A gallery of authors name their literary highlights of 2011
• Kate Atkinson, novelist
There’s a fine intelligence at work in The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Fourth Estate, £20). Set in the Eighties, Eugenides traces three characters’ lives from college to the aftermath of college. It’s a novel that favours characters rather than plot but there’s a quiet intensity here. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Fourth Estate, £8.99) is magnificent. American writers seem to be able to write about individuals and relationships set against a background of the times in a way that honours the depth and immediacy of both. This book is funny, cutting, serious, uplifting, depressing – everything you could want in a novel. I spent part of my reading year catching up on novels I’ve missedout on. I had never read any Somerset Maugham, and his Of Human Bondage (Vintage Classics, £9.99), written in 1915, is an impressive and wonderful journey through the life of the (not always likeable) hero Philip Carey. I suspect Maugham is a writer very much out of fashion, which is a shame as this novel remains fresh and vital.
• Bella Bathurst, writer
No question, James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still (Penguin, £9.99) was one of the best books I read this year. To write a great Scottish state-of-the-nation tale is ambitious enough, but to do it with impeccable humanity is a real achievement. My happiest find of 2011 came out years ago, but won’t ever date. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (Pan, £9.99) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for its portrait of the awkward friendship between Texas rangers Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call. The best Western ever written. Finally, Ellen MacArthur’s second volume of autobiography, Full Circle (Michael Joseph, £20), sticks in the mind like a burr. Somehow, MacArthur manages to be heroic, wise, honest and intensely likeable all at the same time. Genius.
• Julie Bertagna, novelist
David Mitchell transports readers to the most extraordinary places. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre, £7.99) is yet another feat of an amazing imagination. In the 17th century, Japan exists almost as a parallel world. Jacob de Zoet is a lovesick trader on a walled island in Nagasaki, the only gateway to the rest of the planet. The world-building is brilliant, the story so strange and intense it left me desolate. I’m only a third of my way through the 623 pages of second Japanese odyssey, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (Harvill Secker, £20), but by the time you read this I’m pretty sure this weird, hypnotic epic of dislocation and yearning, set in parallel dimensions, will be neck and neck with Mitchell’s for my book of the year.
• Alan Bissett, novelist
There were some terrific debuts this year from independent Scottish publishers. Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love (Cargo, £11.99), Neil Butler’s The Roost (Thirsty Books, £7.99) and Robert Davidson’s Site Works (Sandstone Press, £7.99) were very impressive and bold. I was amused and enlightened by Douglas Coupland’s unorthodox biography of internet seer Marshall McLuhan, You Know Nothing of My Work (Atlas, £15.35). Never has there been a better match of biographer and subject. Alan McCombes’s Downfall (Birlinn, £9.99) is a riveting insider’s account of the Tommy Sheridan débâcle. Necessary and powerful stuff.
• William Boyd, novelist
We know very little about Shakespeare but a great deal about his contemporary Ben Jonson. Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson: a life (Oxford, £25) is, all the same, a brilliantly revealing life story and a story of the age. Paul Muldoon’s hermeneutic collection of poems, Maggot (Faber and Faber, £14.99) repays hours of haruspication and Alan Hollinghurst’s mesmerising novel The Stranger’s Child (Picador, £20) shows our greatest English prose stylist at the height of his powers.
• John Burnside, poet
The book that inspired me with hope this year was Carne Ross’ account of his conversion to emergent anarchism, The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Can Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century (Simon and Schuster, £16.99). The book that made me laugh and cry was Jeanette Winterson’s wonderfully honest memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape, £14.99). The book that made me green with envy – from wishing I had written it myself – was David Harsent’s beautiful, disturbing, formally and linguistically daring new collection, Night, (Faber, £9.99) and the book I read three times back to back was McKenzie Wark’s brilliant study of the Situationists, The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso, £14.99).
• Ron Butlin, novelist
I’ve spent most of this year trying to finish a stubborn new novel before it finishes me, I’ve avoided reading serious fiction in favour of poetry and thrillers. A pleasure, therefore, to come across Andrew Greig’s new collection As Though We Were Flying (Bloodaxe Books, £8.95). Greig is one of Scotland’s leading poets and these poems show him to be going from strength to strength. With none of the story-within-a-story tangles of his previous novel, Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale (Quercus, £17.99) is a splendid locked room mystery told with customary wit, weariness, insight and compassion. A rattling good read. Gordon Ferris’s The Hanging Shed (Corvus, £7.99) brilliantly evokes Forties Glasgow with its razor gangs and corruption within the church and police – another very fine addition to tartan noir.
