off empathy, wit and intelligence. Liz Lochhead’s Fugitive Colours (Polygon, £9.99) shows her off in shining colours, her wide palette, her tuned ear. Versatile and vivacious, she is at ease here in dramatic monologue as she is in the fine lyric poems that chart the journey of her grief. Kathleen Jamie is good company in The Bonniest Companie, (Picador, £9.99) an engaging and energetic collection that follows the cycle of a year, cycles within cycles, the migrations of birds and people. The many voices of Scotland’s natural and social worlds combine to create an astounding aural map of our times.
Rupert Thomson, novelist
To see Joy Williams’ short stories gathered into a single volume is a reason to break out the champagne. Like a true Surrealist, Williams finds the marvellous in the mundane, and The Visiting Privilege (Tuskar Rock, £16.99) is a treasure-trove of high-octane prose and offbeat wit. Hisham Matar’s memoir, The Return (Viking, £14.99), expands on a New Yorker piece about his search for his imprisoned father. The intelligence and tenderness of Matar’s writing is underpinned by a fierce and valid rage, not just against Gaddafi and his family, but against the British political establishment. Frantumaglia (Europa Editions, £16.99) is the latest from Elena Ferrante, the blisteringly honest chronicler of female friendship. A fascinating meditation on the tension between her need for anonymity and her desire to communicate, this book is worth it for one sentence alone, where Ferrante quotes Amelia Rosselli: “What black deep activism there is in my menstruation”. Finally, a quick mention for Alice Oswald, a sublime poet of the natural world, and her new collection, Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape, £10).
Candia McWilliam, novelist
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, £18.99). A luminous, while close-detailed as flowers in machair, enquiry into love of islands, their romance and their history chafing in the long-inhabited life of the Hebrides, their myth and peoples; an exquisite and realistic account of life at the edge and at the edges of identity for this part-Catholic, part-Jewish writer. Her powers of concretion are poetic; she is hawkeyed amid nature, lucid of thought, a shining companion through the tangle of the isles. Dirt by William Letford (Carcanet, £8.99) Ever since Bevel came out, I’ve wanted to read more by this precise, panoptic – not windy – roofer-poet. Here we are; sparks fly up. Kenneth Clark; Life, Art & Civilisation (Collins, £30) For several reasons, I’ve lived with the idea of this book for decades. Hard to do, elegantly done. James Stourton has caught this public man (with a number of private lives), exegete and defender and saviour too of much that could carelessly be lost to us.
Liz Lochhead Poet and playwright
Dirt Road by James Kelman (Canongate, £16.99) takes us into the very heart of 17-year-old Murdo as he and his ordinary, inarticulate, decent, recently-widowed Scottish father go their holidays to relatives in America. It picks us up, takes us on the road movie – with music – that is Murdo’s journey, not through but along with his grief. And his brand new desire... Light and deep. Moving, true, funny, painful. As is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), which has been waiting on my shelf for a couple of years, so highly recommended by people I truly trust (and oh how right they were!) that I kept deferring my pleasure. Set in a small coast town in Maine, this novel in the form of short stories – in some of which the excruciatingly, hilariously humanly-flawed eponymous Olive might make the most fleeting of appearances, in others take centre stage – is also by a master in the art of fiction.
Graeme Macrae Burnet, author, above
Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) has a lot more heft than its breezy title suggests. The author successfully juggles history, biography and weighty philosophical ideas, all the while maintaining a tone which suggests she might be chatting over apricot cocktails at the famous Cafe de Flore in Paris. One for existentialist tyros and seasoned polo neck wearers alike. Martin MacInnes’s astonishing debut novel Infinite Ground (Atlantic, £12.99) takes a conventional enough missing person plot and puts it in a blender with biology, anthropology and a healthy measure of alienation. The result is a book that eschews orthodox narrative structure in favour of passages of quite dazzling brilliance and invention.
