DCSIMG

The presents of mind - the best Christmas reads

KIRSTY GUNN Author

Afterlands by Steven Heighton works mightily and quietly upon the imagination in this tale of a failed expedition to the Arctic at the turn of last century. No one writes about textures and the feel, the substance of things like this Canadian author: the soft fudgeiness of an igloo wall warmed by a seal-fat lantern, the press of a thickly wadded fur jacket... Heighton, who is also a poet, makes you feel the press and urgency of this adventure by words not deeds. A deep and moving tragedy that places the fate of an Eskimo woman and her child dead centre of a male power struggle that plays itself out in petty squabbles and shows of vanity upon the ice, Afterlands is the great unsung book of 2006.

RICHARD HOLLOWAY Scottish Arts Council Chairman

The book I'd like all my friends to have for Christmas is a slim volume of poetry, Viva La Vida, by Peter Abbs. Everything in the book is deep and moving, but it's a sequence of 11 poems titled, 'Ecce Homo: On Nietzche's Madness' that I really want them to read. Here's a flavour: "There are no flowers in the room. No ornaments: / No love letters on the cluttered desk or mantelpiece - Only quack potions / against migraine, sedatives / For sleep. Mesmerised by the march of metaphors He writes and writes. / Deep as the night they flow in, Changing frontiers, disarranging, / estranging. A fox stirs..." The saddest, most gut-clenching poem in the book describes the moment in the Piazza at Turin on January 3, 1889, when Nietzche threw his arms round the neck of a horse being beaten by its owner, started to cry, and was led gently away by his landlord into the land of madness.

A L KENNEDY Author/comedian

I no longer give books to anyone, but I would hand over American Requiem by James Carroll to someone if I still did that kind of thing. The subtitle, 'God, my father and the war that came between us', gives you a fair summary of the subject matter and the tone as the author charts his development from a gung-ho, B-52-loving kid in an air force family, to a seminarian reclaiming his father's vocation, to an anti-war priest in the time of Vietnam, wrestling with his church's role in both peacemaking and oppression. As a son of the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, he also gives astonishingly intimate insights into the machinations of the Cold War, both sides of the civil rights movement and the lies and betrayals that began and then continued the war in Vietnam. Carroll combines a clear, passionate prose style with painstakingly honest self-examination and a kind of spiritual depth you won't find in many autobiographies. The book is shot through with bewilderment and pain, but there is also huge mercy, understanding and forgiveness here.

JACK McCONNELL First Minister

My book of the year for 2006 has to be The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. This book will make you weep. It is a powerful reminder of our potential for cruelty and the innocence of childhood friendship. Boyne writes with a remarkable insight into the mind of a child, the content is imaginative and compelling, and as a result, I will never forget this book.

I also enjoyed A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. It brought light relief, but was also thought-provoking as it counterpoised the significance of tradition and roots, with the more spontaneous nature of modern times.

And earlier in the year, I enjoyed researching a lecture on the Scottish Enlightenment, delivered at Princeton, where John Witherspoon was an outstanding university president. Jeffrey Morrison's John Witherspoon And The Founding Of The American Republic was both helpful for the lecture and a very comprehensive reminder of the impact Scots had on the new United States, its values and constitution.

MIKE RUSSELL Former MSP

Politics and writing are two trades that cannot be learnt from books, but books can teach the practitioner a lot about them nonetheless. The lessons of Bob Woodward's State Of Denial quickly become terrifying as a reporter of genius lays bare the arrogance, bureaucratic infighting and criminal complacency of those responsible for the disaster that is today's Iraq.

Somewhat easier to stomach is the statecraft of Robert Harris's Imperium, though the fact that the setting is Cicero's Rome does not detract from the deeply relevant political and creative insights of a master storyteller. The Scottish novelist Andrew Drummond is a much less conventional raconteur, but Volapuk - a fictional account of those susceptible, not to say gullible, 19th century Scottish minds who fought over the idea of a universal language - is well worth the effort required to enter such a strange, self-contained world.

