Scotsman Books of the Year: Recommendations from writers including Val McDermid, Ali Smith and Alexander McCall Smith

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We bring you more recommendations and highlights from literary figures as they select their books of the year

Philip Kerr, novelist

CS Lewis once urged readers to avoid new books and read old ones instead. Here’s an excellent way to read both at the same time: Adam Thorpe’s new translation of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Vintage Classics, £18.99) is stunning and heartily recommended. Howard Jacobson’s book of collected journalism, Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, £18.99), reminds me of why I think his is the driest wit in print today; he is also the wisest man I know as anyone reading this book will confirm. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Jerusalem (W&N, £25) is history that reads like a very satisfying novel. My enjoyment was as immense as the book itself. Another old book/new book dilemma: It’s a long time since I read Nancy Mitford’s wonderful book The Pursuit of Love (Penguin Books, £8.99), but Lisa Hilton’s account of Nancy’s affair with the French diplomat and bon viveur Gaston Palewski, in The Horror of Love (W&N, £20), is a beautifully written and marvellously entertaining way of reliving the original experience. Last of all, envy stops me from saying more about Ian Rankin’s new novel, The Impossible Dead, (Orion £7.99), than that it’s impossibly good.

Marc Lambert, CEO, Scottish Book Trust

A Dance With Dragons (Harper Voyager, £25), the fifth in George R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire sequence, is a brilliant modern epic, unrivalled in scope, intrigue and character. Don’t wrinkle your nose at the fantasy tag, it will keep you reading and marvelling till dawn. Understanding China can only become more important as the decade progresses. Julia Lovell’s The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (Picador, £4.99) reminds us that Britain was once a narco state which treated others very shabbily indeed, Scots featuring prominently. China hasn’t forgotten. The Origins of Political Order (Profile Books, £12.99) by Francis Fukuyama is contentious and flawed, but fascinating.

Robin Robertson, poet

I’ve been plodding through the Loeb edition of the 48 books of the Dionysiaca, by the fifth-century Greek, Nonnus, translated into English by WHD Rouse, who quite rightly admits in his introduction that not only is it the longest surviving poem from antiquity, it is also the dullest. I am anxious, therefore, to get to the end of my research so I can curl up with Mystery Cults in the Ancient World by Hugh Bowden (Thames & Hudson £28), which I hope will cut to the chase. It has, at least, lots of pictures.

Alexander McCall Smith, novelist

Often the most interesting reading experiences involve somewhat unlikely books, dealing with odd corners of human life. On a train journey across Australia earlier this year I took Sandy Nairne’s Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners (Reaktion Books, £20), which deals with the theft and recovery of two important paintings belonging to the Tate. It was a fascinating read, delving into some of the important moral issues associated with the paying of recovery fees. The book held my attention right across the Outback. Other books that caught my eye included another offering from Alistair Moffat, who can be relied upon to come up with something interesting every year. He published The Scots: A Genetic Journey (Birlinn, £16.99), a revealing account of where we come from. I enjoy reading poetry, and an interesting discovery was Kenneth Steven’s Evensong (SPCK, £8.99). Steven is a very sensitive poet whose calm, well-crafted and deeply spiritual work deserves more attention.

Val McDermid, novelist

I’m not much of a non-fiction reader, but two memoirs have book-ended my favourite reads this year – Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road (Picador, £8.99) and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (Vintage, £8.99), both books deal with adoption and its consequences; both deal with love and its absences; and both are beautifully written. They’re also diametrically different. Among the crime novels I’ve enjoyed most have been Steve Mosby’s Black Flowers (Orion, £12.99), Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile (Abacus, £7.99) and Mark Billingham’s Good as Dead (Sphere, £7.99). What unites them is the authors’ tight control of complicated narratives, nail-biting tension and taut, evocative prose that burns vivid pictures on the mind’s eye.

Ali Smith,


Anna Funder, in All That I Am (Viking, £8.99), has found a meld between truth and fiction that enhances both. This gripping retelling of the true story of Dora Fabian, a Nazi resistance worker found dead in bed in London in the Thirties, gathers speed as it develops, and sent me off to find out everything I could about Fabian; I’ll certainly never forget her. That’s what I call a historical novel. And most unfairly overlooked of all overlooked books-of-the-year: Paul Bailey’s Chapman’s Odyssey (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is a lightsome masterpiece, a meditation on life and death that leaves you merry and moved.