Jackie Kay, makar

In these strange political times, non-stop news and non-stop Twitter, with dwindling attention spans, reading books feels ever more an act of resistance, and it’s been heartening to see so many people on trains, tubes and park benches return to books. Not that many had ever been away, but still something different feels in the air. A kind of collective, we’re not having this! And it’s been an extraordinary year for readers. To live alongside Ali Smith living alongside these times is something. Winter (Hamish Hamilton) is an astonishing read; it makes you return to Autumn and then re- read Winter and long for Spring. A writer that looks her time straight in the eye and throws something back at it. Hope. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury) is a brave and bold and suspense-filled novel, that holds up a mirror to our times, telling the story of a family’s clash with faith returns us to Antigone at the same time pulling off a feat of balancing.

God is in the details. Who said that? Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break (Cape) accumulates detail in a heartbreakingly brilliant way, peering into the depths of a long-term marriage on a winter break, and reveals the things that time holds onto. It’s an immersive and astonishing book. Sinead Morrisey’s On Balance (Carcanet) is a book of poetry that embraces the art of fiction, and that makes you think about the world being off kilter, of suspension, of what might be required to have balance. Amazing. And the deserving winner of the Forward Prize this year.

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Danez Smith Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press) is a poetic riposte to our times, speaking in the many voices of African American boys and young men shot by the police; every day is a funeral and a miracle in this unique, soul destroying and yet inspirational collection. A litany with blood all over, angry and defiant, the heart of this book is a searing sequence of poems that brings the dead back and at the same time gives them back their dignity.

Allan Hunter, co-director, Glasgow Film Festival

One of the great pleasures of the past year was the return of Bernard MacLaverty with his beguiling novel Midwinter Break (Cape). A retired couple from Scotland fly to Amsterdam for a long weekend that turns into a reckoning. Their relationship is a complex mixture of fondness and exasperation and the book’s shrewd observations and understanding combine to salute the resilience of a love that survives life’s many joys and sorrows. There is a beautiful precision and compassion in MacLaverty’s writing that makes the book feel like the gentle whisper of a confidence imparted by a friend. The equally masterful Nigel Slater brings similar qualities to The Christmas Chronicles (Fourth Estate, £26), an elegant celebration of winter feasting with stories, memories and recipes designed to sustain you from early November to the end of January. A warm, comforting hug of a book.

Shelley Jofre, BBC presenter

I read Robert Webb’s painful yet funny memoir How Not to Be a Man (Canongate) in the summer, before the sexual harassment dam broke and the question of gender conditioning began to dominate the headlines. This unflinching dissection of his masculinity could not have been more prescient, exploring how not to be like his bullying, sexually-incontinent father (a man the teenage Webb was told by a stranger was unrivalled “for drinking, f****** and fighting”). Webb’s pretty hard on himself about his own bad behaviour towards women – though cheating on his girlfriend with two women in one night seems pretty tame in light of Weinstein et al. His trademark self-deprecating humour stops the book descending into misery memoir – and hopefully makes it more likely young men currently grappling with similar issues will read and find it helpful. For all the book challenges the patriarchy, though, it’s the sad and personal story of how one young man coped with the death of his mother, way too soon, that leaves a lasting impression.

Alexander McCall Smith, novelist

With his well-received Leaving Berlin, Joseph Kanon cemented his reputation as the successor of Graham Greene. This year, with Defectors, (Simon and Shuster), the qualities that have led to that accolade have been displayed once again. Kanon’s territory is Eastern Europe, or its hinterland, during the period around the Second World War. With Defectors we are in Moscow in the early 1960s, when Cold War tension between East and West was acute, and when its associated Great Game provided the stage for intense dramas of subterfuge and betrayal. We are in the company of turncoats – the world of Philby and Burgess, or, as here, their American equivalents. They are stranded in Russia. They drink; they gossip; they reflect. Kanon’s prose is sparse and chiselled in its effect; he relies on dialogue, for which he has a fine ear. This is an utterly engaging novel – in my view, the most exciting read of the year.

