A selection of literary figures including historians and novelists name their literary highlights of 2011
• Catriona MM MacDonald, historian
Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light (Vintage, £7.99) is the story of John Millington Synge and Molly Allgood’s love affair, and Molly’s drift into lonely old age. It is also a poignant evocation of how memory haunts when life fails to resolve passion in anything other than hurt. In much the same way, in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (Faber and Faber, £16.99), Irish womanhood – in the figure of Irish-American Lilly Bere – is again shown in all its intimate complexity. It is a transnational tale told with such sensitivity that its precision is scalpel-sharp, leaving little sentiment in which to seek consolation beyond the rather uncomfortable solace to be found in truth. Closer to home, Henry Marsh’s new collection of poems, The Hammer and the Fire (Maclean Dubois, £10), shows the poet’s bardic sensitivity to the shades and moods of the Hebridean landscape, distilling a lifetime of observation in a phrase and in tidal shifts of metaphor and rhythm. Yet, emerging after a sequence of verses reflecting on the legacy of the Reformation, the gentle balm of these island poems reminds the reader that peace is usually broken before it is found.
• Sir John Lister-Kaye, naturalist
I have been a Richard Mabey devotee ever since he wrote The Unofficial Countryside in 1973, just republished by Little Toller Books. Mabey is almost single-handedly responsible for kick-starting the renaissance of nature writing in Britain, a genre of the personalised pastoral tradition now well established. His Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation And Changed The Way We Think About Nature (Profile, £15.99) is both scholarly and spiritually uplifting, as all good nature writing should be, and it undoubtedly owes much to The Unofficial Countryside. I loved that it took me back at the same time as bowling me forward with new ways of looking at and appreciating weeds. “Flowers in the wrong place,” sums up Mabey’s lateral objectivity and is why I enjoy reading him so much.
I don’t get to read much fiction because as a non–fiction writer myself I’m usually too busy fussing with research. Sarah Winman’s When God Was A Rabbit (Headline, £7.99) caught my eye and I don’t regret it a bit. It is written like a young girl’s autobiography (and it may well be Winman’s own) through puberty into adulthood and her relationship with her brother Joe and a friend from an unhappy home. The novel’s complexity is gripping and a heartwarming theme – that of counting one’s blessings in life – is revisited over and over again as she tumbles her readers through outrageous slings and arrows. It is wholly honest and believable.
I first read these two books, first published in the 1940s, Island Years, Island Farm (Little Toller Books, £10) by Frank Fraser Darling, in the Seventies, when I first met the author, a celebrated international ecologist. To read them again now that I know so many of the places in the Highlands he so eloquently reveals, and to relive through his characters and their dialogue the “old Highlands” of remoteness and religious fervour that I can only just remember, has been poignant and eye-opening. So much has changed in 40 years, so much for the better, and so much with an elegiac yearning for the somehow so much simpler old days.
• James Runcie, novelist
Absurdly overlooked by Booker judges, Ali Smith’s There But For The (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) was, I thought, the most inventive and sustained novel of the year, while Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of A Disappearance (Viking, £16.99) was a distilled, poetic, and chilling fictional account of a child living under tyranny before the Arab Spring. My main recommendation, however, is both a beautiful book and, at the same time, a sound investment. Hiding in Full View is a collection of images by Alison Watt and poems by Don Paterson. Classy, sexy, and playful, the edition is bound to become a collectors item and is a snip at £10 from The Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. The price is already set to rise in January so you could get it now and have a look at the exhibition at the same time. “Bargainous,” as my daughter would say.
• Alan Spence, novelist
It’s been a good year for poetry. A new volume from Carol Ann Duffy is cause for celebration, and The Bees (Picador, £14.99) is a scintillating and varied collection. She’s a dazzling talent at the top of her game, playful and profound. The achingly beautiful elegies for her mother are sublime. Billy Collins is a former Poet Laureate – of the USA. His latest collection, Horoscopes for the Dead (Picador, £9.99), displays his usual wit. He’s somewhere between Norman MacCaig and Richard Brautigan – a deadpan humour tinged with lacrimae rerum. Just published by Ingleby Gallery, Hiding in Full View (Ingleby Gallery, £10) is a gorgeous collaboration between Alison Watt and Don Paterson – Alison’s sumptuous images offset by Don’s razor-sharp one-liners, each one like a distilled sonnet.
