Vicky Featherstone, director, National Theatre of Scotland I WAS blown away by David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas with its multiple narrators, but in his fourth novel Black Swan Green (Sceptre, £16.99) he finds greater focus with an evocative and authentic voice for a young teenage boy at the time of the Falklands war. It's an achingly sad novel and will connect deeply with anyone who's ever had to grow up, but especially those who come of age in the early 1980s. And it has one of the most beautiful descriptions of the act of writing that I've ever read.
Kirsty Wark, broadcaster Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me (Faber, £16.99) was one of the most intelligent, tender and challenging books I have read. Set in a small Ayrshire town (of a kind I know well), it's both the story of the reaction of the town to the arrival of a cultured English Roman Catholic priest and his own emotional journey. O'Hagan is an occasional guest on Newsnight Review and Julie Myerson is on more regularly, but I would have picked his and her book regardless. Myerson's latest novel The Story Of You (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) explores the impact of grief as the narrator Rosy conjures up a long-past encounter and brings it into her real workaday world.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road (Picador, £16.99) should be on everybody's Christmas shopping list. The American landscape is desolate after some kind of disaster; the dead lie where they perished. A man and his son try to make it to the coast, hiding from marauding road gangs, foraging in abandoned houses for food and water. It is a warning, but it is the intimacy between father and son that marks this book out.
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Dr Richard Holloway, director of Creative Scotland The blockbuster of the year has to be William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal (Bloomsbury, £25), a study of the 1857 Delhi uprising against the Raj. Not least of its many virtues is the way it demonstrates the dynamic interconnection between historical events that go on reverberating down the centuries. Today's Taliban are the great great grandchildren of the rebels of 1857. An intellectual blockbuster of 2006 was undoubtedly Daniel C Dennett's Breaking The Spell (Allen Lane, £25), an exhilarating attempt to explain religion as a natural phenomenon. It's a bracing read for anyone interested in religion, though his definition of the subject is a bit too narrow for this reader. Brenda Maddox's latest biography, Freud's Wizard (John Murray, £25), is another stimulating read. It's an honest but affectionate life of Ernest Jones, the Welsh doctor who rescued Freud from the Nazis and brought him to London.
George Galloway, MP I haven't read a better analysis of where we are going politically - and where we have come from - than Simon Jenkins's Thatcher And Sons (Allen Lane, £20). The premise, with which I concur absolutely, is that Thatcher's successors, her sons, are carrying on the family policies. Ominously, the most devoted son is Chancellor Gordon Brown. His profligacy as chancellor is minutely detailed. Absolutely necessary reading. I also enjoyed, if that's the right description, Fiasco (Allen Lane, £25), by Thomas Ricks, The Washington Post's Pentagon correspondent, a devastating and brutal dissection of the Iraq catastrophe. It's just a pity his paper didn't tell us all this before the war started. And a perfect stocking filler is my own Fidel Castro Handbook (MQ Publications, £14.99).
Alain de Botton, author I learnED a lot from Lewis Hyde's The Gift (Canongate, £15), a study of how artists are evaluated in societies like our own where a high income is taken as the principal measure of success. The veteran New Yorker writer John McPhee published Uncommon Carriers (Farrar Straus Giroux, £12.99), a set of interconnected essays about the ways in which cargo is transported around the world. There's a particularly memorable description of how lobsters are carried by UPS. MA Screech, the great translator of Montaigne's Essays into English, has published a fresh translation of Rabelais's Gargantua And Pantagruel (Penguin Classics, £16.99), which blows off the cobwebs, explains the jokes and lets us appreciate the genius.
Peter Howson, artist Having read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion (Bantam, £20), I felt stronger in my faith than ever before. Dawkins does more for religion than any great evangelist could: he's gone so anti- religion it's funny now. I really enjoyed The Gift (Canongate, £15) by Lewis Hyde. The basis of the book is that a work of art is a gift, which is a great thing to read but causes problems as my collectors want my work for nothing now. He traces the history of art from biblical times, showing how it became a commodity that changes hands for huge amounts of money. I don't agree with everything Richard Holloway says in How To Read The Bible (Granta, £6.99), but I can't avoid someone whose writing is so honest.
