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A magnificent seven choose their books of the year

Doug Johnstone

Author

This year has seen my obsession with American fiction continue unabated. Here in the UK there seems a big divide between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction, but that artificial barrier is blown out of the water by the best American writing. Right at the top of the tree for me is Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) was one of my favourite books this year. Ostensibly a thriller about a man whose wife goes missing, it's a searing, in-depth character study of the most poisonous of marriages, while also being a gripping page-turner to boot. Flynn has a real gift for wrong-footing her readers, and the whole thing is rendered in such poetic yet authentically down-to-earth voices as to be mesmerising.

That's a word that also applies to Megan Abbott's Dare Me (Picador, £12.99). I've been a fan of Abbott's writing for years and this is her finest yet: a compelling, hypnotic noir thriller set against the backdrop of high-school cheerleading. Abbott really gets under the skins of her teenage girl characters, and the obsession and weirdness of their world is brilliantly evoked.

Like Flynn, Abbott is also a master (mistress?) of the nail-biting finale.

Jackie Kay

Author and poet

Kevin Barry is such a master storyteller - he immediately has you grasping for comparisons and superlatives. As comic and odd as VS Pritchett, yet with the delicacy and nuance of Chekhov, the stories in Dark Lies The Island (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) create a whole community. Some are hilarious: the poet who sets himself up as a hotelier in a kind of Irish Fawlty Towers, where the local craic about how to get from any A to any B has to involve a pub.

Some are tender: a man who is not handsome, who feels he is aiming too high, tries to pluck up the courage to kiss, beautifully. Barry makes you live inside his head, as if it were a place.

Kathleen Jamie also brilliantly creates places: where she goes, the reader goes. Reading Jamie makes you feel elated, worried, understood, all at the same time. Her poetry disturbs, shakes you up. Her eye for detail is precise and exact, her ear for the music in ordinary words uplifting. The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99), her first full collection since The Tree House, is a book to take on a journey, to have at your bed.

Lorraine Kelly

TV presenter

I really enjoyed Oh Dear Sylvia (Michael Joseph, £18.99), the second novel from actress and comedian Dawn French. The central character is in a coma and we only learn about her from the different people who come into her hospital room in intensive care. It is surprisingly dark, and Dawn has a real talent for drawing you into the complicated lives of her characters and bringing them to life. I could see this as a very successful TV drama and I couldn't put it down.

I've read a lot about the genocide in Rwanda, and Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin, £7.51) really moved and touched me. It's about a young Tutsi athlete and student who has to deal with violence and hatred as his country tears itself apart in an orgy of killing. It's a hugely compelling story that vividly illustrates how both Tutsi and Hutu suffered and died while the world stood by and did nothing.

Nick Barley

Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

The most memorable novels are usually those that describe experiences I could never have imagined. Perhaps that's why I found The Hunger Angel (Portobello, £14.99) by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Herta Muller so powerful. It comes out of a series of conversations with Oskar Pastior, a German-speaking poet transported to a Soviet forced-labour camp in 1945. Pastior spent five years there before being released back into the paranoid world of Communist Romania and his recollections provide plenty of raw material for Muller. In the details of this young man's daily existence emerges a portrait of friendship and survival, told with the greatest tenderness. Closer to home was Zadie Smith's London novel NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), which I liked because of Smith's ability to imagine dialogue between people from such diverse backgrounds.

Alex Salmond

First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party

Being a Jambo, 2012 has seen incredible highs and lows. My preference is to remember the on-the-field achievements, and Gary Mackay's Hearts Dream Team (Black and White, £11.99) was great for that. Reading about his all-time Tynecastle line-up brought back memories.

The late Stephen Maxwell was a friend and known for his commitment to independence. We sadly lost Stephen earlier this year and his polemic, Arguing For Independence (Luath, £9.99) was published posthumously. It stands as a fine contribution by a fine man.

I've heard great things about a number of new novels this year, but unfortunately I haven't had time to read many of them. One novel I did finish in record time was Ian McEwan's latest. Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) was another gem from the man who is, for my money, the finest novelist of his generation from these isles.

Louise Welsh

Author

Kerry Hudson's Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (Chatto And Windus, £12.99) is more than the best debut of 2012; it's one of the best books of the year. It should do for Aberdeen what Trainspotting did for Edinburgh. Menage by Alix Kates Shulman (Other Press, £9.34) is a witty and well-observed warning to any suburbanite who wishes there was a little more culture in their lives. And Palladio by Jonathan Dee (Corsair, £7.99) is a beautifully constructed labyrinth which switches viewpoints, locations and decades without ever losing tension and clarity.

Alan Bissett

Author and playwright

Debuts of the year were Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon (William Heinemann, £12.99) and Allan Wilson's story collection Wasted In Love (Cargo, £11.99). Between them they signal a bright, young, emerging wave of Scottish writers. Ewan Morrison, from the generation above them, pulled ahead with his terrific, genre-busting short-story/novel/essay collection Tales From The Mall (Cargo, £9.99) and Irvine Welsh gave us the Welsh book we've all been hoping for with the phenomenal Skagboys (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), which is better even than Trainspotting.

Word up to Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek too for articulating so clearly, in The Year Of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, £7.99), our current world turbulence.

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