Books of the year: Writers' choice

TO launch our three-part round-up of the most engrossing reads of 2009, we asked our favourite writers for their festive gift advice


Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 18.99) is such a superlative novel that I wouldn't have had anything to do with the Man Booker if she hadn't won. I'm reading a lot more non-fiction than fiction these days, and I particularly enjoyed Jenny Uglow's A Gambling Man (Faber, 25), about the restoration of Charles II and how he coped with becoming a king. Whatever she writes about she makes absolutely fascinating, and this book is a case in point.


Anthony Grafton's Worlds Made by Words (Harvard, 22.95) is a sparkling series of essays in praise of books, with moving and sometimes hilarious reminiscences of a lifetime spent in libraries ("amid the smells of dust and noble rot"). At more than 1,000 pages, Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity (Allen Lane, 35) is a long read, but worth every minute. For a page-turner, though, I would go for Lustrum (Hutchinson, 18.99) the second volume of Robert Harris's semi-fictional trilogy on the life of the Roman politician, Cicero. The oldest stories really are often the best!


It may seem perverse to choose a manifestly flawed and unachieved book but Vladimir Nabokov's posthumous The Original of Laura (Penguin Classics, 25) is nonetheless an absolutely fascinating document, if only (I confess) for besotted lovers of Nabokov's work. Here is the embryo of the novel he was writing at his death reproduced, in beautiful facsimile, on removable filing cards – exactly as Nabokov wrote them in his childish longhand. One can at least speculate about the brilliant imago that might have emerged, had he lived. By contrast everything about Don Paterson's latest volume of poetry, Rain (Faber, 12.99), is fully achieved and replete with quiet confidence. Another terrific reinforcement of an ever-more rock-solid reputation.


In fiction, the book of the year in 2009 was, without doubt, Hilary Mantel's superb study of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. For me, the year's best poetry had to be shipped in from elsewhere, most notably Charles Wright's superb Sestets (13.95, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), a collection of wonderfully economical six-line reflections on living and dying, beauty and time, light and darkness that, in their spareness and wisdom, recalls the great Taoist thinkers. I was as taken with John Haskell's superb new novel, Out of My Skin (FSG, 6.20), as with his previous work, and look forward to seeing it in print on this side of the Atlantic.


Brian McCabe is one of Scotland's finest poets and Zero (Polygon, 9.99) contains some of his best poems to date. This playful take on mathematics and life is bursting with wit and irrepressible flights of fancy, the whole underscored with true gravitas. RJ Ellory is a thriller writer new to me. After the rather formulaic opening pages, A Simple Act of Violence (Orion, 6.99) becomes a real page-turner – shocking and deeply moving by turn. Apparently Ellory has written five earlier novels – I can't wait!

The stories in Fighting It (Two Ravens Press, 9.99), Swiss-born Regi Claire's new collection, are intense, heartbreaking and unforgettable. These tales of men and women fighting for dignity and survival in the hostile world of the everyday received great critical acclaim – rightly so. And I'm not just saying this because Regi is my wife!


In keeping with my perennial ability to body-surf the zeitgeist, the book I enjoyed most this year was a mere 13 years hot off the shelves, in the exquisite shape of Stephen Hunter's Black Light (Arrow, 6.99). It is a masterfully constructed action epic spanning two generations of soldiers and lawmen, as retired US marine force recon sniper Bob Lee Swagger uncovers the secrets underlying his father's murder four decades back. An added bonus of having my finger on the pulse is that there are already several more Swagger novels just waiting for my attention. I was also utterly seduced by Jenny White's The Abyssinian Proof (Phoenix, 7.99), a lushly atmospheric mystery set in 19th-century Istanbul, and lost quite a few fingernails to Craig Russell's The Carnival Master (Arrow, 7.99), a multi-layered thriller played out against the splendidly decadent backdrop of Cologne during its annual Carnival. Finally, a special note of thanks to John O'Farrell's An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (Black Swan, 7.99), which saved my sanity while I was stranded by a blizzard at Knock Airport.