Laura Hird, author Over the past few years I've been lucky enough to feature several stories by BBC Short Story competition winner A Igoni Barrett on my website, several of which are included in his brilliant debut short story collection, From Caves Of Rotten Teeth (Daylight, £7.99). Another great short story collection I'd recommend is Unbuttoning The Violin (Banipal, £3.95), which anthologises the work of four excellent Arab writers - Joumana Haddad, Mansoura Ez-Eldin, Ala Hlehel and Abed Ismael - in translation. The book's publication tied in with a well-received tour of these writers in the UK earlier this year. Taras Grescoe's The Devil's Picnic (Macmillan, £12.99) in which he roams the world, trying food, drugs and drink that are illegal and considered dangerous by various authoritarian governing bodies, is also a great read.
Dan Rhodes, author In a literary climate where young writers are so often praised for their (yawn) maturity, it was a real pleasure to read the resolutely un-grown-up Hound Dog (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) by Richard Blandford. Squalid, raucous and wildly entertaining, this tale of a renegade Elvis impersonator would make an ideal stocking-filler for the surly teen in your life. Amlie Nothomb is a bit more sensible, but in her case that's not such a bad thing. The Life Of Hunger (Faber, £9.99) must be about her 100th quasi-autobiographical slim volume, but it's always fun to take a journey inside her extraordinary Belgian brain. This is deluxe navel-gazing. And it's heartwarming to see The Slaves Of Solitude (Constable & Robinson, £7.99) by the mighty Patrick Hamilton back in print, where it belongs.
Mark Cousins, film critic and broadcaster At the beginning of the year I adored Joan Didion's The Year Of Magical Thinking (HarperPerennial, £7.99) and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (Canongate, £7.99). Atwood's encomium on Lewis Hyde's The Gift (Canongate, £15) made me read it, after a summer of bad news and bleak times. Hyde's book lifted my spirits and turned me back into myself. The best paragraphs I read this year were in Alan Warner's The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven (Jonathan Cape, £11.99). China On Screen: Cinema And Nation (Columbia University Press, £17), by Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, made me look at Chinese movies in new ways.
James Meek, author While I read it, John Burnside's A Lie About My Father (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) transplanted itself into that curious region of memory usually reserved for recollection of my own dreams and nightmares. As unlikely as truth and as true as the well-imagined, with a poet's concern for language and a novelistic scope of time, space and narrative, it becomes immediately a part of the literary landscape; one of those high lochs only visible after a long foot journey, from which you come back changed. There are novels, and there are metanovels - the sum of a novelist's life work. I'm not sure which is the greater delight from Alan Warner's excellent The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven (Jonathan Cape, £11.99): the book itself, an evocation of modern middle-class southern Europe as plausible as it is lyrical; or the sense that the arch is still rising and the keystone of Warner's life work is yet to come.
Lady Antonia Fraser, historian Any year when there is a new Ian Rankin, his work must be a strong contender for my most enjoyable book of the year. The Naming Of The Dead (Orion, £17.99) is one of his very best: who but Rankin would make a riveting mystery out of the G8 summit? There remains the hideous question of Rebus's looming retirement. I can only quote Glck's Orfeo in his famous lament on the subject of loss: Che faro senza Euridice? (What shall I do without him?) Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre And The French Revolution (Chatto & Windus, £20) is an extremely intelligent, well-researched book with elements of the detective story. What happened to turn the earnest, liberal revolutionary who believed in universal suffrage into the leader of the Terror? Another notable historical biography, Catherine The Great: Love, Sex And Power by Virginia Rounding (Hutchinson, £20), tells the gripping story of the longest-ruling Russian monarch. Both of the latter, incidentally, are first books: very encouraging for the future of historical biography, a subject, of course, about which I am particularly passionate.