NICKY SPENCE Tenor

Alan Bennett: Untold Stories is my top book for 2006. He is one of the finest playwrights, authors and novelists Britain has to offer and he's my favourite. His inimitably observational style is descriptive, tragic, humane, humorous and charming in equal measure. Having first started a love affair with Bennett's world as a teen retelling 'Talking Heads' at opera auditions, this is, in its freewheeling way, an autobiography, and charts a feat of social wonder - the butcher's son who, via the 11-plus and Leeds Modern School, won a scholarship to Oxford, got a first, shot to fame in Beyond The Fringe, and, when it transferred to Broadway, found himself at parties trying to make small talk with stars who, not so long ago, he had been queuing up to see at the Picturedrome on Wortley Road. A tale not too distant from my own, this was a book I didn't want to end.

PATRICIA FERGUSON Culture Minister

One of my favourite reads of this year has been Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette, which captured the formality of the court of Louis XVI beautifully. Fraser's book is an even-handed account of the tragic life of a woman reputed for her immoral and excessive lifestyle, which lets the reader make up their own mind about an often unfairly maligned character.

Interesting and evocative, the book traces Antoinette's life as an unremarkable yet privileged child-princess in Austria thrust into a significant role in history which ended as a queen in a cell in Paris, stripped of everything and subjected to horrific brutalities. Fraser's sympathetic, yet richly human biography is truly engaging and a delight to read.

ANNE DONOVAN Author

Bernard MacLaverty's recent collection of stories, Matters Of Life And Death is a fine and beautiful one. Some characters face dramatic circumstances, like the Belfast father in the breathlessly paced 'On The Roundabout' or the painter in the long, complex 'Up The Coast', whose trip to an inspirational landscape is cruelly sabotaged. Others, such as the elderly lady in 'The Assessment' or the maiden aunt in 'Visiting Takabuti', face quieter, but just as deeply felt troubles. 'The Clinic' manages to be laugh-out-loud funny and deeply melancholy at the same time. Subtle, spare and lyrical in his prose, unerring in his deep understanding of, and compassion for, the human condition, MacLaverty is a master of the short story form at the height of his powers.

ALAN RIACH Professor of Scottish Literature, Glasgow University

Ten days ago, the magisterial three-volume Edinburgh History Of Scottish Literature hit my desk; two days later, the 800-page Alba Literaria, ed. Marco Fazzini from the University of Florence; and three days after that, Roderick Watson's two-volume The Literature Of Scotland: an astonishing testament to international scholarship revaluing the full inherited file.

Yet it's still possible for a boy or girl to go through their entire school-life and know nothing about this treasury because Scottish literature is not securely embedded in the curriculum.

Maggie Fergusson's George Mackay Brown: The Life is a much-needed work of social literary history and Duncan Glen's Collected Poems 1965-2005 is a great record of an era and a wonderfully benign, loose-shouldered collection.

For contrast, the sheer pleasure of crime that pays is the metier of Richard Stark, Ask The Parrot: 'It starts with technology but it still ends with tracker dogs.' There's a sentence!

NICOLA MORGAN Children's author

The best books hit their readers in the guts, heart and head. I'll leave the excellent website BooksfromScotland.com to highlight great Scottish books, but which other books hit me hardest this year?

Morris Gleitzman's Once, for portraying the Holocaust more devastatingly than an adult book would allow; Anne Fine's The Road Of Bones, for its philosophically challenging theme; and Ithaka by Adele Geras, which convincingly oozes the sultry heat of ancient Greece. Dare I now suggest where to buy them? Your choices matter to authors, to our ability to write the full range of books, and ultimately to literature: generally, the bigger the discount, the smaller the royalty - and with vast discounts, and 'used' books, author income shrinks to zero. Let devoted booksellers help your choices, through bookshops (especially independents) or inspirational websites. Buy baked beans from supermarkets, but books from booklovers.

HANNAH McGILL Edinburgh International Film Festival Director

This year I have had the pleasant experience of discovering a new favourite author, Patrick Hamilton, so I shall be attempting to convert a few people his way. I only knew the film adaptations of his stage plays Rope and Gaslight; his prose was new to me when a friend gave me The Slaves Of Solitude - reprinted this year - with many assurances of its brilliance. It truly is a stunning novel. It is a mystery to me why Hamilton is not a household name. His writing is so elegant, funny and atmospheric; and he's incredibly good on human cruelty and folly, whilst retaining real warmth and compassion for his characters. His books tend to be about getting extremely drunk, secretly hating people you affect to like, and getting infatuated with entirely the wrong people, which makes them highly appropriate for Christmas.

