A novel about a dinner-party guest who won’t leave, a history of Henry VII, an inquiry into madness … Which books have most impressed our writers this year?
Photograph: David McCoy for GNM imaging
I admired the lovely sentences and moving story in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (Faber), about an Irish-American woman looking back at her life. Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place (Granta) is a strange, allusive, tender memoir about growing up in middle-class Kenya. Tracy K Smith’s poems in Life on Mars (Turnaround) are startling and exquisite.
Shifting alliances at home and abroad, ruthless accumulation of capital and endless court intrigues form the backdrop to Thomas Penn’s Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Allen Lane), a chilling and enticing portrait of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty that created a centralised English state. Well written and well researched, the book helps us understand why Shakespeare decided to give this Henry a miss. It would have been difficult to prettify him. The Royal National Theatre should seek to remedy this omission rapidly: Winter King has a very modern feel.
A winter nightmare is the subject of Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (Profile) by Rodric Braithwaite. Written largely from material obtained from Soviet archives, this account explains why the Afghans hate being occupied and each chapter offers a warning to the Nato occupiers of today.
Elias Khoury’s latest novel, As Though She Were Sleeping (Maclehose Press), returns to a golden age. Beirut in the 30s, unoccupied Palestine and a love affair recalled through a set of dream sequences: an Arab spring of a very different sort.
Although most people knew him as a novelist and indeed a painter, Glyn Hughes had been quietly publishing poetry since the 60s. A Year in the Bull-Box (Arc Publications) is a poem-sequence detailing the turning of the seasons and the eternal processes of nature from the vantage point of a "bull-box" (that’s a stone hut to you and me) in the Ribble Valley. It is also a meditation on mortality, written as Hughes succumbed to the cancer that was to take his life earlier this year. In those last 12 months he seemed to have found a grace and contentment that is both humbling and inspiring, and I don’t ever remember being as moved by a book of poems. I also want to mention a pamphlet, Pages from Bee Journal (Isinglass) by Sean Borodale. A lot of poets seem to be writing about bees these days, but like the honey he describes, "disconcerting, / solid broth / of forest flora full of fox", these are poems so dense and rich you could stand a spoon in them.
Eileen Battersby’s Ordinary Dogs (Faber) must be the most reticent autobiography ever written, since the author is no more than a shadowy presence behind the figures of the two dogs, Bilbo and Frodo – "the guys", as she calls them – who shared her life for more than 20 years. It is a wonderful book, cleanly and honestly written, funny, wise and valiant, and entirely free of sentimentality. Writing Beckett’s Letters by George Craig (Sylph Editions) is, strictly speaking, a pamphlet rather than a book, but it speaks volumes. Craig is the translator of the Beckett correspondence, the second volume of which was recently published, and his account of the joys and miseries of the task is elegant, exemplary and enlightening. In Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence (Yale) the great American critic returns to an old theme – artists form themselves out of an agon with their illustrious predecessors – and, in his 80th year, is as provocative, as gloriously preposterous and as captivating as ever.
Is there a better short story writer in the world than Alice Munro? In her New Selected Stories (Chatto & Windus) she gives the long story the meatiness of a novel, and moves through time with an ease few can match. The Wine of Solitude (Chatto & Windus) continues our rediscovery (in Sandra Smith’s fine translations) of Irène Némirovsky‘s work: it’s an unerring portrait of a neglected, baleful and punitive daughter. Among homegrown fiction, I most admired Edward St Aubyn’s At Last (Picador), and Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Stranger’s Child (Picador) – the most originally and brilliantly structured novel I’ve read in a long time.
Seething with inventiveness, humanity, wit and language fit for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, indomitable and adroit, full of angelic swagger and pretend pratfalls, Ali Smith’s gleaming There but for the (Hamish Hamilton) took the biscuit this year.
A book that moved the heart and soul and head down into a sombre gear, and recalled to some degree the purposes of Primo Levi – to shine a clear, bare light on what happened in historical darkness – Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel The Emperor of Lies (Faber) is both a remembrance of vanished evils, and a warning to modern kings and conquerors.