James Robertson, novelist and poet
Natural Light II by Angela Catlin (Freight Books, £20). In 1985, the photojournalist Angela Catlin made portraits of 49 Scottish writers for a book called Natural Light. Among the famous names were Norman MacCaig, Hamish Henderson and George Mackay Brown, and some of those images are now classics. The book captured Scottish literature at a particular moment, telling us, among other things, of its overwhelming maleness. In Natural Light II, Catlin revisits the territory, showing us 59 writers, 23 of them women, in a variety of locations. Each portrait is accompanied by a piece of writing from the subject, and the overall impression is of a more multi-faceted, though still predominantly white, literature. Sadly, two of the subjects, Willie McIlvanney and Karl Miller, have left us already. Still, it is a delight to see new photos of those who were in the first book, including Jim Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Ron Butlin, Stewart Conn and Aonghas Macneacaill, with those 1985 pictures inset for comparison; and slightly sobering to speculate on who among us might still be here, still writing, 30 years hence. Catlin is a brilliant photographer and this is a fascinating and honest book.
Stewart Conn, poet
In His Bloody Project (Contraband, £8.99) Graeme Macrae Burnet, with a bow to James Hogg, sets a hideous triple murder in an 1860s Wester Ross crofting community against a convincing evocation of the social, religious and judicial mores of the day. The killer's fate hinges on Victorian medical theory regarding the bounds of lunacy. The novel's noirness intensifies through doubts over the veracity, in his “found” account, of his true motive and who was his prime victim. It is a triumph for author and publisher alike. Catalan writer Joan Margarit is Spain's most widely acclaimed contemporary poet. Love is a Place (Bloodaxe, £12) is his third volume to be translated, with enticing elegance, by Anna Crowe. He deploys his central themes – the prospect of death and rediscovery of love – with a compelling freshness, wisdom, dignity and enveloping tenderness. Time and again I find myself gasping in admiration, or fighting back tears. And the cover image must be one of the most beautiful of the year.
Sally Magnusson, journalist, broadcaster and author, above
I adored Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99), a beautifully written, warm and funny follow-up to her weirdly poetic debut, After Me Comes the Flood (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99). His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, £8.99) was as darkly engaging as the Booker judges thought it was. I couldn’t wait to see what Cormoran Swift was up to in the latest Robert Galbraith novel, Career of Evil (Sphere, £20), and wasn’t disappointed. I loved Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (Scribner, £12.99). The delicate, funny, astonishingly inventive novella, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, about a man and his two young sons adapting to sudden loss, by Max Porter (Faber, £7.99), was the purest joy. And I must mention Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude (Picador, £8.99), four short, beautiful essays by the celebrated late neurologist on his feelings as he came towards the end of his life – a slight but poignant read.
Kapka Kassabova, author
Halfway through Chernobyl Prayer by Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich (Penguin Classics, £9.99), I felt so heart-broken, I couldn’t continue. But I couldn’t not continue. Such is the humanist miracle of her writing. Making herself absent, she lets her characters narrate, in their voices, the events they have witnessed, survived, sometimes transcended. “I don’t know what to tell you about. Death or love? Or is it the same thing. What should I tell you about? We were just married”, begins a woman whose husband was enlisted to clean up after the explosion. Through an intimate yet heroic polyphony of voices, we cross a surreal landscape out of time. How chilling that the original Russian title of the book is A Chronicle of the Future. Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You (Picador, £12.99) had me spell-bound with its meditation on suburban American childhood, sexual love, and belonging. Set in Bulgaria, it is also a glimpse into the hidden world of cruising.
Malachy Tallack, author
Sara Taylor’s debut novel, The Shore (Windmill Books, £8.99), published last year, was excellent. Her follow-up, The Lauras (Heinemann, £12.99), was even better. It’s a book about memory and family, about gender and identity. It’s also wonderfully written, the prose vivid and intense. Canongate published two of my favourite non-fiction books of the year. The first, in January, was Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (£8.99). It’s been a pleasure to see the success this book has enjoyed – all of it very much deserved. It’s a truly brave piece of work, honest and illuminating. Then, in March, I adored Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (£16.99), a hugely original study of loneliness, through the prism of four New York artists – Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. Laing brilliantly explores what it means and how it feels to be alone. Fascinating, surprising and moving at once, it's a book to which I’m sure I’ll return.