CLARE ENGLISH Radio presenter

If someone had told me this time last year that my book of 2006 would be about science, I would have accused them of being on drugs. Strange but true... I am hooked on a slim volume called The Secret Of Scent. It's written by the brilliant maverick biologist, Luca Turin. This is a man obsessed with smells... nice ones, nasty ones, organic and synthetic ones. So finely tuned is his nose that it can readily identify the ingredients of any known perfume with the most perfunctory sniff. Forgive me if I don't do the science bit, but hang in there as Turin explains things in terms clear enough for the artiest arts student to grasp. It's his infectious love of perfume that makes this ostensibly academic book so readable.

JANICE GALLOWAY Author

Poetry excited me most this year, notably Robin Robertson's stunning Swithering and WN Herbert's great fun and serious Bad Shaman Blues. But I'm opting for a brand new book by a brand new press with some brand new people in it beside already-known maestri. Addicted To Brightness is a gorgeously-produced, magnesium-white volume by Long Lunch Press. It's a rich textured and wonderfully fresh read. No Gaelic voices, but Shetland to Dundee, Aberdeen to Glasgow, sharpened with Indian and English flavours, emerge wonderfully clean and sparkling with expression. I lose count of the times I'm asked what "new Scottish stuff" would make a good gift for a discerning reader at Christmas. This.

W N HERBERT Poet

It's been a very good year for Scottish poetry, and for poetry written in Scotland - even WN McScrooge concedes the usual suspects deserve their usual commendations (but where are the younger Scottish poets?) Maggie Fergusson's biography of George Mackay Brown brilliantly solves the problem of writing about a poet without a life. It's as powerful an evocation of the Orkneys as it is an insight into their finest writer's imaginative process. I loved Vicki Feaver's Book Of Blood - her imagery is violent and graceful at the same time, compelling and resonant. I have to recommend a book of Chinese poetry translated by a Scot: Yang Lian's intricate, shocking and baroque masterpiece Concentric Circles is superbly rendered by Brian Holton with Agnes Chan. And another example of mature art, Edwin Morgan's Book Of Lives, is the embodiment of imaginative vigour - a new gallery of voices and memories from an old master.

HUGO RIFKIND Columnist and author

It's probably a rather boring failure in a person, but I tend to read how I want to write. So, looking back over 2006, I can be perhaps predictably triangulated into a fertile valley between the peaks of Julian Barnes' Arthur & George, Louise Welsh's The Bullet Trick and Christopher Brookmyre's All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye. Barnes tells the true story of Arthur Conan Doyle's investigations into the case of George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor wrongly accused of a spate of horse-slashings in 19th century Staffordshire. Welsh sends her Glaswegian conjuror anti-hero William Wilson vomiting and brawling his way through the vaudeville clubs of Berlin in a sort of literary version of a Marilyn Manson video.

Six months on, meanwhile, I haven't the faintest recollection of what Brookmyre's book was about. Guns, most likely. Bombs and things, and awfully rootless chaps wearing balaclavas. By rights Brookmyre should be getting boring by now, but he isn't, not even slightly. Whatever it was, it gave me a fantastic afternoon.

CATHERINE LOCKERBIE Edinburgh International Book Festival Director

Forget lingerie; books are surely the most sensuous gift. Most seductive of all is poetry, and the shimmering height of seduction is Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture. A beautiful volume in all respects, this is love poetry to shift the heart. The one to give if you can find it is the hardback version - small and perfectly formed, just the right opulent richness of cover, a gorgeous object.

Of course, it is the words that matter. Maggie Fergusson's magnificent biography of George Mackay Brown has some fine old photos of the lantern-jawed bard, but it is the insight and affection of the writing, illuminating this most intensely private of poets as never before, which render it so moving and special. Press it upon people who love the Orcadian cadences of Mackay Brown, and on those yet to discover that seagirt world. Better still, raid the second-hand bookshops for slender volumes of his own work - the lovely hymn to Hoy, Fishermen With Ploughs, for example (Hogarth Press, 1971) - and bundle them with the biography for a perfect winter gift of lasting resonance.

