Books of the year
From SF to politics, cartoons to history, Guardian readers choose their favourite reads of 2011
|John Madeley, Let Live: A Bike Ride, Climate Change and the CIA|
Jeff Alderson, Oxford
Kate Anderson Sheffield
Let Live: A Bike Ride, Climate Change and the CIA by John Madeley (Longstone Books). John Madeley is a well-known author and broadcaster on issues relating to development and social justice. This his second novel focuses on climate change as it has affected small farmers and others in Africa. He bases it on the experiences of a British journalist who sets out to bicycle through six countries. It is truly a thriller, with so much relevant to what is already having severe, indeed crippling, consequences for millions in rural Africa. The interplay with the powers-that-be, often of a dastardly nature, adds to the drama. It deserves to be read by those who remain unmoved and cynical about the reality of climate change, and too by those committed to mitigating its effects.
Kate Anderson Sheffield
Penelope Lively's How It All Began (Fig Tree) is honest but not mawkish about being elderly, and the frustrations of being physically more dependent. One expects the supreme prose, but this book has depth with a lightness of touch. In hardback it has one of the loveliest covers, epitomising for me an ideal retirement.
Kenneth Baker, Lord Baker of Dorking, House of Lords
Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City by Paul Strathern (Jonathan Cape). This is a brilliant history of how the wealth and power of Florence was challenged by a radical monk so successfully with the Bonfire of the Vanities that they had to burn him at the stake – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Ludovico Sforza, and Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, are in the premier league of Italian politics and make Berlusconi seem a mere pot boy. My second book is The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford (Penguin). This bestseller in America is the bible for those who work with their hands. Crawford, a philosophy don, also runs his own motorcycle workshop in Richmond, Virginia, and that is his inspiration and his satisfaction. Practical, technical, hands-on learning is behind the new University Technical Colleges.
It is a golden age not of fiction but non-fiction, one reason why we set up a reading group in north London where novels are banned. Two books that produced much discussion this year were Sherry Turkle's Alone Together (Basic Books) and Luke Jennings's Blood Knots (Atlantic). Turkle, a psychologist at MIT in Boston, brings a psychoanalytic eye to an investigation into the meanings of the digital world. Her dissection of the tyrannies of social networking made me decide not to get an iPhone. Jennings writes about "fathers, friendship and fishing" but his subject is really mentoring. His elegant narrative would shame many contemporary novelists.
Chris Birch, London
As a descendant of slave-owning West Indian sugar planters, I had a personal interest in Matthew Parker's The Sugar Barons (Hutchinson). Were my ancestors as cruel, drunken and licentious as so many sugar barons were? Parker focuses on Barbados and Jamaica, with very few references to the other islands, and my 17th-century ancestors were in St Kitts and Nevis. My own research, published in The Milk Jug Was A Goat (St Christopher Press), found no evidence of wickedness by my forbears although the behaviour of the plantocracy in the Leeward Islands was little different from its behaviour in Jamaica and Barbados. In 1810, for example, Edward Huggins, one of the richest Nevis planters, had 32 of his slaves, both men and women, whipped more than 200 lashes each and was found not guilty of cruelty by a jury of his peers, although 39 lashes was the usual maximum.
Charles Boardman Nottingham
Charles Boardman Nottingham
From the Man Booker shortlist came The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Granta), a western filled with violence – leavened with occasional humour – told in such a cultivated style as to make one feel a sneaking regard for the psychopathic narrator. Beryl Bainbridge's posthumously published The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (Little, Brown) tantalises by making us wonder how it would have ended had she been able to complete it. But my absolute treat of the year was Alice Munro's New Selected Stories (Chatto & Windus). All are, to me, more nourishing than many full length fictions.
Sue Bond Brisbane, Australia
The books I most enjoyed reading this year are: Bento's Sketchbook by John Berger (Verso) for its author's relaxed sketches, meditative insights, and sense of humour; and Blue Nights by Joan Didion (Fourth Estate) for her cool, subtly self-mocking prose and powerful subject matter.
Vidya Borooah Belfast
I choose School Blues by Daniel Pennac, translated by Sarah Ardizzone (MacLehose Press). Pennac, a slow learner who was labelled un cancre (dunce) in his childhood, has combined life as a successful writer with teaching in a school in a banlieu of Paris. He devotes himself to rescuing students regarded as hopeless cases. Wonderfully inventive in his own fiction, Pennac resorts to old-fashioned methods in his teaching. He adopts a policy of zero tolerance in spelling and grammar and makes his pupils learn poems and passages of text by heart. Written in the same engaging style that has made his novels bestsellers in France, this semi-autobiographical book is a joy to read.
I am recommending a really excellent book which I think your readers would enjoy. It is called And Rocky Too by Jayne Woodhouse, published October 2011 by Clucket Press (www.tattybogle.co.uk). Because it is published by a small independent press this book may not get the attention it rightly deserves. It is a sequel to the first novel The Stephensons' Rocket about a family who adopt an ex-racing greyhound (Also an excellent book) but although And Rocky Too is a sequel it can be read without having read the first one, as it stands independently. And Rocky Too is written primarily for the 8-11 year age range (i.e. Junior Fiction) it can also be enjoyed by adults since there is humour to be enjoyed at all levels. It is a heart-warming story of a family trying to overcome problems, aided by their dog. It has a strong "feel-good factor" and I can highly recommend it for children and young-at-heart adults.
Jerard Bretts Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire
My novel of the year was Steve Sem-Sandberg's The Emperor of Lies (Faber), which explores one of the most controversial figures of the Holocaust, Mordechai Rumkowski, spokesperson for the Jews in the Lodz ghetto. Sem-Sandberg uses a vast cast of characters in painting a vivid picture of a hellish universe where hunger and fear turned values upside down.
Two career-spanning collections by Americans also made a strong impression. Steven Millhauser's We Others: New and Selected Stories (Corsair) showcased the power and variety of the work of a true original. The title story is one of the finest modern ghost stories you'll ever read. In The Apple Trees at Olema: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe) Robert Hass gathered the best of over 30 years' worth of verse exploring politics, landscape, love and myth in a variety of styles.