I was fascinated to read the first two volumes of TS Eliot's Letters (Faber, 35 each), having waited 20 years to see what would be published. They are a demanding, sometimes painful, but illuminating read, revealing the measure and the rawness of the 20th century's greatest poet. My colleague Don Paterson's Rain was surely the outstanding Scottish poetry book of 2009, its first poem an immediate anthology piece. For its mixture of dark intelligence and Lara Croft-ish hokum, I relished Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire (Quercus, 7.99).


If you're looking for a biography that's not about a TV celebrity then try Hugh Brogan's magnificent life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Profile, 14.99). The great 19th-century French political historian is nowadays more quoted than read, but Brogan reminds us how far-sighted he was in seeing that America provided a vision of Europe's future.

Two popular science books particularly impressed me this year. Manjit Kumar's Quantum (Icon, 9.99) ably recounts the early history of a theory that continues to intrigue and baffle people a century later, while In Search of the Multiverse (Allen Lane, 20) by John Gribbin explains why some physicists believe the parallel worlds of science fiction could really exist.


In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Bloomsbury, 14.99) is an astonishing collection of short stories by the new star of South Asian fiction, Daniyal Mueenuddin. His humane and humorous appreciation of rural life recalls Turgenev and is generously sketched with a wonderful freshness and lightness. Wendy Doniger's The Hindus (Penguin, 25) is an earthy, revelatory and brilliant book by one of the world's greatest Sanskrit scholars focusing on the relationship between myth and recorded history in Indian religion. Written for a general rather than an exclusively academic audience, it was a surprise bestseller in India when it was published last month. Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (Cape, 14.99) teems with strange stories and bizarre quiddities, rich discoveries and unexpected diversions. Doggedly pursuing his subject through the meandering back lanes of the old city, its spiralling markets and its gleaming new highways, Miller has created a book that is both a quest and a love letter, and one which is as pleasingly eccentric and anarchic as its subject.


Janice Galloway's This Is Not About Me (Granta, 8.99), a lucid and heart-breaking "Portrait of the artist as a young woman", is a beautiful, lyrical novel in memoir form. I also loved Lark & Termite (Cape, 16.99) by Jayne Anne Phillips, a big, flawed masterpiece, taking in the aftermath of the Korean War and the damaged children of an American fighter pilot. The voices and the structure are remarkable – all echoes, mirrors and tunnels in a double narrative. My final choice is the reissue of John Cheever's Collected Stories (Vintage, 12.99), which define what a short story should be – intense, moving and resonant.


Long ago I devoured every published word that Arthur Ransome wrote for children. In The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (Faber, 20) biographer Roland Chambers deals with his infatuation with Russia at the time of the Bolsheviks. He was hardly a pleasant or admirable character – as this solidly researched account confirms in highly readable fashion. A more elevating view of human nature – and creativity's sources – is to be found in Frances Spalding's constantly illuminating twin-biography of an artist/printmaker and a critic/librettist: John Piper, Myfanwy Piper (OUP, 25). The two characters who emerge are, yes, complex but also engaging and well-balanced. Together they practised, surely, the art of good living.

Finally, rejoice! The Master, Georges Simenon, is back with four of his gripping psychological novels reissued by New York Review of Books Classics at 7.99. Each is handsomely presented: to be read ideally in one or two sittings – and re-read down the years.


Martin Stannard had just finished his near-legendary project Muriel Spark: The Biography (Weidenfeld, 25) when his subject passed away, necessitating a rewrite. Ornery to the last, Spark lived a life of brave determination, the twists of which could have been no picnic to detail. The phrase "mass of contradictions" (while evoking her idiosyncratic embrace of Catholicism) falls short. Bossy and defensive; judgmental and aloof; open-hearted and frosty – well, it goes on. Wisely, Stannard doesn't explain or reduce: instead, he offers detail in profusion, allowing his reader to decide (or not) what drove and motivated this maddening genius. Excellent analyses of Spark's books are included.

