Monday, October 31, 2016

2012 / Books of the year

Photo by Ralph Gibson


Books of the year

From Zadie Smith's new novel to Robert Macfarlane's journeys on foot and memoirs by Edna O'Brien and Salman Rushdie… 
Which books have most impressed our writers this year? 

The Observer
25 November 2012

John Banville

The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot(Hamish Hamilton £20) is a wonderful book – literally, a book full of wonders – in which he takes to the world's pathways, from chalk downs and an estuarial mirror-world in England, to Palestine, Spain, the Himalayas. He has a poet's eye, and a prose style that will make many a novelist burn with envy. In a barbarous time, Macfarlane reminds us of what it is to be civilised.
La Folie Baudelaire (Allen Lane £35) by Roberto Calasso is an extraordinarily ingenious and learned study of Baudelaire and Baudelaire's Paris, "capital of the 19th century", and of the invention of modernism in literature and, especially, in painting. Only a mind as various as Calasso's would think to compare Manet's Olympia with a photograph by Weegee. One had thought they didn't write books like this any more, but Calasso does.

Ali Smith

The Panopticon

The great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector once wrote that she wanted her writing to be like a punch in the stomach to her readers, "for life is a punch in the stomach". This year the life in Jenni Fagan's debut novel, The Panopticon (Heinemann £12.99), knocked the breath out of me, Peter Hobbs's In the Orchard, the Swallows (Faber £10.99) picked me up and dusted me down, and a reread of Brigid Brophy's 1967 novel The King of a Rainy Country (Coelacanth £10) boosted me better than any Omega 3.

Wendy Cope

Hope: A Tragedy

My discovery of the year was the American novelist Shalom Auslander, who is brave, outrageous and very funny. I recommend his 2009 memoir Foreskin's Lament, as well as his 2012 novel, Hope: A Tragedy (both Picador £7.99).
Three of my favourite crime writers brought out excellent new books this year: A Room Full of Bones (Quercus £7.99) by Elly Griffiths, Kind of Cruel (Hodder £7.99) by Sophie Hannah and Broken Harbour (Hodder £12.99) by Tana French. And I enjoyed Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry (Oberon Masters £12.99) – occasionally mad but very interesting.

Julian Fellowes
Actor, novelist, screenwriter and director

Louise Brooks

I suspect the book that has haunted me the most this year was the life of that queen of the silent screen, Louise Brooks: A Biography (University of Minnesota £17), by Barry Paris. I have seldom read so lyrical a tale of self-destruction. When she was a girl, my mother used to be mistaken for Louise Brooks and so I have always felt a sort of investment in her, but I was unprepared for this heartbreaking tale of what-might-have-been.
My novel would probably be The Butterfly Cabinet (Headline Review £7.99) by Bernie McGill, which is based, I think, on a true story, about the darkness inside all of us, and how politeness and education will not always prevent us hurting even those who need us most. McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.
I also very much enjoyed Anne De Courcy's wonderfully researched book, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj (W&N £20), about English girls going out to India during the Raj to find a husband, and the challenges for those who were successful. Her detail is fascinating, a real window on a set of beliefs and values, held strongly within living memory, and yet as distant from us as the man in the moon.

Adam Gopnik
Writer and essayist

Iron Curtain

Much the saddest literary event of the year was the death in February of Wisława Szymborska, the matchless Polish poet of minor circumstances and major meanings. Rereading her work remains a daily revelation of how much light can be found in, so to speak, the navel lint of life – and has any poet ever suffered less in translation, not a sound seems out of place? All the sadder and more instructive, therefore, to read Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Allen Lane £25) and be reminded of the brutal, if not always fatal, historical circumstances in which Szymborska came of age. Applebaum is not so much polemical as just pained by all that happened; her essential revelation – that Marxist ideology, mad though it seems, really mattered even for the mediocrities who enforced it – is a useful reminder for anyone still inclined to imagine that ideas don't make history. Szymborska makes a brief appearance in reference to a couple of hushed-up Stalinist odes, a reminder, too, that history can force terrible choices even on the best of us. We're lucky to escape it, and them, when we can.