Iain Gray, MSP

As usual, my frugality in waiting for the paperback means my book of this year was many people’s book of 2016. Reading John Bew’s seminal biography of Atlee, Citizen Clem (riverrun) in 2017 was timeous though. The general election saw comparisons between Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto and Atlee’s postwar government’s actual programme. The scale of change that one-term government achieved shines through Bew’s narrative, so the comparison may be a little much. Yet Citizen Clem also shows how the most austere economic circumstances need not stop a government determined and bold enough to make fundamental change. Bew is very good too on how Atlee was seen to lack the expected attributes of a Prime Minister, yet constantly confounded his critics, internal and external, to deliver real and lasting progress. That’s world class politics – see Lincoln and his Team of Rivals.

David Hayman, actor

I'm a tree hugger, I love trees, they are not only beautiful but vital to our survival on earth. I talk to trees as living beings. Now to read that

they live in family groups, communicate with each other, look after the sick and dying and send warning signals of danger made my heart leap. They are living beings. Read Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees (WIlliam Collins) then go to the park or the country and make new friends. Roy Jacobsen's The Unseen (MacLehose Press): This beautifully atmospheric novel, set on a small Island off Norway, where weather and the power of the sea shape lives, is a compelling story of one family, generations of which have lived on the island that bears the family name. “Islanders are never afraid otherwise they wouldn't be able to live here”, thinks Ingrid, but perhaps they should be. Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty (Cape): What does love mean after a lifetime of marriage to another? What questions do we still ask of ourselves, of each other? What dreams and desires do we still cherish that are yet to be fulfilled, of personal growth, of freedom, against the staid, the solid, the familiar, the known. A gem of a novel.

David Steel, Lord Steel of Aikwood

Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (Heinemann) neatly turned the Dreyfus affair (which I had never fully understood) into an easy-to-read and gripping novel. Appropriately, I read it during the summer in France. Heavier reading but nonetheless fascinating was The Collected Letters of James Hogg, edited by Gillian Hughes (Edinburgh University Press). His up-and-down relationship with Sir Walter Scott comes across clearly. Most surprising and enthralling is the first English biography of the Hungarian Prime Minister “Orban – Europe’s New Strongman” by Paul Lendvai (Hurst) which charts the evolution of the young Liberal – whom I first met in the dying days of Hungary’s communist rule – into the manipulative autocrat and tormentor of the rest of Europe we know today.

William Dalrymple, writer

Maya Jasanoff's Dawn Watch (William Collins), a profound meditation on globalisation and colonialism, takes us from Russian-occupied Poland, around South East Asia and up the Congo in Conrad's footsteps. Jasanoff writes beautifully and the book is well worth reading alone for her evocative and beautifully crafted descriptions of 19th century Singapore, Marseilles and London, as well as her mastery of seadog slang: where else can you enter a world of dogwatches, pollywogs and shellbacks? But it is far more than that, as she shows how Conrad was the first writer to grapple with the great issues of our time: terrorism, immigration, the ramifications of rapid technological change and globalisation, and “the way power operates across continents and races.” “Conrad’s world,” she writes, “shimmers beneath the surface of our own.”

Two wonderful travels books on South Asia also gave me great pleasure. Both are by talented journalists who have spent long stints in the region, but they are very different books. Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak (Eland Publishing)is a discursive, funny, moving portrait of Pakistan, one of the most opaque and difficult and complex of countries, but here rendered in bright chiaroscuro and with obvious affection. It is a brilliant debut by a major new talent. Victor Mallet’s book on the horrifying pollution-apocalypse of the Ganges, here turned into a metaphor for modern India – River of Life, River of Death (OUP)– is also a wonderful achievement, but more political and analytical and serious in tone, as one would expect with a star correspondent of the Financial Times. It is also a great deal more depressing: I write this in the middle of the current Delhi smog airpocalypse, and Mallet’s warning about the way modern India is allowing industry to poison its people could not be more timely or more prescient.

Jenny Niven, head of literature, Creative Scotland

Between Trump and everything else I wouldn’t have got through 2017 without Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (Canongate) which I have in recent months sometimes found myself clutching like a flotation device. The Mother of All Questions (Granta) is a welcome follow up to that and convinces that feminism is still as fierce and relevant as ever, despite, well, the world.