Sue Brooks Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles (Granta) opened my eyes to the world of butterflies. Under his guidance I became ever more entranced by these beautiful (and endangered) creatures. The new edition of Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain (Canongate Canons), with a fine introduction by Robert Macfarlane, is teaching me how to learn to "look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence." I also enjoyed Katherine Swift's The Morville Hours (Bloomsbury). This story of her garden, a love story exquisitely written, has helped me pay more attention to my own.
Cornelius Browne Dungloe, County Donegal, Ireland
Here in Ireland, amid gloom, two debuts sparked. Belinda McKeon's Solace (Picador) unfolds quietly until beyond the midpoint we get a devastating jolt. This is McGahern-school realism, gaze unflinching, rooted in the present. In stark contrast, with City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape), Kevin Barry zooms us into the future – from which the internal-combustion engine and much else has vanished.
Philip Browning, Norwich
The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham (Granta), subtitled "A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals" tells of Barkham's quest to see all of Britain's 59 native butterflies in a single year. It's entertaining, informative, amusing and, as you would expect from a features writer for The Guardian, superbly written. By sharpening the senses, a summer walk in the country will never be the same after reading this book.
Morag Charlwood Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex
Jackie Kay's Fiere (Picador) feels like a poetic homecoming; a revelation of self-identity expressed in a personal language that reaches deep down into her Scottish and Nigerian roots. Kay is developing the voice of a sage, a seer, our fiere. In Kill All Enemies (Puffin) Melvin Burgess confronts the reader with uncomfortable truths. The narrative follows three troubled teenagers to a growing self-awareness and future hope.
MJ Clements Colchester, Essex
I recommend My Father's Fortune: A Life by Michael Frayn (Faber). The author's recollection of growing up in wartime Surrey is amusing, touching and devastating. It will resonate with anyone who has lost a parent in childhood.Although not new, my favourite read this year is Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (Abacus). Subtle, unexpectedly dark and tragic in places, it perfectly recreates an artists' community in Cornwall where Alfred Munnings was living early last century. Starting with his famous speech at the Royal Academy it tells of his first wife's mistake in marrying the wrong man and the love she shares with another. The characters are sensitively drawn including Munnings who I was surprised to be moved by. If readability is a benchmark then I would go for Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton (Piatkus). An unusual thriller, heartbreakingly told.
Marge Clouts Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire
The brilliant and passionate fiction of Cynthia Ozick is acclaimed in the US, but few readers here seem to have heard of her. Her latest novel, Foreign Bodies (Atlantic), is an ingenious, somewhat subversive reworking of Henry James's The Ambassadors. Ozick's 48-year-old New Yorker Bea is similarly sent to retrieve her young nephew from post-war Paris - liberated but battered, and swarming with refugees. Ozick's unexpected plot twists move well beyond homage with acuity, humour and insight. David Abulafia's erudite history The Great Sea (Allen Lane) covers numberless criss-crossings of the Mediterranean, involving trade, wars, piracy and port cities. Educational and exhilarating.
Clare Cross, Priston, near Bath
John Hill's Through the Jade Gate to Rome (BookSurge) is a revelation for all those admirers of the British Library's amazing 2004 exhibition on the Silk Routes. It is an annotated translation of the Han Dynasty "Chronicle on the Western Regions" with accompanying notes, and what notes they are! All the kingdoms mentioned in the text are discussed along with speculations on their correct identities and locations from the great 19th century scholars and travellers: Stein, Hedin, Le Coq, Curzon, Younghusband et al up to the latest 21st century research. Additional chapters include the Jade and Lapis routes, Khotan silk, sea silk, the Kushan Empire, Gandhara, the hanging passages of Hunza etc all of which not only delight but provide an immense amount of information on inner central Asia from the Tarim Basin into the rich Oxus lands and on towards the Roman empire via Persia.
Tony Davidson By Beauly, Inverness-shire
A book about obsession and the need to belong, Kapka Kassabova's Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story (Portobello Books) takes us across the globe on a quest that goes beyond just dance. It is a book about life; I hope it gets made into a film.
Chris Davis, Oxford
Established poetry publishers list too far towards the familiar. Yet, some of the finest work emerges on the margins. A friend gave me a copy of Folio 65, the annual compilation of the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society. Anthologies often mine traditional seams; we hack away at the rock face, unearthing occasional gems. Kit Wright, introducing the work, encounters one such "the unmistakable bullseye, the authentic maximum in a run of lines when you know, by whatever means, that this is the real thing" in a passage from "Angel Visits" by Garry Ely: "Incurious, condemned, / you go on staring at the broken shapes / your clothes make in the shadows, /preparing to give themselves away." Poetry worthy of any list, and deserving of a wider audience.
Alison Doig Etchingham, East Sussex
My non-fiction book of the year was Alistair Darling's account of the financial crisis, Back from the Brink (Atlantic). His spare prose conveys the dysfunctionality of the Brown government more sharply than a rant would have done. While admitting to misjudgements about city regulation, he skewers the coalition line about our dire situation being "all Labour's fault". My fiction choice would be Sarah Moss's beautifully written Night Waking (Granta), one of the best accounts I have read about the grind (and intermittent joy) of living with small children.
Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall (HarperPress). The first thing I would like to say about this book is that HarperPress put a thriller spin on it and it is not. It is not the sort of book I would usually read, yet on an aeroplane to New York I could not put it down. As a working mother of two I recognised these people, their social and moral dilemmas. The fear of what we are doing to our children, what is best for our children and then the worst reality (doing what we think is best, which is in fact the worst thing that we could have done). Brilliantly written and observed. I enjoyed the impinging insanity and darkness that all our lives could spiral into.
