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A sparkling selection of books of the year

Laura Marney

author

Hands up: some of the following are friends or colleagues. Despite repeated pleas, none has offered bribes, but this doesn't prevent them being cracking reads. This year I've mostly been keeping it Scottish and/or small press: Elizabeth Reeder's poignant Fremont (Kohl Press, £8.99), Tony Davidson's epic My Gun Was As Tall As Me (Freight, £8.99), Cynthia Rogerson's compelling Stepping Out (Salt, £8.99), The Year Of Open Doors (Cargo, £9.99) (especially Kevin McNeil's contribution). Rodge Glass's obsessive Bring Me The Head Of Ryan Giggs (Tindal St Press, £12.99) was brilliant.

I've also enjoyed more established publishers' output: new voice Jenni Fagan's Tracy-Beaker-on-acid The Panopticon (Heinenmann, £12.99), Alex Gray's thrilling A Pound Of Flesh (Sphere, £6.99), Denise Mina's quality crime Still Midnight (Orion, £7.99), Louise Welsh's spooky The Girl On The Stair (John Murray, £14.99) and Ronald Frame's haunting Havisham (Faber, £16.99). Big publishers are great, but thanks to the small press who consistently deliver ambitious quality novels, we have a vibrant Scottish literary scene.

Robin Robertson

Poet

As I was finishing work on my new collection, which includes four free versions from its original Greek, I was obliged to return to the Dionysiaca (Loeb Classical Library, £15.95 per volume), the fantastically tedious history of the god Dionysus, written by the 5th-century Alexandrian, Nonnus. Composed of 48 books, it is the longest surviving ancient epic, but even its celebrated (and exhausted) translator WHD Rouse found it hard going. "To the student of religion or mythology - Nonnus has here nothing to offer." This is almost true, but there are some extraordinary stories of the young Dionysus that appear nowhere else and offer new angles on this androgynous shape-changer: the most fascinating god in the pantheon.

Now that's all out of the way, I can go and buy Neil Young's memoir, Waging Heavy Peace (Viking, £25).

Clare English

Presenter of the Book Cafe, Radio Scotland

On first sight, AM Homes's new novel May We Be Forgiven (Granta, £16.99) looked threateningly chunky. I had a stack of books to read and this door-step would have to reel me in quickly or end up at the back of my to-do pile. After reading the first page, all misgivings vanished and I was dipping into the action.

We meet a bizarre cast of dysfunctional characters with starring roles for two brothers; Harry is a Nixon-obsessed academic while George is a boorish, bullying, successful TV exec. When George is involved in a dreadful road accident, the repercussions for all around him are enormous. And it gets worse, much worse, after George finds Harry in bed with his wife. Cue Harry's life in freefall as he struggles to cope with the breakdown of his marriage, the incarceration of his brother, and the additional pressure of taking on some orphaned children and a dog.

It's a book for our times, a contemporary American tale about family connections, lack of intimacy, communication and ultimately, forgiveness. What's brilliant is the way Homes elegantly binds it all together, never losing pace. And the dialogue is priceless.

If you're looking for something slim to fit in your pocket, opt for Liverpudlian bard Roger McGough's wise little collection of poems As Far As I Know (Viking, £12.99). It's touching, funny and surreal.

Johann LamonT

Leader of Scottish Labour Party

I have been a big Tour de France fan for many years and it's been a great year for British cycling, with Bradley Wiggins's victory and the success of Chris Hoy and Team GB at the Olympics. I whetted my appetite in the summer with How I Won The Yellow Jumper by Ned Boulting (Yellow Jersey, £8.99), an irreverent and funny take on cycling's biggest race from a man who has seen it up close every year since 2003.

He admits he knew next to nothing about the sport when he took the job, hence the title and an embarrassing first bulletin. But I was fascinated by his behind-the-scenes look at the race, and his access to some of the big personalities who took part over the years. It was highly amusing and telling in equal measure.

On recommendations, I also picked up two older books – The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Penguin, £7.99), which is now a film; and, a decade after everyone else, The Shadow Of The Wind (Phoenix, £7.99), set in post-war Barcelona and written by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. Both are definitely worth going back to.

Ruth Davidson

Leader of Scottish Conservative Party

Having resisted a Kindle for many months, I finally capitulated after using what seemed like half of my luggage allowance to cart eight books on my fortnight's holiday this summer. I'm not sure it's a better reading experience (I still love actual books) but it is definitely lighter – and cheaper. I may be a convert.