Bloody Scotland (Historic Environment Scotland) was a brilliant publication capturing the unstoppable Scottish crime fiction scene in all its murderous glory via 12 short stories from writers including Val McDermid, Louise Welsh and Denise Mina, and an astute publishing move from the festival.

I read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Head of Zeus) this year while in Korea which brought my surroundings and contemporary politics vividly to life via a four-generational family saga. A pilgrimage to Muriel Spark’s home in Tuscany, ahead of the forthcoming centenary celebrations of 2018, led me to Loitering with Intent for the first time too, a novel which on its own in my view makes the justification for a whole year of Muriel Spark 100.

Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton 16.99) is a luminous book and is my favourite type of writing, which is to say simultaneously a beautifully constructed fictional exploration and wisely observed social critique.

Professor Sir Tom Devine

I have long had an addiction to the writings of John Le Carre and Georges Simenon, the latter because of his wonderful Maigret series of crime novels. Sadly there will be no more from Simenon's pen. But at the age of 85 Le Carre has published another tour de force in the spy genre of which he is the undisputed world master. In A Legacy of Spies (Viking) he revisits the past and the main personalities of his previous books. Once again the dark and gritty world of international espionage is superbly crafted by an author who is also a most gifted wordsmith.

?The most fascinating historical work of the year for me was Christopher de Hamel's Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane). What at first glance seems a book only for erudite scholars turns out to be a marvellous and riveting read with sumptuous illustrations as de Hamel leads us through an eloquent discussion of twelve illuminated medieval manuscripts and in the process tells a remarkable story. In a highly competitive field, the book won the Wolfson History Prize for 2017.

Sally Magnusson, broadcaster and writer

Lots of the stand-out books for me this year have been non-fiction. My head is still full of the lush lyricism of Adam Nicholson’s The Seabird’s Cry (William Collins), a beautiful, awe-inspiring, ultimately alarming study of the ocean voyagers like puffins and gannets that we may soon lose altogether if we go on polluting the seas and warming the climate. The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velasquez by Laura Cumming (Vintage) is both a thrilling 19th century detective story and a lovely, loving insight into the astonishing art of the mysterious 17th century Spaniard himself: the humanity of it, the enchantment of it. I adored this book. The most unexpected joy was Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (Penguin): bought to cure ignorance (what are tides?), it turned out to be a wondrous store of anecdote, gentle science and endearing eccentricity.

Todd McEwen, writer and editor

Gila Lustiger’s We Are Not Afraid (Notting Hill Editions), written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, is a ferocious evaluation of both ISIS and our governments. A must for all the complacent on your Christmas list. Buy in quantity.

David Thomson in Warner Bros (Yale University Press) offers a compelling précis of the Hollywood studio that "was" America from the 1920s through the 70s: “America has become a tedious doom-ridden country now, but in those precious years it hated to be boring. It would kiss you if it hadn’t just washed its hair.”

Novel of the year simply has to be Lincoln in the Bardo, by the almost-can’t-stand-it incredible George Saunders (Bloomsbury), an urgent cacophony of American confusion and rage. Regret and sorrow seep from it as rust dripping from the iron letters on a marble tomb. You’ll feel like a bug stuck on a pin, your legs wriggling. And you won’t want it to stop.

Sheena McDonald, broadcaster and writer

Remember the world before anti-retroviral drugs, when an AIDS diagnosis guaranteed swift and painful death, and sufferers were shamed and stigmatised? American journalist David France moved after graduating in 1981 to New York, so witnessed what he chronicles in How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS (Picador), his book documents without sentiment how ordinary citizens, mostly untrained young men, some already shockingly ill, mustered the energy and cussedness to gain the respect of the initially-baffled medical establishment, and ultimately make a historic difference: this is a mighty and meticulous page-turner. A very different gripping read is Chief Engineer by Erica Wagner (Bloomsbury) which details the life and pioneering achievements of Washington Augustus Roebling, the man who built New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. And Dominic Dromgoole in Hamlet Globe to Globe (Canongate) reminds us, with wit and wisdom, that Shakespeare also changed our world for the better.