Sarah Raven’s Wild Flowers (Bloomsbury) is a complete delight. Massive, all-encompassing, superbly illustrated with Jonathan Buckley’s photographs, it is clearly a labour of love – and the evidence of that is there on every page, not least in Raven’s tirelessly informative, absolutely precise and beautifully vivid prose.
If Wild Flowers is the reference book of the year then Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Viking) takes the biography laurels. Written with immense knowledge and literary poise, it presents a portrait of the novelist unrivalled in its complex humanity. Dickens lives and breathes in these pages; Tomalin’s instinctive grasp of the man himself is engrossing.
Seek out Jim Clark’s Dream Repairman (easily available online), one of the best books written about the movie business – but seen from the film editor’s angle, which makes it very rare. Also very candid, very shrewd and very funny.
There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting "but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …" The story is about a man who leaves a tedious dinner party, locks himself into a bedroom and refuses to leave. His hostess calls in the press and he becomes a cause celebre. He is put together in a series of stories from different, tangential points of view. The novel is both funny and moving – it succeeds because of Smith’s extraordinary skill with ordinary language. I also loved Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers (Fourth Estate), a tale about the disappearance of a child from an English coastal town. Hensher is both maliciously witty and ultimately generous – difficult to pull off, but he does it with authority.
People Who Eat Darkness (Jonathan Cape) by Richard Lloyd Parry is a chilling account of the murder of Lucie Blackman in Japan 11 years ago. Parry shows a rare compassion and a refusal to judge: despite the horrors of the crime, almost the most upsetting feature of his story is the blameless ordinariness of the life Blackman left behind in England.
I thought the Man Booker judges – intentionally or not – played a brilliant game this year. They chose a diverse and challenging shortlist and then, having royally offended the literary establishment by excluding so many of their current favourites, they proceeded to wrongfoot everybody by choosing a winner of impeccable merit. Result! However, it’s depressing to see that some novels continue simply to pass under the radar. In a year when the judges were looking for "readability" and books that "zip along", it was sad they overlooked a novel which had these qualities, as well as being wise, funny and sometimes distressing – It Had to Be You (Harper), the 18th novel by David Nobbs. I’m sure they would have loved it if they had noticed it.
I was inspired to read Elen Caldecott’s Operation Eiffel Tower (Bloomsbury) when I saw her talk about it at the Edinburgh book festival and was as entranced as all the eight-to-twelves. The book is about three siblings who try to raise money for their parents (on the verge of breaking up) to have a romantic weekend in Paris. Some scenes are funny (the children’s attempted forgery is hilarious); others are poignant, particularly their visit to a B&B when they can’t think what to say to their dad.
My favourite picture books were both about friendship. Fluff and Billy by Nicola Killen (Egmont), a young, simple story of two penguins who fall out and make up, has beautiful illustrations and a satisfying patterned text. The more sophisticated I Don’t Want to be a Pea! by Ann Bonwill and Simon Rickerty (OUP) features a hippo and a bird arguing about what to wear for a fancy-dress party. It’s all in dialogue, so parents and children can have fun doing the voices.
Illustrated books don’t have to be for the very young. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker) is a novel about a teenager whose mother is dying of cancer. The idea of a yew-tree monster telling stories to the boy was conceived by Dowd shortly before her own death. Ness responded to the challenge of writing the book. It’s a powerful story, made unforgettable by Jim Kay’s inky illustrations.
We live in a time of deep recession but, here in Dublin, things still start at "brilliant" and work their way up. The Outlaw Album (Sceptre) is a collection of stories by one of the world’s great novelists, Daniel Woodrell, and it’s brilliant. I’m fond of big dark Russian books, so I loved Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Granta). It’s exhilarating, funny and … brilliant. Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair), is so good, so original, so surprising and wonderful – it’s just absolutely fuckin’ brilliant.
