Books of the year: Leading Scots pick their best

Leading Scots recommend their books of the year, whether you’re looking for that elusive Christmas gift or a gripping holiday read

Leading Scots have picked out their favourite books of the year. Picture: Complimentary
Leading Scots have picked out their favourite books of the year. Picture: Complimentary


Country Director, British Council Scotland

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I read two books that keep resurfacing in my mind. The first, in the wake of Dickens’ anniversary, was A Tale Of Two Cities. Reading Dickens for pleasure, rather than to answer an exam question, is a real joy. The other was From The Ruins Of Empire by Pankaj Mishra. For the West, the halcyon days of empire were marked by exploration, colonial rule and great wealth. For South and East Asia it was a catastrophe, where ancient societies lost their cultural and intellectual riches and were reduced to the position of subservient natives. We are seeing countries across Asia emerge from under that yoke, and this book provides a very different story to the one we tell ourselves.


CEO, Creative Scotland

Gavin Francis’s Empire Antarctica describes life at a research station on Antarctica where Francis spent 14 months. His description of what he found out about himself and his re-navigation of his personal compass in this bleakly remote location is utterly compelling. Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (Fourth Estate, £12.99) tells the story of an 19-year-old American in exile on a remote island off the coast of Chile. The book slowly reveals her secrets journeying through past and present, concluding in the revelation of a terrible family dilemma set against the backdrop of her first time of falling in love. This beautifully crafted novel articulates the dichotomy between the human desire for close connection and the simultaneous longing for private space to breathe and reflect.


Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival

This year I finally read – 12 years late – George Saunders’ magnificent 2001 short story collection Pastoralia. Set in a theme park where the narrator is paid to act as an everyday caveman alongside a cavewoman who’s refusing to play by the rules, it’s one of the funniest satires on contemporary America I’ve read in ages. It is in stark contrast to the blood-soaked version of America that is Philipp Meyer’s unforgettable novel The Son. An epic revision of Texan history seen through the eyes of three related narrators, this depicts the landscape of the oil state as a setting for the relentless pursuit of power in which nobody emerges without blood on their hands. But despite Saunders’ hilarity and Meyer’s brutality, both writers offer a deeply sympathetic portrayal of human relationships.



The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner manages to connect the art scene in New York in the 1970s with the Red Brigades in Italy, through the medium of motorcycles and drag car racing. Ambitious and beautifully written, it is one of the more surprising books I have read this year. Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent is among his best. It takes in both world wars, a near future Britain, a dream archipelago and a defence system that sends incoming weapons into a different universe. Irresistible, really. It makes Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon seem almost conventional. But this is Pynchon’s take on the attack on the Twin Towers. Will he reject the conspiracy theories of the “truthers” or spin some new conspiracies of his own? I think the answer is both. But I wouldn’t swear to it.


Former Labour MP

Because we’ve just passed the tercentenary of Allan Ramsay’s birth (13 October), there are two major exhibitions of his work in Scotland right now and I have been to both the one at the Hunterian in Glasgow and the one of his sketches at the National Gallery of Scotland. In connection with both visits, I have just re-read Alastair Smart’s great book Allan Ramsay: Painter, Essayist And Man Of The Enlightenment. I grew up with Ramsay’s portrait of a relative of mine, Christian Shairp, painted in that lovely shimmering grey he was so good at, hanging in the dining room of the Binns, and I have always admired his work not just as a painter but as a scholar.


Culture Secretary

I am not an avid crime fiction reader but Peter May’s The Chessmen is absorbing. His keen sense of place and the powerful physical and cultural context he depicts of Lewis makes this trilogy (the other two were The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man) compelling reading. The Great Tapestry Of Scotland: The Making Of A Masterpiece will be a staple of my Christmas gift wish list. The Tapestry has captured the imagination of a nation by telling the story of Scotland in such a popular and vivid way and celebrating thousands of years of Scottish history and achievement. This book is a testament to the imagination of Alexander McCall Smith, Alistair Moffat and Andrew Crummy and of course the flair and creativity of one thousand stitchers from across Scotland.


Critic, writer and Man Booker judge

It would be surprising if I didn’t choose the year’s Man Booker winner, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: from the first page I suspected it might take the prize. It’s a bold mixture of Victorian sensation novel and avant-garde constraint (the halving chapters, the astrological significances). Even on a fourth reading it still delivers. Next year, American authors will be eligible for the Man Booker – Thomas Pynchon delivered a piece of typically raggedy brilliance with Bleeding Edge, his take on 9/11 and the dotcom bubble, and JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst created an elaborate puzzle box with the ingenious and beautifully designed S. One major contender for next year must be Jonathan Lethem, whose novel Dissident Gardens is published in January, but I’ve read it in proof. A family saga about radical politics, it’s a corrective to The Corrections. Finally: Scott Snyder manages the incredible with Death Of The Family, his Batman saga: the Joker is actually terrifying again.