Hayden Murphy, arts journalist and poet

Theatre Director Peter Brook: Tip of the Tongue (Nick Hearn) is my Book of the Year. Lucid and lyrical it is a masterly exposition on how to communicate both on and off stage. Though enthralled by the pastoral tone of Michael Longley: Angel Hill (Cape) the poetry collection that has stayed in the mind throughout the year is Pauline Stainer’s Sleeping Under the Juniper Tree (Bloodaxe): “It was night/the angels glowed like phosphors/but gave out no heat//until that flower in the wilderness/prophecy/sprang from his throat”.

The Prophet Elijah does not appear in Colm Toibin: House of Names (Viking). This is a book immersed in other mythologies, that of the Greeks, and their chilling power to be relevant to our own dysfunctional times.

A more elegant memoir of disturbed family life lies within the beautiful and poignant Richard Ford: Between Them (Bloomsbury).

Michel Faber, novelist

A while back I appeared at an extraordinary literary festival curated by the oncologist Sam Guglani. Then I was sent his debut novel and was afraid to open it in case this deeply intelligent man proved to be no good at writing fiction. I needn’t have worried. Guglani’s Histories (Quercus) is a tough, tender and complexly humane portrait of an NHS hospital. Guglani is a natural writer and the book is proper art as well as an insider’s insight into the wondrous institution Westminster is slowly killing. “All the while printers breaking, then nurses, then doctors.” I called it a novel; some people say it’s a collection of short stories. Characters recur and there’s a narrative thread. Either way, you will be moved. Also published this year was Mark Cousins’ lavishly thought-provoking study The Story Of Looking (Canongate) which will keep me busy until well into 2018.

Kapka Kassabova, writer

If you’ve wondered what it was like to fight in the USSR’s war in Afghanistan, look no further than Boys in Zinc by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Andrew Bromfield (Penguin Classics). As shattering and addictive as Chernobyl Prayer, this is a polyphonic tour de force that shines a light on war, the plight of heroes, and why post-Soviet Russia is as it is.

The Gurugu Pledge by exiled Equatorial-Guinean writer Juan Tomas Laurel (And Other Stories, translated by Jethro Soutar) is an exuberant tale, hilarious and horrific in equal measure. It follows the adventures of African migrants. Full of moral twists and narrative delights, it’s a fresh take on the ‘migrant crisis’.

On a trip to Cambodia, I discovered a modern classic – The Gate by Francois Bizot (Vintage, transl. Euan Cameron, foreword John le Carre), the story of the only surviving Western prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, a French ethnographer. The beauty of the prose is in contrast with the horror anticipated by this superbly subtle narrative.

Malachy Tallack, writer

One of the standout novels was published back in February, but I didn’t get to it until more recently. Sara Baume’s second book A Line Made By Walking (Heinemann), could easily have been boring if written by someone else. A young woman lives alone in her dead grandmother’s house, obsessed by death, conceptual art, childhood memories and her own depression. There is much here that could go wrong. But Baume doesn’t know how to write boring sentences. Her language is lively and acute, with a splendid sense of rhythm. The narrator, though she wouldn’t believe it herself, is remarkably good company: insightful and amusing. Baume is truly a superb writer.

Chris Dolan, novelist and playwright

Two old masters and one newer voice still developing in exciting ways. The first novel from Bernard MacLaverty in 16 years is absolutely worth the wait. Midwinter Break (Cape) is a delicate, compassionate masterpiece. I can’t wait to read it again on Christmas Eve, as a special treat.

In non-fiction, Joseph Farrell's Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa (MacLehose) is utterly engrossing. It’s a rare combination – the deep knowledge of an academic, and the verve and gusto of a fine writer.

His Bloody Project deserved all the prizes and praise it got. The Accident On The A35 (Contraband) is genuinely even better. Macrae Burnet returns to the France of his first novel for this vibrant contemplation on how our lives are simultaneously mundane and exceptional, how all of us are unsolved. It works perfectly as a page-turning crime fiction, but it’s also moody and Gallic and deadly serious. What a time for Scottish books.