Two remarkable short novels, one of which won the Man Booker prize, one of which is yet to find a publisher, though it is so good it surely will. Julian Barnes‘s The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape) has rightly been highly praised for its economy and elegance. Some also found it funny, but I found it melancholy, as it explored paths not taken, disasters not averted, sadnesses never accommodated. I then read Barnes’s short stories, Pulse (Jonathan Cape), some of which are wickedly funny, but I liked best the sad Scottish landscapes of "Marriage Lines". The unpublished novel by my Cambridge contemporary Bernadine Bishop is about bowel cancer, but it is not sad at all, it is full of wit, good humour, interesting characters, a wonderfully imagined baby, and a deftness of plotting that seems effortlessly natural. It’s astonishingly fresh and real.
November (Picador) by Sean O’Brien is a sombre and beautiful collection of poems, shot through with his sardonic humour. The elegies for his mother and father are perhaps the most moving poems that he has yet written, and, like the best of such poems, they are both intimate and universal.
Irène Némirovsky’s The Wine of Solitude is a brilliant coming-of-age novel and the most autobiographical of Némirovsky’s works. Many people now know Suite Française, but her other novels shouldn’t be overshadowed by it. I particularly loved the scenes set in Finland during the civil war, and the portrait of a loveless relationship between a young girl and her mother. Némirovsky is so honest and she never fluffs a line.
I had some reservations about Pulphead, a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan (FSG, USA). The David Foster Wallace influence seemed so pronounced, there was the conspicuously dubious taste and a fondness for deranged critical hyperbole – I mean, who would even bother to listen to Guns N’ Roses, let alone claim that Axl Rose achieved "the greatest white male rock dance moment of the video age"? But then I thought: hey, what a great category of praise to invent! By then the DFW doubt had retired itself and JJS’s prose was working its own hard-to-fathom magic. It has a ramshackle loquacity, a down-home hyper-eloquence and an off-the-wallishness that is almost lapidary. I’m still puzzling my way though the life – Sullivan was born and lives in the American South; as a teen he went through an evangelical Christian phase (beautifully revealed in the opening piece, "Upon this Rock") – and the writing that’s resulting from it, but am feeling the way publishers do when they come across a new voice, fully formed and quite distinctive. Assuming a UK edition is forthcoming, might I pitch in with the suggestion that the cover features a William Christenberry photograph?
Ben Lerner’s recent novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press)and Joshua Cody’s new memoir [sic] (Bloomsbury) are undoubtedly the kind of books that the former Swedish Academy secretary Horace Engdahl had in mind when he faulted American authors for their insularity and self-involvement. Both books are also hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment; and one senses that these are the qualities of American literature that actually annoyed Engdahl.
Leaving the Atocha Station is the story of a mentally unstable, substance-dependent young poet brilliantly and excruciatingly wasting a fellowship year in Madrid. [sic] is the story of a moderately depraved young musical prodigy who is suddenly stricken with near-fatal cancer. The former is worth whatever Amazonian contortions are required for a British reader to lay hands on it.
Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (Allen Lane) is many rare things, rolled into one. An exercise in salvage and retrieval, recalling from oblivion some of history’s losers; an encyclopedia of unremembered Europe, recounting the stories of Europe’s failed states, some never having had a chance of survival, others casualties of events or folly; a personal ramble, by a great historian, through some of the continent’s lost byways – it’s all of these, and a book that any reader interested in modern Europe will be sorry to finish. It’s also – though Davies is too civilised and graceful a writer to labour the point – a warning. "Successful statehood," he writes, "is, in fact, a rare blessing." I only wish that this wonderfully exhilarating and melancholy book would be read by our leaders, and borne in mind when they next consider exporting our accidentally successful arrangements by military force to some other country.
The title of the biggest ego in American letters is never anyone’s for long, but with her shameless book of essays The Professor and Other Writings (Harper) Terry Castle grabs the crown and hugs it to her. This is the critic as narcissist, literature just the stuff you stand on to get a better look in the mirror. But the techniques and strategies honed by such sumptuous self-love make this Stanford academic murderous when she sets about other great egos – chiefly those of her exes, her mother and Susan Sontag.
