Books for foodies selected by Cate Devine, food writer
For its freshness and originality, Sumayya Usmani’s Summers Under The Tamarind Tree (Frances Lincoln, £20) sets it apart. The title hints that it’s not all about recipes. But it is all about food. A memoir of Usmani’s childhood in Karachi, its slow reveal is the part played by women – grandmothers, mother, aunts – in passing down her Muslim culinary heritage by letting her watch them in the kitchen and unknowingly absorb ancient cooking techniques.
This book is rare in that it draws attention to Pakistani cooking in its own right, since before and after Partition from India in 1947. It’s a plea, based on the author’s emotional attachment to it, for recognition of the food of her homeland while also offering an insight into its many cultural influences over thousands of years.
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A lawyer by training who moved from London to Glasgow last year, Usmani never followed a written recipe; she learned by tasting and smelling. That she has created 100 here is testimony to her powers of persuasion. I discern a surprising affinity with Scottish cooking in its use of lamb, potatoes, oats and barley; and a sweet-toothed love of desserts. Usmani’s spiced mince, turnip kebabs and pistachio ice-cream float are however somewhat more exotic.
Classic Koffmann (Jacqui Small, £30) celebrates the three Michelin-starred French chef’s 50 years in the business and serves as a reminder of how influential France has been on contemporary European cuisine. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn how to make the definitive cassoulet, lamb couscous, braised ox cheeks or crème caramel.
Books for art lovers selected by Jan Patience, art critic
Is having an unhappy childhood a prerequisite for an artist? Reading Marina Abramovi?’s account of her life, Walk Through Walls: A Memoir (Fig Tree, £20), it seems that way. Abramovi?, now 70, never takes an easy path. This memoir, ghost-written with James Kaplan, goes some way towards explaining her fearless approach to making performance art.
Scots artist George Wyllie, on the other hand, claimed he was “disadvantaged by a happy childhood”. The Paper Boat creator’s early life, and the forces which shaped him, are revealed in a new biography Arrivals And Sailings: The Making Of George Wyllie (Polygon, £25) written by his elder daughter, Louise Wyllie, and me.
David Hockney and Martin Gayford's A History Of Pictures: From The Cave To The Computer Screen (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) is art-lover's eye candy. An extended conversation between Hockney and Gayford, it takes us from the caves of Lascaux to the everyday images we consume via screens.
Books for sporty types selected by Hugh MacDonald, sports writer
THE twin strike force in football has gone the way of rationality in politics. It is refreshing then to note that teamwork can still work on the printed page.
Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund may not have the footballing cachet of those pairings of Shearer and Sutton or Suarez and Sturridge but they conjure up something substantial in Home And Away (Harvill Secker, £18.99). Knausgaard, author of the My Struggle series, masterpiece or mince according to individual taste, and Ekelund, playwright and novelist, correspond over the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The results are invigorating, unexpected and occasionally brilliant.
Honourable mentions in the football sphere must be made: Forever Young: The Story Of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius by Oliver Kay (Quercus, £20) and Persevered by Aidan Smith (Arena Sport, £14.99), the delightfully quirky, witty and exquisitely rendered story of Hibernian winning the Scottish Cup.
A local hero, too, is wonderfully celebrated by Duncan Hamilton, a writer who conveys emotion with the most delicate of touches, in For The Glory: The Life Of Eric Liddell (Doubleday, £20).
Yellow Jersey, the reliable frontrunners of sports publishing, have also reissued all the George Plimpton classics where the editor of the Paris Review plays professional American football, boxes a world champion, and generally insinuates himself into top sport. Shadow Boxing and Paper Lion (both £9.99), in particular, are essential to any sporting library.
Books for children selected by Vicky Allan, Sunday Herald columnist and feature-writer
If I had to choose two picture books to give to children this year, I would probably plump for The Beginner’s Guide To Bearspotting by Michelle Robinson and David Roberts (Bloomsbury, £12.99) and The Book Of The Howlat by James Robertson (Birlinn, £12.99). The former is the ultimate book to disabuse children of all their misconceptions about the fluffy, cuddly nature of bears, as we follow a small-child hero who sets out on a hilarious but terrifying bear-spotting expedition.