As a lover of the historical novel, I think my high point this year has been Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, £20). There are a lot of authors currently writing about the Tudor period, but few who bring the intrigue so vividly to life. Having read both Wolf Hall and now Bodies, I branched out to some of her more modern work, but found that Black Books left me cold. I think I'll stick to Cromwell!

For something completely different, I was recommended The Hunger Games trilogy (Scholastic, £23.97). I have never really engaged with teenage fiction being read as adult books before, and the whole Harry Potter and Twilight phenomena passed me by. However, I found myself really enjoying Suzanne Collins's post-apocalyptic thrillers. For someone from The Running Man generation, they are the perfect airport novels.

Val McDermid

Author

With every year that passes, it seems to me that the best of crime fiction grows in stature and quality. And there's a particular pleasure in watching talented writers develop as they grow more confident. This year, two of my favourite murderati have excelled themselves, producing books that have well-crafted stories, irresistible characters, vivid settings and prose that can sometimes make the hairs on my neck stand up.

Denise Mina's Gods And Beasts (Orion, £12.99), set in Glasgow, may be the best book she's writtenlot. The chilling ending made me want to knock on her door and demand she sit right down to write the next in this gripping sequence.

Michael Robotham's Say You're Sorry (Sphere, £19.99) provides another outing for psychologist Joe O'Loughlin and ex-cop Vincent Ruiz who have to race against time to unpick the fate of two schoolgirls missing for years. I read it in two sittings, which felt like one too many. Two class acts who show why the genre rides high in readers' esteem.

Willie Rennie

Leader of Scottish Liberal Democrat Party

Ultramarathon Man – Confessions Of An All-night Runner by Dean Karnazes (Jeremy P Torelen, £12.99) is about the author's tales of extreme endurance. From the Antarctica marathon to the Sierra Nevada, nothing is too extreme for this runner. Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "That which does not kill you makes you stronger." To test this, Karno would think little of running till he dropped – into a hospital bed.

Shy but unscrupulous German coroner Dr Martin Gansewein enjoys the peace and quiet of his job until one of his clients starts talking to him. Morgue Drawer Four by Jutta Profijt (Amazon Crossing, £8.99) is an unusual detective story where the deceased and his coroner attempt to solve his murder.

Forever Is Over by Calvin Wade (Authorhouse, £16.99) is the life story of terminally ill Richie Billingham from Ormskirk in Lancashire. It stirs the emotions with laughter and sorrow as his life is told from the perspective of different characters. If you were brought up in the 1970s and 1980s as I was, you will relate to this excellent book.

My eight-year-old son is enthralled by David Walliams's Gangsta Granny (HarperCollins, £12.99) in which Ben discovers his cabbage-loving granny is a jewel thief. I enjoyed it a bit too!

TC Smout

Historian

Here are two very different books, both characterised by the most formidable learning. The first is the Oxford Handbook Of Modern Scottish History, edited by Tom Devine and Jenny Wormald (Oxford University Press, £95). If you want to know about the latest thinking in Scottish history since 1500, this is where to start. Particularly enjoyable is Robert Dodgshon's lucid essay on the Clearances and the countryside, and Wormald on how the Church of Scotland failed in its early mission to reform the morals of the Scots. Some have found this essay frivolous: it certainly does not live up to expectations that history should be boring. But the price is ridiculous: wait for it to come out in paperback.

The second is Field Guide To The Micro-moths Of Great Britain And Ireland by Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons, illustrated by Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing, £29.95), which describes 1033 of the 1627 species occurring here. It is certainly a book for nerds. Micro-moths include the little brown jobs that eat your clothes, but also tiny jewels with impossible Latin names, and amazing structures. The plume moths look like miniature aircraft left over from the First World War.

James Robertson

Author

Aonghas MacNeacail's Dèanamh Gàire Ris A'Chloc (Laughing At The Clock) (Polygon, £12.99), a "new and selected" published in the year the poet turned 70, is a fine record of a distinctive bilingual voice, utterly contemporary yet steeped in history and the politics of language, community, class and culture.

Gerry Cambridge's first collection in nine years, Notes For Lighting A Fire (Happenstance, £10), was a delight, a mix of wry humour and deep reflection, most notably in the sequence on the declining days of the poet's father. From another small Scottish publisher came Mary McCabe's semi-fictionalised family history Stirring The Dust (Argyll, £14.99 hbk/£9.99 pbk), which manages to cover, in rich and expressive English, Doric and Glaswegian Scots several generations of extraordinary characters, in a kind of personal and national epic.