CEO, Scottish Book Trust

My big discovery this year was the American writer Denis Johnson: his Tree Of Smoke, Jesus’ Son and Angels are all truly extraordinary pieces of writing, if not new this year. William Bernstein’s Masters Of The Word: How Media Shaped History is a hugely pertinent study of the interrelationship between communications, technology and democracy, while James Robertson’s The Professor Of Truth probes brilliantly at the moral, political and emotional complexities of an incident like the Lockerbie bombing. Finally Olivia Laing’s The Trip To Echo Spring is an engaging examination of some great writers and their relationship with alcohol.


Leader, Scottish Labour Party

The childhood memoirs of most politicians would struggle to keep even members of their own family interested but Alan Johnson’s life story is a bit different. His experiences as a child, orphaned and brought up by his courageous sister in real poverty, were integral in shaping his politics and made him the man he is today. While he may have achieved high office as an adult, his humble beginnings make this rise all the more impressive. This Boy: A Memoir Of A Childhood is not only a good read and a poignant story. It also reminds us that at a time when the political class is not viewed in favourable terms by the public, there are people behind the political facade with real lives, experiences and stories worth listening to. This is a political biography that will appeal to people beyond politics.


Director, V&A at Dundee

Alice Rawsthorn’s Hello World is a gripping, smart and highly readable biography of modern design. It guides the reader through the subject’s historical successes and failures, helping us understand how design, when used properly, can be a power for immeasurable good. The dryly titled British Murals And Decorative Painting 1920-1960 by Alan Powers might sound a little specialist, but this beautifully produced, beautifully illustrated book reveals a world of some of the least-known but most remarkable artistic achievements in Britain. Some are by well known artists (Spence, Piper, Bawden) but many are not; some may still be seen but sadly many have been lost – this is a document and a homage to them. Robert Harris’s An Officer And A Spy is my ideal read at Christmas. A compelling fictionalised account of the Dreyfus spy scandal that dominated the headlines in fin de siècle Paris, Harris’s masterful retelling draws us in and repulses simultaneously.



For this year, I’d have to pick Shackleton’s Whisky by Neville Peat not least because my copy came with a bottle of whisky that had been specially made to taste exactly like that in the 25 cases of MacKinlay’s Old Scotch that he took on his 1907 Nimrod expedition. (If only I had two, I’d drink one of them.) I’ve just been appointed “explorer in residence” at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Perth, where part of my remit is to inspire youngsters with the lure of exploration. If one book could do that, I reckon it’s Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World. As a 12-year-old growing up in Buchlyvie, it certainly did the trick for me, laying the foundations for journeys I’ve made, such as lugging my sledge over 730 miles of ice for the first Scottish expedition to the South Pole.



The book that had the biggest effect on me this year was David Butler and Lorimer Moseley’s Explain Pain. It scrunched a huge field of the latest neuroscience research into a clear, brief and heartening illumination of how pain works for those who suffer chronic pain or wish to understand it. “What is sport?” is a question I grapple with every day as a professional athlete in a sport out of the mainstream and as a coach and writer. David Epstein’s The Sports Gene has a discussion that badly needs to happen at all levels in sport; about the relationships between talent, genetics, practice and success in sport. For my two-year-old daughter Freida and me, John Burningham’s Would You Rather… (Red Fox, £6.99) has been our favourite bedtime story reading. I know I’d certainly rather eat mashed worms than drink snail squash.



Anyone who loves the Western Isles, as I do, will enjoy reading Roger Hutchinson’s Father Allan, a biography of the greatly loved priest, poet and collector of Gaelic songs and folklore who lived in South Uist and Eriskay in the 19th century. I greatly enjoyed and learnt much American history from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Lincoln. How Do We Fix This Mess? by the BBC business editor Robert Peston is one of the best accounts of the financial crisis, recession and how we get out of it. Finally, those interested in Scotland’s future if it becomes independent should read about Ireland’s experience since 1922 in Conor McCabe’s Sins Of The Father.