Angus Doulton, Bletchingdon
Peace by Richard Bausch (Atlantic Books). Set in the context of the wartime slog up the spine of Italy in the middle of an Italian winter can be, it explores events, thoughts and sensibilities as a small team is detailed to reconnoitre a position by climbing a mountain. But, if war is the backdrop, life in the round is the subject. This is lean, spare writing with nothing wasted so that when, finally, the one moment of peace arrives, it is cathartic; an ice-hard diamond set with exquisite craftsmanship in this jewel of a novel.
Paul Eastwood Stamford, Lincolnshire
Alan Bennett did all he could to disturb his national treasure status with the two unseemly stories in Smut (Faber), but his naughty-schoolboy, twinkle-in-the-eye prose just made him even more loveable. But my book of the year is Leslie Geddes Brown's Angie Lewin: Plants and Places (Merrell). This magnificent collection of sketches and finished works shows that the skills of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious are still with us and that "English" art continues to have much to celebrate.
Karen Eberhardt Shelton , Lower Godney (Wells), Somerset
I rarely read novels any more. The books I value most are those that expand the mind, broaden thinking, cast out assumptions, & help create a new awareness regarding issues of major concern. Thus the books I have read most recently and highly recommend because they offer so much useful information are:
1. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz (Portobello)
2. Why We Make Mistakes - by Joseph Hallinan (Ebury Press)
3. Here Comes Trouble by Michael Moore (Allen Lane)
4. Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails by Duncan J. Watts (Atlantic Books)
5. Principles of Home: Marking a Place to Live by Kevin McCloud (Collins)
David Evans, Exeter
Winter King (Allen Lane), by Thomas Penn, is a suspenseful historical narrative which combines scholarship with literary flair, telling of Henry VII's deployment of ruthless statecraft, acumen in the financial markets, and a suspicious disposition, to create a modern tyranny, secure the Tudor claim to the crown and, incidentally, lay down the foundations of the modern monarchy and the centralised state. Penn appears to bring an all-seeing eye to half a millennium ago. Penny Kline's Ursula's Arm (Matador) is a novel convincingly rooted in the 1930s. A light-handed and generous narration tells of a sexually frustrated wife who undergoes psychoanalysis and metamorphoses into a self-directed disciple of the ideas of Marie Stopes. This novel is a wonderful example of the riches to be found amongst indie-published books.
David Fothergill York
In his Books of the Year selection, Hari Kunzru described Open City by Teju Cole (Faber) as a "wander through New York". And so it is. And a wander through Brussels, too. Sounds dull, eh? Not at all. With articulate and flowing narrative, Cole brings anticipation to every page. It's a hypnotic observation of our fragile and frail times, seen through the ideas of a highly intelligent young professional. How can a first novel be so maturely written?
Robert Gomme London
By coincidence I read three recently published books involving Nazi Germany. Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler (Vintage Classics), is set in the terrible years of Stalin's Russia in the 20th century and is written on a Tolstoyan scale; like War and Peace it proceeds by episodes between the large and the small and moves from past to present and back. Its characters illuminate such matters as Stalingrad, the Gulag, the coercion of a state that decides as diktat the nature of reality and of truth, scientists trying to develop the atomic bomb, stressed family life, love in the trenches and bitter cold and hunger. It includes debates on the betrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution, the nature and fact of Anti-Semitism, military strategy and interference by Commissars. The translation reads well and the story is both moving and overwhelming.
The Perfect Nazi by Martin Davidson (Penguin) has the subtitle "Uncovering my SS Grandfather's Secret Past and How Hitler Seduced a Generation". A German girl came to Edinburgh in the 1950s to improve her English: she fell in love and married a Scot. Her son possesses two grandfathers – a Scot and a German. He finds that the German grandfather had been an enthusiastic SS and Nazi member, who behaved to type in the 1930s and during WWII, when he was too old to enlist. The victorious allies might have shot him at the end of the war but he had assumed a false name and lived contentedly till he died in 1989. Only after his death was the truth about his life established. An extraordinary tale; it reveals much from those terrible years.
The novelist Justin Cartwright has excelled himself in The Song Before it is Sung (Bloomsbury). It is an extraordinary, powerful, well-written and very moving novel: it is also both sad and terror ridden. In 1944 Hitler narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Conspirators were found and hanged from meat hooks and their executions filmed. A conspirator, who is one of the hanged, leaves correspondence to an Oxford don; sixty years later the story is unravelled. There are sub-plots and attractive diversions, but ultimately the horror of seeing the film of the hangings nearly deranges the interlocutor.
Catriona Graham Edinburgh
I was so charmed hearing on Book at Bedtime Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Maintains (Canongate) – about a middle-aged man suffering a crisis of conscience in Lisbon while the Spanish civil war rages over the border - that I rushed out to buy it and was surprised to find it shelved under Crime. Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace (Faber), describes Black-Power Trinidad; I could picture every character, building, dust road and beat-up car.The first is a joyously subversive romp through the Book of Genesis in general and the story of Noah in particular. The second recounts the journey in 1551of an elephant sent as a present from Lisbon to Vienna and is enchanting.
Katie Greening London
My choice is The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon (Sceptre), which is witty, deliciously nasty, highly intelligent, and has a broad scope, from 19th-century Europe to America in the 1970s. It depicts a former coffee baron named Teddy Everett telling his life story from his deathbed. One of the most authoritative first novels I've read.
Kate Gunning London
The funniest novel I read this year is Guy Kennaway's Bird Brain (Jonathan Cape). Banger is a member of the landed gentry and a curmudgeonly old sod whose only pleasure in life is blood sports. Then, one day, he dies and is reincarnated … as a pheasant. But my favourite novel of 2011 was Anthony Quinn's Half of the Human Race(Jonathan Cape). It tells the story of a suffragette, Connie Callaway, and a professional cricketer, Will Maitland, of how their worlds collide, pull apart and then come together again during the first world war. The characters are superbly well drawn, the dialogue is spot-on, the storytelling a joy.
Anthea Hall St Lawrence, Jersey
Researched over a period of ten years, Into the Silence by the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis (Bodley Head) is not just about the first world war and Mallory, but is a minute-by-minute account of the first expeditions to Tibet in the 1920s. Their diaries and letters, revealing their private thoughts, aspirations, dreams and desires, their privations, mistakes and desperate endurances. Nothing has been left out, from the strange (to Western sensibilities) religious culture and history of the Tibetan people, to Mallory's body being found preserved in the ice, many years after his last climb. A book that lingers in the mind.