Sam Jordison
Writer and journalist

Train Dreams

Denis Johnson's slender novella Train Dreams (Granta £12.99) took just a few hours to read – but I'm sure it will haunt me ever after. It's a howl against emptiness, against time and against the relentless march of technology – and it resonates long and loud. The fact that this was on the shortlist for the Pulitzer prize this year makes the jury's decision to withhold it all the more baffling. It should have won.
Dogma (Melville House £9.99) by Lars Iyer is the kind of book that we are always told never gets published any more: uncompromisingly intellectual, passing strange and absurdly funny. If Lars Iyer hadn't already written Spurious, it would be possible to call his second novel a unique event. As it is, it's just more of the same, only better. Iyer's weird talent continues to grow, and the misadventures of his miserable characters are starting to seem like the brightest things in modern British fiction.
In Hawthorn & Child (Granta £12.99), when one of Keith Ridgway's narrators leads you through an industrial wasteland to a "fetid dark place full of shit", it feels as if you have reached the heart of this singularly claustrophobic and bleak collection of interlocking stories. Yet there's something exhilarating about these missives from the criminal shadows of north London. They're written so well, with such intensity and such insight that they set you purring – even as they raise a hammer behind your head.

Jackie Kay
Poet and novelist


Artful (Hamish Hamilton £20) by Ali Smith is a revelation; a new kind of book altogether, a book that defies categorisation and leaps out of every box anyone could try and put it in; a book that marries fiction to nonfiction, literary criticism to essay; a book that is as serious as it is witty, as light as it is enlightening. Artful could have only been written by Ali Smith. It will open doors for writers; a kind of A Room of One's Own for today's readers. Only Smith won't stay in one room. An intimate study of grief, Artfulmakes you glad to be alive.

Adam Mars-Jones

The Big Music

I read three uncompromising novels this year, books that showed no sign of having been cooked up in the Laboratory for Disguised Sequels that supplies a lot of publishing product. They deserve a readership for the excellent reason that they haven't been designed to home in on an existing one. Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music (Faber £20) takes the bold step of using its subject matter, classical Scottish bagpipe music, as a formal model.

IJ Kay's Mountains of the Moon (Jonathan Cape £16.99) is a startling first novel, exhilarating though full of pain and damage. I suppose Sally Gardner's alternate-universe nightmare Maggot Moon (Hot Key £10.99) is for "young adults", but it treats them as just that, adults. Not every clever 16-year-old is likely to enjoy a story so bleak, but why should the ones that will be fobbed off with something watered down?

Elizabeth Day
Observer writer


I was riveted by Zadie Smith's NW (Hamish Hamilton £18.99), a brilliant piece of writing that captures the essence of London, the complexities of women, the nuance of class and the strangeness of searching for one's identity while never losing its sense of humour. It should have been shortlisted for every prize going.
When it Happens to You (Simon & Schuster £10), by Molly Ringwald – yes, that Molly Ringwald – is poignant, funny and moving. I can pay no greater compliment than to say it reminded me, in parts, of Anne Tyler.
And lastly, Jonathan Lee's second novel, Joy (William Heinemann £12.99), charts the final day in the life of a high-flying young lawyer. Lee writes with extraordinary vividness, with prose so sharply defined it takes your breath away.

Oliver James
Psychologist and author

A Moth on the Fence

Nikolas Andreyev's A Moth on the Fence: Memoirs of Russia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Western Europe (Hodgson Press £12.99) is grippng and revelatory of life in 1930s middle Europe, between the wars and in the run-up to the second world war.

More Tales from the Landings, edited by Sarah Stacey and Alex Allan (Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust, suggested donation £5: for a copy call 020-7582 4677 or email, is a brilliant use of firsthand accounts of how Rapt, the drug rehab prison programme, can completely transform lives – very uplifting and informative of the true causes of both crime and addiction.

I found At Last (Picador £7.99) by Edward St Aubyn to be the best-written account of how to convert the lead of childhood adversity into the gold of volition, concluding a sparkling quintuplet of books.

Peter Conrad
Observer writer

The Big Screen

My pick is a pair of bulky but wonderfully enjoyable homages to favourite arts, both published by Allen Lane – David Thomson's The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us (£25) is a startling analysis of what happens to us in the darkness as we dream with eyes open while watching movies, and A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years (£30) by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker ingeniously retraverses the form's development while helping to explain its intense, irresistible emotional power.