Choke Chain (Cape, 12.99) by Jason Donald is direct, spare and evocative of a now much-altered way of South African white lower middle-class life. It is also a coming-of-age story with no pat answers. A tale of two brothers and their narcissistic, unstable father that portrays mother, the land and the atmosphere of the times with moving understatement.

Finally, Don Paterson's Rain. "We are ourselves the void in contemplation. / We are its only nerve and hand and eye." Quite. Bleak and tender and funny and profound: terrific work.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (Canongate, 9.99) by neuroscientist David Eagleman is short and brilliant. It does what it says in the title – satirical, playful, troubling, inventive, thought-provoking and often funny takes on possible afterlives. A complete one-off.

Bloodaxe Books have reissued Briggflatts by Basil Bunting, along with a CD of his reading it, for 12. Together these opened up to me an astonishing modernist masterpiece. Urgent, subtle, direct, bold, tough and lyrical ... I shake my head in wonder.

William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms (Bloomsbury, 18.99/11.99) is a contemporary big business thriller with style, brains and heart. An absorbing, page-turning read.


David Robinson's In Cold Ink (Maclean Dubois, 9.99) has been a wonderful addition to my bookshelf – one of those books that tells you about writing while you read about the writer – and has been a hit with my students at Dundee too. It just happens to be by the literary editor of this newspaper, so of course it's beautifully and cleverly written and full of quiet insights.

For fiction, my choice would have to be Peace (Tuskar Rock, 12.99) by the amazing American writer Richard Bausch – a story about men and war and brutality that transforms itself before our eyes into something that's tender and sensitive and hopeful. If only everyone in the American and British military would read this book right now. And for poetry I have Vincent O'Sullivan's collected poems Further Convictions Pending (Victoria University Press, 13.50). He is one of New Zealand's most distinguished scholars and writers and combines gravity and wit, high moral and cultural seriousness with an earthy, groovy sense of fun – a pretty dreamy combination.


Ian Jack's patient and lucid prose is such a welcome antidote to the celebrity jungle/ X Factor culture we live in now. In The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain (Cape, 18.99) Jack looks back, and is always asking, "What was it like before?" Here are pieces of writing on subjects as diverse as the Hatfield crash, or his father's bookcase written over two decades. The pieces on his family are particularly moving, especially "The White Elephant", which beautifully weaves his mother's memories of growing up in the mining community Hill of Beath in Fife with his own. Jack's eye for precise detail, his curiosity and his luminous intelligence shine through every piece. His is a kind of a writing we are lucky to still have around. Marilynne Robinson's Home (Virago, 7.99), a slow and patient study of a family disintegrating, was the most moving novel I read this year. A writer who, like Jack, examines how the past affects the present.


Christmas is luxury reading time. Katie Campbell's Paradise of Exiles: the Anglo-American Gardens of Florence (Frances Lincoln, 35) is exactly that, with wonderful plates and text that make me want to see the gardens for myself. To coincide with the 300th anniversary of his birth, Samuel Johnson: a Life by David Nokes (Faber, 25). For classy gossip, Selina Hastings's The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, 25). If only one book is allowed, for me, the must-read of 2009 is The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane, 25). But I've bought them all.


In Remarkable Creatures (Quercus, 8.99), award-winning biologist Sean Carroll takes us on a rousing journey of discovery and evolution from Olduvai Gorge in Kenya to the Grand Canyon and Darwin's Beagle odyssey, tracking the dramatic expeditions that unearthed the history of life on our planet in a way that makes it all thoroughly enjoyable and immediately comprehensible. Jane Goodall's Hope for Animals and Their World (Icon, out next month, 17.99) is an inspiring compilation of the heroic efforts of dedicated environmentalists and the truly critical need to protect the habitats of endangered species. These stories of endangered species being brought back from the brink – among them Brazil's golden lion tamarin and the North American whooping crane – are a welcome blast of good news. Finally, a fascinating read, if barely credible in places – Christopher Booker's The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is Obsession With 'Climate Change' Turning Out To Be the Most Costly Scientific Blunder in History? (Continuum, 16.99). Whether you agree with Booker or not, this is an important, brave book making and explaining many valid points.