Alan Warner's novel The Deadman's Pedal (Cape, £12.99) is a wonderful reconstruction of small-town Scotland in the 1970s, a hymn to teenage innocence and an elegy for old industries and the men who worked in them – his best yet, in my opinion.

Finally, I read two wonderful Victorian novels, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens and The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, both of which demonstrated that from casino banking and social climbing to heroic struggles against poverty and political cynicism, there is nothing new in all the world.

Gordon Brewer

Presenter, Newsnight Scotland

The tangled skein of hatred, shame, grudging fascination and mutual incomprehension which affects relations between Japan and the Asian countries it occupied during the Second World War is at the centre of The Garden Of Evening Mists, by the Malaysian writer Tan Twang Eng (Myrmidon, £12.99).

The novel has the stillness of a Zen temple, yet the plot takes in the story of the Golden Lily project to loot the treasuries of south-east Asia, and the horrors of Japanese forced labour camps and the later Malaya Emergency. Neither of the two main characters, the former imperial gardener Aritomo and the Malaysian judge Yun Ling, is what they seem, and the novel resolves itself in a way which illuminates its main ideas rather than just bringing the story to an end.

I found Empty Space by M John Harrison (Gollancz, £12.99) pretty irresistible. If you imagine TS Eliot writing cyberpunk noir in collaboration with David Lynch, you get something of the flavour. While it would be unfair to accuse Harrison of making sense in any conventional way, it might still be better to start with the first books in the series, Light and Nova Swing, both of which were reissued this year.

Alex Gray

Author

"Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait" is an aphorism attributed to 19th-century novelists Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins, and the writers whose books I have chosen all seem to have followed this advice. Apologies to those on the Glasgow to Aberdeen train who had to put up with my snorts of laughter from behind the pages of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared (£8.99, Hesperus). Written by a Swede, Jonas Jonasson, this amazing book touches the boundaries of credibility on a historical journey over the past 100 years in the life of centenarian, Allan Karlsson.

My current favourite among the Scandinavian crime writers is another Swede, Mons Kallentoft. So far, three of his Malin Fors books have been translated into English: Midwinter Sacrifice, Summertime Death and Autumn Killing (Hodder, £7.99). I loved them all, particularly for the way Kallentoft gives a voice to his victims.

Glasgow-born Peter May's The Lewis Man (Quercus, £12.99) shone like a bright star out of this year's book lists. Lyrical, empathetic and moving, it deserved all the plaudits that came its way.

Elaine C Smith

Actress

An extremely busy period of touring the country with the musical I Dreamed A Dream has led to my reading time being greatly reduced this year, but here are some of my favourites. I absolutely loved Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman and think it should on the school syllabus for every young girl in the country to read. It's funny, moving and actually has a unique and brilliant feminist perspective. I laughed out loud at times, which was great. I'm now reading her latest book Moranthology (HarperPerennial, £9.36).

I was in Cape Cod this year and met, for the second time, the wonderful award-winning poet Mary Oliver, and have been re-reading a lot of her poetry ever since. I've also just finished Anne Patchett's State Of Wonder (Bloomsbury, £7.99) and A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle, a great self-help book (Penguin, £9.99). And I am re-reading Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman (Bloomsbury, £12.99) which is about Hollywood and the film business.

But the most important book for me at the moment, as I'm on the advisory board for the Yes campaign, is by a dear man I am delighted to have known, who died earlier this year, called Stephen Maxwell. It is a wonderful book called Arguing For Independence – Evidence, Risks And The Wicked Issues (Luath, £9.99) and it's a great legacy for him to have left Scotland at this time.

Lord David Steel

Politician

A strange, random collection this year. The Soft Vengeance Of A Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs (Souvenir Press, £15), the anti-apartheid fighter who lost an arm and an eye when his car was blown up by South African security agents and is now a judge, came out in paperback this year. Leaving Alexandria (Canongate, £17.99) is a fascinating memoir by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Chair of the Scottish Arts Council. A Long Lunch (John Murray, £20) contains the miscellaneous recollections of The Guardian's witty sketch writer, Simon Hoggart. Scone: A Likely Tale by Adam Fergusson (Sinclair-Stevenson, £14.99) is an appropriate novel during the endless debate about independence. And immodesty requires me to mention David Steel: Rising Hope To Elder Statesman by David Torrance (Biteback, £25) – just out in time for Christmas.