Alex Gray, novelist
Top of my list is winner of the William McIlvanney prize, Chris Brookmyre’s Black Widow (Little, Brown, £18.99), a brilliantly plotted crime novel with some fiendish twists. More crime form Douglas Skelton with The Dead Don’t Boogie (Contraband, £8.99), the first of his Dominic Queste series and one that made me laugh out loud. Different, quirky and set to make Skelton a household name, I’m sure. Doug Johnstone’s Crash Land (Faber & Faber, £12.99) is a thriller set in the Orkney Islands with some breathtaking description of both the islands and the horrors of a plane crash. One that really could not be put down till the very last line. Still in Orkney, do read Lin Anderson’s latest compelling story, None but the Dead (Pan Macmillan, £12.99) for another thrilling episode in the life of forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod. Bittersweet reading is Michel Faber’s Undying: A Love Story (Canongate, £12.99), poems written to his late wife, Eva Youren, a beautiful lady I will never forget.
Aonghas Macneacaill Poet, lyricist and largely lapsed journalist
Two books made quite an impact on my imagination. One radiates a succinct clarity: the other intrigues, but perplexes. Each explores aspects of our past, but approaches them very differently. Andrew Sinclair is a distinguished novelist, historian and filmmaker but also direct descendant of Henry St Clair, Baron of Roslin and Earl of Orkney, a founder of the Knights Templar (themselves dissolved in 1309). His The Secret Scroll (Birlinn, £2.30) entwines clan, cult and religion, in stylish but digressive prose. A masonic subtext tends to cloud the narrative, but it remains a fascinating read. Neil Oliver's A History of Scotland (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) delivers a compelling sweep across the moments, and movements, shaping Scotland, from earliest times to the present, in just over 400 vividly eloquent pages. He offers enough detail to guide us, should we wish, toward deeper accounts of social, political and military developments, but sufficient, also, to provide a clear perspective.
Trevor Royle Journalist and military historian
It’s sobering fact that 1968 is the only post-war year in which British service personnel have not been killed on active service. In that time, too, the British Army has shrunk from 2.9 million soldiers in 1945 to 79,000 today, yet it is as busy as ever. Richard Dannatt is the ideal guide to this period and his Boots on the Ground: Britain and Her Army since 1945 (Profile, £25) does not disappoint. His time as Chief of the General Staff taught him all he needed to know about the frequently vicious interaction between politicians and the services – he is scathing about Tony Blair’s wars – and having served as a young platoon commander in Northern Ireland in the 1970s when he was decorated for gallantry he is equally astute and knowledgeable about war at the sharp end. Although Dannatt produces more questions than answers this is living history at its best.
Christopher Brookmyre, novelist
I’m Not With The Band, by Sylvia Patterson (Little, Brown, £20). This was the most warm, insightful and passionate book on music I have read in years. Starting with the innocent, joyful silliness of Smash Hits in the 80s, this memoir inevitably journeys into darker territory but always remains infectiously optimistic about music’s capacity to inspire. The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp (Orbit, £8.99). I’m not normally drawn to the spooky, but this supernatural-tinged mystery and modern media satire was a genuinely frightening experience, one that left me physically shaking towards the climax as the true horror of what was unfolding became unsettlingly clear. Slow Horses, by Mick Herron (John Murray, £7.99). I was delighted to discover that this is merely the first in a captivating series about "Slough House”, where the intelligence services’ misfits and screw-ups become the useful tools of Herron’s quite magnificent creation, Jackson Lamb. This is an old-school espionage thriller where foreign powers might be a danger, but the true enemies are sitting at another desk.
Sir Tom Devine, historian and author, above
For professional reasons I had to read extensively this year on the history of 20th century war. The most memorable and gripping books were Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Penguin, £14.99), and Lord Alanbrooke’s Alanbrooke War Diaries 1939-45 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99). The Gordon volume is to my mind the best written on the context and reality of the Battle of Jutland in 1916.The author shows a masterly grasp of contemporary naval tactics and writes with both clarity and aplomb. Alanbrooke, as Churchill's principal military adviser during the Second World War, was Britain's most influential soldier of the time. His diaries inter alia contain penetrating judgements on the great men on the Allied side with especially trenchant critiques of Churchill's performance as a warlord.