Norman Blake, guitarist and singer with Teenage Fanclub I read the recent reissue of John Updike's Rabbit, Run (Penguin, £8.99) and thought it beautifully written. I'm going to have to read it again as well as the other Rabbit novels. I also enjoyed Anthony Beevor's The Battle For Spain: The Spanish Civil War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). We play a fair number of gigs in Spain and because I've spent so much time there, I wanted to have an understanding of Spanish history and politics. The republican side, with its various factions, reminded me of the People's Front of Judea in Life Of Brian. I generally don't like to read music books because they're terrible but I'm interested in Nirvana: The True Story (Omnibus, £19.95) because the author, Everett True, knew Kurt Cobain before he was famous. So many music books are written by people who never had personal knowledge of the people in question but Everett spent a lot of time in Seattle.
John Mackay, broadcaster When the local council refused to lay a two-mile road to Calum MacLeod's house in Raasay, he built it himself. Calum's Road (Birlinn, £9.99) by Roger Hutchinson is the inspiring tale of how an unforgiving landscape was conquered by one man's determination.
Scotland slumped exhausted in the aftermath of the first world war. Trevor Royle's The Flowers Of The Forest: Scotland And The Great War (Birlinn, £25) is a different angle on an oft-repeated, but ever sorrowful story. Graham McColl's '78: How A Nation Lost The World Cup (Headline, £17.99) is a rare joy - a football book worth reading. People forget just what a buzz there was over Scotland's sojourn to Argentina. A great party, albeit one that left an almighty hangover.
Neal Ascherson, writer David Blackbourn's The Conquest Of Nature (Jonathan Cape, £30) is an utterly original retelling of German modern history through the fate of its rivers and wetlands, which expertly links gung-ho fantasies of "development" to the story of German racial imperialism. Billy Kay's The Scottish World (Mainstream, £16.99), is a ramble across the planet, and is full of revelations about the Scottish diaspora overlooked by most historians. Lastly, in Imre Kertesz's great novel Fateless (Vintage, £7.99), his own experience of the Nazi camps is told through the eyes of a boy learning how to survive and think for himself, which is totally unlike all the other survivor accounts I know and all the more shocking for its weirdly impassive and even egotistical treatment of horrors.
Gavin Wallace, head of literature, Scottish Arts Council I'm somewhat surprised that more has not been made of William McIlvanney's marvellous Weekend (Sceptre, £16.99). Reading this deft, rich and deep novel was like renewing an old friendship with arguably the greatest prose stylist of 20th century Scottish letters. Steven Poole's Unspeak (Little, Brown, £9.99), a shatteringly intelligent exposure of just how far public language is being manipulated to prevent us thinking ("ethnic cleansing", "war on terror", "regime change", et al), was a chilling intellectual wake-up call. Finally, although slightly biased as the host for Margaret Atwood's memorable visit to Scotland this October, I'm sure I would have chosen her short story sequence Moral Disorder (Bloomsbury, £15.99) anyway; that blend of mordant irony and laconic pathos truly deserves the epithet "Atwoodian".
Christopher Rush, author Sunday Herald Literary Editor Alan Taylor said recently that of 10,000 novels published annually, perhaps 10 were worth reading. Actually I struggled to find one, especially among the Booker shortlist. Poetry didn't blow me away either. No, I'm going for biography. And my easy favourites in this field are: first and foremost Maggie Fergusson's immensely sympathetic and insightful portrait of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, £25); Claire Tomalin's study of Thomas Hardy, The Time-Torn Man (Viking, £25); and Byron Rogers's scrutiny of the Welsh poet and cleric RS Thomas, The Man Who Went Into The West (Aurum Press, £16.99). All three probe the souls of their subjects with sharp compassion and are the jewels in the crown of biography, which for me has been the crowning genre this year.
Ronald Frame, author With her commanding intelligence, her nifty cultural cross-references, her sheer unflagging enthusiasm, and her natural flair and flow of expression, Catharine Arnold succeeds in Necropolis: London And Its Dead (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) in, so to speak, breathing life into her sometimes grisly subject. Purity Of Blood by Arturo Perez-Reverte (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) provides very superior escapism as Captain Alatriste - "a man of honour who lives by his sword" - swashbuckles through Inquisition-paranoid Madrid. I'm reaching back a year, to a purchase I made from a table of festive books in a shop: the glorious Christmas At The New Yorker (Modern Library £9.99). So much excellent writing, so many witty drawings, you have to ration your intake. Timeless. What better reward to yourself for having survived Yuletide?