The Book Of The Howlat, meanwhile, a reimagining of the old Scottish allegorical treasure from the 1440s, The Howlat, published in both English and Scots versions, is a powerful hymn to being “true to yer ain nature”, magnificently illustrated by Kate Leiper.
Among the most exciting books of 2016 for 8-12 year olds was The Beginner's Guide To Curses by Lari Don (Kelpies, £6.99), the first of the Spellchasers trilogy, which follows a girl who has been cursed to change into a hare as she is sent on a course to learn how to lift it.
For older children and young adults, what stood out was Malorie Blackman’s Chasing The Stars (Doubleday, £10.99), loosely based on Othello, published in the year of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, yet set in space. It’s a tale charged with all the issues of the moment: race, the treatment of refugees, migration-anxiety, stereotyping and social immobility
Also wonderful was 21-year-old Alice Oseman’s second book Radio Silence (Harper Collins, £7.99) a witty and enthralling tale of friendship, and exploration of online fan culture and gender fluidity, in the steam-cooker world of high-achieving school students.
Jenni Fagan, novelist
Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson (Influx Press, £12.99) echoes Leonora Carrington the surrealist artist and writer who said: “The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.” Anderson travels through cities via the minutiae of time, transience, possibility and space. Of wartime he writes: “Cities attempted to imagine themselves out of existence and hide at night.” Much later this theme is revisited. Night is our companion, it is a character, as are buildings and cities. “The night is the time of the carnival, a time feared by some not simply because of neurosis or insecurities of the flesh but also because it is a social leveller. The strictures of the day are suspended, the class system momentarily shaken off, or so the illusion appears until dawn. The dead return to Mexico. The city is purified in Lupercalia.” Imaginary Cities is a brilliant, innovative piece of work by a fascinating writer.
Brian Morton, critic
Some books are read and shelved. Some are bound for the Red Cross box before chapter two is properly underway. And some are used so devotedly and often that a second, cleaner copy will soon be called for. That’s the usual with a favourite cookbook, but this time it’s different. Noel Kingsbury’s Hidden Histories: Trees – The Secret Properties Of 150 Species (Timber Press, £14.99) is a smartly illustrated guide to the largest living things we share space with, and on which we rely for an astonishing range of goods and services. It combines history, folklore, pharmacology, arboriculture and lots of silvological trivia. It’s not so hot – so to speak – on the use of different timbers for firewood. Kingsbury has too much respect for the living trees. But there are other books for that.
Lucy Ellmann, novelist
Jane Austen insisted that even poverty-stricken spinsterhood is better than loveless marriage to oafs. Charlotte Lucas disagrees and pays the price – the intolerable Mr Collins – but Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s proposal is a significant moment in nascent feminism. Pride And Prejudice is Austen at her liveliest. I bought some books for my nephew who’s studying human rights, and ended up reading them myself. In 1994 Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, rejected the UN’s order to withdraw and asked instead for more soldiers. A later study suggested this tactic would have prevented half a million deaths. The terrible decision to override Dallaire is just one insight offered by John Pilger’s fascinating anthology of investigative reporting, Tell Me No Lies (Vintage, £8.99). And in Worse Than War (Little, Brown, £25) and its moving sister-project film (available on Youtube), Daniel Goldhagen fiercely argues that eliminationism is always political and, what’s more, preventable.
Ronald Frame, novelist
For the past few months I’ve been working on a lite-crime/rom and for purposes of "research" I’ve been enjoying two experts. I’m a great admirer of Alexander McCall Smith for having stuck to his guns and for maintaining the high standard of his writing, even when so enviably prolific. His Botswana-set Precious And Grace (Little, Brown, £18.99) moves along effortlessly, like a high-spec car, and one’s sole regret is that the ride couldn’t have gone on for longer.
A savvy friend recommended Catriona McPherson, a Scot who lives most of the time in California. Dandy Gilver And A Most Misleading Habit (Hodder & Stoughton, £20.99) is the 11th outing for her 1930s blue-blooded lady sleuth. Her prose is intelligent and elegant, to match the insights she brings to her characterisation and the artful plot structure.