Two British memoirs seem reticent by comparison. Simon Hoggart denies that A Long Lunch (John Murray) is an autobiography, but it clearly is, and all the better for being hilarious. Fascinating, the degree to which his time spent reporting Northern Ireland in the 1970s shaped Hoggart’s valiant view of life. And Michael Frayn’s My Father’s Fortune: A Life (Faber) retrieves a complicated suburban childhood in Surrey in the 1940s. Everything about it rings familiar, funny and true.
I was fascinated by Alexandra Styron’s memoir of William Styron, Reading My Father (Scribner): an intimate and unsparing account of what it was like to be the youngest daughter not only of an illustrious novelist – difficult enough in itself, I would have thought – but of a profound depressive, who also seems to have been friends with just about everyone famous in America. Two novels published this year have particularly lingered in my mind: David Lodge‘s portrait of HG Wells, A Man of Parts (Harvill Secker), succeeded in fusing the best bits of fiction and biography to bring the man and his erotic adventures to life; and Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money (Bloomsbury) created a believable, fictional private bank on the brink of destruction. Finally, Max Hastings once again demonstrated his pre-eminence as a chronicler of the second world war with All Hell Let Loose (Harper), a masterly one-volume account of that epic conflict – a book which the rulers of Europe would do well to read at the end of this melancholy year.
Among the 2011 books that came my way I particularly welcomed Owen Jones’s Chavs (Verso), a passionate and well-documented denunciation of the upper-class contempt for the proles that has recently become so visible in the British class system. Unaccountably neglected, Göran Therborn’s The World: A Beginners Guide (Polity), a survey of the present state, problems and outlook of the globe by a Swedish master sociologist, is one of the rare books that lives up to its title. It is lucid, intelligent about the future and admirably researched. The book I have enjoyed most is Karl Miller’s Tretower to Clyro (Quercus), a collection of characteristically pawky essays by one of the great literary editors of our time, combined with a wonderful account of explorations à trois of the Celtic parts of Great Britain.
Two books this year gave me the almost dreamlike pleasure of finding out things that I’d long wanted to know. Susie Harries’s Nikolaus Pevsner (Chatto) may justly be subtitled "The Life": it shows a complete mastery of the many different areas, cultural, political and artistic, in which this complex and essential figure moved and made his mark. The book’s very fitting scale and tirelessness are more than matched by its wit, subtlety and human understanding. In Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear (Ditto) travel and its chance encounters provide the pretext for pursuit of much more marginal figures: in "Who was Alastair Graham?" he explores the post-Oxford life of Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford boyfriend in a way that throws light into dim corners of British social history. In "The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry", an Indian lady who became the Marchioness of Winchester and lived out a long widowhood in a Firbankian fantasy of social aspiration is chased down with a tenderly marvelling mordancy that is a keynote of Fallowell’s brilliant and haunting book.
Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child tracks the cultural, sexual, biographical and social changes that took place in 20th-century Britain. He has a versatile wit and enjoys playing with figures from the past as well as with his readers, teasing them and misleading them until, drawn into the story, they almost become additional characters in it. This is a modern version of the novel EM Forster would have wished to write.
A most ingenious and original solution to the moral and aesthetic problems thrown up by the cult of biographical fiction is given in John Spurling’s A Book of Liszts (Seagull Books) – a brilliant set of supple variations encircling the life and career of the great virtuoso Franz Liszt. Those who believe that such speculative and experimental hybrids mark the end of more traditional biography should read Fiona MacCarthy’s wonderful The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber). This is a perfect coming together of biographer and subject.