Gill Henderson, Belfast
The book I loved reading this year was Burren Country - Travels through an Irish Limestone Landsape by Paul Clements (The Collins Press). It is a collection of essays about different aspects of The Burren region of County Clare, known for its exotic wildflowers and limestone pavement. I especially enjoyed the chapter on colour which was superb with stunning attention to descriptive detail. The author knows the place intimately and speaks its language. He delves into everything from geology and archaelogy to the music and whisky found in the pubs. If you can't make it to The Burren then this is the next best thing - an armchair guide.
Jack Herring Birmingham
One of my favourites this year was The Good of the Novel (Faber), edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, a collection of literary critical essays: Andrew O'Hagan's musings on Don DeLillo's study of "American derangement" was particularly engaging, as was Robert Macfarlane's insightful reading of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.
Martin Hills Chichester, West Sussex
Humanist philosophy, the transmission of ideas, censorship, the recovery of classical manuscripts and Renaissance religious attacks on perceived Epicurean heresies are some themes Stephen Greenblatt explores in his brilliant, elegant new work. The Swerve (Bodley Head) opens with the 1417 discovery of a manuscript of De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things), Lucretius's mid-first century BC philosophical poem. Lucretius posited a godless state of constant flux, matter consisting entirely of moving particles and space. Epicureanism sought liberation from superstitious fear, cultivation of a full, modest life and sense of earthly wonder. Greenblatt's account of the humanist, lay papal secretary who discovered the manuscript fascinates, as does his compilation of contemporary satirical observations within the Papal State. Elsewhere Epicurean legacy is explored. Montaigne directly quoted him on 100 occasions, Shakespeare and many others absorbed his ideas.
Ben Hinshaw London
Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton) was astonishing. These deceptively simple tales of life in the Central Asian borderlands are rendered with such poise and power that each felt as substantial as an epic poem. Written over many years by an elderly Pakistani civil servant, it was by a long way the most memorable book of the year. Elsewhere, Long, Last, Happy: New & Selected Stories (Grove) served as both seductive introduction and towering monument to the late, great Southern stylist Barry Hannah. In his hands, language could do absolutely anything except what the reader expected. Finally, Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers (Granta) was charming as all hell and would surely have won the Booker had it been written by a Brit.
Liz Hoffbauer, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk
If you don't know the Potteries, The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent by Matthew Rice (Frances Lincoln)
Catherine Johnson West Yorkshire
Published early in the year, Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) wears its enormous erudition lightly and if ever one wants evidence of man's inhumanity towards man through the ages it is here..
Cyril Kavanagh Kingston, Surrey
I was Born There, I was Born Here by Mourid Barghouti (Bloomsbury) is a powerful and moving evocation of Palestinian life by the author who returns from exile to the occupied territories and remembers what once existed and is now destroyed – a magnificient followup to his memoir I Saw Ramallah (Bloomsbury). A classic.
Water: Asia's New Battleground by Brahma Chellaney (Georgetown Univerity Press 2011). The author provides ample evidence that although Asia is home to many of the world's great rivers its rising population and economic growth makes the issue of water a potential cause of crisis and war as water becomes more scarce. A scary book but it needs to be read and widely circulated so the problem can be dealt with before it is too late.
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (Allen Lane) A difficult but well rewarded read in which the author maintains that everything is within the reach of reason including moral and polirical philosophy and aesthetics: "within the universal laws of physics, there are no limits to progress". A whirlwind of amazing ideas.Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Allen Lane) is about the (sometimes dangerous) influence of intuition on our thought; the benefits of "slow thinking" are explored and explained. This is a book that could change your life.
Verdi and/or Wagner by Peter Conrad (Thames & Hudson) is immensely erudite very funny in parts. A must for lovers or haters of either composer.
Sue Keable Cambridge
Margaret Drabble's A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (Penguin Classics) is a hugely impressive work by a writer at the very peak of her art – it is her only collection of short stories, written over many years, some of which reduced me to tears. And Ruth Rendell's The Vault (Hutchinson) – her new Wexford novel – gave me more than one sleepless night, with the grisly and macabre twists in the scarily and all-too-believable final pages. The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay (Aurum Press) is a fascinating account of the World War Two codebreakers, including Alan Turing and my own particular hero, Angus Wilson. I loved the story of how Angus, in one of his many temper tantrums, was told that he'd be thrown in the lake. Angus didn't wait to be pushed - he jumped!
Anne Kirkman Cambridge
My book of the year is the poetry anthology Being Human, edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe. There are some old favourites, but I was dazzled by the number of unfamiliar poets featured, particularly those translated from other languages. I could never have hoped to have the leisure or means to discover them for myself, and I'm so grateful to be introduced to them in this way.
I particularly enjoyed the wry humour of John Agard's "Half-caste", and was moved by the five poems from Marin Sorescu's The Bridge, written for his wife during his five-week terminal illness.
Like Astley's previous anthologies, Staying Alive and Being Alive, this collection aims at making sense of the human condition and in my opinion is gloriously successful.
Kate Latham Gunnislake, Cornwall
Although not universally acclaimed, Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table (Jonathan Cape) delivered a great reading experience. It is the story of a boy travelling unaccompanied on the liner Oronsay to England to be reunited with his mother. When he finds two other boys of a similar age on the ship, they decide to solve the mystery of the thief who is aboard.
Gerard Lee Dublin
My choice is Spooner by Pete Dexter (Atlantic Books). As a boy, Spooner liked to enter his neighbour's house, urinate in the man's shoes, and then hide them in the fridge. As he gets older, well, his behaviour starts to get downright strange. . If you had Spooner's phone number, you'd be ringing him every third or fourth page screaming "No, Spooner, don't!" But he wouldn't listen anyway. This wonderful book also contains the most remarkable menagerie of clapped-out, arthritic, asthmatic, tottering, banjaxed, gummy and utterly lovable old hound-dogs in the history of old hound-dogs. Oh yes, and Dexter wrote the real Deadwood.