William Dalrymple, author This was the year that the catastrophe of Anglo-American foreign policy finally came home to roost, as it became clear to everyone - even the Americans - that during the past five years the wrong countries had been invaded for the wrong reasons, secular Ba'athists had been confused with fundamentalist Islamists, a clueless intelligence community had been producing serially worthless information - all led on by a president who long after invading Iraq (according to Peter Galbraith's recent memoir) was still unaware of the existence of any distinction between Sunnis and Shias. Amid this mess there have been two excellent books on the Middle East that define and illuminate the real roots of the conflict: Emma Williams's brilliant and moving It Is Easier To Reach Heaven Than The End Of The Street: A Jerusalem Memoir (Bloomsbury, £14.99), one of the best of recent books about Israel and Palestine; and Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower (Allen Lane, £20), possibly the best account yet written on the rise of al-Qaeda. The most visually spectacular book of the year was Lucknow: City Of Illusion (Prestel Verlag, £50), edited by Rosie Llewllyn-Jones, a lavishly produced and beautifully printed photographic study on the architecture of India. The book uses the work of early photographers such as Felice Beato to record the fabulously baroque architecture of Lucknow, most of which was wantonly destroyed by the vengeful Victorians in the aftermath of another catastrophic clash between East and West, the Indian mutiny of 1857.
Tom Leonard, poet The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe's astonishing The Ethnic Cleansing Of Palestine (Oneworld Publications, £16.99) illuminates what must now be the incontrovertible facts of 1948. As Samuel Beckett writes near the end of his novel, Watt: "Change all the names." Guyanan poet Martin Carter's collected poems and selected prose, University Of Hunger (Bloodaxe, £12), cover his journey from colonial prison cell to government minister. The late Hugh Savage's Born Up A Close (Argyll Publishing £10.99) is an enjoyable account of growing up and working in Glasgow, delineating a radical political tradition that bodies such as the headache-inducing melange of the new Kelvingrove Art Gallery would rather we all now ignored.
Jamie Byng, Canongate publisher MY delight at Canongate having both Maria Hyland and Kate Grenville on the Man Booker shortlist was tempered by the sadness I felt at Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me (Faber, £16.99) missing out. It was my novel of the year; an engrossing and profound work of enormous power and great delicacy that brought to mind some of the fiction of the late, great Muriel Spark. Michael Cox's The Meaning Of Night (John Murray, £17.99) is, by comparison, a pure entertainment, but what an entertainment. Think Shadow Of The Wind with its exuberant storytelling, intricate plot-weaving and fantastic characters. And then there is The Gift (Canongate, £15), Lewis Hyde's far-reaching study of the place of gifts within society. This exceptional book is essential reading for anyone who cares about the arts. It's a genuine life-changer, a masterpiece that everyone you give it to will be eternally grateful for.
Andrew Greig, author In Orpheus, (Faber, £12.99), Don Paterson's versions of Rilke's Sonnet are astounding in their grace and directness, binding unpredictable energy with formal beauty. An inexhaustible work of European literature has been restored. The Hot Kid (Orion, £6.99) by Elmore Leonard is another gem from the master. It does character, story, great dialogue, escapist thrills and - like many American crime writers - insight into the turbulent psyche of that troubled nation. 1599: A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro (Faber, £8.99) presents not the godlike myth but a creative businessman embedded in the ambitions, anxieties and politics of a time of mis-aimed foreign wars, state control, rumour and religious paranoia - reflected in Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, all knocked out in that busy year.
Liz Lochhead, poet and playwright From Canadian Alice Munro, simply my favourite living writer, The View From Castle Rock (Chatto & Windus, £15.99) - fiction, but departing dazzlingly from "the facts" of the lives of various swiftly-illuminated individuals (up to and including herself) from 200 years of her father's side of the family, the very Scottish emigrating branch of the Laidlaws of the Ettrick Valley. Elements familiar from previous short stories might seem nearer the bone, more "autobiographical", but I'm left in awe at the mystery of human existence. Tom Leonard's pamphlet, Being A Human Being (Object Permanence, £2.50), did more for my heart and mind than any fatter volume from the poetry shelf. Jackie Kay's second book of stories Wish I Was Here (Picador, £12.99) is delicious, deft, wicked and finally, very moving.