Everyone else will pick Claire Tomalin’s superb Charles Dickens, so I won’t. But I’ve read three terrific novels this year, all of them funny, all of them sad. Joe Dunthorne’s Wild Abandon (Hamish Hamilton), like Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang (Picador), is about what happens to children when parents become consumed by their beliefs. In Wild Abandon it’s communal living that causes all the trouble, in The Family Fang it’s performance art; both books are populated by flawed, occasionally exasperating, lovable and, above all, thoroughly imagined characters. James Hynes’s Next (Reagan Arthur) is, mystifyingly, still without a publisher in the UK, but don’t let that put you off. It’s dark, comic, real and, in the end, terrifying, and there are many, many men in their late 40s and 50s who would wince with recognition at Hynes’s Kevin Quinn.
Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail (Allen Lane), a gripping account of the hunt for James Earl Ray, reminds us once again that a lot of Americans in the 1960s were living through a nightmare, not through a long, dreamy summer of love.
As ever a lot of my reading has been books that haven’t been released this year – many titles in the wonderful New York Review Books classics series, whose multicoloured spines now take up a good two feet of bookshelf in my apartment. Teju Cole’s Open City (Faber), a Sebaldesque wander through New York, and Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking) both stood out in fiction, as did David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King (Hamish Hamilton). I also enjoyed McKenzie Wark’s tour through the legacy of Situationism, The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso), and Manuel DeLanda’s attempt at a unified description of everything in Philosophy and Simulation (Continuum). Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay Dance Bars (Canongate) also did what every good piece of reportage ought to – took me to a place I couldn’t have gone by myself.
Hanan Al-Shaykh’s vivid "reimagining" of the One Thousand and One Nights (Bloomsbury) is a treat and a trap for story lovers. Like a contemporary Shahrazad, Al-Shaykh has rendered 19 little masterpieces into a wondrously warm, ribald and hilarious concoction, reminding us of how bang up to date these stories can be.
If we might forget how central these tales are to our culture, Marina Warner’s wondrous Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus) is a scholarly excursion around some of the stories, her mind as rich and fascinating as the stories themselves, taking us on a magic carpet from Borges and Goethe, to Edward Said and the movies.
In his magisterial What is Madness? (Hamish Hamilton), Darian Leader explains that the "irrational" delusions and hallucinations of the mad are their attempts at sense: a good story is a good symptom, and can make a life possible. As Virginia Woolf said: "The whole world is a work of art."
Non-fiction: I loved two very different books of criticism, Nicola Shulman’s beautifully lucid study of Thomas Wyatt, Graven with Diamonds (Short Books), and Owen Hatherley’s furiously pro-Modernist A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain (Verso). Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane) seems to me a genuinely important book. Fiction: A four-way tie between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Fourth Estate), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (Quercus), and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate, January). Guilty pleasure: George RR Martin’s fantasy sequence A Song of Fire and Ice. I’m now on volume five, A Dance with Dragons (HarperVoyager), and fear the withdrawal symptoms when it’s finished.
Belatedly and deservedly, this was the year of Julian Barnes: winner of the Man Booker and the David Cohen prizes and shortlisted for the Costa – as close as a Leicester City fan will get to doing the triple. Although ideally, for literary posterity, Barnes’s mastery of the short form in The Sense of an Ending would have seen a Nadal-Federer showdown in the Booker finals with Alan Hollinghurst’s mastery of the long form in The Stranger’s Child. In a UK-US prize, they could also have slugged it out with The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate), with which Jeffrey Eugenides again showed the benefits of taking almost a decade between books. Two great veterans of the suspense form made us glad that there’s no gold watch or golden handshake for novelists: PD James with Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber) and Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (Harvill Secker). David Lodge wrote a fine novel in the form of a literary biography – anatomising HG Wells in A Man of Parts – and Jeanette Winterson an extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape).
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad revived memories of the days, decades ago, when American fiction seemed so much more vital and innovative than our own. It is unusual in structure, presenting a number of stories, most of them about people in the music business, which seem to be freestanding but prove to have surprising connections with each other, and the style effortlessly hits its targets again and again. Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen) is a trenchant, lucid and witty attack on the reductive materialism of many scientific accounts of consciousness – not from a religious point of view, but that of an atheist humanist with a distinguished record in medicine and neuroscience. The book that gave me most pleasure, however, was one I bought in 2010 and didn’t get round to reading until this year. Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite (Faber), make a remarkable human document that is, by turns, bad-tempered, self-lacerating, tender, sad and irresistibly funny.
