SOME of Scotland’s most famous figures reveal their favourite reads, from murder mysteries to poetry and everything in between
CEO, Creative Scotland
I was very pleased to interview the Turner Prize shortlisted visual artist Nathan Coley this year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to mark the publication of A Place Beyond Belief, which surveys his career to date and is a rich source of inspiration about Coley’s practice. Two Scottish novels I’ve enjoyed are Anne Donovan’s Gone Are The Leaves, the story of Feilamort, which caught my attention partly because of the insight it gave me into the character and beauty of Scots words, and Iain Banks’ last novel The Quarry, a satirical, potent study of people and relationships. He is a great loss to Scottish literature and I can only be thankful for the rich resource of words he has left us to cherish.
Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival
In Ali Smith, Scotland can boast one of the most intelligent, inventive, downright impressive writers working anywhere in the world today. That she didn’t become the long-overdue second Scottish winner of the Man Booker Prize this year with How To Be Both isn’t a tragedy we should waste much time fretting about: Smith’s book has a longer shelf life than that. Maybe it’s too playful with the form of the novel to be a best-seller; maybe its use of words, sentences and paragraphs is too unexpected to be a popular hit with those who want a speedy page-turner in the airport. But in Ali Smith we have a Scottish writer whose dazzling sophistication will surely be celebrated, studied and argued over hundreds of years after we are gone.
Folklorist, writer and singer
I have an eclectic taste in books with special interest in social history and traditional culture. Dale Jarvis’ Any Mummers ’Lowed In? Christmas Mummering Traditions In Newfoundland And Labrador is a refreshingly non-academic, lavishly illustrated book that feeds my fascination for local customs. I enjoyed the poetry as well as photos in Tim Neat’s These Faces and was awestruck by the formidable expats in Pat Kelly’s Scotland’s Radical Exports: The Scots Abroad – How They Shaped Politics And Trade Unions. My other “must-read” is Eberhard Bort’s Annals Of The Holyrood Parish: A Decade Of Devolution 2004–2014.
Director, Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature
I’ve been savouring, each day, or as close as I can get, exactly 365 crafted, thoughtful, playful words by James Robertson. It’s been the word-espresso I clutch in the morning that pulls the day into focus. In 2013, James Robertson wrote a story every day, and each one was 365 words long. In 2014, on a daily basis, the stories were published on the Five Dials website, and now as 365: Stories they’ve been gathered into one stylish volume. What can you say in so few words? Everything, it seems. 365 worlds pressed between two covers.
CEO, Scottish Seabird Centre
I enjoyed Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and his recent Entry Island, which spans generations and the Atlantic, did not disappoint. I am now reading his earlier Enzo MacLeod adventures set in France which, thanks to new editions, are now more readily available. Alex Gray’s The Bird That Did Not Sing, set in pre-Commonwealth Games Glasgow, provided topical detective adventure. The Great Tapestry Of Scotland by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat remains an excellent souvenir of a stunning exhibition. Life Stories, edited by Mike Gunton and Rupert Barrington, the accompanying book to the TV series, has wonderful photography and highlights the amazing diversity of life on our planet and some of the challenges that animals face throughout their lives to survive.
CEO and founder, CodeBase
The most painful read of the year for me was certainly the excellent, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. I wish that I had this book when I started building companies. I cringed consistently while recognising mistakes that I had made trying to create and launch new technologies. Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over deeply affected my thinking on new technology and society. The book has a troubling message on the future of jobs and education. Nevertheless, I came away from that with a hugely positive view of the sorts of software companies at which Scotland can excel.
Former Labour MP
The Suicide Club by Andrew Williams is a thriller, and one of those compelling reads that, once started, cannot be put down. But it is more than that. Set in the momentous late summer and autumn of 1917, it is drawn from all-too-real events. The cast includes Field Marshal Sir Douglas (as he then was) Haig, David Lloyd George, and crucially, Brigadier General John Charteris, director of military intelligence. Just one among the several moral mazes that gripped me was Williams’ insight into the way in which raw intelligence could be twisted to suit the whims of men in powerful positions. Another was loyalty – to the Commander-in-Chief? To the government of the day? To the Empire?