Anne Donovan, author The stories in Matters Of Life & Death (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) by Bernard MacLaverty are superb; in subtle prose he examines the human condition with quiet honesty. The Pure Land (Canongate, £12.99) by Alan Spence, based on the true story which inspired Madam Butterfly, is part thrilling adventure, part lyrical reflection, and characterised by Spence's pure vision. In Light (Canongate, £12.99) by Margaret Elphinstone, set in 1831, the family of the lighthouse keeper on a remote island are deeply disturbed by an unexpected arrival. Elphinstone expertly weaves historical detail through the narrative without ever losing its drama. In The Testament Of Gideon Mack (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99) by James Robertson, the minister of a sleepy Scottish town experiences strange phenomena which may be supernatural; a powerful and compelling read.
Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival I READ a lot of non-fiction and a lot of poetry. Capital Of The Mind (John Murray, £6.50) by James Buchan is an extraordinary book about how Edinburgh changed the world. It makes it tangible that the Enlightenment as we know it was a Scottish phenomenon, and even an Edinburgh phenomenon. My friend and collaborator Dorothy Porter has written a pretty wild verse novel, Wild Surmise (Picador). It is both domestic and cosmic, about a couple of jaded academics, one of whom has cancer, one of whom is an astrobiologist. The poetry ranges from examining the festering, minute nature of the relationship to imagining a life so much bigger, in parts of the universe that are only just beginning to be discovered. I reread The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (Penguin, £7.99) just before coming to Edinburgh. Muriel Spark is screamingly funny, witty and wicked, with a deep humanity. It put me in a wonderful mood. I grinned the whole way here.
Jane Stevenson, writer IAN Kelly's Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (Hodder, £9.99) is a curiously modern tale of a man who made himself famous by sheer force of personality. Few biographies I have ever read have given so sharp a portrait of an individual in relation to his society. Another high point this year was Dominic Sandbrook's White Heat: A History Of Britain In The Swinging Sixties (Little, Brown, £22.50), an epic account of mid-20th century Britain which is hugely enjoyable, funny, contentious, and shows a sharp eye for telling detail. On less familiar territory, Julia Lovell's The Great Wall (Atlantic, £19.99) is an important, exquisitely readable account of a civilisation which we can ill afford to ignore, a wonderful introduction to the forces that have shaped modern China.
James Boyle, former chairman of the City of Literature Initiative In Orpheus (Faber, £12.99) Don Paterson has again produced great poetry, in creating versions of Rilke's famous sequence. Paterson's commentary on how he made these poems in English is itself an important essay. One of the least alluring titles of the year, Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk (Mariner, £7), undersells what is a brilliant treatise on power, personality and the history of mental illness. Filled with fascinating detail and contemporary relevance, it is one to read rather than give as a gift. Looking at David Hockney's paintings is exhilarating and humbling. The dazzling exhibition of Hockney's portrait work at the National Gallery, London, is accompanied by a book, David Hockney Portraits (National Portrait Gallery Publications, £35), that brings sheer delight.
Michael Schmidt, author and publisher THE most rewarding poetry book I have read this year is Geoffrey Hill's Without Title (Penguin, £9.99), an excellent point of entry for new readers of his work and a major addition to his momentous oeuvre. Here, through direct, gorgeous language, we visit his personal landscapes and his wider civic, cultural and spiritual themes. He can be acerbic and witty, candid and merciless, not least to himself. His visual and prosodic precision is quite simply wonderful: "The white hedge-parsleys pall, the soot is on them"; "Storm cloud and sun together bring out the yellow of stone." Paul Muldoon's Horse Latitudes (Faber £14.99) and his beguiling Oxford lectures, The End Of The Poem (Faber £25) are both necessary and irresistible. Muldoon's poems are of a piece with his prose, and when we follow him as he explores the writing of others we find new ways of reading his original work. Animating the playfulness is an earnest love of places and people and a deep elegiac instinct. I have a vested interest in Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments, edited and annotated by Alice Quinn (Carcanet, £16.95). I published it earlier this year. Elizabeth Bishop, to whom I dedicated my second collection of poems more than 30 years ago, is a poet from whom I have continued to learn and who I continue to love with an accruing amazement. Seeing her here at work, as it were, watching the processes by which she winnowed and edited her poems, and the severity with which she cares for her language, I felt a sense of proximity, sharing in the process that gave us the refined body of work which is her Complete Poems.