Two books of fire and one of water: Philip Connors’s Fire Season (Picador), about his seasons spent as a fire-watcher in the Gila Wilderness; Jocelyn Brooke’s cracklingly bizarre The Military Orchid, a memoir-satire-nature-quest about orchids and home-made fireworks, first published in 1948, and just reissued in a beautiful edition by Little Toller Press; and Susie Parr’s The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis), a superbly illustrated cultural history of bathing – dipping, watering, wild swimming – in Britain. I also greatly admired Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber), and was fascinated by much of the work gathered in Harriet Tarlo’s anthology of experimental landscape poetry, The Ground Aslant (Shearsman).
Two history books written with flair and dash, both gripping and enjoyable, both filling gaps in the imagination. Thomas Penn’s Winter King is a lively and alarming study of the strange and ferocious Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Helen Castor’s She-Wolves (Faber) is subtitled The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, and includes a fascinating study of Margaret of Anjou, who rages through Shakespeare’s history plays, dauntless and ferociously energetic, battling on behalf of her fragile husband Henry VI. Penn shows us how an instinctive Machiavellian with a feeble claim to kingship transformed himself into a despot and founded a dynasty. Castor shows how her heroines fought and flourished, despite the affront to the moral order represented by women on the battlefield and women on the throne.
In 15th-century Benares, the iconoclastic Indian poet Kabi inadvertently began one of the world’s oldest literary collaborative projects. The poems attributed to him have been enriched by the renderings of Ezra Pound and Czesław Miłosz as well as those of Rajasthan’s bard singers. A stylishly contemporary contribution to this work-in-progress is Songs of Kabir, the translations by the poet and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (NYRB Classics). Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words (Pantheon) offers something very rare: a boldly ironic, even caustic, perspective on Chinese society by a literary novelist still resident in China and privy to its innermost everyday tensions. Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo (Verso) stimulatingly uncovers the contradictions of an ideology that is much too self-righteously invoked. I also enjoyed Aravind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower (Atlantic) and Gyan Prakash’s essay Mumbai Fables (Princeton) – both books set in Mumbai and exceptionally alert to the exuberance and malignity of the city’s gangsterish capitalism.
I read two books that won prizes in the UK this year, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (Phoenix) and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and found them exquisitely written and deeply engaging. Obreht’s novel is written so authoritatively if obliquely, one of its themes being what it is to have once been on the right side of history and then find oneself later on the wrong, but the writing, sentence by sentence, is what really impresses. The same is true of The Sense of an Ending, with which in some ways it shares a theme.
In his polemic Reality Hunger (Penguin), David Shields argues for the pleasures of the "lyric essay" – part-autobiographical, part-narrative, part-intellectual inquiry. Three collections of essays this year help his case. First, Caryl Phillips’s Colour Me English (Harvill Secker), which reflects on race, migration, Islamophobia and (in one scary essay) mountaineering, with telling passages on his upbringing in Leeds in the 1960s and arrival in New York round 9/11. Second, Tretower to Clyro, in which Karl Miller celebrates country themes (from lambs to foxes) and country writers (from John McGahern to Ted Hughes); there’s the bonus of a long preface by Andrew O’Hagan, describing journeys to the Celtic fringes that he and Miller took with Seamus Heaney. Third, Arguably by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic), a selection from one of the great polemical journalists of our age and the ideal complement to his memoir of last year Hitch 22 (Atlantic).
The most chilling full-length work of non-fiction I read this year was Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness, about the murder of Lucie Blackman in Tokyo.