Hayden Murphy, Irish arts journalist and poet
Fiction allows fact an ephemeral presence in both my novels of choice. Donald Ryan’s All We Shall Know (Doubleday, £12.99) is structured around the mental and physical birth pangs of an “abandoning” woman, counterpointed by social-political attitudes and prejudices, in the west of Ireland. James Kelman’s Dirt Road (Canongate, £16.99) allows musical cadence and ambition to mirror generational differences between itinerant Scottish father and son in a pre-Trump but still confrontational USA. In poetry, Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, £9.99) captures migratory thoughts and distils them as magnificent statements on demanding fidelities: “melt me down then score me/the music for last things.” For clarity and accessibility, in the minefield of tomes dealing with the fervours and fevers of “accepted” religions, I recommend, with pleasure, Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion (Yale University Press, £14.99)
Iain Macwhirter, journalist and author, above
Another dire year for political books. There has been a succession of empty, self-serving memoirs from shallow politicians like Nick Clegg, Ed Balls and Ken Clarke which tell you little. Unlike The Silk Roads – a New History of the World by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, £10.99), which reinterprets history from a Middle Eastern perspective. This doesn’t quite live up to its billing, but is packed with insight and information. The Vikings, known as Rus, gave their name to Russia and were assiduous slave traders in Byzantium in the middle ages. The very word “slave” comes from the many eastern European slavs they captured and sold to Muslim traders. The Allegations (Picador, £16.99), is the former BBC arts presenter Mark Lawson's Kafkaesque account of two academics accused of historic sexual abuse. He insists this is not autobiographical, but it's hard to believe that his own experience, being accused anonymously of bullying in the Beeb, did not enlighten it. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer the fate of the last man to be tried as a werewolf, Peter Stumpp, fictionalised by Neil Mackay in The Wolf Trial (Freight, £12.99), a rather brilliant Robert Harris-style romp through religious inquisitions in 16th century Germany. Unfortunately, I now know what being broken on the wheel actually involves.
Billy Kay, scriever and broadcaster
My book of the moment is Naething Daunted: The Collected Poems of Douglas Young (Humming Earth, £35) – a joy to re-discover this brilliant polymath who was also a leading light in the rise of modern Scottish nationalism. His poetry has echoes of French, Greek and German, but his Scots poems ding aw! I have also loved a magisterial bigoraphy by Jean Gindlay, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C K Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy, and Translator (Vintage, £10.99). Conrad valued his translations of Proust more than the originals, and here you get a flavour of the cultured, gay, cosmoplitan Scot in the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century. Staunin Ma Lane Chinese Verse in Scots and English Owreset bi/translated by Brian Holton (Shreasman Books, £12.95) is a beautiful book which allows you entry into an ancient culture. The Collected Yaps of The Wee Ginger Dug from the acerbic pen of Paul Kavanagh (Wee Ginger Dugs Books, £10) are always welcome flytings to anyone scunnered by the political limbo Scotland tholes before independence.
Regi Claire, novelist
My reading year began and almost-ends with T C Boyle. Taut and revelatory, his novel The Harder They Come (Bloomsbury, £8.99) deals with gun violence, anti-authoritarianism and environmental issues. His latest, The Terranauts (Bloomsbury, £18.99), has just come out. It’s an engrossing take on the Biosphere II experiment in the 1990s. If you don’t know Boyle’s work, you’re in for a treat. Austin Wright’s mesmerising psychological thriller Tony and Susan (Atlantic, £8.99) was first published in 1993. Imagine the Interstate at night, imagine a happy family cocooned in their car, imagine road rage – then feel the fear … The hypnotic prose of Tony’s tale held me spellbound. Read the book before you watch the film (Nocturnal Animals), released earlier this autumn. Short stories have accompanied me throughout the year. Despite its title, Lucia Berlin’s collection A Manual for Cleaning Women (Picador, £8.99) packs a real punch. Partly autobiographical, her stories are vibrant and always unpredictable. My discovery of 2016.
