The outstanding book of 2012 is Dial M For Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Penguin, £8.99), an engrossing tale of corruption, deceit and abuse of power at the highest echelons of the British establishment which, if fictional, would have been derided by many as unrealistic. Yet it is not only real but frightening, and only a glimpse of what really goes on behind the curtains of the billionaire movers and shakers who inhabit a different world from the rest of us.
This book painstakingly uncovers the role of one of the biggest corporations on the planet in organising, paying for and then attempting to cover up criminality on an "industrial scale", to borrow a description from the Parliamentary Committee that attempted to investigate News International's role in illegal phone hacking. That Committee was systematically misled and lied to. The Murdoch News Corporation was caught out through a combination of fine investigative journalism, courageous lawyers and brave politicians who refused to be bullied any longer.
That my perjury trial of 2010 played a role in eventually unlocking the door to this scandal is acknowledged in the book and fills me with comfort. Knowing just how much more is still to come out and whose heads will roll as a consequence is even more satisfying. I accused Andy Coulson of presiding over mass illegal phone hacking during that trial. Only "in your parallel universe does that go on," he replied. Turns out I wasn't paranoid or deluded after all.
Ronald Frame, author
Posher reading matter (mostly) has impressed this year. I've noticed a tendency, very useful in this sort of exercise, for publishers to provide supplementary titles, which explain all (so that I don't need to, except to recommend the books to you). Felling The Ancient Oaks: How England Lost Its Great Country Estates by John Martin Robinson (Aurum Press £30) includes some magnificent photographs from the Country Life archives. The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting In The Raj by Anne de Courcy (Weidenfeld & Nicholson £20). Two biographies of mythical self-creations – Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper (John Murray £25) and, my favourite title, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand by William J Mann (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, £19, depending on exchange rate). I prefer the cover of this American edition, showing our resplendent diva during her Nefertiti phase.
Margo Macdonald, MSP
Stephen Maxwell was my friend. Before I opened Arguing For Independence (Luath Press, £9.99) I knew I'd like it. But I was surprised by just how much. Every young person in Scotland should read for themselves how Stephen defines and analyses the state we're in (pun entirely intended) before intentions are firmed up towards the Independence Referendum.
They'll have to live with the result, so now would be a good time to think about the factors required to sustain a happy, healthy and secure Scotland. Is Independence essential? Stephen, an unashamed nationalist, concludes that it is not, in the introductory chapter "Ways Of Arguing". But, just as he and I, 40 years ago, used to strip bare claims, presented as "facts" by both sides, as we legged it between meetings in Edinburgh and Glasgow and travelled in the cheap seats to conferences in Catalunya and Denmark, he concludes that the probability of achieving a materially better Scotland will motivate Scots, and so self-belief will be the final arbiter.
Having established his premise, Stephen goes on to produce a book of astonishing clarity. His last, beautifully written contribution to the cause is the best, most hopeful book yet written about the Scots, their politics, fears and vision.
Margaret Elphinstone, author
Traumatised by war and beaten by foreigners to the poles, Britain's adventuring elite sought imperial redemption in the challenge of Everest. In his engrossing Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory And The Conquest Of Everest (Vintage, £12.99) Wade Davies describes a Buchanesque cast of Old India hands and Flanders survivors, driven variously by courage, mysticism, snobbery and the cult of the amateur, whose ventures culminate in 1924 with Mallory and Irvine's enigmatic end.
Steven Mithen's To The Islands (Two Ravens Press, £15.99) shares the camaraderie, rivalry and pleasures of a life-time's archaeological research into Western Scotland's Mesolithic past. From computer modelling through to affinity with the Hebridean landscape, he brings a wide range of expertise to bear on our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as well as vividly recapturing the delights and challenges of archaeological excavations.
In Another World: Among Europe's Dying Villages (Polygon, £12) Tom Pow considers through interviews, poetry and reflections, the corrosive effect of rural depopulation from Spain to Russia, including his native Scotland. His concluding poem, How To Tell A Village Is Dying encapsulates vignettes of dying communities: when no one thinks the world starts from there anymore.
Mike Russell, MSP
Dr Victoria Whitworth is an academic who teaches at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. She is also the author of The Bone Thief (Ebury Press, £6.99) an excellent debut whodunit with a Viking theme which is to be followed next year by The Traitor's Pit, to which I am already looking forward.