John Lees, Wolverhampton
David St John Thomas is my author of the year. A publisher too (founder of David and Charles, excellent in railways, transport, crafts and other 1960s growth areas), he is still writing in a free-flowing creative anecdotal style that draws on his life and experiences. This year I finally finished his monumental Journey Through Britain: Landscape, People and Books (Frances Lincoln), an enticing travelogue celebrating Britain and friendship. Hopefully the sequel Remote Britain (Frances Lincoln) will be in Santa's sack. For the Love of a Cat: A Publisher's Story (Exisle) is even more personal, his own life lived cat-wards, as well as practically helpful if (like us) you have just been adopted by a cat ..... Finally, there is Frances Lincoln's reissue of The Country Railway, first out in 1976, evocative and elegiac of the country branch line sadly overtaken by Beeching, Network Rail and HS2.
Terry Lempriere Warrington
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape) starts with a revisiting of her adoptive childhood as fictionalised in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but then shifts to her search for and meetings with her birth mother. Beautifully written, disturbing and funny, it poses difficult questions about the effects, negative and positive, of adoption. I was moved by Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis (Faber): the final six years of Edward Thomas's life are described in poignant, vivid fashion.
Kev McCready Knowsley
Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz (Jonathan Cape) was passed over for the Man Booker prize, but is a poetic, funny and sad novel about the beginning, middle and end of an affair, as well as a metaphor for how the credit crunch affected Ireland.
Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is set in a mid-21st-century America that is both morally and financially bankrupt; it has hints of both Vonnegut and Coupland.
Hamilton McMillan London
Using a range of intriguing examples, Survivors: The Animals and Plants Time Left Behind by Richard Fortey (HarperPress) links deep geological time with the present. David Bellos's Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (Particular Books) is ostensibly about language translation. Written with brio, and sometimes hilarious, it touches on many things besides.
David Maleed, London
Do You Realize? by Marion Steel (O books). Shocked by the sudden and unexpected death of one of her patients, from cancer, psychotherapist Marion Steel finds herself taken unawares, and needing time to reflect. An autobiographical account, that takes an open-minded look at loss, bereavement, and our finite lives. Interspersed with poetry, and patients' experiences, it's a brave and thought-provoking work. Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada (Paragon). A novel based around actual events, that occurred during World War Two. A Berlin couple turn against The Nazis, following the death of their only son, whose been killed in action. The reader is taken on a journey into the city, as they work to undermine the regime. Fallada – who lived through the era – captures an atmosphere of paranoia, perfectly.Memoirs Of A Geezer by Jah Wobble (Serpent's Tail). An absorbing and frank autobiography of a musician's career, spanning thirty years. Wobble's down to earth nature, intelligence, and sense of humour, makes entertaining reading. His recollections are always balanced, and he's willing to admit mistakes. It's peppered with bizarre anecdotes and forthright opinions. From his early success as a founding member of post-punk band PiL, alcoholism, working on the London Underground, and eventually, finding a way back into music. It's a life of highs, lows, and artistic achievements.
Jean Marshall Bushey, Hertfordshire
Marika Cobbold's Drowning Rose (Bloomsbury) is a book to read, enjoy and remember. Flashbacks explain how a school dance ended in tragedy. Late at night Rose and Eliza wandered off to a nearby lake; Rose drowned and Eliza blamed herself for her friend's death. Twenty-five years later she is still racked with guilt. She is now a successful ceramics restorer at the V&A Museum. She can mend 18th-century Spode but not, it seems, her broken life and broken relationships. Then an unexpected phone call from Ian, Eliza's godfather and also Rose's father, prompts her to visit his beautiful home in the Swedish countryside. With his encouragement she makes the slow and painful transition from a life of "what ifs?" to a life of "what now?". No one writes about life quite like Marika Cobbold; no one combines light and dark, humorous and profound, joyous and sorrowful quite so expertly.
Tristan Martin Royston, Hertfordshire
Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan have a fine track record in handling complex subjects. With their latest book, The Eleventh Day (Doubleday), they produce a panoramic account of the terrible events of 11 September 2001 that can easily sit alongside the other classics of this new genre (including Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower).
Anne Mills, Tonbridge, Kent
Anna del Conte's Risotto with Nettles (Chatto & Windus), memoirs interspersed with recipes: she belongs to an Italian tradition of women cooks, respecting ingredients and regional variations. Marriage to an Englishman in 1950 brought her to the UK where she continued to transform food standards. Her title commemorates hard times when ingenuity kept people fed. Is that a Fish in your Ear? (Particular Books): David Bellos sympathises with translators, keeping his ears open to fashionable trends. One chapter "Language parity in the European Union" makes today's economic problems easy, compared with the EU's protocols to accommodate the languages of members. Nicholas Holtam, now at Salisbury and missed as vicar from St Martin-in-the Fields, bequeathes us The Art of Worship(Yale University Press), studies taken from the Galleries of the National Gallery next door. Beautifully presented images ranging from The Wilton Diptych to Turner's The Fighting Temeraire combine with clear, wise and imaginative meditations, with prayers from many sources.
Mike Moore Loughton, Essex
I often think that most cartoons state the political truth powerfully, and Bell Epoque: 30 Years of Steve Bell (Cartoon Museum) is a testament to genius. The film director Philippe Claudel also writes marvellously evocative stories, somewhere between fable and nightmare and Monsieur Linh and His Child (Maclehose Press) is a superb example of his craft. John Berger with Bento's Sketchbook continues with his magisterial synthesis of fact and fiction to produce prose that encourages the reader to see the world in a different way. China Miéville's Embassytown(Macmillan) uses science fiction to reflect on language and civilisation and still tell a great story; he is one of the most inventive contemporary novelists. Finally, to mark the sad death of Gil Scott-Heron I read his memoir Now and Then(Canongate) and blasted out some of his magnificent music.