Jenny Brown, literary agent KATE Grenville's The Secret River (Canongate, £7.99) was a powerful, compelling and poignant historical novel set in 19th century London and Australia. I loved the exuberant portrait of the Edinburgh Festival in Kate Atkinson's novel, One Good Turn (Doubleday, £17.99) and also the sedate 1930s city in Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox (Headline, £14.99). This haunting novel describes the shocking removal to an asylum of a teenage girl: forgotten by her family, she is released 60 years later. Margaret Atwood is better than ever in Moral Disorder (Bloomsbury, £15.99) presenting glimpses from one life. Nell grows up, falls in love, explains My Last Duchess to an obdurate boyfriend and reads accounts of failed expeditions to her once vital now house-bound father.
Mark Gatiss, actor and author I'm immersed in Claire Harman's biography of Robert Louis Stevenson (Bloomsbury, £9.99); it's fascinating. I'm also reading, although it's not a new book, Daniel Farson's biography of Francis Bacon, The Gilded Gutter Life Of Francis Bacon (Vintage, £29.99). And I've got Mark Haddon's A Spot Of Bother (Jonathan Cape, £17.99). I thought The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time was an amazing piece of work and the new one is good too.
Todd McEwan, author Javier Maras's Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance And Dream (Chatto & Windus, £17.99) will have you shouting from your roof. How rare to be so gently reminded of our responsibilities to the past, with humour and a universal humanity almost non-existent in British fiction. Equally enthralling was Suite Franaise (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), by Irne Nmirovsky, murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. Her voice and sensibility stand vibrant and complete, even in an incomplete work. That this surfaced after so long is a testament to its value and to those who cherished it. Robin Robertson's third volume of poetry, Swithering (Picador, £8.99), proves an honest, nerve-rackingly lucid vision of the world he is building: "Dragged through other people's lives, pursued through my own", as he writes of Strindberg, one of his compelling anti-heroes. Not to be missed. But the novels that appeared this year from Chris Bachelder (U.S., Bloomsbury, £7.99) and Thomas Bernhard (Frost, Knopf, £12.26) were also heartening events in a very cold literary climate.
Robyn Marsack, head of the Scottish Poetry Library I lugged home the catalogue of the V&A summer exhibition, Modernism: Designing A New World (V&A Publications, £24.99) and haven't regretted the effort. Dynamic Czech graphics, elegant Finnish glass, brilliant Bauhaus photography - all the confident innovations of the interwar years, are still exciting. Tomas Transtrmer is Sweden's greatest living poet, fortunate in his poet-translators - Robert Bly, Robin Fulton and now Robin Robertson, whose versions in The Deleted World (Enitharmon, £8.95) are tender, melancholy, piercing. I've just caught up with Vesna Goldsworthy's Chernobyl Strawberries (Atlantic, £7.99) in the new paperback edition, a marvellously poised account of her Yugoslavian childhood and English married life. She's candid without trespassing on others' privacy, witty, and very touching.
Ali Smith, author This year, among strong new fiction by Margaret Atwood and Kate Atkinson and alongside shining short story collections from Jackie Kay and Bernard MacLaverty, I particularly loved Maggie O'Farrell's new novel, The Vanishing Of Esme Lennox (Headline, £14.99), in which O'Farrell makes so clear the social and humane tap-roots in any real use of the device of narrative suspense. I also can't forget Peter Hobbs's first novel, The Short Day Dying (Faber, £7.99), a most unlikely and pervasive piece of good storytelling, and the first two volumes of Javier Marias's trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow (Chatto & Windus, £17.99), about history, the contemporary world and political responsibility, translated by Margaret Jull Costa into an English whose calm and force are rightly galvanising and terrifying.