JOHN BURNSIDE Poet and author

This was a very good year across the board, and it is hard to pick favourites from such a rich crop, but the book that haunts me still, the one I come back to as the year ends and the holidays allow time for close re-reading, is Greil Marcus's The Shape Of Things To Come. This is a study of American rhetoric and prophecy that reveals, not only the flaws, but also the elusive, beguiling and (for the moment, at least) lost beauty of an American reality that is so much richer, and - as dark and as difficult as it is - so much more worthy of pursuit, than any dream.

FICTION

THE past year saw many of the "big beasts" of the literary world promoting new work: Martin Amis's House Of Meetings garnered better reviews than many of his previous fictional works; David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, which married his extraordinary imagination to more autobiographical material, received plenty of plaudits, but (as is the custom) precious few prizes; and two of Canada's most redoubtable writers, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, went head-to-head with short story collections inflected by personal memory - Moral Disorder and The View From Castle Rock respectively.

In terms of follow-ups, Mark Haddon's A Spot Of Bother seems set to repeat the success of his previous work, and DBC Pierre's truly abominable Ludmila's Broken English seems set to erode any acclaim he may have stockpiled since winning the Man Booker Prize.

The Man Booker Prize itself offered one of the most curiously lacklustre shortlists in living memory, the award finally going to Kiran Desai's The Inheritance Of Loss. I'm sure it will be on people's "must read" list for quite a while to come. Of course, the standard grumbling went on about those who missed out - Howard Jacobson's Kalooki Nights was an early, ill-fated favourite, and Will Self was surprisingly omitted from even the long list for his dyspeptic take on Messianic cabbies, The Book Of Dave. A personal favourite that deserved more attention was Lucy Ellmann's Doctors And Nurses, a riotous, barbed and wickedly funny take on the medical profession, nudists, masochism and East Lothian.

But the major developments were all transatlantic. The old guard gave a very poor showing, with John Updike's flaccid take on fanaticism (Terrorist); a rather paint-by-numbers Paul Auster (Travels In The Scriptorium); a slight take on ageing from Philip Roth (Everyman) and an otiose further volume of memoirs from Gore Vidal (Point To Point Navigation). That said, the wow factor was all American.

Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day received some snotty reviews that missed the point with almost thrawn critical blindness - it's a hoot, an elegy and has a talking dog that reads Henry James. Ken Kalfus' A Disorder Peculiar To The Country managed to give an original and pitch-black-funny take of September 11, and Chris Bachelder's US! fulfilled the promise of his earlier Bear Vs Shark, imaging a world where veteran socialist novelist Upton Sinclair is back, angry and constantly assassinated. Mark Danielewski's Only Revolutions was a freewheeling, psychedelic roadtrip, and easily the most gorgeous piece of book design since - er - his last book, House Of Leaves. Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A Comedy was a manic monologue (and I'm still unsure what it all meant) and Lydia Millet's Oh Pure And Radiant Heart made the most unbelievable plot (three nuclear physicists from the 1950s reincarnated in contemporary America) more than just credible: it undermined how convincingly real we are.

Finally, the Nobel Prize this year went to Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish novelist of elegance and erudition. He, and several other Turkish writers, have suffered malicious prosecutions for "insulting Turkishness", and even his victory was tainted by accusations of political strong-arming from the West. Setting aside the diplomatic brouhaha, Pamuk was a worthy winner.

SCOTTISH

MURIEL Spark's death in April was a low tide in what will come to be seen as one of the most mixed years for literature in recent memory. Having lost such a huge talent, Scottish literature veered as if rudderless between the incandescent and the utterly banal.

James Robertson's The Testament Of Gideon Mack has surely been the high tide of Scottish writing this year: folklore and the supernatural meet the auld Kirk and run away with the goalposts. This novel, which narrowly missed a place on the shortlist for the Man Booker, marks a significant development from Robertson's earlier, more historical novels - a triumph.

Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn moved away from the style of her earlier books to great effect. Introduced in Case Histories, Jackson Brodie is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, a dogged cynic who somehow manages to be loveable yet vulnerable as well.

Slightly further down the same wave of crime fiction came Ian Rankin's new opus. In The Naming of The Dead DI Rebus took on murderers and drug runners, only to find there might not be too many differences between them and the global statesmen at the G8 summit. Rankin's ambition is drawing him away from crime fiction, this book being more preoccupied with the wider world than Edinburgh's criminal fraternity.