Leader, Scottish Conservatives
My usual reading habits run more to fiction, military history and war correspondence than the political memoir, but I made the exception for Power Trip, by Damian McBride. It is utterly gripping. Working with Ed Balls and Ed Miliband at the heart of the Gordon Brown machine, his knowledge, access and assessment of the three is unrivalled. While the whole book reads more like The Thick Of It than Yes, Minister – and he himself comes out as variously drunken, Machiavellian and thuggish – there is still something appealing about his loyalty and devotion to his boss. It draws the veil back on the last UK government and there is a darkness at its centre. I found it enjoyable and appalling in almost equal measure.
Author and illustrator of children’s books
I cannot recall a year when I have sought escape via fiction quite so fervently as this one. And in Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven I found connection, wonder, elegiac sadness and images that have remained with me long after turning the last page. Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world is full of humans behaving exactly as you fear they might. Some are unhinged by the catastrophe, others find transcendence. Station Eleven is populated by killers, madmen, tribes and a nomadic troupe of actors. Time shifts backwards and forwards, drawing the cast of characters ever closer to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Mandel’s writing is glorious; muscular, elegant and suffused with an urgent sense of appreciation for the world we have now before we lose it for all time.
Co-convener, Scottish Green Party
Jeremy Rifkin is clearly someone who understands the scale of the economic and ecological crises humanity is facing. In The Zero Marginal Cost Society he not only gave my optimism levels a much-needed boost but sets out a compelling case that economic change through the ages has come about largely through changes to our energy and communication systems, cantering through feudalism, mercantilism and the industrial, corporate and finance-based phases of capitalism before speculating on what is to come next. Looking ahead to a renewably powered and hyper-networked age of Big Data and the Internet of Things, Rifkin argues that the coming economic paradigm will be lateral, peer-to-peer, and decentralised with less domination big business and a renewed place for the commons.
Kirsty Wark’s The Legacy Of Elizabeth Pringle christened my Kindle, and having spent school days in Ayr Academy’s science labs staring out towards Arran, I found the island’s character as intriguing as the book’s strong women. Crime is a new genre for me. With an MSP protagonist, the Edinburgh-set novel Falling Fast by Neil Broadfoot caught me up in its hard, fast storyline and strong characterisation, with place again central. Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, The Scottish Town In The Age Of Enlightenment 1740-1820, is on my Christmas list. 2014 is definitely the story of place.
In Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good Kathleen Flinn recounts unctuously foodie stories about her colourful midwestern family, showing how food and culinary traditions forge life-time memories and make us who we are. Michael Gibney’s Sous Chef not only brought back a host of memories but shows what it’s really like to work full-on in the high-end restaurant industry. A must-read for anyone for anyone even thinking about diving into the wild world of restaurant cheffing. For fiction this year I can’t see past The Invention Of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd about the relationship between a slave girl and a South Carolina plantation owner’s daughter in the early 19th century. A powerful and beautiful page turner.
Kirsty Wark’s The Legacy Of Elizabeth Pringle is a hefty tome, with a clever, captivating plot that slowly draws you in, with its engaging characters and startling revelations. I loved Sarah Maine’s Bhalla Strand, a historical mystery set on the Outer Hebrides; it is vivid and intriguing. Also evocative of the timelessness of Scotland’s landscape is Kenneth Steven’s Glen Lyon, a hauntingly beautiful story reminiscent of Neil M Gunn’s Highland River. Finally, Marmalade by Sarah Randall is not only topical (think “Paddington” the movie), it’s also practical and full of delicious recipes. Rhubarb marmalade trifle, anyone?
First and emphatically my book of the year, I commend Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk, winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. A scholarly and gripping study of the author’s personal grief at the death of her father, of her passion for falconry and a literary critique of T H White’s classic The Goshawk. Second comes Sally Magnusson’s Where Memories Go – the soul-scouring narrative of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, lovingly written both to her mother Mamie, and for her. Third is Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood, the haunting story of how his four wives tolerated his multiple excesses. Fourth is Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh. The pain, the redemption, and above all the humour. This blend of fact and fiction will move you to tears. And finally, The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. A powerful account of the world’s sixth mass extinction of species happening before our eyes, and just how little we can do about it.