Merle Nygate Esher, Surrey
I wish VIII by HM Castor (Templar) had been published years ago. Written in the first person from the standpoint of a young Henry VIII, it enabled me to appreciate for the first time how difficult his childhood was. Not only was he the spare second son whose status was set to take a further dip if his brother had children, but there were also dark conflicts within his parents' marriage: his mother's brothers were the murdered Princes in the Tower. The book deals with the psychology of a neglected adolescent who suddenly finds himself venerated and apparently chosen by God..
Stephen Parkin London
Two outstanding biographies spring to mind, equally successful in their depiction of native talent haunted by a sense of personal failure. Rachel Campbell-Johnston's Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (Bloomsbury) brought insight and sensitivity to a fascinating subject, as did Matthew Hollis in his moving account of Edward Thomas's unquiet journey to the western front in Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber). Engineers of the Soul (Vintage), Frank Westerman's genre-defying examination of Stalin's Svengalian hold over the Union of Soviet Writers, plus anything in the Little Toller series by writers united in their love of the English countryside.
Morchard Bishop, Nr Crediton, Devon
Raw, loving, frustrated letters written to a husband torn away by a sudden heart attack fill the pages of After You by Natascha McElhone (Viking). A line catches in the throat - "I deleted the message, because there would always be more messages like that from you." You shut the book - drained - full of admiration for this woman, who with her three sons has managed to tentatively live her life again. Patti Smith's Just Kids (Bloomsbury), although riveting, I found slightly naive. Did her memory serve her well?
Margaret Pedler, London
Far and away the best book which I have read over the last 12 months is "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah (HarperPerennial). It is the true story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone and is extremely moving. Ishmael was only twelve when he was caught up in the civil war and the book tells the horrific story of his life over the next 6 years. Although it is horrific, it is written in a way which does not glorify violence or glamorise it. For me also, the sections on Ishmael's (and others') rehabilitation were very gripping. The issue of child soldiers is one which urgently needs addressing globally and if this book can raise awareness of this issue that will be brilliant. The Washington Post said: "Everyone in the world should read this book". I could not agree more.
John Perry Chelmsford
Julian Barnes has rightly received plaudits for the Booker winning The Sense of an Ending, but this achievement should not overshadow his entertaining short story collection Pulse (Vintage), published earlier in 2011. In Cedilla (Faber), Adam Mars-Jones continued the odyssey of John Cromer, a young man confined to a wheelchair with Still's disease. I'm already looking forward to the next instalment: I know of nothing else quite like this in current literary fiction. Justin Cartwright wittily explored our financial woes in Other People's Money(Bloomsbury) and, lastly, in Wish You Were Here (Picador), set against the backdrop of the Iraq conflict, Graham Swift again skilfully and compulsively probes the effects of a sudden upheaval on the everyday life of an ordinary family.
Stephen Place Dublin
Without reaching the coruscating levels of satire and misanthropy that TC Boyle and Tom Wolfe are capable of, The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar (Sceptre) is in their ballpark – it's a ripped-from-the-headlines novel about the social divide in suburban Los Angeles between wealthy suburbanites and the Mexicans who work for them.
Adrian Potter Huddersfield
Those of us who relished The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators (Penguin) have had to wait a long time for Gordon Grice's followup, The Book of Deadly Animals(Viking). This time the author takes on the full extent of the animal kingdom, including a chapter devoted to the hazards posed by birds (such as aeroplane collisions and avian flu). He is, by turns, informative, journalistic, anecdotal and philosophical. And occasionally he lets his enthusiasm for his subject off the leash: "The shark took a bite of leg and surfboard together, as if sampling pâté on a cracker." Grice provides evidence that at least some animals are becoming more dangerous as our relationships with them become increasingly muddled. What is also clear is that captive and supposedly domesticated animals are the most dangerous - not only do they have the opportunity to harm us, they lose their fear too.
Patricia Rigg, Lewes
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape) takes the themes and shockingly descriptive writing of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, to a new level. In this wickedly funny, painful autobiography her adoptive mother's cold madness and the tiny self that inhabits her bizarre, huge frame inspire Jeanette's later storytelling. This book provides the key, and enriches our understanding of her singular and creative worlds. The abusive void and lack of love and tenderness in Jeanette's childhood was balanced by access to and a deep passion for literature. This kept her sane enough to deal with the horrific, emotional and physical abuse meted out by the very damaged, fanatical Mrs Winterson. Jeanette's clarity and honesty illuminate the human condition. She powerfully describes the personal turmoil and breakneck speed of emotions encountered by those of us who feel compelled to find our lost mothers.
Jan Roberts, Horndon-on-the-Hill, Essex
One of the most beautiful non-fiction books of 2012 is Liza Antrim's Family Dolls' Houses of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Cider House Books). The collection described in the text is a veritable treasure trove and Antrim has produced a volume that will delight anyone interested in social history. The photographs are sumptuous and make the subject very accessible even to a non-specialist. The text is lively and humorous but authoritative. There is no doubt it is destined to be regarded as the standard work on the subject.
Lyn Roberts Bicester, Oxfordshire
Innovatively quirky, poignantly humorous – would you expect this to be the description of a novel whose central theme is depression? Rebecca Hunt's Mr Chartwell, out in paperback this year (Penguin), is that and more. The narrative is centred on two parallel and gradually converging stories, that of Winston Churchill and his "black dog" of depression, and Esther Hammerhous, librarian at Westminster who becomes landlady to Black Pat, a huge talking dog. It is late July 1964, and we follow Churchill in the week leading up to his retirement, and Esther as she learns to deal with aspects of her somewhat painful past. Black Pat – depression personified - is the other central figure, menacing in both his hounding of Churchill and manipulation of Esther…A very fine first novel, not all of which succeeds but Rebecca Hunt is one to watch. Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape) is marvellous. He is a master of his craft, and it was difficult not to do a little dance in my living room when the Booker Prize was announced.