By far the best novel I read this year – and I read the entire Booker longlist out of increasingly perplexed curiosity – was Ali Smith’s There but for the. It’s smart, warm, experimental, and surprisingly moving; I’m dismayed it hasn’t received more recognition. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, on the other hand, has taken numerous awards, but deserves every one. It’s the first book in a long time that made me jealous. And for adults, for teenagers, for anyone at all, Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker Books) must be sought out. Concerning the pursuit of virginity loss in 1960s Norfolk against the background of the Cuban missile crisis, it’s fresh, vital and with an ending that still stuns, 11 months after I read it.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad managed to be both inventive and hugely entertaining, and I also enjoyed Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, the final instalment of the consistently excellent Patrick Melrose series. Read them all, now. Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Faber) restored at least a little of my faith in stand-up comedy, and two current reads are late additions to the list of favourites; Claire Tomalin’s admirably brisk and entertaining Dickens biography and Craig Taylor’s Londoners (Granta)an epic portrait in eighty voices that shows the city to be just as … well … Dickensian as it has ever been.
The most memorable fiction I read this year was Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton), a series of loosely connected stories set on the frontiers of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The author was nearly 80 before his book was published, having spent his working life among the tribes of Balochistan, whose stories he obviously absorbed over the years. In this captivating book you can feel them blow off the page like dry desert air.
Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower (Allen Lane). The counterculture was wrong: your problem is not that you’re uptight and repressed and should let it all hang out, but that you’re profligate and impulsive and need to bulk up your self-control. Baumeister’s ingenious experiments, enlivened with Tierney’s vignettes from history and technology, show you how. Joshua S Goldstein, Winning the War on War (Dutton); John Mueller, War and Ideas (Routledge); Andrew Mack, Human Security Report 2009/2010 (OUP USA). Believe it or not, war is going out of style, according to these updates from some of the sources I used in my own recent book. Matthew White, Atrocitology (Canongate). A serious book, written with a light touch, on the hundred worst things humans have done to each other (that we know of). Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works (Columbia). Gandhi was right, not just morally but empirically: nonviolent resistance is three times more effective than violence.
In Alice Oswald’s Homer (Memorial, Faber), the nameless are named. Oswald has excised the main Homeric narrative – Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Helen, Paris. True, Hector gets a mention, but only to say that he, too, died like the little people, the bit-players who bite the dust. Homer’s brief lives: "Euphorbus died / Leaving his silver hairclip on the battlefield." Oswald shares with Christopher Logue fearless anachronism – Oswald’s Hector, "Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running" – but Memorial, though good, isn’t a patch on Logue’s Homer. A better editor would have dissuaded her from monotonously repeating her epic similes. Towards the end, there are 10 unrepeated similes. So the final, 11th simile, which closes the poem, is the more forceful for being repeated – like a closing, extended chord. And it is brilliant in its own right: a shooting star as a "whip of stars". Memorial has 15 or so perfect touches that show Oswald to be a considerable poet: for example "flower-lit cliffs", "the darkness hit him with a dull clang", the sea "just lifted and flattened lifted and flattened", "fire with its loose hair flying rushes through a city".
It’s impossible to explain through any discussion of plot and character the hypnotic brilliance of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (Jonathan Cape). The joy of boyhood and the darkness at its edges are conveyed in scenes of extraordinary imagination – boys lashed to a deck in a storm, a dog biting down on the throat of a man, a girl skating across the deck of a ship in the early morning, a prisoner in chains walking its length at night. It is entirely … well, Ondaatje-esque.
Among the best collections of short stories I’ve read this year is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Pocket Books), where the form is used to explore character in a way I haven’t seen done before, examining the heroine from story to story via different viewpoints and time perspectives. Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Fourth Estate) tells sad, graceful stories of love and savage loneliness, beginning with the haunting almost-novella-length "Kindness". The title story of Margaret Drabble‘s A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (Penguin Classic) is worth the cover price alone. After several novels Sarah Hall has this year published The Beautiful Indifference (Faber), seven skilfully adrenalised stories, precise and sensual, in which the scent of violence is a constant. And from half a century ago comes Vasily Grossman’s The Road (Quercus), whose title story can be read as a 4,000-word distillation of his epic novel Life and Fate (Vintage), written the year following the confiscation of that novel’s typescript by the Soviet authorities.