Like many men of my age, the 1963 film The Great Escape made a huge impression on my 15-year-old mind lasting even to this day. So I was immediately drawn to Simon Pearson’s The Great Escaper, about Roger Bushell, who masterminded the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III in 1944. What a read. Pearson’s research is absolutely on the ball and the book is so descriptive I felt as if I were actually flying a Spitfire in 1940. Bushell was obsessive about writing home, sending coded messages, so Pearson has used these letters to build the story of a champion skier who became a Squadron Leader in 1940, who was shot down over Dunkirk and spent the rest of the war in various camps. After escaping, he swanned around Europe, fell in love, and found himself on the periphery of the assassination of Heydrich only to be recaptured. The whole book was fascinating, I could not put it down. I dare you to read it – you will not fail to be moved.


Barrister and international mediator

The books I most enjoyed this year were all ones with a personal connection. The most poignant was Under The Wire by Paul Conroy, the war photographer. His account of the final assignment of my friend Marie Colvin, and his own escape from Homs through a pipe strapped to a motorbike was utterly gripping. Another important dispatch came from Raja Shehadeh whose haunting depiction of life under occupation in Palestine in Occupation Diaries provided a timely reminder of a sore on the world’s conscience. But perhaps the most telling account of imperial folly came from William Dalrymple in Return Of A King. His description of the first Anglo-Afghan war was historical storytelling at its best and accorded with my own experience of Kabul. Finally, Selected Letters Of William Styron, by Rose Styron, whom I visited as she made her selection. The letters confirm Styron’s tortured genius and place within the pantheon of great literary American lives.


Expert on referendums

Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price Of Inequality was a good and interesting read, which shook me in my foundations. I also liked Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, an account of why the Romans were so eager to get Jesus killed. It turns out – and historical documents back this up – that Jesus interrupted the exchange of foreign currency, threatening the capitalists of first century Palestine. A fascinating take on the familiar story.


Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Long Walk: The True Story Of A Trek To Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz is a gripping story which follows the false imprisonment of a Polish officer by the Russians. The horrific journey to the camp would be a sufficient ordeal for most – and it was – but the incredible escape! A well told and inspiring true story. And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini teases and enchants the reader with interwoven short stories leading to the revelation of the rich tapestry of life through time, in and beyond Afghanistan. This book brings to life a troubled country that deserves respect for its endurance. I dipped into JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy in part because I read her work to my son and in part because of the critical reviews. It built to an interesting read exposing the complex and conflicting aspects of village life. I eventually liked it.


First Minister

With less than a year to go until Europe and the US lock horns in the 40th edition of the Ryder Cup, it seems only natural to choose Ed Hodge’s Jewel In The Glen: Gleneagles, Golf And The Ryder Cup as one of my favourite books of 2013. Written by a former caddy at Gleneagles, this book includes wonderful photography of the course and its picturesque surroundings as well as featuring interviews with sporting greats such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Sir Jackie Stewart and Andy Murray. Tracing the story of the Ryder Cup back to its beginning at Gleneagles in 1921, the book also highlights the benefits of Scotland hosting this wonderful tournament. One important omission, however – Nicklaus, the 18-time Major champion who designed The PGA Centenary Course, has written the foreword for the book but for some reason forgotten to mention my stint caddying for him on the course when we met in 2011. Can’t think why!


CEO, Publishing Scotland

I loved Kate Atkinson’s beady-eyed and ingenious Life After Life, an apt book to read in winter, with its snowy restarts. The most memorable crime reads have both been debuts – Seventy Times Seven, by John Gordon Sinclair and The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay. The first jumps with light, characters, action; the second is ultra-cool and restrained. Still with fiction, there was the second novel in the Sea Detective series, The Woman Who Walked Into The Sea by Mark Douglas-Home: Cal McGill is a great character. For something completely different, it’s been a joy to see Tintin (An T-Eilean Dubh) and Asterix (Asterix ann an duthaich nan Cruithneach) make their way into Gaelic this year.


Chief Executive, Skyscanner

We know nothing in this life on top of our hard-wired behaviour, other than through analogy with previous experience. When I suggested this to a friend in the pub ten years ago, he wanted to throw his beer over me for being pompous. A pair, more persuasive than I, Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, have written Surfaces And Essences and it’s wonderful. It goes quite a way into how our thinking differs completely to that of computers – even the ones that beat chess grandmasters. Not even consciousness is now safe from scientific investigation, though, and Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling Of What Happens is scaling one of the last frontiers leading up to Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near – readers of a nervous disposition may wish to avoid Googling that.


Long-distance kayaker

When everything from the toothbrush to porridge oats are cut back to a bare minimum it’s hard to justify taking reading material on an expedition. However, there is always room for chapters 7-9 of Douglas Mawson’s The Home Of The Blizzard as they are worth many times their weight in carbohydrate. Mawson’s is a tale of tragedy and survival. For any adventurer the former serves as a word of caution, the latter a reminder that until the soles of your feet fall off, you’re in good nick. n