A debut to watch for, late January, is Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper Of Lost Things (Two Roads, £16.99). I was hugely impressed by this flawlessly written, most humane novel. In ordinary lives, this born storyteller locates her treasure,
Todd McEwen, novelist
The English will soon be living in a cultural and economic Appalachia of their own devising, and I sincerely hope they will like it. David Herd’s Through (Carcanet, £9.99) is that very rare book, violently political and artistic, especially in the light of Brexit. Set in and around an immigration hearing, the narrator comes to understand that what the state wants for every refugee from persecution and genocide is that he die on the street, “Leaving the language unaffected by the process of expulsion”; or, to be corralled in some eternal holding pen. “Imagine having that dream. You’d have to have a mind of winter.” I never got Thornton Wilder in high school, even though you were supposed to. Having just read Pullman Car Hiawatha (Penguin, £10, through ABE), I do, and I love him. What a musical, cinematic, painterly dream of what the United States now can never be.
Alan Bissett, novelist and entertainer
James Kelman’s latest novel Dirt Road (Canongate, £16.99) has a very different feel from his others: there’s a gentleness and warmth to the central father-son relationship and it’s refreshing to read Kelman’s take on adolescence. While I didn’t find myself agreeing with everything in Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide To The State Of Scotland (Luath, £8.99), I was certainly invigorated and challenged by these three young radicals – Amy Westwell, Rory Scothorne and Cailean Gallagher – reflecting on their indyref1 experience from a socialist perspective. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (Faber & Faber, £7.99), is a spell of a thing, deftly weaving contemporary Ireland together with the war-ravaged Balkans, comedy with horror, sex with social commentary. Shout out also to hardy-perennial Irvine Welsh, for managing to invest the almost mythical character of Francis Begbie with a new depth and complexity in The Blade Artist (Jonathan Cape, £12.99).
Alan Taylor, editor, Scottish Review of Books
Eva Youren, wife of the writer Michel Faber, was 59 when she died of cancer two years ago. Undying: A Love Story (Canongate, £8.99) is his response. Though not known as a poet, Faber has produced a collection that is as beautifully expressed as it is painfully honest, telling the story of Eva’s Nemesis from diagnosis through treatment to death and beyond. It doesn’t make for a comfortable read and his uncompromising determination to tell all at times makes one wince. But the overwhelming effect is of love unvarnished and undiminished. Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Volume 1: Ascent 1889-1939 (Bodley Head, £25) is impressive on several counts, not least for its revelations about the Führer’s private life and his relationships with older women, such as Winifred Wagner, who liked to mother him while ditsy others had only to peer into his “lovely violet blue eyes to sense his gentle temperament and good heart”. Thomas Mann was no fan of Nazism, nor it him. I’ve been reading – still am reading – his novel Doctor Faustus, which was written in exile in America. The story of a composer who sells his soul to the devil in return for the genius he craves, it is symbolic of Germany at a time when it too had taken the road to perdition. It’s chewy and challenging – would it have found a publisher today? I wonder – but incredibly energising, the kind of book that deserved its classic status from its first appearance.
Iain Gray, MSP
Most days I read for escapism, crime and science fiction. My collection of Spenser, Bernie Gunther and Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are repeatedly reread. Yet, at the risk of seeming po-faced, the best new book I read last year was Jane Dawson’s biography of John Knox (Yale University Press, £8.35). After all, I live in his hometown of Haddington, an elder even of St Mary’s Kirk where he was ordained. Dawson’s work is best known for debunking the idea that Knox was a misogynist, arguing that he valued and relied heavily on the advice of his “godly sisters”. Sadly she also reveals that George Wishart’s last sermon, famously delivered in St Mary’s with Knox guarding the door, was a denunciation of the congregation for staying away out of cowardice. These days we have a much more empathetic minister – perhaps Knox would have approved of her.