Kirsty Logan, novelist, above
I've long been a fan of Helen Sedgwick's writing, so it's no surprise that her debut novel, The Comet Seekers (Harvill Secker, £12.99), is my favourite of this year. Her story of many lives linked by comets over earth is brave, tender, vivid and magical - everything I want in a book. It's been a great year for young Scottish poets. I adored William Letford's raw and intimate second collection, Dirt (Carcanet, £9.99), as well as Claire Askew's heart-twisting debut, This Changes Things (Bloodaxe, £9.95). If you can find it, you must read Nadine Aisha's pamphlet, Still (Appletree Writers Press, £6). As well as reading wonderfully on the page, Letford, Askew and Aisha are all incredible live performers – do seek them out.
Mark Douglas-Home, novelist
For sheer writing verve, I haven't read anything better this year than Maggie O'Farrell's This Must Be The Place (Tinder Press, £18.99). The narrative travels backwards and forwards, switches times and points of view with fluent ease. It's remarkable. So is Michel Faber's Undying: A Love Story (Canongate, £12.99), a memory to his wife Eva who died of cancer. His poems are tender, searing and unforgettable. If like me you're interested in the blue part of our planet, try Tristan Gooley's How to Read Water: Clues, Signs & Patterns from Puddles to the Sea (Sceptre, £20) or Hugh Aldersey-Williams' Tide: the Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth (Viking, £18.99). Both are fascinating.
Rosemary Goring, journalist and author
It looks like an afternoon’s read, but Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (Scribner, £12.99) demands you take your time, because every word and image must be savoured. The account of a tragic upstairs-downstairs romance, in which a maid and a son of the big house are entangled, it is recalled from the safety of decades hence, when the maid has become a novelist. Peerlessly written, it is outstanding. Also word perfect is James Kelman’s Dirt Road (Canongate, £16.99), in which teenage Murdo and his father visit relatives in the deep American south shortly after the death of Murdo’s mother. Kelman effortlessly conveys the feelings and character of all those around his narrator, while seeming never to step beyond Murdo’s inner thoughts. As musically written as the accordion at which Murdo is a rising star. Lastly, Liz Lochhead’s Fugitive Colours (Polygon, £9.99). Poems of raw grief for her late husband are intermingled with happier reflections and memories, both personal and on the state of modern Scotland. Lochhead’s confiding, witty voice is powerful and vivid.
Allan Massie, novelist and journalist
Not much journalism bears re-printing, yet alone re-reading. Ferdinand Mount’s English Voices (Simon & Schuster, £25) is an exception. These biographical essays, chiefly on writers and politicians, are elegant, erudite and enlightening. Mount’s judgement is fair, his sympathy deep and wide. They are deeply enjoyable and invite reflection. Two very good novels I have read this year are Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (Faber & Faber, £17.99), a beautifully written story of the American West and the Civil War, and The Risen by Ron Rash (Ecco, $27.99). Rash is one of the best living American writers and this short novel is an evocative account of a wasted life and a disturbingly nasty murder.
John Burnside, poet and novelist
I have been a fan of Denise Riley’s for decades, and Say Something Back (Picador, 9.99) shows her working at her peak in a collection that is as rewarding as it is challenging. Meanwhile, though it’s not published in the UK as yet, Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons (Farrar Strauss, £16.99) reveals the sure mastery of both craft and subject matter of a poet who is definitely in it for the long haul. Adam Phillips’ Unforbidden Pleasures (Penguin, £14.99) inspired and moved me with its exploration of quotidian pleasures and satisfactions, in a book that draws on history, philosophy and psychoanalysis with a mix of playfulness and erudition that few other writers could even attempt. Equally inspiring, and strangely heartening, is Jay Griffiths’ Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99), an extraordinary examination, not just of her own paths to recovery, but of the healing process itself.
Compiled by Herald Literary Editor Rosemary Goring