In contrast Peter May is already midway through his Western Isles-based detective trilogy, and part two – The Lewis Man (Quercus, £12.99) – was every bit as powerful and authentic as last year's The Blackhouse, as I expected from a writer who used to produce Gaeldom's first and best soap opera, Machair.
This year's most enjoyable and offbeat political non-fiction was The Day Parliament Burned Down (OUP, £18.99) written by St Andrew's graduate Caroline Shenton, who is now Director of the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster. She tells the extraordinary events of November 16 to November 17, 1834 supremely well and places them firmly within the political and cultural narrative of the time. Yet it is her use of the personal – and, in particular, the stories of personal loss and personal bravery – that strike most directly home.
Tom Leonard, poet
Peter Manson's dual-language Stéphan Mallarmé: The Poems In Verse (Miami University Press, £15.59) has the bravura, flow and aptness-in-originality of the true poet-translator. If you need one edition of Mallarmé, this is now the one to have.
Eunice Buchanan's As Far As I Can See (Kettillonia, £9) has a freshness of language and sharpness of intelligence that sparkles throughout this debut collection by a Scottish poet now in her eighties. The "tale" printed as a coda to the poetry is a tour-de-force in which the Garden of Eden is itemised in the Angus Scots words of the author's Arbroath childhood: the heavenly garden of a Scottish childhood in language — and it's narrated by the Serpent!
James Kelman's Mo Said She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) shows once again that something can be "easy to read" and yet be at the absolute height of literary seriousness and craft. Ars est celare artem. The art is to hide the art.
Vic Galloway, broadcaster and Sunday Herald contributor
Although Keith Richards: Life (Phoenix, £8.99) has been out for a short while, it was well worth discovering in the end. Whether you're a Rolling Stones fan or not, you'll be amazed at Keef's memory-recall of minute detail alongside insights and personal opinion. With his own inimitable, low-slung, rock'n'roll swagger and distinctly British sense of humour, the story comes alive as the pages turn. As the band are 50 years old and he pushes 70, there's no doubting he is still the hippest cat on the block.
A natural born storyteller, Peter Hook launched Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (Simon and Schuster, £20) – his second book, following up The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club – while the current New Order line-up tour the world without him. From childhood, through the seismic impact of punk, and finally into the life of a professional musician, this intimate account of his time with Manchester's legendary band is fascinating and revelatory. Honest, anecdotal and down-to-earth, laced throughout with humour and tragedy, this is a charming book that debunks myths and brings this halcyon era of music to life.
I didn't expect to enjoy Hape Kerkeling's I'm Off Then: Losing And Finding Myself On The Camino De Santiago (Simon and Schuster, £10.71) as much as I did. It's the diary account of a hugely successful German comedian, TV presenter and actor's pilgrimage across the Pyrenees to the Spanish shrine of St James by foot. Kerkeling is non-religious and yet this book shows him soul-searching, ending up as an engaging and frequently moving read. As his daily struggle mounts, his comments on that and life in general are hilarious, self-deprecating and ultimately inspiring.
James Meek, author
Ben Lerner's first novel, Leaving The Atocha Station (Granta, £14.99), made a big impression on me. It sounds unpromising – an account of a young American poet's scholarship year in Spain, written by a young American poet who spent a scholarship year in Spain. Yet the character of the poet is so twisted and so vulnerable, and his musings on life and art so original and wise, that this short book is a tremendous journey for the reader. And it made me laugh.
Alan Warner has never written a book I didn't like, and I loved The Deadman's Pedal (Jonathan Cape, £12.99). If Lerner's Adam is a hero who self-consciously recoils from heroism, Warner's Simon Crimmons goes in the course of the novel from child to man, seizing his destiny – the love of two women, a fraternity of diesel locomotive drivers –- with both hands. Good that it's part one of a trilogy.
Nobody writes about the sensual experience of the wild world like Kathleen Jamie. In her new book of essays, Sightlines (Sort Of Books, £12.99) she brings to her accounts of glaciers, ancient tombs, bird-crowded islands and whale-busy oceans the same intense, precise, deceptively simple rendering of experience she displayed in the earlier Findings, but with a richer, darker confidence to her more profound meditations. The particular wonder of Jamie is the way she conveys the sights and sounds and smells of the wilderness so freshly, free of the cultural clutter of quotes and titbits of lore from those who have experienced it before her.