Tom Devine

Historian

One of the year's stand-out Scottish histories was the magisterial A Military History Of Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, £150) edited by Edward M Spiers, Jeremy A Crang and Matthew J Strickland, which does comprehensive academic justice to the military tradition of the nation over the last two millennia. Around a third of the 30 contributors are scholars from outside Scotland, another confirmation of the increasing internationalisation of the writing of Scottish history.

Quite different but also fascinating is The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams (Yale University Press, £25). The great actor, drinker and charismatic film star comes across as somewhat different to the hell-raising public image –profound insecurities and a troubled mind often prevail in these pages. Life with Elizabeth Taylor swung between ecstatic highs ("our lives were like a constant series of one-night stands") and the blackest of lows.

Paul Babiak and Robert D Hare's Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work (Harper Collins, £10.99) is a must-read for those who have harboured suspicions about what drives their bosses.

Richard Holloway

Former Bishop of Edinburgh

Easily the best book I have read this year is one of the most impressive novels of the 20th century, John Banville's The Untouchable (Picador, £8.99). I had a long flight in front of me and wanted something to get me through it, so I returned to Banville's fiction about the Cambridge spies in which he conflated the lives of Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, and Louis MacNeice, son of an Irish bishop and underrated poet, into the character of Victor Maskell. The book is a masterpiece of loss and longing. Desolate when I finished it again in an airport lounge in Sydney, I downloaded Banville's latest novel Ancient Light and was consoled: how does he go on doing it?

My other source of consolation on that trip was The Rattle Bag (Faber, £14.99), the wonderful poetry anthology edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Never travel without a book of good poetry in your flight bag, I say, and this one takes a bit of beating.

Sheena Macdonald

Journalist

A Social History Of Knowledge II (Polity Press, £17.99) wins no prize for must-read title of the year, but Peter Burke gives us exactly that, and fascinatingly. He told an Edinburgh International Book Festival audience that traditional scribes and illustrators worked alongside the new-fangled printed-word wallahs for many decades, thereby scotching, at least for a while, the notion that e-books will exile the familiar book.

Edward Spiers, Matthew Strickland and Jeremy Crang co-edited A Military History Of Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, £150) which is also an enthralling – and, surprisingly, pioneering – social history. Frontlines are various and not always violent. And Frances Wilson's prize-winning How To Survive The Titanic (Bloomsbury, £8.99) offers an original perspective on the centenary of the liner's sinking which is another – and compelling – form of social history.

This year I ventured into crime, and found Charles Cumming's A Foreign Country (HarperCollins, £12.99) riveting and category-defying – not so much a good crime novel as an outstanding book.

My clear winner is David Rae's The Living Collection (Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, £25), a sublime portrait of Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden and its satellite gardens, which brings those rich, beloved and enchanting acres into any home, with enlightening detail and images, in Kindle- trumping glory.

Christopher Brookmyre

Author

What Dies In Summer by Tom Wright (Canongate, £7.99) was an evocative and fluidly elegiac rite-of-passage novel, particularly memorable for the compellingly authentic, fragile and sincere narrative voice of its protagonist, Jim Beaudry. Denise Mina deservedly scooped the Theakston's Prize for crime novel of the year with The End Of The Wasp Season (Orion, £7.99) in which the bright but endearingly vulnerable Alex Morrow investigated a murder that laid bare the enduring damage of class and social divisions in our so-called Big Society.

I also hugely enjoyed The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex by Mark Kermode (Arrow, £8.99), a magnificently impassioned and waspishly witty tirade against the dumbing-down of big-budget Hollywood and the growing contempt for cinema-goers on the part of studios and exhibitors alike. Apart from anything else, it was reassuring to know I'm not the only one who frequently finds himself out in the lobby trying to convince baffled cinema staff that the print is being wrongly projected.

Annabel Goldie

MSP

Self-indulgent pet owners writing about their beloved furry and feathered friends can overdo the syrup-bath effect, but The Cat Who Came For Christmas by Cleveland Amory (Corgi, £6.99) is refreshingly different. From the moment his unsought lodger moves in, a new order is established and a touchingly engaging battle of wills ensues. Cat, of course, wins!

Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov (Telegram Books, £7.99) is located in Kyrgyzstan, the author's home country. A very readable, haunting and tender tale of requited if unexpected love, it offers a fascinating insight into the culture of central Asia.