Jim Tough, executive director, Saltire Society
In Whatever The Sea: Scottish Poems For Growing Older (Birlinn, £9.99) there are words of reflection, wisdom, love and possibility. Even the more difficult aspects of ageing are dealt with through humour and insight. An elegantly presented collection with the emphasis on the growing part of growing older. Richard Ford’s character Frank Bascombe is a classic creation of our times, and Let Me Be Frank With You (Bloomsbury, £8.99) may be the most overtly humorous of the Bascombe series while touching on the big issues of the day with intelligence and insight. Beautifully crafted and entirely accessible literature.
Willie Rennie, MSP and Scottish Liberal Democrats leader
I like to be active as my family knows. Running, biking, hills, in fact anything that gets the heart pumping. Yet what inspires me are the great athletic and human feats that astound me. Mark Beaumont has published three compelling reads detailing his world record-breaking adventures on two wheels. Mark is physically fit but it is the mental fitness that is astonishing as he encounters illness, security risks, extreme conditions as well as the sheer enormity of his missions. The Man Who Cycled The World (Corgi, £7.99), The Man Who Cycled The Americas (Corgi, £9.99) and Africa Solo (Bantam Press, £14.99) are no sacrifice to read. Many books have been published about sprinter Eric Liddell but this latest by Duncan Hamilton, For The Glory (Doubleday, £20), puts in context his life in athletics and in the church as it explores that principled stance against running on a Sunday even if it was the Olympics through to his missionary work in China.
Shelley Jofre, BBC journalist and broadcaster
All At Sea by Decca Aitkenhead (Fourth Estate, £16.99) would be a gripping tale if it was fiction. The fact that every word is true makes it all the more remarkable and almost unbearably poignant. As an admirer of Guardian journalist Aitkenhead’s interviewing, I remember opening her paper one Saturday in 2014 and reading with shock that her partner had drowned trying to rescue their son from the sea on holiday in Jamaica. It’s the sort of story as a journalist you might cover; you simply never imagine that one day you’ll be the subject. This is her account, two years on, of her own journey of disbelief and recovery. I devoured it in two days and sometimes felt I could barely breathe as I read, so raw is her grief. There’s an unconventional love story at its core and she leaves no corner of her life untouched in this beautiful memoir.
Dan Rhodes, novelist
I’ve gone memoir mad this year. Tama Janowitz’s demented confessional Scream (Dey St, £15) is a bridge-burning rampage through her magnificently odd life. This is an eye-popping read, seemingly written with her fists. At the end she’s waiting to find out whether she’s going to be sent to jail. I hope she is – she’s hilarious, and her take on life on the inside would be a riot.
Old-timers like me, who grew up devoted to the music weeklies, will enjoy Sylvia Patterson’s I’m Not With The Band (Sphere, £18.99), a passionate elegy for the days when they were a true cultural force, uncowed by the squares. It’s funny and gossipy too, which never hurts. And Cure fans will be relieved that founder member Lol Tolhurst has pulled himself together. His splendid book Cured (Quercus, £20) reads as a love letter to Robert Smith. Phew.
Richard Holloway, writer and broadcaster
It’s been a mainly non-fiction year for me, with lots of memoirs read and a few new poets discovered. The most purely enjoyable memoir was David Hare’s, The Blue Touch Paper (Faber & Faber, £20). It confirmed my belief that the best writers about the human condition are those who have never felt entirely at home anywhere, so they are able to watch the carnival with an outsider’s eye. David Hare ends this volume in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power and the caravan moved on. I can’t wait to get his take on what happened next.
The most moving book I’ve read this year is Philippe Sands’s East West Street: On the Origins Of Genocide And Crimes Against Humanity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20). The book is more than a brilliant lawyer’s description of two legal concepts that have been fundamental to the moral history of humanity since the Second World War. It is also a story of self-discovery that plunges us into one of the darkest episodes in human history, the Holocaust. Am I wrong to imagine I can hear some of those long-buried skeletons rattling in their graves again?