The French MacDonald describes how the son of Neil MacEachen, who had masterminded Prince Charlie’s escape from the Western Isles with Flora MacDonald, was born in dire poverty in France but rose to be one of Napoleon’s Marshals, Duke of Tarentum and a French elder statesman. His fascinating account of his visit in 1826 to where his father was born in South Uist was recently discovered by Jean-Didier Hache in the French National Archives. Hache’s translation forms the core of the book together with his excellent commentary. Harry Reid’s excellent Reformation greatly increased my understanding of John Knox and why Scotland’s Reformation was so different from England’s. What Diplomats Do by Brian Barder, a former ambassador and high commissioner, is an amusing and informative guide to the life, achievements and problems faced by our diplomats.
Ruby Wax’s Sane New World was a great reminder that no matter how old you are or how much of a mess your life has been, you can still intervene to make your brain both smarter and healthier. The Art And Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Vozek and Stephen Finney helped me understand that there are a million and one ways to lose weight. Done properly, a ketogenic diet may be a good idea for some people, some of the time. It was for me, until I got fed up eating eggs. The Great Mountain Crags Of Scotland by Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton reminded me how good life can be when lived in our mountains.
As a sucker for good historical fiction I’ve been spoiled for choice. I especially adored Jim Crace’s Harvest, with its timeless setting, lyrical passion for the land and the crystal clarity of its prose. I was weak-kneed with admiration at Robert Harris’ An Officer And A Spy, based on that ignoble French miscarriage of justice, the Dreyfus affair. Characterisation, pace and the control of his material are just so good. My weakness for detective novels was delightfully rewarded by The Silkworm, JK Rowling’s page-turning second novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Cormoran Strike and sidekick Robin are brilliant inventions.
Chairman, AMO Global
Seeking historical understanding from what a country’s stones can tell us is not a new idea, but when a writer of Neal Ascherson’s class uses the idea as the basis for thoughts on what is Scotland and where is it headed, expect to be surprised and delighted. In the revised edition of Stone Voices: The Search For Scotland, his eclectic, intellectual search sweeps quite breathtakingly across history, geography, society, politics and with a biographical thread running through it. If you want to understand why, after over three centuries of successful Union, an internationalist who loves his country believes Scotland is inexorably drifting away from the UK and towards continental Europe, read this book.
Director, Scottish Poetry Library
Given that our perception of the First World War is so influenced by well-known poets, it was refreshing to have the perspective offered in the handsome anthology From The Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945 edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson. Poets of the present online generation feature in Colin Waters’s lively anthology Be The First To Like This – all living in Scotland but bringing a wide range of backgrounds to the mix; and back to war filtered through a contemplative, lyrical sensibility in Michael Longley’s tender and stirring collection, The Stairwell.
Restaurateur (Mother India)
I can’t resist a recipe book. Rick Stein’s India is a great blend of dishes from around the continent, from street foods to main courses. Tom Hunt’s The Natural Cook is an enlightening read, full of creative ideas to make the most of every part of every bit of produce. I bought Carina Contini’s Kitchen Garden Cookbook after a meal at Contini’s in Edinburgh. It’s Italian food with a Scottish twist. Our son Amaan is autistic, so we found Louise Booth’s When Fraser met Billy a very moving story about a rescue cat that transformed an autistic boy’s life.
MARK MULLER QC
Human rights barrister and international mediator
My best reads include Talking To Terrorists: How To End Armed Conflicts by my colleague Jonathan Powell, who lifts the lid on how peace deals are made. Another riveting read was Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files, which tells the inside story about the most spectacular intelligence breach ever. Zealot by Reza Aslan was a thought-provoking challenges to many people’s assumptions about Jesus of Nazareth. I would also recommend Justin Marozzi’s Baghdad – City Of Peace, City Of Blood for those with an interest in the Middle East. Finally, Bonnie Greer’s A Parallel Life provided me with a timely reminder of the sheer poverty and racism that haunted 1960s America.
Scottish Labour leadership candidate
It would be too shameless to mention my own book (The 10 Football Matches That Changed The World... And The One That Didn’t, available in all good book shops). I juggle a few books at any one time. Earlier this year the Scotland manager Gordon Strachan recommended that I read The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. Just like Gordon’s players down the years, I’m glad I took his advice. It’s a story about a remarkable old man reminiscing about an unlikely life. It’s entertaining and clever.