Sometimes a book is disserved by a title which reveals little of the literacy and originality waiting to unfold, and one such candidate is Pure by Andrew Miller (Sceptre, £8.99). Set in the Paris of 1785, the disinterment of an insanitary, overcrowded and malodorous cemetery known as Les Innocents seems a subject less than pure. But the historical and technical detail relayed with literary style, and the overlay of metaphor prefacing the revolution to come make for an absorbing read.

On the bedside table and being read concurrently depending on mood are the charming Letters To My Grandchildren by Tony Benn (Arrow, £8.99); Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (Penguin, £9.99), a biographer who unfailingly does the business; and Confusion To Our Enemies (Neil Wilson Publishing, £14.99), Jackie Kemp's edited selection of pieces by her father Arnold, an example of consistently thought-provoking writing.

Kirsty Wark

Presenter of Newsnight and The Review Show

The book that I gave friends this summer was Tigers In Red Weather, the first novel by Lisa Klaussman (Picador, £12.99). It's a hugely entertaining read, and evokes post-war summers on the US's eastern seaboard. Families and relationships are troubled by secrets.

I sound like a broken record, I choose Nigel Slater so often, but The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, £30) is just a damn fine read. "October 30th, Duck breasts with damson gin and duck-fat potatoes." And "September 5th, Bright peppers for dark days" – just a lovely paragraph.

Finally, put a copy of Why Willows Weep (IndieBooks, £12.05), contemporary tales from the woods, in someone's stocking, and support the Woodland Trust.

Alexander McCall Smith

Author

The publication of anything by Ben Macintyre is always to be welcomed. Macintyre is the author of Agent Zig-Zag and Operation Mincemeat. This year he has added to these the immensely readable Double Cross (Bloomsbury, £7.99), which is an account of how British intelligence turned German agents during the Second World War. Macintyre is incapable of penning a dull sentence.

Then there was Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy (Allen Lane, £20), a fascinating exploration of the alarming encroachment of market philosophy on so many aspects of our lives. Some things are just not for sale – or shouldn't be. This book reminds us that there are limits to the extent to which we can put a monetary value on social goods.

Finally, I read with great pleasure Hockney: A Rake's Progress (Century, £25) by Christopher Simon Sykes. Hockney has led a varied and productive life. The book is an intriguing account of just how he achieved success: talent, yes, but an immense amount of application and a modicum of luck.

But the important thing is that he concentrated on learning how to draw – a skill that is today somewhat ignored – and this was the basis of all his work.

Jamie Byng

Director, Canongate publishers

This has been a great year for books, despite being a year of significant, ongoing changes within the industry. Regardless of format or where you buy it, Tan Twan Eng's Man Booker-shortlisted The Garden Of Evening Mists (Myrmidon, £18.99) is a novel that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys beautifully written, morally complex, emotionally wise and psychologically riveting fiction. It is a masterpiece.

On the non-fiction front, Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? (Vintage, £8.99) burrowed deep and made me laugh and weep. This memoir has a great warmth and an intensity and honesty that is rare and the writing is exceptional.

I would agree with Carol Ann Duffy's comment about If: A Treasury Of Poems For Every Possibility by Allie Asiri and Rachel Kelly (Canongate, £20) and say that "this gorgeous and electrifying anthology should be on the shelf of every child in Britain". Robert Louis Stevenson would have relished this treasure-trove of a book and not just because he's in it!

Whatever you do, I hope you give books as presents this Christmas. They are incredible value for money and can give so much pleasure. And if you are buying books, do support your local bookshop. The browsing experience and human interaction and expert advice can make a real difference to making the best choices. And they pay tax!

Karen Cunningham

Director of Aye Write! book festival

I backed the wrong horse on this year's Booker Prize, but give Will Self's Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) a go; it's not an easy read and it can seem impenetrable at times, but it's well worth sticking with this ambitious, challenging stream of consciousness from one of our great writers and commentators.

Gird your loins and read Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls (Walker, £6.99). This award-winning children's book, based on an idea by author Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer in 2007, deals with the heartbreaking and nightmarish experience of a young boy facing his mother's death from cancer – very poignant, as Glasgow Libraries are developing a partnership with Macmillan Cancer this year. A very grown-up treatment of a difficult subject, and I defy the hardest-hearted reader not to cry.

I found two psychological thrillers – Sophie Hannah's Kind Of Cruel (Hodder, £7.99) and our own Louise Welsh's latest novel, The Girl On The Stairs (John Murray, (£16.99) – 0very unsettling. Both chilling and disturbing insights into the female psyche: not a cheerful choice this year!

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