Patrick McGrath, author
This year I started reading Michel Houellebecq. The Map And The Territory (Vintage, £10), his most recent, is an extraordinary novel. The story of an artist, its emotional clarity is cold and fascinating, brilliant in its laser gaze and bracing lack of clutter. Houellebecq has seen the future.
I re-read a book I love, Bella Bathurst's The Lighthouse Stevensons (HarperPerennial, £9.99). The building of those great towers – Skerryvore, The Bell Rock, Muckle Flugga and the rest – is told so well one comes away breathless with astonishment at what that family achieved before Robert Louis ever dreamed his fine bogey tale.
I greatly enjoyed Paul Theroux's The Lower River (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), a latter-day Heart Of Darkness about an innocent American returning to Malawi to find the Edenic Africa of his youth and instead entering a nightmare. In John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99), a dazzling collection by this gifted North Carolinian journalist, I found Mr. Lytle: An Essay, the finest description of a writer in old age I've ever come across. Finally, Lionel Asbo: State Of England (Jonathan Cape, £18.99), Martin Amis at his blackest and best, a violent and very tightly plotted comic novel I read with much pleasure twice.
Toby Litt, author
Julian Cope has one of the best websites going, Head Heritage. And for 10 years, without editors or wordcounts, he was able to choose an Album of the Month and rhapsodise it. It might have been by Alice Cooper or Miles Davis or even Van Halen but, more likely, it was some group of long-haired psychonauts you've never heard of – Sweden's Pärson Sound or Italy's Le Stelle di Mario Schifano. There was an understandable bias towards the 1970s and the 2000s. Cope's is anything but a nostalgia trip. What he really wants is social music – sounds that are of immediate use, sounds that can transform or transport the listener.
Phrase by phrase, Cope is the best music writer going. He has taste, anger, wit and a resplendent supracosmic vision. His decade's writings have now been compiled as Copendium: An Expedition Into The Rock'n'Roll Underwerld (Faber, £30). Cope's deeply serious about that last word. For him, musicians are shamen or they are nothing. The only true music provides "a divine portal between innumerable worlds". Copendium is one hell of a book.
Andrew Greig, author
The most enjoyable poetry collection was Ron Butlin's The Magicians Of Edinburgh (Polygon, £9.99) – poems satirical, personal, public, constellated around a lifetime's experience of the city. Kathleen Jamie's essays in Sightlines (Sort Of Books, £8.99), the wonderful work of Findings, and images of whale bones and ice floes and pathology labs haunt my imagination still. Gavin Francis's Empire Antarctica (Chatto and Windus, £16.99) is a must-read, a personal account of a year's extreme isolation, well written, informative and absorbing.
And I greatly enjoyed reprints of Joanna Cannan's detective novels from the 1930s, especially Death At The Dog (Ulysses Press, £7.54) and They Rang Up The Police (Rue Morgue Press, £14) – witty reprises of the English village murder, as if Agatha Christie had met with Jane Austen in a most catty mood.
Robert Crawford, academic and poet
I relished the clarity and cadences of Kathleen Jamie's new poems in The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99). They have an inevitability of sound and shape that is immediately convincing, and they are full of satisfying phrases. There are also troubled undercurrents in a book that deals, often with deft obliquity, with the experience of ageing.
Very, very old but also new minted is the episodic and lyrical version of Homer's Iliad which Alice Oswald has entitled Memorial (Faber, £9.99). I love the technically daring but very effective way she simply repeats short passages, giving the material aspects of a refrain or a balladic inescapability. It sings.
Lesley GlaisTER, author
I've been re-reading this year, re-discovering, among others, Pamela Hansford Johnson. The Humbler Creation (Bello, £5.37) first published in 1959 is a fantastically wry and witty novel exploring the conflict of a middle-aged vicar between love and duty. This might sound dull but the execution and subtle quality of observation render it riveting. Another 1950s novel – A Way Through The Wood by Nigel Balchin (Collins, £6.99) – is both deeply gripping and even more deeply peculiar, and I'll certainly be revisiting more work by both these largely forgotten writers.
I've also been enjoying poetry recently. Kathleen Jamie's The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99) is as wonderful as you'd expect; Ron Butlin's The Magicians Of Edinburgh (Polygon, £9.99) is essential reading for anyone connected with the city; and I can't wait for Jacob Polley's The Havocs (Picador, £9.99) – due for publication any time now. Regi Claire's latest novel, The Waiting, also out this month, is darkly bright and razor-sharp, a delicious read, and it makes history as the first novel published by the wonderful Edinburgh independent Word Power Books (£7.99).