Colin Thubron
Travel writer and novelist

The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane's powerfully evocative The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot follows the tracks and drove-roads which are our forgotten inheritance. In The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me (Bloomsbury £16.99), Pico Iyer reflects poetically on his affinity with Graham Greene; while Benjamin Myers's Christ the Stranger: the Theology of Rowan Williams (T&T Clark International £14.99) beautifully illuminates the exacting theology of the departing Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ian Thomson

Extreme Metaphors

In Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard, 1967-2008 (Fourth Estate £25) we learn of Ballard's enduring love of the south of France (an intoxicating mix of "garlic, Gauloises, shit and perfume"), Graham Greene, disused football stadiums and games of contract bridge. Impeccably edited, the book serves as a valuable coda to the work of one of the strangest and most haunted imaginations in English literature.
JG Nichols devoted 10 years to his magnificent new translation of Dante's brimstone epic The Divine Comedy (Alma Classics £20). All life is written in Dante's burning pages, and Nichols has done him proud.

Ali Shaw

Diving Belles

Full of beachcombers, child giants and drowned lovers called back from the depths, Lucy Wood's Diving Belles(Bloomsbury £14.99) were enchanting short stories about ordinary lives brushed by magic. I also loved Luke Pearson's joyous Hilda and the Bird Parade (Nobrow £11.95), a beautifully drawn (literally and figuratively) comic about a little girl and her single mother adapting to life in a mysterious city.

Mohsin Hamid

From the Ruins

In nonfiction, two books stood out for me: Pankaj Mishra's From the Ruins of Empire (Allen Lane £20), a superb history of Asia; and Leonard Mlodinow's Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What it Teaches Us About Ourselves (Allen Lane £20), a mind-bending introduction to cognitive neuroscience. Fiction-wise, I read a lot of classic sci-fi – Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker – but none of it was published this year.

Salley Vickers
Novelist and critic


Richard Ford's Canada (Bloomsbury £12.99) was my novel of the year. A bizarrely credible tragedy conveyed through a superbly realised damaged consciousness. In nonfiction The Pinecone (Faber £20) by Jenny Uglow was absorbing, illuminating and brilliantly crafted. The surprise treat was Doppler (Head of Zeus £7.99 – out 1 Dec) by Erlend Loe, wonderfully subversive, funny and original.

Benjamin Zephaniah

The Marlowe Papers

The Marlowe Papers (Sceptre £20) by Ros Barber really blew me away. Barber reimagines Christopher Marlowe as a gentle, thoughtful man, who wasn't murdered in a pub, and was not the drunken thug that many make him out to be. Academics can argue about Shakespeare authorship, but whatever you think of that question, this is a great (big) narrative poem. Accessible but thoughtful, intelligent but funny.
The People Speak (Canongate £17.99) by Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove should be on the school curriculum. It's a collection of radical writings and speeches that remind us that riots are nothing new, and that rising up against the government used to be a great English tradition. Sometimes I feel lonely being a political poet, sometimes I wonder if I should just give it all up, do comedy, and go shopping like everyone else, but after reading this I was reminded of my roots.

William Dalrymple
Historian and writer

The Origins of Sex

Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (Allen Lane £25) is a fascinating look at the 18th-century sexual revolution. It is my favourite sort of history book, where detailed primary research is wrapped in fine prose and an effortless sense of narrative.
I also adored Artemis Cooper's biography of my favourite travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (John Murray £25). For many of us, Paddy's description of walking through midwinter 1930s Germany in A Time of Gifts has the status of a sacred text, and in her magnificent new biography Cooper has left the perfect memorial to this remarkable man, which is as full of joie-de-vivre as its subject. My favourite book this year, however, was by Leigh Fermor's true heir: Robert Macfarlane. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, a search for the ancient routes that criss-cross the landscape, shows how far Macfarlane is capable of out-writing almost any other prose stylist of his generation, and is, in my humble opinion, a work of near-genius.

Caitlin Moran
Broadcaster, critic and columnist

My Animals and Other Family

Like everyone in Britain, I saw out my post-Olympic comedown crying over Clare Balding's My Animals and Other Family (Viking £20) – one of the most cheerfully told descriptions of an essentially loveless childhood I've ever read. Similarly, Swimming Studies (Penguin £20) by Leanne Shapton was about wanting to be an Olympic swimmer in the 90s – vivid with chlorine-bleached swimsuits, and post‑match sorrow.
I'm 50 pages into Danny Baker's Going to Sea in a Sieve(W&N £18.99) and it's making me bark. Shirley Hughes's first novel, for kids – Hero on a Bicycle (Walker £6.99) – about the second world war in Italy, is citrus-oil stinging and bright. And I wouldn't eat if it weren't for Nigella Lawson (Nigellissima, C&W £26) and Yotam Ottolenghi (Jerusalem, Ebury £27), so thank God they both put out books this year.