Iain Macwhirter, columnist and writer

Essential reading on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is the new edition of Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy (Bodley Head). At over 900 pages, you get an upper-body workout just holding it, but it is so well written and researched that the length isn't a problem. He's no Marxist, but manages to give a brilliantly informed account of the defining political event of the 20th century. Everyone needs to read JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (William Collins) to understand Trump, rust belt politics and the opioid crisis. It's a useful companion to Darren (Loki) McGarvey's Poverty Safari (Luath) which deals with much the same issues from a Scottish perspective. Fiction I most enjoyed was Francis Spufford's prize-winning Golden Hill (Faber & Faber) – a picaresque evocation of a Henry Fielding novel but with a very modern diversity twist. Politically correct bawdiness – what's not to like?

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Doubleday) is a big, bold and sweeping novel, taking us on a journey through the life of Cyril Avery, from his birth to an unwed Irish mother and adoption by an eccentric Dublin couple (“you’re not a real Avery”, they frequently remind him), through his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality, navigate his loneliness and find a sense of identity and belonging. As much the story of modern Ireland as it is the life of one man, it opens in the 1940s with Avery’s unmarried mother cast out of her church and community and ends just as Ireland votes to legalise gay marriage – a country making peace with its past and allowing Avery to finally feel at home. It is a beautifully written epic and will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

Christopher Brookmyre, novelist

Denise Mina’s The Long Drop (Harvill Secker) was long in its gestation but thoroughly worth the wait. Her speculative account of mass murderer Peter Manuel’s inexplicable drinking odyssey in the company of a man whose family he killed was so visceral you could smell the fag smoke, an amazing snapshot of a Glasgow long consigned to history.

Mark Billingham’s Love Like Blood (Little, Brown) allied his gift for compelling narrative and complex investigative detail with a burning, passionate anger over his subject, with Tom Thorne investigating a series of honour killings. A book that will leave you shaking with rage long after the thrill of the chase has faded.

Mick Herron’s Spook Street (John Murray), the fourth in his Jackson Lamb series was disturbingly prescient in dealing with a suicide bombing in London, and even more worrying in its depiction of the covert manoeuvrings and hidden agendas played out by the intelligence services before and after such an atrocity.

Andrew O’Neill’s A History of Heavy Metal (Headline) was a relentlessly energetic and frequently hilarious account of the development of this maligned but indefatigably enduring music genre, one I find I enjoy reading about far more than listening to.

Candia McWilliam, novelist

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) is a short, observant and scintillating novel about the closest relationships in a life (spouse, parents) and the splinters and shards they may offer; it is without soppiness and full of convincing exasperated attachment and high intelligence brought to bear on what people actually do have to live through in emerging from feeling to feeling expressed.

Molly Keane : A Life by Sally Phipps (Virago) is a – you might have thought impossible – delight and a phenomenon; the literary biography of a novelist, who had at the very least two lives, in literary and in fox-hunting terms, by her writer daughter, who manifests herself quite as observant compassionate original and dauntless as her mother.

A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma (Faber & Faber), short stories from the author of Family Life. Reprieve from the impasto and chutnification school of writing about India; clear, close, short, heartfelt.

The novel that offered me the rare sense that comes as a rule only with re-reading, the sense of coming home – but to a better home – has been The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador). The works of Jessie Kesson started my year (full disclosure, I've written an introduction to Another Time, Another Place); they are reissued by Black and White Publishing. They glitter and they convey what it is to be what she called, in the Doric term of her upbringing, an "ootling". Never more important to look in the face.

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty (Cape) is an exercise of fruitful discipline in chastity of style and rueful depth of matter . It is, with Days Without End, the new book that has come back to me most often with force, grace, sadness, intelligence and redemption. What a joy to have a new book from MacLaverty .

Alan Taylor, writer and journalist

That Was a Shiver (Canongate), James Kelman’s latest collection of stories, is up there with Greyhound for Breakfast, which it goes without saying is high praise. The title story, in which a husband and wife trail round Glasgow’s Barras, is a cracker. “People gie ye looks. Just their eyes,” thinks Robert. “Do they even know they’re doing it? Maybe they don’t.” Underlying the humour is a deep sense of paranoia, all subtly articulated by the master ironist. Joan Didion’s South and West (4th Estate), extracts from notebooks kept in 1970 during a road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, confirmed her status as a reporter par excellence. In New Orleans, in an atmosphere heavy with sex and death, bananas rot and harbour tarantulas, children die of fever and domestic arguments end in killings, or – as Didion recalls of herself – the attempted knifing of a former lover. Finally, John Le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies (Viking) brought George Smiley back in from the cold – not before time!

Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald

At Traquair’s Beyond Borders Festival Angus Roxburgh recalled Putin being asked about Candidate Trump. He replied using the Russian word yarki, meaning ‘colourful’. However, in translation the term was often rendered, ‘bright’. Trump does not feature in his book, Moscow Calling - Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent (Birlinn), though several of his predecessors do, as do Putin’s predecessors. Given the global situation today an understanding of Putin’s Russia could hardly be more important for western leaders and readers. In over 300 lucid pages Roxburgh shares insights, experiences, thoughts and feelings from 45 years of covering Russian affairs, from gulag to glasnost. There are meetings with Gorbachev and Putin, but also encounters with ‘ordinary’ people. Journeys, including to Crimea, Siberia and Chechnya, feature with vivid accounts of murderous wars and magnificent landscapes. In an arresting, summing-up phrase Roxburgh observes: ‘even when the spirit soared, the heart kept sinking.’ The book includes helpful maps and a section of coloured photographs.

Regi Claire, novelist

The Girls (Vintage) by Emma Cline combines the raw energy and frustrations of adolescence with felicitously idiosyncratic prose. Set in 1969, two decades before Cline was born, the novel reimagines the Manson cult and murders. Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege (Tuskar Rock) is a stunning collection of stories. Rooted in modern life, they subvert and reinvent it as something unfamiliar, yet heartbreakingly real.

Madame Bildungsroman’s Optimistic Worldview (Valley Press) by Nora Chassler offers a brilliant perspective on existence through fragments and aperçus: ambiguous, acerbic, moving and searingly intelligent. Focusing on sex trafficking, Lesley Glaister’s The Squeeze (Salt) is a darkly compelling psychological thriller with her trademark lightness of touch. I’ve just ordered Jason Donald’s Dalila (Cape 2017, £16.99), whose sharply observed, compassionate first novel Choke Chain (Cape 2009, £12.99) blew my mind.

Willy Maley, academic and writer

In Janice Galloway’s short story ‘Need for Restraint’, from her cutting-edge collection, Blood, two types of violence – one brutal, one subtle – combine to stifle and silence a witness-turned-victim, pulled away from a street fight by her overly concerned boyfriend. Galloway’s story came back to me while reading this year’s standout novel, Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter (Virago). Seiffert’s exquisitely restrained account of the impact that the arrival of the SS has on a small Ukrainian community in the winter of 1941-2 filters the horrors of an ominous occupation through the eyes and ears of bewildered children and adults. Her icy prose places great strain on the reader. We feel at once witnesses to violence, and yet held back, as Galloway’s watching woman was. The best books are the ones you have to put down now and then, “for your own good”, and Seiffert’s profoundly unsettling novel comes into that category.

Alan Bissett, writer and comedian

Book of the Year is Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage), an exhilarating and accessible tour-de-force which takes us through not only the history of humankind but its potentially limitless future / imminent demise. It feels like a deep mental cleanse, one that completely changes the way you look at the world and everyone sitting beside you on the train. Scottish novel of the year for me is This Memorial Device by David Keenan (Faber & Faber), about a late-Seventies alt-rock band from, of all places, Airdrie. Like all good debut novels, the book fizzes with inventiveness and energy, as though William Burroughs had written Iain Banks's Espedair Street. Shout out too to the new venture from Duncan McLean, Speak for Yourself, a DIY bringing-together of new Orcadian voices, similar in spirit but radically different in content to his Clocktower Press pamphlets that were so central to the Scottish literary explosion in the 1990s.

James Robertson, novelist

The Death of the Fronsac (Head of Zeus) is Neal Ascherson’s first novel. Set during the Second World War and afterwards, it reflects his lifetime fascination with both Scotland and Poland, and explores the nature and meaning of ‘nation’ and ‘home’.

Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (Faber & Faber) is a beautifully written novel depicting appalling cruelties in the American West in the mid-19th century. With its understated depiction of gender fluidity set against a backdrop of violence, greed and racial confrontation, it speaks as much of our own times as of the age in which it is set, as the best historical fiction should.

A new voice to me is that of the radical conservative Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who works with horses not tractors and writes with a pencil not a word-processor. Now in his eighties, he is an eloquent defender of the local, and fierce critic of corporations, agribusiness, war, waste and environmental destruction. The World-Ending Fire (Allen Lane) is a selection of his essays over some forty years.

Trevor Royle, writer, historian and journalist

We all think we know Edward Lear with his Owl and his Pussycat, his Jumblies and the surrealistic old man with birds in his voluminous beard. “Some think him ill-tempered and queer,” he wrote of himself, “but a few think him pleasant enough.” As is so often the case there was something else lurking beneath the carapace and Jenny Uglow’s biography Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber) reveals a man in torment who was “three parts crazy” and not at all straightforward. A repressed homosexual whose sexuality caused him great torment he spent much of his life travelling yet still found the time to create some wonderful nature drawings as well as the “splendidophoropherostiphongious” (his word) Book of Nonsense in 1861. This brave biography is full of touching insights and shows why he remains such an enticing character or, as Uglow puts it, “an eerie, queery, sometimes weary, sometimes cheery Edward Lear”.

Lesley McDowell, critic and writer

The literary year started sadly when the great Anglo-Scottish writer, Emma Tennant, died. The lack of notice she was given, both after her death and in her later career, made me hunt out all of her works. Some were old favourites, like Felony; others were new to me, like her postmodern revisiting of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her ‘silencing’ chimes with this year’s most notable non-fiction, Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions (Granta), and Mary Beard’s Women and Power (Profile). Both books are essays on the silencing of women, from Penelope and Cassandra to today’s sexual harassment survivors, and couldn’t be more prescient, given the wave of recent scandals. They are focused, economical, powerful volumes that hit the target and never waver. One of my favourite novels of the year, Jane Harris’s exuberant yet often desperate Sugar Money (Faber) also told of the silenced, in this case by slavery. Only in the joy and power of language did they experience freedom.

Andrew Greig, poet and novelist

I enjoyed Matt Haig's imaginative novel How To Stop Time (Canongate) so much that I immediately read his The Humans (a sort of dry-run for the latest) and How To Stay Alive (a non-fiction account of severe depression and recovery, which illuminates where this excellent writer is coming from.

Billionaires' Banquet by Ron Butlin (Salt) brought back late 70s/early 80s Edinburgh in all its witty dourness, sly exuberance, hidden charms and dodgy doings, then jumps to a version of Now. It's comic, political, scathing and page-turning.

Most moving novel of the year for me was Wait for me, Jack, by Addison Jones (formerly Cynthia Rogerson, Sandstone Press), a vivid account of a lifetime's marriage, narrated largely in reverse. It's about love and its slippages, mis-matches, compromises, making up and making do. It convinced me as few novels do that this is how we live.

Mark Douglas-Home, novelist

The most suspenseful narrative I have read this year described a fledgling razorbill's hazardous attempt to leave its island nest watched by a dark-feathered, sharp-beaked predator: “some kind of beadle at a funeral... the embodiment of fate”. It's one of a number of shocks and joys in The Seabird's Cry by Adam Nicolson (William Collins), which is wonderfully written, acutely observed, as heart-breaking as it is informative. Another impressive book about a threat of extinction is The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton). Its spell-poems are a cry for preserving the traditional language of nature which is endangered as our vocabulary becomes ever more urban. It is large format and gorgeously illustrated. The Dry by Jane Harper (Abacus), winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award 2017, has pace, small-town tension, strong characters and an atmosphere redolent of the parched Australian outback where it's set – a gripping thriller.