Ron Butlin, author
Stewart Conn's Estuary is a masterly collection by a masterly poet whose almost casual profundity never fails to hit the mark. His publishers, Mariscat Press, have just celebrated their first 30 years with Cat's Whiskers. This wonderful anthology reads like a Who's Who of Scottish writing and features work by Edwin Morgan, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Brian McCabe, Diana Hendry, Douglas Dunn and Tom Pow, among many others. Hamish Whyte is to be congratulated on staying this most arduous course, and in such style – Mariscat's publications are always truly elegant productions.
On the fiction front I've been very much enjoying Regi Claire's excellent new novel, The Waiting (Word Power Books, £7.99). Set in Scotland, the story tells of a personal struggle to survive against an ever-threatening backdrop of love and betrayal. It is a gripping, beautifully written tale of female empowerment from the 1930s to the present day. And I should know – because, reader, I married her.
Fiona Hyslop, MSP and minister for Arts and Culture
As someone who grew up in Ayrshire in the 1970s, albeit at a different Academy, Janice Galloway's All Made Up (Granta, £8.99) is an engaging book that spoke to me very directly. The dialogue and humour made a frank and biting personal story precious to share – what is true and what is made up is left open. The emotion portrayed is both rich and yet raw in equal measure. The remarkably accurate 1970s descriptions took me right back to my teenage years but, when I gave it to my teenage daughter, I think she thought it was more of a social history!
Andrew Nicoll's The Love And Death Of Caterina (Quercus, £12.99) is beautifully written with an evocative narrative. This compulsive story bizarrely has no character with whom to empathise but is a timeless tale about humankind, our frailties and our weaknesses. A novel which, like all good art, stays with you.
Nick Nairn, chef
Sebastian Faulks's latest, A Possible Life (Hutchinson, £18.99) – a series of five short stories sharing a commonality of place and the human condition – examines the nebulous idea that all things are interconnected. It looks particularly at the human ability for self-awareness, with one story depicting a research scientist who discovers a part of the brain where self-awareness resides. It's a quiet book taking on a challenging subject in which the links between stories are subtle and deliberately tenuous, and offers no obvious denouement.
Jonathan Franzen's depth of characterisation in his family saga Freedom (Fourth Estate, £8.99) was a joy to read. It felt like an insight into the American sensibility at the current time.
I also read the short Ian McEwan novel Black Dogs (Vintage, £7.99). As an atheist I often find myself giving little credence to arguments of faith, but in the masterful, intelligent prose of McEwan (one of my favourite authors), the ideas gave me pause for thought. Told against a post-Second World War European setting, in which a central character abandons communism in favour of a spiritual awakening, McEwan examines the nature of human faith and spirituality in a fascinating way, with the metaphor of Churchill's Black Dogs becoming a real event and catalyst. This memorable idea, combined with McEwan's brilliant evocation, story structure and observation descriptions of the Midi in France and the detail of opening up a house in France in November in the dark, made this a fantastic read.
Zoe Strachan, author
I've read and re-read Anne Carson's Oresteia, so I rushed to buy Antigonick (Bloodaxe, £15), her translation of Sophocles's Antigone. She's so good at capturing the visceral quality of Greek drama, and Antigonick certainly has that intensity, along with her lightness of touch and startling bursts of humour. This is much stranger than the Oresteia though; the text is a facsimile of Carson's handwriting, sometimes overlaid with surreal illustrations by Bianca Stone.
I love that the characters exist both in and out of time, commentating on their own lives and words as well as on previous iterations of the play. At the beginning, Antigone and Ismene argue over Hegel and Beckett; later on Eurydike talks about Woolf. Crucially, the actual story doesn't get lost or weakened amid all the intertextuality and other cleverness.
The other lovely poetry edition that I enjoyed this year is Laughing At The Clock: New & Selected Poems by Aonghas MacNeacail (Polygon, £14.99). I don't read Gaelic, but the English versions stand alone. His bird poems are particular favourites.
Pat Kane, journalist and musician
I went to books for deep orientations this year. Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand (Atlantic, £8.99) and The God Species by Mark Lynas (Fourth Estate, £9.99) are two good cautions to a Luddite tendency in Green politics. Some of the smartest essays on a left response to the Great Debt Era are in Craig Calhoun's Business As Usual (New York University Press, £12.99). Robert Levine's Free Ride (Vintage, £9.99) was well worth disagreeing with on copyright and the future of music and journalism.