• Adrian Turpin, director, Wigtown Book Festival
Two books about parents and offspring stand out. Chance decreed that Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking, £16.99) should come out in such a momentous year for Libya. But the news adds further poignance to Matar’s tale of the son of a Libyan diplomat in exile in 1970s Cairo. An elegy for an orphan denied the chance to outgrow his father, it is stylistically spare yet throbs with barely restrained emotion. There’s little restrained about The Family Fang (Picador, £12.99), Tennesseean Kevin Wilson’s rollicking debut about a brother and sister raised in family of performance artists. And you thought your family was crazy.
• Maggie O’Farrell, novelist
I read Sarah Moss’s Night Waking (Granta, £12.99) with avid enjoyment and no small amount of recognition. It’s the story of a woman trying to hold her domestic and professional life together when her husband’s work tranports the family to a remote Hebridean island. Her toddler will not sleep and things unravel further when she finds the skeleton of a newborn buried in the garden. Edward St Aubyn’s At Last (Picador, £16.99) pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of bettering all its predecessors in the superlative Melrosiad sequence of novels. It is at once devastating, breathtaking and blackly comic and will probably be my book of the decade, not just the year. I also loved every minute of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (Corsair, £7.99) a big, brave, risky novel that is so clever and deft it conceals its craft.
• Andrew Greig, novelist
I have read few books published this year, let alone ones I can wholeheartedly recommend. This may be because the novel I’m on is set in 1597. But I loved the play and got much pleasure from reading the script of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (Faber and Faber, £9.99) by David Greig, based on the Border Ballads. The most unexpected wonder book of the year was The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Vintager, £7.99) by Zachary Mason. Simon Armitage loved it, and he is absolutely right.
• Candia McWilliam, novelist
My first choice would be A Taste of Chlorine by Bastien Vives (Cape, £16.99). This graphic novel actually smells and echoes like swimming baths. Almost no words, quivering blue beauty. Emotional pain, hope. In two and a half colours, Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham (Slightly Foxed Editions, £11) is a rare and immediate claimant to join the small pantheon whose headboys are Nigel Molesworth and Plato, an evocation of a certain kind of school. Finally, The Translation of the Bones (W&N, £12.99) by Francesca Kay isn’t perfect but it is serious and a proper novel that allows the reader to work with it and credits him or her with some interior life. In this year of disrepute, that’s not nothing.
• Denise Mina, novelist
If described to me, Tessa Hadley’s The London Train (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) is exactly the sort of book I’d avoid: an unsympathetic character who is a precious, literary writer has a love affair. The sheer verve of the writing and Hadley’s skill in taking the narrative in strange, unlikely directions make this a delicious, beguiling novel. I found myself missing it like an exciting new friend when it was over. Jeff Lemire may well be the greatest writer working in comic books at the moment. His third volume of Sweet Tooth, Animal Armies (Vertigo, £9.59), follows animal/human hybrid children through a post-bird flu apocalyptic world. His dialogue is as spare as his seminal Essex County graphic novel – stunning.
A book I didn’t expect to find as relevant to current events and times is John A Farrell’s Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (Doubleday, £20.79). It charts America’s transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one and the initial skirmishes between workers and the rich. Against a dramatic background of dynamiting newspaper offices, mines, murders and defending Darwinism, it is a study in frailty and brittle idealism.
• Ian Rankin, novelist
A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Orion, £18.99) by Lawrence Block sees one of my favourite American authors return with one of my favourite characters, private eye Matt Scudder. The book is told in flashback as Scudder probes the death of an alcoholic who had been trying to apologise to all of those he had offended in his short, unhappy life.
All Made Up (Granta, £16.99) by Janice Galloway is a brilliant memoir of teenage years in Saltcoats from one of our finest writers. Sister Cora, terrifyingly charismatic, steals every scene she’s in, but you cheer throughout for Janice.
Nobody does contemporary Northern Ireland like Colin Bateman. In Nine Inches (Headline, £19.99) , threats against a Belfast shock-jock lead private eye Dan Starkey into murky waters involving politics and sectarianism. As usual, Bateman is bitingly funny.
Back from the Brink (Atlantic, £19.99) by Alistair Darling is a trenchant, clear-eyed analysis of Britain’s banking crisis from the man who had only a few hours to ensure cash machines across the land didn’t put up the “closed” sign.