I’m delighted to see Selma Dabbagh’s book Out of It published (Bloomsbury). Driven, fast-paced, edgy, this is Dabbagh’s first novel – although she’s written excellent short stories. A narrative of Gaza, it brings a very welcome new voice and a new consciousness to the Palestinian story.
Amjad Naser’s Haythu la Tasqut al-Amtar, or Where the Rain doesn’t Fall (Dar al-Adab, Beirut), is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Naser is an inspired poet and this work takes the precision and economy of his language into prose narrative for the first time. Gentle, sad, hopeful – a poet writing prose at his mature best. Watch out for the English translation. I’m reading Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World (Verso). It’s really helpful to zoom out from time to time when you’re living massive events at very close quarters.
For bilingual readers I cannot end without mentioning Tamim al-Barghouti and Amin Haddad’s poems born of the Egyptian revolution – even though they are as yet uncollected. These were the poems that were read and sung in Tahrir Square and the other public spaces of Egypt. They still keep us going.
Three books by literary stylists which dealt with grief and loss raised fascinating questions about style and tone and storytelling under fierce pressure. I found all three books affecting and disturbing. One was Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (Fourth Estate), which is even more raw and filled with loss than her previous memoir; the second is Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name (Grove Press), a masterpiece of storytelling and scene-setting; the third is Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions (Bloodaxe), poems with her customary eloquence and gravity now filled with shock and hurt, certainly the most beautiful work she has made. In the meantime, Jeffrey Eugenides and Alan Hollinghurst produced two supremely confident novels; their ambiguous versions of destiny and desire in The Marriage Plot and The Stranger’s Child made me laugh at certain moments and sit up and shiver at others.
Two historical novels achieve quiet distinction this year: Andrew Miller’s Pure (Sceptre) and Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy (Hutchinson). While Miller’s prose is poetic and impressionistic, Unsworth’s is formal and dense, yet both novels unfold highly dramatic stories in a measured and unfussy way. Pure gives to a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the gruesome task of digging up and carting away the mountains of the dead who lie in the Cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris in 1785, polluting its surrounding air and water. Over Baratte’s terrible enterprise lies the shadow of the coming revolution, thus giving to Miller’s vivid images of "purification" a fine historical ambiguity. Unsworth’s novel, picking up the story of the 18th century slave-ship mutiny told in Sacred Hunger, has Erasmus Kemp, son of the disgraced ship owner, trying to bring the mutineers to trial in England, but finding himself thwarted not only by one slippery fugitive, but also by his own conscience, made suddenly manifest to him by his love for the reforming sister of a liberal lawyer. Both books are notable for their subtle meditations on kindness and compassion.
Carol Ann Duffy, The Bees (Picador). Take one line, "What will you do with the gift of your left life?" Beautiful and moving poetry for the real world.
Ali Smith, There but for the. What would you do if an uninvited guest locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out? She writes so well, distinctive, a bit crazy, compelling in the way that language should be, with surprises everywhere.
Darian Leader, What Is Madness? Our madness-measure is always changing. This is a thought-provoking book about how we diagnose and differentiate our many kinds of insanities. In spite of the Freud/Lacan obsession with the phallus as a central psychic symbol (oy vey), this is a book posing necessary questions and offering genuine insights.
Leo Hollis, The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). A clever tour through London’s long life using her built architecture and the stories found there. From Westminster Abbey through Regent Street and Wembley Stadium to the Gherkin. Absorbing and enjoyable.
• Compiled by Ginny Hooker.
• To order books mentioned, with free UK p&p, call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop
• What have you enjoyed reading in the past 12 months? Send us your recommendations (including details of the publisher) in no more than 150 words, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to us at Readers’ Books of the Year, Review, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU, to arrive no later than Sunday 11 December. We would most like to hear about recent titles. Please include a postal address and telephone number or email address. We will publish a selection of your choices in the paper and on the website – or join the books of the year debate here