In celebration of Book Week Scotland, the team at Charlotte Street Partners has compiled our list of favourites this year (plus one album recommendation from the office keen bean). From controversial business tycoons to inspiring women, spectacular fiction to sobering reality, we like to think there is something for one and all on our Christmas list.
So escape the gloomy weather and gloomier news. Treat yourself or a loved one to a good read – on Black Friday, you’ve got no excuse.
Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, by Oliver Shah
The Mountains are Calling, by Jonny Muir
As a father of two children under the age of six, the pile of unread books beside my bed grows nearly as quickly as the kids themselves, and progress each night is typically measured incrementally in pages rather than chapters. That being said, I somehow managed to read more than one book published this calendar year, a marked improvement on recent years.
The protagonist in my first recommendation is an altogether unappealing character; a dastardly, bullying, foul-mouthed business tycoon whose vast wealth thickens in tandem with his waistline and the story's plot. This is the real-life story of Sir Philip Green (yes, he has managed to cling on to the knighthood thus far) as told by Oliver Shah, The Sunday Times business editor. Shah has tracked Green's rollercoaster retail sector career to date, asking difficult questions of the Topshop owner along the way and eventually earning himself a death threat from the subject of this, his first book. It's a case study in greed and sociopathy, with a rich vein in barely believable profanity-strewn anecdotes. No wonder the rights have already been snapped up by the producers of television's Poldark series. However, they adapt it, you can bet it won't be comfortable viewing for Sir Phil on his yacht.
My second recommendation is another non-fiction title with multiple protagonists, all of whom have achieved feats worthy of TV dramatisation, for more celebratory reasons than PG, and with altogether more waifish waistlines. The Mountains are Calling by Jonny Muir is an homage to the admittedly niche pursuit of hill running, particularly in Scotland, and to the men and women who keep its traditions alive. Being an enthusiast myself, I was always likely to enjoy this book, but what surprised me most about it - and what sets it apart from most books about sport - is that you wouldn't need to be a fan to appreciate the people, places, and pleasure described so eloquently in this celebration of mountain running.
I'm well over my word limit, so no room to explain my choice of album of the year (noting that buying albums is as niche a pursuit as hill running these days). Anyway, if you do buy one album this year, Singularity by Jon Hopkins should be the one. Trust me.
Do The Thing, Have The Power, by Chris Brock
Do The Thing, Have The Power is similar to other inspirational books in the subject, but without the whimsy and fairy tale that makes them inapplicable to most of us – I for one don’t have the cash to jet to Peru to “find myself”. One of the most inspirational reads of modern times as I see it, it provides the reader with essential yet realistic lessons on how to live a happy life. If you have a loved one who is uncertain about the future, then this book is a lesson in empowerment and changing perspectives. What better gift to give the teenager whose “I don’t know” response is stuck on repeat?
Normal People, by Sally Rooney
If you haven’t already read Normal People (and you probably have), I implore you to. Written by Sally Rooney, a young Irish author who is clearly immensely perceptive to the quirks and realities of human behaviour, this perfectly formed - and at times tragic - modern love story explores the relationship between two young people growing up in Ireland. The protagonists are from different worlds but end up entirely intertwined, changing each other as they grow up and gain independence. Rooney tackles complex social structures such as dominance and privilege in an unnervingly authentic way. You will see yourself in this book, at least in part.
And if you love it as much as I did, Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends is almost equally as stunning.
Malala’s Magic Pencil, by Malala Yousafzi
As a mother of daughters, I’m always on the lookout for books that will teach them to be daring, adventurous, considerate, brave, curious, passionate, compassionate, determined and inquisitive. Now, that’s a lot to ask of a single text, especially for a five- and two-year-old to enjoy together. While their shelves are collapsing under the weight of assorted “girl power” books that don’t meet my exacting standards, there is one that fits the brief, in every way.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai's first picture book – Malala’s Magic Pencil - is inspired. Asking young readers to find magic all around them, irrespective of their circumstances, Malala draws on her own childhood to show children the beauty of hope and never giving up. I must have read it over 50 times by now, but her final words never fail to make me cry as I close this beautifully illustrated book (to eye rolls from my kids who by now are used to the effect it has on me).
“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
Now that’s a worthy lesson for every child - and adult for that matter.
Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman
It’s probably unsurprising that “politician” doesn’t rank amongst the career goals of the vast majority of people, given the past 18 months and associated hardships for Theresa May.
Struggling to cope with the most complex peacetime negotiation in UK history, seeing defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in a general election, backbench rebellions, well-documented coughing fits, having your leadership constantly questioned – spectating from the side-lines has been painful enough…
However, Theresa May – whether you like her policy or not – is at the pinnacle of her career. What most haven’t been privy to is her life before politics, and the hard work, dedication and sacrifice that was required for her just to become a member of parliament, let alone ascend to the highest office in the land.
Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is an in-depth examination of the hurdles those wishing to become an MP face and the significant challenges they encounter if they are lucky enough to be elected – think atypical Westminster culture, personal abuse and relationship breakdowns.
Objective, informative and well-written, it’s a fascinating insight into the dysfunctional world of Westminster, and a reminder – whether we like it or not – that those we send there to represent us are simply human.
A brief history of everyone who ever lived, by Adam Rutherford
This wonderfully engaging re-telling of the human story is full of little snippets of fascinating information, all wrapped around a narrative that demonstrates that family trees are far more twisty creations than we first thought. As he traces how we came to be who we are now, Rutherford examines why the genetic concept of race is far less clear than our human experience suggests; why it isn’t true that gingers face extinction due to climate change; and why, if you can claim vaguely European extraction, you’re definitely descended from Charlemagne.
“I have a dream,”; “Tear down this wall!,”; “Ask not . . .”. Three phrases that are short in length but great in impact when it comes to capturing and shaping the path of world history. And all achieved through the “spectacle of a single person walking to a podium to persuade an audience”.
This ambitious book is the work of Philip Collins, former speechwriter for Tony Blair turned-Times columnist, who makes an impassioned defence of oratory as a bedrock in politics and democracy. Collins forensically dissects the mechanics of some of the speeches that changed the world as he takes us on a journey that begins in ancient Greece with Cicero and Pericles all the way through to Barack Obama, who Collins credits as one of greatest orators of our time - yet who comes second in his own household to Michelle. Oratory giants like Mandela, Lincoln and Churchill all get mentions, as well as the odd unsavoury character such as Hitler and Robespierre contribute to this wonderful narration of history.
In an era of “fake news”, Collins’ work is a timely reminder of why the words we use and how we say them is just as relevant and essential to society today as it was in 500 BC. As one president – a notable absentee - might say, it’s a good book. Like, really really good. Really great.
Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
Homo Deus is a sequel to Harari’s "Sapiens, A Brief History of Human Kind".
Packed full of fascinating stories about the human experience and our evolutionary journey, it begins with the bold claim that – compared to previous millennia – humankind is bringing famine, plague and war under control. The “new human agenda” is about achieving “immortality, bliss and divinity” through the application of technology that will take us beyond being sapiens: effectively becoming as different as we are from the Neanderthals that homo sapiens previously lived alongside. This focus on the development of our own species is, Harari argues, the dominant religion of the world today. But not all humans will benefit equally from the new humanist religion.
Homo Deus is as scary as it is enjoyable, although today’s world would have sounded pretty terrifying to someone in, say, the middle ages. But read the book because change is speeding up; and if the future works out as Harari describes, forewarned is forearmed.