Portfolio manager for literature, publishing and languages, Creative Scotland
With new fiction this year from Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Richard Flanagan, David Mitchell and Yiyun Li, it was an extremely good reading year indeed. My main focus though was on re-immersing myself in Scottish writing, and among many wonderful books, my pick would be Jen Hadfield’s Byssus. The collection is brimming with fabulously unusual language, as beautiful and strange as the objects and the ideas which arrive on her Shetlandic beaches. There’s something incredibly immediate about the poetry too – the writer is fully present as we explore both the landscape and her exquisite way of considering the world around her.
Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats
When I debated independence with crime writer Alex Gray at Cornton Vale, I am ashamed to admit I had yet to discover her work, but thanks to the women prisoners she has a new follower. Never Somewhere Else is a compelling crime thriller with attractive characters, immersed in its Glasgow setting that holds the reader. Solomon Northup is my next selection with Twelve Years A Slave. The factual, horrific and graphic account of the brutality from man to man was fascinating in uncovering the motivations and norms of society of the time. So brutal it is easy to forget it is a true story.
If you can remember the 1970s, they say, you weren’t there. Likewise if you had time to read about the independence referendum, you probably weren’t flat-out campaigning in it. Scotland’s Local Food Revolution by Mike Small offers a long term solution to Scotland’s poor diet and foodbank dependency. The Land And The Common Good by the Land Reform Review Group is a giant but lovingly produced tome about Scotland’s eye-wateringly unequal distribution of land. Karen Campbell’s This Is Where I Am tells the story of a recently widowed Glaswegian befriending a refugee. But my favourite book for its portability and sheer audacity was Wings Over Scotland’s Wee Blue Book.
Director, Publishing Scotland
I enjoyed Bark, a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore, one of the best writers in the genre. Sara Paretsky’s Critical Mass has her detective V I Warshawski untangle nuclear secrets from post-war Chicago and Vienna – a chewy, intelligent read. Energy, housing, water, and postal services are unlikely reading material but James Meek uses them to pull off a thought-provoking state of the nation chronicle in Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs To Someone Else. Finally, I’m far from the target audience for YA fiction but was gripped by Lari Don’s Mindblind – a tense, cinematic thriller featuring a mind-reading teen with a murderous family.
Director, Scottish International Storytelling Festival
As Scotland was shaken and stirred in unpredicted ways, Iain Macwhirter’s Road To Referendum provided consistent background to his flow of incisive commentary. Lesley Riddoch’s Blossom was the most persuasive book on why Scotland might want to be governed differently. Both books have been debated in events across the land, and their arguments continue to resonate. On the fictional side, James Robertson’s 365 Stories wisely eschewed big statement to reflect how our struggle to understand where we are at in ourselves keeps morphing into narratives of all kinds. Books have proved their worth through the maelstrom of change.
Crossing three continents and spanning numerous decades, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a gripping tale which tackles the ambitious themes of race and immigration. In essence it’s a romance, the story of Nigerian schoolmates Ifemelu and Obinze whose relationship is put on hold when they go their separate ways to seek better lives in America and England. Their painful experiences of segregation and difficulties securing asylum make for uncomfortable reading at times but it is to Adichie’s credit that these overarching tensions merely strengthen the tenacity and appeal of the characters, in particular the inspirational female protagonist Ifemelu. Americanah took me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and left me wanting more, which is why it is without a doubt my book of the year.
A book on religion by an academic sociologist is not an obviously enjoyable read. But it is in the hands of Steve Bruce who in Scottish Gods: Religion In Modern Scotland, 1900-2012 reveals that a nation once proud of its Presbyterian piety is now “a formerly Christian society with a large minority of active Christians and a very small representation of other faiths”. In a commendably jargon-free, candid and irreverent way Scottish Gods, History Book of the Year in last month’s Saltire awards, details and accounts for this transformation, and asks searching questions about the representativeness of the Christian churches on moral matters in contemporary Scotland.
CEO and co-founder, Skyscanner
In 1879, Henry George wrote the clearest book about economics (Progress And Poverty) I have yet read. He gave examples about the counter-intuitive impact of railways – creating poverty through increases in rent. As the creator of Netscape Navigator – an early internet browser – said: “Software is eating the world” and so software creators’ books get read. One of the best this year is Zero To One by Peter Thiel. He created Paypal to replace the US dollar. It “only” became a pervasive online payment mechanism instead. Does software make us all better off? Read these two books and make up your own mind.