The read that gave me most pleasure this year was Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll (Faber, 9.99). His recounting of his childhood, of Hobsbaum's Group in the 1960s in Belfast, of his writing life are all done with the tact, precision and insight you would expect of a Nobel laureate. And more. In fiction, James Kelman's Kieron Smith, Boy (Penguin, 8.99) showed why he is the most innovative prose writer working in Britain today. Lastly, Graeme Gibson's The Bedside Book of Birds (Bloomsbury, 12.99) for its sheer beauty as a mass-produced book, both text and pictures – I flicked through it in the shop and had to buy it.


Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World (Granta, 8.99) is probably the most interesting book I've read this year. It reveals seven different facets of the contemporary art world, with all its attendant pretentiousness and commercial manipulation. Fascinating. Ben Goldacre's Bad Science (Fourth Estate, 8.99) does the very important job of confronting unproven scientific beliefs and the enthusiasts who perpetuate them. His chapter on homeopathy is highly entertaining. And finally, Roger Collins, one of Scotland's most distinguished medievalists, brought out his long-awaited Keepers of the Keys of Heaven (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 30), a history of that extraordinary institution, the papacy. This is a magisterial work on an intriguing subject, and is written with great clarity.


Christopher Reid's A Scattering (Arete, 7.99) is a fine poet's elegy for his wife and for their shared life; a beautiful, attentive work. Rachel Cusk's The Bradshaw Variations (Faber, 15.99) for a boring but perfect storm of reasons: this funny, original and musical writer is unfairly neglected. She will outlast that. Alexander Waugh has a compelling writing voice: I could read with pleasure his laundry list. He is also educated far beyond his subject, an ignored essential in the historian/biographer. His The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War (Bloomsbury, 8.99) made pleasure out of a train journey that was three hours longer than usual. Finally, Grain (Picador, 8.99) by John Glenday; shaft after shaft of poetic light.


I've been reading a lot of true crime this year. David Peace's Occupied City (Faber, 12.99) is a breathtaking novelisation of a mass poisoning of bank staff in Japan shortly after the Second World War. The style is 12 connected short stories, joined together with a gothic bridging device that gives the whole rhythm and pace. Misha Glenny's McMafia (Vintage, 8.99) is a fascinating account of global organised crime, though printed in an infuriatingly small font. Gangs of Britain (John Blake, 7.99) by Wensley Clarkson caused me to guffaw out loud for the half hour it took me to read it. It's a mockney mockery: the rozzers "come down on him like a proverbial avalanche of truncheons" or else they're "scratching their nuts trying to get a whiff of the really big money". I never wanted it to end.


Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall must be the best Booker winner for years. Intensely atmospheric, risky with its narrative and very demanding, it is surely a masterpiece. And great to see all six shortlisted books were historical novels, a genre invented in the Borders by Walter Scott. So there. Tom Pow's In the Becoming: New and Selected Poems (Polygon, 10.99) are also masterly, a marvellous chronicle of 30 years of work, beautifully crisp, clear and observed by one of the most fluent poets to grace Scotland's bookshelves.

Finally, a book published a while ago but one I discovered in 2009; Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life (Penguin, 9.99). Having visited the great continent as a journalist since 1957, this is a compendium of Kapuscinski's experience and it is immensely revelatory, allowing the reader to understand why much of what happens in Africa happens. Beautifully written and conceived. I am saving new editions of his Travels With Herodotus and Imperium (about the USSR) for Christmas. I know that's cheating but he was a great writer and journalist.


Even though I read The Secret Scripture (Faber, 7.99) several months ago, I cannot put from my mind the imaginative power of Sebastian Barry's story of an old woman who has been locked up in a mental institution for nearly half her life. Rosanne's insights into her own early experiences, as well as the behaviour of those who now surround her, illuminate human beings in all their glorious complexity. Isabel Ashdown's first novel Glasshopper (Myriad Editions, 7.99) is a disturbing, thought-provoking tale of family dysfunction, spanning the second half of the 20th century, that guarantees laughter at the uncomfortable familiarity of it all.