Jean Rogers, Durham
Three chilling tales with a warm heart: Ben Macallan's Desdaemona (Solaris) is an inventive twist on the urban fantasy which opens with the banshee at the bus station and doesn't let up. Anne Fine's The Devil Walks (Doubleday) combines pitch-perfect Gothic pastiche, action packed adventure and serious moral consideration into a real all-ages book. Peter Bennett's Bobby Bendick's Ride(Enchiridion) is a fine poet having fun, erudite, allusive and adorned with drawings by Birtley Aris.
Peter Scott, London
My reading has included two wonderfully eccentric and evocative novels: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry (Dedalus), the story of a "lost soul" during the second world war; and The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (Penguin Classics), whose own story reads like a novel in itself. Leonora was disowned by her father, when at the age of 19 she eloped to Paris with Max Ernst, the leader of the surrealist movement. The other two books I would recommend are This is Not the End of the Book (Harvill Secker), a lively discuss as to whether the "book" can survive the digital revolution between Umberto Eco & Jean-Claude Carrière. Fnally, Small Memories, A Memoir by José Saramago (Harvill Secker), a mosaic of memories from this great writer's life.
Ross Settles St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex
Two short story collections I enjoyed this year were Ron Rash's Burning Bright(Canongate), tales of those on the edge of American society set in a powerful Appalachian landscape, and The New Penguin Book of American Short Stories(Penguin Classics), an entertaining compilation outlining the history of the genre. John Burnside's Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape) is an outstanding collection – many of its poems reinterpret place and memory to almost hypnotic effect. A striking first novel, poetic in style and funny, was Vanessa Gebbie's The Coward's Tale (Bloomsbury), set in a small Welsh mining village and reminiscent of Dylan Thomas at his best. On the sporting front, Dave Roberts's 32 Programmes (Bantam Press) provided the fascinating match-history behind each of the football programmes the author was forced to select from his collection of over 1,100 when he moved to America.
John Shields Wilmslow, Cheshire
From the first moment of Great House by Nicole Krauss (Penguin), I was hooked. Its power lies in its different narrators and its intricate weaving of the story they tell, spanning continents and generations. Immediately afterwards I read Louise Doughty's Whatever You Love (Faber). Laura is a convincing single narrator, struggling to cope and make sense of a tragedy. Rare skill lies at the heart of achievements such as these, yet the overwhelming effect is of the emotional grab that fiction has at this level.
John Siberry Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin, Ireland
Set among a small community on the Atlantic coast, Dermot Healy's Long Time, No See (Faber) is a crystal of sea salt amid the bland fare of contemporary fiction. Philip, aged 19, is strangely devoted to his elderly mentors; the novel, Uncle Joe-Joe and The Blackbird, unfolds the necessary and often uneasy consequences of inheritance on a stage both epic and intimate. The tug and slack of Healy's dialogue drives to the surface a buried secret to be briefly witnessed, before being lost again in a silence as potent and fertile as the utterances that nourished it. Woven liberally and tightly, this is a novel gleaned from ground that is becoming rare and precious both in reality and in art.
Ian Simmons Monkseaton, Tyne and Wear
Edgelands (Jonathan Cape) by the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts is a small but fascinating study of the forgotten urban fringe where country and city blur in what is at first sight an unlovely collection of container depots, sewage works and allotments. Coupled with another of this year's stand-out books, London's Lost Rivers by Tom Bolton (Strange Attractor Press), Edgelands managed the unlikely feat of making me nostalgic for the Croydon of my youth. Strange Attractor themselves have been having a noteworthy year, establishing themselves as publishers who value the book as object as well as text and in addition to London's Lost Rivers I've really enjoyed their lovely editions of Phil Baker's Austin Osman Spare biography, and Somnium, by Alan Moore's mentor Steve Moore.
Marian Skeen London
From beginning to end in Waterline by Ross Raisin (Viking) you are up close with Mick, looking through his eyes, following his thoughts and sharing his experiences. He is not a man you like, but you understand him; you become aware how fragile and vulnerable he is and you end up deeply concerned about what will happen to him. There are occasional glimpses of Mick from the point of view of passing strangers who do not see, understand or care. It was unsettling to realise those strangers were me.
Ray Snape, York
Alistair Darling's Back from the Brink (Atlantic Books), describing the rather poisoned chalice of his Chancellorship, is a gripping and dramatic read, which reverses the stereotypes about politicians being in it for their own gain. If you value steadfastness, loyalty, intellectual rigour, and sheer hard work, this book speaks eloquently of all of them. Why do I still see John Ashbery as a guilty pleasure? The poet is now in his eighties, for heaven's sake. This year his collection Planisphere (Carcanet) has been the perfect antidote to Fred Goodwin-inspired nightmares:
... I'm barely twenty-six, have been on Oprah
and such. The almost invisible blight
of the present bursts in on us.
(from 'Attabled with the spinning years')
David Spiller Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire
Jane Rogers's novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press) was on the Booker prize longlist. Jessie Lamb is a teenage girl in a Britain transformed by an act of biological terrorism, where women who become pregnant all die. The book is like a thriller written by a poet.
Gareth Eoin Storey London
Caribou Island by David Vann (Penguin) is tragic and arresting. Anyone looking for what's happening in modern fiction should pay attention to this author: Vann is the new Tobias Wolff.
Martin Stott Oxford
In a year when revolution, economic crisis and corrupt journalism have dominated the headlines, Chris Mullin's A Walk-On Part (Profile) was a pleasure – he demonstrates that politicians can be human beings and far-sighted enough to spot what is going on a decade in advance of those headlines, in his case with Murdoch and News International. Fiona MacCarthy's The last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber) paints a vivid and slightly disturbing picture of this influential painter, his circle and their world of "pets", "stunners" and "Elgin Marbles with dark eyes". Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts's Edgelands: Journeys Into England's True Wilderness (Jonathan Cape) reclaim the no-mans-land between city and country, celebrating the world of canals, sewage works, mines, masts and airports. I particularly admired their essay on that "end of the road" for our consumerist society, the landfill site.