Julie Myerson
Author and critic

The Forrests

Emily Perkins's The Forrests (Bloomsbury £12.99) takes you straight into the hearts and minds of a single family over a lot of years. With the spark, verve and emotional mischief-making that has almost become her trademark, she creates something that is neither quite comedy nor quite tragedy but – exactly like real life – an uneasy blend of both. It's a dazzling achievement – honest and unsparing about marriage, babies, sex and death.
David Vann's Dirt (Heinemann £12.99) will not be to everyone's taste – a family horror story that grabs you by the throat and keeps hold till the very last page. But it's the kind of novel you surface from with a real sense of excitement about what fiction can do – and it reaffirms Vann as one of the most darkly talented and unsettling writers working today.

Stuart Evers
Novelist and critic

A Death in the Family

Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker £17.99) didn't feel much like a masterpiece after the first 50 or so pages; but by its end it was difficult to know how else to describe it. Meticulously detailed, harrowing, oddly beautiful, its depiction of a family's disintegration is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I've read in years.
Greg Baxter's The Apartment (Penguin £12.99) was one of two great Irish novels this year (Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway the other). In a fictional European capital, an American veteran looks for a new apartment, aided by a woman with whom he may or may not be in love. It is a dark and sinewy novel, written with sparse clarity and affecting subtlety.
Reminiscent of John Cheever and James Salter, Niven Govinden's Black Bread White Beer (The Friday Project 99p – Kindle edition) follows a couple in the aftermath of a miscarriage. It is a slender novel, but one that lingers, Govinden's shimmering prose picking out the unravelling of a loving relationship in the most heartbreaking of ways.

Craig Raine


Christopher Reid's Nonsense (Faber £12.99) was, as usual with this exceptionally gifted poet, a reliable source of pleasure – grave, deft, subtle, oblique, surprising, touching. No other poetry this year came anywhere near it. I was diverted and intrigued by Stephen Spender's New Selected Journals 1939-1995 (Faber £45), edited by Lara Feigel and John Sutherland (with Natasha Spender). Everyone is so used to Spender's charming, self-effacing, self-ironising persona that his acerbic animadversions here – on Auden, on Brodsky, for example – are breathtakingly candid. "Did I really like Wystan?"

Philip French
Film critic, the Observer


Michael Frayn's brilliantly plotted Skios (Faber £15.99), set in and around a plausibly farcical cultural centre in Greece, is laugh-aloud funny, as fine as anything his mentor Wodehouse ever wrote. In his hypnotic Zona (Canongate £16.99), the year's best book on cinema, Geoff Dyer discursively explores a personal obsession with Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker that began when he saw a still from the movie in the Observer. Pico Iyer's The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me is also an obsessional work, gracefully combining autobiography, travel and cultural criticism.

Julie Burchill

Enjoy Every Sandwich

My husband said it was typical of me that the first self-help book I've ever read in my life was not one which I sought to learn from but one which totally confirmed the way I think about life anyway – Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day As If It Were Your Last (Bantam £10.99) by Lee Lipsenthal. Emerald City and Other Stories (Corsair £7.99), Jennifer Egan's book of short stories, was almost as good as her astounding novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is going some. And Nick Cohen's You Can't Read This Book(Fourth Estate £12.99) confirmed him – as if there was any doubt – as the most righteous and irresistible political polemicist living.

Geoff Dyer
Novelist and critic


I have more fun reading Dean Young than just about any other poet I can think of. His poems are crazed, self-devouring narratives, full of loopy wisdom: "At any moment an announcement's expected/ but that's what moments are for…" Bender: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon $26) is a perverse arrangement and self-selection from an inconsistently brilliant, surprisingly voluminous body of work. It's about time editors here got in on the act and published a British edition.