The most purely nourishing book I’ve read this year is Smith: A Reader’s Guide To The Poetry Of Michael Donaghy (Picador, £9.99) by Don Paterson. It takes me back to the years when I used to read expositions of passages from the Bible to find meaning in them for my own life. That’s what Don Paterson does here with the poetry of Michael Donaghy. His close and affectionate reading of his late friend’s work is spiritually nourishing as well as informative. Why doesn’t an enterprising publisher get him to do a whole series like this on other poets? It would be a great contribution to the health of the nation.
Neal Ascherson, writer and journalist
The Invention Of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky (Atlantic Books, £9.99) is one of the most shocking books I have ever read. An insider telling the story of Russian power politics from Gorbachev to Putin through the history of the media: greed, ruthless lust for power, the threat of lawless violence and – above all – a rooted culture of lying.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, £8.99) disembowels rosy illusions about Highland life in Victorian Scotland. A fiction written like a documentary faction, its narrator is a boy in a wretchedly oppressed Wester Ross township who commits a triple murder, at once an understandable vengeance and a hideous atrocity by a psychopath. Dark, but impossible to put aside until finished.
William Dalrymple, writer
We’ve been spoiled for choice for things to get depressed about in 2016, but one book that provided real solace and pleasure was the exquisitely beautiful Divine Pleasures: Paintings From India’s Rajput Courts, by Navina Haidar and Terence McInerney (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $50). Rajput miniature ateliers took the still and stately portrait style of Mughals and in different ways supercharged it with narrative vigour, energy, sensuality and colour. Painted at a time of extreme instability and violence in India, the Rajput painting of the 18th century nevertheless reflects not a world at war, but one seemingly lost in bucolic pleasure-seeking: a world where women are eternally playing on swings in pleasure gardens, lovers meet in dark forest groves and princesses gaze over palace balconies, pining for lost lovers, as monsoon clouds mass over the Himalayas. It is, in the words of Ananda Coomaraswamy, “a magical world where all men are heroic, and women are all beautiful and passionate and shy, and beasts both wild and tame are the friends of man. The arms of lovers are about each other’s necks, eye meets eye”. In the absence of Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen, this is just the thing to disappear into when the Age of Trump and Putin gets too much to bear.
Ron Butlin, novelist
As I find myself writing for children for the first time, I’ve been catching up on what’s been happening since Treasure Island. Patrick Ness is someone whose work really stands out – his More Than This (Walker Books, £7.99) is pure fantasy, and then some. Brilliant. While awaiting Ken MacLeod’s latest SF novel – and who isn’t! – I’ve turned back the clock to re-read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (HarperVoyager, £7.99). Science fiction? This is on a level with the best fiction ever. Profound, imaginative, deeply moving – I’m already looking forward to re-reading it yet again.
David Cameron’s The Bright Tethers (Run Press, £10) confirms him as one of the most insightful and thought-provoking poets around. The poet Iain Bamforth’s recent collection of essays, A Doctor’s Dictionary (Carcanet, £16.99) is a total delight. Packed full of facts and flights of fancy, it keeps the reader utterly engrossed.
Andrew Greig, poet and novelist
1606: William Shakespeare And The Year of Lear by James Shapiro (Faber & Faber, £20). This follows on from his brilliant 1599: A Year In The life Of William Shakespeare and takes place in a period of unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval, terrorism, state surveillance, paranoia, foreign wars, religious wars, and a not at all united kingdom – and some very good plays. Fascinating and revelatory, it connects the plays to the times they took shape in, and so makes them human again.
Two remarkable books of poetry, utterly different in tone and technique: Jackself (Picador, £9.99) by Jacob Polley is playful, mythic, quietly terrifying, and fearlessly brave. And I was moved and fascinated by the tone, insights and close-up strangeness of what it would be inadequate to call "nature poetry": The Remedies by Katharine Towers (Picador, £9.99). The most memorable novel I read this year has to be My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Vintage, £8.99). Is it a novel? I don't know, but it is compelling and immersive, and though indebted to Proust seems to exist in a category of its own.