• Nick Barley, director, Edinburgh Book Festival
Wild, hallucinatory and bleak, From the Mouth of the Whale (Telegram Books, £8.99), by Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón, is one of the most captivating and challenging books I read this year. Get through the first baffling pages in which the outcast Jonas directs his incoherent ramblings at the small bird that keeps him company, and you find yourself bathing in the bloody brutality of Iceland in the 17th century. Here, magic, myth and religion intermingle with suspicion and cruelty. Against this backdrop Jonas lovingly observes and catalogues the exquisite but threatening natural world with a scientific eye that hints at the coming age of enlightenment. That wild world is of course something that is now in turn threatened by us. Sjón’s extraordinary novel is a feat of the imagination and a paean to many of the things ravaged by our era of so-called rationalism.
• Jamie Byng, publisher, Canongate
Many of the greatest reading pleasures I have had this year have come from old books. I finally got around to reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (Vintage Classics, £8.99), which is so fresh and beguiling and Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Black Swan, £7.99). I can now understand why this heart-breaking and brilliant novel has been such a huge international success. Without doubt thought, the biggest revelation for me was reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (The Canons, £10.99). Written in the 1940s, first published by Aberdeen University Press in 1977, and reissued this summer with a wonderful and very substantial introduction by Robert Macfarlane, this slim account of one wise woman’s lifelong relationship with the Cairngorms is as rich and inspiring and musical and prophetic as anything I have read in my life.
• Karen Cunningham, head of Libraries, Glasgow
In The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes (Allen Lane, £30) Stephen Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and MIT, argues that violence, including war and murder, has declined from prehistory to today and even the death toll of the Holocaust, two world wars and various campaigns of genocide supports this theory and challenges our assumptions that recent events have been the most violent in history. A brilliant, but at times horrific, read that is eventually consoling that mankind is becoming more civilised. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) was, I think, a worthy winner of this year’s Booker Prize; short, but certainly not slight; precise and insightful. I can never resist Sophie Hannah’s psychological thrillers, they are unsettling and disturbing and Lasting Damage (Hodder, £7.99) is every bit as enthralling as usual, if you like your crime dark, don’t miss it.
• Roy Dalgliesh, novelist; director, Linlithgow Book Festival
The incomparable Janice Galloway’s All Made Up (Granta, £16.99) found my universal in the particular. Tam Dalyell’s The Importance of Being Awkward (Berlinn, £25) reminds us how politics should be practised. Both Tom Devine’s To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora (Allen Lane, £25) and Trevor Royle’s Time of Tyrants: Scotland and the Second World War (Berlinn, £25) are essential to understand how Scotland came to be where it is. Kelvin Sewell’s Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore (Createspace, £7.99, Kindle only) powerfully explores the real world of The Wire proving that true crime can be more powerful than fiction. Alan Bisset’s vibrant Pack Men (Hachette Scotland, £12.99) explores sectarianism and class in Scotland. Finally Edward St Aubyn’s At Last (Picador, £16.99), his elegant and moving conclusion of the Melrose series.
• William Dalrymple, historian
I’ve been deep in the First Afghan War this year, but broke free to read two strange, complex, intelligent new novels: Teju Cole’s Open City (Faber and Faber, £12.99) and Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99). As a model for how to write about a 19th century war, you couldn’t ask for anything more beautifully accomplished than Orlando Figes’ Crimea (Penguin, £12.99) – I hugely admired the way he made me look at something in a completely new light. But my favourite this year has to be Sherard Cooper-Coles’ coruscating memoir about his time as British ambassador in Kabul. When historians look back on the current fiasco there, Cables from Kabul (Harper, £25) will be remembered as the best and most well-informed insider account of how Britain managed to lose its fourth Afghan war.
• Meaghan Delahunt, novelist
John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook’ (Verso, £14.99) displays his trademark lyrical precision – meditations on art, writing and philosophy interspersed with his own drawings. Canadian Miriam Toews’s novel Irma Voth (Faber, £12.99) is a triumph – narrated in a compelling first person, it tells the story of a Menonite girl and her family in Mexico. Finally – Sarah Gabriel’s memoir of her struggle with breast cancer Eating Pomegranates (Vintage, £8.99). This deservedly won a Scottish non-fiction Book of the Year. Unflinching and beautiful.