Pat Kane, musician and author IT'S been strange year of random reading, squeezed between musical projects. Barney Hoskyns's Hotel California: Singer-songwriters And Cocaine Cowboys In The LA Canyons 1967-1976 (HarperPerennial, £8.99) does exactly what it says on the tin, and reminded me (like I needed reminding) of just how impure the sources of the purest pop can be. From Edinburgh University, Claire Colbrook's Gilles Deleuze: A Guide For The Perplexed (Continuum, £12.99) also realises its promise about the most difficult of modern French philosophers. And some fiction (though not enough): Jonathan Raban's Surveillance (Picador, £16.99) is like Dickens revived to witness the "age of terror"; and Michael Gardiner's Escalator (Polygon, £8.99) is an elegant collection of short stories about life in Tokyo, from one of the most original minds in Scotland.
Bettany Hughes, historian and broadcaster THIS year has been a humdinger for chunky history titles. The Rise And Fall of Alexandria - Birthplace Of The Modern Mind (Viking, £13.20) by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid is eminently readable. The book reminds us all to put the stories of great female sex icons - such as Cleopatra - very firmly in their historical context rather than rely on the fantasies of generations. Paul Cartledge's astute Thermopylae - The Battle That Changed The World (Macmillan, £20) pre-empts Hollywood's movie-version of the gory last stand of 300 ancient Spartans - set to be a big hit next year. And for a blow-out, coffee-table treat you can't beat The Royal Tombs Of Egypt (Thames & Hudson, £34), replicating for the first time the full wealth of underground wall-paintings from the glorious Valley of the Kings. Michael Russell, writer and politician Scotland is limbering up for the 300th anniversary of the Union which falls next May; the best contribution so far has been Michael Fry's The Union (Birlinn, £20) which combines a readable narrative with some sharply cynical commentary. The perils and pitfalls of today's Scotland are elegantly and movingly expressed by the poet Jim Carruth, whose new collection High Auchensale (Ludovic Press, £5) confronts the reality of rural life. And where better to escape from both past and present but the future - though it is a bleak place as described by Kurt Vonnegut in his unjustly neglected novel The Sirens Of Titan (Gollancz £7.99), re-issued in September as part of the excellent "Masterworks" Series.
Alastair Reid, author DAVID Mitchell's new and wonderfully-worded novel, Black Swan Green (Sceptre, £16.99), takes a look at our times through the lens of a 13-year-old boy, puzzling his way through his year with a perkiness that makes Holden Caulfield look Victorian. The Secret Of Scent: Adventures In Perfume And The Science Of Smell (Faber, £12.99), by Luca Turin, a biophysicist, who brings such zest to his own explorations of the unworded world of smell and perfume as to turn them into a pure reading pleasure. Lastly, The Art Of Looking Sideways (Phaidon, £24.95), by Alan Fletcher, which, although published in 2001, should be remembered this year since, sadly, Fletcher died last September. It is a book I would never be without.
Margo MacDonald, independent MSP I don't get out much, so I was unaware of the excitement caused by Freakonomics (Penguin, £8.99) until our American intern explained why he has only managed 70 pages he's studying economics. Quirky economist Steven D Levitt and journalist Stephen J Dubner have produced an "alternative", readable and entertaining book on the dismal science that challenges conventional wisdom on the causes and effects of economic and social change. Good fun, honest. Graham McColl's '78 How A Nation Lost The World Cup (Headline, £17.99), exposes the bitter-sweet contradictions at the centre of our national soul in every page. The author, a football correspondent who writes in good, plain English, records comprehensively the story of Ally's Tartan Army, and the sometimes parallel, sometimes entwined, fortunes of the SNP and the independence movement in the 1970s. Does history repeat itself? Read it and weep.