Marina Warner

Florence & Baghdad

Hans Belting, in Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arabic Science (Harvard £25), gives an exhilarating new perspective on unexpected conjunctions; the book is beautifully illustrated. Out of It (Bloomsbury £7.99), Selma Dabbagh's first novel, takes us, observantly and deftly, into the lives and feelings of those who live in Gaza and want ordinary lives. And, finally, Lewis Carroll's poetry has been collected together – amazingly, for the first time – by Gillian Beer in Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense (Penguin £14.99). Frabjous it is, too, through and through.

Chris Mullin
Author, journalist and politician

Events, Dear Boy

I very much enjoyed Events, Dear Boy, Events (Profile £25), a history of the 20th century through the eyes of diarists, skilfully edited by Ruth Winstone, an old hand when it comes to the editing of diaries. Also Jack Straw's Last Man Standing (Macmillan £20) and Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools (Biteback £12.99) by Andrew Adonis, both welcome additions to the rich crop of New Labour memoirs.

Rachel Cooke
Observer writer

Where'd You Go

I read some fantastically singular novels this year. I really liked Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette(Weidenfeld & Nicolson £12.99): the story of a brainiac teenager, Bee, and her search for her disappeared genius architect mother. Loony, but gripping and funny. And I loved The Lifeboat (Virago £12.99) by Charlotte Rogan. It's 1914, a liner has gone down, and in a crowded lifeboat, a group of survivors grows increasingly aware that for some to live, others must die. It has a wonderful (unreliable?) narrator, Grace, and it chills you to the bone.
My favourite nonfiction was Kate Summerscale's Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (Bloomsbury £16.99), an exquisite cameo of a book, which tells you everything you need to know about Victorians and marriage. Katie Roiphe's essays, In Praise of Messy Lives (Dial $25), are seriously provocative – and I mean that in a good way.

Joe Dunthorne
Novelist, poet and journalist

Pulp Head

Whether exploring prehistoric caves in Kentucky or Axl Rose's oxygen chamber, John Jeremiah Sullivan is the ideal guide to the fringes of American life. I have been pressing his book of essays, Pulphead (Vintage £9.99), on to everyone. I also loved Ned Beauman's second novel, The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre £16.99). It brims with weirdness, time travel and perfect one-liners.

Tim Adams
Observer writer

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The three books that have stayed with me in 2012 have all been uncommon acts of faith. Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum(Portobello £14.99) is a masterpiece of documentary storytelling, based on four years the author spent living in the slums of Mumbai. It looks hard into places of extreme despair, and comes back brimming with irrepressible life.
Philip Gould's When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone (Little, Brown £14.99) was a wholly different feat of courage and love. The New Labour peer's memoir of his last months of life has you consider, with urgent and moving immediacy, the possibilities of the antique concept of "dying well".
Julian Barnes's Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (And One Short Story) (Vintage £10.99) sounds like a ragbag of writing about writing, but the novelist's unfailing insight and wit make it that rare thing – a work of criticism that is a compulsive page‑turner.

Louise Doughty
Novelist, playwright and critic

Country Girl

This year's erotica explosion passed me by – I'm not aroused by the overuse of the adverb – but when sex fails you, there's always gossip. Two excellent memoirs from leading writers have provided it in shedloads, along with some moral seriousness to boot: Country Girl by Edna O'Brien (Faber £20), and Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape £25), a memoir of the fatwa years that showed the human reality behind the headlines.

Craig Taylor

A Free Man

Katherine Boo's masterclass in reportage (Behind the Beautiful Forevers) was remarkable, but the best book on India this year had to be Aman Sethi's A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi (Jonathan Cape £14.99). My fiction pick is Gwendoline Riley's Opposed Positions(Jonathan Cape £14.99), which should be mandatory reading for anyone who frothed over Lena Dunham and her TV show.
The hardcover of Adam Phillips's excellent Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (Hamish Hamilton £20) easily fits in a coat pocket, so you don't have to miss out on anything, but the best reason to buy "physical" books in 2012 had to be The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume II: 1941-1956(Cambridge £30), so massively un-Kindle-able I had to lug my copy to a desk, feel its weight, crack its spine. The reward inside is Beckett's wise advice on how to write, how to live, and also, thankfully, how to garden.