I was impressed this year by Mary-Kay Wilmers's The Eitingons (Faber, 20). It tells the story of three of her relatives – one a KGB killer, one a member of the Freud circle, and the third a champion fur trader. Not only are the stories fantastic, but the writing is both stylish and original. I wish there were more books like this: personal and searching, like the writing of Joan Didion or Muriel Spark. The Eitingons is driven – beautifully, I feel – by a single person's sensibility, the author's view of several worlds we seldom see into. I also loved Outside the Narrative: Poems 1965-2009 (Etruscan Press, 9.95) by Tom Leonard. Leonard is a master of form and I just want to cheer when I consider what he has achieved as a poet.


Richard Price is, by far, the most gifted Scottish poet of his generation and he gets better book by beguiling book. Ray (Carcanet, 9.95) has wit, emotional depth, lyrical intensity, technical assurance, all enviably and uniquely present.

Writer and collector of songs, poet, translator, teacher, scholar, war hero, man of the left, co-begetter of the Edinburgh Fringe, stalwart of the School of Scottish Studies, Hamish Henderson was invaluable to our notion of what a confident, European Scotland can be. In its elegant and candid scrupulosity, Hamish Henderson: Poetry Becomes People (Polygon, 25), the second, concluding instalment of Timothy Neat's magnificent biography, does justice to a giant. In Feelbad Britain: How to Make It Better (Lawrence and Wishart, 14.99) editors Pat Devine, David Purdy and Andrew Pearmain offer an imaginative, inclusive, solution – socialism with a human face, a huge heart, the humility to learn from history and a sense of humour! It can be like that. Here's how …


This has been a strong year's end for Scottish poetry, with fine collections from Don Paterson and John Burnside and meticulously gestated volumes from Brian Johnstone and John Glenday. But the single book that has affected me most this year is The Spirit Level (Allen Lane, 20) by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Its subheading catches the essence of its argument, "Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better". With dogged clarity, they expose the cost of the gulf between the richest and the poorest and, in doing so, the meanness and timidity of much political debate. The book makes plain we should build a more equitable society for our own well-being, as well as from a sense of altruism and justice.


Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury, 7.99) is a beautifully written epic that begins with the bombing of Nagasaki and ends in Guantanamo Bay. Ambitious in its scope and rich in its characterisation, this is an important and moving novel that tells of the global times in which we live with sensitivity, strength, and grace. Waste (Penguin, 9.99) by Tristram Stuart is a fantastically angry polemic based on the appalling fact that western consumers discard up to half of the food they buy – enough to feed all the world's hungry three times over; and David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is about the most thought-provoking stocking-filler you could hope to find: a slender volume of bite-size vignettes pondering what happens after we die. It sounds depressing but in fact it's surprisingly cheery.


Harry Reid's Reformation (St Andrew's Press, 16.99) is a timely reassessment of that crucial series of events which created modern Scotland. It is also an important curtain raiser for the 450th anniversary next year. Most remarkably, however, he manages to tell the story in a way that includes all the traditions and lays aside any suggestion of sectarianism. Wanderings with a Camera (25 from RCAHMS, who also organised a touring exhibition of some of the pictures) is a beautifully illustrated account of the work of the late 19th and early 20th-century amateur photographer Erskine Beveridge, who can rightly be credited with taking the first significant archaeological images in Scotland.

Finally, no MSP should fail to read Robert Harris's Lustrum, which uses the upheavals in Rome in 63BC to explore the nature of politics and power. We have it easy compared to the challenges that faced Cicero!


Brian Chikwava's debut novel Harare North (Cape, 12.99) was one of the more formally courageous novels I read this year and deserved a lot more attention; it's a hilarious and wrenching examination of immigrant life, fracture and despair from a prodigiously talented and uncompromising writer.

I found Colm Toibin's Brooklyn (Penguin Viking, 17.99) a tremendous read, a masterpiece of understatement, brilliant on the consequences of the unsayable, the damage inherent in repression. And Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood (Bloomsbury, 18.99) is, plain and simple, visionary, devastating, unputdownable.


Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is masterly. Spare and evocative – the prose is pitch-perfect – it tells the story of a young Irish girl emigrating to New York in the 1950s. Unsentimental and deeply moving. Rain, the latest poetry collection from Don Paterson, sees him at the top of his game. Lyrical, elegiac, but never ponderous, a quick zen wit at work. Too Much Happiness (Chatto, 17.99) by Alice Munro is another treasure-trove from perhaps the greatest living short story writer. She doesn't turn away from bleakness but the work is ultimately redemptive. She packs more into a 10,000-word story than most writers manage in a full-length novel.


I spent this year finishing a book set in Russia, so I was all ready to delight in the charcoal-black satire of Adam Roberts's Soviet UFO novel Yellow Blue Tibia (Gollancz, 12.95), even before it was tipped as a worthier winner of the Booker than anything on the actual shortlist. Otherwise, the two stand-out books of 2009 for me were both paperbacks: Marilynne Robinson's luminously wise, gracefully hard-won Home (Virago, 7.95), and James Buchan's Gate of Air (Quercus, 7.99), a wayward and extraordinary ghost story which finds room both for a personal appearance by the goddess of love and for a discourse on the political economy of the British countryside.


I avoid reading novels when I'm writing one myself (my brain tends to short-circuit) so this year I've been drawn to biographies and story collections. Shena Mackay's The Atmospheric Railway (Cape, 17.99) contains 13 wonderful new stories alongside earlier work. Mackay has an exceptional talent for conveying the transient and the unspoken, and the visual richness of her stories makes reading them like looking at paintings.

For my birthday I was given Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard and I was gripped. It has the page-turning quality of a good novel, and Stannard writes with authority and compassion for his prickly subject. I ended up feeling less sympathy for Spark but more admiring of her work – perhaps the sign of an unbiased biography? Finally, Antigona and Me (Picador, 7.99) by Kate Clanchy is a moving account of her relationship with a refugee from Kosovo who becomes Clanchy's cleaner, friend and confidante.


Histories of modern Scotland veer between quirky self-indulgence and the ponderous tome that tests the endurance of even the most tenacious reader. So Catriona Macdonald's Whaur Extremes Meet: Scotland's Twentieth Century (John Donald, 20) is welcome. Inevitably, economic, political and social changes shape the book, but by drawing on the personal testimonies and sheer variety of experience of the Scottish people, Macdonald manages to fascinate as well as challenge and inform.

Highland history is a crowded field, but despite my Dundee connections I can safely claim that Daniel Maudlin's The Highland House Transformed: Architecture and Identity on the Edge of Britain, 1700-1850 (Dundee University Press, 16.99) is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding Highland townscapes and buildings.

Burns scholarship has been in overdrive this year, but The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns (Edinburgh University Press, 18.99), edited by Gerry Carruthers, offers readable, bite-sized, and fresh introductions to an admirably eclectic range of Burns-related topics.


Christopher Isherwood likened Somerset Maugham to an old Gladstone bag covered with labels – one had no idea what was inside. We are now closer than any previous inquirers to the possession of Maugham's mystery thanks to Selina Hastings's artful new biography of the old devil, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, 25). She is as merciless as any private detective but also as comprehending as a good analyst. No stone has been left unturned – the list of libraries where she has done research makes exhausting reading – but she has unearthed some wonderful new stuff, including all the details of the quack rejuvenation methods that were used on Maugham – minced sheep foetus was injected into his buttocks: a cure against ageing that was also tried out by Charlie Chaplin and Pope Pius XII. After Maugham's injection, aged 80, he was found playing hide and seek with his creepy, plump little lover, Alan Searles, on Vevey railway station.

Francesca Kay's An Equal Stillness (Weidenfeld, 12.99) deservedly won the Orange Prize for a First Novel. It is the story of a woman painter whose personal circumstances are a bit like those of Barbara Hepworth. Kay is brilliant at describing not only Jennet Mallow's emotional life, but also her art. Not since Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth has there been a novel that so well captures the actual look of a painter's work. A new star has arrived on the literary scene.