I maintained my teen interest in theory with two biographies: Francois Dosse's Deleuze And Guattari: Intersecting Lives (Columbia University Press, £17.50) and Timothy Murphy's Antonio Negri (Polity, £15.99). I read my first SF in a long time, for work purposes: Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 (Orbit, £18.99) gave me that old Asimovian tingle, and New Scientist's e-book ARC (£4.99) is a stunning shop-window for the genre.
And as for Scotland, Allan Brown's Blue Nile rock biog Nileism (Polygon, £8.99) is a perfect Glaswegian sour-mash of celestial ambition and Byres Road bathos, while Stephen Maxwell's Arguing For Independence (Luath, £9.99) is just in the door, but already devoured for its thoroughly integrated vision of this nation's next step (I hope).
Lesley McDowell, author and critic
In fiction – or should it be poetry – my favourite this year was Ros Barber's wonderfully joyous yet dark The Marlowe Papers: A Novel In Verse (Sceptre, £20). I hadn't expected to like it, but was bowled along by the sheer pace of it all. I love conspiracy theories, the murkier the better, so this possible "other life" Barber imagined for Christopher Marlowe was perfect.
I was also impressed by the way Megan Abbott got inside her teenage cheerleaders' heads in her thriller, Dare Me (Picador, £12.99), and the intense, claustrophobic space that was Henry James's sister Alice's head, in Lynne Alexander's superb The Sister (Sandstone Press, £8.99). In non-fiction, I found Joanna Hodgkin's story of her mother Nancy Durrell's marriage to Lawrence Durrell, Amateurs In Eden Virago, £25), both fascinating and sad, while Nicholas Roe's Keats: A New Life (Yale UP, £25) also brought tears to my eyes.
Liz Lochhead, poet
Gifted: The Tale Of 10 Mysterious Book Sculptures Gifted To The City Of Words And Ideas is beautifully told in this gorgeous wee artefact which, for a few quid, genuinely captures in words and exquisite pictures some of the magic of this most wonderful and audacious art event in celebration of the Book, the Library, and of the City of Edinburgh by that as-yet-unidentified serial creator. Buy it for any bibliophile's stocking.
Out just in time to make it my book of the year, though, is something that's always for me a reason for deep rejoicing – a new collection of stories by the amazing Alice Munro. This one's called Dear Life (Chatto and Windus, £18.99). Another octogenerian, Eunice Buchanan, has just published her first book of poems, As Far As I Can See (Kettilonia, £9) which surprised, delighted and nourished me with its often unfamiliar but always rich and true Angus Scots. Meanwhile, William Letford's Bevel (Carcanet, £9.95) is (for a book of poetry anyhow!) really, really hot, and deserves to be so – a terrific first collection by a brand-new voice who is popular, urban, accessible, funny, moving, confident, Scottish, brilliant and absolutely his own man.
Candia McWilliam, author
The Deadman's Pedal by Alan Warner (Jonathan Cape, £12.99): Warner writes about work, machinery, men and labour, loyalty, land, landscape and (romantic and familial ) love with a dark lyrical grip. He sees and listens in extra ways. In a year when the Booker Prize was serious again, did they just not read this one?
The subtitle of Unapologetic by Francis Spufford (Faber, £12.99): says it all – Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.
Father Holloway as he was then was our priest when I was small and conducted the funeral of my father, from which an act of God, or a blizzard, kept me. His autobiography Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway (Canongate, £17.99) makes intelligent, unillusioned, certainly painful, eventually inspiring reading. He discovers to us a brave way to live. I could not put it down.
For anyone who enjoys the relationship between reader and page and for whom re-reading is a home or an addiction, for lovers of Henry James, for enthusiasts of American thought and culture, for outsiders, for insiders, for anyone remotely interested by or afraid of the human heart, Portrait Of A Novel: Henry James And The Making Of An American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra (WM Norton, £20) is a richly rewarding book.
Adrian Turpin, director of the Wigtown Book Festival
A few years ago, the academic critic Robert Crawford noted a relative dearth in Scottish novels that reflect middle-class life, such has been the dominance of gritty, urban and demotic fiction. Perhaps that's changing. A couple of very good debuts this year go a small way to redress the balance.