Kate Kellaway
Observer writer

When Swan Lake

When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo (Canterbury £12.99) by Ruth Waterman is a moving diary about conducting a multi-ethnic sinfonietta in Bosnia and the bridges music builds. Alys, Always (W&N £12.99) by ex-Observer writer Harriet Lane is a brilliant debut novel about a disturbed hack. England on Horseback (Clearview £25) by Zara Colchester and Charlotte Sainsbury-Plaice involves hacking of another sort. A glorious book with romantic photos – a rider's reverie.

Julian Baggini

Doing Politics

Tony Wright's Doing Politics (Biteback £12.99) restores hope that serious thought can go on in Westminster. Wright retired as an MP at the last election universally respected by constituents and peers, and this collection of his writings shows how an astute reading of the intellectual traditions of the left provides all that is needed for a relevant, contemporary Labour party. Roger Scruton continued to do the same job for the Conservatives, more or less single-handed, in Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (Atlantic £22).

Mary Beard
Classicist, author and broadcaster

Society Observed

Some of my favourite books of the year always turn out to be exhibition catalogues. In 2012 my first prize went to the Royal Academy's Johan Zoffany RA, Society Observed (Royal Academy £24.95), edited by Martin Postle. It was a wonderful souvenir of a great show, but also taught me a lot about an artist I fancied I knew quite well – some of it surprisingly raunchy (like the discussion of Zoffany's wonderful hanging condoms). In second place was the British Museum's beautiful Shakespeare: Staging the World (British Museum £25), by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. You never knew that Henry V's saddle could be so interesting! Honest.

Alexander McCall Smith


Christopher Simon Sykes's Hockney: The Biography(Century £25), which takes us up to 1975, is a marvellous, vivid story. Then there is Ben Macintyre, whose Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies (Bloomsbury £7.99) is, as one might expect from the author of Agent Zigzag, a triumph.

Owen Jones
Author and political commentator

Bloody Nasty People

As well as inflicting misery on millions, Tory governments tend to provoke a new generation of left-wing writers. With what is both a compelling and definitive guide to the rise of the BNP in the 00s, Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right (Verso £14.99), Daniel Trilling emerges at the forefront of a new wave of young progressive thinkers.

Sara Wheeler
Travel writer and biographer

A Lady Cyclist's

A first book by a young Englishwoman impressed me. Suzanne Joinson's A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar(Bloomsbury £12.99) consists of two parallel stories, each told from the point of view of a childless female protagonist, one at a shimmering, multi-ethnic Silk Road trading post, the other in contemporary London. From a debutante to a grande dame: Alice Munro's Dear Life (Chatto & Windus £18.99), another dazzling collection of short stories, provincial and universal in equal measure.

Andrew Rawnsley
Chief political commentator, the Observer

The Plantagenets

I hugely enjoyed Dan Jones on The Plantagenets(HarperPress £25), stonking narrrative history told with pace, wit and scholarship about the bloody dynasty that produced some of England's most brilliant, brutal kings. I thought even my large appetite for accounts of the great conflict of the 20th century might have been sated after so many excellent recent books on the subject, but Antony Beevor proved me wrong with his terrific The Second World War (W&N £25). As we have come to expect from this master, he excels at using eyewitness testimony to illustrate how mankind can be capable of both terrible cruelty and astonishing courage.

Maria Popova
Editor of

As Consciousness is

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980 (Hamish Hamilton £18.99), the second volume of Susan Sontag's published diaries, presents a remarkable glimpse of the inner life – conflicted, restless, brimming with conviction – of one of modern history's greatest intellectuals.
In Ignorance: How it Drives Science (Oxford £14.99), Columbia biologist Stuart Firestein challenges our relationship with facts and knowledge, making a bold case for new models of science education and research funding rewarding curiosity rather than certitude.
Drawing from the City (Tara £22.99) features the stunning illustrations of self-taught Indian folk artist Teju Behan in a tender and aspirational story about woman's empowerment in patriarchal society.

Robert McCrum
Associate editor, the Observer

The Lighthouse

My big discovery this year was Alison Moore's The Lighthouse (Salt £8.99), a beautifully constructed first novel of haunting subtlety and dark mystery. Shortlisted for the Booker prize, it was probably too slight to be a contender, but Alison Moore must be a name to watch. Salley Vickers is a novelist whose imaginative journey always promises magic and mystery. The Cleaner of Chartres (Viking £16.99) shows her on top form in a rich weave of loss and redemption spiked with Ms Vickers' irrepressible wit.

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