Weekend by William McIlvanney, right, was a quietly powerful return to form for one of Scotland's most respected writers, depicting characters who are "stuck in the ante-rooms of their own lives" - places where things go wrong - but who keep going, trying to make sense out of events which may be meaningless. McIlvanney has entered his eighth decade on the crest of a wave with work that is deftly observed and imbued with delicate humour.

With one of the most eagerly anticipated, or hyped, launches of the year, successful migr Andrew O'Hagan delivered his third novel, Be Near Me, in which arrestingly beautiful prose and fine dialogue mask a staleness of plot and characterisation. Gay priest attempts to seduce young boy - shock! The unemployed poor take drugs - horror! O'Hagan's Scotland is one which most people north of Hadrian's Wall would struggle to recognise.

Any talk of staleness must lead us to Irvine Welsh's Bedroom Secrets Of The Master Chefs, a work plucked from the deepest troughs of literary piggery. How surprising to learn that Welsh's protagonist hails from Leith, takes drugs, drinks and has sex, and then comes back to Leith a wiser man. Perhaps Welsh will do the world a favour and stop for long enough to allow his eye for observation to return.

Until then, my advice is to forget Welsh's kitchen trash, and focus instead on all the other writers - Louise Welsh, Alan Warner, Alan Spence, Matthew Fitt's translation of Roald Dahl and Michel Faber - who made 2006 such a baffling, sad, brilliant, funny and memorable ride.

Farewell too, to Ian Hamilton Finlay. His art has been enthused over so much that it's easy to forget what a wonderful writer he was.

NON-FICTION

IN 2006 the situation in Iraq went from bad to worse and in Scotland we revised our views of the Union of 1707.

Of the slew of books on Iraq, in these pages I reviewed Rory McCarthy's Nobody Told Us We Are Defeated; Stories From The New Iraq a first person account of the chaos on the ground which made up in immediacy for what it sacrificed in objectivity. Michael Gove's Celsius 7/7 was gripping, an erudite blast against those who compromise democratic values by pandering to extremists in the name of "peace."

Gove's book received a withering attack at the hands of William Dalrymple. I found Dalrymple's account of The Last Mughal (pictured right) fascinating but frustrating, almost labyrinthine in its story telling, but nonetheless a compelling defence of cultural complexity in the face of a world crisis which demands that we take sides.

On the great dividing line in Scottish history, the Union, Michael Fry, Mike Russell and Christopher Whatley all had their say. Of the three, Whatley's The Scots And The Union was the most intriguing. Meticulously, Whatley and his colleague Derek J Patrick analysed the voting records of the final, pre-Union, Scots parliament and with the aid of private letters and journals have produced an irresistible account of what Scots legislators thought they were doing when they voted the Union into being. It is no disrespect to Professor Whatley to wonder why on earth no one had done this work before. Could it be that this most fundamental of fractures in the Scottish psyche sits more comfortably as myth than as meticulously explored fact? Whatley and Patrick seem to conclude that we were not, in fact, "bought and sold for English gold". Fancy.

I also enjoyed James Buchan's Adam Smith And The Pursuit Of Perfect Liberty which served, at least partly, to rescue Smith from the hands of his enthusiasts. For Smith, Buchan reminds us, economics could and should not be severed from morality. It's an odd coincidence that the great economist, Smith, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and finance minister Gordon Brown were all Fife men. Clearly there is something in the water there.

For intellectual playfulness I enjoyed Richard Davenport-Hines' A Night At The Majestic, a recreation of the night that Joyce, Proust, Picasso, Diaghilev and Stravinsky sat down for dinner together in Paris in 1922. As an idea for a book it is enchanting. To fully realise it, as Davenport-Hines does, makes it a triumph. Paris is also the setting for Ruth Scurr's exceptional biography of Robespierre, Fatal Purity: there is a very thin line between necessary rigour and individual sympathy, and Scurr stays firmly on the side of rigour. The French Revolution seemed to be the current publishing fad, after last year's glut of Nelson, Darwin and Wellington, with Lucy Moore providing a startling take on six women's lives through the period as well.

Finally, two very different first person accounts. John Burnside's A Lie About My Father was searing, a gut wrenching account of a complex relationship with a damaged man, and Craig Taylor's Return To Akenfield: Portrait Of An English Village In The 21st Century was a compelling story of an English town apparently cut off from its own history. In Scotland, of course, we never get the chance.

 
 
 

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