Simon Surtees London
The surprise book for me this year has been Chocolate Wars (Penguin) by Deborah Cadbury. The story of the Cadburys, Frys and Rowntrees is fascinating enough as a portrait of Victorian enterprise. However, the account of Quaker idealism gradually eroded by the forces of the market economy makes it a prescient book for our times.
Pete Talman Wimborne, Dorset
The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate) is Jeffrey Eugenides's most complete novel to date for a number of reasons: the split narrative voice, the evocation of era and changing location, the way the themes are embedded in the storyline and the exploration of how love both ennobles and ridicules us. The book ends with the word "Yes". We are left to nod in agreement.
Dave Taylor Purbrook, Hampshire
The Plot Against the NHS (Merlin Press) by Colin Leys and Stewart Player is a well-researched, eye-opening book that should be read by anyone wishing to understand what politicians are really planning for our health service.
Pamela Taylor, Aylmer, Quebec, Canada
Requiem by Frances Itani (Harper Collins, Canada). I read this book in a day. It is a very satisfying read by a highly skilled writer. It moved me to tears at the end. Frances Itani subtly weaves the story of Bin Okuma's road trip across Canada with flashbacks into his past. He remembers his lost wife. The narrative flows seamlessly, immersing the reader in time and place with a striking immediacy. Her descriptions of people and landscape are vivid and beautiful. The story is based on real events, the forcible internment after Pearl Harbor of Japanese Canadians from the west coast of Canada into the interior of British Columbia. It is a story of love and redemption as well as of art, music and identity.
Genevieve Terry Exeter
A year of great fiction, thanks in no small way to Guardian/Observer reviews and Exeter Library services. I was seduced all over again by Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose, re-reading the whole sequence of novels before reaching for At Last(Picador), an elegant, witty, fearless story of loss and self-acceptance. As ever, I marvelled at the varied skills of John Burnside, and found The Summer of Drowning (Jonathan Cape) his best novel yet: believable and beautifully unresolved, full of light and darkness, solitude and menace. I delighted in the vitality of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair) and was impressed by the disorientating grief featured in Ross Raisin's Waterline (Viking). But this was the year I discovered China Miéville, so my book of the year is Embassytown (Macmillan). He is streets ahead in terms of provocative, intelligent ideas.
Eve Vamvas, Brighton
Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall (HarperPress) is a great read, a thought-provoking page turner about real people living real lives. Ruth and Christian's marriage was depressingly familiar but with its own particular quirks. It also provided some laughs, even if only out of relief that you aren't in it yourself. But for anyone who has ever felt quilty about leaving their kids to go back to work or looked at their partner and wondered how the hell they got into this mess, it rang very true.
Michael Walling Enfield
I read Amy Waldman's The Submission (William Heinemann) in the US around the time of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It was invigorating to encounter this penetrating and complex novel. The Raw Man by George Makana Clark (Jonathan Cape) brings a powerful and unique new voice to African fiction; the narrative moves beautifully between mythic and realistic dimensions. Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism (Zero Books) is a brilliant, succinct and brief analysis of the social, political and psychological structures in place today.
Terry Ward Wickford, Essex
Readers who despair of the witterings of George Osborne, and who wish more fully to understand the position of Britain in the world economy, should invest in a copy of Eric J Weiner's The Shadow Market (Oneworld). The author shows how China and Middle Eastern nations are buying up huge areas of farmlands and mines in Africa and elsewhere. At the same time China is increasing its domination of the economic levers of power in Europe and North America. Norway built up a massive sovereign wealth fund from the revenues of North Sea oil, in order to support pensions and welfare expenditure. In Britain the oil revenues were spent by the Thatcher government on tax cuts for the rich. Sadly there is no world court dealing with international economic crimes against nations.
Dianne Watterton, Greasby, Wirral
Red Lotus by Pai Kit Fai (Sphere) is a compelling novel about the challenging lives of three generations of one family of Chinese/mixed-race women in China. It's frighteningly violent at times, but love and goodness continually triumph over evil. Dedicated to the cockle-pickers who perished in Morecambe Bay in 2004, Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans (Penguin) follows a group of illegal casual labourers and their dog. Falling just on the side of credibility, this book combines hilarity with the shocking legalities and illegalities of immigrant workers' lives. Alexander McCall-Smith novels never fail to delight and his latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series – The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (Little, Brown) was no exception, with its gentle humour and philosophical musings.
Peter Willis Genval, Belgium
The title of Sue Hepworth's But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You (Delicately Nuanced) made me laugh and I wasn't disappointed by the novel, which made me both laugh and cry. Having read it I wanted to add to the title "and if the situation changes I'll let you know". I recognised my own marriage in this book, and you will too. It's a well-told story of the tensions in any long-term relationship. There is insight here, together with tenderness and an understanding of what makes couples tick. The author is realistic and handles sadness and passion with equal insight. It's definitely one to read, and it will make you want to try more work by the same author.
Caroline Wilson, near Totnes, Devon
I came to Hisham Matar via his comments on Libya. This summer Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking) gave some vivid background to recent events. Amy Waldman's novel The Submission (William Heinemann) imagines the 9/11 memorial with an alternate history, and gives a feel of many aspects of US thinking in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Now I am reading the recent novel Liar Dice(Cinnamon Press). Rebecca Gethin tells the story of a woman's search for the truth about her Italian mother, and follows a trail of clues from the diary she kept as a partisan in the second world war. That war is such a big canvas and through this vivid telling of one woman's story I discovered another strand.
Ellen Woods, Liverpool
My favourite book of this year (although published a few years ago) was Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Vintage). Being a retired nurse the medical side appealed to me. It was set in Ethiopia in a mission hospital, narrated by a surgeon but covered all emotions; a very gripping tale. Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (Picador) also made its mark on me this year. I found it an excellent novel describing the shameful episode in recent US history of nine black teenage boys wrongly accused of the rape of two white girls. It mixes history and fiction most brilliantly, and I could not put it down. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Penguin) has received much publicity, with the film version out this year, but I did not find it as riveting.