Margaret Elphinstone, author MARION, in Zoe Wicomb's Playing In The Light (New Press, £14.99), was brought up white but discovers she was born black. Her confrontation of this deception illuminates apartheid's edifice of lies, and addresses the universal fallacy of category. In Peter C Brown's The Fugitive Wife (WW Norton, £13.10) Essie is also on a journey, fleeing a mid-western marriage to find success as an entrepreneur in gold rush Alaska. Winter landscapes capture a sense of place while the underlying love story ends enigmatically. The late Harry Thompson's This Thing Of Darkness (Headline, £7.99) describes the physical and intellectual journey of Captain Fitzroy on Charles Darwin's Beagle. Brilliant navigator, devout Christian, and scourged by depression, Fitzroy's failure to reconcile discovery and faith unfolds against bleak southern coastlines.
Colin Fox, leader of the SSP I took Chambers Book Of Speeches (Chambers, £25) with me on a flight to Cape Town for the Homeless World Cup. The 250 speeches include memorable perorations such as Michael Moore's "We live in fictitious times", Oscar acceptance speech and George Galloway's Senate "evidence". Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech is also there and Cromwell, Wilde and Jaurs. Marvellous. I read North Korea: Another Country (New Press, £14.95) by Bruce Cummings months before the Koreans detonated their Nuclear missile and dominated world headlines. This book is that rarity, a fair and balanced history of a people that is rational, intelligent and informative. Whose Justice? The Law And The Left (Scottish Left Review Press, £6.99) by Dr Gregor Gall offers a stimulating collection of pieces by various authors on an area long overdue attention from a socialist perspective.
Ron Butlin, author As it's been a period for re-reading the Russians I'm afraid I've rather neglected contemporary fiction this year. Ronald Wright's A Short History Of Progress (Canongate, £7.99) is an elegantly written analysis of the terrible things man has done to himself and his world - truly disturbing, utterly convincing and a warning to us all. The Good European (Carcanet, £16.95) by polymath Iain Bamforth, is a series of witty and insightful essays about thinkers who have shaped the continent, imagined it and despaired of it. If golf hadn't been invented in Scotland I'm sure it would have found its creator somewhere out in the soul-searching vastness of Russia. For golf has it all, as Andrew Greig's delightful Preferred Lies (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) shows us most engagingly - the joy and the despair, the laughter and the tears. In short, the whole of life. Great game, great book.
Patrick McGrath, author I'd select Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me (Faber, £16.99) for the compassion he brings to bear upon the poor vulnerable creature he portrays with all the broad strokes of empathy and insight which are - or should be - the exclusive preserve of the novel. Neil Bartlett does a similar thing with a haunted and isolated figure who conceives a skewed passion for a beautiful youth in Skin Lane (Serpent's Tail, £10.99). And Richard Ford, in The Lay Of The Land (Bloomsbury, £17.99), brings America to life in such rich persuasive detail as to sweep away all visions of the Grand Satan and return us to the grounded quotidian particularities of the people themselves, with wit and humour and humanity unbounded: a masterpiece.
Patricia Ferguson, Scottish minister For Culture Bess Hardwick was a resolute and clever woman who prospered, financially and in terms of influence, during an era when very few women reached positions of power. She lived through a period of tremendous political change and it was fascinating to read of her relationship with Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in Mary S Lovell's Bess Of Hardwick: First Lady Of Chatsworth (Abacus, £9.99). Marie Antoinette took centre stage during the most tumultuous period in French history. In Marie Antoinette (Phoenix, £9.99), Antonia Fraser chronicles her life from his birth in Austria to her arrival as a 15-year-old bride in France through to the Revolution and her death allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions as to whether she was a victim of circumstance or the author of her own downfall.
Charles Kennedy, MP Richard the Lionheart may be the stuff of boyhood legend, but David Boyle's Blondel's Song (Penguin, £8.99) combines historical focus with an adventurous account of how his ever-faithful minstrel, Blondel, played a key role in his secret return across the Alps from the epic Crusades. It is less The Da Vinci Code, more Papillon meets The Day Of The Jackal. Brilliantly researched, written with complete accessibility. This year has been a time for wider reading and more personal reflection - yet some things, it seems, change little. When Richard instructs a particularly brutal slaughter of Saracens the author records how "the Muslim world never quite forgot it". And the author's inspiration for his own epic came about through being imprisoned (quite wrongly) in Rome at the time of the death of Pope Paul VI. Amen.