Andrea Gillies's The White Lie (Short Books, £12.99) breathes new life into the out-of-fashion "big house" novel. The tale of an extended Highland family torn apart by secrecy and deceit after a drowning on their estate, it's both a captivating mystery and an elegant exploration of the stories families tell themselves. In Jennie Erdal's The Missing Shade Of Blue (Abacus, £12.99), a self-destructive Edinburgh University philosopher faces the implosion of his career and marriage. This is an unusual and ambitious novel of ideas graced by a campus comedy's lightness of touch. Its moral? That the cleverest people can be as stupid as anyone else when it comes to finding happiness.
James Boyle, Chairman of the National Library of Scotland
Curious thing: all my books of the year explore, in one degree or another, the experience of walking. You couldn't miss that theme in Robert MacFarlane's, The Old Ways (Viking, £8.99) where he walked ancient holloways to examine the effect of landscape on the inner self. Ian Mortimer in A Time Traveller's Guide To Elizabethan England (Bodley Head, £20) recreated, in one chapter, the dangers of getting around Tudor England on foot. The two great volumes by Patrick Leigh Fermor recall his walk from Calais to Constantinople in the 1930s. Now Artemis Cooper tracks Leigh Fermor's entire life in An Adventure (John Murray, £25). Perfect timing too: his archive papers have just arrived at the National Library of Scotland's Murray Archive.
Top of the pile is Richard Holloway. In Leaving Alexandria (Canongate, £17.99), he describes an examined life and in his wonderfully fluent style indicates how walking the hills generated his thinking. Kathleen Jamie, in The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99), writes poetry of humbling beauty from her walks around the edges of east Scotland.
The indisputable book of the year is Claire Tomalin's account of Dickens's frenetic existence. Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin, £9.99) is a masterwork, a great read and an exhausting story of life of writing – and pacing the streets of London.
Julie Bertagna, author
Haruki Murakami is Marmite. Readers either loathe or love his yearning, disaffected characters and surreal, slow-burn tales. I've long been addicted to the hypnotic strangeness of his writing – in a sentence, the seemingly ordinary morphs into something unnerving and weird. At over 600 pages, 1Q84 (Vintage £8.99) is a doorstopper. Two big books in one, this eerie, epic thriller of entwined lives in parallel dimensions is a feast for fans. If you need to mentally disengage from the festive season, Murakami's your man. And the good news, after leaving us on tenterhooks with a heart-stopping ending to Book Two – the big finale, Book Three, is now out.
An Illustrated Treasury Of Scottish Folk And Fairy Tales (Floris, £14.99) is a brilliant compilation of well-kent stories by award-winning author Theresa Breslin – but her funny, fast-witted storytelling, accompanied by Kate Leiper's otherworldly illustrations of stoorwoorms and selkies, makes these retellings special and truly new. A beautiful book. Buy it as a gift for a parent or grandparent to read to a child.
William Dalrymple, author
Judging the Guardian First Book Prize brought me to three books by talented first-time authors which gave me great pleasure. Faramerz Dhaboiwala's The Origins Of Sex (Allen Lane, £25) is a fascinating look at the 18th-century sexual revolution. It is my favourite sort of history book where detailed research is wrapped in fine prose and an effortless sense of narrative.
Lindsey Hilsum's Sandstorm: Libya In The Time Of Revolution (Faber, £17.99) is a deeply moving account of the uprising against Gaddafi and a remarkable expose of the mad horrors perpetrated by his regime.
Kate Boo's Beyond The Beautiful Forevers (Portobello, £14.99) examines the lives and dreams of the rag-pickers of Annawadi, a suffocating "sumpy plug of slum" that squats between the glossy luxury hotels around Mumbai Airport and a fetid lake of raw sewage. Jets scream overhead; the "honk-horn opera" of the airport road is played out beyond a concrete wall covered with hoardings for the Italianate floor tiles, "Beautiful Forever", which gives the book its title. Throughout Boo writes beautifully, and, given her subject, surprisingly wittily. She is also wonderfully observant of human quirks.
Closer to home, and not on the shortlist, but still a wonderful book, is Sarah Fraser's look at the Old Fox, Simon Fraser Lord Lovat of the '45. Lovat was the last man to be beheaded at the Tower of London, and The Last Highlander (HarperPress, £20) brings the world of 18th-century Scotland to life like nothing else I've ever read.