Stewart Conn, poet

In James Robertson's To be Continued (Penguin Books) Douglas Findhorn Elder, a fraught Edinburgh journalist taking redundancy, embarks on a zany excursion into a post-Referendum West Highland world of kaleidoscopic intricacy, eccentricity – and whisky. With him is his sapient alter-ego Mungo Forth Mungo, a talking Toad. The surrealist impasses and split personalities they encounter are juggled with a startling inventiveness and endearing warmth which make for glorious entertainment. Poetry collections I've found memorable for their invigorating content, crafted cadences and elegiac overtones are Douglas Dunn's long-awaited The Noise of a Fly (Faber & Faber), as sage, lyrically adroit and close to the heart as ever; All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe Books) in which Miriam Nash evokes real and dream worlds, with an enriching undertow of balladry; and Alyson Hallett's hilariously touching sequence Toots (Mariscat Press). Each, strikingly individual, demands re-reading.

Michael Russell, MSP

I have no doubt that the best novel that I have read in the past year was Polly Clark’s debut Larchfield (riverrun). Extraordinarily inventive, counterpointing the personal mental collapse of one poet with the awkward awakening of another (in this case WH Auden) and played out against the suffocating and alienating backdrop of small seaside town Scotland it is moving, haunting , searingly memorable and a very significant artistic achievement. Shashi Thardoor’s Inglorious Empire (Hurst), subtitled What the British did to India not only explodes the myth of beneficent colonial Britain but also exposes it as a cruel, exploitative and hypocritical fraud. One cannot but wonder what a similar forensic deconstruction of the UK’s supposedly generous approach to Scotland, undertaken by a similarly distinguished figure (Tharoor is a former Under Secretary General of the UN), would reveal.

Nick Major, critic

I don’t reread many books, because most don’t reward the effort. But, this year, I eagerly revisited Marcel Theroux’s novel The Secret Books (Faber & Faber), a rambunctious adventure story about Nicholas Notovitch, a Russian journalist who finds an esoteric gospel telling of Jesus’ lost years. It’s ecstatically funny and deeply moral, without being moralistic. I’m astonished it hasn’t been shortlisted for any of the big literary prizes. Andrew O’Hagan has long been one of our most authoritative and original essayists. The Secret Life (Faber & Faber), three long pieces on selfhood in the digital age, is a must read for anyone wanting to understand who the internet is allowing us to be. O’Hagan investigates three lives: Julian Assange, Satoshi Nakamoto and his own invention let loose in Web World, Ronald Pinn. Finally, something from further back in time: I have fed my growing fascination with the Vietnam War by reading the works of Tim O’Brien. His short story collection The Things They Carried (Flamingo) has haunted me day and night for the last two months.

Bob McDevitt, programmer, Aye Write book festival

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press). I’ve been a fan of Maggie’s novels since her debut, After You’d Gone, but this is something altogether different. It’s an incredibly frank, frightening and occasionally funny memoir about Maggie’s various brushes with death. It’s beautifully written (of course) and made me think both about my own mortality and relative good fortune.

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell (Granta). What seems on the face of it to be a science book about transhumanism, cyborgs and the frightening possibilities of AI is given a much more human dimension by Mark O’Connell and he introduces elements of memoir and provides a healthy dose of scepticism on his travels around the world meeting a cast of very memorable characters.

Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey (Luath). The first book from Scottish rapper and commentator Darren McGarvey is an unusual mix of memoir and polemic which I found very thought-provoking. He’s a complicated character and the book asks some difficult questions (and provides a few unexpected answers).

Jan Rutherford, publisher and publicist, chair of the Scottish Review of Books

I am thoroughly enjoying Alistair Moffat’s latest offering, The Hidden Ways: Scotland’s Forgotten Roads (Canongate). Moffat is well known for his histories exploring the interplay between ordinary people and the land and the history of a nation – personal stories of folk now lost to us but vital as a record of lives once lived. One tiny phrase in the new book sums them up: “I seem to fall through a crack in time”. And that is exactly what he allows his reader to do.

Most of his books tell of Scotland – The Borders, The Reivers, The Highland Line, Hawick, Bannockburn – the list goes on. But he has also written an excellent history of Tuscany that is worth searching out. The Hidden Ways takes us on foot down lost paths across Scotland, ten walkways from Perthshire to the Borders. Following the footsteps of our ancestors – or rather walking alongside them – we discover who worked the surrounding land, who had stepped on this ground in years gone by. Fascinating stuff. It is the beginning of a much bigger project to reopen the old-ways and get us all up and out exploring the land to which we belong.