Adrian Turpin, artistic director, Wigtown Book Festival
Good grief: two words that sum up my 2016 picks. I defy anyone to read, Michel Faber's defiant, angry, joyful and unforgettable poems on his wife's death, Undying: A Love Story (Canongate, £8.99) without shedding a tear. Per Petterson is my newest literary crush. His first novel, Echoland, was recently translated into English, 27 years after publication in Norway. It’s fine, but not a patch on To Siberia (Vintage, £8.99), a love letter from a grief-racked sister to her charismatic brother that’s as bracing and warming as a shot of schnapps and, likewise, best downed beside a log fire with a howling wind outside. In Max Porter's Ted Hughes-inspired novella Grief Is A Thing With Feathers (Faber & Faber, £7.99), an anarchic crow helps a father and his young sons face the loss of their wife/mother. Charmingly odd, it is also technically audacious and fearless in showing emotion. Happy Christmas (sort of).
Alan Spence, novelist
The finest piece of fiction I read this year was The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (Faber & Faber, £7.99). At the age of 86 she’s produced what is quite simply a masterpiece. It’s beautifully written – the prose is a joy, resonant and pitch-perfect. At times harrowing, often lyrical, always true, it tells the story of an archetypal "mysterious stranger", a healer, turning up in a small Irish community and, inevitably, causing destruction. This charismatic monster is based on Radovan Karadzic, the so-called Beast of Bosnia, and the story focuses on the fallout for one of his victims, a woman, who yet manages to move towards acceptance and a kind of redemption. A powerful and profound piece of work.
Chris Dolan, novelist and playwright
I mightn’t repeat my trick last year of predicting a Scottish Booker prize shortlistee (His Bloody Project), but 2016 has been as good a year. All three of my choices came to me thanks to the wonderful Ullapool Book Festival. Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson’s Shifting Sands (Profile Books, £9.99) invites key writers and thinkers to chart the horrors of the Middle East from the Balfour Declaration to the current Syrian catastrophe.
In a – seemingly – lighter vein, two of our great writers produced novels this year that are light and crispy on the outside, dark and bittersweet inside. James Robertson’s To Be Continued ... (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) is a mythic romp of a Scottish road movie, full of tricks and trinkets, but written with warmth and feeling. Kevin MacNeil in The Brilliant Forever (Polygon, £9.99) takes apart a literary festival (nothing like Ullapool – honest) in more ways than one and, like Robertson, has a fiddle around under the Scottish bonnets. As an added bonus, both books feature talking animals.
Zoe Strachan, novelist
This year I fulfilled a longstanding ambition and went to City Lights bookshop in San Francisco. Sure enough, on every single shelf there were books I wanted to read. With Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savi?evi? (Portobello, £9.99), the epigraph alone convinced me: graffiti from the Main Jetty in Split, declaring “Stranger, the law does not protect you here”. As her name suggests, Dada, the young Croatian woman who narrates the novel, has an eye for absurdity and black humour, and emerges as a complicated and true heroine of our times. Like many other readers this year I’ve also been seduced by the short stories of Lucia Berlin, a writer criminally underrated in her lifetime. The 43 pieces in A Manual For Cleaning Women (Picador, £8.99) are by turns bleak, sharply funny and beautiful. Prepare to be devastated.
Pat Kane, musician and writer:
Homo Deus from Yuval Noah Harari (Harvill Secker, £25), his follow-up to Sapiens, was bravura futurology – to read it is to be prepared for a world of artificial "intelligences", crunching our data and beaming back useful trends and suggestions. But Harari holds out hope that they won't be conscious – yet. Gordon Guthrie's Winning The Second Independence Referendum (kindle edition, £1.99) is hugely more subtle than its (nevertheless admirable) title. Indeed, he sketches out a vision of how an open, friendly, European Scotland can build its future out of nurturing and welcoming those creative human talents which automation can't touch. A great book to argue with (as is Guthrie's War Is Coming). Sue Palmer's Upstart (Floris, £9.99) is a manifesto for aged three-seven play-based kindergarten in Scotland, a policy that will lay down the seedbed for human creativity. Her tenacity and authority are both impressive. Silas Harrebye and H Gordon Skilling’s Creative Activism In The 21st Century: The Mirror Effect (Palgrave, £68) shows those kids how to keep playing into their adulthood.